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Multitasking and distraction

“In a time where no one seems to have enough time, our devices allow us to be many places at once — but at the cost of being unable to fully inhabit the place where we actually want to be.  Mindfulness says we can do better.” — Time Magazine cover article on mindfulness, February 3, 2014.

Many of us use electronic devices like smartphones, tablets, and others that seem to define modern life.  We can send a message to our friends about getting together during a 30-second elevator ride.  Sounds great, right?  But is there a cost to our constant multitasking?  Are children who use such devices more prone to attention deficit problems?  Has our collective attention span been shortened by the ever-increasing use of these devices — and if so, is that really a problem?

Our minds naturally have a tendency to gravitate toward distraction and away from being present.  Working on a laptop using multiple windows, using a browser with multiple pages open, or using smartphones while  on a bus, in an elevator, or even walking down the street can feed this unhealthy tendency.  This is a bit of a problem because it interferes with our important natural ability to be present and relaxed.  Multitasking has even been described as a bit of an addiction. The more multitasking we do, the more of it we want to do, and the less comfortable we are simply being somewhere without doing anything. Getting caught in a spiral like that can end up causing sleep and anxiety difficulties, erode our ability to be patient, and increase irritability.

Our ability to attend to something can be strengthened or weakened, like a muscle.  Mindfulness and meditation practice help strengthen this muscle.  Multitasking weakens it.  Shorter attention spans make us worse listeners and detract from our ability to be “in the moment” when we really want to.  For example, turn on any baseball or basketball game and notice the people with front row seats busy on their smartphones during the game they’ve paid so much to attend. Giving in to the temptation to multitask in can make it harder to take in the important and meaningful situations that make up our lives.

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Mindfulness and OCD

As mindfulness-based treatments gain currency in mental health treatment, many people wonder how many types of problems it can address.  Research shows us that it can be helpful in the treatment of chronic pain, worry, stress and other difficulties; why not try it for other problems? While this is not a bad idea on its face, it is important to know whether clinical research suggests it can help for a given problem.  As of this posting, to my knowledge, there have not been any systemic controlled clinical trials of mindfulness-based therapies for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  Hopefully this will change very soon, but for now it is important to remember that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)  is a much more established treatment for OCD.  Informed therapists using CBT to treat OCD may find ways to integrate some mindfulness techniques into conventional CBT, but these techniques should be considered a supplement to treatment and not a viable alternative to CBT.  Stay tuned to this blog for developments on research on the use of mindfulness for OCD and other disorders.

Mindfulness has a lot in common with CBT for OCD.  Some might contend that being trained to use exposure techniques for OCD is really a form of mindfulness training.  Patients using exposure are trained to experience their reactions to an anxiety-provoking situation without avoiding them or indulging them.  This overlaps very strongly with mindfulness skills.  However, mindfulness skills are applied much more broadly to any and all situations we encounter in life, whereas exposure-based skills are focused solely on situations relevant to OCD.  If you’d like to use mindfulness to address your OCD, doing so in the context of standard CBT for OCD is recommended.

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Be an Informed Consumer!

In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to  the relationships between the healthcare and  pharmaceutical industries. Has the pharmaceutical industry been influencing the treatment of depression and anxiety?  The use of prescription medication in the United States is higher than in other industrialized nations.  What do the complicated relationships between these industries mean for those seeking help for anxiety or depression? To learn more, read the entire piece at

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Treatment for OCD

Did you know that good treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder is just as likely to include cognitive-behavioral therapy as medication?  The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in the UK recommends that adults with mild to moderate symptoms of OCD be offered either cognitive-behavioral therapy or an antidepressant medication (SSRI).  The recommendation for adults with severe symptoms is that they undertake both treatments, as both are safe and effective treatments that perform similarly in research studies.
National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.  (2006). Obsessive-compulsive disorder. London: British Psychological Society and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

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The virtues of a focused mind

Many people with a form of anxiety characterized by overworrying find that they spend an excessive amount of time pondering either the future or the past.  New research published this month in Science suggests that doing so worsens our mood.  Does this very human tendency to get caught up in thoughts about the past and future affect you?  Try an experiment: over the next hour, set a timer to go off every ten minutes.  When it does, immediately ask yourself what your mind was doing at the exact moment the timer went off.  Were you ruminating about the past?  Were you lost in thought about how you hope the future will be?  Or were you totally focused on what you were doing?  It takes practice to get better at focusing, i.e., not getting lost in thought.  Practicing a focus on whatever you’re doing is a great way to accomplish this — whether you’re reading an article, eating a meal, or jogging down the street, you can look for moments when you’ve become distracted from what you’re doing, and resume your focus the activity.  The best way I know to hone this skill is meditation.




