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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Tag: Self-care

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

After Weight Restoration: Envisioning Recovery

In making a post weight-restoration recovery plan, I find it helpful to envision what full recovery will look like for this particular individual, and then break it down into small steps to help her achieve these ends. In my opinion, full recovery from AN involves all of the following:

• Ability to feed oneself the appropriate quantity, quality, and balance of nutrition.
• Ability to maintain one’s optimal body weight with an age-appropriate level of independence.
• Ability to accept and tolerate one’s body size, shape, and weight.
• Complete absence of eating disordered behaviors such as fasting, food restriction, binge eating, and purging.
• Ability to enjoy regular physical activity without compulsion.
• Engaging fully in all aspects of life, including school, family life, social life, and recreational activities. For older patients, this may also include employment, dating and romantic relationships.
• Freedom from constant preoccupation with food, weight, and body image.
• Mindful awareness of one’s predisposition towards AN and ability to avoid or manage potential triggers.

In my opinion, full recovery from AN does not necessarily involve any of the following:
• Ability to eat intuitively
• Ability to eat spontaneously
• Ability to eat sweets or “junk food”
• Return to the eating habits one had prior to the onset of the eating disorder
• Loving one’s body
• Not caring about one’s weight at all
• Complete absence of eating disordered thoughts
• Freedom from monitoring (for example, going for long periods without being weighed)

Of course, it would be wonderful if a person recovered from AN could do any or all of the above. If one of my patients does one of these things, I view it as a very positive sign, an indication that a person has reached a new level of freedom from AN. Parents of recovering kids often long for them to walk into the kitchen and grab a handful of chips, eat candy with abandon, or ask to go out for ice cream.

If a person in recovery does these things, that is fantastic, and it should be celebrated! Often, these things happen naturally after a year or two or three of weight restoration. But these things may not be realistic for some people with a history of AN. And if these things never happen, that is OK.

What is most important, in my opinion, is for a person in recovery to do whatever it takes to live a rich, happy, healthy, fulfilling and productive life. This is what recovery means to me.

Sometimes parents and clinicians worry that a patient’s avoidance of sweets, or inability to eat intuitively, or adherence to a structured plan of meals and snacks is “part of the disorder.” This may be true. But this is not inherently a bad thing.

Some recovered people may never want to be weighed again, because it reminds them of what it was like when they were ill. Some recovered people may resent having to eat three balanced meals every day, or not being able to diet like their friends, or not getting to participate in fasting for religious reasons like their families. Sometimes they just long to be “normal.” These feelings are completely understandable. However, this does not change the reality that people recovered from AN often have special needs which require them to be careful about their health in ways that other people are not. We cannot rewind time to the days before the illness began. We should not pretend AN never happened.

I find it helpful to assess a person’s stage of recovery using the following question:

“Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while _______________________.”

Then, fill in the blank with the issue in question to help determine whether it is in the patient’s best interest to accept it or change it.

For example:
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while also getting weighed every week at the doctor’s office? YES
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while being 5 pounds underweight? NO
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while never eating dessert or snack foods? YES
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while restricting dietary fat or carbohydrates? NO
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while being tormented by frequent thoughts about food and weight? NO
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, while wishing she had thinner legs and having occasional thoughts about restricting food? YES
• Can this person maintain good physical and mental health, and live a meaningful, productive, independent life, without being able to eat intuitively or spontaneously? YES

Keep in mind that accepting something is not the same as liking it, and acceptance does not mean abandoning hope that things will improve. Rather, acceptance is about acknowledging reality and embracing it without judgment, while doing what works, in this moment, to maintain wellness.

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Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Mental Hygiene

This post has been inspired by the absurd number of no-shows and last-minute cancellations I have had over the past few weeks, which have afforded me both the time and the subject matter to write this blog post. Yes, it’s the holiday season, and we’re all busy and stressed. You’ve got final exams and Christmas concerts and your cousins from Iowa visiting; presents to wrap and dinners to cook and trees to trim. But mental illness does not take a vacation. If anything, people with mental illnesses struggle even more than usual around the holidays. Putting mental health treatment on the back burner for the holidays – or for any reason – is a huge mistake.

