Dr. Sarah Ravin - Psychologist | Eating Disorders |Body Image Issues | Depression | Anxiety | Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders | Self-Injury
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Dr. Sarah Ravin

Welcome to my professional blog. I am a Florida Licensed Psychologist and trained scientist-practitioner. In 2008, I received my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. A major component of my professional identity is staying informed about recent developments in the field so that I may provide my clients with scientifically sound information and evidence-based treatment. There is a plethora of information on the internet about Eating Disorders, Depression, Anxiety, Psychotherapy. Unfortunately, much of this information is unsubstantiated and some of it is patently false. It is my hope that by sharing my thoughts and opinions on psychological issues, with scientific research and clinical experience sprinkled in for good measure, I can help to bridge the gap between research and treatment.

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Evolution Category

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Exercise and Eating Disorders: It’s Not What You Think

Exercise very often plays a role in the development of restrictive eating disorders, particularly Anorexia Nervosa (AN). Some people view exercise as “a form of purging” or “a way to get rid of calories.” These explanations seem to make sense in light of modern western society’s views on exercise, similar to the theory that people with AN restrict their calories in order to conform to society’s thin ideal. But like the thin ideal theory, the “exercise purging” theory is an erroneous attempt to make sense of a puzzling symptom in the context of modern society.

In AN, excessive exercise, just like food restriction, is a biologically-based symptom, driven by something beyond conscious control or awareness. Patients do not exercise “to burn calories,” although they may insist that burning calories is their motivation. Consider, for example, the fact that even patients who know they are too thin are motivated to gain weight (yes, such patients do exist), often cannot stop themselves from moving unless they are forced to do so. Young children with AN are especially susceptible to the drive to exercise even though they have no idea what calories are or how to burn them.

A little history may help to put this into context. People did not really exercise for the purposes of physical fitness and attractiveness prior to the “exercise boom” of the 1970’s and 1980’s. However, hyperactivity was a symptom of AN long before Jane Fonda’s exercise videos found their way into American living rooms.

The nineteenth-century British Physician William Gull, the first clinician to describe AN medically, was surprised by the seemingly boundless energy that his anorexic patients possessed despite their emaciated state. In his 1874 paper entitled Anorexia Nerovsa, he wrote the following description of a young anorexic girl: “The patient complained of no pain, but was restless and active…it seemed hardly possible that a body so wasted could undergo the exercise which seemed agreeable.” Clearly, this young woman was not motivated by the pursuit of a thinner body, as the idea of exercising to “burn calories” would not emerge until a century later.

Animal research has shown that the hyperactivity commonly associated with AN is rooted in neurobiology and may serve an adaptive evolutionary purpose. For example, activity-based anorexia can be experimentally induced in rats which, like humans, evolved as opportunistic omnivorous foragers. When food-deprived lab rats are given free access to a running wheel, they become hyperactive, lose large amounts of weight, and will often die unless they are removed from these experimental conditions. I highly doubt that these rats were running excessively to purge calories, ward off obesity, or pursue some unrealistic standard of rodent beauty.

So why would AN, which leads to numerous health problems, infertility, and death, remain in our gene pool for tens of thousands of years? Shan Gusinger, an evolutionary biologist and a psychologist, posits that AN has evolved in humans as a means of helping us flee from food-depleted environments. The restless energy, grandiosity, and lack of awareness of one’s starved body allowed prehistoric anorexics to lead their tribes in migrations from food-depleted areas to plentiful ones.

Once the anorexic leader and her tribe arrived in a plentiful environment, the tribe feasted, pressuring the anorexic leader to indulge in food with them. In the absence of modern society’s thin ideal and without our modern obesity hysteria, prehistoric anorexics may have been able to allow their families to feed them, restoring their health and fertility. Even if the anorexic herself died of her condition or was rendered infertile, her close genetic relatives survived and reproduced, thus ensuring the continuity of AN into the next generation.

