What’s your story? When positive thinking works

This post is inspired by a book I read on holiday recently – Derren Brown’s Happy. In this book, Derren talks about ways we can change our mindset in order to feel more content, and builds on the Stoic principle that it is how we feel about events which causes them to affect us, not the events themselves. For example, we might worry about an upcoming presentation, getting ourselves really worked up and thinking of all the ways we could embarrass ourselves – tripping over, stumbling over our words, failing to hold the attention of the audience. The presentation becomes a source of dread. However if we were instead to put aside our worries and focus on preparing our slides we might feel more in control, and a whole lot calmer about the situation. Or alternatively noticing a scratch on our car could make us angry, wishing harm to come to the perpetrator and causing us to spend the whole day in a bad mood, being grumpy with others which makes us feel worse. Whilst to someone else this would be a minor annoyance, and not affect the rest of their day at all. So the same event can affect us differently, depending on how we feel about it, and our internal narrative.

In his book, Derren is unconvinced of the advice often given in popular modern self-help books, which state that we can achieve anything we want through the power of positive thinking. Want a promotion? All you need to do is think positively enough about it, convince yourself you’ll get one and the universe will reward you. If it doesn’t work out? Well you just weren’t thinking positively enough. This example seems fairly harmless, but what about when people with a serious illness are told they need to ‘think positive’ to help them get better? When of course some people don’t get better it is as though it is their fault, for not being positive enough.


However, he points out a type of positive thinking which can be useful, especially when it relates to our internal narratives, that is the stories we tell ourselves about our past. Some people are always lucky, others pride themselves in being hardworking, whilst some are always being hard done by. But is someone who thinks of themselves as lucky really lucky all of the time?   Our internal narratives are often affected by something call ‘confirmation bias’ – that is, we recognise all evidence which correlates with the theory we have about ourselves, and ignore anything to the contrary. So in the example of someone who thinks of themselves as lucky, they remember the one time they won first prize on a raffle, but forget that every week they play the lottery without reward, or all the other times where luck has failed them.

The affects of our internal narrative can be illustrated nicely by the following experiment, first done by Charisse Nixon at Penn State Erie University. To start, all you need to do is complete these 3 easy anagrams. They shouldn’t take very long, so if you haven’t solved it after 5 seconds, just move on to the next one. Here they are:


5 seconds.. if you don’t get it just move on.


Again, 5 second limit..



How did you do?

In this experiment, half the people in the room were given the same 3 anagrams to solve as those shown above. The other half were given the words TAB and LEMON instead of WHIRL and SLAPSTICK, but the last word, CINERAMA remained the same. Here’s the trick: the first two words that you were shown above were unsolveable (sorry), whereas the ones given to the other half of the people in the experiment were easy. Participants were asked to raise their hand when they’d solved each anagram, so of course the ones given BAT and LEMON raised their hands straight away. And this is the interesting bit – did you solve the last anagram, CINERAMA? The chances are you didn’t, and this was also the case for the participants in the experiment who had received that list of words too. Interestingly, most of the participants given the first two easy anagrams solved this last one without a problem. Whilst the first half had given up, thinking they were worse at this task than their peers, these participants were confident, having already completed two anagrams easily. So more of them were able to solve the last one too.

The phenomenon illustrated by this experiment is called ‘learned helplessness’. The participants given the unsolvable anagrams struggled with the task, whilst they saw their peers complete it easily. This caused them to feel like a failure, that this was something they weren’t very good at. And as a result, they were more likely to fail the last part of the task. This experiment shows the importance of your internal narrative and how it can affect different aspects of your life. If you’re interested, here’s a video showing this experiment in action.

As Derren says, the good news is that we are free to change our stories. They are concocted by us, and we have the power to alter our them – we don’t have to play out the same role every time.


Orthorexia – a new type of eating disorder?

You might have heard some of the negativity in the press recently about so called ‘clean eating’ and it’s advocates, who promote a lifestyle which involves cutting out any processed food and often entire food groups (gluten/dairy etc). This is not because of any medical reason, but simply just to be as ‘healthy’ as possible. I’m not going to go anymore into the debate around clean eating today (there’s too much to say, and several people have done it already) but I’ve mentioned it here as it has been linked to a rise in a condition known as orthorexia.

