Trichotillomania (Mental Health Series – Blog Post 1)

For the first blog post of this series, I decided to write about something I experienced myself. As a psychologist I think it is important to contribute to mental health awareness so that we can get rid of the stigma of mental health issues.

When I was a kid my dad realised that I kept playing with my hair whenever I was tired of bored.

What he didn’t know is that I wasn’t just playing with it, I was actually pulling my hair out. Years later I found out that this has a name.

The name is Trichotillomania and believe it or not, it is very common.

What is it and what are the symptoms?

Trichotillomania or Trich is on the Obsessive Compulsive spectrum which means that it shares symptoms of OCD.

  1. The main symptom is the urge to pull out the hair or an increasing sense of tension before pulling the hair mainly of the scalp, but some people pull out the hair of their eyelashes and eyebrows or other parts of their bodies.
  2. People with Trich report a sensation of relief right after pulling out their hair.
  3. They might present weird shaped, bald patches and these may be more on one side.

What causes it?

The causes aren’t clear yet, however there are a few different theories regarding the causes of this disorder.

Some cases of trich may be triggered by stress. In a way, trich can be a way of stress coping as it is with nail biting.

Another theory highlights that the hair pulling is an addictive and a negatively reinforcing behaviour as it is associated with tension before the pulling and relief afterwards.

For years I was a bit embarrassed of going to the hairdresser because  every time I did, they would always make the same comment: your hair is shorter here.

Since I found out about trich, it has been easy for me to spot other people who have it. I have seen it among friends and co-workers. And it was good to see I’m not the only one.

I have also become aware of it as oppose to doing it automatically without any awareness. This helps me control it. But even though I’m aware of it, sometimes I still feel like I need to do it, even though I don’t want to, because the sensation of relief is much greater. Well, it’s actually related to the sensation of tension or stress I feel before pulling and I guess the best way to calm down is that: the pulling.

But I have found some tricks to help me stop it. For example, I have noticed that I don’t have the urge to pull my hair when it’s tied in a pony tail. So, whenever I can, I have a pony tail. Also, playing with a stress ball or with a hair band on my wrist is helpful when I know I will undergo a period of stress.

My trich isn’t too bad, even though it’s a chronic issue that I have had since I was a little girl, I think I can manage it. If it ever gets worse, I will definitely take on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). But for now, I want to deal with it by myself. Part of the reason is because I want to practice CBT on myself.

I am also quite lucky because I don’t have bald spots. I did in the past when I was under a lot of stress and didn’t notice the pulling. I do have short hair in some places of my head, but I have enough hair that I can cover it and I doubt anyone notices.

Other people aren’t so lucky. They can’t cover their bald spots and they even hurt their scalps with the pulling. This disorder can be a very hard one to deal with. When you pull your hair out of the root, chances are high that it may never grow again, making those bald spots permanent. People living with this condition offer suffer from low self-esteem due to the lack of hair in some spots.

In some cases, it doesn’t stop there, the low self-esteem can lead to depression and anxiety, especially in social situations such as performance at work or dating.

This is the first post of my mental health series. My main is to raise awareness about mental health issues and disorders that are less well known. If you see someone pulling their hair out, now you know Trichotillomania might be the reason. And if you are the one pulling your hair out, maybe this article will help you be aware of it. Afterall, awareness is the best step in the direction of the solution.

References: http://www.mayoclinic.org, http://www.nhs.uk, http://www.kidshealth.org, DSM-IV.

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Careers, linear paths…messy life?

I went to an event the other day that was organised by the British Psychological Society (BPS). It was about careers in Psychology. There were a few speakers who talked about their career paths and left very inspirational messages. I’m sure that even if you don’t have or want to have a career in psychology, you will find these useful.

The first person to speak was David Murphy, the president elect of the BPS. He spoke about how psychology is still a very young profession and how it is developing at a fast pace. After he gave us a summary of the main areas of psychology, he went on to talk about his own career path and how he considers that it is normal to not go where you were actually headed. He quoted J.K. Rowling “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

His message to the audience was that succeeding in life involves failure. I personally think this is an extremely powerful message for everyone. I know that for me it was truly inspirational.

Psychology is a highly competitive field, where long life learning is inevitable. Research about new methods never stops and you will always need to be up to date with all the new research findings. But before getting to that, you need to actually gain experience and in places like the UK, getting that experience already represents a challenge. Mr. Murphy talked about how people think there is a way to becoming a clinical psychologist: you do your undergrad in Psychology, then you work as a research assistant or assistant psychologist, then you apply for the doctorate and so you become a clinical Psychologist. He described it as a linear path way to your wished career. However, he said, there is no such thing as a linear path and they all look mostly like this:

The second speaker was Dr. Gemima Fitzgerald, a clinical psychologist, who spoke about staying motivated when the path to your career is daunting. Becoming a psychologist involves years and years of studying and many, many applications and bad paid jobs.

