Category Archives: Understanding Psychological Disorders

What to Do When Anxiety Takes Over Your Life (Plus a New Release)

by Kassandra Lamb

If you’re someone who has been dealing with an anxiety disorder for some time, you probably know as much or more about them than I do. But perhaps this post will offer some useful tidbits. If you’re newly diagnosed and/or finally focusing on how one or more of these disorders is controlling your life, this will provide an overview of what to do when anxiety takes over.

The Gold Standard of Treatment

Only two types of anxiety disorder are curable at this point in the history of the science of psychology. Specific phobias and some social phobias, such as fear of public speaking, are almost always learned reactions, although they are deeply ingrained in the cerebellum (as I mentioned in my last post on this subject) and do not respond well to conscious efforts to control them.

But they can usually be unlearned via a process of systematic desensitization. While practicing relaxation techniques, the person is gradually exposed to more and more of the stimuli that they are afraid of, whether it be heights or spiders or whatever.

For the other anxiety disorders, a combination of medication and talk therapy is the gold standard of care. Plus, there are a lot of other things one can do—lifestyle changes that can reduce the anxiety and make it more controllable.

Medications

Meds can be the best thing when anxiety takes over.
Photo by Pina Messina on Unsplash

Better living through chemistry. There are over a 100 drugs on the market today that affect anxiety in one way or another. The trick is finding the right one for you, and getting used to it.

But, again with the exception of phobias (and some versions of social anxiety), there is no other way to truly control the anxiety. The body is producing it, so it must be treated biologically.

Now, if you have a fairly mild case of an anxiety disorder, there are coping techniques you can learn that may be sufficient. But for most folks suffering from these disorders… the brain chemistry is broken, and it takes adjusting that chemistry through medication to get somewhere close to normal.

1. Finding the right meds for you.

First of all, consult a psychiatrist. Don’t rely on your family doctor for this. The brain is incredibly complicated, and scientists are learning new things about it every day. And there are many different meds, each with its own pros and cons, its own way of operating on brain chemistry. There is no way that a general practitioner can keep up with all that. So find a good psychiatrist—they are the doctors who understand psychoactive drugs—and preferably find one who specializes in anxiety disorders.

Secondly, give the meds a chance to work. Most anti-anxiety meds take several weeks to start to make an impact. The best way to find the right med for you is through trial and error, which takes patience. Yes, I know it’s hard to be patient when you are anxious ALL THE TIME.

But if you eliminate a med too soon, before it has had a chance to show what it can do for you, well, that might have been the best one for you and you passed it by, out of impatience.

2. Getting used to the meds.

Folks with anxiety disorders tend to become hyper-alert to changes in their bodies and brains. Feel a little lightheaded or queasy and immediately your mind jumps to the conclusion that a panic attack is starting up.

But psychoactive drugs, by definition, are going to make you feel different. Yes, it’s really, really hard to do, but try to ride out those odd feelings until they don’t seem so odd anymore.

(For more on anxiety meds, check out this article.)

Talk Therapy

The most commonly used approach in psychotherapy for anxiety disorders is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). That’s psychobabble for the therapist is going to help you retrain your thinking and your behavior to lessen your anxiety and learn how to manage what’s left.

By definition, psychotherapy is a bit abstract and therefore hard to test scientifically, but cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most studied form of therapy—it has a lot of fairly concrete techniques that can and have been scientifically analyzed. And it has been found to be a very effective approach to anxiety disorders.

There are a lot of these CBT techniques, but two very commonly used ones are:

Journalling can help figure out the Antecedent, Behavior and Consequence, when anxiety takes over.
Journalling is often used to pinpoint antecedents, behaviors and consequences. (Photo by Ana Tavares on Unsplash)

1. An A-B-C Assessment

A-B-C stands for Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence.

In other words, what proceeds the anxiety attack, how does the person respond to the anxiety behaviorally, and what is the consequence of that behavior. The antecedent can be an external trigger—anything from a loud noise to a weather or news report to a fight with your boss or spouse. Or it can be internal—a thought or feeling that gets things rolling.

Once the anxiety is running rampant, how does the person react? Do they become physically ill, do they hide from the world, lash out, have a drink (or several), try to pretend nothing is wrong (while anger and resentment builds up inside)?

Then the Consequence—how does the outcome then reinforce the behavior and/or the anxiety?

Ha, I bet you thought I was gonna say how does the behavior impact on the person. Well, often that is the problem. Hiding from the world (agoraphobia) definitely has a negative impact on the person’s life. But to break the pattern there’s a need to analyze how the avoidance behavior of not leaving the house is being REWARDED.

A person with panic disorder contemplates going out (antecedent), then they start to worry about having a panic attack while they are out among strangers, and how that will be so embarrassing and they won’t be able to get any help, etc. Then they decide not to go out after all (behavior), and the anxiety/worrying subsides a good bit (consequence). The avoidance behavior has just been rewarded by a reduction in anxiety.

The goal with an A-B-C assessment is to figure out where and how to break the cycle. (For more on ABC assessment, see this article.)

Which brings us to another CBT technique commonly used with anxiety disorders.

2. Changing Self-Talk

This is probably the simplest and yet most effective technique in a therapist’s toolbox. Have the person pay attention to what they are saying to themselves internally. And work with them to change those automatic internal ruminations.

Because almost always, self-talk is negative. “I’m going to screw up.” “This is going to be horrible.” yada-yada

People with anxiety disorders are NOT the only ones who tend to have negative self-talk. It’s very common in a lot of folks.

But those without anxiety disorders do not already have a constant sense of anxiety and impending doom coming from their faulty body chemistry. So they negotiate life’s twists and turns with mild to moderate insecurity, muddling through the things they’re sure are going to go badly and then breathing a big sigh of relief when it wasn’t all that bad after all.

And maybe they even gain a little confidence and are a little less negative next time.

But for folks with anxiety disorders, their self-talk often takes the form of “awfulizing.” Their already anxious minds immediately jump to the worst case scenario, and they quickly convince themselves that this is exactly what will happen, the most awful possible outcome imaginable.

When anxiety takes over your life, learning to monitor and change self-talk can be crucial.
photo by Sydney Rae on Unsplash

Once the exact nature of a person’s negative self-talk is identified, the therapist helps them come up with good counter-messages. Not just some bland “Everything’s going to be okay,” but something specific, like, “I’ve dealt with this _________ (fill in the situation) before and handled it. I can do this.”

And then the therapist will use role-playing to help the person practice that new self-talk again and again. Until it becomes fairly easy to catch the negatives and switch gears, when out in the real world.

Again, there are more CBT techniques than these two, but this should give you an idea of what to expect in therapy.

Other Things You Can Do

1. Learn and Use Relaxation Techniques
Yoga, meditation, self-hypnosis, progressive relaxation, guided imagery, etc. Again, there are multiple options. Check them out until you find the one or ones that work for you. And then USE them. Every day, multiple times a day, and especially if you start to feel anxious.

2. Be Physically Active
Nothing reduces daily stress (which contributes to anxiety) quite like physical activity! Find an activity that you like, or at least can tolerate, and then make it part of your routine. Twenty-five to thirty minutes every other day is sufficient. More often is better.

And if your anxiety disorder has led to other issues, such as fibromyalgia, find a gentle way to be active. Yoga or swimming are great options.

3. Take Care of Your Body
Of course, all of us should be doing this, but if you have an anxiety disorder, this is CRITICAL. Develop a healthy eating plan, with nutritious foods that you LIKE. Make a point of going to bed at a consistent time each night, and develop a wind-down routine that helps you go to sleep more readily.

Again, experiment with different possibilities. Does reading work for you, or watching TV? Whatever you do, don’t do household chores or other stressful activities past a certain hour in the evening!