Posted in Meditation, Research.

The Psychology of Hoarding

By special guest writer, Allison Gamble

Many people find it difficult to understand what goes on in the mind of a hoarder. Most people can look at a broken appliance and throw it away without a second thought. To a hoarder, however, throwing away that broken appliance is an unthinkable as throwing out away a brand new appliance that was purchased yesterday. If you think you might be a hoarder, or are trying to help someone recover, here is some information that can help you.

Hoarding vs. Collecting
Experts make a distinction between hoarders and collectors. They specify that while hoarders find it difficult to throw anything away, people who are simply disorganized are more than willing to throw things away. While collectors can classify their collection, a hoarded stockpile defies any pattern of organization. People who are simply messy are willing to accept help and can throw things away, but hoarders want absolute control over anything leaving the house and are typically determined to pick through every box and bag looking for lost items.

Collectors are specific about what they bring into their home. They are typically at least somewhat organized with the collection, and the collection is presented and displayed. The home of a collector will not have narrow paths winding through mountains of indiscriminate “stuff,” but it may feature dolls or teacups on every flat surface throughout the home. While collecting can have its own issues, it is not the same as hoarding.

Hoarders, on the other hand, are willing to hold onto a much broader range of items. They do not limit themselves to any one genre, organization is non-existent, and the hoard can quickly overcome all other activities in the home. There is no neat display of treasured items, although hoarders are convinced that there are items of immense value buried within the hoard.

Progressing with Age
Hoarding typically becomes more of a problem as the hoarder ages. The tendency to hoard can be seen even at a very young age. In young children it will typically manifest as an extreme attachment to things and the tendency to apply human-like characteristics to objects. As the hoarder grows, the problem may become more severe, especially as a person enters middle age.

“I might need that someday.”
One common statement heard from hoarders is that they might need an item someday. That the item is easily replaced at the local hardware store is irrelevant. That they will probably never need it at all doesn’t matter. That they will never be able to find it when they do need it does not cross their mind. They might need it someday and so they hold on to it. This can be difficult to understand, but to the hoarder it’s a legitimate concern.

Waste Not, Want Not
Another common characteristic of hoarders is that they can’t stand trash; that is, they can’t stand seeing things thrown out to sit in landfills and they hate to see anything go to waste. This is one of the factors that drives them to hold on to so many items. They mistakenly believe that they will someday use that item, and therefore it will not be wasted.

Well-meaning friends and acquaintances make this situation worse when they give them items rather than taking them to the thrift store. A hoarder will gladly accept almost anything, if only to prevent it from landing at the county dump.

They also might be very imaginative about the levels they can take recycling to. They can think of a million and one uses for that empty paper towel holder. The fact that it sits for years on end in a pile of trash does not bother them. They know that they might do something with it, when that elusive ‘someday’ arrives.

The Blind Eye
Hoarders possess the uncanny ability to become completely blind to the growing piles and problem. They can notice when a store is dirty or a restaurant has a few napkins on the floor, but at home they appear to be completely oblivious to the mountains of garbage that surround them. Most people who are hoarding don’t see a problem, making treatment extremely challenging.

Safety Nets
Hoarders also sometimes believe that they are building a safety net for themselves. They believe that holding on to items that they may need someday will create a financial safety net, as though the trash of today will become the treasure of tomorrow.

After suffering a serious loss, they may decide to hold on to physical things as a way of protecting themselves from the outside world. The devastating loss of a loved one through death or divorce can drive someone with hoarding inclinations to hide behind walls of junk in their own home. Sometimes these walls of junk will include mementos of the person they lost, making disposing of anything even more difficult.

Hoarding is a problem that typically does not go away with age. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be helpful by targeting specific relevant behaviors (e.g., shopping) and beliefs (e.g. “I should save all my magazines”) that contribute to the problem. Hoarders should not be shamed or ridiculed as this will only make the problem worse. It is also important that well-meaning friends and family members do not just clean out the hoard for them. Hoarding is a mental illness and it should be treated as such; and the sufferer deserves to be treated with care and respect.


Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the world of internet marketing.

Posted in OCD, Psychotherapy. Tagged with , .

