podcast for internal medicine

An Inside Look At Eating Disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, & Orthorexia

On this week’s episode of the podcast, I interviewed Sarah Bradley, a competitive runner who has worked her way through a personal struggle with anorexia, bulimia and orthorexia.  

Sarah Bradley and David Puder, MD

What is an eating disorder? 

One of the most important things about anorexia and bulimia is understanding that they are caused by a complex interplay of genetics, epigenetics, early development, and current stressors. They can lead to dangerous outcomes because of how the eating disorder changes both the body and the brain. Many therapists and nutritionists, as you’ll hear in my conversation with Sarah Bradley, don’t treat from multiple angles, and often lack empathy into this condition.

There are three main types of eating disorders we will cover here:

  • Anorexia is the practice of cutting calories to an extreme deficit or refusing to eat. 

  • Bulimia involves purging, or vomiting, the food that has been eaten. 

  • Orthorexia is a fixation and obsession on eating healthy food (like only eating green vegetables with lemon juice). 

Statistics:

  • Anorexia traditionally lasts for an average of eight years.

  • Bulimia traditionally lasts for an average of five years

  • Approximately 46% of anorexia patients fully recover, 33% improve, and 20% remain chronically ill. 

  • Approximately 45% of those with bulimia make a full recovery, 27% improve, and 23% continue to suffer.

Symptoms:

In a future episode, I will go into details like the DSM V diagnosis of anorexia or bulimia. For this episode, we wanted to keep it more practical. 

A patient with anorexia will desire food but choose not to eat it (unlike depression, in which the patient does not desire food). A patient with bulimia vomits their food after consumption, which can cause significant electrolyte abnormalities, seizures, and potential death. 

Treating patients with eating disorders

Having empathy towards someone with eating disorders can be difficult if you are approaching it from your own experience (or lack of experience). If you are not careful, as a psychiatrist or therapist, you can actually make things worse. And if you suggest a certain diet to aid in recovery, you can push a patient into orthorexia. 

The mortality of anorexia and bulimia is considerable, which is why my practice often gets patients into an eating disorder day treatment program.  

In this episode we talked about what not to say. In particular, we talked about not saying things like “you have a great body, why do you want to lose weight?” Or a dietitian who told Bradley, “We will only talk about food, not emotions,” which assumes that eating disorders are a physical, and not emotional, problem.  

When we looked at online chat forums to see how patients experienced their doctors when they discussed their eating disorders, these are some comments we found:

“Went to a dr to try to get referred to an Ed therapist I think last year? My bmi was 15, and I was told by the dr "you obviously don't need help. It's not like you need inpatient. You aren't at a weight that I feel it would be appropriate for me to refer you to someone. If you want to, you can go to the er for a voluntary psych hold." I was so humiliated that I just nodded and left.”

“When my bulimia was at its worst, on the very first appointment, and right in front of my dad, the guy said, "I'm going to put you on Wellbutrin. You don't binge and purge right? Like eat and make yourself throw up." I said no because I was right in front of my dad. So the therapist said, "oh, yeah I didn't think so. You aren't overweight like people with bulimia, because it doesn't cause weight loss. I just have to ask. Also at the very beginning of my ED, my school counsellor dismissed me when I said I was trying to stop eating, because I wasn't a girl, extremely underweight, or actually not eating. I'm still pissed about it.”

“I told my therapist about my starving and then b/p-ing cycle a couple of sessions back, and then she told me after a while "do you still do your vomiting thing?" and I told her, "yeah, but maybe just 2 or 3 times a week now" and she's like "oh okay, at least that's better" and then proceeded to change the topic into something other than my "bad eating habits". Needless to say, I've never been diagnosed and I feel like my disorder isn't real.”

“An actual medical doctor said, after I told her how much weight I had lost by eating almost nothing, "At least you had the weight to lose.  Let's get you on some antidepressants..." Um... ok, yeah, NO. I also told her I thought 88 lbs was a nice weight, I'm 5'2, she said that was much too low.  She then added that when she immigrated to America, she weighed 88 lbs, but she is shorter. Like, WTF??”

Overall, mental health professionals need to do research into understanding the disorder and be empathic when responding to their patients. 

Creating mental separation from the disorder 

Although behaviors associated with the eating disorder are carried out by the patient, the confusion that the disorder is an aspect of their self (rather than a disorder or illness) can make it difficult for them to detach sufficiently from the disorder. Being able to detach from the disorder means that they can evaluate the role of the eating disorder in their life: both the positive and negative aspects.

Here are some good examples from an online eating disorder toolkit to help you, as a therapist, be able to help your patients differentiate between their eating disorder and themselves: 

“We’ve spoken about the ways anorexia can seem like a best friend to you. I wonder if you can see any ways in which the anorexia is making life harder for you?”

“Our job is to give you back some control over the Eating Disorder and keep you healthy no matter what.”

“You are here because the Eating Disorder has gone too far and made staying healthy impossible for you.” 

Eating Disorder Patients’ Interpretations of Therapists’ Bodies

Clients evaluate their therapists’ body size and speculate on their relationship with food. This can determine what impact this might have on the therapeutic process. 

According to this article, three main themes emerged during analysis of how patients feel about their therapists’ bodies: 

1. They automatically look at the therapist’s body. 

2. They believe thinner therapists can help them more than overweight therapists. Still, “healthy looking” was as perceived better able to help than thin or overweight therapists. 

3. The patients were less likely to take advice or help from therapists they viewed as overweight or too thin. 

Delusional thinking with eating disorders:

In patients suffering from anorexia nervosa, disturbances of thought content may vary in severity depending on how much insight is preserved, ranging from obsessions to full-blown delusions. They often can believe food is “poisoned, contaminated, still alive or ready to attack; food may be animalized or described as a poison.” 

They can even believe that their body is “under the influence of external forces, dissolving or being under attack; some patients fear that the contents of their body might spill outside or have a sense of all the body fat going down to their stomach. Delusions of sinfulness may emerge...There are patients who complain about hearing the ‘voice of anorexia’ or a voice that forbids them to eat.”  

Sarah Bradley recounts some of her experiences:

  • “I have major anxiety when being in close proximity to people with obesity while eating: I honestly worry in some nearly magical way, their eating will make me eat and potentially overeat. Often if I am exposed to someone with obesity eating, I cannot eat the rest of the day.”

  • “Not letting myself sit, sleep, or rest for too long out of fear that the lack of energy expenditure will cause automatic weight gain.”

  • “Being incredibly paranoid about the risk of weight gain from psychiatric medications, even if little to no risk exists for a certain drug. Before adhering to my current medications of zoloft, lamictal, and trazodone, I had to have several long conversations with my psychiatrist to get reassurance even though I knew those particular drugs held no serious risk for weight gain. Historically, my paranoia had been so bad, I would lie about taking medication or stop seeing my doctor altogether.”

  • “Thinking about food all day and thinking about my body all day. Literally, having these constant ruminations about what I could or could not eat and how large I must look to the point that I was falling behind in school and couldn’t hold a social conversation for too long.”

Severe clinical cases of eating disorders

Often, in severe/chronic cases of eating disorders, clinicians do not even use psychotherapy until there has been a substantial improvement in nutritional standing and the patient has reached a healthier weight. One’s cognitive functioning is also very low after having entered starvation, and they are often very focused on food beyond a point of interest that comes with an eating disorder, but because the body is crying out for energy.

In these severe cases, sometimes the patient is not willing to make progress and is defiant towards weight gain or diet change, so they may need to be hospitalized. 

Even though this isn’t specific to psychotherapy, it is vital to recovery to reach a healthier diet and body weight (even if someone is overweight who is malnourished and has been starving themselves for rapid weight loss). And so, another big part of how to stop obsessing about food is the ability to achieve a better diet and healthier weight. For some, this means gaining weight. For some, this means maintaining weight. For some, this may mean ceasing binging and/or purging that can result in weight maintenance/weight loss.

What works to help patients with eating disorders?

In Sarah’s experience, here’s how she stopped thinking about food, and therefore is “90% better” after her long-standing eating disorder.:

  • Gaining weight, helped her stop thinking about food. 

  • Finding other passions in life helped her focus future goals and aspirations.

  • Finding a good therapist that understood her and was open to learn about her perspective rather than putting on their own perspective (empathy).

  • Taking and sticking with a medication to treat comorbid depression.  

  • Creating a stronger network of friends.

As therapists, we can help our patients accomplish all of these things through empathic listening and encouraging to move towards healthy connections. 








The Process of Grief

On today’s episode of the podcast, I am interviewing Maris Loeffler, LMFT. We cover different types of grief (acute, complicated, traumatic, etc.), attachment styles in relation to grief, and  some helpful things to consider in caring for a grieving patient as a mental health provider.   

An Overview of Grief 

Joseph Wong (MS3), Tyler Rigdon (MS2), David Puder M.D.

This article complements the above podcast, with some research findings we did not talk about in detail, and is written for mental health professionals to understand some of the research behind grief work.

Grief is the multifaceted response—emotional, behavioral, social—to a loss or major life adjustment (like a divorce, loss of a job, etc.). Bereavement is the process of grieving specific to the loss of affection or bond to a person or animal (Parkes & Prigerson, 2013; Shear, Ghesquiere & Glickman, 2013; Shear, 2015). 

Some of the signs and symptoms of grief are: 

  • somatic symptoms (e.g. choking or tightness in the throat, abdominal pain or feeling of emptiness, chest pain) 

  • physiological changes (e.g. increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased cortisol levels)

  • sleep disruption and changes in mood (e.g. dysphoria, anxiety, depression, anger) 

(Buckley et al., 2012; Lindemann, 1944; O’Connor, Wellisch, Stanton, Olmstead & Irwin, 2012; Shear & Skritskaya, 2012; Shear, 2015; Zisook & Kendler, 2007

Medical and psychiatric complications can also arise due to grief and include:

Acute grief begins after a person has learned of the passing of a loved one (Shear, 2015). During acute grief, a person may experience immense sadness, yearning for the deceased, and persistent thoughts of the decreased (Maciejewski, Zhang, Block & Prigerson, 2007; Shear, 2015). Auditory and visual hallucinations are benign hallucinations commonly found in acute grief and involve the person seeing, talking to or hearing the voice of the deceased (Grimby, 1993). 

The process of grief has long been seen through the lens of Kubler-Ross’ 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Now, however, it is now more commonly understood that the process of grief is not as linear or predictable as originally posited by Kubler-Ross, and that there may not even be stages of grief that a person has to pass through in their grieving process (Maciejewski, Zhang, Block & Prigerson, 2007; Stroebe, Schut & Boerner, 2017). 

Most bereaved individuals are able to progress from acute grief to integrated grief, in which the individual has adapted to their grief and is able to once again enjoy daily life and activities (Shear & Mulhare, 2008; Shear, Ghesquiere & Glickman, 2013). About 6 months after the loss of the decreased, negative grief indicators (e.g. disbelief, yearning, anger) are in decline (Maciejewski, Zhang, Block & Prigerson, 2007). Thus, this transition from acute grief to integrated grief means that the individual only experiences grief as a temporary period rather than a prolonged chronic state. However, approximately 10% to 20% of people who lose a romantic partner do not transition from acute grief to integrated grief and instead transition to complicated grief (prolonged grief disorder) where the individual experiences grief for a longer period of time than expected to the point where it causes impairment in daily functioning (Bonanno & Kaltman, 2001; Shear, 2015). 

