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Five Unhelpful Things You Should Avoid Doing When You Meet Someone That Self-Harms

Five Unhelpful Things You Should Avoid Doing When You Meet Someone That Self-Harms

The anonymous author of this article is a person in the recovery of Major Depressive Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. The views of the author are not those of Promises. 

I have struggled with Self-Harm since I was a kid. Most of us are aware of the tantrum’s kids put up when they are upset. They hit others, drop to the floor, scream, and cry. When I felt overwhelmed by certain emotions, in particular anger or sadness, I would use my hands to hit my head. I had trouble identifying and regulating my emotions. My primary school counsellor told me that I have anger management challenges when I shared with her how I find myself unable to control my anger and would hit myself or the well. Little did I know that these behaviours were early signs and symptoms to what would become a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder given to me in my 20s.

When the word ‘Self-Harm’ is mentioned, most people think about ‘cutting’. A very common and increasingly concerning the mode of coping for persons in distress, more so for young people, even children. Fortunately, I never turned to ‘cutting’ until I was 23. I was actively suicidal from the stress of battling my illness while also trying to excel in my degree. I began with a penknife and one cut. Soon, that one cut led to many and I found myself with a new problem.

I struggle with Self-Harm till this very day; however, I have come a long way with the help of medications and therapy to reduce the frequency of Self-Harm. I have been trying to replace Self-Harm with healthier coping methods such as exercise. 

When I do not wear long sleeves, I end up exposing the scars on my wrists to the world. Generally, I tend to feel ashamed of my scars and it took me some time to embrace them. However, responses from others who have noticed my scars have caused discouragement to me and led me to feel ashamed once again. Ironically, this does not deter me from ‘cutting’; instead, it increases the urge because I develop self-hatred and feel like I deserve to be punished and scarred for my behaviour.

Through this sharing of my experience, I hope to send a message of love to peers who are challenged with Self-Harm, whatever form it might take on. I also want to raise awareness among members of the public on what were some unhelpful words and behaviours people have made towards me, more so out of a lack of awareness rather than a lack of concern. I have learnt to forgive them, and at times have also made the effort to voice my discomfort over their words and actions. Here are five things people have said or done to me that were completely unhelpful, and very likely also to be unhelpful to anyone else challenged with Self-Harm.

1. Touching me without permission
I get it, you notice the scars and you get worried. Without thinking, you grab my arm and go “what is this? Did you cut yourself?”. Leaving the question for later, the very act of grabbing my arm to look at my scars without permission is a big ‘NO’. I am hypersensitive to my scars and it takes much courage for me, even till today, to deliberately lift my arm to show my scars. What may surprise you is that, often, this act comes largely from my own parents and also the professionals I see for help. It is good practice to always ask someone for permission if you wish to touch them, even if it means to give a hug. Because some of us who have challenges with trauma and dissociation are hypersensitive to touch. Hence, do be mindful of those around you and remember: If you do not like people grabbing you to see something (on you), it’s the same and perhaps even more, for those of us learning to accept our scars.

 

2. “Doesn’t it hurt?”
No, it doesn’t. This answer may come as a surprise to many, but when I am under extreme stress and emotional distress, the act of physically inflicting hurt on myself gives me relief. The greater the physical “pain” the greater the relief. For me, this goes for any act of self-harm be it ‘cutting’, punching the wall, or knocking my head against the wall until it starts bleeding. I can only compare this to someone who meets with an accident. The body goes into shock to the point the person may have a broken leg; however, he or she is not feeling any pain. I do not have a formal education in psychology or biology, but I believe my brain “shuts down” the part that feels pain which aids me to self-harm without feeling the actual pain.

 

3. “The scars are so ugly! Why do you enjoy this? Can’t you stop?”
This is a three-part question, but it often comes to me in one line of questioning. First, I want to say that I do not enjoy this. Not at all. I would love to have clear and beautiful skin too. Every time I look down at my arm to see the scars, I feel hatred towards myself. “How could I do this to myself? I am a horrible person”. And yet, I find that I cannot stop. A coping method I have turned to, since childhood, to cope with the traumatic experiences and intense emotions is self-harm. It has become the default and almost automatic ‘subconscious’ act whenever I am in distress.

