Minds turned to ash

Is burnout simply the result of working too hard? Josh Cohen argues that the root of the problem lies deeper than that

Source: Minds turned to ash


When Steve first came to my consulting room, it was hard to square the shambling figure slumped low in the chair opposite with the young dynamo who, so he told me, had only recently been putting in 90-hour weeks at an investment bank. Clad in baggy sportswear that had not graced the inside of a washing machine for a while, he listlessly tugged his matted hair, while I tried, without much success, to picture him gliding imperiously down the corridors of some glassy corporate palace.

Steve had grown up as an only child in an affluent suburb. He recalls his parents, now divorced, channelling the frustrations of their loveless, quarrelsome marriage into the ferocious cultivation of their son. The straight-A grades, baseball-team captaincy and Ivy League scholarship he eventually won had, he felt, been destined pretty much from the moment he was born. “It wasn’t so much like I was doing all this great stuff, more like I was slotting into the role they’d already scripted for me.” It seemed as though he’d lived the entirety of his childhood and adolescence on autopilot, so busy living out the life expected of him that he never questioned whether he actually wanted it.

Summoned by the bank from an elite graduate finance programme in Paris, he plunged straight into its turbocharged working culture. For the next two years, he worked on the acquisition of companies with the same breezy mastery he’d once brought to the acquisition of his academic and sporting achievements. Then he realised he was spending a lot of time sunk in strange reveries at his workstation, yearning to go home and sleep. When the phone or the call of his name woke him from his trance, he would be gripped by a terrible panic. “One time this guy asked me if I was OK, like he was really weirded out. So I looked down and my shirt was drenched in sweat.”

One day a few weeks later, when his 5.30am alarm went off, instead of leaping out of bed he switched it off and lay there, staring at the wall, certain only that he wouldn’t be going to work. After six hours of drifting between dreamless sleep and blank wakefulness, he pulled on a tracksuit and set off for the local Tesco Metro, piling his basket with ready meals and doughnuts, the diet that fuelled his box-set binges.

Three months later, he was transformed into the inertial heap now slouched before me. He did nothing; he saw no one. The concerned inquiries of colleagues quickly tailed off. He was intrigued to find the termination of his employment didn’t bother him. He spoke to his parents in Chicago only as often as was needed to throw them off the scent. They knew the hours he’d been working, so didn’t expect to hear from him all that much, and he never told them anything important anyway.

Can anyone say they’ve never felt some small intimation of Steve’s urge to shut down? I certainly have, sitting glassy-eyed on the sofa at the end of a long working day. My listlessness is tugged by the awareness, somewhere at the edge of my consciousness, of an expanding to-do list, and of unread messages and missed calls vibrating unforgivingly a few feet away. But my sullen inertia plateaus when I drop my eyes to the floor and see a glass or a newspaper that needs picking up. The object in question seems suddenly to radiate a repulsive force that prevents me from so much as extending my forearm. My mind and body scream in protest against its outrageous demand that I bend and retrieve it. Why, I plead silently, should I have to do this? Why should I have to do anything ever again?

We commonly use the term “burnout” to describe the state of exhaustion suffered by the likes of Steve. It occurs when we find ourselves taken over by this internal protest against all the demands assailing us from within and without, when the momentary resistance to picking up a glass becomes an ongoing state of mind.

Burnout didn’t become a recognised diagnosis until 1974, when the German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger applied the term to the increasing number of cases he encountered of “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress”. The relationship to stress and anxiety is crucial, for it distinguishes burnout from simple exhaustion. Run a marathon, paint your living room, catalogue your collection of tea caddies, and the tiredness you experience will be infused with a deep satisfaction and faintly haloed in smugness – feelings that confirm you’ve discharged your duty to the world for at least the remainder of the day.The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced. In his 1960 novel “A Burnt-Out Case” (the title may have helped bring the term into general circulation), Graham Greene parallels the mental and spiritual burnout of Querry, the protagonist, with the “burnt-out cases” of leprosy he witnesses in the Congo. Querry believes he’s “come to the end of desire”, his emotions amputated like the limbs of the lepers he encounters, and the rest of his life will be endured in a state of weary indifference.

But Querry’s predicament is that, as long as he’s alive, he can’t reach a state of impassivity; there will always be something or someone to disturb him. I frequently hear the same yearning expressed in my consulting room – the wish for the world to disappear, for a cessation of any feelings, whether positive or negative, that intrude on the patient’s peace, alongside the painful awareness that the world’s demands are waiting on the way out.

You feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless. Life becomes something that won’t stop bothering you. Among its most frequent and oppressive symptoms is chronic indecision, as though all the possibilities and choices life confronts you with cancel each other out, leaving only an irritable stasis.

Anxieties about burnout seem to be everywhere these days. A quick glance through the papers yields stories of young children burnt out by exams, teenagers by the never-ending cacophony of social media, women by the competing demands of work and motherhood, couples by a lack of time for each other and their family life.

But while it may seem to be a problem rooted in our cultural circumstances, burnout has a history stretching back many centuries. The condition of melancholic world-weariness was recognised across the ancient world – it is the voice that speaks out in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (“All is vanity! What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”), and diagnosed by the earliest Western medical authorities Hippocrates and Galen. It appears in medieval theology as acedia, a listless indifference to worldly life brought about by spiritual exhaustion. During the Renaissance, a period of relentless change, Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving “Melancholia I” was the most celebrated of many images depicting man despondent at the transience of life.

