Month: June 2015

middle aged blonde woman embracing her dog companion

Using Pet Therapy To Boost Mental Health Treatment

It’s no secret that people love their pets, which is why pet therapy is so effective. Pets can have an amazing effect on people who need a loving non-judgmental companion to spend time with. Some of the many benefits of pet therapy include relief from anxiety and stress, depression, reduced blood-pressure, elevated mood, and increased self-esteem. Most importantly, a session of pet therapy can benefit people of all ages: both individually and in groups. In this article, we’ll look  at some of the benefits that this unique form of therapy can have on adults, children, seniors, and families.

Pet Therapy and Mental Health

So how does pet therapy improve mental health? Studies show that including pet therapy in any existing mental health treatment program is likely to increase participation and attendance. This is because pets have a way of making people feel comfortable and willing to speak about their experiences which aids the recovery process and helps create a communal environment within any recovery center. In short, there’s a reason pets are our best friends. Nothing can beat the unconditional love and assurance of a furry companion, which is why pet therapy is a great addition to any treatment program and beneficial for people of all ages.

1. Children And Pet Therapy

Pet therapy has been shown to help children focus better which, in turn, has contributed to improved literacy skills and reading confidence. In fact, pet therapy can significantly improve a child’s self-esteem by providing them with a relaxed, non-judgemental companion to interact with. Pets can also teach children about responsibility, especially for other living things, and can help them be more socially active and willing to engage in outdoor activities. Moreover, studies have shown that having an animal present during other therapy or treatment sessions can improve the child’s response to treatment. Pet therapy has also been shown to help children overcome some speech impediments by allowing them to build confidence in their speaking abilities and children who have been exposed to pet therapy are also afforded the opportunity to overcome early emotional disorders by learning to care for the pet.

2. Adults And Therapeutic Pets

Pet therapy offers a wide variety of health benefits for adults. Including those previously mentioned, pet therapy has also been shown to lower work-related anxiety and stress and reduce feelings of loneliness. Not to mention, pets have been shown to help teach adults without children nurturing and the responsibility commonly associated with parenthood. Pets are also a great addition to adult therapy sessions for increased responsiveness and relaxation. Studies have shown that spending time with pets via pet therapy allows for the release of plenty of endorphins which produce a calm, euphoric state. Endorphins also help combat physical pain, making pet therapy an ideal supplement for physical therapy or rehabilitation.

3. Seniors And Pets

Seniors are especially prone to a variety of physical ailments and health problems, some of which pet therapy can help with. Pet therapy has been shown to help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels among the elderly. Moreover, seniors sometimes find themselves isolated as their children have lives and responsibilities of their own. Pet therapy can bring companionship to seniors and help them socialize with others, thus reducing the rates of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and depression. Pet therapy can also help with feelings of grief or loss by providing comfort. Working with pets offers a number of physical benefits as well which are especially beneficial to seniors. These include increasing physical activity and thus reducing joint stiffness and helping with maintaining motor skills and mobility.

4. Families Healing Through Therapy with Pets

Its estimated that more than 60% of households in the United States have pets and when reviewing the benefits of pet therapy it’s easy to see why. Pet therapy is effective in helping bring families together by easing communication through positive, nonjudgmental attention. Just as pet therapy can help build confidence in child and adult speech, so can it help facilitate familial communication and cooperation. When a pet is involved, all members of a family can work together to love and care for it. With pet therapy, each family member gets to spend time with a loving, relaxed companion and through that interaction can learn key skills such as compassion, empathy, and responsibility which can help improve family relationships. A pet’s ability to reduce anxiety, aggression, and depression can also reduce tension during family therapy sessions and thus help improve overall familial bonds through shared comfort.

How Doing Nothing Can Increase Anxiety

As we’ve explored, anxiety is the most common mental-illness suffered by people across the globe. In the United States alone, it is estimated that 18% of adults struggle with anxiety, with 22.8% of these cases being classified as “severe” by the National Institute of Mental Health. But where is this anxiety coming from? There are a number of potential sources, including daily stresses such as work and school, but a more recent study shows that perhaps the biggest anxiety trigger is doing nothing at all! The Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research, or C-PAN, at Deakin University, in Australia, shows that sedentary behavior may not only negatively affect our physical health by making us more prone to obesity and heart disease, but also may put us at increased risk for anxiety as well.