In our modern world, where children are encouraged to exercise more and make “healthy” (e.g. lower calorie) food choices as early as kindergarten, it is no wonder that AN is still around. During the pre-teen years, when rapid vertical growth and pubertal development demand extra energy, girls and boys are hit hard with the social pressures to be thin (for girls) or lean and ripped (for boys). The rapid weight gain that is necessary for growth and development is feared and despised in these growing children (and often, sadly, in their parents and pediatricians).

Adding add fuel to the fire, the pre-teen years are when intense and time-consuming athletic training begins. Competitive sports provide socially-applauded outlets for the young anorexic’s hyperactivity. No one bats an eye at the 12-year-old dancer who spends hours each evening at her studio in preparation for her next audition, or the 11-year-old boy who plays multiple back-to-back games each weekend with his elite travelling soccer team. Meanwhile, these children are making “healthy food choices,” consuming too few calories and fats to keep up with normal growth, let alone intense daily exercise.

In these vulnerable children, their vertical growth is stunted, their pubertal development is halted, and their intense athletic drive is praised by adults. And before you know it, they have fallen down the rabbit hole and developed full-blown AN. In this way, hyperactivity serves as both a precipitating factor and a perpetuating factor in the development of AN.

In my next post, I will discuss the role of exercise in eating disorder recovery.

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Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Attachment to Theories

It is human nature to concoct theories in attempt to explain various phenomenon. As human beings, we have the capacity to problem-solve, to think critically and creatively about issues which impact us. For centuries, people have constructed theories as a means of “making sense” of things.

The need to create theories arises most often when the reason or cause of an event or circumstance is not readily apparent. For example, in ancient Greek mythology, the god Apollo rode his chariot across the sky every day, carrying the sun from east to west. Now we have modern science to explain the earth’s rotation on its axis every 24 hours, thus creating the appearance of the sun moving overhead from east to west, so the myth of Apollo is no longer necessary.

In modern times, science has replaced mythology and theory as our means of understanding various phenomena. While modern science has helped us understand many phenomenon, we still do not know what happens to us after death. This explains the popularity of major world religions which offer theories to answer these questions, such as heaven in Christianity or reincarnation in Hinduism.

In contrast to physics, chemistry, and biology, which have existed for millennia, psychology is a relatively new science. Relatively little is known about the causes of, and effective treatments for, mental illnesses. Therefore, numerous psychological theories have been proposed over the past century in attempt to explain psychological disorders. For example, in the 1950’s mental health professionals believed that autism and schizophrenia were caused by emotionally frigid “refrigerator mothers.”

With the advent of better science in recent decades, we have learned that parenting style plays no role whatsoever in the development of autism nor schizophrenia. While the precise causes of these brain disorders are unknown, we do know that autism and schizophrenia are neuro-biological disorders with strong heritability components, and that the patient’s parents can be extraordinarily valuable resources in treatment if they are given the right professional support.

While our current understanding of mental illness is in its infancy, recent scientific research has shed some light on factors that influence the development of mental illnesses. We also have some scientific data demonstrating that certain types of treatment are more effective than others for certain populations. In light of our current understanding of the etiology and effective treatment of mental illness, I am profoundly disappointed when I read about well-meaning but misinformed psychologists who cling to antiquated theories of mental illness and practice antiquated treatments.

For example, psychologist and author Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LICSW, believes that eating disorders are rooted in unhealthy or disrupted attachments to parents. In her recent Psychology Today blog post, she writes:

“For many individuals, eating disorders are attempts to fix externally what is internally vulnerable in an individual. Yet the cause of an eating disorder can often be traced back to attachment patterns that are weak or failing in childhood, which leave someone vulnerable to a whole host of self-esteem, self-worth and relationship issues later in life.”

This theory has a familiar odor. It reeks of refrigerator mothers, castration anxiety, and unconscious conflicts. In 1950, this was all we had. But now, in 2011, we know so much more.