 

4. “It doesn’t look too bad”
I know that this statement is in direct contrast to the one above. But I have had this said to me by peers and sadly, professionals. There is not much need for me to elaborate on this statement as it is obvious that it is unhelpful. This statement makes me feel like a failure and makes me want to hurt myself even more. The ‘Depression voice’ is always on standby, ready to jump in with a “See, you are useless at even trying to hurt yourself? You call that a cut?! You are a coward. Go and do it again”.

 

5. Taking away or hide the sharp items that I could use to hurt myself
This is probably most relatable to parents and caregivers supporting someone who is challenged with self-harm. It is very natural to become protective and do what it takes to stop your loved one from hurting themselves. “If I take away their means to hurt themselves, then they have no choice but to stop, right?” Unless you tag along with your loved one 24/7, it is very easy to drop by the nearest bookstore to buy a new penknife. More importantly, in doing so, you are taking away the one thing that I have which keeps me from jumping out of my window or overdosing on my pills. Until I learn to safely stop self-harming in therapy, to take it away from me by force, will throw me into an emotional turmoil that will only make me feel worse.

So please, next time you notice someone with scars that look like they might be from the act of cutting one-self, please be gentle and kind to the person. Be extremely mindful of what you say. Perhaps, a guiding thought could be: If you cannot entertain the idea of causing pain to yourself, imagine how much pain the person must be in to be able to cause harm to themselves. When I self-harm, it is a desperate means for me to stay alive. It is a cry for help: for attention, for love, care and non-judgemental support.

If you know a loved one who self harms please do gently prod him/her towards seeking help from a trained professional.


Photo by Chaozzy Lin on Unsplash
Treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Using Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

Treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Using Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

Originating from the Greek word ‘wound’, trauma is used to describe the unwelcome recollection of disturbing experiences – those which can cause one to relive horrifying, spine-chilling moments of a disaster or a tragic event which leaves a deep mark on a person’s life.

Flashbacks can be particularly frightening for people with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a delayed stress reaction, where an individual involuntarily re-experiences the mental and physical responses (i.e emotional, cognitive and behavioural aspects) that accompanied the past trauma. Symptoms can be particularly intrusive, presenting themselves in the form of nightmares and emotional distress upon remembering upsetting memories, and even certain physical reactivity after the exposure to traumatic reminders. Additionally, depending on the severity of one’s condition, the negative alterations in mood and behaviours may vary. Alterations may comprise of (non-exhaustive):

  • Exaggerated self-blame or others for causing the trauma, and a sense of invalidation
  • Decreased interest in activities
  • Increased irritability or aggression
  • Hyper-vigilance, excessive paranoia or heightened startle reaction
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Risky or destructive behaviour (can include the development of maladaptive coping strategies such as substance abuse)
  • A sense of isolation
  • Avoiding trauma-related stimuli / reminders of the traumatic event (including places, activities, people, thoughts or feelings that may bring back unwanted memories).

Unlike what most would perceive, PTSD does not solely affect individuals who have been through a tragic event personally. Apart from the direct exposure to a trauma, people can also develop PTSD through the witnessing of the event, or upon learning that a close one was exposed to the trauma. The indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma in the course of professional duties (such as first responders or paramedics) can also make one prone to developing PTSD. With the effects lasting a lifetime for some individuals, PTSD can be debilitating to one’s mental health, robbing one of joy and freedom.

This is where Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) comes in. DBT is a comprehensive cognitive-behavioural treatment that can provide strong empirical support for individuals struggling with PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI), and others. Intended to help persons with complex issues that place them at high risks of suicide or other self-destructive behaviours, DBT focuses on imparting the knowledge and skills to cope with PTSD and trauma reminders. Moreover, it also aims to assure the generalisation and application of skills learnt to the environment beyond the treatment setting, as well as to ensure that dysfunctional behaviours are not inadvertently reinforced. DBT consists of four stages, with the first two being the standard, essential stages for all clients.