Sedentary Behavior and How it Relates to Anxiety

Sedentary behavior, defined as activity which requires minimal body movement with low energy expenditure, includes such activities as sitting or lying for long periods of time or spending a lot of time in front of the computer or television with no real movement. While we may know that being sedentary can affect our weight and physical health, the results may be more severe than we previously realized. According to Medical News Today: “A growing body of evidence suggests sedentary behavior is linked to an increased risk of developing many chronic diseases, including obesity, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and even some cancers.” And that’s not all! The study conducted by C-PAN shows that sedentary behavior puts people at increased mental health risk as well.

Researchers examined nine studies that were conducted to determine if a link existed between sedentary behavior and anxiety. Seven of those studies focused on adults while the remaining two included adolescents. What they found was interesting:  “The researchers discovered in five of the studies that an increase in sedentary behavior was associated with an increased risk of developing anxiety. Four of the studies also suggested that increased time spent sitting was associated with an increased risk of anxiety.”

How Doing Nothing Increases Anxiety

The studies that the produced results that were less strong to suggest a correlation between anxiety and sedentary behavior were those which involved on-screen activity such as television watching or computer activity which engages the mental faculties. However, despite this, one study showed that “36% of high school students with more than 2 hours of screen time a day were more likely to develop anxiety than those who had less than 2 hours.” So what does this mean? There is no absolute causal correlation defined between anxiety and sedentary behavior but there is evidence to show that there might be more to this relationship than previously realized.

Medical News Today reports that “of the studies that were available, 78% found at least one positive association between the risk of anxiety and sedentary behavior.” which is enough to warrant further investigation. Meagan Teychenne, lead researcher for the C-PAN study says “Our research showed that evidence is available to suggest a positive association between sitting time and anxiety symptoms – however, the direction of this relationship still needs to be determined through longitudinal and interventional studies.”

What Does This Research Mean for the Future of Anxiety Treatment?

But what is the benefit of this research? Teychenne says that it’s “important that we understand the behavioral factors that may be linked to anxiety – in order to be able to develop evidence-based strategies in preventing/managing this illness” and she’s not alone in believing so. Many researchers like Teychenne believe that increased sedentary behavior is a possible contributing factor towards why as a general society our anxiety levels appear to be increasing. This is because sedentary lifestyles don’t contribute much in the way of actively producing certain hormones like an active lifestyle does. One such hormone is serotonin which is frequently used in antidepressant medication to actively combat depression and anxiety.

Exercise increases the release of endorphins and serotonin, powerful neurotransmitters which contribute to overall mood balance and contribute to a positive mood. Another way to increase serotonin is by getting some sunlight, which can encourage production of the hormone.

In essence, perhaps one of the most effective ways at combating and preventing anxiety is simply to do something. Its deceptively simple, but studies are showing that maintaining an active lifestyle is more effective than being sedentary and effectively “doing nothing”.

New Research Provides Fresh Insight into Treating Depression

It is estimated that over 350 million people worldwide struggle with depression. The World Health Organization claims that depression is the leading cause of disability and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of diseases. Statistically speaking, women are about twice as likely to suffer from depression than men. Futher, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, “as many as one in 33 children and one in eight adolescents have clinical depression.” But new studies may change the way we see, and subsequently treat depression.

Common Depression Treatment and Side Effects

Currently, the most prevalent treatment option for those with depression is psychotherapy, which provides counseling for those struggling. Psychotherapy is usually combined with antidepressant medication to combat certain depressive symptoms like fatigue, low appetite, slow cognition and movement, and overall feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth.

While many believe strongly in the psychotherapy portion of depression treatment and the benefits of receiving proper counseling, antidepressant medications have been the subject of more debate due to their various side-effects which can sometimes have negative physical and/or psychological impact – ie: weird dreams, diarrhea, decreased libido, etc.

Researching Negative Side Effects

These side-effects have been a drawback for many individuals struggling with depression has lead some scientists like Dr. Greg Siegle to seek alternative options which treat depression as more of a physical ailment than a mental one. Dr. Siegle’s research focuses primarily on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which controls executive function, cognitive flexibility, and working memory.