(She says as she is writing a blog post at eleven p.m…. Do as I say, not as I do. 😀 )

When anxiety takes over, it's tempting to self-medicate.
Resist the temptation to self-medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs. (photo by Sergio Alves-Santos on Unsplash)

4. Avoid Self-Medicating
Alcohol and recreational drugs can backfire on you. They may help initially in small quantities, but their addictive tendencies and the development of tolerance can lead to more anxiety in the long run. And alcohol suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep. So it can contribute to insomnia big-time!

Also, nicotine is a sneaky drug. Smoking may make you feel more relaxed, but it is an illusion. Nicotine has a muscle-relaxant quality, which we feel almost immediately with each drag on a cigarette. But make no mistake, it is a stimulant. It increases your heart rate, your blood pressure, your muscle tension…i.e. your anxiety.

Caffeine can also be sneaky in its own way. I can’t begin to tell you how many people (my own husband included) have told me that “caffeine doesn’t affect me.”

Yeah, it does! But you’ve developed a tolerance for it so you no longer notice how it is affecting you. My husband eventually (not due to caffeine, due to aging) developed heart arrhythmia and had to cut back on his caffeine. He was amazed at how much calmer he felt and how much better he slept.

5. Break the Cycle
Do not let anxiety make itself at home. When you start to feel anxious, break the cycle. This may be through self-talk, or you may need to literally get up and move. Take a walk, read a book, watch TV, pursue a hobby. Do something that distracts your mind before it starts to awfulize.

6. Make a Commitment to Your Routine
Establish a routine of taking your meds regularly, paying attention to your self-talk, exercising, etc. And then when something knocks it out of whack, as life inevitably will—a holiday, a vacation, illness, etc.—make a point of getting back into your routine as quickly as possible afterwards.

7. Socialize and Seek Support
Make an effort to spend time with friends and family. Socializing is a great stress reliever and also a wonderful distraction from your worries. And finding a support group of people who are dealing with similar struggles can make the process so much more bearable. Google “anxiety disorder support” and your city and/or check out the websites of organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

I hope you find all this helpful.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments. I’ll answer as best I can. Also, if you have discovered something in particular that works for you, please share.

And I have a new release in my Kate Huntington Mysteries, Police Protection. To celebrate, I’ve put Anxiety Attack, the book before this new one, on sale for just 99 cents (through 5/24/19).

Anxiety Attack, in part, explores the experience of someone with social anxiety.

Kate Huntington’s P.I. husband had doubts from the beginning about this case, a complicated one of top secret projects and industrial espionage. Now one of his best operatives is in the hospital fighting for his life, and Kate believes the alleged shooter the police arrested—one of her psychotherapy clients who suffers from social anxiety—is innocent.

Tensions build between the couple, until a suspicious suicide brings the case to a head. Is the spy/killer tying up loose ends?

Almost too late, Skip realizes he may be one of those loose ends, and someone seems to have no qualms about destroying his agency or getting to him through his family.

JUST $0.99 ~ THRU 5/24/19

AMAZON ~ NOOK ~ APPLE ~ KOBO ~ GOOGLE PLAY

And Book #10, the last in the series, is here!! Just $2.99 during PREORDER and until after its release on 5/24 (goes up to $4.99 after that)

POLICE PROTECTION, A Kate Huntington Mystery

A story ripped from real-life headlines.

A police detective is found in an alley, standing over the body of an unarmed African-American boy. Groggy from a concussion, he has no memory of what happened, and he is literally holding the smoking gun.

To the Baltimore County Internal Affairs division, it’s a slam-dunk. But various forces push psychotherapist Kate Huntington and her P.I. husband to investigate behind the scenes, and what they find doesn’t add up. Why did the boy’s oldest brother disappear on the same day? And did the third brother, who’s on the autism spectrum and nonverbal, witness something relevant?

When seemingly unrelated events emerge as a pattern of intentional obstruction and diversion, it becomes apparent that what happened in that alley was more than just a bad shoot by a stressed-out cop. And for Kate, the case has become personal as she’s connected with the grieving mother, whose dead son was the same age as her Billy.

The answers may come from unexpected sources, but she and Skip better find them soon… before another life is lost.

AMAZON ~ NOOK ~ APPLE ~ KOBO ~ GOOGLE PLAY

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

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When Anxiety Is a Bad Thing, Part I

by Kassandra Lamb

Last month, I posted about how a controllable amount of anxiety can be a good thing when performing. It can keep us on our toes and animate our performance. But what happens when it’s not controllable? Then, anxiety is a bad thing.

when anixety is a bad thing
Street art on the island of Uto, Finland (Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash)

Basically, this happens when our survival mechanisms go awry. One of these survival mechanism is our fight or flight response.

When we perceive a threat in our environment, our brains and bodies take over. We automatically experience a long list of reactions intended to prepare us to run away from that threat or stand and fight it off—our hearts race to pump blood to our muscles faster, our breathing becomes more rapid to suck in more oxygen, our muscles tense, our pupils dilate to see better, etc.

But what if something biological, a malfunction in our bodies or brains, triggers our fight or flight response, rather than a true threat from the environment?

Biologically Triggered Panic

You’re going about your business, perfectly calm and safe, and suddenly your heart starts thundering in your chest and you’re breathing fast and furious.

You look around, your eyes wide with fright, desperately trying to find the threat. But there is none. Yet, your mind knows that if the fight or flight response has been triggered there must be some threat out there. Right?

This is what people with certain anxiety disorders suffer through on a regular basis, sometimes several times a day.

And they cannot control it!

During a panic attack, their bodies are freaking out on them, without their mental permission. And the sense of impending doom, that is associated with that physiological freaking out, can be quite overwhelming.

Which brings us to the other survival mechanism that can go awry.

Learned Associations

One of the other ways that our brains keep us alive is by making a myriad of associations between certain situations and our emotions. This thing made us feel good in the past (like eating tasty food), so do more of it. That thing was scary and/or hurt us in the past, so avoid it.

We smell food cooking and our stomachs automatically growl, because we’ve learned to associate that smell with something good to eat. We see a snake on the path in front of us in the woods, and we jump back and our hearts start racing. We were not born with the knowledge that cooking smells mean food or that a snake is potentially harmful, and yet these reactions are automatic.

That’s because these are conditioned associations, a different kind of learning than when we intellectually process something and commit it to memory. At some point in the past, we felt the emotion (fear) while in the presence of something (a snake, or an image of a snake on TV, doing something scary) and our minds linked the two together. So now the snake is a “conditioned stimulus” for the “conditioned response” of fear.

For most of us, the fear response can be controlled, once we have assessed the situation. From a safe distance, we take a harder look at the snake and realize it’s just a harmless black snake. So we get a stick, shoo it out of our path and go on about our business.

Cerebellum Images are generated by Life Science Databases (LSDB) ~ CC BY-SA 2.1 jp Wikimedia Commons

But sometimes, these conditioned associations reach phobic levels. As a child, you’re chased and bitten by a dog, and now you are terrified of all dogs.

So why can’t we control that phobic fear?

Because conditioned associations are stored in a different part of our brain (the cerebellum) from where our thinking occurs (the cerebral cortex).

(In the swirling image to the left, the cerebellum is highlighted in red, while the cerebral cortex is the tan part.)

So you see a dog, even a small harmless-looking one, and you are running away, even as your logical brain is saying, “This is stupid, That dog isn’t going to hurt me.”

When These Two Mechanisms Interact

People with biologically-based anxiety disorders (panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, etc.) often get a double whammy from these mechanisms. Their fear response is being triggered when nothing scary is happening, but the mind still associates the fear with whatever is going on at the moment.