Stage 1: Aiming to Achieve Better Stability and Behavioural Control

It is safe to say that most of the work is done at stage 1, where clients work hand-in-hand with their therapists to target behavioural dyscontrol and to address the chaos within them. When clients first take on DBT, they are often said to be at their lowest point in their lives. As such, stage 1 focuses on achieving control over life-threatening behaviours, therapy-interfering behaviours, as well as other factors that are causing a decline in their quality of life. At the same time, it will serve to increase one’s behavioural skills which can include mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness , emotion regulation, distress tolerance and self-management. In short, this helps the individual to stabilise, and to reduce the frequency of impulsive and emotional outbursts.

However, stage 1 alone is insufficient. Although there are reductions in unwanted behaviours arising from the traumatic experience, these people may not have perfect control over their condition yet, and thus may still feel depressed, and anxious along with other PTSD symptoms.

Stage 2: Normative Emotional Experiencing & Expression

In this stage, trauma-focused treatment is engaged, and past traumatic experiences are safely explored. Therapists will help clients to emotionally process them by approaching (gradually) the avoided trauma-related memories, as well as to help them continue applying the skills learnt in stage 1. With that said, the main objective of stage 2 is to discourage the client from silencing and burying the emotional pain.

Subsequently, this makes it easier for therapists to assess the severity of the problems, the relationships between the issues faced and to determine the hierarchy of needs based on the client’s goals.

Stage 3: Achieving Ordinary Happiness and Tackling Unhappiness

Upon ensuring that the individual is no longer suffocating under the same weight of fear that they once were, stage 3 aims to maintain progress and reasonable goal-setting. This establishes greater stability and addresses any other remaining problems in living. As the clients’ previous undesirable behaviours may have disrupted other aspects of their lives, stage 3 will also focus on improving relationships, and increasing valued daily activities.

Stage 4: Regaining the Capacity for Sustained Joy

Lastly, some people will choose to engage in stage 4 to find comfort in and to work towards spiritual fulfilment. This mainly helps to tackle any feelings of incompleteness as well as to ensure one’s capability to maintain an ongoing capacity for happiness.

DBT is an efficacious prototypic phase-based treatment of PTSD as it is a support-oriented approach to treatment, helping individuals to identify their own strengths and then building upon them to improve the person’s outlook on their life. By improving one’s ability to cultivate emotional regulation, increasing one’s ability to handle challenging emotions, and coping with conflict properly through interpersonal effectiveness, DBT can help traumatised individuals develop invaluable life skills that will allow them to achieve an overall improved quality of life.

 

At Promises, we have psychologists and therapist that are trained to administer DBT. If you or your loved one is struggling with PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI), etc and would like to speak with one of our psychologists or therapists for help, do drop us a line or write to us through the contact us page. 


References:
Zimbardo, P. G., Johnson, R. L., & McCann, V. (2017). Psychology: Core Concepts (8th ed.). Pearson. (Accessed 22/11/2020)
Wagner, A. (2015). Applications of dialectical behaviour therapy to the treatment of trauma-related problems. Portland DBT Institute. https://adaa.org/sites/default/files/Wagner_MC.pdf (Accessed 22/11/2020)

 

How Do You Find The Right Therapist For You

How Do You Find The Right Therapist For You

For many individuals, therapy is a rather intense and personal topic, and it could have taken them a lot of courage to finally seek the help that they need. Keeping this in mind, it is exceptionally crucial that one finds the right therapist, for there’s a pre-existing implicit clinical belief that the level of treatment effectiveness is greatly dependent on the therapist-client fit. Of course, every client would love to be able to – ideally – find that one therapist whom they can fully open up to from the very beginning, but in reality, that may not be the case. At times, it is necessary to assess your relationship with your therapist and evaluate if there’s the good rapport you need for your sessions to be a success. Ultimately, it boils down to whether you feel a steady, reliable and safe connection with the therapist, and whether you are making the progress you hope for. 

