Category Archives: Science

Should I Take Medication for My Anxiety and Depression?

the truth about medication for depression and anxiety

Questions You Should Ask Yourself about Psychiatric Drugs:

Psychiatry is in fashion these days. Increasingly people are choosing to “pop a pill” to rid themselves of their depression or their anxiety. Statistics show that every 10th adult in the United States is currently taking an anti-depressant as part of their daily routine.

Oftentimes, however, people are not that well informed about what this kind of psychiatric treatment really means for their long-term health.

The story we are being told in advertisements is that depression and anxiety are “disorders” with some supposed biological basis, and that anti-depressants are to depression, what antibiotics are to an infection.

Although I am not against medication for psychological issues by default, and do believe there are cases when medication should be considered, all too often in my work as a psychologist, I encounter people who have suffered terrible faiths by going down this path.

Before considering medication for your anxiety or depression, or for any other psychological issue, here are three questions I would ask myself…

Can We Trust Psychiatric Research?

Although research generally shows some efficacy for psychiatric medication for a variety of concerns, including anxiety or depression, there are many caveats that should weigh heavily in people’s decision to treat their anxiety or depression with medication.

The profession of psychiatry in the US has very unclear boundaries in relation to the interests of pharmaceutical companies.

The consequence of this is that what appears like objective science frequently crosses the boundary into rhetoric and marketing. Pharmaceutical money pervades some, if not much of psychiatric research. Many studies that show the effectiveness of a particular drug is bought and paid for with pharmaceutical money. The flip-side of this is that if no benefits are found then we simply won’t hear of the study. This slant toward publishing only results that confirm the interests of those who finance the studies has undermined my own faith in much of psychiatric research.

For more information about the ties between psychiatry and Big Pharma, read Daniel Carlat’s book Unhinged, which will give you a good overview of some of the unclear ties between truth and money in the field of psychiatry.

Do We Know the Long-Term Risks?

In addition, it is concerning that we don’t quite know what the long term effects are of taking psychiatric medication.

In some cases, the long-term effects are quite clear. It is well known that some anti-psychotic drugs cause diabetes, weight gain, and sometimes permanent brain damage that can result in weird tongue movements.

Why should this be of concern to people with depression and anxiety? Because advertisements are currently telling people to ask their doctor to add the anti-psychotic Abilify to treat their treatment-resistant depression.

Other sources indicate that the long-term use of many of the most common psychiatric medications, such as anti-depressants and anxiolytics (anti-anxiety agents like Xanax), change the person’s brain chemistry permanently and make you more susceptible to relapse, once you stop taking them. In other words, unless you want to take them for life, you may be better off not taking them at all.

Robert Whitaker’s book on “The Anatomy of an Illness” and Peter Breggin’s book “Toxic Psychiatry” both weigh in with some alarming arguments that cannot be taken too lightly.

Is it Philosophically Sound?

Finally, I think we have to question if it is philosophically sound to treat anxiety and depression as if they were simply ailments to be cured, rather than symptoms or signs of something that is not right in our lives. No matter if medication can indeed make us more numb to our pain, or help alleviate our anxiety, they are no substitute for introspection into our patterns of behaving.

It is human to struggle emotionally and to be caught in difficult dilemmas. We all feel down-trodden and incapable at times. We all have to struggle to create close ties with others, to risk love, to endure loss, and to face rejection. We all have childhood wounds and special sensitivities. Life is not easy, but we learn from it, and we develop strengths and wisdom through the insights taught to us by our emotional pain and struggles. There is no medication for life itself.

Should I Take Medication for My Depression or Anxiety?

Since we know psychotherapy is effective for helping people not just cope with their depression and anxiety, but make sense of it, and use it as a growth opportunity, why would anyone as a first choice choose to gamble with medication?

Psychiatric medication may sometimes be the best or the only option, but it should never be the first choice. I respect each client’s right to make their own free choice, but given the ambiguous picture of benefits and risks of taking medication for your anxiety or depression, I would be both cautious and conservative.

Unfortunately, many times we don’t get the opportunity to make this choice. Few people really know the literature that warns us of risks and dangers, and the general societal discourse, backed with pharmaceutical money, marketing, and pseudo-science tells us a propaganda story. Science is not so neutral after-all, and no profession is going to openly turn its back on its own bread and butter.

This is why in today’s society, it pays to be an informed consumer.

Dr. Rune Moelbak

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, a psychologist in Houston, TX, who treats people – not disorders. To read more about how I can help you with your anxiety or depression, visit my website: www.bettertherapy.com

 

What’s Wrong with Empirically Supported Treatments?