Orthorexia nervosa (so called by Steven Bratman, 1996) is characterised by a fixation with healthy food consumption. More than just dieting, sufferers will become obsessed with healthy food, and food will become preoccupying and a source of anxiety. Other problems often caused by this disorder include social isolation due to having to have complete control over their food intake, and some nutrient deficiencies caused by an extremely limited diet.

image from http://www.thefullhelping.com/neda-week-2014-considering-orthorexia

People with orthorexia (like some who ‘eat clean’) will often cut whole food groups or types of food out of their diet, thinking this will benefit their health. Common foods to be avoided are those which include artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, or foods perceived as containing too much sugar, or salt (Catalina et al., 2005). Orthorexics will also develop strict rules about food, which may also extend to rituals around food preparation (Chaki et al, 2013).

However, despite it’s increasing recognition, orthorexia isn’t listed as an official disorder by the DSM-V diagnostic manual for mental illness. As it is a relatively new disorder, research on orthorexia is lacking compared to other eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. There is some debate about whether orthorexia is a subtype of one of these existing eating disorders (Zamora et al, 2005), an eating disorder in it’s own right (Bratman & Knight, 2000), or a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (e.g. Mathieu, 2005). Alternatively, some researchers view it as a combination of the above e.g. Brytek-Matera (2012) who describes orthorexia as “a disturbed eating habit which is connected with obsessive-compulsive symptoms.”

As researchers are still unclear how to categorise orthorexia, it is unsurprising it hasn’t yet made it in the DSM-V. However, despite it’s absence, Bratman & Knight (2000) have developed some guidelines for diagnosing orthorexia. These include:

  • preparing healthy food overtaking other activities in life, with sufferers spending over 3 hours a day thinking about or preparing food
  • following a very strict and restrictive diet plan
  • a healthy diet becoming linked to self-esteem, and feelings over superiority over others who do not follow such a strict regime
  • the nutritional value of a meal becoming more important than it’s taste or the joy from eating it

Orthorexia can be treated successfully, with a combination of cognitive behaviour therapy and medication such as SSRIs (a type of antidepressant) being shown to be effective in some cases (Mathieu, 2005). This study also suggested that orthorexics responded better to treatment than suffers of other eating disorders, perhaps due to their concerns and increased awareness about their health.

There is no question that more research needs to be done to establish more data on people living with this condition, which will enable preventative measures and effective treatments to be developed.


The Power of Conversation


It’s a well known fact that a problem shared is a problem halved, right? But when you’re feeling down or worried sometimes talking about your feelings can seem too hard. For some people it could be easier to bury these feelings and try and carry on regardless, or for others admitting how they truly felt would seem a sign of weakness.

As you may know it’s Mental Health Awareness week in the UK, so this year I’ve decided to write about the power of conversation, and why you don’t have to deal with everything on your own.

Talking to others about their feelings is something men can be particularly bad at, especially when it comes to any concerns about their physical or mental health. To quote the columnist and campaigner Bryony Gordon in her recent article “Women are encouraged to talk about their problems. Men just have football.” Prince Harry was recently praised for his honesty in talking about his mental health – something which will hopefully change the stereotypical view that British men should have a ‘stiff upper lip’ and not show any sign of emotion.

This gender divide has led to inequality in mental health. In 2016, 3 times more men committed suicide than women. Suicide takes more lives of men under the age of 45 than accidents or disease.

Why is it that men are more at risk of suicide than women, when more women are diagnosed with a common mental illness? One explanation is that men aren’t as good at accessing healthcare as women – for example in the first 3 quarters of 2015, only 36% of those who accessed Improving Access to Psychological Therapy (IAPT) services were male*. Men are also less willing to let others know if they have a problem, with one survey finding that only a quarter of men said they had disclosed a mental health problem to a friend within a month, compared to a third of women. Almost 30% of men said they never tried to access help for their last mental health problem, compared to just under 20% of women **.