To give you some background, studies over the years have shown that the more similar the therapist and the client, the higher the rate of recovery. As an example, an assessment instrument entitled the “Structural Profile Inventory(SPI)”, which measures seven “independent yet interactive” variables (behaviours, affects, sensory imagery, cognition, interpersonal, drugs/biological factors or BASIC-ID), showed that client-therapist similarity on the SPI predicted a better psychotherapy outcome for the client as measured by differences pre- and post-treatment on the Brief Symptom Inventory. Moreover, the demographic similarity between therapist and client facilitates positive perceptions of the relationship in the beginning stages of treatment, enhances commitment to remaining in treatment, and at times can accelerate the amount of improvement experienced by clients. More precisely, it can be said that age, ethnicity, and gender similarity have been associated with positive client perceptions of the treatment relationship. With gender and cultural similarities appearing the most strongly preferred among clients, these domains generally enhance clients’ perceptions of their therapists’ level of understanding and empathy, and as a result, sessions are judged to be more advantageous and worthwhile. However, besides these, there are also other means to assess your “fit” with your therapist, and we’re here to discuss just that.

First and foremost, consider if you are seeking help in the right place. Does the therapist you are looking at specialise in the area you are seeking help for? Before we can even touch on the topic of interpersonal therapist-client fit, it is important for you to take the time to do some research on various therapists’ profiles – in other words, to sift through and read up on their respective areas of expertise. Typically, therapists would have their area(s) of specialisation up on their online profile directories. It would be clearly indicated if they specialise in areas such as substance abuse, family therapy, or even anger management. It goes without saying that, for example, it would be inappropriate to consult a psychologist who specialises in child psychology when you’re clearly looking for someone who can help you with your substance-use addiction. With that said, it is to no one’s benefit for you to rush into therapy blindly. 

Once you have chosen the potential therapist that you are most likely to want to have see you through your road to recovery, another essential question you should ask yourself is whether you are comfortable with their suggested mode of therapy. During consultations, you will have the opportunity to enquire about their recommended techniques or treatment methods that will be explored during your subsequent sessions. If you are uncomfortable with any particular process, giving honest feedback and exploring other methods is always an option. However, at any point, you also have the right to seek other therapists who may be able to help you in other ways that don’t put you in a tight spot. After all, therapy is all about having a safe and comfortable space for you to sort out your difficulties. 

When assessing your interpersonal connection with your therapist, make sure to trust your gut. This way, you’ll also be able to track your progress better and to seek alternative help if required. Some questions you can ask yourself are:

  1. Am I satisfied with the current balance of talking and listening with my therapist?
  2. Is my overall therapy experience safe, warm, and validating? 
  3. Am I fully assured that I’m in a non-judgemental space where I can be fully honest?
  4. How much has the therapist helped me to gain greater insight into my own behaviour and thoughts so far? 
  5. Am I becoming more capable of coping (independently) with stressful or triggering situations over time?
  6. Am I noticing more positive changes in myself, as compared to when I first started therapy?

As mentioned, a major deciding factor should also be on whether you find yourself noticing positive changes in your thought cycles and behaviour after a couple of sessions. At the end of the day, therapy should be about working towards achieving your desired outcome, and should definitely not be limited to weekly venting sessions. Although venting and letting out hard feelings can provide temporary relief, it fosters a client’s dependence on the therapist over time and further reinforces the client’s problems. Therapy should instead help you to feel more confident that you’ve developed the relevant skill sets in order to cope with whatever emotional challenges that brought you to seek therapy in the first place.

Naturally, there’s no guarantee that we will find chemistry with the first therapist we meet. The chemistry between people varies, and sometimes it’s just not possible for us to force it. Thus, it is important to remember that a lack of fit between therapist and client is no one’s fault. However, remember that the ball is in our court, and it is within our control to start looking in the right place for the sake of our own well-being.


 1 Herman, S.M. (1998). The relationship between therapist-client modality similarity and psychotherapy outcome. Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 1998 Winter; 7(1): 56-64.

2 Luborksky, L., Crits-Christoph, P., Alexander, L., Margolis, M., & Cohen, M. (1983). Two Helping alliance methods for predicting outcomes of psychotherapy: A counting signs vs. a global rating method. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 171, 480-491.