Psychologists in the field of psychotherapy like to engage in debates about scientific proof. Oftentimes this leads to arguments about which therapy has achieved the status of an “empirically supported treatment”…

An empirically supported treatment is a therapy that has been proven to work for a particular mental health condition. If you have received a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder, for example, an empirically supported treatment would be one that has been found to reduce social anxiety with a reliability higher than that of no treatment or an alternative treatment.

So what’s wrong with that?

To answer that question, we have to dig a little deeper…

The Mechanics of Empirically Supported Treatments:

The mindset that underlies the movement toward empirically supported treatments and the scientific quest for proof is a mechanistic one.

Therapy is perceived as a set of procedures the therapist “administers” to the client in order to achieve some predictable result.

For this to work, the therapist must agree to deliver interventions according to certain fixed procedures that show “fidelity” to the specific treatment that is being tested. The therapist, in other words, must simply become the tool or vessel for the treatment.

The client on the other hand must be reduced to the passive recipient of the “treatment”. It is not even clear that their subjective experience really matters. What matters is the “end result” or effect that the treatment produces. The client is, in other words, just a set of mental and physiological reactions that can be manipulated or caused in some predictable way.

In short, the philosophical underpinnings of the movement towards empirically supported treatments are mechanistic: The client becomes an object in the causal chain of action and reaction that makes up the physical world, and the therapist becomes the engineer who figures out how to induce change in the object.

Empirical proof in this model is found through observing or measuring mechanical changes in the client who after treatment may or may not feel anxious anymore, may or may not report feeling depressed, or may or may not function better in their relationship.

This kind of proof separates cause (treatment) and effect (results) and looks to some external reality for validation that the treatment has had a positive effect.

Why Therapy is not a Mechanical Process of Change:

In reality therapy is an interpersonal process where the therapist learns from the client, just as much as the client learns from the therapist.

The therapist will often entertain multiple hypotheses about the dynamics that could explain the client’s difficulties, but these can be overturned, altered, or refined based on what the client shares and how the client reacts to certain interventions.

The assumption that the therapist unilaterally administers treatment as some engineer aiming for a predictable result, is therefore flawed. Therapy is about learning, not about producing.

The sign of a good therapist is not the ability to be true to a certain therapy modality, but his or her ability to deviate and change course in response to what they learn from the client and jointly discover through the therapy itself.

This also means that the therapist cannot be guided by specific goals or predefined interventions, because what a client wants or needs, and what would be effective, changes depending on the moment and the context of each interpersonal encounter and each specific interaction.

Oftentimes what is therapeutic about therapy is precisely that it overturns previous knowledge and makes new possibilities and hypotheses appear.

A problem or disorder is thus not some “static” thing like a tumor or a bad tooth, but a temporary stopping point on a journey toward a much more complex understanding of various life issues that inevitably end up becoming the real “object” of the therapy.

Evidence of Change in Psychotherapy:

One of the biggest compliments I have gotten from a client was someone who told me, “the longer I keep coming here, the more uncertain I feel about what my problem really is”.

This client had initially defined their problem as a specific anxiety disorder, but was coming to the realization that anxiety is really shorthand for a host of unique and highly personal life experiences. It is not a “disorder” that calls for the administration of a specific empirically supported treatment, but a very personal sign of other life issues or problems which the person has yet to confront.

Good therapy helps clients dislodge themselves from preconceived notions of their problems and helps them discover needs and desires they were not aware of from the outset.

This also means that the empirical proof we are after is not some preconceived end goal to be measured only at the conclusion of the therapy.

When therapy goes well, goals and priorities change, problems get overturned, and new issues become salient. This dynamic process of change has to be allowed to unfold according to its own rhythm and logic, and should not be hijacked by a preconceived agenda or a heavy-handed attempt to steer the therapy in a predetermined direction.

The change in this kind of therapy is not external to the therapy, to be validated only by measurements or observations after the fact. Instead it happens as an immediate experience of something resonating in the here and now that changes the client’s view of themselves in a very real and irrefutable way.

This kind of therapy is not about fitting a client into a machine-like production of change, but about facilitating a personal journey where the benefits lie in the discoveries made on the journey itself.

Dr. Rune Moelbak

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Houston, Texas. I treat people, not problems. To read about my views on therapy, visit my “about me” page, where you can also schedule a therapy appointment.

 

Psychotherapy: Does Therapy Work?