But it was not until the second half of the 19th century that writers began to link this condition to the specific stresses of modern life. In 1879, the American neurologist George Beard published “Neurasthenia: (nervous exhaustion) with remarks on treatment”, identifying neurasthenia as an illness endemic to the pace and strain of modern industrial life. The fin-de-siècle neurasthenic, in whom exhaustion and innervation converge, uncannily anticipates the burnout of today. They have in common an overloaded and overstimulated nervous system. A culture of chronic overwork is prevalent within many professions, from banking and law to media and advertising, health, education and other public services. A 2012 study by the University of Southern California found that every one of the 24 entry-level bankers it followed developed a stress-related illness (such as insomnia, alcoholism or an eating disorder) within a decade on the job. A much larger 2014 survey by eFinancialCareers of 9,000 financial workers in cities across the globe (including Hong Kong, London, New York and Frankfurt), showed bankers typically working between 80 and 120 hours a week, the majority feeling at least “partially” burnt out, with somewhere between 10% and 20% (depending on the country) describing themselves as “totally” burnt out.

A young banker who sees me in the early morning, the only available slot in her working day, often leaves a message at 3am to let me know she won’t make it as she’s only just leaving the office – a predicament especially bitter because her psychoanalytic session is the one hour in the day in which she can switch off her phone and find some respite from her job. Increasing numbers of my patients say they value a session simply because it provides a rare chance for a moment of stillness freed from the obligation to talk.

A walk in the country or a week on the beach should, theoretically, provide a similar sense of relief. But such attempts at recuperation are too often foiled by the nagging sense of being, as one patient put it, “stalked” by the job. A tormenting dilemma arises: keep your phone in your pocket and be flooded by work-related emails and texts; or switch it off and be beset by unshakeable anxiety over missing vital business. Even those who succeed in losing the albatross of work often quickly fall prey to the virus they’ve spent the previous weeks fending off.

Burnout increases as work insinuates itself more and more into every corner of life – if a spare hour can be snatched to read a novel, walk the dog or eat with one’s family, it quickly becomes contaminated by stray thoughts of looming deadlines. Even during sleep, flickering images of spreadsheets and snatches of management speak invade the mind, while slumbering fingers hover over the duvet, tapping away at a phantom keyboard.

Some companies have sought to alleviate the strain by offering sessions in mindfulness. But the problem with scheduling meditation as part of that working day is that it becomes yet another task at which you can succeed or fail. Those who can’t clear out their mind need to try harder – and the very exercises intended to ease anxiety can end up exacerbating it. Schemes cooked up by management theorists since the 1970s to alleviate the tedium and tension of the office through what might be called the David Brent effect – the chummy, backslapping banter, the paintballing away-days, the breakout rooms in bouncy castles – have simply blurred the lines between work and leisure, and so ended up screwing the physical and mental confines of the workplace even tighter.

But it is not just our jobs that overwork our minds. Electronic communication and social media have come to dominate our daily lives, in a transformation that is unprecedented and whose consequences we can therefore only guess at. My consulting room hums daily with the tense expectation induced by unanswered texts and ignored status updates. Our relationships seem to require a perpetual drip-feed of electronic reassurances, and our very sense of self is defined increasingly by an unending wait for the verdicts of an innumerable and invisible crowd of virtual judges.

And, while we wait for reactions to the messages we send out, we are bombarded by alerts on our phones and tablets, dogged by apps that measure and share our personal data, and subjected to an inundation of demands to like, retweet, upload, subscribe or buy. The burnt-out case of today belongs to a culture without an off switch.

In previous generations, depression was likely to result from internal conflicts between what we want to do and what authority figures – parents, teachers, institutions – wish to prevent us from doing. But in our high-performance society, it’s feelings of inadequacy, not conflict, that bring on depression. The pressure to be the best workers, lovers, parents and consumers possible leaves us vulnerable to feeling empty and exhausted when we fail to live up to these ideals. In “The Weariness of the Self” (1998), an influential study of modern depression, the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg argues that in the liberated society which emerged during the 1960s, guilt and obedience play less of a role in the formation of the self than the drive to achieve. The slogan of the “attainment society” is “I can” rather than “I must”.

A more prohibitive society, which tells us we can’t have everything, sets limits on our sense of self. Choose to be a bus conductor and you can’t be a concert pianist; a full-time parent will never be chairman of the board. In our attainment society, we are constantly told that we can be, do and have anyone or anything we want. But, as anyone who’s tried to decide between 22 nearly identical brands of yoghurt in an American organic hypermarket can confirm, limitless choice debilitates far more than it liberates.

The depressive burnout, Ehrenberg suggests, feels incapable of making meaningful choices. This, as we discovered in the course of analysis, is Steve’s predicament. In his emotionally chilly childhood home, the only attention he received from his parents was their rigorous monitoring of his schoolwork and extra-curricular activities. In his own mind, he was worth caring about only because of his achievements. So while he accrued awards and knowledge and skills, he never learned to be curious about who he might be or what he might want in life. Having unthinkingly acquiesced in his parents’ prescription of what was best for him, he simply didn’t know how to deal with, or even make sense of, the sudden, unexpected feeling that the life he was living wasn’t the one for him.