There is a pattern I have observed in a few of my patients – they disappear from treatment for several weeks or months at a time, and then call me in crisis needing an appointment ASAP. They get stabilized, start feeling better, disappear from treatment again, neglect their mental health, and show up in crisis weeks later. This is not good mental hygiene.

What is mental hygiene? I view mental hygiene as preventative medicine for your brain, just as biannual dental checkups are preventative care for your teeth and annual physical exams are preventative care for your body. Many medical crises can be averted by getting regular check-ups and aggressive treatment for medical problems as soon as they are identified, along with good nutrition and regular physical activity.

While most people take their sanity for granted, those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness cannot afford to do so. Achieving and maintaining good mental health requires a daily practice of mental hygiene which includes the following 10 components:

1.) Regular therapy sessions. Seeing a therapist regularly helps keep you accountable and on-track with your wellbeing. It is helpful to discuss your problems with someone who has a thorough knowledge of your history and can help you identify areas for continued growth. Sessions should be held at least weekly during the acute phase of illness, but may be spaced out to once or twice a month after stabilization.

2.) Adequate sleep. While individual sleep needs may vary, most adults require 8 hours of sleep per night for optimal functioning. Adolescents require at least 9 hours. It is best to sleep a full 8-10 hours at night rather than napping during the day, which can actually increase fatigue. Before you say “well, I get 7 hours and that’s close enough,” consider this: a cumulative sleep deficit of even 30 minutes a night increases the risk of depression, impairs concentration, and contributes to daytime fatigue.

3.) Regular exercise. Getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity 4-6 days per week helps to boost mood, relieve anxiety, and increase energy. New exercise trends come out every week, but it really doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do. Just move.

4.) Good nutrition. Proper nutrition involves eating, at a minimum, three balanced meals per day, with snacks in between as needed. A balanced diet incorporates a wide variety of foods including carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fruits, and vegetables. I also recommend supplementing with a daily multivitamin and Omega-3 essential fatty acids. The brain requires sufficient calories in order to function properly – 20% of the calories we take in are used for brain activities – so a reduced calorie diet is harmful to your mental health. The brain is made of fat and runs on glucose, so it is not surprising that both low-fat and low-carb diets have been linked to depression.

5.) Avoidance of harmful substances. Don’t use illegal drugs. Don’t use prescription drugs unless they were prescribed for you. Don’t use over-the-counter drugs unless you really need them. I recommend avoiding alcohol if you fall into any of the following categories: you have a personal or family history of alcoholism or addiction; you take psychotropic medication; you have a chronic health condition; or you are under 21. If you do not fall into any of the aforementioned categories and you decide to drink alcohol, drink responsibly and moderately. Many people who suffer from depression find that alcohol exacerbates their depression (it is, after all, a depressant). If you drink caffeine, do so in moderation – excessive caffeine use can exacerbate anxiety and insomnia. If you need 7 cups of coffee just to get through the day, you are either sleeping too little or doing too much.

6.) A reasonable schedule. Being over-scheduled contributes to excess stress and anxiety, while being under-scheduled can lead to boredom, isolation, and depression. Many of your waking hours will be spent in structured, mandatory activities such as school or a job. Each person’s ideal balance of school/work hours will be different based upon their individual needs. That being said, no one does well working 100 hours a week or sitting at home all day for an extended period of time. Taking too many classes or working too many hours is exhausting and draining, and leaves little time for important self-care activities.

7.) Adequate “down time.” A reasonable schedule (see above) will allow for adequate sleep as well as unstructured “down time” to be by yourself, decompress, and regroup. Individual needs for down time may vary, but as a general rule I recommend 15-30 minutes per day. Down time may be spent taking a bath, reading for pleasure, watching TV, or something similar.

8.) Stress reduction activities. I recommend adopting a regular pattern of relaxation / stress-reduction activities which may include one or more of the following: yoga, meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or massage.