Complicated grief is more common in parents who have lost children, when the loss of the decreased is sudden or violent (e.g. suicide, homicide, accident), and is less common after an expected loss (e.g. chronic illness) (Meert et al., 2011; Mitchell, Kim, Prigerson & Mortimer, 2005; Nakajima, Masaya, Akemi, & Takako, 2012; van Denderen, de Keijser, Kleen & Boelen, 2015; Young et al., 2012). Complicated grief has been found to be most prevalent in women above 60 years old (Kersting, Brähler, Glaesmer, & Wagner, 2011). 

Complications of complicated grief include:

  •  sleep disturbances

  • suicidal ideation

  • substance use disorders

  • decreased immune function

  • increased risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer (Buckley et al., 2012; Shear, 2015). 

Like acute grief, the symptoms of complicated grief involve intense yearning for the decreased and persistent sadness. In complicated grief, these symptoms are accompanied by the fact that the individual is unable to accept the reality of the death of the deceased, and has intrusive thoughts or images of the deceased, and excessive ruminations and recurring negative emotions (e.g. anger, guilt, bitterness) surrounding the death Shear & Mulhare, 2008; Shear, 2015; Simon, 2012). Individuals with complicated grief commonly avoid situations, events or places that remind them of their loss and are fixated by viewing, touching or smelling momentos left behind by the decreased (Shear, 2015). 

Attachment Styles and Grief 

Attachment theory was first established by Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s and 70s and applied to children with 4 attachment styles in children being classified: 

In the 1980s, attachment theory was extended to adults and 4 attachment styles were also classified: 

The anxious attachment style reflects worry concerning the availability of the attachment figure, while the avoidant attachment style reflects a tendency to keep at arm’s length from attachment figures (Shear & Shair, 2005). 

Secure attachment style is characterized by low anxiety and low avoidance. Anxious-preoccupied is characterized by high anxiety and low avoidance, dismissive-avoidant is characterized by low anxiety and high avoidance and fearful-avoidant is characterized by high anxiety and high avoidance (Shear & Shair, 2005). 

It has been well-documented that bereaved individuals with insecure attachment styles are at risk for increased grief symptoms. Insecure attachment styles have been found to put spouses of terminally ill patients at greater risk for traumatic grief symptoms (Van Doorn, Kasl, Beery, Jacobs & Prigerson, 1998). Individuals with an anxious ambivalent attachment style that lost a close friend or family member in the previous year experienced greater levels of grief and depression, while individuals with an avoidant attachment style experienced greater somatic symptoms in comparison to individuals with secure attachment styles (Fraley and Bonnano, 2004; Wayment & Vierthaler, 2002).

Below are the prototypic behaviors and characteristics of the adult attachment styles with respect to grief. 

Anxious Attachment

Typically occupied with fear of abandonment, exhibits hypervigilance and seeking behaviors. Afraid that their partner might leave them. 

Patients with anxious attachment styles latch onto items or articles of clothing; however, people can normally hold onto momentos as part of the grieving process, so further investigation should be done to differentiate the two. 

Avoidant Attachment

Fearful of intimacy and emotional engagement. Prefers to process things alone. They withdraw with signs of emotional neediness from partner. 

How does this attachment style impact the grieving process and hinder healing? 

  • Have trouble with acknowledging the depth/importance of the relationship. 

  • Don’t like to be vulnerable in the relationship.  

  • Avoid fully looking within themselves and processing their grief response.  

  • By pushing down their emotions, it makes it hard to get through the grief process ,as when you grieve, you need to feel emotions, and it makes it difficult to process emotions if you’re not acknowledging them. 

    • Maris’ approach is to work with the body if they can’t put words to what they’re feeling as part of the grief process. People with avoidant attachment styles have more somatic symptoms (headaches, stomachaches), so putting that into words for them can help them better understand their grief process. 

Disorganized Attachment

Kids with disorganized attachment have no organized way of regaining connection. They later will have higher rates of dissociation. Patients with high amounts of dissociation will need to feel grounded and present to process through things, and learning when someone is dissociating will be helpful to help them progress in their emotional development. I (Dr. Puder) often look for microexpressions in the midst of someone dissociating to help me know what emotions are felt but not being allowed to experience.

Other Considerations 

The following are some of Maris’ considerations that have helped her in approaching a patient with grief. 

  • One of Maris’ grounding principles is centered around, “When I bring a person into the room, I need to understand what they need.” This mindset helps her to just let the client speak their story for the first few sessions, after which she will begin formulating her own ideas about the client’s grieving process. In a non-confrontational manner, she will ask questions like the following to dig deeper. 

    • “I’m noticing that it’s difficult for you to talk about the funeral.” 

    • “It feels like you get angry when you notice how your brother is handling the situation.”

  • Realize a patient’s grief hits them after the funeral service. After the deceased has passed and before the funeral, usually family members and friends gather to give support to the grieving. However, after the funeral, those people are no longer there and the patient is left alone. Consider this timeline when helping the patient through their grieving process. 

  • Sometimes it’s difficult to determine the fine line between supporting a friend with grief and exhausting them with your presence. So what are the things to consider in comforting a friend with grief? 

    • Firstly, it depends on your relationship with the person

    • Second, ask them what would be most helpful for them at the moment

      • Right after a loss, everyone comes around, but sometimes people want to be left alone and it can be exhausting for the person in question to feel overburdened with emotional comfort. 

      • Sometimes it’s valuable to check in and reach out. That alone can make an impact, even if you can’t find the right words to comfort the person.

  • The importance of personally going through therapy cannot be understated in this line of work. Even therapists need therapists, and being a patient can help you become a better therapist by allowing you that first-person perspective. 

  • Some patients may be doing really well with therapy for a period of time, but encounter roadblocks associated with life events without the presence of the decreased (first Christmas or the first anniversary after the loss of their loved one). The patient may need to revisit their grief once again, and that’s perfectly fine—grieving is not linear, nor is it the same for everyone. 

  • Every patient has their own way of talking about and processing their grief. Certain patients may even repeat the process of the passing of the decreased over and over. While it may be repetitive to hear the same thing every session, allowing the patient to talk about their experience helps the patient with their process of grieving.

  • Some patients might feel a lot of guilt towards themselves while grieving. Normalize the feeling of guilt, express the difficulty in feeling things, and help them look at the guilt with less judgement. 

  • Some patients may even feel anger towards the deceased, which they might have difficulty acknowledging or getting it out. It is common for people to remember the decreased in terms of their good aspects or attributes, but that may not always be the case for the patient. Allow them the space and time to express their negative emotions, which may not always be apparent on the surface in their grieving process. 


Maybe at some point, you have thought to yourself that you don’t have the ability to process grief with your patients or that it simply isn’t your strong suit. I hope that some of the points brought up in this podcast will be helpful in your own practice and journey as a mental health provider. 

Connect with Maris Loeffler, LMFT on Instagram, Linked In, Psychology Today



Clozapine for Treatment Resistant Schizophrenia

On today’s episode of the podcast, Dr. Cummings and I talk about clozapine, a medication that treats schizophrenia.

Mikayla Cho B.A., Michael Cummings, M.D., David Puder, M.D.

What is clozapine?

Not only is clozapine the gold standard medication for treatment-resistant schizophrenia, it is also one of the most unique drugs used in psychiatry.

It was synthesized 1958, only eight years after chlorpromazine, the first antipsychotic drug, was created. At that time, researchers tested for antipsychotic properties by taking various compounds and testing to see if lab mice developed dystonia and catalepsy. When researchers tested clozapine, they found that it did not cause dystonia, but instead made the mice sleepy. Because of this, clozapine was almost missed entirely as an antipsychotic medication. Eventually, however, clozapine was found to be more successful than other antipsychotic drugs.

By the 1970s, Austria, Germany, and Finland had produced positive data on clozapine proving its efficacy. However, clozapine was also found to have caused severe neutropenia in sixteen patients in Finland, and even caused the death of eight of those patients. For this reason, clozapine did not enter the United States until it was approved by the FDA in 1989.

Defining “Treatment-Resistant” Schizophrenia

Clozapine was approved largely due to the work of John Kane. In his work, Kane helped define “treatment-resistant” schizophrenia, and ultimately the context in which clozapine has proven benefits. The term “treatment-resistant” can be defined as schizophrenia that has failed to respond to an adequate dosage of two antipsychotic medications given for an adequate duration:

  • The dosage should be a minimum of 600-1000 mg chlorpromazine equivalents.

  • Duration should be a minimum of six weeks.

  • Additionally, patients must have failed a prospective trial of haloperidol 15 mg given daily.

With this definition, Kane and his team found that a patient’s odds of responding to clozapine was 50-60%, whereas the probability of responding to other antipsychotic medications was 0-5% (with an average response of 2%). Today, these rates are essentially unchanged.

In 2017 Howes et al. found similar response rates to clozapine. The team largely followed Kane’s original criteria for treatment-resistant schizophrenia but did not include the failed prospective trial of haloperidol. Additionally, the team measured plasma levels of clozapine to assess patients’ adherence. Ultimately, they found that the odds of responding to clozapine was 40-60% while the odds of responding to other antipsychotics was 7% or less.

In contrast, there have been meta-analyses, including Cochrane, suggesting that clozapine is not more effective than other antipsychotics. However, these studies have failed to strictly define or include “treatment-resistant” schizophrenia criteria. It is likely that schizophrenic patients who were not truly treatment-resistant were included in those studies. In this context, clozapine is not more effective than other antipsychotic medications.

Unique Effects

In addition to being the gold standard for treatment-resistant schizophrenia, clozapine has other unique effects. It has been found to reduce both suicide and violence in patients, independent of the drug’s antipsychotic effects. Criminal behavior is also decreased. Clozapine can also be used to treat psychogenic polydipsia and refractory mixed bipolar states.

Mechanism of Action

Part of the reason that makes clozapine so unique is its mechanism of action. Typically, second generation antipsychotics antagonize dopamine but more selectively than their first generation counterparts. Additionally, atypical antipsychotics antagonize the 5-HT2a receptors, which actually assist with dopamine transduction in the frontal lobe. Although clozapine does have atypical antipsychotic properties, it also works by modulating glutamate signal transduction, particularly in the frontal and temporal lobes. Even at high plasma levels, the concentration of clozapine at the D2 and D3 receptor is only 30-40%. It is the modulation of glutamate that helps stimulate and “awaken” the hypoactive brain of a schizophrenic patient.

Improving glutamate decreases the positive symptoms, improves the negative symptoms, and even helps with cognitive symptoms. Clozapine’s unique mechanism of action may be why Krakowski et al (2006) found that although clozapine, olanzapine, and haloperidol had approximately the same reduction in psychosis for violent schizophrenic patients, clozapine was superior to olanzapine and haloperidol in decreasing violence in the same patients because it significantly mediated the executive function of the frontal lobe.