3 Jones, E. E., (1978). Effects of race on psychotherapy process and outcome: An exploratory investigation. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15, 226-236.

4 Blase, J. J. (1979). A study of the effects of sec of the client and sex of the therapist on clients’ satisfaction with psychotherapy. Dissertation Abstracts International, 39, 6107B-6108B.

Beutler, L.E., Clarkin, J., Crago, M. and Bergan, J., 1991. Client-therapist matching. Pergamon general psychology series, 162, pp.699-716. (Accessed 30/08/2020)

https://www.counsellingconnection.com/index.php/2019/12/03/assessing-therapist-client-fit/ (Accessed 30/08/2020)

https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/02/14/think-like-a-pope-knowing-when-to-quit/when-to-quit-therapy (Accessed 30/08/2020)

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

Emotional Self-Regulation: The difference between having a controlling behaviour and having self-mastery

Emotional Self-Regulation: The difference between having a controlling behaviour and having self-mastery

For someone who struggles with emotional self-regulation, what does having a “breakthrough” mean? A “breakthrough” could mean coming to a point of realisation and acceptance of one’s mental state, and taking a step forward to change his/her seemingly challenging behaviour. To achieve this, we’ll need to learn the art of self-mastery in order to transform our emotions, attitude and most importantly, our behaviour. 

Let’s not beat about the bush – the most pivotal factor to attaining self-mastery is for the person in question to understand that he/she needs to take charge of his/her own thoughts, emotions and actions. The model of self-mastery dictates that we should acknowledge and accept that we are the ones who are responsible for changing our own life experiences. It is often said that we are each the author of our own lives, in which we live in whatever we create. At any point in time, we should always be open to learning life skills to deal with whatever life presents us, instead of resisting or reacting against it. We should learn to control what happens to us by exercising creative control over the circumstances that we throw ourselves into. Without the will to take charge and make the relevant changes, this “breakthrough” would, unfortunately, be a tough feat.

There is a difference between control and self-mastery, and it is crucial that we internalise this. Oftentimes, people with mental health conditions tend to display controlling behaviours of themselves or others. To put it succinctly, controlling behaviour arises when we compel others to change their behaviour to cater to our own experiences of life. On the contrary, self-mastery means transforming our own behaviour in order to change our own experiences of life. Practising self-mastery implies that we adapt to what life presents us, instead of quitting or getting emotionally erratic when things become challenging. This involves learning new life skills that we have yet to master in order to carry us through frustrating tough times and eliminate controlling behaviour. Controlling or manipulative behaviour often emerges from within ourselves whenever things don’t go as we expect. We victimise ourselves and push the blame towards others or life in general for what was presented so as to “correct” the situation.  The truth is, when you feel that people aren’t showing you the gratitude or appreciation that you deserve, the fault is not with them. In actual fact, you are exhibiting a need to control – to bring your current life experiences to fit your idealised version of it. For individuals with disruptive emotions and impulses, self-mastery may not come easily to them, as a result of the dysfunction of their self-regulation skills. Yet, this doesn’t mean that it is entirely impossible. 

Self-mastery means not allowing our past negative experiences to affect our present and future. It is not easy to undo those past experiences, as they are like deep-seated stains on our clothes that cannot be removed. However, we can choose not to wear those clothes again. It is hard to pick up anything new if our hands are full of burdens. Making peace with our past by letting go, forgiving or even forgetting, will give us space for an untarnished and more objective approach to our present and future. Practising self-mastery also includes being mindful of how you interpret an event in a way that reduces the negative thought or completely replacing it with a positive one. This psychological strategy can be understood by looking at a glass and asking yourself whether it is half full or half empty. Instead of focusing on the dark clouds, we should change our interpretative lens to uncover the silver lining. For example, instead of envying your friend’s success, you should see your own failure as a temporary detour and not a dead end. 