So the person can develop a phobic-type response to a variety of stimuli. They have a panic attack while at the grocery store, so they can’t grocery shop anymore without freaking out. Then they have one while at the post office and they can’t go there anymore. Then while driving, so they can’t drive anymore. Then while getting their mail at the end of their driveway…

In its worst form, this can become agoraphobia, in which the person is afraid to leave their home.

And none of this is under their conscious control!

What Can Be Done?

For those who suffer from anxiety disorders, the answer to this question is a long one. I’m going to do a separate post on that on May 14th. So please stay tuned.

For those of us who care about someone with an anxiety disorder, we need to be patient and understanding. Chastising the person for letting anxiety control their lives is not helpful.

They are most likely already beating themselves up, on a daily basis.

My mother-in-law had generalized anxiety disorder. The best definition of this disorder is being a worry-wart on steroids. People with GAD worry about everything all the time, and they cannot control this! GAD is partly biologically based, and partly a learned pattern of coping that becomes ingrained early in life.

When anixety is a bad thing, it can be overwhelming.
Photo by M.T ElGassier on Unsplash

When my MIL was in her seventies, her eye doctor told her she had cataracts and she needed surgery or she would go blind.

She would not do it. After a while, she wouldn’t even talk about it anymore.

I got it, and tried to explain it to my husband and family members. Any surgery, but especially eye surgery, is scary for all of us. But most of us can manage the fear. Not, however, if you have severe GAD as she did.

When she considered such surgery, the anxiety was overwhelming. And the more the family tried to get her to “see reason,” the more anxious she became, until even thinking or talking about it became overwhelming.

Finally everyone gave up, and she lived out the rest of her years slowly going blind, but with her daily anxiety much more manageable.

I’m not saying that I thought her choice was correct, but I understood where she was coming from, in light of the disorder she had.

When we keep pushing someone with an anxiety disorder to do something they feel they can’t do because of the anxiety, we are only driving a wedge between ourselves and them, and pushing them farther into the unnecessary and unhelpful shame they are probably already feeling about their disorder.

Then, anxiety is a bad thing indeed!

It is more helpful to say something like, “I understand. The anxiety is too much. Let’s see if you and I can figure out a way around it.”

Stay tuned for next time, when we’ll talk some more about those work-arounds and other ways to reduce the anxiety and/or cope with it.

In the meantime, I’m happy to answer questions. Have you or a loved one had to struggle with an anxiety disorder?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.

When Anxiety Is a Good Thing

by Kassandra Lamb

Say what? Anxiety is a good thing?!? It can be, up to a point.

This past weekend, I did my first public reading from one of my books. (Yes, I’ve been at this writing/publishing gig for 7+ years, but until recently my marketing has mainly been online.)

In the days leading up to the reading, I was terrified.

I’ve done plenty of presenting in my time, at professional conferences when I was a psychotherapist and in front of a college classroom for 17 years. I enjoy presenting/teaching, and normally I’m only mildly to moderately anxious beforehand.

And that is when anxiety is a good thing. On a practical level, it motivates me to be well prepared, to put in the work to make sure I’m ready. Because I know from experience that confidence is key to keeping the anxiety under control.

And emotionally, at the time of the presentation mild to moderate anxiety makes my brain sharper, and it stimulates me, animates my personality. When that happens, I am an enthusiastic speaker and the audience responds well. I can even get up the nerve to try to be funny, and sometimes I’m actually successful. 😀

Quite a bit of research has been done on the “optimal level of arousal” that will enhance one’s ability to accomplish tasks. I have mastered that optimal level when it comes to presenting.

But somehow “performing” my own creative work… it falls into a different category.

Anxiety is defined as distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune; a state of apprehension and psychic tension. If that “apprehension” is too intense, it can keep us awake at night, make us stutter, blush, freeze up or otherwise embarrass ourselves in certain situations.

For me, “performing” is such a situation. And anticipating performing tends to move me from helpful arousal to unhelpful distress to disabling ruminating and worry pretty darn fast.

Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.*

(*This quote has been attributed to Erma Bombeck and at least a dozen other people. But whoever said it first, they nailed it!)

The first time I “performed,” it was in a second-grade play. I was George Washington’s wife. I don’t remember much past walking through the classroom door in my Martha Washington costume. But I do remember laughter.

It wasn’t supposed to be a funny skit.

In high school, I tried out for several plays with the drama department. I never got a part. The stumbling and blushing might have had something to do with that.

Ever since, I’ve frozen up whenever I was required to “perform.” And yet I can “present.” The latter is more about sharing my expertise. I have much more confidence in that expertise than I do in my performing ability.

So here I was last week, facing this reading.

While I was being introduced… I only look mildly terrified!

I’ve been to some where the author just “read.” And that’s okay. I’d originally intended to do that. But as I went through my first practice round, my words sounded so flat. I decided I didn’t want to just read. I wanted to show emotions through inflection, produce the required deeper timbre for male voices, use accents when called for, etc.

In other words, perform. Aaack!!

The day before the reading, I was way past my optimal level of arousal. I needed to do a little emergency therapy on myself.

I asked myself what helped me control the anxiety when I was presenting, and realized there were four things I now automatically do before a presentation:

1. Acknowledge the anxiety.

I don’t try to stuff it down or ignore it. That doesn’t make it go away. If anything, it gives it more energy. For “presenting” nerves, a short pep talk is usually sufficient, along the lines of—Of course you’re nervous. That’s a good thing. It will keep you on your toes.

For “performing” nerves, I needed to go a little farther. I told a few people close to me how scared I was. It wasn’t to get their reassurance (although they were, of course, reassuring); it was to acknowledge the anxiety and bleed off some of its charge.

2. Draw confidence from past successes.

To Kill A Labrador cover
The book I read from.

I remind myself that I have done many presentations before, and I have always done a decent to downright great job.

Also, I remind myself that the anxiety always goes down once I get started. That’s a biggie!

This time, I had to add to this pep talk that presenting was not as different from performing as I have made it out to be. And the book I was reading from has lots of good reviews. The words were proven to be good, and my ability to “present” them has been proven to be good. So I would be fine. (In psychology lingo, that’s called a reframe. 🙂 )

3. Practice but not over practice.

I’ve learned that two to three complete run-throughs, out loud, is about right for a presentation. Enough practice to smooth out the rough spots and give me confidence. Not so much that the presentation becomes stale.

The second time through my reading practice, the inflections were mostly in the wrong places, my male voice sounded like I had a bad cold, and my Southern accent…well, let’s just say I don’t do accents well.

By the third time, I had the inflections in the right places, my male voice was pretty good, and my accents didn’t totally suck. I did one more run-through, for good measure, and felt a good bit more confident when all of the above still happened.

4. Remind myself that I do not have to be perfect.

And in this case, remind the audience as well. I added these words to my introductory remarks: Now before I start, I’d like to put this caveat out there—I don’t do accents well.

Ahhh, the pressure was off. Now if my accents were sucky, well, I’d said up front that I wasn’t perfect.

And the reality is that most people in an audience aren’t expecting perfection. Indeed, they may find it endearing when we make the occasional mistake. It’s makes us more human and relatable. In this case, my audience knew that I’m a writer, not an actor. They weren’t expecting perfection and I shouldn’t either.

So the moment arrives…

Definitely when anxiety is a good thing...when it lets up! Me, after the reading.
I look happy here because I’m almost to the end of the reading. Yay!

I’ve been introduced, and I give my little opening spiel (no problem, this is presenting after all). I’m borderline, maybe just past my optimal level of anxiety. Okay, definitely past optimal, but still manageable.

I start to read. And thank you Lord, my anxiety level goes down. (Did I mention praying? That always helps too.)

It was still higher than usual, but definitely quite manageable.