Many people who are considering therapy for their psychological difficulties, may wonder how effective talking about their problems is really going to be… So let’s examine the question: Does therapy work?

What’s Wrong with Talk Therapy?

The concern about whether or not therapy works, might not be assuaged by reading a recent Time Magazine opinion piece, that questions the legitimacy of longer term talk therapy. In the piece, entitled “The Trouble with Talk Therapy”,  neuroscience journalist and author, Maia Szalvitz, argues that most therapists have no clue about the latest and most effective treatments for common psychological problems. Instead they want to “go deep” to uncover unconscious feelings and motivations, which she says, has not been found to be effective in treating problems like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress.

The problem, she says, is not that effective treatments don’t exist for these problems, but that therapists either don’t know of them, or choose not to make use of them.  She cites Alan Kazdin, who is the former president of the American Psychological Association, for saying that “Most of the treatments used in clinical practice have not been evaluated in research.  Also, many of the treatments that have been well established are not being used.”

As a result, Szalavitz claims, she has a hard time knowing where to refer herself or her friends for effective treatment, for as she concludes, talk therapy has an “evidence” problem…

What’s Wrong with Szalavitz’s and Kazdin’s Argument? 

Psychological distress cannot be separated from who you are as a person:

Szalavitz and Kazdin are asking the right questions, but on the basis of a wrong understanding. Their assumption is that psychological problems are “disorders”, and that “disorders” can be treated like one treats a medical illness. Hence there should be one best treatment for depression, one best treatment for OCD, one best treatment for anxiety, and so forth.

The problem with that understanding is that it is based on ignoring the subjective meaning and function of our psychological distress. What makes a problem psychological is precisely that it involves the life of the person. This means that I can be depressed for different reasons than you and that your obsessions and compulsions can serve a different function in your life than they do in mine. OCD and depression are therefore not phenomena that exist in some objective reality where they can be treated using some standard method that gets applied the same way to each person. Instead they are surface manifestations of underlying psychological conflicts and issues that are highly particular to each individual. If we want to get to the root of the problem, we must therefore make these particular conflicts and issues the real focus of the therapy.

Psychological issues are intertwined, not separate from each other:

Szalavitz and Kazdin also make another mistaken assumption. They believe that problems like anxiety, depression, obsessions, and compulsions exist independently from each other, making it the case that one can focus treatment on a single problem and select the best treatment technique for each problem.

In actuality, however, most people who come to therapy have a variety of psychological issues that cut across identifiable “disorders”. They bring their life to the therapy, not an illness. Any therapist is likely to agree that the longer one works with a client in therapy, the harder it becomes to provide a diagnosis. As the complexity of our understanding of our clients increase, so does the inadequacy of any particular label or diagnosis. People are first and foremost people and as they expand their own understanding of the interconnections between their symptoms and themselves, the need to localize and separate their problems from who they are as people tends to disappear. As the now deceased Dutch psychologist, J.H. Van den Berg, has pointed out, people come as wholes, not as fragments, and one cannot focus on a single area of a person’s life without implicating all the others. One cannot lift the corner of a carpet, without lifting the whole carpet…  

Psychotherapy focuses on subjective truth, not objective knowledge: 

A third mistake Szalavitz and Kazdin make is that they fail to appreciate that there are two different truths and realities in life. Science deals with objective truth and objective reality. It deals with “facts” based on unbiased observations and treats these facts as universal truths rather than contextual truths.

Psychotherapy, however, deals with subjective truth and subjective reality. Subjective truth and subjective reality are not a lesser truth or lesser reality. In fact, our subjective experience is often what is most instrumental in motivating our behaviors.

To illustrate the difference, let me provide an example: If a male client can’t grieve the death of a close friend, this is not because he is objectively incapable of grieving or crying, but may be because he subjectively believes that “real men don’t cry”. This subjective reality, which he may or may not be aware of at the start of the therapy, can explain his lack of ability to grieve. It also provides “evidence” for why he may objectively present as depressed. Natural grief that is being suppressed may turn into a heaviness that cannot be released and may lead to a lack of contact with vital emotions that manifests  as symptoms of depression.

In therapy, however, the client may not initially be aware of this subjective belief, nor would the therapist know of it simply by looking at the client’s objective symptoms. The secret to understanding the client’s depression thus lies in a subjective truth that must be discovered, not in an objective knowledge that can be said to be universally applicable each time somebody shows up as depressed.