Why this part of the brain? Research shows that people with depression have a more difficult time using their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when compared to their non-depressed counterparts. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, lack of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when combined with an  active ventromedial prefrontal cortex leads to increased chances of depression. This is because the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is primarily responsible for emotion, threat detection, and fear conditioning. While in a non-depressed brain these two cortices balance each other out in terms of neurotransmissions, depression could result from an imbalance in which the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is inactive or less active than it should be.

Cognitive Control Therapy

By examining depression as a physical ailment the key for treatment then lies in toning up the brain as a muscle. Dr. Siegle and his colleague’s work aims to strengthen this portion of the brain using what Dr. Siegle calls “cognitive control therapy”. What this entails is a doctor administering a gentle electrical current into the patient’s brain, over the scalp. In a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, “Both [Cognitive Control Therapy] alone and combined with [transcranial direct current stimulation] ameliorated depressive symptoms after the acute treatment period and at follow-up, with a response rate of approximately 25%. Older patients and those who presented better performance in the task throughout the trial (possibly indicating greater engagement and activation of the [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex]) had greater depression improvement in the combined treatment group.” And in Dr. Siegle’s own studies, cognitive control therapy, or CCT, has been shown to be successful in trial cases.

New Treatment Aimed At Ailing Symptoms of Depression

Dr. Siegle’s treatment does not aim to target depression as a whole, but rather to alleviate some of its most prevalent and persistent symptoms. According to Dr. Siegle: “Many depressed people think about things they don’t want to think about over and over again…Medications don’t help decrease rumination much. This suggests that even if you’re taking them, it might be helpful to get the rumination under control. In our research we set out to use these exercises to improve executive control and working memory.” In other words, CCT aims to help patients suffering from depression control their thoughts and memories so as to not contribute to or strengthen their depression from unwanted ruminations.

That being said, Dr. Siegle emphasizes that his treatment is not to replace traditional health care and therapy for those with depression. He argues that “I am not recommending that people stop seeing their therapist or stop taking their medication to take this program” Currently, the program is actively undergoing clinical trials but Dr. Siegle is hopeful that this treatment can alleviate some of the symptoms of depression, helping the overall recovery process of the patient. We can only wait and see where this goes, but one thing is for certain: Dr. Siegle’s studies have shown that depression is both a physical as well as mental illness. Therefore, the future of treatment for depression might just seek to address the physical as well as psychological aspects, offering a more encompassing approach to treating depression as a whole.

a woman looking stressed out with her hand on her head

The Six Types Of Anxiety Disorders

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America or ADAA, anxiety disorders are the most common mental-illnesses facing people in the United States. They affect approximate 18% of the population, or 40 million people aged 18 or older. In children, it is estimated that 1 in 8 children will experience some kind of anxiety disorder, making them more likely to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.

But what is anxiety? Anxiety is actually a blanket term to refer to a variety of stress-inducing disorders. Here are the 6 main types of anxiety disorders and what exactly they mean.

1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is characterized by persistent, excessive worry over everyday things. It is estimated that approximately 3.1% of the population, or 6.8 million adults, suffer from GAD, with women being twice as likely to be affected. GAD can stem from a variety of sources, including but not limited to family backgrounds, life experiences, especially if they’re particularly stressful,  and biological factors. GAD usually comes on gradually and can begin at any point in one’s lifetime, but is most likely to appear anywhere between childhood and middle age. People suffering from GAD often worry about the worst case scenario, even with no apparent reason for concern. Sometimes, just trying to get through the day can be anxiety-inducing. Anxiety levels for people with GAD can range from mild to severe. On the mild end of the spectrum, people with GAD can live functional, productive lives. However, when their anxiety levels are severe, GAD sufferers may find themselves having difficulty carrying out even the simplest day-to-day activities. GAD can also be accompanied by a variety of other mental-health related issues like depression, other anxiety disorders, or an inclination towards substance abuse.