So I make it to the question-and-answer period and I’m downright exhilarated. It’s over! I can do Q&A standing on my head (which would make it more interesting, for sure).

And now that I have a successful reading under my belt, I can look back on that the next time and use it to bolster my confidence, to get my nervousness down to the level where anxiety is a good thing!

How about you? Have you discovered your “optimal level of arousal” for most things? What situations tend to push your anxiety over the top?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please sign up via email (upper right sidebar) to follow us, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.


8 Do’s and Don’ts When Portraying Psychopaths and Narcissists (Plus a New Release)

by Kassandra Lamb

This week, I’m hanging out again over at Jami Gold’s place with a follow-up to last week’s post—Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Other Bad Guys and Gals—in which I described psychopaths and narcissists.

Today’s post is aimed at writers, but I think readers will find it interesting as well. It will help you know, while reading a book, whether the author actually did their research, or are they just going along with the common myths and misconceptions about these disturbed individuals.

Plus we have a new release, a collection of short stories (with a  bonus novella) from Kirsten Weiss.

8 Do’s and Don’ts When Portraying Psychopaths and Narcissists

In last week’s post, I talked about various motivations that “normal” people might have for becoming villains, and also described psychopaths and narcissists—how they tend to act and what circumstances create them.

Today, I want to address some of the common mistakes I see some authors making when presenting their antagonists.

So here are some do’s and don’t’s (and a couple of can’s and should’s 🙂 ).

1. Whatever you do, don’t portray a psychopath, or even a narcissist, as having a “normal” childhood. Normal childhoods do not produce adults that are this messed up.

They might contend that their childhood was just fine, but this is either denial on their part, or a lack of understanding of what “normal” really is.

A psychopathic character may very likely have a psychopath for a parent, and that parent, or perhaps both parents, also would likely be abusive. Or one parent may be harsh and overbearing, while the other is weaker and more dependent. There are other possibilities for back stories as well, but keep in mind the two main factors: someone handed down the psychopathic genes (could be a grandparent; the genes can skip a generation) and some seriously bad stuff happened in childhood. (For more on the origins of this disorder, see The Making of a Psychopath.)

2. Don’t have a full-blown psychopath suddenly develop remorse and empathy because they fall in love. First of all, a full-blown psychopath is not capable of love as most people experience it. They may latch onto someone and believe that they love them, but it will be a self-centered, need-based attachment, with little or no concern for the partner’s feelings or needs…READ MORE

And to lighten the mood a bit, here’s Kirsten Weiss’s new release, starring her metaphysical detective’s sidekick, a sentient gargoyle with a French accent!

The Gargoyle Chronicles: A Riga Hayworth Mystery (Riga Hayworth Paranormal Mystery Book 8)

Gargoyle Chronicles book cover

Brigitte is Nevada’s bravest and most brilliant gargoyle – and there’s no better sidekick for metaphysical detective, Riga Hayworth, when it comes to solving supernatural crimes.

In this quirky collection of urban fantasy short stories, Kirsten Weiss takes Brigitte and Riga on a series of twisting adventures and brings readers behind the scenes of the Riga Hayworth paranormal mystery novels.

These thirteen stories include the new Riga Hayworth novella, The Chaotic Detective!

In “Brigitte and the Gambler,” Brigitte must protect the unluckiest man in Nevada. In “Riga and the Spirit of the Cemetery,” the pair stake out a cemetery to catch a serial killer. And in “A Tarot Tale,” we learn Brigitte’s secret history. Traveling through time and the world’s darkest corners, from the bottom of Lake Tahoe to a sinister Vegas theater, there’s no scene too strange for the indefatigable metaphysical detective and her familiar, Brigitte the Gargoyle.

If you like kick-butt heroines, you’ll love Brigitte and Riga!

AMAZON    APPLE    NOOK    KOBO

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kass is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Other Bad Guys and Gals

by Kassandra Lamb

By far, the most popular posts on our site are those discussing psychopaths:  What Is a Psychopath?, Are Psychopaths Born or Made?, and Can Psychopaths Be Cured?

Why are we humans so fascinated by these people who are essentially evil incarnate? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I don’t think it means we like that evil. Perhaps we are so intrigued because it is hard to fathom how some people can end up that way.

Today, I’m hanging out over at Jami Gold’s cyber-home, talking about psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists and other kinds of villains. What are the differences between these labels? How do the people who merit these labels behave? And what causes these pathological patterns of behavior?

Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Other Bad Guys and Gals

One of the toughest tasks we authors face is deciding how to portray our bad guys and gals. Will we make them out to be misguided and conflicted souls, or totally evil psychopaths, or somewhere in between? And exactly what is a psychopath anyway?

Legend of Sleepy Mayfair coverThis question came up for me recently as I finished up a Halloween story in my cozy mystery series. I was tempted to go the conflicted soul route and have my antagonist be at least partially redeemed at the end, but some of the things this antagonist was destined to do, it would take a full-blown psychopath to go there. So that’s the direction I had to take.

Sometimes, like in this case, the plot dictates how evil and lacking in remorse the antagonist must be, but other times, most times really, we may want to have at least some positive traits in our bad guys.

So how to do that and still be true to human nature? (As it really is, not how it is portrayed all too often in movies and TV shows.)

What Is a Psychopath Anyway?

First, let me clarify our terminology. Sociopath and psychopath are essentially the same thing. They are two different words, coined at different points in the history of the mental health field, but referring to the same people … and neither is still officially used in the field today.

The official terminology is now antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), and members of the mental health field will rarely use the terms sociopath or psychopath in any official capacity.

But saying “a person with antisocial personality disorder” is a bit cumbersome, so mental health professionals, especially in conversations with lay people, may unofficially use the word psychopath.

I will come back to the concept of sociopath in a bit.

So again, what is a psychopath exactly, i.e., someone with ASPD? They are noted for several personality traits, the most troublesome being a lack of remorse and inability to feel empathy for others. They engage in antisocial behaviors, such as aggression, stealing, lying, etc., with no concern for who they are harming. Indeed, they often get off on the sense of power that harming others gives them. They also tend to be thrill-seeking and impulsive.

What is a psychopath? A man who smiles for his mugshot.

This psychopath has just been arrested for multiple murders. He is smiling for the mugshot.

They have a very high threshold for stimulation, a fancy way of saying that it takes a lot to make them feel anything. So normal life, that would make most of us quite happy, feels incredibly boring to them. Thus the thrill-seeking. Also, their high threshold for stimulation keeps them from feeling fear in situations that most of us would find quite scary (like being arrested).

This means they will do some pretty outrageous things, either ignoring or rationalizing away the potential negative consequences for themselves. The really smart ones, however, may meticulously plan out their evil deeds, but this lack of fear can often be their downfall.

Antisocial Personality Disorder is caused by a combination of genetics and a harsh, abusive environment growing up. More on this in a moment.

Other Bad Guys and Gals

Sometimes we will want our antagonists to be basically good people who find themselves in bad situations. Maybe something pointed them down the wrong road—an event where they did something bad accidentally, or in self defense, and are now tortured by guilt about it. Maybe something extremely important to them is at risk and therefore they are willing to violate their moral code in order to protect it.

These bad guys and gals will feel guilt regarding their behavior, but they will push it aside as best they can and/or rationalize it, sometimes via displaced anger … READ MORE

And stay tuned. Next week, I will delve further into how authors develop the villains in their stories.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kass is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

To see our Privacy Policy click HERE.

“Working Through” Instead of Pushing Past the Past

by Kassandra Lamb

row of flagsBelieve it or not, this is a Veterans’ Day post. I’ll get back to that.

As is the case with everything from clothing to baby names to the size of one’s car, mental health is affected by trends in our society. During most of my career as a psychotherapist, the trend was to explore one’s past for explanations of one’s neuroses, so that one could heal whatever trauma lurked back there and then move on. (Key words: Move On!)

