Understanding Psychological Disturbance

An argument for the for the important of understanding psychological distress for the general population. Anecdotes, examples and scientific reference.

The purpose of this post is to provide an argument for why I think it is important for people in general, rather than just those of us studying or practicing psychology, to understand at least a bit about the nature of psychological disorders. A psychological disorder is a pattern of abnormal thoughts, feelings and behaviours which lead to disturbances in the lives of those suffering from it, and those close to them.

The main component of my argument is that psychology is the study of the human mind, how it operates and how it responds to its environment. Seeing as we are all human, it is necessarily of primary importance for us to understand it to at least some degree.

Just How Common Is It?

The statistic from John Hopkins Medicine states that 1 in 4 people suffer from a mental illness in a given year. In a large proportion of these cases, they will be suffering from more than one mental disorder simultaneously. This statistic does not include the further 10-13% percent of people who suffer from the dysfunctions of having a personality disorder. I suspect that the real statistic is in fact, much higher.

Not everyone seeks help, which can be the case for a number of different reasons, not least because we still have not fully overcome the stigmatizing at a universal level. Also, the very nature of some of these disorders can be the driving factor preventing people from seeking help and contributing to the statistics.

 It would make sense for this to be especially true for certain personality disorders with paranoid and antisocial elements, as seeking help is directly in opposition to the nature of these personality types. Those suffering from paranoia are already on edge, thinking that people are out to get them, and being diagnosed as paranoid would, in their eyes, be another avenue for people to persecute them.

Why Is It Important?

Given these statistics and the gregarious nature of the human being, I think it is safe to say that the probability that we could manage to go through life, without ever having to come into close, meaningful contact with the effects of psychological problems, is astronomically low.

 Furthermore, the diagnosis of a psychological disorder is not always black and white, and there is plenty of mental suffering to be found within the grey areas. For example, to be clinically diagnosed with a particular mental disorder, one would have to meet a certain number of the diagnostic criteria. If for example, there are eight diagnostic features, of which one needs to meet six to fully qualify for that disorder, what happens to the people who meet five criteria rather than six? How about those who meet a substantial amount of the criteria for not only one, but several mental disorders? They would not be clinically diagnosed with anything, but to say this means they are not subject to psychological dysfunction would be ridiculous.

Therefore, I think simply understanding the different elements of psychological disorders can really help us to identify what are the different things that can go wrong with the human mind? What aspects of our personalities and behaviours are dysfunctional? How might we target them and try to improve them?

Mood Disorders

Mood disorders are disorders which effect people at the state level, meaning that they distort the mood or emotional state of the afflicted individual. Examples of such disorders are major depressive disorder, anxiety and anxiety related disorders, bipolar, mania just to name a few. These disorders are ego dystonic, what this means is that the manifestations and symptoms are not in harmony with or reflections of the individuals actual personality. A person may be quite open and extroverted at the trait level, but as a result of being burdened with depression, they withdraw from socializing and say no to invites to social events. Being able to recognize these patterns and identifying the incongruencies with their usual behaviour patterns, understanding the nature of what they are going through can help us to generate greater degrees of empathy and patience for them, or even ourselves. Am I wrong to presume that this can only be a positive thing?

Personality Disorders

This category of disorders is really a whole other ball game, and some of them are just about near impossible to treat. However, that doesn’t mean that we cannot benefit immensely from being aware of them and optimize how we approach them when life throws them our way. Unlike mood disorders, they are ego-syntonic, which basically means that the behaviours associated with them, really are reflections of that individual’s actual personality, at the trait level. It’s kind of just the way they are. Let’s take the example of antisocial personality, more commonly known as psychopathy. Psychopathic people, as we all know, are notorious for their inability to feel empathy, how can you treat that? Many ardent researchers have tried and failed. Something that seems like a good idea at face value, like administering them doses of oxytocin ( the hormone responsible for social bonding) renders volatile results. It some cases it seemed to have a positive effect, but in a substantial proportion of trials, it made them worse.

It has proven rather difficult to just make them feel empathy, when their genetic and neurological make up, simply does not permit it. Being able to recognize traits of this disorder, could save many of us a lot of pain. When we are dealing with the likes of narcissistic and psychopathic individuals, it would serve us well to understand their boundaries, before subjecting ourselves to abuse and manipulation. Without understanding the true nature of the problem, many of us are liable to think that the problem is us, repeatedly trying and failing to mend relationships and get something from them which simply cannot be gotten.

Why Some and Not Others?

There are a vast sea of reasons and factors which influence whether or not someone will end up with mental disturbances. I will not go through each of them in detail here, but rather just talk a little about the backbone of it all. The gene-environment interplay.

Most of us are familiar with the nature- nurture argument. Do you think we are born like this? Or do we become like this over time? Good questions. The truth appears to be somewhere in the middle.

A series of twin studies in Northern Europe, which involved huge databases of twins either growing up in the same environment or in separate adopted households, revealed how much of a role genetics really plays. It plays a huge role not only for our susceptibility for developing certain types of physical illness throughout our life, but also for mental illness, and interestingly, personality traits!

Nature Nurture?

The genetic heritability for personality traits is in and around the 50% ballpark, more accurately between 40 – 60%, depending on the trait in question. If you have open minded and hardworking parents, the likelihood that you will be open minded and hardworking is significantly higher than someone who doesn’t. This is true, even if you have never met your parents, which rules out the environmental factors. Also, as time goes by, the older we get, the more we abide by the nature of our genetic code, and the less our environment plays a role. However, this is true for ordinary circumstance, of course and abnormally harsh environment would have a larger effect.

So, we are built in a certain way, and we are also subject to the influences of our environment. Though, two people in the same environment, say two nonrelated children in the same adopted household, are still likely to grow up to be quite different. They have different genetic code, and they are responding to the same environment, but in distinctly different ways. This is the gene-environment interplay, in short, how our genetic make up responds to our environment.

Cognitive Behavioural Model

There are also other reasons why one may become psychologically dysfunctional. One note worthy model, is the cognitive behavioural model. According to this, our engagement in negative and dysfunctional cognitions plays a huge role. In cognitive behavioural therapy we would focus on firstly identifying these dysfunctional cognitions, what they consist of, when they occur, and so on. We would then set out to target them and put efforts in to rectify the negative patterns of thought. This has shown to be a rather effective form of treatment, which would propose some truth to the cognitive behavioural model.

The Utility of Understanding Cognitions

ISABELLA CARAPELLA

Something that I found particularly useful to have learned, and hope can be useful for others, is the concept of rumination and catastrophic thinking. These concepts pertain to anxiety and anxiety related disorders. Although, I have not ever been diagnosed with such a disorder, the experience of anxiety is for me, like many others, very real.

Ruminations can be considered deep, persistent, and intense thoughts, and in relation to anxiety, they are often catastrophic. Assuming the worst, preparing for the worst, remembering the worst.

Pre-event rumination refers to the catastrophic thoughts one has before coming into contact with a particular event. The event could be anything, a social event, an exam, a job interview. This is a common phenomenon for individuals with high levels of anxiety. Just by having these catastrophic thoughts, we put ourselves in a state of heightened anxiety and experience physiological changes. Our body temperature rises, our heart rate increases, our perspiration becomes excessive. By the time we actually come in contact with the event in question, we are in such a state of anxiety, both psychologically and physiologically. Anything that occurs will be associated with those visceral anxious feelings.

With anxiety, we are essentially warping reality with our minds, processing the occurrence of otherwise neutral events as catastrophic and terrible. Upon leaving the event in question, we enter into the post-event rumination phase, wherein we are recalling the contents of the encounter with a similar sense of catastrophe. We further consolidate the memory as something terrible and traumatic, so by the next time we are exposed to a similar event, we have all of these dysfunctional memories associated with it. This creates a very vicious cycle.

However, simply knowing about this phenomenon, being aware and able to identify these cognitions, gives us the window of opportunity to hack them in a sense. Once we know when and how they are occurring, we can dedicate our mental faculties to dismantling them and rectifying the damage. We cannot fix a problem that we are not aware of.

The Purpose of this Series

This article is meant as a sort of introduction to a series of articles still to come, the purpose of which will be to shed some light of topics of mental disorders. In this series, the most common mood disorders will be discussed in fair detail. We will be writing about some of the research pertaining to the nature, causes, and the available treatments for a range of these disorders. Additionally, we will dive into the world of personality disorders, of which there are 10, discussing them one by one.