Being mindful of our actions and reactions helps us see them for what they are so as to reign in any impulsive controlling, or difficult behaviour. Truth be told, we have all displayed difficult behaviour at times, which as a result, might have caused us to burn a bridge or two. However, the display of fluctuating emotions may be a regular occurrence for some individuals who may not know how to work towards a “breakthrough”. In this case, only if we are mindful of our behaviours can we be less reactive and better able to reframe our perception of our current experience in a less emotional and upsetting manner. With practice, we will slowly become better at creating that space which will then allow us to choose our reactions rather than just reacting out of habit or impulse. Of course, this, in turn, leads to happier and healthier relationships, ultimately improving our mental state of health as well. 

Last, but not least, a crucial step in developing self-mastery is to start with self-honesty and truthfulness. Do some self-reflection. That is, have an honest assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as owning up to your problems. When you are able to identify your weaknesses, you will be able to direct yourself better to what needs to be worked on and the relevant life skills you’ll need to master in order to find a breakthrough. In contrast, focusing on your strengths will also help boost your self-confidence, and act as a motivation for you to work towards making the change you need (i.e., self-improvement). If it helps, attend a peer support group. Peer support groups are built on shared personal experiences and empathy – it focuses on one’s strengths and helps you work towards your mental health and happiness goals. At the same time, it comforts you that you aren’t on the road to mental resilience and self-mastery alone and that there are many out there like you. Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help too, for it could very well be the push you need to help you achieve the breakthrough you desire.

 


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Tanya Curtis, Control vs Self-Mastery: A Key to Lasting Change for a Person with a Mental Illness, video recording, Mental Health Academy
<https://www.mentalhealthacademy.co.uk/dashboard/catalogue/control-vs-self-mastery-a-key-to-lasting-change-for-a-person-with-a-mental-illness/video> (Accessed 16/06/2020)

 

An Interview with Dr Mark Toh: The Effects of COVID-19 On Dreams

An Interview with Dr Mark Toh: The Effects of COVID-19 On Dreams

 

Amrita Kaur, a journalist from the Straits times interviewed Dr Mark Toh, Consultant Clinical Psychologist about the effects of COVID-19 on dreams. Parts of the following interview was published in the Straits Times on 13 July 2020. 

 

Here’s the interview in full: 

  1. Dr Deirde Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical’s department of psychiatry, who has studied the dreams of survivors of the Sept 11 attacks, said people tend to have an increase of bizarre, emotional and vivid dreams after crises (such as Covid-19). Can you share your thoughts on why you think this happens?
  2. Some people dream about sanitisers, face masks and toilet paper. Why such particular items? 
  3. What exactly is happening in our subconscious (when we sleep) during periods of stress? How does that manifest in our dreams?
  4. Will such dreams affect the quality of one’s sleep? Why or why not? 


Answers
:
Nearly all trauma survivors experience some type of trouble sleeping such as insomnia. But for anywhere from half to three-quarters of people, it is vivid dreams that make it difficult to sleep soundly. Having flashbacks to traumatic events, also called re-experiencing, is a hallmark symptom of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). For half of PTSD patients, those flashbacks occur at night while sleeping. Some people have nightmares that are exact replays of the trauma that they experienced, and these are called “replicative nightmares.” Others have nightmares that are related to the trauma indirectly or symbolically. Trauma and stress can disrupt your sleep in many ways. It can set off your body’s fight-or-flight response, and ramp up production of neurotransmitters that keep you awake and vigilant when it is time to sleep. 

The items sanitizers, face masks or toilet paper may be dreamt about because they represent perceived solutions to address the threat of being harmed by Covid-19. Our psyche (our human mind or soul where we deliberate consciously and unconsciously –judge, think, feel– in relation to our sense of self and our sense of reality) is highly concerned about safety and security and therefore, when a threat is perceived, we consciously and unconsciously move in search for items or avenues that promote and restore our sense of safety. 

There are several theories about the role of dreams in our sleep. In the event of stress, it suggests that our unconscious is working overtime in search for safety or to be settled with what may be traumatic, distressing or are reasons for anxiety. Stress is a disruption to our equilibrium and is communicated as an emotional and physiological alert. Because our psyche does not like to be unsettled or be disturbed, we tend to work consciously and unconsciously to settle what may be threatening or disturbing towards safety.