Other than glutamate, clozapine does affect other key molecules and receptors. The major daily side effects are most likely due to the blockade of the His-1 receptors, and the subsequent sedation may become a dose-limiting side effect for the patient, especially at higher plasma levels of clozapine. Alpha-adrenergic antagonism also contributes to the drug’s side effect profile, such as hypotension. Additionally, although clozapine’s robust and positive effect on glutamate likely overrides much of the drug’s anticholinergic effects, there is still the chance for anticholinergic burden, especially if the patient is taking other anticholinergic medications.

Target Dose and Medication Adherence

It is vital to maintain a therapeutic alliance with a patient on clozapine, as noncompliance is a major factor for treatment failure in schizophrenic patients. For example, the adherence rate for antipsychotic medications in general is less than 40%. This is partially alleviated with long-term injectable agents, but clozapine does not have this option. The only forms of clozapine are tablets, wafers, and liquid agents. Therefore, it is beneficial to schedule regular meetings with patients on clozapine.

One method to assess medication adherence is by checking plasma concentrations and blood levels of clozapine. If patients are adherent, their plasma concentration of clozapine should be fairly consistent. Obtaining blood levels also assures the provider that the current medication dose is optimal, as patients vary in metabolism and absorption rates and other factors, such as smoking and different medications, can also affect hepatic metabolism.

To treat psychosis, the target range of clozapine should be 350-600 ng/mL. If symptoms are not adequately controlled at this level, but patients are tolerating the medication, clozapine can be gradually titrated to approximately 600-1000 ng/mL. After 1000 ng/mL there is a diminishing return of benefits and an increased likelihood of side effects. Rarely, patients will need to go above the 1000 ng/mL level. If the goal is to not treat psychosis but another issue like criminality, then patients will generally respond at much lower doses. For example, in 2014 Brown et al. found that there was a dramatic reduction in violence in seven psychopathic patients with an average clozapine concentration of 171 ng/mL.

Benefits of Clozapine

On-going, uncontrolled psychosis only leads to mental decline. Early in the disease process, patients lose 2% of their brain mass every year for the first five years, and although this decline slows after that point, it never reaches zero. Additionally, although a healthy lifestyle with adequate nutrition and exercise prevents cognitive decline, it is particularly difficult to motivate schizophrenic patients because of the nature of the disease. On average, schizophrenic patients live 20 years less than the general population.

Clozapine helps address both issues. It has been shown to slow the progress of schizophrenia than any other antipsychotic, and it has been shown to prolong a patient’s lifespan. In 2017 Yoshimura et al. found that the efficacy of clozapine begins to decline about 2.8 years after a patient has been shown to be treatment-resistant. This finding along with clozapine’s other benefits create the argument that clozapine should be prescribed sooner rather than later to help patients suffering from treatment-resistant schizophrenia.

You can download an extensive, FREE management summary from the episode here:




The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing from the Frontline of PTSD Science

On today’s episode of the podcast, I am interviewing Dr. Shaili Jain. We cover Dr. Jain’s personal interest in PTSD work, moral injury, causes of PTSD, presentation of PTSD and treatment modalities for PTSD.

Joseph Wong (MS3), David Puder M.D.

An overview of PTSD

PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, occurs when someone experiences, or subjectively experiences, a near death or psychologically overwhelming event, and then goes on to develop specific symptoms because of it. Different types of trauma/stressors that can lead to PTSD include sexual violence, combat experience, medical conditions (e.g. myocardial infarction), and natural disasters (e.g. hurricane) (Chivers-Wilson, 2006; Edmondson et. al, 2012; Grieger et al., 2006; Hussain, Weisaeth & Heir, 2011).

It is characterized by:

  • Direct exposure or witnessing of trauma/stressor

  • Presence of intrusive symptoms post-traumatic experience

  • Avoidance of traumatic stimuli

  • Negative changes in mood and cognition

  • Hyper-reactivity

  • Hyper-arousal (APA, 2013).

Here are a few stats about PTSD:

  • In 2017, over 47,000 Americans died by suicide (CDC, 2019). This number has been climbing about 1,000 new cases per year from 31,000 American deaths by suicide in 2000 (CDC, 2019). One contributor to this statistic are people with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who are at increased risk of suicide (Wilcox, Storr & Breslau, 2009).


Symptoms and Diagnosis of PTSD

Certain symptoms of PTSD, like negative changes in mood and cognition, can be associated with other conditions, like anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder. Using screening tools like PCL-5 can help delineate PTSD from other conditions, although they can come with false positives (more people who are labeled as having PTSD than actually have it). Experienced clinicians can correctly diagnose through detailed history taking. Diagnosing PTSD begins with listening for a history of major trauma, which can take many forms. The patient will usually describe that they felt their sense of normalcy was shattered, and that they felt totally helpless in the face of that traumatic event.

During the first 4 weeks after the trauma, the impact of the trauma should be noted, and the duration of the symptoms should also be observed. The diagnosis of PTSD involves a disturbance of > 1 month with characteristic symptoms such as intrusive nightmares, flashbacks, memories, hypervigilance (APA, 2013). Subtle signs to look for are the patient’s mood states such as shame, guilt, anger, fear, horror, which are particular for PTSD (Hendin & Haas, 1991).

These patients also show a restricted range of emotion (they never show pure happiness, anger or sorrow). Avoidance is another key characteristic of patients with PTSD as they avoid places, people and memories associated with the traumatic event. This avoidance behavior is particularly tricky to deal with as some patients never make it to see a mental health professional.


Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD is a subtype of PTSD with complex symptomatology in response to chronic trauma (Herman, 1992). Usually, the patient has an extensive history of childhood abuse where the patient can’t remember a time when they weren’t being abused. Another example of chronic trauma includes victims of long-term intimate partner violence. In comparison with textbook patients with PTSD, who have a distinct life before and after their traumatic experience, patients with complex PTSD are only familiar with the traumatic experience.

Patients with complex PTSD have issues with emotional regulation, and can range from rageful to regretful in a single session, much like patients with borderline personality disorder. Patients with complex PTSD often get caught up in cycles of re-enactment where they act out in their personal relationships, and even in their therapeutic relationships, in ways that mimic the trauma that they’ve felt. In Dr. Jain’s experience, although patients with complex PTSD exhibit emotional lability, just like borderline personality disorder, she would think a diagnosis would lean more towards borderline personality disorder if the classic symptoms (such as identity issues, self-injury, chronic suicidality and attachment issues) were present (APA 2013).


Dissociative PTSD

Dissociative PTSD is a subtype of PTSD that occurs in 15-30% of PTSD patients, in which the patient not only meets the criteria for PTSD, but also exhibit persistent dissociative symptoms (e.g. depersonalization, derealization) (APA, 2013; Armour, Karstoft & Richardson, 2014).

Derealization is the feeling of detachment from one’s environment, while depersonalization is the feeling of detachment from one’s body, thoughts, perceptions and actions (APA, 2013). Patients often describe the feelings of depersonalization and derealization as “they don’t feel real,” or that “the world around them doesn’t feel real.”

Because patients with the dissociative subtype of PTSD experience these symptoms persistently, their day is often derailed as they don’t live in the present, but in their dissociative world. Patients who have had severe childhood abuse tend to have the dissociative subtype, which is associated with a poorer prognosis. Patients can dissociate in many environments, including the therapy environment, thus grounding techniques such as breathing techniques and anxiety-reducing exercises may be useful to bring patients from their dissociative state.


PTSD Treatments

Therapy and PTSD

The gold-standard treatment for PTSD is psychotherapy, with an emphasis on a strong therapeutic alliance. In her book, Jain Shaili talks about the importance of the story being given a voice. Many times when someone experiences trauma, it has violated the heart of what they find to be sacred and true, and the effects can be that they have experienced things they find completely unspeakable.

When memories remain unspeakable, even unthinkable, they become sticking points that prevent the brain, and person, from being able to move on. Because of this, many people with PTSD are difficult to reach, emotionally. It’s built into the nature of the disorder that they can be avoidant, don’t want to address the trauma, and are often mistrustful.

As a result of this psychosocial stress, patients with PTSD experience many negative emotions such as guilt, shame and remorse as well as increased suicidality (Hendin & Haas, 1991). PTSD thrives when patients hold it in, rather than talking about it, so an important part of treatment is to establish a therapeutic alliance so that the patient feels comfortable sharing their traumatic experience. Another important factor that contributes to healing is connecting the patient’s spiritual beliefs to their moral injury (Currier, Holland & Drescher, 2015).


The Search for Meaning

In the face of trauma, there are some that show resilience by making meaning out of the trauma and catapulting their lives into a direction where trauma is integrated into their lives rather than directing it.

Although not everyone is fortunate enough to arrive at that place by themselves, trauma-focused psychotherapy can add new learning, adjust maladaptive beliefs and help patients re-evaluate their trauma and its impact on their lives so that they can move forward meaningfully.

Medications for PTSD:

  • SSRIs/SNRIs

    • The most well-studied medication class used to treat PTSD and are 1st line due to favourable adverse effect profiles (Asnis, Kohn, Henderson & Brown, 2004).

    • Sertraline and paroxetine are also both FDA-approved for the treatment of PTSD (Asnis, Kohn, Henderson & Brown, 2004). However, in practice, SSRIs and SNRIs are pretty much equivalent, so tailor fit the medication according to the patients needs. For example, many patients with PTSD have chronic pain, so Venlafaxine (Effexor®) would be a good choice.  

    • Fluoxetine, paroxetine, and sertraline have been found to reduce hypervigilance, emotional numbing, and intrusion levels in clinical trials of over 3,000 participants with PTSD with over 60% of participants seeing a reduction in their symptoms (Kapfhammer, 2014). Many patients with PTSD are mistrustful of medication, so developing a good relationship with the patient through the therapeutic alliance can help convince patients that medications and medication adherence are in their best interest. With a strong therapeutic alliance and good medication management, that 60% can be even higher.

  • Mirtazapine

    • Can be used to treat insomnia at lower doses (7.5 mg - 15 mg). Has antidepressant effects at higher doses.

    • We try to avoid polypharmacy. If treating PTSD with medications, only starts with 1 medication at a low dose and see how that works. Patients that suffer from insomnia can improve dramatically after a few weeks of good sleep from such a medication as mirtazapine.

    • For insomnia, Dr. Jain prefers to use non-pharmacological therapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI) and only uses medication for the short term to get them to the point where therapy like CBTI can treat the root cause of their insomnia.

  • Mood stabilizers

    • Once again, the general approach is to put the patient on SSRIs/SNRIs at a lower dose and move up the dose as needed.

    • In patients that have issues with hostility, aggression, harm to self and don’t improve on SSRIs/SNRIs, we would consider mood stabilizers as a possible treatment.

  • Second generation antipsychotics

    • Used to be popular in the past to give a low dose for patients with PTSD that exhibited hostility and aggression. Unfortunately, risperidone was shown to not be an effective treatment for PTSD and came with many worrying side effects (e.g. metabolic syndrome, fatigue, sleepiness) (Krystal et al., 2011) .

  • Benzodiazepines

    • In the past, patients with PTSD used to be put on benzodiazepines, but it is now known that benzodiazepines are just a band aid rather than a true treatment for PTSD with especially concerning side-effects in the elderly population (i.e. increased risk fall and impaired cognition) (Cumming & Le Conteur, 2003).