This trend was fortunate for me, since I discovered that I had a real talent for trauma recovery. It became my specialty, and I walked the path with hundreds of people, over the twenty years of my career, who’d been abused in a variety of ways as kids. I was honored to be a part of helping them heal and blossom into the people they were meant to be. As hard as it was to face the past, it was what they needed to do in order to truly “work through” that past, rather than ignoring it and have it continue to affect their behavior, moods, parenting, relationships, etc. And most of them came out the other end of the process far, far healthier and happier than they had ever been in their lives.

In my parents’ day, the WW II era, the trend was to “buck up” and push past the past. Best I can tell, this had been the attitude, off and on, for generations, until the more recent trend to go through one’s “recovery process.” As a result of this buck-up attitude, the damage done by trauma in people’s pasts continued to not only affect them but their children.

PTSD existed during WW II—it has always existed—but back then it was called shell shock or battle fatigue, and soldiers who suffered from it were at best pitied and at worst scorned as cowards. It wasn’t until the Vietnam War era that the concept of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder developed and new and better treatments were discovered.

WW II era submarine

My husband’s uncle was a Navy seaman in WW II, on a submarine in the Pacific. For decades, the only impact from that experience he would admit to was ringing in his ears, a residual symptom from all the depth charges that went off in the water around his sub. It wasn’t until his sixties that he started talking about his experiences during the war. It became obvious to my husband and myself that he had suffered from PTSD his entire life. But he’d never dealt with it. He didn’t have permission to deal with it. Instead he drank too much and smoked too much (even after he had emphysema) and took his anger at the world out on his sons.

At the time that I was a practicing therapist, I didn’t realize that the shift away from that buck-up attitude was just a trend. I thought our society had actually turned the corner and was beginning to understand what was involved in obtaining and maintaining good mental health.

In the 1990s, sadly, the pendulum swung back toward the old-fashioned attitudes (not all the way back, but dangerously close for a while). Exploring and working through the harmful mistakes one’s parents may have made so that one could forgive those parents for being human—and then most likely have a better relationship with them thereafter—became “parent bashing” and “whining about the past.” Those going through their recovery process were sometimes viewed as “looking for excuses” for their own behavior and choices. (Nothing could be further from the truth; the process, when done right, is all about taking responsibility for oneself and one’s life.)

The pendulum has now swung more toward the middle ground, but I still see or hear statements on social media, pretty much on a weekly basis, along the lines of “stop whining about the past” or “you are not your past, move on” or “stop blaming your parents” (I repeat, recovery from the past is not and never was about parent-bashing).

inside of submarine

Inside of a submarine (photo by by Eteil CC-BY-SA 4.0 International, Wkimedia Commons)

Once Uncle Pete opened the door to the past, a lot came pouring out. Fifty years later, he was finally talking about how terrified that nineteen-year-old seaman and his buddies were, as those depth charges exploded in the water around their submarine, how they feared that sub would become their coffin and perhaps their bodies would never be recovered from the depths of the sea.

Show me a combat veteran and I’ll show you a man or woman who has at least some psychological scar tissue (whether they admit it or not) due to what they have experienced protecting us and our country. One of the best ways we can honor our veterans is to continue to acknowledge what they have gone through emotionally, continue to give them permission to seek help so they can heal those wounds, and to continue to fight for and support funding for mental health services for them.

service dog

(DoD photo by EJ Hersom, CC-BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons))

If you see a veteran sweating and shaking in public from an anxiety attack, know that they came by those anxieties while fighting for your freedoms. Having never been in such a veteran’s shoes, I can’t tell you what would be most helpful to them right then, but turning away and denying that their internal wounds are real is definitely not helpful.

And if you see a healthy-looking woman or a big strapping man with no obvious physical disability being accompanied by a service dog, don’t make assumptions. You have no idea what they are dealing with inside.

Speaking of service dogs (and to lighten the mood!), I have a new novella coming out in the Marcia Banks and Buddy series, a Christmas story.

Here’s the cover! Isn’t it awesome?

A Mayfair Christmas Carol book cover

A Mayfair Christmas Carol, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Christmas Novella

A Christmas extravaganza in Mayfair, Florida, complete with an ice skating rink. What could go wrong?

When excavation for the skating rink uncovers a decades-old skeleton, its secrets threaten more than the town’s Christmas plans. Worried about her friends in her adopted town and feeling responsible since the let’s-attract-more-tourists idea was hers initially, dog trainer Marcia Banks is determined to help her police detective boyfriend solve the mystery—whether he wants her help or not. Perhaps she can wheedle more out of the townspeople than he can.

But will she and her Black Lab, Buddy, be able to keep the ghost of Christmas past from destroying what is left of Mayfair’s founding family, or will her meddling make matters worse?

A Mayfair Christmas Carol will be available for preorder on November 27th (Cyber Monday) and will be released on December 2nd. So stay tuned!

Your thoughts on the trends in mental health? Have you or someone you love ever been on the receiving end of the “buck”up” attitude?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

Are You S.A.D. in the Winter? (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

Since I’m up to my eyeballs in three different editing projects, I figured now would be a good time for an encore presentation of a previous post, and this topic is always worth mentioning this time of year.

I hate talking about depression because, well, it’s depressing. But if you’re one of those folks who gets S.A.D. in the winter, or you know someone who does, you may appreciate this post.

I’m talking about Seasonal Affective Disorder, i.e., folks who start getting more and more fatigued and listless for no apparent reason as the days get shorter and grayer.

If you’ve been told that you must have some deep-seated negative association with winter, forget that BS. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a biologically-based depression. It’s caused by a malfunction in a natural phenomenon that occurs in all of us. This natural phenomenon developed through evolution.

In cave-person times (tough to be politically correct when talking about that era), those folks whose metabolisms slowed down in the winter—so they burned fewer calories—were much more likely to survive until spring. They dragged their butts through the winters. But when spring came, they’d come bouncing out of their caves, full of renewed energy now that the sun was bright.

Much to the annoyance of their skeletal cave-mates who just barely made it through the first hunt.

Photo by Lynn Kelley Author, doing her spring happy dance (from WANA Commons, share-alike license).

I have a mild case of S.A.D. When I lived in Maryland, I would get increasingly grumpy in the fall. I often wouldn’t realize just how depressed I’d became during the winter months, until spring came along and I started feeling sooo much better.

It was kind of like a low-grade, chronic case of the flu—one where you don’t realize just how sick you’ve been until you start to get better.

In the winter time, all of us (thanks to that evolutionary tendency inherited from our more wintertime-lethargic, springtime-energetic cave ancestors) have an increase in the release of the hormone, melatonin, from the pineal gland. This hormone regulates our sleep cycles and promotes deep sleep. The increased melatonin release makes us all a little bit less energetic in the winter.

For those with S.A.D., the melatonin levels increase too much, causing more severe fatigue and lethargy. S.A.D. can range from mild cases, like mine, to people who become severely depressed in the winter.

What can you do about it:

1.  The first thing to do (and this may be enough if you have a mild case) is go outside as much as possible in the winter, especially on sunny days. Because it is not the cold that triggers S.A.D.; it’s the lack of daylight. In my thirties, I started horseback-riding regularly year-round. My S.A.D. got a lot better. It went from a moderate to a mild case.

2.  Light therapy. There are light boxes, and other devices, that simulate sunlight. These are specifically designed to treat S.A.D., although they serve other purposes as well. More on light therapy below.

3.  Move to a southern clime, (or at least winter there, if you’re retired or filthy rich). My S.A.D. is one of the reasons–a major one, in fact–for our move to Florida when my husband and I retired.