9.) Social support. Robust mental health requires steady, reliable social support. It is important to have at least one person who is close to you whom you talk to on a regular basis. This may be
a spouse or significant other, a best friend, a parent, a sibling, or relative. It is also important to be a part of a larger community, such as a club, a church, a team, an extended family, or a close-knit workplace.

10.) Pleasurable activities. A good life involves a balance of things you “have to do” and things you “want to do.” It is the “want to do” activities that make life worth living. Spend some time each week pursuing a hobby or doing something that you really enjoy. I recommend scheduling pleasurable activities at least once per week.

Does this sound daunting? Perhaps it does if you have been neglecting your mental hygiene. But these basic principles can have a dramatic impact on your mental well being. If you want to feel good, you must treat yourself well. If you want to prevent a mental health crisis, you must practice good mental hygiene. Trust me – it is much easier and far less disruptive to prevent a mental health crisis than it is to pick up the pieces afterwards.

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Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Time after Time

“I don’t have time.”

This is an excuse I hear all too often. When I recommend a health-promoting behavior to a patient, such as sleeping at least 8 hours per night, meditating, spending quality time with family and friends, or exercising regularly, some people respond reflexively by stating that they don’t have time. Others will give a more wistful response, such as: “Oh, I would love to, I know it’s good for me, but I just don’t have the time.” There are patients who cancel their therapy appointments because they “don’t have time” to attend, and those who fail to complete their therapy homework citing lack of time. While I sympathize with the feeling, I don’t buy this excuse.

Here’s the thing: time is the great equalizer. We each have different amounts of money, different abilities, different families, and different life circumstances, but we all have the same amount of time. Every single person on this earth is given 24 hours in each day, 7 days in each week, and 52 weeks in each year. What we do with that time is up to us. Believe it or not, you have quite a bit of control over how you spend your time.

When someone claims that they don’t have time to do X, what they really mean is that X is not important enough to make time for it. When you reframe the statement this way, it sounds much more pointed and critical, yet it is startlingly accurate:

“My mental health is not important enough to me to attend weekly therapy sessions.”

“I don’t care enough about my wellbeing to make the time to exercise regularly.”

“I’m choosing not to bring my daughter to therapy every week because attending volleyball practice is more important than her recovery.”

“My family just isn’t significant enough for me to take time out of my day to be with them.”

“I’m not coming to therapy tomorrow because it’s finals week, and my grades are much more important than my recovery.”

It is all a matter of priorities. We define ourselves and create our destiny, in part, by how we choose to spend our time. People spend substantial chunks of time each day twittering, texting, facebooking, watching television, and surfing the internet. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities. When used appropriately, they can be entertaining and life-enhancing. But when a college student tells me she has no time to sleep or exercise, and yet she spends two hours a day on facebook and goes out drinking with friends three nights a week, this says something about her values and priorities. When a parent claims that she “doesn’t have time” to transport her child to weekly therapy appointments, but clearly has the time to transport said child to soccer practice, voice lessons, youth group, and SAT prep classes, this too says something about how much the parent values her child’s mental health.

Most people would take time off from work or school to see their family doctor if they were sick. Most parents wouldn’t think twice about making time for their child to have chemotherapy, dialysis, surgery, or even orthodontist visits. Yet somehow, treatment for mental illness is not viewed with the same urgency. This is a huge mistake.

Individuals living with mental illness have more physical health problems than those who are mentally healthy. Depression costs society billions of dollars each year in lost productivity, not to mention suicide. Eating disorders often become chronic, disabling conditions and have mortality rates close to 20%. Schizophrenia and addiction often lead to homelessness. So why do we continue to view mental health treatment as optional or extracurricular? Why does our behavior suggest that mental health treatment is less important than work, school, sports, or facebook?

The impact of mental illness on individuals, families, and society is enormous, but the benefits of good mental health are immense and immeasurable. Improved mental health means increased productivity, reduced stress, more rewarding relationships, improved physical wellbeing, and overall satisfaction with life.