    • In 2012, a study involving over 10,000 patients who were prescribed benzodiazepines were found to have 50% increased mortality with long-term use (Kripke, Langer & Kline, 2012).

    • Dr. Jain would only prescribe very-short term prescriptions (5 day supply) for emergencies like horrific flashbacks and dissociative events.

    • PTSD and addiction go hand in hand due to the addictive nature of benzodiazepines, so education is important in teaching patients that there are serious side-effects associated with benzodiazepines (e.g. impairment in cognition and increased fall risk in the elderly) and that other treatment modalities can be helpful in managing their PTSD.

  • Marijuana

    • Although there are many strong personal testimonies and anecdotes concerning the efficacy of marijuana in alleviating the various symptoms of PTSD, there were no high quality randomized clinical trials as of 2016 that have looked at the efficacy of marijuana for PTSD (Wilkinson, Radhakrishnan & D'Souza, 2016).

    • There are clinical trials underway (one in a VA in Arizona) testing CBD for PTSD.

    • 3 things worry about marijuana usage in patients with PTSD

  1. Adverse interactions between psych meds and marijuana are currently unknown and can be dangerous as patients are often taking both their medications and marijuana.

  2. Marijuana impairs driving, attention, memory, IQ, and increases rate of psychosis.  View my prior blog, Youtube and podcast on Marijuana: here

  • Ketamine and MDMA

    • There are currently ongoing studies in the VA, but it’s still too early to tell without seeing the data.


I would highly recommend checking out Dr. Jain’s book:

The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing from the Frontline of PTSD Science

Here are several of my prior episodes on PTSD:

How to Help Patients With Sexual Abuse

How to Treat Emotional Trauma

Emotional Shutdown—Understanding Polyvagal Theory



Schizophrenia Differential Diagnosis & DSM5

On today’s episode of the podcast, I am interviewing with Dr. Ariana Cunningham. We cover the DSM5 criteria for schizophrenia and the differential diagnoses for schizophrenia.

Joseph Wong (MS3), Ariana Cunningham, M.D., David Puder M.D.

Diagnosing schizophrenia  

Doctors and therapists need to be able to rule everything else out before they can land on schizophrenia as an official diagnosis. The specific symptoms are known as “first-rank symptoms,” which we will cover later in the article, that will help with diagnosing patients (Schneider, 1959). Eighty-five percent of people with schizophrenia endorse these symptoms, but be wary of jumping to conclusions, because they are not specific to schizophrenia and, in some studies, are also endorsed by bipolar manic patients (Andreasen, 1991).

DSM5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th ed.)

Schizophrenia is a clinical diagnosis made through observation of the patient and the patient’s history.

  • There must be 2 or more of the characteristic symptoms below (Criterion A) with at least one symptom being items 1, 2 or 3. These symptoms must be present for a significant portion of time during a 1 month period (or less, if successfully treated).

  • The patient must have continuous, persistent signs of disturbance for at least 6 months, which includes the 1 month period of symptoms (or less, if successfully treated) and may include prodromal or residual periods.

    • For a significant portion of the time since the onset of the disturbance, one or more major areas of functioning such as work, interpersonal relations, or self-care, are markedly below the level achieved prior to the onset.

    • If the onset is in childhood or adolescence, there is failure to achieve expected level of interpersonal, academic, or occupational achievement.

Criterion A:

A. Positive symptoms (presence of abnormal behavior)

1. Delusions

2. Hallucinations

3. Disorganized speech (eg, frequent derailment or incoherence)

4. Grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior

B. Negative symptoms (absence or disruption of normal behavior)

5. Negative symptoms include affective flattening, alogia, avolition, anhedonia, asociality.

Development, Course and Risk Factors

Psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia typically occur in young adulthood (late teens to mid-30s) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). About 80% of schizophrenia presents with acute onset, intermittent symptoms and few/no symptoms while about 20% present with insidious onset, continuous symptoms and poorer outcomes (Bleuler, 1978). In terms of age of onset, it has been well documented that males present earlier than females (early to mid 20s for males vs late 20s for females) (Patel, Cherian, Gohil & Atkinson, 2014).

There are two key factors that have been associated with poorer prognosis. Earlier age of onset, which is highly associated with schizophrenia in males, has been well-documented to be associated with a poorer prognosis (Kao & Liu, 2010). The deficit form of schizophrenia (persistent negative symptoms of schizophrenia) have also been shown to be associated with a poorer prognosis (Kirkpatrick, 2008).

The highest risk factors for schizophrenia have been tied to genetic factors such as having an affected immediate family member or being the offspring of an immigrant from certain countries (Torrey, 2012). Molecular genetics have also been used to show that genetic inheritance is highly associated with schizophrenia, although it is not currently known how much genetic variation increases the risk for schizophrenia (Ripke, 2014). Non-genetic risk factors for schizophrenia include infectious causes such as Toxoplasmosis, living in an urban environment, birth seasonality and maternal exposure to influenza (Torrey, 2012).

Although functional recovery is rarer early on in the course of schizophrenia, the good news is that timely and intensive treatment can impact functional recovery early in the illness (Robinson, 2004). Patients who had more intensive intervention showed greater improvement in quality of life, higher functioning in school/work, and less psychopathology (Kane, 2016).

Differential diagnosis

When I see a patient that presents with these symptoms, the first thing I consider is substance use. I check if they had prior urine drug screens in their medical records, physical signs of substance use (e.g. poor dentition, track marks) and history of motor vehicle accidents. Even if history and physical condition do not suggest substance use, it’s common practice to order a urine drug screen on anyone coming into an inpatient psychiatry unit and look at prior drug screens in the medical record.

Other considerations include psychosis due to another medical condition (e.g. Wilson’s disease), personality disorder (long history of passive suicidal intent dating back to adolescence for borderline personality disorder, odd beliefs associated with Cluster A personality disorders, etc.), mania (e.g. rapid talking, grandiosity, decreased need for sleep) or severe depression (long progressive history with eventual psychosis).

For patients manifesting with some, but not all of the symptoms of schizophrenia, here is a list of differential diagnoses. With schizophrenia being a diagnosis of exclusion, it is important to consider all possible diagnoses.

A. Based on timeline of symptoms (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

  • Brief Psychotic Disorder: Presence of > 1 positive symptom lasting 1 day to 1 month .  

    • Can be precipitated by stressors or have peripartum onset.

  • Schizophreniform: Same diagnostic criteria as schizophrenia, except lasting for at least 1 month, but less than 6 months. May be the start of schizophrenia, but not all patients with schizophreniform go on to be diagnosed with schizophrenia.

    • Social and occupational decline do not need to be present like they do in schizophrenia.


B. Presence of mood disorder features (APA, 2013)

  • Schizoaffective: Meets criteria for schizophrenia as well as major mood disorder (manic episodes or significant depressive episodes that have occurred at different times in the person’s life).

    • Schizoaffective disorder is differentiated by major mood disorder with psychotic features by the presence of > 2 weeks of psychotic symptoms without major mood episode.

  • Bipolar Mood Disorder: Bipolar I: Meets criteria for current or past manic episode that could be preceded or followed by hypomanic or major depressive episodes. Bipolar II: Meets criteria for current or past hypomanic episode and major depressive episode.  

    • Typically, a manic patient will take a few days to fall asleep when they are in an episode even when on significant medications.

  • Major Depressive Disorder Severe with Psychotic Symptoms: Psychotic symptoms (e.g. delusions or hallucinations) exclusively occur during a major depressive or manic episode, which is differentiated by schizoaffective disorder, which is characterized by > 2 weeks of psychotic symptoms with major mood episode.

    • There is a long period of depression leading up to the psychotic symptoms. The patient usually by the time they have psychosis has been depressed for months if not years. The psychosis and depression will not change in 2-3 days like they can in someone hospitalized with borderline personality disorder.  


C. Personality Disorders (APA 2013):

  • Borderline Personality Disorder (Cluster B): Long-standing pattern of unstable interpersonal relationships, impulsive behavior (e.g. sexual or self-harming), and mood instability (e.g. feelings of emptiness, intense dysphoria) .

    • A borderline personality disorder patient will have negative inner “voices” that will lead them to fear they are hearing things, but they can put on a social veneer and appear put together. A schizophrenic patient cannot put on a social veneer when in a disorganized and psychotic state.

    • These patients also have a history of passive suicidality dating back to adolescence.

  • Schizotypal personality (Cluster A): Long-standing pattern of odd or eccentric beliefs and/or perceptual disturbances that do not rise to the level of delusions or hallucinations.

    • Shares many similar symptoms as schizophrenia, but schizotypal personality disorder can be distinguished from schizophrenia as the personality disorder is present before the onset of psychotic symptoms and persists even when the psychotic symptoms vs. a period of persistent psychotic symptoms in schizophrenia.  

  • Schizoid personality (Cluster A): Long-standing pattern of little interest in social relationships or intimacy.

    • Shares similar symptoms as schizophrenia such as flattened affect, but does not present with psychosis.

    • Schizoid personality disorder can be distinguished from schizophrenia as the personality disorder is present before the onset of psychotic symptoms and persists even when the psychotic symptoms vs. a period of persistent psychotic symptoms in schizophrenia.  

D. Other considerations:

  • Substance-induced psychosis: Symptoms occur during intoxication or acute withdrawal and do not persist after the individual is sober.

    • The people who are coming off of methamphetamines typically want to sleep the first few days and are irritable coming off of meth, while people with schizophrenia will talk with you for a bit, and be awake during the day (although sometimes lying in bed doing nothing).  

    • THC has been associated with an increased risk of developing psychosis. A meta-analysis of 18 studies involving 66,816 individuals gave an OR of 3.90 (95% CI 2.84 to 5.34) for the risk of schizophrenia and other psychosis-related outcomes among the heaviest cannabis users compared to nonusers (Marconi, 2016).

  • Psychosis due to a general medical condition or medication: Symptoms can occur with other medical conditions such as CVA or TBI, Wilson’s disease, porphyria, or syphilis infection (watch for it in HIV patients) as well as medications (e.g. steroids) and certain dietary supplements.

  • Delusional disorder: One or more delusions (false belief system) that are fixed and persistent, lasting for > 1 month.

    • Can be differentiated from schizophrenia by the lack of other symptoms besides delusions. An exception to this is that patients may have olfactory or tactile hallucinations consistent with the delusion, but they won’t have auditory hallucinations that is most commonly associated with schizophrenia (Chaudhury, 2010; Opjordsmoen, 2014).

    • Functioning is also not impaired compared to schizophrenia.

  • Pervasive developmental disorders: May present with symptoms resembling psychosis or negative symptoms; however, an important factor to consider before diagnosing schizophrenia is the patient’s developmental pattern.

    • For example, for a 3 - 5 year old child, imaginary friends are common for that developmental stage and shouldn’t be instantly labelled as a visual hallucination- so when you listen to their vocabulary consider what age they are even if they look physically much older (Taylor & Mottweiler, 2008).

    • “An additional diagnosis of schizophrenia should only be made in a patient with autism spectrum disorder or communication disorders if psychotic symptoms are present for at least a month” (APA 2013).

For more on schizophrenia check out these other episodes:

Schizophrenia with Dr. Cummings: Controversies, Brain Science, Crime, History, Exercise, Successful Treatment

The History and Use of Antipsychotics with Dr. Cummings  



Do I have Schizophrenia?