2. Social Anxiety Disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder is largely characterized by an extreme fear of public scrutiny or judgment, especially in social or performative situations. This goes beyond just being shy. Those who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder may experience extreme anxiety in any social situations, making it disruptive for daily life. Social Anxiety Disorder can also make it difficult to establish and maintain relationships whether casual or romantic. This can lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness, shame, and even powerlessness. Social Anxiety Disorder usually begins somewhere in childhood or adolescence with the average age of onset being around 13. Children with Social Anxiety Disorder may demonstrate certain extreme behaviors to express their feelings of anxiety, this includes clinging behaviors, tantrums, and even mutism. It is estimated that around 15 million American adults suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder which can interfere with their daily lives both personal, social, and professional.

3. Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia

Panic Disorder describes people who experience seemingly random and spontaneous panic attacks and may be fearful of of a recurring attack. These attacks often occur unexpectedly and can even take place during sleep. Because of the random and seemingly unprovoked nature of this disorder, many sufferers avoid taking treatment or talking about their experiences for fear of being misunderstood. Panic attacks are abrupt onsets of fear or other feelings of discomfort. They can occur within minutes and include feelings of sweating, shaking, heart palpitations, nausea, light-headedness, and even feelings of disassociation from oneself or reality. Because some of the symptoms of a panic attack mimic other diseases and disorders, particularly those of the heart and/or thyroid, one might misdiagnose one’s panic attack as being a symptom of one of these other conditions. Agoraphobia relates to a fear of entering social situations where one may have previously experienced feelings of anxiety or experienced a panic attack. It is estimated about 1 in 3 people with Panic Disorder also develop Agoraphobia as they avoid more and more places out of fear of experiencing another panic attack. As a result, they may construct small safety zones for themselves, leaving which can induce feelings of extreme anxiety.

4. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is best characterized by unwanted and intrusive thoughts, or obsessions, which compel the person to perform repeated ritualistic behaviors to combat their anxiety. This can include repeatedly washing something, counting, checking things, or other irrational yet compulsory behaviors. Left untreated, OCD has the ability to interfere with all aspects of life, personal, social, and professional. This is because OCD can interfere with a person’s day-to-day life and routine, as time is spent focusing on obsessive thoughts rather than being able to focus on daily activities. This can make ordinary tasks like schoolwork, family-related activities, job-work, and social activities more difficult to those who suffer with OCD than those who do not. Both adults and children can suffer from OCD, however, unlike adults, children may not be able to recognize that their behaviors are excessive.

5. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can be a seriously debilitating that occurs when someone has experienced a particularly traumatic event like a natural disaster, serious accident, war, sudden death of a loved one, or violent attack. While many people who experience such events can recover, those with PTSD may continue to have anxiety and depression stemming from the event for months and even years on end. Both adults and children can develop PTSD with women twice as likely to develop it as men. Like other anxiety disorders, PTSD can cause or occur with depression, other anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. It is estimated that around 7.7 million Americans over the age of 18 suffer from PTSD. Mass violence has been shown to be the largest trigger for PTSD, with a rate of 67% likelihood that those exposed to it will develop PTSD. PTSD can affect one’s ability to form and maintain close relationships as it can cause problems with trust and communication which affects how the sufferer interacts with others. As a result, sufferers are also particularly sensitive to how they are treated and spoken to, making them especially affected by how loved ones respond to them.

6. Phobias

Phobias is a broad category encompassing a wide variety of irrational fears. People with specific phobias work hard to avoid common places, objects, and situations even when they know there’s no real threat or danger. This occurs even when the person knows their fear is irrational. Phobias, therefore, can interfere with daily life and activities just like many other anxiety disorders. While some phobias can manifest in childhood, many occur suddenly and unexpectedly sometime during adolescence and adulthood. Phobias can put strains on relationships and contribute to low self-esteem.

The First Step To Treating Anxiety

While anxiety can leave one feeling helpless it is often extremely treatable. Learning how to treat anxiety starts with identifying what exactly one is feeling and then determining the true source. There are a variety of treatment and therapy options for people dealing with different types of anxiety. If any of this describes you don’t hesitate or be afraid to seek help and find out what treatment options are best for you.