Achieving and sustaining good mental health is not merely a matter of attending therapy appointments, just as achieving physical health requires far more than visits to your doctor. Successful treatment for mental illness involves significant time, energy, and effort outside the therapist’s office. Many types of mental illness come with a life-long predisposition, so sufferers must be ever mindful of controlling symptoms and preventing relapse, even after complete recovery. Developing good self-care habits, completing therapy homework assignments, and creating a lifestyle conducive to overall wellbeing are all part of a holistic approach to mental wellness.

Think carefully about how you spend your time. Ask yourself if the way you spend your time reflects your true values and priorities. If mental health is a priority for you, don’t just say it – LIVE it – and the benefits of good mental health will be yours to enjoy.

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Friday, December 10th, 2010

Surviving the Holidays When You Have a Mental Illness

For most people, the holidays are a time of joy and celebration. However, for many people with mental illnesses, the yuletide cheer is accompanied by added challenges. This is true for those with various diagnoses. Consider the following:

1. For people with depression, the joy and festivities of the holiday season seem to amplify their own inability to experience pleasure. As families and friends come together, they may withdraw. To make matters worse, Christmas falls right around the shortest day of the year, so the lack of sunlight can be a huge trigger for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a type of depression which occurs in the fall and winter months.

2. For people with anxiety, being around large groups of unfamiliar people can be terrifying. Christmas parties, crowded shopping malls, even visits with unfamiliar (or unkind) relatives can be extra-stressful.

3. For people with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, the large amounts of foods, particularly “treats,” that are part and parcel of holiday events can induce major anxiety. So can the enormously triggering “diet talk” that often accompanies holiday feasts and intensifies near New Years.

4. For people with alcoholism, the endless parade of holiday parties and events where alcohol is present makes it difficult to socialize normally or enjoy the typical gatherings with family and friends.

5. For people with ADHD, there is the added stress of final exams, Christmas shopping, decorating, parties, and visiting relatives, which can make them feel more scattered and disorganized than usual.

So how do you cope with mental illness during the holiday season?

Here are some tips which may be helpful, regardless of your particular diagnosis:

1.) Plan ahead. Create a written list of potential problems that could arise around the holidays. Think about various ways that you could handle these situations, and write down your solutions. Visualize yourself handling these difficult situations with grace and strength.

2.) Enlist social support. Talk to people you trust – your therapist, family members, or friends – about your concerns. Let them know how they can help you through this difficult time. People are more than willing to be more generous and charitable than usual at this time of year!

3.) Maintain good health habits. Get at least 8 hours of sleep per night, eat plenty of healthful foods, exercise regularly, and drink in moderation (if at all). Many people stop engaging in health-promoting behaviors around the holidays. If you struggle with a mental illness, this is the time to be extra-conscientious about caring for your physical and mental health.

4.) Focus on the protective factors associated with Christmas. Despite the myth that rates of suicides increase around the holidays, scientific research actually shows that suicide rates are lower than average in the days before Christmas. This may be due to several issues:
• Increased support from family and friends, who tend to gather together around the holidays
• Increased sense of charity and goodwill from others
• More community support – shelters, food banks, charities for the poor
• For many people, Christmas is associated with positive memories of hope and love and family, which can help improve outlook when things seem bleak
• Increase in religious observance and spirituality associated with Christmas

5.) Lower your expectations. Yes, the holidays are seen by many as “the most wonderful time of the year,” as the song goes. But stress and personal problems do not magically disappear during the holidays. It is not realistic to assume that you will be symptom-free simply because it is a holiday.

6.) Keep it simple. The holidays have become so commercialized, and so many demands are placed on people to throw and attend parties, buy and wrap lavish gifts, and cook like Julia Child on steroids, that many people are simply burnt out by the time Christmas arrives. Retailers love to extend the holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Years, but this is mostly for their own profit, and it doesn’t have to be this way. If you feel overwhelmed by stress, simply have a quiet, one-evening celebration with a few people of your choosing who are closest to you. There is no need to spend precious time and money getting people the perfect gifts. A simple card with a thoughtful note is sufficient to let people know you are thinking of them.

7.) Focus on what really matters. Remember the people of Whoville in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas? They showed us that Christmas can be joyful without presents and trees and decorations. These material things have no bearing on our ability to enjoy the holidays.