On today’s episode of the podcast, Ariana Cunningham and I continue our discussion from the first episode about schizophrenia, focusing on the clinical manifestations of the disease.

Ariana Cunningham, M.D., David Puder, M.D., 

Clinical manifestations 

Many people worry that they have schizophrenia. I receive messages or inquires often of people asking about symptoms and manifestations. If you have those types of questions, or if you’re a mental health professional who needs to brush up on symptoms and medications, this article should help you.

There are many clinical observations of how schizophrenia presents itself. Cognitive impairments usually precede the onset of the main symptoms[1], while social and occupational impairments follow those main symptoms. 

Here are the main symptoms of schizophrenia:

  • Hallucinations: a perception of a sensory process in the absence of an external source. They can be auditory, visual, somatic, olfactory, or gustatory reactions.

  • Most common for men “you are gay”

  • Most common for women “you are a slut or whore”

  • Delusions: having a fixed, false belief. They can be bizarre or non-bizarre and their content can often be categorized as grandiose, paranoid, nihilistic, or erotomanic 

  • Erotomania = an uncommon paranoid delusion that is typified by someone having the delusion that another person is infatuated with them.

  • This is a common symptom, approximately 80% of people with schizophrenia experience delusions.

  • Often we only see this from their changed behavior, they don’t tell us this directly.

  • Disorganization: present in both behavior and speech. 

  • Speech disorganization can be described in the following ways:

  • Tangential speech – The person gets increasingly further off the topic without appropriately answering a question.

  • Circumstantial speech – The person will eventually answer a question, but in a markedly roundabout manner.

  • Derailment – The person suddenly switches topic without any logic or segue.

  • Neologisms – The creation of new, idiosyncratic words.

  • Word salad – Words are thrown together without any sensible meaning.

  • Verbigeration – Seemingly meaningless repetition of words, sentences, or associations

  • To note, the most commonly observed forms of abnormal speech are tangentiality and circumstantiality, while derailment, neologisms, and word salad are considered more severe.

  • Cognitive impairment:

  • Different processing speeds 

  • Verbal learning and memory issues

  • Visual learning and memory issues

  • Reasoning/executive functioning (including attention and working memory) issues

  • Verbal comprehension problems

  • Mood and/or anxiety: mood and anxiety disorders occur at a higher rate in schizophrenic patients than in the general population, and for this reason it is important for providers to . Estimates of the lifetime prevalence of depression in schizophrenia vary widely—from 6 to 75%—based on differing study characteristics including varying definitions of depression, patient settings, and durations of observation (Conus et al, 2010Hausman et al, 2002McRenolds, 2013). There is a higher prevalence of anxiety in patients with early-onset schizophrenia than in patients with later onset. 

  • Suicidality: People with schizophrenia have a higher rate of suicide than the general population. Generally, 5% of 10% of all completed suicides are people with schizophrenia (Hor et al, 2010; Arsenault et al, 2004).

There are also some associated signs we want to make sure you are aware of, even though they aren’t considered central to the diagnosis of schizophrenia:

  • Neurological signs aka “soft signs” include slight impairments of sensory integration and motor coordination (Heinrichs et al, 1988). Some examples of this include: R-L confusion, agraphesthesia (the inability to recognize letters or numbers traced on the skin, usually on the palm of the hand), olfactory dysfunction, astereognosis (the inability to identify familiar objects by touch alone). Be sure if you see one of these symptoms that you consider the possibility that they could be a side effect of medications.

  • Catatonia is another important state sometimes associated we would like you to be familiar with. A helpful tool to use when evaluating a patient is the Busch Francis Catatonia rating scale which lists all the criteria associated with catatonia and 0-3 rating scale for each.

  • Interestingly, another association we see in people with schizophrenia is that there are higher rates of diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension. In fact the life expectancy is reduced 10-20 years compared with the general population. The main medical mortality is heart disease.

In conclusion

On the podcast episode, we discuss the clinical manifestations of schizophrenia and what you would be looking for when making a diagnosis. The more we understand about this disorder—how the symptoms manifest, in what order they often present, and how to differentiate these signs from adverse drug reactions, and expected comorbidities—the better. Improved understanding of this will improve diagnosis and equip providers to implement treatment sooner, thus improving the prognosis and projected functionality of patients with schizophrenia.

In the next podcast we will be discussing the following topics:

  • How the disease progresses?

  • DSMV definition and diagnostic criteria

  • Differential diagnoses

  • Symptom management:

  • Pharmaceutical

  • Non pharmaceutical

Here are some further episodes on schizophrenia:

How Psychiatric Medications Work with Dr Cummings

Schizophrenia with Dr. Cummings

Schizophrenia in Film and History



Marijuana and Mental Health

On today’s episode of of the podcast, I will discuss marijuana use and how it affects mental health with Daniel Binus, the chief psychiatrist at Beautiful Minds, near Sacramento, California. Also joining us is a third-year medical student, Victoria Agee.

David Puder, M.D., Victoria Agee

Why are we even talking about marijuana?

There are a few reasons we believe this is important to talk about. First, as medical professionals, we often see patients who want help with their anxiety, depression, ADD and suicidality. They say they use cannabis, and that they need cannabis, to help calm those symptoms. When we explain the research to them, it still takes them awhile to let go of their habits and embrace other forms of therapy and medication that is a better long-term option.

Also, we head into a time when marijuana is being legalized, there are tons of THC companies that will benefit from suppressing this information and even suppress these studies we will reference here. Hiding this information could be detrimental to society’s mental health. While there are some potential benefits to one component of marijuana (CBD), something I will review in the future (evidence is fairly young in that field), the THC component can be highly damaging to mental health.

Whether or not people are willing to admit it, cannabis is actually highly addictive. One of the symptoms of addiction is intellectualizing reasons for use. Not only does it change the way the brain functions, it changes the way we see and perceive the world. It also changes our visual and spatial abilities. If you’re an architect or use math in your job, it deeply affects those abilities as well. THC stays in your brain a long time—it can be weeks (or even a month) before people get the full function of their brain back and the fog has cleared.

What is the research on cannabis?

Ganja is from the cut tops of leaves (5-8% THC content) and hashish is from the resin and is therefore more potent (10-20% THC content) Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most commonly used substance worldwide.

It causes long-term changes in the brain

Recent research shows that consistent cannabis use will change the way your DNA is expressed in the brain. It will upregulate and downregulate proteins in the brain, and can change the morphology of the way it works. Marijuana, in fact, leads to changes in our genes over time, called epigenetic changes (Szutorisz, 2018). So the initial effect may be pleasure or fun, but long term, it can create changes that take months to develop in a way that people don’t understand why they are having new issues that pop up. Basically, it’s not changing your gene structure, but it is changing the expression of those genes. Anytime you make positive food choices or develop a consistent exercise routine or make physical changes, epigenetic changes occur that are healthy for long term change (see my episode on diet and exercise)

It’s not surprising that marijuana also causes similar changes in the brain, but not in a healthy way.

When people use cannabis heavily, it causes our endogenous cannabinoids that naturally occur within the body to shift, which can create a disruption in our natural release of cannabinoids. This actually creates a direct correlation between heavy cannabis use and lower IQs (He, 2019).

It lowers intelligence

Studies show that over 20 year cannabis use, people lose an average of 6-8 IQ points. That means you could go from intelligent to average, or even average to below average.

It affects men’s sexual health

In a survey of 8,650 people, women had no association with any of the sexual problems from marijuana use. Men, however, had significant associations between daily cannabis use and reporting an inability to reach orgasm (OR 3.94), reaching orgasm too quickly (OR 2.68), and reaching orgasm too slowly (OR. 2.05).

Among the 424 men who reported reaching orgasm too quickly, there was an association between frequency of cannabis use and the extent to which reaching orgasm too quickly was experienced as problematic  (F- 2.85, P <0.01) (Smith, 2010)

Routine usage of cannabis (more than once per week) was also associated with a nearly 30% reduction in median sperm concentration and total sperm count after adjustment (Gunderson, 2015).

It increases risk for psychotic disorders

Multiple studies have shown a link between marijuana use and psychotic effects that demonstrate that it is definitely causal in contributing to psychotic disorders.

A meta-analysis of 66,000 individuals showed that heavy cannabis and average cannabis users were 4x and 2x, respectively, as likely to develop schizophrenia or other psychosis-related symptoms compared to nonusers (Marconi, 2016).

In a study that came out this year (2019), young adults who used cannabis were about 1.5x more likely to develop depression and suicidal ideation and 3.5x more likely to attempt suicide (Gobbi, 2019).

It has negative effects at any age

Cannabis exposure during gestational development has a direct correlation to drug-seeking behavior later in life. Early life cannabis exposure (adolescents) upregulates expression of Penk mRNA, an opioid neuropeptide in mesocorticolimbic system, which has direct causal link to enhanced behavioral susceptibility to heroin use as an adult(Szutorisz, 2018).

Studies also show that in teens, even a few uses of marijuana makes them predisposed to depression, psychotic disorders and suicidal ideation.

It causes impaired social functioning

It increases the amount of impulsivity and hostility in daily life. It increased hostile behaviors and also paranoia of others being hostile. It also deadens the ability to detect microexpressions and create social connection so that it may remove appear to improve social anxiety. However, it's not an actual solution, because it prevents someone from presenting their real self.

How to help a patient who uses cannabis

Cannabis can potentially help the symptoms of anxiety, ADD, depression, and a whole host of mental health issues initially. The problem is that cannabis fundamentally changes the brain in a way that causes long-term damage. Not only that, but if people are using cannabis as a coping mechanism for their mental health issues instead of therapy, they will not deal with the underlying issues, only medicate the symptoms.

When a new patient comes in and reports regular marijuana use, I highly recommend for them to get off of it, for at least the course of therapy. However, it also is important to mention that the first stance to take with every patient is empathy. I tell them there is no shame in their marijuana use. I liken it to them using a log when they’re in an ocean—it helped them keep their head above water because it floated. But when a rescue boat comes along, if they try to heft the log into the boat, it won’t work. With proper therapy, with the boat, they won’t need the log for survival any longer.

I even tell them they can get back on it after the therapy if it hasn’t helped them. When they are off of marijuana, they have the ability to be present and really process what they will need to process in therapy in order to get over anxiety and depression.

When they do take the symptom suppressor of marijuana away, often they will experience a flood of emotions and memories. Maybe cannabis was the best thing our patients could find in the moment, but there are obviously better ways of helping them deal with their pain.

In conclusion

I have a very extensive worksheet of all of the research about cannabis in my Free Resources Page. It’s important to understand the depth of the ways THC can affect our patients lives and mental health.



The science behind forgiveness and how it affects our mental health

What is forgiveness?

On this week’s episode of the podcast, I talk about the power of forgiveness. It’s scientifically proven that forgiveness can affect our health. As mental health professionals, this has important impacts both personally and professionally. I have also included a downloadable PDF for you to give your patients to help you walk them through the act of forgiving.

As a therapist, when I say the word “forgiveness,” my patients can shut down if I don’t explain it properly. Why? Because just the need for forgiveness is proof that they have been wronged. When we are wronged, it can be hard to let go of that hurt. That’s why I wanted to start out by saying what forgiveness (and this episode) is not about.

