Category: Expanding Mind: All About Mental Health and Personal Growth

What I Learned From Hurricane Sandy

by Margie Nichols Nope, I’m not blogging about gratitude.  Though the situation certainly includes many possibilities for that.  Just a couple of things I noticed, given so much time on my hands:   1) We Are Animals.  Our Bodies Prevail.  In our section of Jersey city, where we were asked to wait out the storm inside rather than evacuate, everyone I knew hunkered down – and down, and down, and down.  It felt like hibernating, the decrease in energy level.  For me, it didn’t happen at first, not until 2) We are Nesters and Nurturers.  I didn’t start to hibernate until after a frantic burst of activity.  Well, FIRST first – I experienced dazed shock, disbelief, and a desire to pretend this would have the same lack of impact as Irene did in 2011.  Then, I forced myself to face reality and ‘sprang into action.’  Battening down the hatches.  Cooking.  Freezing.  Making ice. Planning. Organizing.  THEN hibernation, when it was done.  My teenage daughters, on the other hand – they went into vegetative mode instantly.  Tho it’s hard to tell the difference between that and their normal indoor behavior. 4) We Really Depend on Electronics.  But we’re ok without them. … Read more »

Bhutan – Shangri La For The 21St Century?

by Margie Nichols, Ph.D. For the last decade or so, I’ve increasingly felt glimmerings of a consciousness raising in the United States, a growing movement of people dissatisfied with materialism as their sole or primary life goal.  They seem to be  aware of the ‘Easterlin Effect,’ the oft-repeated finding that above a certain relatively modest income level, more money, more stuff, doesn’t mean more happiness.  The recession has complicated this movement, making it at the same time more and less relevant to our immediate lives.   But the signs are around us, in the ‘mindfulness’ movement, in environmentalism, in the increasingly common discourse about work-life balance. And then today I picked up Time Magazine and read an article about Bhutan, a tiny little country in the Himalayas whose government has recently transitioned from monarchy to budding democracy and is trying to achieve ‘sustainable development,’ i.e., economic growth that doesn’t devastate the culture and environment and lead to inequality and loss of quality of life. And how is Bhutan doing this?  Among other things, they are actually attempting to measure happiness, or rather they are trying to include life quality as an official economic indicator. The Bhutanese are not using Gross Domestic… Read more »

Death By Overwork? Ask The Japanese

By Margie Nichols, Ph.D. I read an article this week about Karoshi, ‘death by overwork,’ a phenomenon that has been common in Japan since the early 90’s. At that time, many Japanese, who have the longest average work week in the world, starting dropping dead of heart attacks and strokes attributed to their ridiculously long hours – an average of 60 hours a week, every week per year.  In the last few years, the nature of Karoshi has changed, as has Japan’s economic picture.  Increasingly, younger people feel fortunate to get jobs as ‘salarymen,’ i.e., permanent salaried jobs. Japanese economy is driven more and more by temporary workers who get no job benefits and no guarantees of job permanency. Those who are ‘salarymen’ feel unable to turn down requests to work crazy hours for fear of losing their positions and plunging into poverty.  Depression and suicide have become epidemic, with the police estimating that one third of suicides in Japan are triggered by work stress. Clearly, it is possible to work yourself to death. On the heels of reading about Karoshi, I read research showing that unemployment leads to upsurges in depression rates.  So which is true? Is it ‘overwork’… Read more »

How To Raise A Child Who Is Different

By Margie Nichols, Ph.D. This is another post about parenting, but from a different perspective.  A while ago I wrote about how parenting styles don’t matter. This is about something that does.  We know through research that kids who are ‘different’ can be shielded from the effects of a judgmental world through the efforts of their parents. This piece  started out as a blog about this terrific article, “My 7-Year Old Son Wants a ‘Likes Boys’ T-Shirt, and Here is Why He’s Going to Get It.” These parents are raising a boy who already identifies as gay and has crushes on other boys, and they are doing it in a way that both affirms and protects him. They are buying him the t-shirt he wants, a copy of one worn by Blaine on ‘Glee,’ that says ‘Likes Boys.’  They are monitoring under what circumstances he can wear it, so that he will not risk being an object of hate.   And it struck me that my partner Nancy and I used the same strategy raising our son, born in 1983. Cory was one of the first wave of ‘turkey baster babies,’ Kids born through donor insemination (often self-insemination, hence the name)… Read more »

Advice for Living

by Margie Nichols, Ph.D. Nope, not advice from me.  Advice from Sheldon Kopp, a psychotherapist who lived from 1929 to 1999.  Kopp believed that people find their way in life by living fully and by facing reality squarely, without illusion.  The title of his book – “If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him”- reflects his belief that there is no higher authority than you when it comes to figuring out your own truth.  These 43 statements are pretty deep, Imo.  Kopp wasn’t a romantic – check out #10, one of my faves, which basically says life is unfair, bad things happen to good people and nobody ‘makes up’ for your losses.  Or #4 – we’re dying already and we’ll be dead a long time. Or #12, the world is random. And yet Kopp is anything but a pessimist.  He’s an old school Existentialist.  He’s big on taking personal responsibility for  your own life, on facing the irrationality of the world and on finding a way of accepting it.  And he believes that we bring our own meaning to life.  This is a scary idea – we can’t rely on religion, leaders, or gurus to tell us how… Read more »