Her story was truly interesting: She was a mature student and a single mum when she decided to study Psychology. After her undergrad, she applied to the doctoral programme. The doctoral programme is a very popular one among psychology graduates and therefore extremely competitive and hard to get into, but she was lucky enough to get in.

Dr. Gemima explained how she felt like she didn’t fit the mould but tried it anyway and she got the placement for the doctorate. She spoke about how she couldn’t take any unpaid placements because of having two kids and when she did, there were just for a short amount of time. Her message was that we are all unique and we need to know what makes us good in the way we are, even if we don’t fit the mould.

She went on to give some advice for interviews. She advised to always think of why you wouldn’t get the job and address it yourself before the interviewers address it and explain why you should get the job despite that. She also made a very important point of not just focusing of what you have done but what you learned out of each job or experience. I personally think I need to do this more.

After having worked for the NHS for four years, Dr. Gemima has now her own practice, contracts with the NHS and she delivers workshops on resilience. She even gave a TED talk on resilience. I found her very inspirational and it was such a relief to hear from her that “it is OK to not fit the mould”. Her message was one of courage and hope for those of us who want to get into psychology but have had a somewhat different career path up until now.

Dr. Emma Norris was the next one to speak about her career path. She is a health psychologist and I think that from all the speakers that day, she had the most linear career path. She did her undergrad, her masters and went straight to doing her PhD. Although her career path was linear, she talked about how being a PhD. Was everything but linear and that she struggled a lot with self-doubt and the impostor syndrome. She had to learned to deal with rejection as she explained this is a big part of being a PhD candidate. Articles being rejected, difficulties in finding participants for your study, etc.

Dr. Norris message was mostly about tips and advice on how and where to get jobs. Pages such as www.joc.ac.uk are great for job hunting for psychology jobs. She also gave tips on how to boost your CV by volunteering or becoming a representative of professional bodies such as the BPS.

Her message was that even thought she had a relatively linear career path, she still struggled with unexpected situations during her career that made her strong and taught to believe in herself. She also said that if she could go back in time and do something differently, she would try and do research in a foreign country. I guess that’s at least one thing I did right.

The last speaker was Dr. Vicky Elsey and probably the most interesting one for me. She is an occupational psychologist and the reason why she was the most interesting speaker for me (even though I want to be a clinical psychologist) is because of how she described occupational psychology. Occupational psychologists apply psychological theories to the work place. They help organisations and people who work in organisations by delivering tangible benefits and improving the effectiveness of organisations and enhancing motivation and wellbeing and thus performance of employees.

As some of you may know, I worked in organisations before and during her talk I was in total aw. I couldn’t help but think that my previous work place would have been so much better if it had an occupational psychologist in charge of employees’ wellbeing. Occupational psychologists educate organisations about how to do things that make a difference. This could help reduce sick leave and turn over. I don’t know about you, but I certainly believe this is a profession that shouldn’t be rare and should be invested in.

In summary, the whole event was an incredible opportunity to learn about careers in psychology. But mostly, it was great to see successful people tell their own stories on failure and how failure made them succeed. For me personally it was inspirational, encouraging and somewhat even hopeful to know that, at 32, I am not too late and having had a diverse career path may actually be a good thing as long as I can reflect on what I have learned from it.

your-plan-vs-reality      Funnily enough, all speakers this day had this image in their presentations.

The Polyglot Brain

Do you speak more than one language? Did you grow up bilingual? Did you learn a new language as an adult?

I speak three languages and I recently took the IELTS. The IELTS is an English language test required for university or visa applications. I have lived-in English-speaking countries for a few years now and my partner is a native English speaker and still, even though I believe my English is good, I know it isn’t perfect. This got me thinking, how are languages and psychology related?

Well, I did some research…

Knowing more than one language can have many benefits. You can not only travel with more confidence but making friends with people from all over the world will never be difficult. Language shapes the way we think. Which means that speaking more languages might even make you more understanding towards other people’s mentalities.

However, that’s not the only reason why the ability to speak other languages is such an interesting topic. Research has shown that the brains of multilingual people not only work but also look different. To understand why, we need to recap on the left and right hemispheres’ functions. The left hemisphere of the brain is more dominant for the analytical and logical processes while the right one is more dominant in emotional and social processes.

This is an important fact because both hemispheres are involved in language learning. There are two aspects to languages, one active and one passive. The active aspect is speaking and writing while the passive one is listening and reading. Hence the two hemispheres involved in language learning.

You have probably heard people say that kids learn languages quicker. The reason for that is this: their brains are more flexible. Their brain plasticity allows them to learn languages using both hemispheres while adults learn a foreign language using usually more their right hemisphere. Scientists call this the Critical Period Hypothesis.