Forgiveness is not:

  • It is not approving.

  • It is not excusing the action, denying it, or overlooking it.

  • It is not just moving on (particularly not with cold indifference).

  • It is not forgetting or pretending it did not occur.

  • It is not justifying or letting go of possibly needed justice.

  • It is not calming down.

  • It is not a bargain or negotiation.

  • It is more than ceasing to be angry.

  • It is more than being neutral towards the other.

  • It is more than making oneself feel good.

  • It is one step towards reconciliation, but it is different from reconciliation, which requires a sincere apology from all parties.  

  • It is not dependent on the one you forgive—that would give the other power to control you by keeping you in your bitterness. Consider Corrie Ten Boom, who forgave the Nazis after losing her family in the Holocaust, or Marietta Jaeger who, after her daughter was kidnapped and brutally murdered, was able to forgive. People can forgive, even when the person who wronged them is unknown or dead.

  • It is not a one time event, but may need to be repeated (sometimes the hurt comes back, sometimes you need to start every morning with forgiveness).

  • It is not a restoration of full trust (trust takes time to develop or to be reinstated).

So what is forgiveness?

The Definition of Forgiveness:

Forgiveness is a process. It involves allowing yourself to feel the negative emotions you justly have towards an offense, and really putting the wrong into words in a congruent and authentic truthful way. Then choosing to release it, either giving it to a higher power, or letting it go to a cosmic sense of justice, or earthly legal justice system, and then continuing the process until negative affect is replaced with peace, empathy and compassion. When someone forgives they no longer have a portion of their daily life consumed in negative feelings towards the person or situation.  

“People, on rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right) and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the harmful act or acts, has no right)”  (Enright, 2015).

Elliot (2010) cited Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000) and came up with two types of forgiveness:

Decisional forgiveness: the experience of granting forgiveness without eliminating the emotion, but in this, resentment may continue. It involves a cognitive model where therapist works with the client one time to make decision to forgive.

Emotional forgiveness: the patient must demonstrate changes in emotion and motivation toward their offender.

Studies show that:

Decisional forgiveness can reduce hostility, but it is only marginally effective in improving stress levels or emotional health (Elliot 2010 citing Baskin and Enright 2004, Worthington 2007). This means that emotional forgiveness is the goal of all forgiveness therapy.

What’s the most effective way to help our patients forgive?

Individual therapy that accomplishes Enright’s 4 phases over 20 encounters is “clearly most effective” way to actually accomplish forgiveness. (Elliot 2010 citing Lundahl 2008)

Why should we care about forgiveness?

Forgiveness isn’t a “nice thing to do,” it has real health ramifications that have been thoroughly studied, and it’s a fact that the act of forgiving can be a real change agent in therapy and long term health.

Here are the studies:

  • People who live with depression and a history of maltreatment have an upregulation of their inflammatory response compared to those with no history of maltreatment (Danese et al. 2007 as cited by Elliot 2010)

  • Unforgiveness is reflected in specific cortisol levels, adrenaline production, and cytokine balance (Elliot 2010 citing Worthington 2005)

  • Cause-effect relationship between pain and anger is similar to the anger-depression relationship. some studies show that just the anticipation of pain is associated with anger. (Okifuji 1999)

  • Chronic pain often arises from injury, or accident, thus anger is directed usually at the one responsible, or oneself. (Greenwood 2003)

  • General intensity of anger is important, but also specific targets of anger seem to be essential factors in understanding adaptation to chronic pain. Some research has shown that inward anger is more common in those with chronic pain vs. those individuals with different targets of anger. A study using the MPI (multidimensional pain inventory- a 60 item self reported inventory to assess different aspects of chronic pain) showed that 88 people endorsed anger at themselves and scored 0.38 on the anger inventory. Those that endorsed anger at other targets all scored below 0.30. Anger should be viewed as a multifactorial construct in chronic pain. (Okifuji 1999)

Specifically, in chronic low back pain, a preliminary study of 61 adult patients with chronic low back pain (31 recruited from pain and palliative clinic, and 30 recruited from community) showed patients with higher scores on forgiveness-related variables (‘current level of forgiveness’ as measured by Enright Forgiveness Inventory and ‘forgiveness self efficacy’ as measured by the Forgiveness Self-Efficacy Scale) reported lower levels of pain, anger, and psychological distress.

Patients who scored  (Carson 2005) analysis revealed that “state anger largely mediated associations between forgiveness variables and sensory pain, whereas the association between current forgiveness and affective pain was mostly independent of state anger.”

What is bitterness?

When someone continues to hold on to unforgiveness, they can become what we would call “bitter.” Bitter people are exactly like that word describes—so steeped in resentment that they become unpalatable.

Clues that someone may be bitter:

  • Do they continually replay past hurts over and over?

  • Do they hold onto the pain?

  • Do they try to avoid someone?  

  • Do they quickly get angry with someone?

  • Do they speak trashfully or verbally malign someone?

  • Do they find that their bitterness is more associated with the proximity of the person who wronged them than the magnitude of the event?

  • What percent of their emotional energy is spent on this topic?  

* Recurrent resentment affects all relationships and takes up room in one’s emotional life.

What does research say about bitterness?

  • Ten years or more after a divorce, ½ of women and ⅓ of men are still intensely angry at their former spouses, and anger becomes an ongoing, dominant presence in their children as well (Wallerstein).  

  • Forgiving people have been found to have a lower blood pressure at baseline. (Larsen 2012)

  • “Recalled experiences of betrayal that were less forgiven were associated with greater cardiovascular reactivity as indexed by greater diastolic blood pressure, mean arterial pressure, and rate-pressure product…higher trait forgiveness was negatively associated with lower resting blood pressure and better post-stress recovery.” (Lawler 2005 citing Lawler 2003)

  • Those who measured high in hostility, 20-25 years later, had higher rates of heart disease (Shekelle 1983, Barefoot 1983).

  • When discussing the narrative of injustice, those with an understanding of forgiveness showed less anger expressions (Tina Huang, “Cross Cultural and Real-Life Validation”).

How can someone forgive?

If the previous studies about the negative effects of not forgiving aren’t enough, let’s look at some of the positive effects of forgiving.

Personal health results of forgiving:

  • Changes anxiety into inner peace, reduces symptoms of depression, anger, and paranoia (Dr. R. C. Hunter, 1978).

  • Genuine acts of forgiveness lead to overall improvement in the person’s emotional maturity and increases the capacities for courage, nurturance of others, and love (Dr. Morton Kaufman “The courage to forgive” 1984).

  • Reduces fear. Impulses of anger and revenge subside and are replaced by more appropriate expressions of anger (Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons).

  • Hypertension may be reduced (Huang 1990).

  • Patients with fibromyalgia who were taught forgiveness education had a significant decrease in symptoms (Lee, 2014).

  • Incest survivors showed significant improvement after a 1 year forgiveness education process (Robert Enright, 1994, 1995).

  • A study that looked at 20 psychologically abused and divorced women, some who had remarried and some who had not. All participants scored above 41 on the Psychological Abuse Survey was considered indicative of a present and serious pattern of emotional abuse. Randomized between forgiveness therapy (FT: based on the Enright model) with an alternative treatment (AT: anger validation, assertiveness, interpersonal skill building). The study found that the FT group showed a greater improvement in forgiveness, self-esteem, state anxiety, trait anxiety, depression, environmental mastery, finding meaning, post-traumatic stress symptoms all determined by pre-and post surveys and questionnaires. The FT group had an effect size of 1.79 and represents a shift from below normal levels to normative levels. (Reed 2006)

Spiritual Connection

Some patients highly value their higher power. You can ask them to turn to their spiritual power and ask for the grace to have the willingness to forgive. They can give the spiritual power the opportunity to work in their lives in that way. Some have had powerful forgiveness experiences with their higher power.

Steps in the process of forgiveness:

How can we help our patients forgive those who have wronged them? Sometimes our patients have experienced things that can hurt to even hear about. Helping them move from trauma and anger into a place of forgiveness so they can live a healthy emotional life can be difficult to navigate. But, it is a worthy journey to pursue.

Here are the steps I walk through with my patients using a workbook sheets I have created. I have included a FREE DOWNLOADABLE PDF below that you can give to your patients to fill out. It walks them through the steps in detail, giving them a drawing to fill out and journaling exercises with specific questions to answer that will help them process their trauma and grief.


Further Reading on Forgiveness:

“Forgiveness is a Choice” Enright

Bradley, L. A., McKendree-Smith, N. L., Alberts, K. R., Alarcón, G. S., Mountz, J. M., & Deutsch, G. (2000). Use of neuroimaging to understand abnormal pain sensitivity in fibromyalgia. Current Rheumatology Reports, 2, 141–148.  

Brand BL, Alexander PC. “Coping with incest: the relationship between recollections of childhood coping and adult functioning in female survivors of incest.” J Trauma Stress. (2003):185–93.

Enright, R. D. Forgiveness is a choice. (2001) Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Fernandez, Ephrem, and Dennis C. Turk. "The Scope and Significance of Anger in the Experience of Chronic Pain." Pain (1995) 61(2):165-75.

Greenwood K, Thurston R, Rumble R, Waters S, Keefe F. Anger and persistent pain: Current status and future directions. Pain. (2003);103:1–5.

Knight JR, Hugenberger GP. On Forgiveness. Southern Medical Journal. (2007). 100(4):420-421.

Larsen BA, Darby RS, Harris CR, Nelkin DK, Milam PE, Christenfeld NJ. The immediate and delayed cardiovascular benefits of forgiving. Psychosom Med. (2012) Sep;74(7):745-50.

Lawler, K. A., Jarred W. Y., Rachel L. Piferi, Rebecca L. Jobe, Kimberley A. E, and Warren H. J. The Unique Effects of Forgiveness on Health: An Exploration of Pathways. J Behav Med Journal of Behavioral Medicine (2005). 28(2): 157-67. Web.

Lee YR, Enright RD. “A Forgiveness Intervention for Women With Fibromyalgia Who Were Abused in Childhood: A Pilot Study.” Sprituality in Clinical Practice. (2014). 1(3):203–217

Lichtenfeld S, Buechner VL, Maier MA, Fernandez-Capo M. Forgive and Forget: Differences between Decisional and Emotional Forgiveness.PLoS One. (2015) May 6;10(5):e0125561.

Moons, Wesley G., Naomi I. Eisenberger, and Shelley E. Taylor. "Anger and Fear Responses to Stress Have Different Biological Profiles." Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (2010) 24(2):215-19.

Muscatello MR, Bruno A, Scimeca G, Pandolfo G, Zoccali RA. “Role of negative affects in pathophysiology and clinical expression of irritable bowel syndrome.” World J Gastroenterol.2014;20:7570–7586.

Okifuji A, Turk DC, Curran SL. Anger in chronic pain: investigations of anger targets and intensity. J Psychosom Res. 1999;47(1):1–12.

Reed GL, Enright RD. The Effects of Forgiveness Therapy on Depression, Anxiety, and Posttraumatic Stress for Women After Spousal Emotional Abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. (2006). 74(5):920 –929.

