Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Drug Treatment for Trauma Victims

I just noticed on Yahoo a feature on a drug commonly used to lower blood pressure, propranolol, that supposedly can reduce the salience of memories of traumatic events. This is hopeful news for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Apparently, propranolol decreases the amount of epinephrine (adrenaline) in the amygdala which amounts to a decreased fear response to the memory. The memory would therefore be seen as a more harmless event and would not come to the individual's conscious attention as readily.

The drug has stirred some controversy, however. Some say that the drug takes away control from the victim and takes away some of the psychic energy that drives people to follow through with handling the effects of the trauma (for example, a rape victim telling the police about the incident). Some are even concerned the drug can be used by criminal offenders to reduce the guilt of their actions.

IMHO, I believe that hurtful experiences should not be looked at as completely bad. Suffering can promote growth. However, to say that a person should forever bear with a traumatic event because they need to believe they have control seems to underestimate the effects of such an event. Trauma can have serious effects on a person's health and mental well-being. I hope that propranolol turns out to be useful in helping individual's with PTSD, especially given the probable increase of PTSD that will occur from those who have served in the war in Iraq.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Turkey Prevents Depression?

Thought you all would enjoy this post turkey day good news. Taken from the Center for the Advancement of Health. Here is the article:

The chemical in turkey that may cause people to nod off after Thanksgiving dinner also plays a role in maintaining good mood and memory, especially among people with a family history of depression, says new research published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

Lead author Wim J. Riedel, Ph.D., and colleagues at the Brain and Behavior Institute at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands examined the effects of the body's depletion of an amino acid called tryptophan on mood and cognitive function. They also measured how long the effects of the depletion lasted.

Tryptophan, known for its presence in turkey and commonly blamed in the media for creating the sluggish after-meal sensations experienced by many Thanksgiving diners, is a metabolic precursor to the chemical messenger known as serotonin. In addition to turkey, the chemical is found in foods like milk, bread, cheese and bananas. Tryptophan depletion decreases serotonin levels in the brain, which in turn can lead to depression and other problems. While the study is not definitive and does not offer a solid conclusion that eating more tryptophan will enhance memory or mood, it does indicate a possible connection.

"Experimental lowering of tryptophan, and hence serotonin, appears to impair learning and memory and can cause depressed mood, especially in people who have a family history of depression, Riedel says."

The experiments involved 27 volunteers, 16 of whom had an immediate relative with major depression. Researchers lowered the level of tryptophan in the volunteers' bodies, and memory tests showed impairment in their ability to recall and recognize words they learned during, but not before, the tryptophan depletion time period. However, the volunteers did better on focused attention tasks, concentrated listening tasks and tasks measuring the speed of memory retrieval.

The results also showed that tryptophan depletion induced mood depression in half of the subjects who had a family history of depression but in only 9 percent of those with no family history of depression. The latter finding suggests that people with depression in their families are more vulnerable to changes in serotonin levels. The mood depression effects ended within 24 hours in all of the volunteers, however.

"These findings may have implications for people who have a history of major depression in their families and people whose tryptophan becomes depleted because of dieting," the authors note. "They also may have implications for people whose tryptophan becomes depleted because they are undergoing immunotherapy for cancer."

The study was funded entirely by the Brain & Behavior Institute of the University of Maastricht and the University Hospital Research fund.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Storied Living

I'm reading A New Way to Be Human by Charlie Peacock and he talks a lot about how we are born into a story. Our lives are connected with the lives of our genetic, academic, and spiritual ancestors. Our lives carry on what they worked through in their lives which was passed on to them from their ancestors. None of us are isolated from the stories that we enter into.

When we become Christians we enter into a story. It is the story of Israel and of the church. Our lives reflect what has occurred before our time and we continue to work out our faith to impact those who will come. Thus the study of history is incredibly important for the disciple of Jesus. Understanding how Jesus entered into the story of the Jewish people is important because it is our story. In the same way, understanding how Jesus has changed the religion of Yahweh (spanning both Jewish heritage through today's church) is also important.

There are two reasons why I think this is important. First of all, it puts our life into proper perspective. We see Christianity not as a means of moral development but of history changing. Our lives will be the way that we can change history for the better or the worse. Our glories and failures are not independent of the Story. The story perspective is also important because it gives us the means through which we can measure ourselves. By seeing the wrongs that the Jews and the church has committed we can try to correct these from happening again. We also learn from their successes and we follow in the patterns they have set behind us.

Through all this we always realize that there is opportunity to see the Christian story in new ways. We do not simply emulate the behaviors of the past. We reinvent the present and try to to live out Christ-ways in a different manner. We never lose our creative contribution to the Story. We remain humble and in that humble faith try to redefine what it means to be human in the context of the story we find ourselves in.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Spirited Bodies

I just finished reading Nancey Murphy's Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies? which explores the issue of whether or not we have a soul. Considering that Dr. Murphy is a Christian, it might be surprising to most that she argues that humans do not have souls. She argues that the Bible does not give a clear cut answer to the nature of human existence simply because the authors were not interested in that philosophical question. The idea of the soul grew out of Greek influence and was adopted by the church in about the 4th Century.