Yes. Trauma and stress can disrupt your sleep in many ways. It can set off your body’s fight-or-flight response, and ramp up production of neurotransmitters that keep you awake and vigilant when it is time to sleep.

 

  1. Dr Rose Gibson, a research officer at the Sleep/Wake Research Centre at Massey University in New Zealand, said that while some dreams can be confusing or distressing, dreaming is normal and considered helpful in processing our waking situation. Can you comment on this?

Answer:
Dr. Gibson is correct. Dreams are a normal part of our sleep. Dreams have been described as hallucinations (defined by Oxford as “an experience involving the apparent perception of something not present”) during certain stages of sleep. They are strongest during REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep, one of the four stages of sleep. But dreams are thought to have other functions as well: 

    • Dreams are sometimes engaged in settling what is unsettling or disturbing as already mentioned,
    • Since the psyche is particularly concerned about safety and security in the daytime, dreams can represent an unconscious search to address the threat in overtime when sleep is intended. One of the areas of the brain that is most active during dreaming is the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain associated with the survival instinct and the fight-or-flight response. Because the logical part of the brain is less in play in contrast to the emotional during dreaming. Nightmares may reflect attempts to address our fears or to prepare to deal with anticipated threats in waking life.
    • Dreaming may reflect our muse as it facilitates our creative tendencies. A person can be awakened by great ideas for a movie or song that has been deliberated on during awake hours. The awake period could also involve psychological defenses at play such as denial or suppression that prevent certain ideas from emerging. In dreaming, these filters are not as active so that suppressed ideas or fears often emerge then.
    • Besides sorting through complicated and unresolved events or anticipated fears, dreams are also suspected in aiding the storage of important memories and getting rid of unimportant memories as a part of our need to process information triggered during the awake period. Learning new information and being able to sleep on it facilitates recall of lessons learned.
       

 

  1. Do you think extra sleep, or lack of sleep, might contribute to vivid dreams related to Covid-19?

Answer:
Dreams can also be affected by certain health conditions that result in sleep deprivation. Sleeping issues that cause a lack of sleep, such as insomnia and narcolepsy, can increase one’s risk of experiencing vivid dreams. Changes to your sleep schedule, such as flying overseas (and going to sleep at a different time) or getting less sleep than usual, can also increase this risk. Those who are sleep-deprived can lead to parts of the brain being much more active so when they finally slip into REM sleep they are likely to have more vivid dreams. They are also more likely to recall their dreams too.

 

  1. It seems that people are having better memory of their dreams now (An ongoing study at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France found that “the coronavirus pandemic has caused a 35 per cent increase in dream recall among participants, with respondents reporting 15 per cent more negative dreams than usual). Why are people having a better memory of their dreams?

Answer:
The brain during sleep is involved in information processing where unnecessary information is eliminated and important short-term memories are moved into our long-term memories, and dreams occur during this process. As such, some people may recall dreams with a difference in their ability to memorize things in general. Also, memory is affected by recall. Memories that are repeated as perhaps a sign of preoccupation or paranoia are more accessible. 

 

  1. Have you noticed any of your patients having problems with sleeping specifically related to Covid-19? For example, if they are worried about the number of community cases the next day and this worry keeps them up at night, they fear for their jobs, etc? 

Answer:
Difficulty sleeping because of Covid-19 concerns is not a common complaint among my patients. This may be suggested by them not feeling threatened by the risk of infection, or that they feel they are coping with this threat, or that they are not in jobs or situations that are being threatened by the pandemic. 

 

  1. Have any of your patients experienced any dreams related to coronavirus and such fears? If so, can you share what some of such dreams are? 

Answer:
None of my patients have reported dreams related to the coronavirus to me. Those who are more likely to be reactive to the coronavirus are probably those who are vulnerable to anxiety such as those who are obsessive-compulsive in nature.

 

  1. According to National Geographic, Italian researchers found that people stuck in lockdown experienced nightmares that bear similarities with someone going through post-traumatic stress disorder. Can you comment on this? 