More about light therapy boxes:

If you think you have S.A.D. these are a worthwhile purchase. They can change your life. But do your research first to find the best device for your needs. Check out this article from the Mayo Clinic about how to choose a light box. They range from $100 to $400, and unfortunately many insurance policies will not pay for them. (But they will pay for antidepressants that cost that much or more per month or for hospitalization when you’re suicidal. Go figure!)

Light therapy lamp (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

A light therapy box.

Even if you have to pay out of pocket, it’s worth it to get your winters back! Someone asked me, shortly before our move south, why I was moving to Florida. I said, “Because I’m tired of wishing away almost half of my life.” I would start dreading winter by mid-October and wouldn’t really come out of it until some time in April. At that time, light boxes were much more expensive, but looking back, I should have bought one anyway.

Life is too short to spend anymore of it than necessary depressed!

Here are more tips on how to use light therapy effectively from PsychEducation.org.

Does this resonate with you? Do you think you, or someone you know, may have S.A.D.?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

The Mind & Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Part 2

by Kassandra Lamb

PTSD brain

public domain, Wikimedia Commons

There are still some aspects of PTSD that we psychologists can’t fully explain, but there’s a lot that we do now understand. And our more recent discoveries about the brain, that offer those explanations, give me confidence that someday we will have all the explanations.

Here’s a short list of the most common symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:

  1.  Experienced an event that involved a significant threat to the physical integrity of self or others.
  2.  Recurrent and intrusive thoughts or images of the event and/or flashbacks (acting or feeling as if the event was reoccurring).
  3.  Recurrent nightmares, insomnia.
  4.  Intense distress and physiological arousal when exposed to internal or external cues (triggers) that symbolize or resemble some aspect of the event; avoidance of those triggers.
  5.  Anxiety attacks and/or outbursts of anger.
  6.  Hypervigilance and exaggerated startle response.
  7.  Depression and/or irritability (an early symptom of mild to moderate depression).
  8.  Difficulty concentrating, memory problems.
  9.  Numbing of feelings and/or general responsiveness.
  10.  Inability to recall important aspects of the event (dissociative amnesia).
  11.  Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others.

PTSD is the only psychological disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the bible of mental health professionals) where the cause of the disorder is listed as one of its criteria for diagnosis. The person has to experience a traumatic event, and it’s not hard to figure out how something that overwhelming would cause intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and nightmares.

But why #4 and #5? Why such an intense physical and emotional reaction to some minor reminder, that can even lead to a full-blown anxiety attack? Let me repeat the definition of trauma from a previous post: an event so emotionally overwhelming that it cannot be processed emotionally or cognitively at the time that it happens.

The emotions of that event have not yet been processed. They’re stored in the brain in their raw and still quite intense form.

revolving brain

The two hemispheres of the brain color-coded as red; the cerebellum as beige (animated image by -Database Center for Life Science CC-BY-SA-2.1-Japan via Wikimedia Commons)

Also, think back to last week’s post about where things are stored in the brain and what parts of the brain are and are not easily accessed consciously. Negative emotions, mental images, and learned associations are all stored in relatively inaccessible places–in either the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex or the cerebellum.

So it’s difficult sometimes to intentionally bring these memories and emotions back into conscious awareness so that they can be processed and put to rest. But because of learned associations with those “internal and external cues,” it’s all too easy for the intense emotions from the traumatic event to get triggered in day-to-day life.

How does this work? Let me give you an example.

One of my clients experienced a trauma during her childhood while she was standing across the room from a large fan. (For the sake of confidentiality, I won’t go into details.) Later in adulthood, she became phobic of fans. Whenever she saw a moving fan blade, she would have a full-blown, run-screaming-from-the-room anxiety attack. But she had no idea consciously why she had these attacks over something as dumb as a fan (The fan itself had nothing to do with the traumatic event; it was just present in the room.)

The memory of trauma was stored–as images and raw emotions–in her right hemisphere. The learned association (classical conditioning a la Pavlov’s slobbering dogs) between the sight of that fan and those intense emotions was stored in her cerebellum.

The neural impulses that were triggered whenever she saw a fan would look like a big V on the right side of her brain–the image of the fan in the here and now is processed in the right hemisphere, the neural impulse zips down and back to her cerebellum to the learned association, then is flung back up to the right hemisphere to stir up that old memory and its associated feelings.

Voila, anxiety attack. And with little or no awareness in the conscious mind of what was going on (because it tends to be focused mostly on left hemisphere activity, i.e. verbal thoughts).

angry woman

(photo by Lisa Brewster CC-BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

Intense anger can also occur with PTSD. This anger is a leftover feeling from the traumatic event. Whenever we feel threatened, anger is part of our response, even if it is trumped by fear at the time. Later, when we are once again in a safe environment, that anger can surface. And it can come out in ways that make it appear (even to the person feeling it) to be about here-and-now events, when it’s really about the past. This can be very destructive to relationships.

I think #6 and #7 are fairly self-explanatory. If something really scary has taken you by surprise in the past, you’re likely to be more on guard all the time, and startle more easily. And struggling with all this would certainly be depressing.

 

photo by cellar door films, from WANA Commons

photo by cellar door films, from WANA Commons

Up to this point, we have been talking about the intrusive symptoms of PTSD–the ways that this disorder intrudes into and disrupts the person’s life. Numbers 8 through 11 refer to the dissociative symptoms.

The human psyche, like the rest of our internal systems, is designed to help us survive. If something is too emotionally overwhelming, the psyche strives to block it out of awareness.

It may do this by suppressing the feelings, but often it’s not able to just suppress the specific feelings related to the trauma. So all feelings become numbed out to some degree. In the extreme, all or part of the memory of the event may be blocked out. But again this blocking of memory may be more generalized, making it hard to concentrate and remember things in general.

I’ve had several clients who had memory and/or concentration problems that interfered with their schoolwork or jobs. But once certain traumatic events (that their minds were working overtime to suppress) had been processed, they rather suddenly went from C to A students or could now easily remember things (like people’s names) that they’d had great difficulty with in the past.

image by Khaydock, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

image by Khaydock, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

(Note: How the mind blocks out feelings and/or memories is one of those things we don’t yet have an explanation for, but lots of scientific research confirms that this does happen.)

Sometimes that numbing of feelings makes it hard for the person to connect with others. Also, the experiences they’ve had may leave them feeling irrevocably different from most people. Group therapy and support groups are particularly helpful for this symptom, as well as the others.

Besides group support, the most effective therapies for PTSD are the ones that help the person finally process the memories and feelings related to the trauma. Depending on the trauma (and the therapeutic approach used), this can take some time, and it can be painful to relive those feelings. But releasing the emotional charge on those events and putting their meaning into perspective allows the person to move from trauma survivor to getting on with living and thriving.

And here’s an interesting tidbit from the scientific research. In last week’s post, I talked about how memories are stored where they are first processed. Research has found that traumatic memories are stored in the cerebral cortex right next to the emotional parts of the brain (called the limbic system). But after therapy, when those memories have been re-processed, they are now stored further out in the cerebral cortex, away from the emotional limbic system. Concrete proof that the feelings have truly been discharged and the experience of that memory has been changed!

Any thoughts on all this? Do you know someone who suffers from PTSD, or have you struggled with this disorder?

PTSD is on my mind these days because of my new series, About a young woman who trains service dogs for PTSD sufferers. Please take a moment to check out Book 1 in the series, To Kill A Labrador.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

6 Fascinating Things to Understand About the Mind (and PTSD)

by Kassandra Lamb

I started out today with the goal of writing about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then I realized I needed to start elsewhere, with a bit of an explanation of how the human mind really works. So this is Part 1 of a two (maybe three) part series on the mind and PTSD.