Why Psychotherapy Cannot be Standardized… 

What Szalavitz and Kazdin don’t understand is that therapy is not factory work and is not about providing prefabricated treatments of objective problems. It is about understanding the unique subjective causes that motivate and explain surface level symptoms that may look the same, but have widely discrepant reasons for being. This means treating the “person”, not the “disorder”, for the person explains the disorder and not the other way around.

So Back to Our Original Question: Does Therapy Work?

I believe the answer is yes, but it works in a very different way than a coffee maker works to make coffee or an oven toaster works to make toast. It helps people discover their own subjective truths, and not simply to change a behavior. Following Szalavitz’s and Kazdin’s advise is to apply a logic that may very well work in the realm of machines and objective cause and effect, but is very ill suited for the likes of us

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D.,  a psychodynamic therapist in Houston, Texas. If you are interested in learning more about how a psychodynamic approach can help you get to the root of your problems, click here.

The Power of Story-Telling in Therapy and in Life

On my recent trip to Nicaragua, I learned at least two things: 1. That when looked at from a Venezuelan/ Nicaraguan socialist perspective, the US is a country of police brutality and moral decay, and that, 2. Spirit Airlines are not stingy with their amenities, they are just engaging in “frill control”. Funny how reality changes when you tell a story differently…

A Cultural Lesson on the Power of Story-Telling:

Nicaragua is currently a country that receives a lot of financial aid from the Venezuelan government, due to their mutual sympathies toward a kind of socialism practiced by the now deceased political leader, Hugo Chavez. For that reason, you can find posters that pay homage to the former Venezuelan in places all over Nicaragua. You can also, I discovered, watch unadulterated TV transmitted straight from Venezuela.

When I would settle in at night after a long day of sightseeing in the tropical heat, I would turn on the TV in my air-conditioned hotel room, and would find myself fascinated by one particular Venezuelan station and the entirely different world-view presented there.

The US was on this channel depicted as quite morally depraved. The evening’s news included a segment on police brutality against civilians in various places in the US, presented as if it were breaking news.

The news was followed by a theme show featuring all the wonderful socialist initiatives of the Venezuelan government: First you saw how many modernized apartments were being built through the decree of the government, and then coverage followed of other government initiatives: workers would now be able to pay fair prices on everyday goods due to government intervention, the environment was now being saved through nation-wide programs to plant trees…. The initiatives were seemingly never-ending…

Every segment introduced one hopeful initiative after another, and the clips were always of people doing things together – collectively – making political decisions about what kind of society and destiny they wanted. This was a society that valued people and community over and above raw capitalism, and it reminded me a little bit of the Obama campaign’s “Yes, we can!”, which had that same kind of optimist spirit, before it lost its fizzle.

After watching this Venezuelan station for just 30 minutes I was left with an indelible impression of optimism, although a part of me of course knew that this was quite a different spin on reality than the one I had typically been presented with. From a North American perspective, Chavez was always depicted as somewhat of a selfish dictator, and socialism, of course, always depicted as bad.

However, crossing cultural boundaries, not just geographically, but mentally, is quite eye-opening. It made me think of the power of stories as a mediator of the reality we experience, the emotions we feel, and the actions that become conceivable. It also made me think of the tendency of stories to hide their story-like nature behind a presentation of facts.

The Venezuelan news station was not consciously telling stories, but merely reporting facts, and many of the stories we tell in the US media, to ourselves, and to others, have that same pretension to transcend their story like nature.

The Story of Psychological Disorders

The idea of the unadulterated fact is, however, itself the product of a story: the story of the enlightenment or of science. According to this story, we can access reality purely as it is in itself outside of the logic of a certain story line and pre-understanding. And yet, as hermeneutic philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer has pointed out, even science takes place within a prior understanding of the world. There is never such a thing as approaching the world without making certain pre-judgments or assumptions about it.

A research study about the effectiveness of a certain therapy for Bipolar Disorder for example, may seem like it is only reporting facts (looking at quantifiable variables and measurements of probability), but it is assuming an illness model of psychological distress which is not itself part of what is studied. An illness model, of course, is a story about why people suffer that attributes the suffering to a disease process or cause underneath the actual life of the person, and is by no means the only possible story.

The medical or biological view of psychological distress has a particular strong-hold in our current North American and European zeitgeist. People are always wondering: Do I have ADHD? Am I Borderline? Do I have a psychological disorder? …As if assigning a label and naming one’s suffering as a generic underlying “thing”, solves the problem, and alleviates the discomfort of figuring out why I suffer in some more human or existential sense.