Answer:
The hallmark symptoms of PTSD are exposure to a traumatic event; re-experiencing the event or intrusive symptoms (flashbacks); avoidance of people, places, or things that serve as a reminder of the trauma; negative mood and thoughts associated with the trauma; and hyper-vigilance. Trauma is experienced when the perceived threat is overwhelming or life-threatening that leaves a victim feeling numb, helpless, disconnected and having difficulty trusting. Since this article in question is reported by researchers from a particular country (Italian), one has to question the scope of the study. Is the study about the traumatic response to the lockdown found across different countries or is it reported specific to a particular region or town in Italy? It is unclear if the reported trauma is in response to the lockdown itself (which is usually activated as a preventive measure to protect against infection), or that the attempt at lockdown is seen as inadequate because the infection rate is already at such high numbers so that the lockdown is perceived as irrelevant or ineffective. As such, there may be the existence of an extraneous variable to explain how those in lockdown could have experienced this action alone as traumatic. At the same time, once the specific group is defined in the study, the results of the study may be explained by a high and pre-existing inter-dependency on this community to cope together as the norm such that restricting communal support disrupts their coping. Subsequently, imposing personal isolation, which is otherwise highly unusual, is therefore experienced as traumatic. The people in this community feel cut off from a regular method of coping which relies on their dependence on each other.

 

  1. Is there anything people can do to try to control what they dream about? If so, what?

Answer:
This depends on whether they view these dreams as distressing. If trauma is indicated or they could represent disturbing experiences in their past or their present, or difficulties at coping at their anticipated future, I would suggest they seek professional help from those familiar with psychodynamic psychotherapy. Dreams are problematic usually only if they are associated with nightmares or sleep disruption. To sleep better and avoid nightmares or sleep that is not restful, the above factors should be reviewed. In particular: (a) ensure that there is adequate sleep scheduled to avoid sleep deprivation, (b) observe their diet since some studies have found that meals high in sugar, spicy foods, or high in starch, too much alcohol, eating excessively and late are associated with higher reports of nightmares, (c) address reasons for anxiety, (d) address unsettled emotional issues such as trauma or abuse, and (e) develop good sleep hygiene practices. Additional steps can include practising mental relaxation before sleep, recording their anxieties somewhere so that they can resume the next day to avoid rumination of what is worrying when sleep is planned or plan for guidance or support to address the worrying on the next day so they can relax at present.

 

  1. There are some people who have difficulty sleeping due to anxiety about the economy, they worry about losing their jobs and the future. How common can this be, and what can people do to relax their mind before they sleep? Now that people are working from home, some are taking naps in the day. Should this be encouraged? Why or why not? Does this make it harder for them to sleep at night? 

Answer:
For those who tend to have difficulty sleeping because of worries about employment or their future, insomnia is a common occurrence. Some even have chronic insomnia. Various studies worldwide have shown the prevalence of insomnia in 10%–30% of the population, some even as high as 50%–60%. It is common in older adults, females, and people with medical and mental ill health. The consequences of insomnia are significant, such as depression, impaired work performance, work-related/motor vehicle accidents, and overall poor quality of life. The reasons behind insomnia are varied. If the problem of sleep is persistent, they should consult psychiatrists or clinical psychologists. If they are anxious, sleep disruption is a common symptom of poor coping. As such, they should see a mental health professional. But if the question is how to promote good sleep for the average person where the sleeping problem is only recent, consider developing good sleep hygiene practices as a start. The following practices are recommended by the Sleep Foundation:

    • Limit daytime naps to 30 minutes
    • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime.
    • Exercise to promote good quality sleep.
    • Steer clear of food that can be disruptive right before sleep.
    • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. 
    • Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine. 
    • Make sure that the sleep environment is pleasant.

Since more people are working from home, they should limit their nap time. Their difficulty sleeping at night may be indicative that if they had naps during the day, their nap times may have become excessive. The objectives of those working at home should ensure that they maintain a healthy work-life balance. It is important at this time of disruption and uncertainty over a pandemic that we establish goals to maintain good physical and mental health consistent with building our resilience to cope with the unrelenting demands of living effectively in the present and in the future.


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