Why do some psychologists cling to antiquated theories which have been disproven? Similarly, one may ask why many people cling to the theory of creationism when we have solid scientific evidence to support evolution. For some people, the notion that “we came from monkeys” is insulting and offensive and clashes with their existing belief system. The story of creationism is a foundation of Judeo-Christian religions, and (at least in its literal interpretation) is incongruent with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The same is true with psychological theories. Many people who have been trained in psychodynamic or relational approaches feel that the new science runs counter to everything they have been taught and undermines the type of treatment they practice. They cling to their theories and defend them with religious fervor. The new science threatens their religion.

The problem here is that psychology is not a religion; it is a science. In the United States, we all enjoy freedom of religion – the freedom to believe whatever we wish and practice any religion we choose without persecution. We should not have freedom of science. As experts in the field of psychology with doctoral-level degrees, we should not have the freedom to write and publish whatever we happen to believe, and practice whatever method of treatment we wish, without accountability.

I was a graduate student relatively recently (2001 – 2008), and I was taught many things in my training that I no longer believe to be accurate. This is not a failure of my training; this is a reality of an evolving science. New developments occur in medicine all the time, and physicians who have been in practice for 20 years have had to learn and re-learn new ways of practicing as the science of medicine has evolved. This is expected. It is taken for granted by most patients.

As psychologists, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the latest scientific developments in our field and utilize our expertise to help people in need. Clinging to unproven theories, in the face of new science, is irresponsible, lazy, and potentially harmful. When challenged on their ideas, many old-school psychologists will use phrases such as “everyone’s opinion is valuable” or “can’t we agree to disagree” or “there is no right way to treat eating disorders” or “I feel unsafe.”

Here is the problem – this is not group therapy. We cannot sit around and validate one another’s feelings and hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Yes, all people are equal, but all ideas are not equal. Some ideas are supported by reliable scientific evidence and others are not. There may not be one right way to treat eating disorders but there are many wrong ways, and there are methods and techniques which clearly work better than others for most people.

We must let go of unhealthy, dysfunctional attachments to old ideas. Clearly, these attachments to antiquated theories contribute to the development of unhelpful psychotherapy. Perhaps today’s unhelpful psychotherapy is an attempt to validate one’s early training.

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Friday, July 9th, 2010

Controversy

I love controversy.

So naturally, I was thrilled to read the recent news article in the Sun Sentinel with a headline describing Maudsley as “a controversial treatment.”

This article gives an overview of the Maudsley Method and describes the experiences of two families – one with a 12-year-old girl and one with an 18-year-old boy – who used this approach to help their children recover from Anorexia Nervosa (AN). In a fair and balanced way, the article also lists some of the criticisms of the Maudsley Method that make it so controversial.

I believe that controversy is healthy part of living in a free society. Without controversy, there cannot be progress in the areas of ethics, morals, politics, or social norms. We must challenge old ideas and new ideas alike. We must approach life with an open mind as well as a healthy degree of skepticism. Some of the best ideas in the history of humanity, such as racial integration, freedom of religion, and equal rights for both genders, were born amidst extreme controversy. Thousands of people devoted their lives to the pursuit of these ideas. People died fighting for these causes. And to my generation, they seem so obvious and self-evident that we take them for granted.

Controversy accelerates progress in the aforementioned areas by shedding new light on old ideas. On the contrary, controversy tends to hinder progress in science. This happens because controversy over scientific ideas generally arises when people criticize or oppose scientific discoveries on the grounds of theology, politics, morality, or philosophy. Many scientific truths were initially met with extreme controversy. Galileo was tried – and convicted – by the Vatican for his scientific explanation of a heliocentric universe. And although Darwin’s theory of evolution has been almost universally supported by the modern scientific community, it was (and still is, in some communities) highly controversial for cultural, theological, and political reasons.

All viewpoints have equal merit in debating different perspectives on morality, philosophy, or politics. The winning idea is the one which is shared by the majority of people, which is then often supported by legislation and reinforced by social norms. This is what happened with racial integration, religious freedom, and gender equality. In debates over science, however, some answers are clearly superior to others. Ideas supported by scientific research are superior to ideas not supported by scientific research. Scientists conduct reliable studies, interpret the data, and present the results to their peers. Eventually, these results are disseminated into the public domain. Personal beliefs and political viewpoints and religious doctrines have no place in scientific inquiry. They obscure the truth.