Freud

Sigmund Freud (public domain)

Sigmund Freud introduced the concepts of the conscious mind and the unconscious mind in the early 1900s. His theory was quite controversial in its day and for quite a few decades afterwards. But a century after its introduction, most of us accept that there is stuff going on in our brains that we’re not currently aware of consciously.

But what exactly are these things called a conscious or unconscious mind (or the term often used by lay people–the subconscious mind)?

They aren’t really things at all. These aren’t actual places in the physical brain. There is no barrier somewhere in there that separates what is conscious from what is unconscious. Indeed, information flows back and forth between the two states of awareness all the time.

Here are six pieces of information one needs to know to understand the workings of our conscious/unconscious minds. I find them fascinating and hope that you do too.

NUMBER 1: Limited Time and Space
What we think of as our conscious minds, memory experts would call our working memories. Whatever one is thinking about at any given moment is in his/her working memory.

brain scan of working memory at work

The active parts of the brain during working memory tasks. (public domain)

Unfortunately, working memory is a pretty small space. There’s only room for about five to nine “chunks” of information at any given time. And unless one is actively focused on/thinking about a particular piece of info, it will drop out of working memory in about ten seconds or so.

Makes you wonder how we humans ever accomplish anything intellectual, doesn’t it?

NUMBER 2: Attention
If we pay attention to something, we can hold it in working memory (aka our conscious awareness) much longer. And if we are not focused on something (some verbal thought, piece of information, feeling, mental image, etc.), it will fade into the background (i.e., slide back into the unconscious mind), crowded out of working memory by whatever we are paying attention to at that moment.

Most information stored in our brains is available to our conscious minds IF the right memory cue comes along to bring it to the surface. But some things can get buried pretty deep in the unconscious, either due to lack of attention for a long time or to active pushing aside by our defenses (more on this next week).

Have you ever had the experience of something triggering a very old memory and you think, Gee, I haven’t thought about that in years?

NUMBER 3: Connections
The third thing to understand is that our minds automatically make a lot of connections between various things. This is called conditioned learning.

Ivan Pavlov

Personally, I think Ivan’s a lot cuter than Sigmund. (public domain)

Anyone who’s ever taken a psychology class has heard about Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist who first had the Eureka moment regarding conditioning. He was studying the rate of salivation in dogs when presented with food, but after a while, he noticed that the dogs in his lab were salivating before the food was presented. They’d start slobbering in response to the sight of the equipment used to measure their drool, or to the lab attendant’s footsteps coming to get them out of their cages.

The dogs’ brains had learned to associate these other sights and sounds with the fact that they were about to be fed. And a biological phenomenon over which the dogs had no conscious control, salivating, occurred whenever they experienced these cues.

It’s imperative to our survival and sanity that our brains make all these little connections. They make life so much easier.

A moment ago, I scratched my hand without thinking about it. I hadn’t even noticed consciously that the hand had an itch until I was scratching it. And even then I might not have noticed if I hadn’t been casting about for an example of unconscious connections.

Without these learned associations, I wouldn’t have automatically scratched that little itch. The itch would have had to build until it was so annoying that I became consciously aware of it. Then I would have to stop and think and ask myself what has helped make something stop itching in the past. Oh yes, scratching the itchy spot usually helps.

Humans would have long since died off if they had to give that much conscious thought to every little need. There would be no time nor space in their working memories to solve problems or invent things.

NUMBER 4: The Form Our Thoughts Take
Neural impulses are firing in various parts of our brains all the time, but once we develop a fair amount of active language (usually by age 4 or 5), we tend to be most aware of our verbal thoughts. In other words, we consciously think in language most of the time.

Visual images also play a role. We may consciously call up an internal vision of something that happened in the past, or of a place we’re planning to go.

This morning, I accidentally drove past the post office, where I had planned to mail some letters. No problem, I thought as I visualized the big blue mailbox in front of my grocery store. I can mail them at the store. (My next errand.)

wedding day

I can recall being hot but I can’t feel it again consciously.

Memories of other things we’ve sensed may come into our conscious awareness as well, but most likely those thoughts will be verbal. When I think about my wedding day, during one of the hottest Augusts in Maryland’s history, I remember that it was hot. But I don’t actually feel that heat again. Likewise, I can recall that I felt both scared and excited that day. But I’m thinking about those feelings, not actually re-experiencing them.

The visceral sensations associated with memories and previous feelings are not all that accessible via our conscious minds.

Which brings us to…

NUMBER 5: Where Things Are Stored
First, let me point out that information tends to be stored in the part of the brain where it was first processed (or later, where it was re-processed; more on this next time). There’s a long biological explanation for that, which I think we’ll skip. Please just take my word for this little tidbit.

There’s a lot of stuff constantly being processed and stored in various parts of our brains, but to keep this simple I’m going to focus on the functions of three parts of the brain.

For most people (all right-handed ones and some left-handed ones), language functions occur in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex. (The cerebral cortex is the outer layer and the highest level of the brain, where actual rational thinking occurs, among other things.)

The cerebral cortex hard at work.

The cerebral cortex hard at work.

Visual perception (i.e., the processing of what we see) and sound modulation processing (i.e., tone of voice, etc.) occur mostly in the right hemisphere.

So if someone says, “Now don’t you look lovely tonight, my dear,” in a mildly sarcastic voice with a slight sneer on their face, your left hemisphere processes the words themselves. But your right hemisphere sends out a “snark alert” after interpreting the body language and tone.

But here’s the thing–sometimes those interpretations of visual and auditory info don’t make it into the conscious mind, because that information is being processed in the right hemisphere and we are more prone to be aware of our verbal left hemisphere’s thoughts. If at that moment when the subtly snarky comment is being processed, we’re thinking, “Gee, I’m glad I wore this outfit tonight,” that thought may crowd the interpretation of the body language and tone of voice out of conscious awareness.

But they’ve still registered in the right hemisphere. That part of our brain knows we’ve just been dissed, even if our conscious mind is oblivious. (And the memory of that event is mostly stored in the right hemisphere–the images, tone of voice, etc.)

Okay, let’s look at where emotions tend to be processed and stored. Research indicates that our positive emotions–joy, pride, anticipation–tend to be processed mostly in the left hemisphere, while the negative ones–fear, anger, disappointment, sadness–are mostly in the right hemisphere.

Do you see where this is going? You walk away from that person assuming you’ve been complimented when in reality you’re feeling hurt and belittled, and you don’t even know you’re having those feelings, because none of that ever made it into conscious awareness. So you end up being in a bad mood or maybe you pick a fight with your mate, accusing him or her of never appreciating how you look.

And you’re totally oblivious to the fact that your mood and behavior have been affected by the jerk with a smirk on his face.

revolving brain

The two hemispheres of the brain color-coded as red; the cerebellum as beige (animated image by Database Center for Life Science CC-BY-SA-2.1-Japan, Wikimedia Commons)

This brings us to one more part of the brain that is important to understanding the conscious vs. unconscious mind. The cerebellum is a section of the brain at the lower back part of your head. It is not part of the cerebral cortex, so it is completely outside of conscious awareness and pretty much beyond the reach of logical thought processes.

Research indicates that all those learned associations I mentioned earlier are stored in the cerebellum. So they operate outside of conscious awareness.

Which brings us to the part of this that relates to PTSD.

NUMBER 6: Memories, Old Associations and Feelings Can Be Triggered Without Our Conscious Awareness
Let’s go back to the jerk with a smirk for a moment. I didn’t make that example up. That really happened to me. The host of a professional gathering met me at the door with that greeting.

My conscious mind (left hemisphere) was preening at the compliment but unconsciously, my right hemisphere picked up on the implied slam that I usually looked like crap.