Accessing the correct care early is vital in the successful treatment of mental illness. For most common mental illnesses, talking therapies are used as a form of treatment (possibly in conjunction with medication). These include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Psychotherapy, Dialectic Behaviour Therapy, or Counselling – just to name a few. Having the opportunity to talk about thoughts and behaviours with a trained professional can give you the space to work out the cause of your worry or identify any patterns in your thinking which contribute to negative feelings. Therapies such as CBT also try to change behaviours using set goals agreed between the patient and professional which can lead to an improvement in mental wellbeing.

This evidence shows that the culture has to change. Why should it be taboo for men to speak about their feelings in the pub with their mates, as I do with my girlfriends over dinner? Anyone should feel like they have someone to talk to about their problems, even if that person is a healthcare professional – they’re there to help.

On a final note – one project I’m proud to be involved in which is aiming to reduce the stigma of mental illness is a zine called ‘do what you want’. This includes articles from a range of writers and has been featured in the Guardian, BBC and Grazia. All proceeds go to mental health charities, and the ebook (and print version whilst it’s still in stock!) can be ordered here: http://dowhatyouwantzine.co.uk

* https://www.menshealthforum.org.uk/key-data-mental-health


Behavioural Activation

This week’s post is about a technique used as part of cognitive behavioural therapy for people with depression. As you probably know already, symptoms of depression include low mood, low self-esteem, feelings of anxiety and helplessness, and having low motivation and interest in activities which they previously enjoyed.

Behavioural activation focuses on the ‘B’ of the CBT model, in this case on the last symptom in particular – the withdrawal from usual activities and friends. For example, they may start to avoid social engagement and ignore invites from friends or make excuses as to why they can’t meet up, whereas before they would have been happy to go. Although in the short term this avoidance causes a temporary relief, such as a lowering of anxiety, it simply reinforces feelings of low mood or low self-esteem. This maintenance of the condition is illustrated by this diagram below:

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 19.49.10

Therefore, in order to break this cycle, behavioural activation aims to change the unhelpful behaviours which continue the cycle of low mood. It does this by gradually building up activities that the person can do, which is turn will improve their mood, and lead eventually to them getting back to activities they used to enjoy. This progression is important, as the change in mood is needed before larger behavioural changes can occur.

Key features of Behavioural Activation are as follows (taken from Jacobson et al, 2001):

  • Firstly, the model is presented to patients by their clinician, who explain a bit about it and why it works. This is called a treatment ‘rationale’ and it is important for the patient to feel confident that this will work. A good relationship and trust with the therapist is also important.
  • Developing treatment goals through collaboration between the patient and the therapist – these goals are new behaviours rather than moods or emotions.
  • Analysis of causes and maintenance factors of the depression
  • Graded task assignment – e.g. starting with something small such as walking to the corner shop. This is scheduled in between sessions, and a hierarchy is discussed with the therapist.
  • Establishing a routine, in the hope this results in improved mood.

Ultimately, the aim of Behavioural Activation is to help the patient re-engage and find joy in activities which they have been avoiding. This will raise mood, and therefore help someone recover from depression.

Phobias Part 2 – treatments

This week’s post is the second in a 2 part series about phobias, and will focus on different types of treatment, and what works. If you haven’t already, read part 1 (see here) for more information on types of phobias and possible causes.

If you’r a regular reading of my blog, you may remember that a while back I did a post on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and how that can be used to treat people with phobias. The main principle is to reduce the anxiety felt by encountering the phobia stimulus, be it crowds, flying, or needles. By teaching the patient breathing exercises to help them relax and working to change the thoughts (cognitions) about the phobic stimulus, therapists can help the patient to work towards overcoming their fear. The behavioural part of this technique is gradual exposure to the thing the patient is afraid of, whilst the patient works hard to control their breathing and stay calm. This exposure can help towards changing thoughts which contribute to the phobia such as ‘if I’m in a room with a dog it will bite me’, which in turn reduces fear.

For example, take a look at the diagram below which shows how phobias remain if the fears aren’t challenged. If therapy targets the thoughts, and tests the fear, then it is likely the phobia will be treated successfully.