In this vein, we have the controversy over the Maudsley Approach. Some clinicians say that they “don’t believe in Maudsley” just as some people say they don’t believe in God or Santa Clause or evolution. Maudsley, like evolution, is not a “belief” to be accepted or rejected. Maudsley, like evolution, is supported by a wealth of scientific literature which should be evaluated empirically and used effectively to understand and advance the human condition. To treat Maudsley as a socio-political issue like gay marriage that one sides “for” or “against” muddies the waters, misses the point, and makes one look scientifically illiterate.

Those who criticize Maudsley are doing so on philosophical, rather than scientific, grounds. They have not devised reliable, valid studies yielding data to the contrary. Rather, they cite antiquated and unproven ideas about eating disorders, they make criticisms that show a clear ignorance of the scientific process, or they ask irrelevant questions.

Some day soon, the Maudsley Approach will join the ranks of Darwin’s evolution and Galileo’s heliocentric solar system as a scientifically accepted truth. Some day soon, all therapists will approach psychology as a science – like biology and astronomy – which is guided by empirical data and impervious to personal beliefs.

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Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Lifestyles of the Depressed and Anxious

Despite miraculous advances in science, medicine, and technology, the rates of mental illness in the western world are higher than ever before. For instance, the rate of depression in the United States is ten times higher today than it was just two generations ago. Most mental illnesses are biologically-based and genetically-transmitted, but genes don’t change that fast, and we are biologically quite similar to our ancestors. Prior to the 20th century, human beings faced more risk and hardship on a regular basis than most of us will ever know, all without the advantage of modern science and medicine. But somehow, they were more resilient. How can this be?

Research suggests that many features of the modern lifestyle are toxic to our mental health. Most Americans have at least one, if not many, of the following issues:

• Too little sleep (less than 8 hours per night)
• Not enough exercise
• Insufficient exposure to sunlight
• Insufficient time outdoors
• Hectic, overscheduled lifestyles
• Too little “down time” to relax and unwind
• Poor eating habits (dieting, skipping breakfast, overeating, having too few fruits and vegetables, skimping on protein and dairy and carbohydrates and fats, eating too many processed foods, insufficient intake to meet one’s energy demands)
• High levels of stress
• High levels of caffeine consumption (more than 2 caffeinated beverages per day)
• Excess alcohol consumption
• Use of illegal drugs
• Over-reliance on prescription and over-the-counter medications
• Social isolation
• Underutilization of family and community supports
• Intense pressure (self-imposed and socially prescribed) to achieve and perform

Sound familiar?

Any one of these issues has the potential to trigger a mental illness in someone who is biologically vulnerable. The unfortunate reality, however, is that most Americans are dealing with several of these concerns simultaneously. No wonder we are so depressed and anxious!

Hundreds of years ago, our lifestyles were much simpler and much healthier. Our better habits were reflected in our mental health. Consider the Amish, who pride themselves on resisting societal change and maintaining their 18th century lifestyle. The Amish have very low rates of mental illness. I believe this is largely attributable to their lifestyles: they are physically active every day, they get plenty of sleep, they simplify their lives, they have low levels of stress, they eat naturally and nutritiously without dieting, they are deeply spiritual, they have a strong sense of community, and they rely upon their families, neighbors, and churches for social support.

Consider the Kaluli, an aboriginal hunter-gatherer tribe native to the highlands of New Guinea. Relatively untouched by modern society, their lifestyles closely resemble those of our ancestors. They live and work outdoors, they are physically active for most of the day, they eat naturally and bountifully from the land, they get plenty of sleep, and they rely heavily on their families and communities for support. A western anthropologist who studied the Kaluli people for nearly a decade found that clinical depression was virtually nonexistent in their tribe.