As the evening progressed, I found myself feeling more and more insecure and self-conscious–not a normal reaction for me. I’m pretty secure in my ability to get along with people and be well-liked. But that evening, I found myself stumbling in conversations and even becoming physically clumsy.

mirror

For some reason, looking in the mirror often helps me connect with my unconscious mind (photo by Surii, CC-BY 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

I finally took myself off to the ladies’ room to have a little chat with myself. Looking in the mirror, I thought, “What’s wrong with me? I haven’t felt this awkward since middle school.”

Sometimes when you ask your unconscious mind a direct question, it gives a direct answer, if you’re paying attention. I immediately flashed to a mental image of that scene at the door. Only this time I heard the tone and saw the sneer on a conscious level.

A little background info here. I was what my mother politely called a “late bloomer,” and my classmates in middle school, being the delightfully civilized creatures that they were, teased me unmercifully about my nonexistent figure and overall gawky appearance.

The host’s tone and sneer had triggered an association (via my cerebellum) to those middle school memories and the self-conscious feelings from that time in my life (stored in the right hemisphere). All this happened outside of my conscious awareness and created a totally out of character reaction, both in my emotions and behavior.

Knowing the man as I did, I suspected he’d done it on purpose. This guy, a colleague I could barely tolerate, liked to mess with people’s heads.

I slapped on a big smile and went back into the room where the event was being held. Sailing past him, head held high, I paused briefly to thank him for hosting such a successful gathering, with a hint of sarcasm in my tone. He gave me a strange look. I hope that I successfully hid my own smirk.

Next time – how all this explains PTSD symptoms.

How about you? Has anything like that ever happened to you, where you acted out of character without understanding why? Do you find the human mind as fascinating as I do?

Please take a moment to check out my new release, Book 1 in a new series about a young woman who trains service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD.

ToKillALabrador FINALTo Kill A Labrador, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Mystery

Marcia (pronounced Mar-see-a, not Marsha) likes to think of herself as a normal person, even though she has a rather abnormal vocation. She trains service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD. Then the ex-Marine owner of her first trainee is accused of murdering his wife, and Marcia gets sucked into an even more abnormal avocation–amateur sleuth.

Called in to dog-sit the Labrador service dog, Buddy, she’s outraged that his veteran owner is being presumed guilty until proven innocent. With Buddy’s help, she tries to uncover the real killer.

Even after the hunky local sheriff politely tells her to butt out, Marcia keeps poking around. Until the killer finally pokes back.

AMAZON US   AMAZON UK   AMAZON CA   AMAZON AUS   APPLE   KOBO

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

Service Dogs for PTSD (And a New Release)

by Kassandra Lamb

PTSD was my specialty when I was a practicing therapist, and yet I realized recently that I’ve never blogged about it to any great extent. Well, now I have a really good reason for doing so.

Lately I’ve become fascinated by the use of service dogs to help people suffering from this disorder. So much so that I’ve started a new mystery series about a woman who trains these service dogs for combat veterans, and her experiences with a variety of clients. (More on the first release in this series in a bit.)

service dog with his veteran handler

A service dog with his veteran handler (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the diagnosis given when a person suffers symptoms as a result of exposure to a severe trauma. In the general population, the life-time prevalence rate is 8%, which is pretty high. Only phobias, depression and drug abuse are more common.

The list of symptoms is extensive, so I’m just going to hit on the most common ones, and how service dogs can help manage them.

But first let’s define trauma. This is a word that tends to be overused in our society for anything that makes us feel bad. The best definition I’ve ever heard for trauma comes from Lenore Terr, MD in her book, Unchained Memories (I’m paraphrasing her a little here):

A traumatic event is so emotionally overwhelming that the person experiencing it cannot process it cognitively nor emotionally at the time that it happens.

Such events are often sudden and unexpected. They might be a bad car accident, a natural disaster, a criminal assault, being in combat, etc.

PTSD was first identified in combat veterans. It was once called shell shock or battle fatigue. And this group still has one of the highest rates of PTSD, ranging from 12% (Gulf War vets) to 30% (Vietnam-era vets). The rate of PTSD currently in veterans of the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts is 13.8%.

The most common and debilitating of the symptoms are anxiety attacks (triggered by reminders of the trauma), nightmares and flashbacks. Service dogs are trained to pick up on the early stages of these symptoms and interrupt them.

If you have a dog, you know how sensitive they can be to their owner’s moods. When you’re depressed or anxious, they tend to sense it and often try to offer comfort. In service dogs, this natural tendency is enhanced through training and then the dog is taught to do something about it.

I’m still learning about all this myself for my new mystery series, but I know that for nightmares, this may mean waking their handlers by barking or nudging him/her with their noses. The service dogs also provide grounding and a calming effect. Again, if you have a dog (or a cat), you know how soothing it can be to stroke their coat and their silky ears.

hand petting dog

Both human and dog benefit from pets and ear scratches. 🙂 (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

(Research has been done on this aspect of therapy/service dogs in general. Petting and interacting with them lowers heart rate and blood pressure and improves mood.)

With anxiety attacks, the dog often can alert their human that the attack is starting before the person has become consciously aware of the building anxiety. Then s/he can implement strategies (taught by his/her counselor) to nip the attack in the bud.

Service dogs also make it easier for veterans suffering from PTSD to go out in public. Two other PTSD symptoms are hypervigilance and an exaggerated startle response. Scary things have taken this person by surprise before, so now their nervous system is constantly on the alert, which is not good for their mental nor physical health.

There are two things the service dogs are trained to do to help with this hypervigilance. One is called the cover command. Whenever their human stops moving, the dog turns around and faces the way they came. The dog literally has the person’s back. S/he signals the handler if someone is approaching from behind, usually with a perking of their ears or a tail wag.

The dogs are also trained to step between their handler and anyone approaching them. These may sound like small things to most of us, but for those who suffer from PTSD, they can allow the person to relax a good bit more when out and about in the world.

service dog with his handler

public domain, Wikimedia Commons

This and also the strong sense of connection with the dog are particularly helpful for overcoming one of the most subtle and potentially destructive of the symptoms, a sense of isolation from others. People who have experienced extreme events sometimes are left feeling like they are different from others in some irrevocable way; they may even feel like they are “damaged goods.”

Being more comfortable in public and experiencing the unconditional love of a canine companion can go a long way toward overcoming this feeling of otherness, and help the veteran become more integrated into his/her community.

Combat veterans should only feel set apart in a proud way, that they have served their country well and are respected for their sacrifices. Service dogs can help them hold their heads high and get on with their lives.

(Stay tuned for more about this wonderful boon for veterans as I learn more myself.)

And today is the cover reveal for my new series. Another masterpiece by Melinda VanLone. Ta-da!! (Psst! The book is available for pre-order for just $1.99; it goes up after the release.)

ToKillALabrador FINALTo Kill A Labrador, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Mystery

Marcia (pronounced Mar-see-a, not Marsha) likes to think of herself as a normal person, even though she has a rather abnormal vocation. She trains service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD. Then the ex-Marine owner of her first trainee is accused of murdering his wife, and Marcia gets sucked into an even more abnormal avocation–amateur sleuth.

Called in to dog-sit the Labrador service dog, Buddy, she’s outraged that his veteran owner is being presumed guilty until proven innocent. With Buddy’s help, she tries to uncover the real killer.

Even after the hunky local sheriff politely tells her to butt out, Marcia keeps poking around. Until the killer finally pokes back.

AMAZON US  AMAZON UK   AMAZON CA   AMAZON AUS   APPLE   KOBO

AND, I’m having a Facebook party next week to celebrate the new series. Click here to check it out and sign up. There’ll be lots of prizes and fun!!

FB party banner

Are you a combat veteran or do you know one personally? What obstacles have you/they encountered in the reentry-into-civilian-life process?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )