Monthly Archives: May 2012

Bad for your heart, bad for your mood

It’s a therapist’s job to help people find their own answers. When it comes to healthy living,  we spend a lot of time telling them what they should do. By the time you’ve explained how one’s mood and stress level benefit from exercise, regular hours, spiritual practice and skipping drugs and alcohol,  your index finger can be exhausted from the waggling.

Luscious, hot, salty yummy-nummies, just dripping with despair

This paradox will only grow worse, with the University of Montreal Hospital Research Center’s new study on diet and mice’s behavior.  Stephanie Fulton, Ph.D and her team found that after twelve weeks of high-fat, high sugar meals, their subjects froze under stress. They were less likely to explore new environments, and more likely to scurry for safety. Compared to a control group of mice fed the pelletized equivalent of grilled quinoa and kale, they gave up faster in tests of  ‘behavioral despair’.  In short,  they looked anxious and depressed.

Behavior can have lots of explanations, of course. It’s  been assumed that anxiety and unhealthy eating correlate, because we seek solace in ‘comfort food’ when we feel stressed.  Sadly, Fulton’s study suggests the reverse. Brain scans indicated the mice on high-fat diets had elevated levels of corticosterone, a hormone conclusively linked to anxiety and CREB, a molecule implicated in the fear response. Saturated fat appears to be the enemy here – the mice who were fed “good fats” like olive oil didn’t show as much anxiety.

Dopamine depletion in T-minus 100… 99… 98…

In interviews, Fulton theorized there’s also a neurological link between scrumptiously unhealthy food and depression. She surmises  that because high-fat, high-sugar eats are so ineffably delicious, they trigger releases of dopamine. That’s a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, particularly with reward-driven learning. Life being unfair, the rush of dopamine leads to a corresponding crash, which causes symptoms of depression. Over time, per Fulton, this can reshape the brain’s reward circuits. Instead of easing life’s suffering, steady consumption of greasy, sugary treats may create an addictive pattern of short-term highs and long-term gloom.

… told you so.

David C.W. Lau MD PhD, editor of Canadian Journal of Diabetes emphasized this study only shows association, not causation.  The researchers freely admit it is hard to square their findings with other studies where mice on similar diets became more docile. Given that, two points come to mind:

1. The clash between offering health advice and helping people find their own answers? It’s an irony, but not a conflict. We’d be remiss if we didn’t tell people there are quick steps to improve one’s mood. “You have worse problems than lack of exercise,” I’ll say. “But exercise would help.”

2. Occasional indulgences are not a high-sugar, high-fat diet. Vegetarians’ organic, easy-going good humor is enviable, but not every client will be pried away wholly from sugar and fats. Good food is one of life’s great pleasures, and life has to be worth living. As  clients often ponder when they’re offered MAOIs: if you give up chocolate, cheese and wine entirely in trade for an effective antidepressant, has your life actually improved?

Citation: Diet-induced obesity promotes depressive-like behaviour that is associated with neural adaptations in brain reward circuitry. Sharma S, Fulton S. Int J Obes (Lond). 2012 Apr 17. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2012.48. PMID: 22508336 [PubMed – as supplied by publisher]

@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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Filed under anxiety, depression

Anger: Spotlight, Shield and Balloon

Anger isn’t like other feelings. Spiritual leaders never promise freedom from happiness. No one gets sentenced to shame-management classes. No comic book heroes gain super-powers when they start to feel sad. Only anger gets this kind of concern and condemnation.

One quality that sets it apart is it’s inseparability from other emotions. You can feel pure joy, sheer terror or utter despair. It’s not really possible to feel angry without feeling other things as well. Three metaphors to help clients understand:

Anger is like a spotlight:

Photo copyright 2012 by Chris Cummings.When a client talks about an irritated moment, ask, “What else did you feel?” If your clients are like mine, you’ll get a puzzled look and the answer, “Just mad.” That’s not so, but part of what anger does is to make it seem that way. It’s like a spotlight in our eyes, blinding us to all other emotions. That’s because…

Anger is like a shield:

When I get that, “Just mad,” reply, I’ll supply a list of emotion words. Clients have identified as many as forty other flavors of sadness, fear and shame, none of which they were aware of until they had a reference sheet in their hand. Anger can trigger the fight-or-flight reaction, meaning it probably evolved as a survival mechanism.When we’re faced by a perceived threat, (“Someone took the last slice of pizza, and therefore I may starve,”) we respond with an agitated, threatening display that lets predators (or roommates) know we’re not to be toyed with.  Evan Katz, M.C., LPC takes credit for the notion that anger shields us from the more-sensitive emotions we also feel in that moment. Predators can’t see them, because we don’t even realize they are there.

Photo copyright 2012 by Katinka Haslinger

For exceptionally angry clients, anger may function like a shield reinforced with a stone wall.

This turns into a problem when the threat has passed, (“Chill out, already. I’ll buy the next one,”) but furious thoughts still churn inside. They’re driven by the pressure of the other emotions we haven’t expressed yet. Fortunately …

Anger is like a balloon:

A balloon is a limp sack of cloth or rubber. It will swell up to an imposing size, but only when inflated with gas or hot air. If the pressure goes too high, it’ll burst into shreds, unless we pop a safety valve.  When someone explodes with rage, we can see them deflated and torn once the crisis has passed. Emotion-word lists help clients flatten out the gasbag of anger, because naming something (such as the emotions inflating the balloon) gives you power over them. Naming an emotion usually means accepting,  expressing and with luck, releasing it.

My clients’ neighbors may be puzzled by shouts of, “GUILT! DESPAIR! EDGINESS!” coming from next door. I believe they  prefer it over the sounds of irate recrimination or violence.

@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


Filed under anger management, Useful Metaphors

Napoleon Bonaparte on Depression

At age sixteen, 2nd lieut. Napoleon Bonaparte despaired. Always having dreamed of military greatness, he was enlisted in a military run by incompetent French nobility – one that offered Corsicans little chance of advancement.

“Always alone among men, I come home to dream by myself and to give myself over to all the forces of my melancholy, ” he wrote.  “My thoughts dwell on death… What fury drives me to wish for my own destruction? No doubt because I see no place for myself in this world.”

Eventually, he would rule much of Europe.

@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


Filed under depression, The Client's Side