If this is something you are interested in, I encourage to follow or subscribe to the website. Alternatively, you could like our Facebook page, as all published material will be posted there!

References

John Hopkins Statistics For Mental Disorders

Statistic For Prevalence of Personality Disorders

CHRONIC MOOD DISORDER AND DEPRESSIVE PERSONALITY

The Role of Oxytocin in Antisocial Personality Disorders: A Systematic Review of the Literature

The Impact of Perceived Standards on State Anxiety, Appraisal Processes, and Negative Pre- and Post-event Rumination in Social Anxiety Disorder

CLASSICAL TWIN STUDIES AND BEYOND (Dorret Boomsma, Andreas Busjahn, and Leena Peltonen)

Gene-Environment Interaction in Psychological Traits and Disorders

The Art and Science of Relaxation

In this article the author reviews some scientifically established negative effects of stress and benefits of relaxation. They also provide a quick and easy how to along with some useful links to get started.

The Dangers of Stress

Relaxation is an art, as important as it is for the functioning and wellbeing of people, it is largely overlooked. The dangers of stress to mental and physical wellbeing should not be news to anyone, but how seriously do most of us really consider this? Stress weakens our immune system, increases our blood pressure, causes erectile dysfunction, contributes to female infertility, deregulates our breathing and heart rate, and increases muscle tension.

Increased tension in the muscles leads to physical discomfort, pain, and so, psychological irritation. Prolonged physical tension also leads to faster aging and degeneration of the muscles, and who wants that?

If these physical symptoms of stress are not enough to motivate one to consider the necessity of relaxation more deeply, let us look at the mental consequences of stress.

Prolonged stress increases a person’s likelihood of developing a mental illness, research has shown this to be particularly true for anxiety and depressive disorders. Results from research conducted in the University of California showed that chronic stress causes long term structural and functional changes in the brain. It was found that chronic stress causes the under production of new brain cells and leads to shrinkage of areas in the brain responsible for emotional regulation and memory.

Unfortunately, many modern humans still don’t take heed of the dangers of stress, and our need to actively practice relaxation. We still condemn people for smoking cigarettes, it’s just so obviously bad for health. Yet those of us who work ourselves to the bone, often at the cost of our own health, are met with praise and reward for the stress we put ourselves under, not realizing, the extent to which it is damaging our lives.

The Concept of Relaxation

Martin Malchev / Alamy Stock Vector

The concept of relaxation is nothing new. In fact, it is very old. The yogis of ancient India have understood this profoundly powerful tool for thousands of years already, and it is an integral part of yogic practice. In Tai Chi and Qi Gong, the Chinese word ‘sung’ literally meaning ‘loose’ in one of the primary principles of practice. Once practicing relaxation techniques, you will surely notice yourself, that the relationship between body and mind is a bidirectional one. The relaxation of the mind communicates to the body that it is not under any sort of immediate threat, and results in the relaxation of the muscles, the dissipation of physical tension. Similarly, if one focuses first on relaxing the body, the mind will also slow down and become more at ease. Anybody who has had a professional massage should already know this to be true.

In contrast to the scientifically established negative effects of stress, research on the benefits of relaxation have shown that consistent, regular relaxation massively reduces mood disturbances and  increases immune function. It reduces the experience of chronic, non-malignant pain and psychological distress, while increasing all domains of quality of life as measured by the RAND-36 Health Survey.

The Modern Form of ‘Relaxation’

Sam Wordley BigStock

Many people associate sitting down at the end of the day to watch movies or series with relaxation and recuperation. There seems nothing out of the ordinary with the sentence ‘sitting and relaxing in front of the TV’. It isn’t uncommon for us to watch something on Netflix in bed and simply wait until we are too exhausted to keep our eyes open to fall asleep. This is how many of us ‘relax’, but if we can agree on the definition of relaxation as being in a state free from tension and anxiety, we can agree that this is not real relaxation.

A survey of 471 people showed that for particularly busy individuals (who among us is not particularly busy?), watching tv was actually a source of guilt and feelings of failure. They viewed it as a form of procrastination, having the sense of having ‘given in’ rather than having spent time to productively relax and rejuvenate.  

Other studies show that depending on the content, watching tv increases cortisol levels, the hormone responsible for causing a stress response.  