I would bet that many Amish and Kaluli people have biological predispositions for mental illnesses, but these genes are less likely to be expressed in an environment that protects and nurtures the body, mind, and spirit. We are less likely to develop body image problems if we grow up in a society without dieting and without a narrowly-defined, media-promoted, unhealthy standard of beauty. We are less likely to develop eating disorders if we live in a society in which everyone eats, effortlessly and without guilt, the types and quantities of foods that their bodies need. We are less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression if we are well-rested, well-nourished, and well-supported by our families and communities. Our children are less likely to show signs of inattention and hyperactivity if they get plenty of fresh air and outdoor exercise and have minimal exposure to television, computers, video games, and cell phones. We may discover that, if we are truly caring for ourselves, we don’t need a cup of coffee to wake up in the morning, we don’t want to go out drinking on the weekends, and most of our aches and pains will diminish without the use of Advil. We may find that we actually enjoy going to bed at 9:00 and rising with the sun, spending more time outdoors, being more physically active, and letting go of excess stress that weighs us down.

Perhaps our minds are not suited for the modern world. The evolution of our brains has not kept up with advances in science, technology, and other aspects of modern life. I am not suggesting that, in a Survivor-like twist of events, we turn back time and return to our ancestral hunter-gatherer environment. Science and technology and modern society are remarkable in many ways, and I feel fortunate to live in the twenty-first century. I am suggesting, however, that we take a critical look at the way we live our lives and examine the effects that our behaviors and lifestyles have on our mental health. We can learn a few lessons from the Kaluli and the Amish. We can place more emphasis on our own self-care and encourage our friends and family to do the same.

When I was working at a university counseling center, a colleague of mine had a client – a college freshman – who met full criteria for major depression and an anxiety disorder. This young man’s case was puzzling initially because his symptoms appeared rather suddenly after starting college and he had no family history of depression or anxiety. After a thorough evaluation, my colleague recommended a few simple behavioral changes such as improving his sleep hygiene, increasing the number of hours he slept each night, decreasing his consumption of alcohol and caffeine, and increasing his physical activity. Within two weeks of changing his habits, his symptoms had disappeared entirely and he was back to his full-functioning, high-energy self.

The moral of this story is that poor self-care not only triggers or exacerbates mental illness in those who are biologically vulnerable, but it can actually create a syndrome that appears identical to a mental illness in those without a predisposition.

Very few people fully appreciate the value of self-care. Children are taught to excel in school and sports and music and arts and various other extracurricular activities. They are taught to follow the Ten Commandments and keep their rooms clean and mind their manners and look pretty. As they grow older, they are taught to stay away from drugs and have safe sex and watch their waistlines. But who will teach them good mental hygiene? Self-care is either glossed over or ignored completely in school. Many well-intentioned parents don’t model good self-care – they are overworked, overscheduled, overtired, overmedicated, over-caffeinated, and undernourished. These parents may encourage good grades and good behavior, but they are unlikely to instill good self-care habits in their children. Most physicians overlook the role of lifestyle factors in triggering or exacerbating mental illnesses, and they use medication as the first line of treatment, even if the patient’s problem could be addressed more effectively with behavioral interventions. Many therapists do not teach their clients the importance of self-care in preventing and reducing the impact of mental illness, instead choosing to target cognitive distortions or family relations or interpersonal skills. Don’t get me wrong – these issues are important as well – but without the baseline of good nutrition, plenty of sleep and exercise, stress management, and other healthy habits, the client is likely to continue to struggle with some level of depression or anxiety.

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Friday, August 21st, 2009

Fear Factor

Regardless of their diagnosis or primary presenting problem, most of the clients I see are struggling with some sort of anxiety. From an epidemiological perspective, this is not surprising. Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million American adults in any given year and are more prevalent than any other type of psychiatric disorder.

Why are we so anxious? I would attribute it, in large part, to evolution. Anxiety is a universal emotional reaction experienced by all humans and most non-human species as well. Anxiety is a useful trait that has been shaped by natural selection.