Another form of exposure therapy which has been used to treat phobias is known as ‘flooding’. Unlike in CBT, where the individual is gradually exposed to their fear, in this technique they are put straight in the worst situation they could imagine. This uses more behavioural techniques – as the body cannot sustain a physiological stress response for a long period of time, people begin to notice they feel calmer, even though they are in the presence of their fear. An example would be putting someone who was scared of birds in a room full of them! This also enables the individual to confront their worst fear and learn that nothing bad happens when they are in that situation.

Thanks for reading – there won’t be a post next week as I’ve got 2 interviews but I’ll be back the week after!

How can you tell if a treatment works?

Sorry for the delay in writing this post – I had a bit of a break for finals and moving back home, but here I am with something I found interesting during revision: How can you tell if a treatment works?

At first glance, it might seem like this question can be easily answered, but it is not enough to give a group of a patients the treatment, and then see if their symptoms got better. For example, what if they would have got better anyway? Or it was something about the act of talking about their problems which caused them to feel better, not that the specific aspects of that therapy worked? I will now outline the method needed to conclude whether a psychological treatment is effective or not:

Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTS)

These are a type of experiment, known as the ‘gold standard’ for psychological experiments. The main feature is that participants are randomly assigned to different groups, for example, an experimental group, which receives the treatment, and a control group, who do not. Ideally, the patients in the control group are matched to patients in the experimental group e.g. same age, level of education etc. This is so that the effects of these other variables can be minimised, and so any difference in outcome can be attributed to the treatment. The control group is important to show that patients wouldn’t have got better anyway. For example, Mayou et al (2000) studied the effects of debriefing after trauma and found an objective drop in symptoms 3 years later. However, a control group who received no debrief had almost no symptoms 4 months after (see graph below). This shows the importance of a control group who received no intervention.

mayou et al

As well as finding out if a treatment is more beneficial than no treatment, RCTs can also be used to compare the effectiveness of different therapies for a psychological disorder. For example, Clark et al (1994) compared found cognitive therapy was the most effective treatment for panic disorder, compared to exposure therapy, applied relaxation, or imipramine (a drug treatment).


RCTs also include a follow-up some time after treatment, which enables researchers to tell if the treatment can cause long-term benefits. For example, in the Clark et al study shown above, you can see from the diagram that they carried out a follow up one year after treatment, and that patients in the cognitive therapy group still showed the largest reduction in panic symptoms.

RCTs are the method used to compare therapies, and in order to tell whether a treatment is effective, they need to feature:

  • A valid measure of symptoms at pre-treatment and post-treatment e.g. Body Sensations Interpretation Questionnaire (used by Clark et al to assess misinterpretations of body sensations in panic disorder patients).
  • Broad assessment e.g. patient and independent assessor. (Needed because patients have a tendency to report feeling better than they actually are to the person who’s been treating them).
  • Assess significant pre-treatment to post-treatment change.

It is important to tell whether a treatment works, as if it is shown to be effective, it is more likely to secure funding, and be used on patients within the NHS.

Thank you for reading, I’ll be able to get back into a routine with blogging again now my exams are over so check back soon for new posts!

Why more money needs to be spent on improving access to mental health treatments

This week in the UK is Mental Health Awareness Week, so today’s post will be a bit different – what are the main issues about treating mental illness in our society, and how can access to therapy be improved?

Firstly: not enough money is being spent to improve access to mental health services in the UK. Fact. This means not everyone who needs access to treatment gets it, which, as well as having a massive impact on society, has an extreme effect on our economy too.

The statistics are striking:  only 25% of people with mental illness are in treatment, compared to almost 100% of people with physical health issues (Layard et al, 2012). And mental illness isn’t rare – the World Health Organisation found that mental illness makes up about 40% of all illness in developed countries. In the UK, 15% of the population of the UK suffer from anxiety or depression, but only 5% of those are in treatment (Depression Report, 2005).

Morbidity among people under age 65
Morbidity among people under age 65

And why are these individuals not receiving treatment? A report carried out by several mental health charities found that 1 in 4 primary care organisations do not offer Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – the treatment recommended by NICE for all anxiety disorders and depression. It is therefore clear that more needs to be done to improve access to therapy in the UK.

However, once a patient has been offered therapy, the problems of lack of funding do not go away. Waiting lists can be as long as several months, by which the problems could have got worse. This is another area where there is a massive disparity between mental and physical health services.