Could I really stab someone with a knife?

Obsessions involving violence are common among persons with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Often, these obsessions start innocently enough with a fleeting thought — e.g., “Hey, there’s a big steak knife on the kitchen table — it sure would be horrible if I were to stab someone with it…” For many people, this thought will come and go without creating any kind of emotional upset. However, for some OCD sufferers, this thought becomes a recurrent one that is hard to shake. For these unlucky individuals, the more unpleasant it feels, the more likely it is to return —  and the more terrifying it becomes. The thought is often accompanied by reasoning such as, “I know I don’t want to do it… but what if I did! I mean, what if I just lost control for 2 seconds!”  For persons coping with such deeply troubling thoughts, just being around knives or other sharp objects (especially around loved ones) can be nearly impossible.

Through exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, one learns different ways to process these thoughts. Typically, your therapist will guide you toward new patterns of thought and behavior that will require you to face some of your fear around knives. This change happens largely as a product of your doing exercises, called exposures, in which you might imagine being in a room with knife and a loved one for several minutes. When these exercises are conducted properly and under the guidance of a therapist using ERP, the fear gradually improves. Many who have used ERP successfully to cope with such obsessions say that as terrifying as these thoughts were initially, the relief they feel after ERP is as gratifying as the obsessions were upsetting.

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New meditation and genetics research – The Shamatha Project

Stress is unavoidable.  However, we handle stress is often within our control.  There are good ways and bad ways to handle stress, and meditation is considered a healthy stress reduction strategy.

To lower our stress levels, we can either reduce the number of stressors in our lives or we can try to reduce the effect of these stressors.  Research suggests that meditation helps us reduce stress by limiting the extent to which each stressor bothers us. As a result, our overall stress levels decrease.

So we know that meditation lowers stress, and that healthy stress management is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.  But some innovative new research is showing that meditation may exert some of its healthy effects on a cellular level.  The Shamatha Project is a meditation research project unprecedented in its scope and design.   The project randomized people into two groups — one of which did a three-month intensive meditation retreat, and the other did not.  One of the study’s findings was that the group that did the meditation retreat had greater levels of telomerase activity than the control group.  What is telomerase? It’s an enzyme that is thought to exert health-building or anti-aging effects on a genetic level.  The possibility that meditation could have anti-aging effects is very exciting, of course, and may be true.  However we don’t know that quite yet.  Further research is needed to replicate this finding, and to better understand the ways in which telomerase affects telomeres.  (Telomeres are a protective part of our chromosomes that shorten with age and repeated cell division; research is currently investigating exactly how important telomeres are to the aging process.)

The fact that doing a meditation retreat was associated with higher levels of telomerase could mean that meditation affects the aging process on a cellular level; or it could be a byproduct of reduced stress levels.  Perhaps other stress-reducing activities, like exercise, would have a similar effect on telomerase.  Future research will clarify the picture.  The Shamatha project is a unique and extensive research study that will greatly aid the scientific understanding of meditation.  To learn more about shamatha, visit here or here, or check out Turning the Mind Into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham.

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OCD research study

If you are interested in receiving Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy for OCD but cannot get to a therapist, you might consider participating in the following research study:

The project is conducted through the psychology department of Drexel University in Philadelphia.  The project investigates ERP as delivered via Skype.

Sat Anlage

Aufbau, Installation, Informationen und alles rund um Technik

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Meditation and your brain

A recent and important research study out of neuroimaging researcher Sara Lazar’s lab (my old lab) at Massachusetts General Hospital was published in late January.  The study found changes in the structure of the brains in people who completed an eight-week class in mindfulness meditation.  This finding is another example of scientists finding evidence that that the brain can experience far more physical changes than previously thought.  This study suggests that we can change our brains in just eight weeks!  The authors of the study tell us that in their study, people who completed the eight-week mindfulness meditation program experienced changes in parts of their brains “responsible for learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”

The eight-week meditation program used in that study is known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a meditation program developed at the University of Massachusetts that has been shown to be helpful in the reduction of anxiety and stress.  MBSR has also been shown to reduce the impact of chronic pain, and to have other positive health effects. In the past 25 years, MBSR has become more widely available.  In the New York area, the Mindfulness Meditation New York Collaborative is a good resource for learning more about MBSR and for finding local MBSR classes.

Thanks to research studies like the brain study described above, we are learning more about how helpful mindfulness meditation can be.

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