Steve presents an intriguing paradox: what appears from the outside to have been a life driven by the active pursuit of goals feels to him to be oddly inert, a lifeless slotting-in, as he puts it, to a script he didn’t write. “Genuine force of habit”, suggested the great philosophical misanthrope Arthur Schopenhauer in 1851, might appear to be an expression of our innate character, but “really derives from the inertia which wants to spare the intellect the will, the labour, difficulty and sometimes the danger involved in making a fresh choice.” Schopenhauer has a point. Steve is coming to understand that his life followed the shape it did not from the blooming of his deepest desires but because he never bothered to question what he had been told.

“You know”, he said to me one day, “it’s not like I want to be this pathetic loser. I want to get up tomorrow, get back in the gym, find a new job, see people again. But it’s like even as I say I’m gonna do all this, some voice in me says, ‘no I’m not, no way am I doing that.’ And then I can’t work out if I feel depressed or relieved, and the confusion sends me crazy.”

I suggested to him that he was in this position because he had realised that he had almost no hand in choosing his life. His own desire was like a chronically neglected muscle; perhaps our job was to nurture it for the first time, to train it for the task of making basic life choices.

The same predicament arose in a different, perhaps subtler way in Susan, a successful music producer who first came to see me in the thick of an overwhelming depressive episode. She had come from Berlin to London six months previously to take up a new and prestigious job, the latest move in an impressive career that had seen her work in glamorous locations across the world.

She had grown up in a prosperous and loving family in a green English suburb. Unlike Steve, her parents had been – and continued to be – supportive of the unexpected professional and personal path their daughter had carved for herself. But they resembled Steve’s parents in one respect: the unvarying message, communicated through the course of her childhood, that she had the potential to be and do anything. The emotional and financial investment they made in her musical and academic activities showed their willingness to back up their enthusiasm with actions. While Susan appeared to follow her own chosen path, there came a point where her parent’s unstinting support and encouragement made it difficult to identify where their wishes stopped and hers began.

For all their differences, Steve’s and Susan’s parents were alike in protecting the child from awareness of the limits imposed by both themselves and the world. Susan would complain that the present, the life she was living moment to moment, felt unreal to her. Only the future really mattered, for that was where her ideal life resided. “If I just wait a little longer”, she would remark in a tone of wry despondency, “there’ll be this magically transformative event and everything will come right.”

This belief, she had come to realise, had taken a suffocating hold on her life: “the longer I live in wait for this magical event, the more I’m not living this life, which is sad, given it’s the only one I’ve got.” Forever anticipating the arrival of the day that would change her life for ever, Susan had come to view her current existence with a certain contempt, a travesty of the perfect one she might have. Her house, her job, the man she was seeing – all of these were thin shadows of the ideal she was pursuing. But the problem with an ideal is that nothing in reality can ever be remotely comparable to it; it tantalises with a future that can never be attained.

Feeling exhausted and emptied by this chase, she would retreat into two contradictory impulses: the first was a compulsion to work, asking the hydra-headed beast of the office to eat up all her time and mental energy. But alongside this, frequently accompanied by chronic insomnia, was a yearning for the opposite. She would fantasise in our sessions about going home and sleeping, waking only for stretches of blissfully catatonic inactivity over uninterrupted, featureless weeks. Occasionally she managed to steal the odd day to veg out, only for a rising panic to jolt her back into work. In frenzied activity and depressive inertia, she found a double strategy for escaping the inadequacies of the present.

Susan’s depressive exhaustion arose from the disparity between the enormous effort she dedicated to contemplating her future and the much smaller one she devoted to discovering and realising her desires in the present. In this regard, she is the uncanny mirror image of Steve: Susan was frozen by the suspicion there was always something else to choose; Steve was shackled by the incapacity to choose at all.

Psychoanalysis is often criticised for being expensive, demanding and overlong, so it might seem surprising that Susan and Steve chose it over more time-limited, evidence-based and results-oriented behavioural therapies. But results-oriented efficiency may have been precisely the malaise they were trying to escape. Burnout is not simply a symptom of working too hard. It is also the body and mind crying out for an essential human need: a space free from the incessant demands and expectations of the world. In the consulting room, there are no targets to be hit, no achievements to be crossed off. The amelioration of burnout begins in finding your own pool of tranquillity where you can cool off.

In this article, the clinical cases have been disguised, and the names changed, to protect confidentiality.

Read more: Josh Cohen explains how he helps his patients find the way out of burnout


How to deal with anxiety

Image result for anxiety pic

We’ve all experienced anxiety, whether before an exam or first date, or even during a horror film.  But for some people, anxiety can become disordered, meaning it’s disproportionate to their environment and it can negatively affect their lives.  An AsapScience video has broken down where anxiety comes from.

Source: How to deal with anxiety

by Jessica Brown

The video explains that around seven million people experience generalised anxiety, which is “excessive anxiety” that occurs more days than not, for at least six months.

Symptoms can include disturbed sleep, irritability and muscle tension.

People with generalised anxiety, it says, can also experience panic attacks, which the video describes as:

Sudden and short episodes of intense fear that trigger a severe physical reaction like accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath and dizziness.

And 40 per cent of people with the disorder also have a relative with it.

The video goes on to say:

Anyone can experience a panic attack, whether or not they have an anxiety disorder, and it’s not always triggered by something known or specific.

It explains how we get anxiety:

Anxiety is partially triggered by the amygdala and hypothalamus controlling the circulation of cortisol and adrenaline in your body.

The video explains that, because of the high genetic link, it’s likely these hormone levels are linked to our genes.

Environment can also be a factor as certain anxiety disorders are related to traumatic childhood experiences.

Varying levels of neutron transmitters like GABA, serotonin and dopamine may also be to blame.

Serotonin, it explains, contributes to feelings of happiness by moving from neuron to neuron in the brain, passing through a gap called the synapse.

Any serotonin that isn’t used goes back to the original neuron.

But for those with something like OCD, a type of anxiety disorder, it’s been suggested that a mutation in these transporters creates a higher volume of returned serotonin before it’s had a chance to move to the receiving neuron, resulting in a decreased amount in the synapse, ultimately affecting your emotions.

Many anxiety disorders, it says, also have an overactive amygdala and periaqueductal grey area, which can affect our brains and bodies.

It concludes:

The neuro-chemical basis of anxiety is extremely complicated, and it’s not useful to tell somebody to just calm down or get over it.

Here’s the full video:


The science behind why some people love animals and others couldn’t care less

Keeping pets is a habit that goes way back into our hunter-gatherer past, and has played an important part in our evolution

John Bradshaw   Wednesday 11 October 2017

The recent popularity of “designer” dogs, cats, micro-pigs and other pets may seem to suggest that pet keeping is no more than a fad. Indeed, it is often assumed that pets are a Western affectation, a weird relic of the working animals kept by communities of the past.

Source: The science behind why some people love animals and others couldn’t care less

About half of the households in Britain alone include some kind of pet; roughly 10 million of those are dogs, while cats make up another 10 million. Pets cost time and money, and nowadays bring little in the way of material benefits. But during the 2008 financial crisis, spending on pets remained almost unaffected, which suggests that for most owners pets are not a luxury but an integral and deeply loved part of the family.

Some people are into pets, however, while others simply aren’t interested. Why is this the case? It is highly probable that our desire for the company of animals actually goes back tens of thousands of years and has played an important part in our evolution. If so, then genetics might help explain why a love of animals is something some people just don’t get.

The health question

In recent times, much attention has been devoted to the notion that keeping a dog (or possibly a cat) can benefit the owner’s health in multiple ways – reducing the risk of heart disease, combating loneliness, and alleviating depression and the symptoms of depression and dementia.

As I explore in my new book, there are two problems with these claims. First, there are a similar number of studies that suggest that pets have no or even a slight negative impact on health. Second, pet owners don’t live any longer than those who have never entertained the idea of having an animal about the house, which they should if the claims were true. And even if they were real, these supposed health benefits only apply to today’s stressed urbanites, not their hunter-gatherer ancestors, so they cannot be considered as the reason that we began keeping pets in the first place.

The urge to bring animals into our homes is so widespread that it’s tempting to think of it as a universal feature of human nature, but not all societies have a tradition of pet-keeping. Even in the West there are plenty of people who feel no particular affinity for animals, whether pets or not.

The pet-keeping habit often runs in families: this was once ascribed to children coming to imitate their parents’ lifestyles when they leave home, but recent research has suggested that it also has a genetic basis. Some people, whatever their upbringing, seem predisposed to seek out the company of animals, others less so.

So the genes that promote pet-keeping may be unique to humans, but they are not universal, suggesting that in the past some societies or individuals – but not all – thrived due to an instinctive rapport with animals.


The DNA of today’s domesticated animals reveals that each species separated from its wild counterpart between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago, in the late Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods. Yes, this was also when we started breeding livestock. But it is not easy to see how this could have been achieved if those first dogs, cats, cattle and pigs were treated as mere commodities.

If this were so, the technologies available would have been inadequate to prevent unwanted interbreeding of domestic and wild stock, which in the early stages would have had ready access to one another, endlessly diluting the genes for “tameness” and thus slowing further domestication to a crawl – or even reversing it. Also, periods of famine would also have encouraged the slaughter of the breeding stock, locally wiping out the “tame” genes entirely.

But if at least some of these early domestic animals had been treated as pets, physical containment within human habitations would have prevented wild males from having their way with domesticated females; special social status, as afforded to some extant hunter-gatherer pets, would have inhibited their consumption as food. Kept isolated in these ways, the new semi-domesticated animals would have been able to evolve away from their ancestors’ wild ways, and become the pliable beasts we know today.

The very same genes that today predispose some people to take on their first cat or dog would have spread among those early farmers. Groups which included people with empathy for animals and an understanding of animal husbandry would have flourished at the expense of those without, who would have had to continue to rely on hunting to obtain meat. Why doesn’t everyone feel the same way? Probably because at some point in history the alternative strategies of stealing domestic animals or enslaving their human carers became viable.

There’s a final twist to this story: recent studies have shown that affection for pets goes hand-in-hand with concern for the natural world. It seems that people can be roughly divided into those that feel little affinity for animals or the environment, and those who are predisposed to delight in both, adopting pet-keeping as one of the few available outlets in today’s urbanised society.

As such, pets may help us to reconnect with the world of nature from which we evolved.

John Bradshaw is a visiting fellow in anthrozoology, at the University of Bristol. This article first appeared on The Conversation (theconversation.com)

Manipulative people brainwash their partners using something called ‘perspecticide’ — here are the signs it’s happening to you

Victims of perspecticide become prisoners in her their lives.


Manipulative people brainwash their partners using something called ‘perspecticide’ — here are the signs it’s happening to you

Lindsay Dodgson, Business Insider UK    15.10.2017

  • People in abusive relationships may become victim to something called “perspecticide.”
  • It occurs when their abusive partner has made them believe so many things that aren’t true, they no longer know what is real.
  • They are effectively a prisoner in their own life, not being allowed to do anything or even think on their own terms.

Living with a controlling or abusive partner is confusing and draining. They blame you for things that weren’t your fault, or that you didn’t even do, and you become isolated from your friends and family in an attempt to keep the abuser happy.

The way you see the world can also completely change, because it may be dangerous for you to know the truth.

Lisa Aronson Fontes, a psychology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship,” told Business Insider the word for this is “perspecticide.”

She said the word, which basically means “the incapacity to know what you know,” was first used in the literature on the brainwashing of prisoners of war, and has also been applied to people in cults.

“In an abusive or controlling relationship, over time the dominating partner changes how the victim thinks,” Fontes said. “The abuser defines what love is. The abuser defines what it appropriate in terms of monitoring the partner. The abuser defines what is wrong with the victim, and what she needs to do to change it.”

Over time, the victim — or survivor, if that is your preferred term — loses sense of what their own ideas, goals, and thoughts were. Instead, they start taking on those of their dominating partner.

“Through perspecticide, people give up their own opinions, religious affiliations, views of friends, goals in life, etc,” Fontes said. “I am not talking about the natural mutual influencing that occurs in all intimate relationships — this is much more nefarious and one-sided.”

Someone can fall into an abuser’s trap in a number of ways, but it’s often through psychological, emotional, or physical abuse. Once the victim has been hooked and reeled in, their partner starts to bring them down with belittling comments and insults.

However, they often pause the abuse with intermittent periods of kindness and warmth. This means the victim is trauma-bonded to their partner, constantly trying to make them happy, because they believe they deserve to be punished if they don’t.

Victims become prisoners in their own lives.

The controlling partner might cut off resources like money and transportation, practically keeping the victim a prisoner. By living in fear, the victim changes how they view themselves and the world.

Fontes recalled several stories of people who had been controlled by their partners. All her examples were from women who were being abused, but it’s important to note that emotional, psychological, and physical abuse can happen to anyone.

One man convinced his wife she could not have her own toothbrush, because married couples share these things. He also never let her have any privacy — she wasn’t even allowed to close the door when she was using the bathroom.

Another husband slept all day so he could keep his wife up at night. He deliberately didn’t let her sleep, controlled what she ate, and hid her medication, which all made her physically weak. Eventually, she even forgot her age because everything down to the way she walked was managed by someone else.

Other stories involved a woman who believed her partner could read her mind, when really he was spying on her with cameras in her house and trackers in her belongings. Another man actually told his wife he had inserted a microphone into her fillings to monitor where she went all day.

“He was actually monitoring her through other routes, but she believed what he said — she had no other explanation for why he knew everything about her days,” Fontes said. “Of course, anyone who she told this to thought she was crazy. This isolated her further.”

For the victim, their life is overwhelmed with wondering how to appease their controlling partner. Fontes said they may even experience physical signs of stress over time such as changes to eating and sleeping, head or back aches, and digestive problems, because they are too worried about their partner’s wrath.

“A person who is being coercively controlled — even without physical violence — does not feel free to live their own life on their own terms,” she said.

If you think you might be a victim of abuse of any kind, you can talk to your GP in confidence, or contact organisations such as Women’s Aid and Victim Support.

The Mental Illness That Makes People Throw Away Their Possessions


The Opposite of Hoarding

For some, the need to shed possessions is a life-consuming illness—but the cultural embrace of decluttering can make it hard to seek help.

Getting rid of belongings is generally seen as positive, even healthy—but when the need becomes compulsive, it can be a sign of a life-consuming disorder.


The Mental Illness That Makes People Throw Away Their Possessions


As long as she can remember, Annabelle Charbit has loathed “stuff.” She hated birthdays because birthdays meant gifts. And gifts meant finding a way to toss them.

At 5 years old, Charbit would sneak toys into her younger brother’s room. By age 10, she was stashing her belongings in alleys around her London neighborhood. At 13, she discovered charity stores, smuggling bags past her parents and out the door.

Living on her own in her twenties, Charbit, now 41, continued her spartan ways, eschewing even lamps. “I would be in semi-darkness,” she says.

Currently a neuroscience researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, Charbit was obsessively decluttering before the word really existed in popular culture. Google Ngram, which charts the use of certain words in book titles, shows that “declutter” first came into use in the 1970s, its popularity shooting up through the ’80s, ’90s, and the first decade of the 21st century. According to Oxford University Press, the term was only added to the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary in June 2015. Today, women’s magazines routinely urge readers to purge; personal organizers offer to coach clients in their pursuit of minimalist perfection; earlier this year, Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which promises to help people achieve “the unique magic of a tidy home,” became a bestseller. But for some people, the cultural embrace of decluttering can provide cover for more problematic behavior.

“Do we just assume that decluttering is a good thing because it’s the opposite of hoarding?” says Vivien Diller, a psychologist in New York who has worked with patients like Charbit who compulsively rid themselves of their possessions. “Being organized and throwing things out and being efficient is applauded in our society because it is productive. But you take somebody who cannot tolerate mess or cannot sit still without cleaning or throwing things out, and we’re talking about a symptom.”