When we fall to sleep in this manner, our minds are often still in a state of turmoil, we toss and turn as our subconscious tries to process everything that happened during the day or prepare us for the day to come. We wake up, still tired, check our phones and put the coffee on, entering again into the cycle of motion, the cycle where deep relaxation never takes place.

How Can I Really Relax?

This is not to try to persuade you to stop watching Netflix or to quit drinking coffee. Rather it is simply trying to provide the reasoning for why we might want to stop misconstruing these behaviours with relaxation. That is exactly what it isn’t. It would be much more useful and realistic to ask that you simply consider allotting a few moments a day, on as many days as you can, to deep relaxation.

So how do you do this?

Meditation

Lying down or sitting, close your eyes and simply observe your breathing. You might find that in the first few moments, your mind begins to race, and your agitation heightens. Work through it, take deep breaths if you need to, but stay still for now. Just follow your breath until you notice the noise of your thoughts decrease, thoughts will probably not totally disappear, but they will become less dominating as you focus on your breath.

Once you have achieved this, starting with your feet (or your head) relax one part of your body at a time.

If you find it difficult to maintain concentration, try doing it in synchronicity with your breath. Inhale and focus on a part of the body. Exhale and relax that part of the body.

Stretching & Self Massage

When we are full of tension, our muscles contract and become tight, doing a few stretches manually loosens the muscles and invokes a state of relaxation. Another way to manually manipulate the muscles into letting go, is massage. For those who have a healthy wallet, it can be very worth it to treat yourself to a professional massage. The standard price for this is usually around €50 for an hour, give or take a little.

However, don’t worry if you don’t have the money to spend, self­-massage works just as well, though is a bit more effort. Self-massage is a common thing to do amongst the Chinese, tai chi practicing population. It’s believed to help the flow of energy in the body by promoting blood circulation, bringing oxygen to different parts of the body. You can check out the links below (not sponsored) for a practical guide on how to do this.

A Personal Note on the Efficacy of Relaxation

As a young person, I suffered immensely from a wide array of mental disturbances. Chronic anxiety, depression, insomnia, and night terrors, just to name a few. The point that I began to study and practice these simple and profound techniques, was the point of departure for me from all (let’s say most) of the psychological suffering that burdened me. By no means was it an instant fix, though you can expect to feel good straight after practicing. It took years of healing the relationship between my body and mind, and being aware of when tension returned, training it as though it were a wild animal.

I never chose to undergo psychological therapy or treatment, though I absolutely recommend this for those who feel they need it. Fortunately, for me, the principles of meditation and relaxation, alongside physical practice, was enough to metamorphosize my life from something terrible, into something wonderful. Without wanting this to become too personal of a post, I would have felt as though I were withholding a secret if I did not at least mention it.

If you are interested and would like some recommendations (not sponsored) for learning more and getting started practicing, have a look at the links below!

Wishing everyone happy relaxation!

If you’ve made it this far and enjoyed the read, please consider liking the post to show support. We are a new journal, so it means a lot to us. Like us on Facebook if you want to be kept in the circle of what we do next.

Links

Guided Meditation (Yoga Nidra) https://soundcloud.com/sonicyoga/yoga-nidra-guided-meditation

In-depth Book on Ancient Yogic Techniques https://www.biharyoga.net/a-systematic-course-in-the-ancient-tantric-techniques-of-yoga-and-kriya.php

Dr. Yang Jwing Ming on Self-Massage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1V07beMpMI

References

  • Relaxation and Imagery for Chronic, Nonmalignant Pain: Effects on Pain Symptoms, Quality of Life, and Mental Health (Yi Ling (Elaine) Chen, MPsych (Clin) and Andrew J. P. Francis, PhD)
  • Mental and physical health outcomes following the Relaxation Response Resiliency Program (3RP) in a clinical practice setting (European Journal of Integrative Medicine)
  • Watching TV to Relieve Stress Can Make You Feel Like a Failure (Sifferlin, Alexandra) Time.com
  • Could Watching TV Be Good for You? Examining How Media Consumption Patterns Relate to Salivary Cortisol (Robin L. Nabi, Abby Prestin & Jiyeon So, 2016, Health Communication)
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2016). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Erectile dysfunction: Symptoms and causes.http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/erectile-dysfunction/symptoms-causes/dxc-20314091
  • The Effects of Stress on Your Body (Healthline.com)

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