8.) In keeping with the Dr. Seuss example, think of your mental illness as the Grinch. It is a cold-hearted thief, with a heart three sizes too small, who will attempt to ruin your holiday. Don’t let it.

9.) Remember that parties are supposed to be fun and ARE ALWAYS OPTIONAL. You always dread your annual office party? Just don’t go. Let whomever is in charge know that you aren’t feeling well, or simply that you appreciate the invitation but you won’t be able to make it this year. It’s supposed to be a party, not a punishment.

10.) Do what’s fun; skip what’s not. If you love preparing Christmas dinner for your family, great! Enjoy! If not, hit up your local Chinese restaurant. Jews have had this tradition for decades.

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Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Redefining Strength

All too often, we confuse strength with stoicism. We see an apparent absence of negative emotions and presume courage. We see an unadulterated expression of sadness and assume fragility.

I see this sometimes with new therapy clients. Like most of us, they’ve bought into the American dream (or American nightmare), where hard work, free will, and rugged individualism are viewed as keys to success and anything less is perceived as weakness or failure. When I ask how they feel about entering therapy, they report feeling weak for needing professional help, and even weaker if they are referred for psychiatric medication or a higher level of care. They feel ashamed when they cry in a therapy session, and they apologize to me. They berate themselves for not being strong enough to handle their mental illness, or the bad hand of cards they were dealt in life, on their own. They chide themselves for letting a breakup erode their confidence, for bursting into tears after being admonished by their boss, for letting life’s twists and turns and ups and downs affect them at all.

Taken to its logical extreme, this line of thought implies that it is a sign of weakness to experience and / or express negative emotions; strong people never experience negative emotions, or if they do, they suppress them; and strong people solve all of their problems on their own, without leaning on friends or family, and certainly without seeking professional help.

In reality, none of these statements are true. Vulnerability should not be confused with fragility. Experiencing and expressing a full range of emotions is not a sign of weakness. It is a manifestation of humanity.

My view of strength is quite different. In my mind, a strong person is someone who has a well-defined set of personal values and uses these values as a compass to guide her on her life path. She makes decisions and chooses actions that are consistent with her values. She maintains her principles with conviction, especially in the face of adversity. She is confident, tenacious, determined, responsible, and conscientious. She is not easily swayed by external pressure or public opinion, but she remains open to new ideas and various perspectives. She cares for herself so that she can maintain her fortitude. She mindfully accepts all of her emotions and experiences them fully, but she does not allow unpleasant emotions to prevent her from living a valued life. She seamlessly integrates logic, emotion, and intuition. She takes risks and makes mistakes. She has some successes and some failures. She emerges from her failures with grace, humility, and newfound wisdom which she applies to future endeavors. Her self-identity is well-defined. She lives unapologetically.

Having a mental illness has nothing to do with weakness, and seeking help for a mental illness is the antithesis of frailty. Consider what people with mental illnesses must endure. On the whole, they are more vulnerable to intense negative emotions, poor self-esteem, and self-destructive behavior. They face misunderstanding, stigmatization, and discrimination on a daily basis. They deal with family and friends who “just don’t get it,” an ignorant society, and a lack of awareness about their conditions. They struggle to navigate through a healthcare system that considers their disorders trivial and their treatment optional or, in many cases, fails to consider them at all.

Those who complete treatment successfully and manage their mental illnesses adaptively are amongst the strongest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. They own their recovery and take responsibility for staying well. They make a point of living lifestyles that are conducive to health and happiness, even in cultures that teach otherwise. Armed with effective coping skills and hard-earned insight, they pursue life in a deeper, more meaningful way. They know when they need help and they know how to get it without delay. They make use of whatever tools they have, such as therapy, psychotropic medication, exercise, spiritual practice, or meditation. They surround themselves with a positive social network and they utilize family and friends for practical and emotional support. They are able to derive meaning from their suffering, and quite often they draw upon their own experiences to help others. They are wise beyond their years, and they don’t take their hard-earned sanity for granted.

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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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