Understanding Addiction As a Social Disease

There are many theories regarding the true source of addiction and addictive behaviors. In the 1970s a professor from Vancouver named Bruce Alexander sought to uncover the source of addictive behavior in a study he and his fellow researchers called “Rat Park”. Inspired by the cultural anti-drug war beginning at the time, Alexander sought to conduct an experiment in which addictive behaviors were observed using laboratory rats. A similar experiment had been conducted earlier and came to the conclusion that drugs themselves were responsible for addiction. Alexander, however, was dissatisfied with this conclusion and argued that the first test was ineffective because of the way the rats were confined in small boxes known as Skinner boxes where the only activity for them to engage in was drug abuse. Rats were tethered to the ceilings of these boxes and rendered practically immobile. The only thing for the rat to do was to pull a small lever which injected drugs into their system via a surgically implanted tube. Alexander believed that in order to truly discover the cause of addiction the rats must be allowed to make other choices besides taking drugs. In this way, Alexander hoped to mimic the real life opportunities that human have to do the same.

The Rat Park Study

The results were astounding. Rats are naturally very sociable and active creatures, not unlike humans. Thus, they crave exercise and stimulation just like we do. Alexander’s experiment sought to provide the rats with this social fulfillment and see if they continued to abuse drugs and demonstrate addictive behavior. Rat Park, as it became known, was a large play facility for the rats where they could interact with one another and play with a variety of platforms, cans, and wheels to their heart’s content. Just like with the previous experiment, however, these rats were also allowed the opportunity to abuse drugs. But did they? The answer is no! The rats in the previous experiment who were confined solitarily consumed significantly more drugs than their Rat Park counterparts.

What Can We Learn From This Study?

So what does this mean? Alexander’s experiment showed that the true cause of addiction may not be the substance itself but rather may be a response to the adverse effects of isolation. In other words, drugs are a tool use to cope with isolation and to fill the void. The rats that were isolated and unable to do anything but use the drugs abused them frequently, those that were allowed to roam freely in Rat Park, however, showed very little interest in drugs and barely touched the ones provided. What does this say about human addiction? That the true source of addiction isn’t necessarily the presence of substances but rather the motivation whether or not to use them. Rat Park shows us that the strongest motivation for drug use is isolation.

Further Proof

For further proof we need look no further than our own past and present. Alexander pointed to Native Canadian communities for further proof of the harmful effects of isolation as a motivation for substance abuse and addiction. Upon colonization, natives found themselves relocated and separated from their lands and fellow people. Children were taken from their families and enrolled in the schools of the colonizers to be indoctrinated into their culture. Consequently, these children were forbidden to speak their native tongues and if they did return to their people they found themselves strangers within their own cultures. In essence, natives became isolated not only from their colonizers but from each other. Following colonization, widespread alcohol and drug abuse was documented amongst the natives. Further, other addictive behaviors like gambling and a prevalence in dysfunctional relationships were also observed. Its more than coincidental that these issues should arise after the enforced isolation caused by colonization.

In the present day, hospitals give certain patients diamorphine to help cope with severe pain. Diamorphine, however, is a medical grade of heroin. If one is to believe that addiction is solely caused by the drug itself, then what is to stop patients who are given doses of diamorphine in hospitals from becoming drug addicts once they leave? The difference here is that the patients who are leaving the hospital are returning to their social environments. Their lives are fulfilled by social interaction and activity rather than needing to be fulfilled by substances like diamorphine or heroin. Psychology Today notes that “we are driven innately from birth for close human contact. To the degree that we are deprived of this and do not possess the ability to accomplish this task, we are emotionally deficient and vulnerable to addiction.” In other words, just as the lab rats craved social interaction and stimulation, so do we. Deprived of this necessity we are more likely to turn to addiction as a means of filling that void and numbing ourselves from the stress and anxiety it may cause.

Isolation And Mental Health

Does this mean that certain substances aren’t highly addictive in their own right? No. What it does mean, however, is that isolation can heavily influence addiction and addictive behaviors. While we all make our own choices, it’s important to understand how our lives and emotions come to influence those choices. Chronic isolation causes people to start searching for relief. Unfortunately, for many that relief comes in the form of substances like drugs and alcohol. Conversely, this means that a major step in recovery may come from finding other activities to engage in with people you enjoy spending time with. Social integration can help combat the negative effects and feelings induced by isolation. Fill the void so nothing else will need to, especially not addiction. In essence, the world is our Rat Park, and it’s ours to experience and explore as we see fit. Don’t let addiction be a substitute for the real stimulation you crave, see that instead.

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