This means that if you learn a foreign language at a young age, your understanding for that language will be more holistic. Researchers have found that when adults learn a new language, they tend to not have an emotional connection to the language.

Now, that I could have told you without any research. I learned English at the age of 16. Now, I wasn’t an adult but for some reason I didn’t develop that strong for a connection to it. I notice that when I swear. When I am angry and have a strong emotion, swear words come out in Spanish. When I swear in English, funnily, I don’t really mean it in an offensive way. 

My Australian boyfriend told me once that he doesn’t say the C word in front of females because they would find it offensive. He did say it a couple of times in front of me when he burned himself with hot coffee or something and to be honest, even though I know what it means, I wasn’t offended at all. I couldn’t care less.

Language has such an interesting connection with psychology, I think this is only part of it.  I will next write about how language shapes our personality.

Do you speak more than one language? How about you comment below your experiences!

The psychology of Travel

When we talk about travelling people usually think of vacation, of fun, of exploring. While there are people who don’t enjoy travelling, most people do. Other than been able to start with the cocktails early and explore ruins or lay on the beach. Travelling also has some great psychological benefits.

After finishing with university, I decided to go on a gap year and travel around for over a year before “real” started.  I started my travels in Africa, moved then to Asia, Australia and then South America. My reasons for travelling were several. After 6 years of university, I wanted to let go of responsibility for a while, get to see new places and I was just open to the wonders the world might show me and the memories I could create.

I had always love travelling partly because of the way I felt after coming back from travelling. But why did it make me feel so proud and renewed? The truth is that travelling has a bigger psychological impact on us than most people realize.

Travelling can be challenging. Especially if you are travelling to a place you have never been to before. You might need to use a different language and have to find your way to the hostel. This mean that you are out of your comfort zone, your routine goes out the window when you’re travelling. In our daily lives, we sometimes act like we are on automatic pilot. Not even knowing how we got to work. This is because our brains fire those neuronal paths as habitual, which means, when following our daily routine, we don’t need to think much. While when you’re travelling, your brain is more active trying to find your way to where you want to go. This means travelling improves our cognition and will most likely help activate new neuronal circuits. According to psychologist, this helps stimulate neuroplasticity which stays even after you have returned to your normal life. This can have a positive impact in your job helping you think more solution focused and more creatively.

Another great benefit of travelling is that it builds your understanding and tolerance making you a more open-minded human being. Putting yourself out there and meeting people from other cultures, eating their food and hearing their accents helps adds to your knowledge of the world and changes your thinking patterns about interpersonal relations. Which can help you improve your understanding to people at home and this can only benefit your relationships.

Travelling has many positive psychological benefits. It helps you reduce stress hormones for a while and can persevere even after you return home. The challenges you overcome while travelling will make you feel proud enhancing your confidence and this will happen every time you recall those memories. Furthermore, the new neuronal paths that get activated in your brain while travelling will help you think more sharply when you’re back to your daily life.

But wait a minute…what about post-holiday-depression…?

The Psychology of Trust

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” 

(Ernest Hemingway)

 The term trust is often used in the day-to-day language to classify and define the quality of a relationship between two people. Psychologist Franz Peterman points out that a very important aspect of trust is that it involves a degree of uncertainty: a risk and the possibility of disappointment.

Psychologists say that trust reduces the complexity of relationships or social systems. They explain that trusting allows individuals to take effective action despite the lack of clarity (Petermann, 1985).  

Furthermore, trust is divided into two different categories: the personal and the systemic. These are related to the fact that both the quality of a personal relationship, as well as the systemic mechanisms (such as politics, or money), are determinate by trust (Schipper & Petermann, 2011).

For instance, in relationships where trust is shown, even if the actual feeling of trust is not there, there are less chances of infidelity. In the systematic category, let’s say a job setting, when a superior shows an employee that they are being trusted with a task or more responsibility, chances are the employee will do their best, keep the deadlines and deliver good quality work.

Why is this? The reason behind this is the fear of disappointment. In the above examples, the partner who is being trusted will be afraid to disappoint their partner causing this a potential loss. The same happens with the superior and the employee. The employee in this case would be afraid to disappoint the trust of their superior because they know they could lose a chance to prove themselves in the future. As Hemingway said, the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.

Of course, infidelity, disappointment and missed deadline still happen even when people are being trusted. But I guess if we don’t risk putting our trust in people, we will never know if we can actually trust them.

Welcome to Minding Psychology!

This is blog about psychology, wellbeing, mindfulness and happiness. Here I will share with you interesting psychology facts, some of which will be dressed up as stories, tips for stress management, scientific articles and posts that will hopefully draw a smile on your face. Thanks for being here!