Although Murphy is a philosopher, the current field of neuropsychology supports such a conclusion. The attributes typically attributed to the soul - consciousness, identity, memory, rational thought, religious experience, etc. - are now being attributed to different regions of the brain. This does not mean that the Bible is wrong, just that our typical interpretation of this topic is.

What are the implications of this? Of course numerous spiritual questions arise: do we exist as souls or resurrected bodies in heaven, how do we retain our identity once our body dies, and how do we interact with a spiritual realm of angels and demons? All of these I must not go into here for the sake of brevity (although Murphy does explore these issues). But in terms of practicality it means that we are able to have a fuller understanding of what it means to be human. We can see a continuity between our bodies, brains, and spiritual life that seemed oddly connected from a dualistic viewpoint. Furthermore, we can see our relationship with matter as one that upholds environmentally concern as well as social justice, since we are connected to both in substance (sounds New-Agey I know).

Finally, since the historical argument in favor of a soul (at least the one I had heard) was that free will is impossible unless we have a non-physical soul, we must discuss how free will can be present in a purely physical being. But Murphy argues that emergent capabilities are possible with such a complex network as our brain is. In other words, we are greater than the sum of our parts. Our brains are capable of having a causative effect on our behavior. These capabilities arise out of our ability to create syntatic language and to experience obligation.

If you are unwilling to accept such a radical viewpoint, as I can fully understand, you should at least familiarize yourself with this theory in order to better integrate why our spiritual lives seem to interact with our mental health and functioning.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Direction of Our Spirituality

Spirituality is largely assumed to be a pretty variable factor. Some are assumed to be more spiritual than others. And while I agree that there is some variation in how spiritual people are, because people are inherently different, the primary difference in spirituality is not how spiritual people are but what they hold as spiritual. I think that all people are searching for spiritual fulfillment but many are searching for it in areas other than those directly related to the divine. While the exact definition for spirituality remains elusive, I tend to think of it as a process of sacralizing (making sacred) our experiences, thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.

With that definition in mind, we look at someone who would be considered less spiritual: the materialist. This person values possessions over relationships and especially over relationship with God. For this person material objects - cars, clothes, etc. - become sacred because they are valued as being more than functional - they imbue meaning into life. So the materialist is spiritual but his spirituality is directed towards material goods. The materialist has sacralized possessions because he believes they give him a better life. Follow so far?

I believe, therefore, that spirituality can be good or bad. The goal is to turn our spirituality on towards better things. What those better things would be a much too long of a discussion to handle here but suffice it to say that it is more than traditional moral values.

Humans look for transcendent meaning everywhere: comparing themselves with others, hedonism, hobbies, intellectualism, etc. The end goal for humans then is to find transcendent meaning in those things that are actually most transcendent: love, compassion, and things that give life and freedom. I believe that these things are from God and thus a good spirituality requires connection with the God of love

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Counselor self-efficacy and client satisfaction

This post is taken from a Christian psychologist who teaches at Biblical Seminary. I encourage you all to check out his blog if you are interested in an experienced clinician and professors thoughts on faith and Psychology. Here is a post that I thought would be relevant to my classmates beginning their clinical work:

Each Monday I am going to try to discuss interesting research that relates to counseling process and interventions. In the latest Journal of Counseling Psychology (53:4), a group of U of Maryland researchers looked at how novice counselors felt about their capacities to counsel. The assumption is that counselors who possess adequate sense of capacity to help will provide more helpful counseling responses, will work harder when problems arise, and convey a greater sense of professionalism. Makes sense. If you think you are going to be able to do something, you’re more likely to succeed. If all you can think is that you are a failure, you’re likely to be one. This study looked at both general confidence and client-specific confidence (some may have general confidence but when put in a specific situation find that they lack the confidence they need). General counselor confidence is predictive of a counselor’s comfort with the role of counselor and their likelihood of pursuing a career. But what of the client-specific confidence?

While they made numerous findings, the one that interested me is that higher counselor confidence correlates with higher client satisfaction over the course of the therapy. Why is that? Well, for one, if the counselor portrays herself as competent, then the client will likely perceive that the work is going well. Obviously there is a limit to this correlation. At some point we all realize that the Wizard of Oz is only the little man behind the curtain. However, if a counselor is lacking in confidence, it probably makes him less able to hear and focus on the client since he is focusing on his lack of capacity. The client will sense this and not want to engage. I’m sure this is similar to sales. If you believe you can make the sale, your focus is on the person you want to sell to. If you think you can’t sell your product, it’ll sound like, “you probably don’t want to buy this and I’m not any good at selling, so I’ll be going now…”

Lent, R.W. et al (2006). Client-specific counselor self-efficacy in novice counselors: Relation to perceptions of session quality. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53:4, 453-463.