Unlike hoarding, which was officially reclassified as a disorder in 2013, compulsive decluttering doesn’t appear as its own entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM); instead, it’s typically considered a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. “I see it all the time. People rarely come into my office because they have a problem with being too efficient or wanting to declutter,” Diller says, but the problem usually makes itself known in other ways: “They’re not sleeping at night and they’re feeling jittery and irritable … they’ll sit in my office and straighten my pillows. They’re not comfortable until everything is in order.”

Scientists still aren’t sure exactly what causes OCD, which is typically treated with therapy and medication. What they do know is that the condition causes sufferers to lock onto distressing thoughts (obsession), generating anxiety that can only be soothed by performing a particular act (compulsion). “By doing the ritual, you get temporary relief, and then that cements you into doing the ritual,” says Michael Jenike, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the founder of the OCD treatment program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “So you do it again and again.”

Diller’s compulsive-decluttering patients, she says, sometimes describe “this tightness in their chest if they see things that should be thrown out,” one that can be eased only by getting rid of the offending objects.“Any behavior can technically become a problem when it starts having an obsessive and compulsive nature. Even [otherwise] healthy behavior,” says Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist in the Washington, D.C. area who has worked with patients who suffer from obsessive-compulsive cleaning. Both cleaning and decluttering can be positive behaviors, she says, but become a problem when they’re driven by obsessive thoughts.

One day in 2010, Charbit, then a neuroscience graduate student at University College London, Googled “the opposite of hoarding” and “clutter phobia.” She was in the process of writing a novel about a woman who suffers from the same compulsions as Charbit herself (the novel, A Life Lived Ridiculously, was published in 2012) and wasn’t sure how to describe her character’s symptoms—there’s no official term for compulsive decluttering. “I was a grown adult, fully medicated, with plenty of insight … but with no name for [the behavior],” says Charbit, who began taking medication for OCD at age 18. Her search led her to an article on “obsessive-compulsive spartanism,” she recalls. Clicking it open, she immediately recognized her own experience.

For Charbit, the thoughts began within seconds of waking up each day. “You have a few seconds of peace,” she says. “Then it all comes flooding: The anxiety, the dread … It’s that constant nagging. You never reach a point where you’re satisfied.” Even now, after years of treatment, “I would rather throw something out and buy it again than keep it.” The medication helps, she says, but it hasn’t stopped her from discarding and re-buying a food processor three times. “And don’t even tell me to recount how many books I tossed, only to go to Amazon and repurchase them.”

The author Helen Barbour, who blogs at The Reluctant Perfectionist and wrote The A to Z of Normal, a novel about OCD, believes the cultural embrace of decluttering makes it harder for those who do it compulsively to seek help. “[People] see my tidy home and sigh about the fact that theirs is a dump,” says Barbour, who was diagnosed with OCD in 1995. “What they don’t realize  is how long it has taken me to order everything with millimeter precision, or the anxiety I feel at things being even slightly out of position.” Barbour lives alone, in part, she says, because her long-term partner is “the king of stuff.”

Barbour also found a supportive community online when she wrote a blog post about her compulsive decluttering last February. “Sorting and rearranging helps a little,” she wrote, “and getting rid of just one or two things can also temporarily alleviate the feeling.” Commenters responded with their own experiences: “I get a physical sensation as though I’m being crushed when I have too many things around me,” one wrote. “To say I hate clutter is an understatement … it literally feels like gears grinding in my head,” said another.

Lesley Turner, a 58-year-old woman from Wales, can relate. “I have to do these things,” she says, “or my head is in turmoil.” In 2013, she and her daughter Tuesday, now 25, appeared on the U.K. reality show Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, in which people who suffer from compulsive decluttering clean the homes of people with hoarding disorder. Lesley says that the show’s producers pitched it to her and her daughter, both of whom suffer from OCD, as a chance to “push our boundaries,” but both women were dismayed with the episode that ultimately aired. “It made it look like a nice, fun, quirky thing to have, not the serious, completely life-consuming illness that it is,” Tuesday says. Earlier this year, after Lesley told the British newspaper Metro that the experience left them “traumatized,” the advocacy-organization OCD U.K. released a statement condemning the show and calling for its boycott.All pathologies have a spectrum from normal to symptomatic, Diller says, and decluttering is no exception. Barbour considers herself on the “mild end of the spectrum.” Charbit, now married and the mother of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, says she’s able to cope with her family’s possessions by “creating little compartments in my life [that] are exactly as I want them to be,” like her closet: “I always, at any one time, have just three pairs of shoes,” she says. “One pair of sneakers, one pair of flats, and one pair of sandals.”

The Turners, who refuse to allow anyone in their house—“I just want my big, clean, sterile home,” Lesley says—are more severe cases. Lesley is currently taking medication; Tuesday is on a waiting list for OCD group therapy. Both women hope their TV experience will at the very least increase public awareness of their particular form of OCD.

“I think when you see someone who’s a hoarder,” Tuesday says, “you see that there’s [a disorder]. Whereas if they saw our house, they would see that there’s nothing in there; it’s really, really clean. And I think people would just think that it was a nice, clean house.”

Feeling Moody? Here’s Why.

Moods are fleeting, volatile. They come and go at the drop of a hat. But beneath the surface, research suggests, they serve a deeper purpose. #brain #mindfulmagazineapr16

Source: Feeling Moody? Here’s Why.


Compared to powerful influences on how we think and act—such as personality, character, values, principles, and emotional style—mood might seem a little wimpy. It feels shifty, evanescent, transitory—no more enduring than a bank of fog. Upbeat people can descend into a sad mood and cranky ones can experience a joyous one, but in both cases it will pass, leaving no more trace than that fog in the morning sun.