And yet, these “entities” which we like to label ourselves with are themselves largely the product of stories. What appears to be science and is presented in an officially sanctioned diagnostic manual (DSM) as if it were, is really the product of a political process of debating different research studies, naming conventions, and inclusion criteria. Psychological Disorders are voted into existence. The other side of a disorder is all the contentious opinions that had to be tabled in order for the construct to appear as an independently existing noun.

Therapy as Story-Telling

Rather than try to fit people into categories of a medical story, therapy offers a space where alternative stories can be told. Therapy as a “talking cure” is really about telling your own unique story. A person is helped to unearth memories, feelings, and experiences that sometimes pose challenges to existing stories, and require the reorganization of one’s understanding of oneself and of the world. The medical narrative is here often a hindrance that disallows people from pondering the idea that symptoms exist for a reason, that feelings contain useful messages, and that our bodies express that which we cannot yet say.

* * *

And so it is that a trip to Nicaragua made me wiser about the power of the stories we tell and about the need to examine the stories we live as our own personal and cultural truths.

The Venezuelan government has their story…

Spirit Airlines has theirs…

What’s your story?

About me: I am a psychologist in Houston, Texas who likes to think outside the box and is committed to helping people find their unique personal truths. Read more by visiting my website.

The McDonald’s Approach to Therapy: Why Empirically Supported Treatments are Not the Way to Go…

Let’s take a rich experience of a real world therapy interaction, considered by both therapist and client to have meaning, intensity, and benefit.

The client is free to go where he or she may, to enter into new territory of emotion and thought, and to follow new leads and surprises uncovered through the therapeutic interaction…

The therapist is free to learn from a multitude of signs emitted by the client – consciously and unconsciously, verbally and nonverbally – indicating where the client might need to venture next, where the pain might be, and where truth has yet to emerge…

The course of therapy is free to be determined by the mutual input from both client and therapist and to take situational factors into account such as timing and the presence and absence of a variety of factors in the present moment, informing an organic intuition of where to go next…

Now compare this to a therapy where the client is given instructions of what to talk about and how to talk about it in a way that that has been determined in advance, and where the same instructions are being applied uniformly to each and every client regardless of specific circumstances and needs.

…to a therapy where the therapist is not free to follow his or her moment-to-moment intuitions or to adjust interventions on the basis of attunements to the importance of the timing and context of the situation.

…to a therapy where the course of therapy is determined not by client and therapist, but by a schedule that specifies what conversations or activities need to take place, when and for how long they need to be done, and in what order they must be accomplished.

The latter form of therapy, which I would call “therapy as technology” or “therapy as mass production”, has one benefit which the richer, more organic, and more tailored therapy does not: It is simplistic and rigid enough to lend itself well to the requirements of a scientific study that demands that an inflexible set of interventions be “administered” uniformly to a large number of clients that have been grouped in advance into uniform “categories”.

It is this set of restrictions, imposed on an otherwise rich, complex, and organic process, that is needed in order to prove what specific interventions can be said to be effective for which specific “type of problem” or which specific “category of client”.  If an effect is found that is greater than the effect of a chance encounter, as evaluated by some yard stick that is uniformly assumed to represent a good outcome, then the therapy in question is deemed to be “empirically supported” (EST) and to have earned the stamp of scientific proof.

Some therapists treat people as if they were “categories of problems” rather than unique individuals

The problem, as you can see, is that to get the stamp of approval, a series of operations had to be performed intended to simplify the richness of an actual flexible, organic, and complex therapy interaction. The intensity and meaningfulness of an experience evolving gradually between therapist and client had to be straight-jacketed and turned into a “technology” (a predefined set of procedures). Therapy had to become a machine-like process, the therapists had to become machine-operators, and clients, well… they had to be treated with the uniformity of “stock”, losing their individuality and autonomy completely in the process.

So let’s dispel the myth that empirically supported treatments are in fact superior forms of treatment. Let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that scientific proof is always the hallmark of the gold standard of treatment.

A uniformly produced McDonald’s hamburger, mass produced and mass-consumed, may have been found to be effective at reducing hunger, but it is not a superior hamburger of that accord. It cannot compete with a hand-crafted premium burger tailored exactly to the needs of each client.

I am not against scientific proof, but when we have to distort reality to make it conform to the needs of our scientific methods, we are committing tomfoolery in the guise of science and are contributing to a lowering of our standards rather than a bettering of our collective destiny.

Therapy is a complex relationship, not a science-based technology, and no scientific study will ever be able to question that fact…