Schmidt S, Grossman P, Schwarzer B, Jena S, Naumann J, Walach H. “Treating fibromyalgia with mindfulness-based stress reduction: results from a 3-armed randomized controlled trial.” Pain. (2011).152(2):361–9.

Strang S., Utikal V., Fischbacher U., Weber B., Falk A. “Neural correlates of receiving an apology and active forgiveness: an fMRI study.” PLoS ONE. 9:e87654 (2014). 10.137.

White, JM. “Pleasure Into Pain: The consequences of long-term opioid use.” Addictive Behaviors. (2004). 29:(1311-1324).

Winfield JB. Psychological determinants of fibromyalgia and related syndromes. Curr Rev Pain. 2000. 4(4):276-86.

Witvliet CVO, Phipps KA, Feldman ME. Beckham JC. “Posttraumatic mental and physical health correlates of forgiveness and religious coping in military veterans.” J. Trauma Stress. (2004) 17:269–273.





Depression and Anxiety in Geriatric Patients

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On this week’s episode of the podcast, I am joined by Dr. Carolina Osorio, a geriatric psychiatrist (and one of my favorite people). After she finished her psychiatry residency, she also went on to finish a fellowship in geriatric psychiatry to take care of her favorite people. Dr. Osorio runs a special program that treats elderly people with depression and anxiety.


Mental health in the elderly

Sylvia Yu (MS3), David Puder, M.D.

As many people age, their health declines, and their needs increase. At the same time, we can experience loss of spouses because of aging, loss of friends and fear of death. We can lose eyesight, hearing, and subsequently, our drivers licenses and autonomy. It can be an incredibly stressful and lonely time.

At this time in history, like no other time before, we are experiencing a wave of baby boomers that will put a new strain on our already waning mental health facilities. Baby boomers are also more likely to stigmatize using mental health services.

Dr. Osario noticed these problems and she took steps to create a program that is helping her local aging population in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

If you are a primary care physician, psychiatrist, or a family member that is a caretaker for the elderly, this article will have takeaways from Dr. Osorio’s program that can help clarify how we can best help the aging population.  

When Dr. Osorio was a resident, she noticed that in mixed-age groups, older adults didn’t get the treatment that they needed. A general outpatient partial program wasn’t benefiting them, and sometimes it would make them worse because older adults tend to become parents to their younger peers in their group. She noticed that the older adults ended up taking care of their younger counterparts and not getting the individualized help they needed.

She started building a program to help the elderly in the way that they needed to be helped—through diet, exercise, therapy, medication management and stress reduction.

Medically, older adults have comorbidities, or more than one medical issue that needs to be treated. Because of this, having a geriatric therapist, group therapy session, or a geriatric mental health program can keep them happier, healthier and independent for longer.

If you run an outpatient group for the elderly, if you’re suggesting one for your patient, or if you are looking for one for an elderly friend or relative, here are a few things to consider:

  • Small groups - It takes longer to express their stories, to receive feedback, and to cognitively process information. Because of this, there should be no more than 8 participants in any one session.

  • Medication support/management/consultation - Often, elderly people are on too many medications, and this could be slowing them down physically, causing mental decline, and speeding up the aging process. We will make suggestions below on how medications can be managed.

  • Evidence-based therapies - A good outpatient elderly care program will also include evidence-based therapies (Bartels, 2003) to help the patients cope with their depression and anxiety, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), problem solving (Malhouff, 2007), reminiscence therapy (Elias, 2015), nutrition education, and medication education. Below, we will go into these therapies and why they are helpful.

Medications for aging adults

Benzodiazepines

Unfortunately, many elderly patients are prescribed benzodiazepines—drugs used to treat anxiety. Many primary care doctors have busy schedules with short appointment times. When the patient has hypertension, diabetes and osteoporosis, mental health can take a back seat to managing the more urgent health issues. The primary care doctor will usually just prescribe a benzodiazepine to deal with the anxiety issues.

There are several problems with giving benzodiazepines to the elderly. With time, the body gets used to the benzodiazepine, and the doctor starts to increase the dose. Then, the patient typically becomes even more depressed, more lethargic. This, in turn, increases other health issues.

That is why special consideration should be given when prescribing “benzos” to the elderly. It is also why Dr. Osorio’s goal in her outpatient program is to taper them off of their benzodiazepine medications. She says many of the patients she sees have been on them for 20-30 years.

Tapering a patient off of a benzo should be done very, very slowly in order to avoid delirium or worsening of anxiety.  

For example, if the patient is on 4mg of Xanax a day, Dr. Osario will convert them to Klonopin. Because of the half-life of the medication, the patient will have fewer symptoms of withdrawal when they start coming off of it. Then, she would reduce the dosage to 3mg of Klonopin over the next six months to a year.

Anticholinergic medications

As we age, our brain changes and there are parts of the brain that are going to have synapses that decrease. Acetylcholine actually decreases with age. But, if you add a medication that is anticholinergic, you are putting a bigger burden into that normal process. Then, there can be bad side effects such as confusion and dementia.

Because of that, Dr. Osorio says she will typically taper off or replace any medication with an anticholinergic burden. For example, the antidepressant Paroxetine is a no-go drug in the elderly population because it is very anticholinergic. The tricyclic antidepressants are also very anticholinergic. Nortriptyline, however, is one that Dr. Osorio would prescribe because it has much less of the anticholinergic burden at lower doses.

(I will put a list up on my website in my resource library of the different medications that are anticholinergic. Along with “Beers list,” medications that are contraindicated in older adults.)

Lithium

Physicians don't often think about lithium. Lithium is brain-protective (Forlenza, 2014). It has many functions that are very healthy and it actually produces neurogenesis in some patients. Consider, if you have a patient on an SSRI that isn’t responding how you’d like, adding a tiny dose of lithium (usually about 150-300mg).


Medication management for the elderly

Psychiatrists must work very closely with the patient’s primary care doctors. There are primary care doctors who also have a fellowship in geriatrics, but most do not have the specialized training needed to maximize mental health and minimize side effects. Sometimes it is helpful to have a conversation on behalf of the patient and guide them in certain medications. Every doctor should think about the whole body in general, and working with a primary care doctor can help psychiatrists do that.

A lot of older adults start feeling better when you start decreasing their meds. This indicates they were just depressed and did not have Major Depressive Disorder that required a heavy load of medications to manage it. It also shows that the depression was a side effect of medications. That, really, is the first thing you want to think about when you have a new patient and you see a very large list of medications that they are taking—are the symptoms because of the medication or is the medication helping alleviate symptoms? Should they be taking every single medication on the list?

There are a couple of studies that have talked about serotonin in older, depressed patients and how that can delay the progression of mild cognitive impairment of Alzheimer’s (Smith, 2017). One study showed that SSRIs are the best medications for it—Wellbutrin, SNRIs, tricyclics. There is actually another study done with older adults who had mild cognitive impairment and a history of depression (Bartels, 2018). Those who were taking SSRIs delayed progression of mild cognitive impairment by three years. But, in those patients who were put on another type of antidepressant, the progression was faster.

However, it is important to note that putting an elderly patient on an SSRI does not deal with the root of the issue. Therapy in conjunction with medication has been shown to be more powerful and sometimes eliminate the need for medication. If the patient is lonely, eating poorly, and has no life activities to look forward to, changing those factors can decrease the need for medication. Always consider therapy in addition to any psychiatric medication.

No matter what you prescribe, the patients have to take the medication for it to be helpful. Make sure to write down the medication, dosage, and times in clear language. Help the elderly patient understand what to take and when. When necessary, get helpful family members involved to remind the patient as well.

Therapy for the elderly

Another component of aging healthfully is receiving therapy. The cognitive load of aging alone, including the sum total of traumatic experiences, is often enough to require therapy to help with life transitions.

There are many forms of therapy available that can help the elderly experience a fuller life, deal with trauma safely, manage their depression and anxiety, and even stay mentally sharper for longer.


Problem solving therapy for the elderly

Problem-solving therapy is a way of teaching the elderly how to find ways to solve the particular problems that are unique to them. These problems cause anxiety and depression, so teaching them how to think about them, how to solve problems themselves, can give them a sense of autonomy and control. Sometimes, in therapy, you cannot solve the actual problem, per se, but the process of working through it together gives them different options that they can utilize if their anxiety starts to spike when they are alone.

For example, one elderly lady Dr. Osorio works with struggles with terrible anxiety. She recently broke her arm. She couldn’t clean her home, and her family would come over to help. She felt like a burden to them and was very anxious about this. During problem solving therapy, they  made a list of all of the things that needed to be done around the house, and then they marked the three things she could do, even with her broken arm, to help. She felt better knowing she could help her family while they were helping her. Even though we couldn’t fix the problem, we made it manageable, and gave her some autonomy back.


Reminiscence therapy for the elderly

In reminiscence therapy, you focus on reminiscing about good things. For example, Dr. Osorio will bring her elderly patients a picture of a turkey. She will ask them what it reminds them of. Everyone starts talking about Thanksgiving with their families. They discuss memories, smells, and they walk through the senses of what it was like for them at a happy time. This alone starts to fire up positive emotions in their brains and can change their moods instantly.

The cool thing about reminiscence therapy is that it even works with patients who have dementia, because their long-term memory is pretty solid. They can dip into their past and they immediately start brightening up. Their whole countenance changes.

It is a simple therapy to use, and it can be very helpful when dealing with depressed patients. They often feel alone, but when they begin to talk about the good times and share memories, it connects them to others in their group, and helps them make positive social connections.

Cognitive behavioral therapy for the elderly

There are also behavioral activations we can implement to help the elderly. The elderly patient typically has a hard time with scheduling routines. As their therapist, it can be helpful to get them to schedule a solid routine they can stick with because we have to break the cycle of depression and anxiety. For example, if you're depressed, you want to be in bed, you stay in bed, you get more depressed. This is damaging to an elderly person because it is much harder to get them to start scheduling and moving around again once they slow down. Activating their schedule can be a first step in keeping them independent for longer.

For elderly cognitive behavioral therapy, first, we do education on this process and then start helping them find ways in which they can break that lethargic routine. We want to help them choose an activity that they want to do so that it’s easier to break that cycle. Maybe that is going every Sunday to visit their grandkids. Maybe they can join a card game club, join a church, a quilting group, a storytelling group or take a community educational class. That one simple thing can break their cycle of depression, ease loneliness, and keep them engaged for longer.  

Aging and brain health

The evidence for maintaining brain health while aging says there are several things we can do to stay healthy: physical activity, socialization, nutrition and stress management.

Physical exercise

Dr. Osorio’s favorite exercise to recommend for the elderly is tai chi. Tai chi decreases the risks of falls in older adults (Lomas-Vega, 2017). There are even insurances that are starting to pay for tai chi for older adults because it is cheaper than fixing a broken hip. It’s a very easy, very smooth exercise.

For the wheelchair-bound, she recommends chair exercises. A physical therapist can help the patient move their arms, their torso, their necks. Maybe some of them can lift their legs from the knee up. Even if they can’t, they can still get a good exercise in and get some positive movement going.

When the elderly patient is doing really well in exercise they can start to add weights. Weights are very important because when they use weights their muscles are contracting and they’re positively impacting those bones. This is a good way to decrease osteoporosis. Even with the elderly, muscles can get stronger and their strength can increase. Studies even show that exercise in the elderly pretty much halts the dementia progression.