Human beings are wired to respond to threat in a self-preserving way. When our body or brain detects danger, our sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline and prepares the body to defend itself using one of three types of responses: fight, flight, or freeze. In response to threat, our heartbeat becomes stronger and more rapid and our breathing becomes faster and deeper in order to deliver more oxygen to muscle tissues in preparation for fighting or fleeing. Our pupils dilate to let in more light, which increases the sensitivity of our vision and helps us scan the environment for sources of danger. Digestion slows down or stops so as to conserve energy, and our mouth may become dry. Muscle tension increases in preparation for fight, flight, or freeze. All of these bodily reactions were vital in our ancestral environment. They allowed us to fight off predators to defend ourselves and our families. They facilitated us as we fled from all kinds of danger, from wild animals to brushfires to hostile natives. They made us freeze, like a deer in headlights, to aid in scanning the environment for danger, concealing ourselves, and inhibiting predators’ attack reflexes.

For tens of thousands of years, our ancestral environment was brutal. We faced life-or-death situations on a daily basis. Those of us with well-tuned fight or flight responses survived to adulthood and reproduced, passing their genes along to the next generation. Those of us with insufficient fear were less protected and tended to die sooner.

Fast forward to the 21st century. The fight-or-flight reflex is alive and well. If a car speeds towards us as we are crossing the street, we instinctually dart out of the way in a split second. When a masked stranger attacks us from behind, we make a quick jab to his stomach followed by a swift kick to his gonads, then run as fast as we can. These situations, though, are few and far between.

Advances in science, technology, and medicine have obliterated most of the threats our ancestors faced. Compared to people in previous eras, we face far fewer life-threatening encounters. And yet, we are more anxious now than ever before. Our ancestors feared storms, wooly mammoths, tidal waves, plagues, famines, droughts, and vengeful gods. What are we worried about? Our grades in school, our performance at work, our weight and physical appearance, our daughter’s loser boyfriend, public speaking, keeping up with the Jones, conflicts with our friends and partners, the rising costs of gas, swine flu, socialized medicine and Obama’s so-called “death panels.” Even more “legitimate” fears, like global warming, terrorist attacks, bankruptcy, and breast cancer, are probably less likely, less immediate, and less deadly than all our worrying makes them seem.

We do have an evolutionary excuse for this: the sympathetic nervous system tends to be all-or-nothing. It is not always modulated for varying degrees of danger. From a purely physiological standpoint, our bodies may respond the same way whether we are giving an oral presentation in school or being chased by a hungry lion.

Having some degree of anxiety is still advantageous in many ways. A bit of anxiety engenders caution, preparedness, and motivation. Mild to moderate levels of anxiety are associated with better school performance and higher occupational achievement. Anxiety protects us from engaging in dangerous activities, contracting deadly diseases, and acting in ways that may lead to social alienation. Anxiety, like most emotions and characteristics, can be positive when it is understood fully and managed mindfully.

However, the enormous number of Americans suffering from anxiety disorders suggests that something has gone awry with this natural, universal, ordinarily adaptive reflex. The problem, I think, is that in order to be adaptive, emotional responses must fit changing circumstances and challenges. In other words, anxiety is only beneficial insofar as it increases our fitness as a species in the modern world, allowing us to survive and thrive. We’ve been slow to adapt to certain evolutionarily recent threats. Our fears of ghosts, monsters, spiders, and snakes are perhaps a bit excessive. On the other hand, we could probably benefit from more fear of driving fast, cigarettes, and unprotected sex.

We are not slaves to our biology, and evolution is not destiny. The problem with biological determinism is not the biology; it’s the determinism. A number of psychological and behavioral treatments have been shown to reduce problematic anxiety. Through cognitive and behavioral techniques, we can gain insight into the workings of our bodies and minds, develop new ways of thinking, challenge our fears, acquire coping skills, and learn to live mindful, joyful, fulfilling lives that are not limited by anxiety.

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