Therefore, it seems obvious that more money should be invested in mental health services within the NHS. This comes at a time where the NHS budget is stretched to the limit, and the government are looking at cutting funds to public services. And here’s the clever bit: improving access in mental health services would pay for itself. 

Let’s look at the economic cost of mental illness in the UK. In 2005, it was estimated that anxiety and depression cost the UK about £17 billion per year. About half of disability benefits are paid to people with mental illness. One study found that less than 25% of people with long term mental illness have a job, compared to about 75% of the rest of the working-age population. Therefore, this results in a massive loss of revenue from taxes, as well as increased expenditure on benefits and sick pay.

Even when people are at work, mental illness can reduce productivity and so cost the company money. A NICE study found that improving management of mental health in the workplace could save 30% of reduced productivity and sick pay costs. If a company has 1,000 employees, this equates to a saving of £250,000 per year.

Mental health also has a significant impact on our physical health, which causes more pressure on the health service. Hutter et al (2010) found that individuals with mental health problems use 60% more physical health services than people who are equally ill but do not have mental health problems. This costs the NHS about £10 billion per year. These figures are striking, and show more money, not less, needs to be invested in mental health services.

The massive economic costs of mental illness are clear, but what about savings from improving access to treatment? Layard et al (2007) found that its costs £630 to treat a patient, but this leads to £4,700 in benefits to society in the form of more people off disability benefits and back as work, so paying more taxes, and less spent on physical health services and sick days.

Fortunately, things are being done to make mental health treatment more accessible. For example, Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT), which aims to train more therapists for specialised local services. So far, this initiative has treated about 756,000 patients a year, with 45% recovering completely, 60% showing a reduction in symptoms, and 5% being well enough to come off sick pay and benefits and return to work.

This just shows the positive impact of expanding mental health services in the UK, and making treatment available for those who need it. At a time when the country is undergoing a change in government, these issues need to be remembered and prioritised. Even with cuts, and less money available, these statistics show that more money, not less, needs to be spent on mental health services in the UK.

CBT: what is it and how does it work?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy,  or CBT is one of the most well known types of psychological therapy.. But how does it work, and why is it so effective?

CBT was developed from the 1950’s, and came to prominence in the 1980’s. It was based on form of Behavioural Therapy, usually used to treat people with phobias. This was based on the principles of classical conditioning: that a conditioned stimulus, when paired with an unconditioned stimulus, produces a conditioned response. This is illustrated by the classic Pavlov’s dogs experiment, as shown below:


This process was used a basis for techniques to reduce fear, for example through systematic desentisation – gradually exposing patients to the phobic stimulus in a hierarchy system in order to reduce their fear (e.g. bottom layer of hierarchy: looking at picture of a spider – top layer: holding a spider in your hand). Part of this therapy is to teach the patient to relax during each step, as that prevents anxiety.

CBT builds on the exposure used in behavioural therapy in order to also address the cognitions behind the fear or anxiety. For example, in panic disorder,  patients suffer from recurrent panic attacks which cause intense fear and distress. The cognitive theory of panic disorder (Clark & Wells, 1995) states that panic attacks are brought on by a misinterpretation of physiological symptoms of anxiety such as palpitations or dizziness. The individual interprets these as that they will immediately suffer a physical or mental disaster e.g. a heart attack.

Part of the CBT for patients with panic disorder is exposure – they will go into a crowded place (if this causes panic attacks for them) and record their feelings, in order to discuss with their therapist. However, it has been found that exposure alone is not as effective as if the cognitions which maintain the disorder are not addressed. These are known as safety behaviours (Salkovskis, 1988): for example if a person who has anxiety about crowds and thinks they are going to faint if they are in a crowded place, they might sit down so they don’t faint. The sitting down is the safety behaviour – it prevents people from realising they wouldn’t have fainted from being in a crowd, they think they only reason they didn’t faint was because they took that action. If exposure is paired with strategies to reduce safety behaviours, it is much more effective at reducing panic and anxiety (Salkovskis et al, 1999).