Socialization

Socialization is also very important. One study showed that the higher risk factor for morbidity and mortality was related to isolation (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). Isolation is actually toxic for our brains. If someone is home alone, they will usually die faster.

Being with friends and family and maintaining a social life helps the brain because it uses visuospatial skills, social skills and cognition. A simple conversation, a regular visit with a loved one or a new person can help an elderly person maintain positive brain health.

Human connection is necessary throughout all of life, and to have close, connected friends makes a huge difference. As part of her program, Dr. Osorio notices if they're having issues making friends, and she helps them create some behavioral activation to get them to places where there is a potential of making friends.


Nutrition

As far as nutrition goes, we have to take into account that the elderly population is pretty diverse. There are 60 year olds who are very fragile because of many health problems and there are 90 year olds who are pretty healthy.

Dr. Osorio personally recommends the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is a diet that consists of grains, fish, olive oil, avocado, fruits and vegetables. The Mediterranean diet offers omega-3 fatty acids in the fish, high poly and monounsaturated fats in the olive oil and in the nuts.  There is also a lower amount of sugar then the average American diet. If elderly patients are struggling with making the big change in their diets, it’s best to merely suggest they don’t consume processed foods.

The Mediterranean diet has been associated with a reduced risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or progressing to Alzheimer disease from MCI (Scarmeas, 2009). This year it was the number one diet recommended by the medical field.


Stress management

Stress reduction also adds to positive brain health. Mindfulness and visualization are both helpful practices to reduce stress. Stress reduction is not a one-time fix all. It is something that has to be practiced every single day in order to work.

Ask the patient to download a meditation app if they are technologically savvy, or even join a meditation group for seniors to increase their socialization. If neither of those works, getting them to quietly rest and close their eyes for even five minutes with the intention of relaxing, not just to nap or sleep, can have positive benefits.

Conclusion

If you work with the elderly, or know someone who is elderly, if they struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, or have comorbidity with other health issues, consider suggesting an outpatient group therapy for the elderly. It can be extremely helpful when paired with nutrition, exercise, and a cohesive plan with their primary care physician.

Other episodes I HIGHLY recommend if you are interested in treating elderly people:

Sensorium: Total Brain Function Optimization Part 1

Psychiatric Approach to Delirium with Dr. Timothy Lee

Questions, comments, thoughts? Please comment on the picture that corresponds to this post on my instagram: @Dr.DavidPuder

How to treat violent and aggressive patients

Link to show on: iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Overcast, PlayerFM, PodBean, TuneIn, Podtail, Blubrry, Podfanatic

On this week’s episode of the podcast, I interview Dr. Michael Cummings. Dr. Cummings works at a state psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, so he has extensive experience in treating patients for aggression and violence.

The different types of aggression

The words “aggression” and “violence” are sometimes used synonymously, but in reality, aggression can be physical or non-physical, and directed either against others or oneself. Violence is more of a use of force with an intent to inflict damage.

One study looked at the principle types of aggression and violence that occur in psychiatric patients, and broke it down into three categories:

  • Impulsive violence (the most common category)

  • Predatory violence (purposeful and planned violence)

  • Psychotically-driven violence (least common)

Within 5 state hospitals, 88 chronically or persistently violent patients with 839 assaults, the rate of impulsive violence was 54%, and predatory violence was 29%. Psychotically driven patients logged 17% of total violence (Meyers, M. Cummings et al., 2013). Studies show psychotically driven violence decreases the longer the patients are in care and medicated.

Predatory Violence

Predatory violence is what people typically think of when they think of psychopathy, or someone with antisocial personality disorder. It is violence with a purpose, and that purpose is usually to gain something. They typically show a lack of fear and very little autonomic arousal even when they are being violent.  The amygdala and the temporal lobe is underactive and the communication between them has a weak signal. People with predatory violence also have lower affective empathy.

Some of the early research done by Adrian Reign measured blood pressure, galvanic skin response and heart rate when showing neutral, frightening or peaceful pictures to children. Of those who lacked effective response or autonomic response to those pictures, 75% percent of those individuals became violent criminals by age 18. Interestingly, 25% of them became prosocial and entered jobs as police officers, bomb disposal experts, and so forth.

True psychopaths are a very tiny part of the population. About 2% of women score significantly on the psychopathy checklist. About 2-4% of men have elevated scores on the psychopathy checklist. Not all of those individuals, however, are violent, and many persons who are psychopathic are more interested in profit. Some become the crime bosses (not actually doing the violence themselves) and others end up in politics.

Impulsive violence

Impulsive violence or aggression is actually the most common, and in many ways the most complex, form of violence that occurs in a variety of mental illnesses, including:

  • psychosis

  • mood disorders

  • personality disorders

  • anxiety disorders

  • PTSD

It is essentially an imbalance in impulse generation and a failure of the prefrontal cortex to evaluate the impulse and weigh the consequences. All of us generate a variety of impulses, some good and some bad, including impulses driven by our irritability and anger.

In predatory aggression there is increased medial prefrontal cortex activity whereas in reactive aggression there is decreased activity.

What can cause impulsive violence to be an issue:

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Some of the dementias including frontotemporal dementias

  • Anoxic brain injury

  • Intellectual disability

  • Personality disorders

  • Drugs

  • Drug detox

Psychotic aggression

Psychotically driven aggression is most often a result of delusional ideation or the belief the person holds that they are in some way being persecuted and being taken advantage of. Psychotic or mentally ill people do have an increased rate of violence compared to the general population. The mentally ill are responsible for around 5% violent crimes, meaning non mentally ill people are responsible for 95%.

Psychotic Delusions leading to violence

Ones study looking specifically at the first episodes of psychosis found that in about 458 patients, anger was associated with certain types of delusions that led to the violence (Coid, 2013).

The underpinnings of delusion-driven violence usually stems from when people have delusional beliefs that are persecutory in nature. When they believe that someone is out to get them, it removes inhibitions against acting out violently, because that person’s view is they are protecting themselves. Typically, this violence comes from the belief they are being spied on or persecuted.

Persecutory delusions associated with a command hallucination is a particularly potent precursor to violent behavior. If your delusion tells you your neighbor is the devil, and your command auditory hallucination is that God is telling you to “kill him and save the world from destruction”  it can lead to a very bad outcome.

IQ and aggression

There is also an association between the IQ and aggression (Huesmann, 1987).

A recent study in state hospitals looked at what correlated with persisting violence, and across all of the types of violent behavior, cognitive deficits (particularly impairments and executive functioning) were associated with elevated rates of violence.

Men are more violent than women

Men are likely more violent than women because they have historically been the hunters, which involves violence. Women were gatherers more often than not, and consequently, men have a standing evolutionary tendency toward more frequent use of violence. Women can be violent, but if you look at the rates of violence between men and women, men are clearly more violent.

The purpose of aggression  

You could say the healthiest outcome for our aggressive and violent impulses is when we use our innate ability to be aggressive to engage in things like a healthy competition. Or even to provide motivation and drive to achieve.

In the beginning, humanity formed tribes, and aggression allowed someone to climb up the dominance hierarchy within the tribe. It also allowed them to protect themselves from other tribes. It was basic for survival.

If we look at animal psychology, there is a lot we can learn about the aggression and dominance hierarchy, like how apes interact with each other, or form alliances. As a way of creating alliances, often an alpha ape will groom other males.  The violence comes out when the clans come against each other. When one ape is wandering from its clan, two apes from another clan may attack one single ape viciously.

In other circumstances, if a dominant ape is taken away from his clan for a couple of days and brought back into the clan, a couple of other apes may have formed a new alliance against the prior leader and attack him.

As human beings, we are also like this. Many of our social interactions and group structures have the same kinds of alliances and effects of absence can play out similarly. Of course as humans, we do have higher verbal centers, and philosophy or spirituality, that allows an individual to be less violent and to transcend their base instincts.

Aggression and autism

People with intellectual challenges most often exhibit impulsive violence, particularly those on the autistic spectrum. The person may have a greater difficulty processing or understanding their own emotions if there are significant intellectual deficits. They may also have elements of not being able to judge a response or to moderate a response. The general pathophysiology of the autistic spectrum disorder suggests that the connections between neurons and the autistic brain is not what it should be, and they are not differentiated so that information processing can be fragmented.

Treatment of aggression

Psychotic aggression treatment

Treating with an antipsychotic medication is helpful and decreases violent episodes. In one study, clozapine helped psychotic aggressive patients with executive dysfunction more, compared to using haldol or olanzapine (Krakowski, 2011).   

Psychopathic aggression treatment

A predatory-violent individual needs to be contained in prison if there is a demonstrated past of persistent violence.

There is evidence that by enhancing intellectual empathy, psychopaths will be less violent. There is also interesting research that by giving oxytocin, the hormone that increases affiliation and collaboration, may have a moderating effect on some psychopathic individuals.

However, in terms of psychopharmacology, we don’t have any specific medications to control that behavior. Some medications, such as clozapine, can affect the underlying issues behind psychotic behavior and thereby reduce it, but there is no direct treatment for psychopathic violence pharmacologically.   

Impulsive aggression treatment

Dr. Cummings discussed the use of Mood stabilizers helping in persons with borderline personality disorder, SSRIs and trazodone helping in dementing illness in the elderly and alpha 2 agonists in people with things like autism or TBI. Alpha 2 agonists (clonidine) can fool the brain stem into thinking enough norepinephrine has been released, then less norepinephrine is secreted, making the brain stem calm down.

Essentially, in an emotional disorder, if you change the affective (limbic) tone, you can decrease the likelihood of emotionally reactive aggression, for example, by using mood stabilizers lithium and divalproex.  

Using an antipsychotic, and not just a mood stabilizer, doesn’t show any benefit for traumatic brain injury patients. Antipsychotics have been used for people with autism spectrum disorder, and some evidence shows that drugs like risperidone can be helpful to control outburst issues. If there is evidence of sexual aggression (or aggression occurring at women after puberty), using an GnRH agonist—antiandrogen treatment—can sometimes be necessary).

Psychotherapy for aggression

There have been a number of anger management therapies that have been used over time. Therapists can help people be aware of their anger and manage their impulses, or push their anger and aggression toward a more prosocial response.

For people with borderline personality disorder, dialectical behavioral therapy, mentalization based therapy or transference therapy are important. For schizophrenic patients, a good therapeutic alliance is important to create medication compliance. I have touched on how to process anger in my microexpression series and will have future episodes focusing more on the psychotherapy approaches to anger.  

Overall in therapy, we must assume that our patients will lie to us sometimes because they are afraid, and double check to insure they are following our prescribed protocol. We must also work hard to build trust and a therapeutic alliance.

Final Thoughts

Violence and aggression deserve much more attention as a specialty than we have given it in the past. It is a major burden for family members and friends.

Please submit any questions you have and we will submit them to Dr. Cummings and to answer.

(In the podcast details about specific medications are discussed for psychiatrists who are interested in advanced psychopharmacology.)

Further reading:

Link to Ideal blood levels are found in Resource Library

“California State Hospital Violence Assessment and Treatment (Cal-VAT) guidelines”




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