A burgeoning science of mood is here to disabuse you of that belief (and perhaps give solace to those with mood disorders who find the effects of their moods anything but wimpy). Not only can moods, even ones that are at odds with our typical emotional state, leave lasting imprints on our mental and physical health; they also influence how we perceive the world and learn from experience—a function that, new research suggests, may explain the mystery of why we even have moods and why we don’t always want to immediately shake off negative ones.

When people feel down, they don’t necessarily want to cheer up right away, as the seeming paradox of sadness and sad music shows: Most of us aim for happiness (whatever our personal definition of that), yet when feeling down we swipe through our iTunes downloads for a most heartstring-tugging tune (Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”? Itzhak Perlman’s rendition of the theme from Schindler’s List?). Researchers at Ireland’s University of Limerick asked scores of people why they did so.

One reason was a desire for connection, for a sense that someone else (the composer, other listeners) had experienced grief such as theirs—a realization that keeps a sad mood from feeling isolating. Other participants in the 2013 study, published in Psychology of Music, said they “wanted to stay with those emotions for a while until I was ready to let go of them,” as a twenty-something woman explained. “I didn’t want music that would cheer me up.” Others said that sad music helped them experience that mood longer and more intensely, a pre-requisite for leaving it behind. One woman said she played sad music “in order to cry a little and then feel relieved and move on,” while another said it “encourage[d]me to feel the pain . . . plus allow me to have a good cry,” adding that “it probably did not make me feel better at the time, but may have helped me cope overall.”

It’s ridiculously easy to trigger a mood, and to go out of one just as quickly. And yet these slippery states can have profound consequences on how we see the world, and whether we take risks or tread gingerly.

Those reasons for wanting to deepen, even sharpen, one’s sad mood are among the many hints that all moods, up as well as down, have a role to play in helping us navigate the world. Indeed, among scholars of human behavior, it’s a bedrock assumption that when an experience is extremely common it must serve a purpose. In evolutionary biology terms, it’s adaptive.

Mood is so prevalent in our lives, lying just beneath the surface of any moment, that it’s ridiculously easy to trigger one. Music, weather, news, traffic, sporting events, thinking about ourselves, making facial expressions, fleeting interactions with strangers (why did that couple take up so much of the sidewalk that I had to walk in the gutter?)—all affect our mood.

And that can have powerful consequences. When people feel happy, enthusiastic, or excited they tend to take more risks, including financial ones. Feeling down, by contrast, makes us more likely to choose the safe bet. (Keep that in mind next time you have to make decisions about investing for retirement or setting aside money for medical expenses.) Sadness and disappointment make us more likely to pay attention to and be affected by negative information. When you’re feeling low, all news is bad, all friends act selfishly, and every stranger is cutting in line.

Moods are so powerful they can shape how we feel about something as basic as our age. People felt older on days when they experienced more bad moods, researchers reported last year in Psychology & Health. Low moods tip us toward thinking more analytically than creatively and intuitively. Being in a cheerful mood makes us think we’re particularly empathic, better able to, for instance, judge the emotional tone of a speaker (even though that confidence outstrips our actual capability), a 2014 study in PLOS ONEfound.

Nothing shows the power of mood more dramatically than how it affects something supposedly stable, if not fixed: personality. In a 2014 study, researchers gave 98 volunteers a standard personality test and had them watch a 10-minute video—neutral or upbeat (families reunited after the fall of the Berlin Wall) or sad (scenes from the movie Philadelphia, where the Tom Hanks character dies of AIDS). They then repeated the personality test. After watching sad scenes, volunteers scored notably higher on one of the Big Five personality traits, neuroticism, and somewhat lower on two others, extraversion and agreeableness, compared to their scores when their mood had not been manipulated, the researchers reported in BMC Psychology.

Why would our brains have evolved not only to experience bad moods at something as trivial as a loss by our favorite sports team, but also to be so deeply affected by these reactions? Because—say researchers led by Yael Niv of Princeton University in a 2016 paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences—moods “bias how we perceive outcomes.” Moods both positive and negative “serve an important role” of helping us learn from experiences.

Our brains get a hedonic hit not from plain old rewards and good outcomes, but from rewards and outcomes that exceed our expectations. The old dogma was that dopamine was released in the brain when we experienced something positive, such as food or sex or a promotion. But now scientists know that dopamine is actually released when outcomes exceed our expectations. (Hence my own preferred outlook on life—expect everything to turn out terribly. But I digress.) “Happiness depends not on how well things are going,” Niv and her colleagues explained, “but whether they are going better than expected.”

As we learn from experiences, we adjust our expectations accordingly. If things turn out better than expected, the dopamine hit and the resulting good mood encourage us to try for more of it. For instance, making surprise gains in the stock market improves a trader’s mood, leading her to take more risks, thereby taking advantage of a rising market. The reverse is also true: Sustaining a loss triggers negative emotions; those make us back away, protecting us from worse to come. In both cases mood pushed us toward the optimal behavior.

The idea that even negative moods can be adaptive, leading us away from repeating some stupid behavior, might seem at odds with the longstanding belief that being in a bad mood is bad for health. Those who are frequently in an angry, anxious, or sad mood do tend to have worse health, a classic 1989 study found, perhaps because those moods are stressful and stress can take a physical toll. But negative moods don’t adversely affect everyone. People who see meaning and value in bad or sad moods tend to suffer less from them, a 2015 study published in the journal Emotion found.