CBT is recommended as the treatment of choice by NICE (the public body which develops treatment guidance for the NHS) for depression and all anxiety disorders – not just panic disorder. In order for it to be effective, Clark et al, 1994 have shown that a ‘cognitive shift’ must occur in patients (a change in their beliefs), or risk of relapse is much higher.


Let me know if you’ve got any questions or would like more posts like this – hope you found it interesting!


Post – traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder which is characterised by:

  • reexperiencing the trauma (intrusive thoughts)
  • avoidance and numbing
  • increased arousal

It has a lifetime prevalence of about 8%, and is more likely to occur in women than men.

It differs from other anxiety disorders as it is anxiety about something which has happened in the past, whereas other ADs are about something which could happen in the future.


This has been explained by the Cognitive Theory of PTSD (Ehlers & Clark, 2000), which states that the sufferer views the traumatic event in a way which produces a sense of serious current threat – they believe they are still in danger.

This is caused by 2 processes:

  • appraisal of the trauma
  • the nature of the traumatic memory and its link to other autobiographical memories.

They could believe they are still in danger as they could interpret the world as being a very dangerous place, or thinking that it was something about them in person that caused the traumatic event to happen.

These processes generate situational fear and avoidance, and therefore maintain fear and anxiety.

The 2nd process which contributes to anxiety is that the memory of the trauma is often poorly elaborated – it is muddled up and not integrated with other past memories. Foa & Riggs (1993) found that sufferers of PTSD can have difficulty intentionally remembering the traumatic event, but have regular involuntary ‘flashbacks’ which are very vivid and emotional. These memories are experienced as being in the present, so act as a source of current threat.

Cognitive therapy for PTSD therefore aims to change the individual’s appraisal of the trauma, so they don’t think the threat is current, as well an integrating the memory into other past experiences. It also encourages sufferers not to try and repress the intrusive memories, as this can actually have the opposite effect and make them think about it more. Finally, it aims to reduce safety behaviours such as avoiding reminders of the trauma e.g. not travelling by car after being in a car accident.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the NICE recommended therapy for PTSD and has been shown to be more successful than other therapies such as drugs or counselling.


Thank you for reading!

Social Anxiety Disorder

Do you ever feel shy when talking to people you’ve never met before? Or get nervous before speaking in front of a large audience?
While these emotions are normal, people with Social Anxiety Disorder (or Social Phobia) have a persistent fear of social situations. Often, sufferers believe that they will say or do something embarrassing, such as blush or shake, and so tend to avoid these situations as much as possible.
If social situations cannot be avoided then the sufferer will carry out ‘safety behaviours’ such as wearing thick make up or hiding part of their face with a scarf to hide blushing. However, these actions rarely help and instead contribute to the maintenance of the disorder.

Social Anxiety Disorder is relatively common, with a lifetime prevalence of about 12% (Kessler et al, 2005) and it normally begins in childhood or adolescence. It an extremely persistent disorder if not treated.

The Cognitive Model of Social Anxiety
– developed by Clark & Wells (1995)
– states that people with this disorder have set beliefs about what will happen to them if they perform a certain way
– they therefore monitor their behaviour very closely and turn their attention inwards during social interactions
– this causes them to ignore any evidence from their conversation partner which suggests that they are pleasant to talk to
– sufferers also have extremely distorted self-images: for example when they blush they think their whole face goes bright red, whereas it isn’t at all this obvious.


As the safety behaviours are involved in the maintenance of the disorder, one of the main aims of cognitive therapy for social anxiety is to remove them. Wells et al (1995) asked patients with social anxiety to carry out two exposure sessions (social interactions): one with and one without safety behaviours. They found that decreasing safety behaviours reduced anxiety and the belief that their most feared outcome would take place. A ‘cognitive shift’ must also occur for the therapy to be successful – the sufferer must learn to direct their attention outwards and look for evidence that contradicts their belief that they are bad or boring to talk to.

Another aspect of cognitive therapy is for pictures or videos to be taken of the individual during a social interaction, which are then shown to them during a therapy session. The aim of this is to provide more contradictory evidence to their beliefs, for example by showing them that they do not go bright red when they blush, or look really nervous when talking to others.

Thank you for reading, I hope you found this interesting – check back soon for more posts!