Diapers, Dads, Testosterone, and the Mommy Culture

by Margie Nichols, Ph.D. Two articles about gender differences and childcare have been on my mind lately.  The first is an article by Tara Parker-Pope published early in 2012 in the Times Sunday Magazine.  She reports on research showing the predictable gender differences in child-care activities, even when both parents work, but also showing that mothers enjoy child care more.  The lead author of the study speculates that biology may be at work in the form of testosterone, citing, for example, studies showing that women with high levels of testosterone often show less interest in babies. The second is a more recent article on a study showing that testosterone levels DROP in men when they are involved in doing a significant amount of childcare. The tone of this article was much more cautious, lots more ambivalence about the results.  The lead sentence: “This is probably not the news fathers want to hear.”  The worry, of course, is that men will interpret this result to mean that dads who take care of their kids become wimps.  The study investigators, however, put a much more positive spin on the data, saying “…  this should be viewed as, ‘Oh it’s great, women aren’t the only… Read more »

The Power Of Negative Thinking

By Margie Nichols, Ph.D. Recently  someone sent me a blog post written by Christina Patterson in 2009.  In it, she takes some shots at the ‘Positive Thinking’ movement and cites research showing the advantages of negative mood on thought.  Critiques of the Positive Psychology movement – psychology’s antidote to focusing on mental illness – are not new.  We’ve known for a long time, for example, that ‘optimists’ are less realistic about life than ‘pessimists,’ that upbeat people truly do see the world through rose-colored glasses compared to people who are chronically mildly depressed.  And Barbara Ehrenreich delivered a scathing criticism of the movement and its founder, Martin Seligman, in her 2010 book  ‘Bright Sided: How Positive Psychology is Undermining America.  Ehrenreich makes the case that the ‘positive thinking’ movement is just another way to try to get people to be contented with a basically unfair political and economic system. Politics aside, there are good reasons to resist the idea of a world full of optimistic, eternally cheerful people.  Reasons besides the fact that us more cynical types would never want to leave our houses.  Patterson reports the conclusions of the researchers: “Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, co-operation… Read more »

The ‘Dodo Bird Verdict’

By Margie Nichols, Ph.D. Recently, Scientific American published a piece called  “Are All Psychotherapies Created Equal”?   The article reports on a debate that, incredibly, has been going on since 1936, when psychologist Saul Rosenzweig  used the metaphor of the Dodo Bird in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to describe research comparing the effectiveness of different types of psychotherapy.  In ‘Alice,’ the Dodo Bird judges a race by declaring the ‘everyone has won, and all must have prizes;’ Rosenzweig believed that this was true of psychotherapy:  that all recognized methods of psychotherapy are better than no therapy, and that the type of therapy matters not at all. In the nearly 80 years since, most researchers have concluded nearly the same thing.   To be sure, there are a few exceptions.  Behavioral techniques appear to be most effective for severe depression and for some anxiety disorders, for example.  And occasionally therapy can do harm:  research revealed that ‘critical incident debriefing,’ a technique involving pressuring  people who have survived a traumatic event to recount (and relive) that event, actually INCREASED the incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in these survivors. Moreover, the research over the last number of decades has only looked at ‘recognized’ treatments, which means… Read more »

Farewell, Thomas Szasz- You Changed My Life

Thomas Szasz , the psychiatrist who himself was one of psychiatry’s most strident critic, died on Saturday September 8 at the age of 92.  I’ve read several obits, some praising and some ridiculing the man, but none that capture his real importance.  The writers are taking the arguments of Szasz’  seminal book, “The Myth of Mental Illness,” way too literally.  Szasz called mental illness ‘problems in living’ and scoffed at the idea they were literally rooted in brain malfunction.  On this one, he was partly to largely wrong. But his larger points had nothing to do with this.   Szazs’ saw  psychiatry as a companion to and replacement for religion in the modern world, and he saw both institutions equally committed to preserving the status quo by policing behavior of the average citizen.  Those who transgress social rules and social mores are either ‘bad’ or ‘mad.’  The former are condemned to Hell and/or imprisoned, the latter locked away in madhouses. Szasz was the first to expose psychiatry as a tool of political oppression.  Today we know that the history of psychiatry is fraught with shameful collusion with the holders of social power.  In the 1800’s, ‘drapetomania’ was a mental disease that supposedly caused… Read more »


In recent months there has been a show of rebellion against what some have called the fetishization of motherhood, including some articles that even question that most sacred of cows (no pun intended), breast-feeding.  The Time Magazine cover story of May 2012, “Are You Mom Enough?” is the most well known, but other similar articles have appeared in the New York Times and progressive magazines and online blogs.  No less a mainstream figure than Jane Brody has questioned the science behind breastfeeding! The critiques are of ‘intensive parenting’ credos, the best known of which is called ‘attachment parenting,’ and they have been of several types.  Some attack the science- the science behind attachment parenting claims is essentially non-existent and even our beliefs about the importance of breast feeding in a First World country may not be grounded in fact.  Others attack the politics of these practices, and indeed they seem to be practical only for upper middle class women not interested in pursuing a career and not in need of full-time work.  Some complaints from a feminist perspective focus on the ways that ‘intensive parenting’ beliefs denigrate women who do not share this parenting style, and particularly less privileged women…. Read more »