Enjoy the sadness. Embrace disappointment. Find empowerment within grouchiness. Your mind evolved to be moody. Don’t deny it.

This article also appeared in the April 2016 issue of Mindful magazine.

Sharon Begley is a senior science writer with The Boston Globe Media Group, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. She writes a regular column for Mindful magazine called Brain Science.

Fads and Crazes, Trends and Rages: Why we’re always looking for the next best thing | Easy Street

by Dr. Donna Roberts


The Story

“I feel like that’s been done before,” chimes Heidi Klum to the hopeful designer facing Project Runway’s latest red carpet gown challenge. And just like that, hope flies out the proverbial window, replaced by the dread of knowing he may be the newest ex-runway contestant. It’s a grave sin, this offense of not being completely new and original. In this design competition, one must “take risks” and show the judges something they “haven’t seen before” to be considered worthy of remaining in the competition.

We see this behavior in humans from cradle to grave. Children of all ages abandon last years’ stand-in-line-for-sixteen-hours-on-Black-Friday-must-have-toy for the next shiny new obsession. And adults … well, if we’re honest, we exhibit much of the same behavior. A closet full of clothes and nothing to wear. The cliché “57 Channels and nothing on,” which is more like 357 channels these days, but who’s counting? The latest and greatest model of smartphone that is only ever so slightly different, and yet different enough that it makes our “old” (as in 18 months old) phone seem so distasteful and archaic. Like the toddler with his passé toy we are bored with what we have and want the next distraction, especially if everyone else wants it, and especially if it is scarce.


Psych Pstuff’s Summary

Psychologists consider novelty seeking a character trait that encompasses a propensity toward pursuing new experiences and unfamiliar situations, and is often related to adrenaline seeking. It is also associated with extraversion and openness to experience in personality scales, and inversely related to tolerance for boredom and routine.

In today’s super-fast-paced society, this relentless pursuit of the new and different is praised and encouraged, with words like innovative, adventurous and curious defining these individuals, while its opposite is mostly considered old, stodgy and boring.

As with many evasive concepts, we try to nail down a precise meaning and hierarchy, to force order upon that which is seemingly orderless. So it is with the nomenclature for the many aspects of what hits the mark in popular culture.

Styles generally refer to overarching aspects of the presentation of a product and are considered the most enduring, or at least recursive, of these typically fickle phenomena.

Fads or crazes represent specific products or patterns of collective behavior that tend to rise rapidly in popularity for a finite, and usually relatively short, period of time. They can develop an enthusiastic, sometimes cult-like following, and include a broad spectrum of marvels such as diets, toys, clothing, make-up, hairstyles, food, music, sports and daredevil activities.

A fashion represents a middle ground between these two poles. It reflects the current popular trend, but is more pervasive across a particular category and can have a longer duration of popularity.

For those who love a good graphical depiction, LearnMarketing.net provides the differing rise and fall of popularity in these related cycles.

Despite the specificity of this nomenclature, and the predictability of the lifecycles, a bit of mystique still surrounds the phenomena of fads. Just what is it that makes something—especially something seemingly … well … ridiculous (e.g., the pet rock, to note one particularly nonsensical craze) turn into an overnight sensation that one simply cannot live without … at least until the next big thing comes along? Consumer behavior has always had a bit of a black box mystery to it. Research on consumer behavior shows that most people don’t even know why they do things, don’t accurately report their preferences, don’t follow through with their purchase intentions, and often cannot adequately explain why they buy the things they do.

It’s a curious mixture—the way we respond to things and the way we respond to the way other people respond to things. Several psychological concepts seem to touch on a part of the explanation.

The social psychology phenomena known as information cascade leads to the reactive group behavior referred to as the bandwagon effect. Information cascades occur when the observed behavior of others causes individuals to behave in a similar manner, even when that behavior contradicts their own thoughts, beliefs or preferences. Cornell professors David Easley and Jon Kleinberg, in their book Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World, note that “a cascade develops when people abandon their own information in favor of inferences based on earlier people’s actions.” The bandwagon effect refers to the increasing rate at which the ideas, fads and trends, propagated by the information cascade, spread as more and more people adopt the behavior, i.e., hop on the bandwagon.

Another behavioral phenomenon that drives the proliferation of fads is the scarcity principle, whereby the perceived rarity or difficulty in obtaining an item fuels the both urgency to acquire, and its perceived value. Combined with the reactance theory, which describes how individuals’ motivation to obtain or participate in something increases with the notion that the choices are restricted, it explains why people react to “limited time only” or “limited supply” offers, when they might otherwise not respond so enthusiastically.

According to Karen M. Douglas in Encyclopedia of Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, “Researchers argue that people follow fads and fashions as a result of both informational social influence (where they incorporate useful information from others about what is acceptable and desirable) and normative social influence (where they adopt the acceptable behavior or desired object so that they themselves are accepted and liked by others).”

From hula-hoops to cabbage patch dolls to fidget spinners. From goldfish swallowing to streaking to twerking. From Elvis to the Beatles to Miley Cyrus. From marbles to FarmVille to Pokémon Go. Our collective obsessions represent the power of social conformity and our need to connect through shared experience, for better or worse.

As Muppet creator Jim Henson, once noted “Nobody creates a fad. It just happens. People love going along with the idea of a beautiful pig. It’s like a conspiracy.” And, who could argue with Miss Piggy?