Why Do We Like To Be Scared?

Today is Halloween and millions of people will spend millions of dollars to go to professional haunted houses where they hope to be “scared to death”.

Each year, millions of dollars are spent on Halloween, making it fall just below Christmas as the time of year Americans spend the most money, but why do we like to be scared so much that we’ll pay for it?

There are many different theories on why we like to be scared, but I tend to agree with the theory based on evolutionary psychology.

We all have inherited from our primal ancestors what’s called basic “fight or flight” instincts. When we are faced with a potential deadly situation, we instinctively either prepare to fight for our lives or to run for our lives.

Our ancestors needed this instinct to survive the plethora of dangers they faced on a daily basis, from wild animals to other clans/tribes invading their homes, killing, raping and enslaving them.

Today, most of us don’t live the type of lifestyle that requires daily use of our flight or fight instincts, yet they are still there, in our primal brain and they often need to be massaged.

During the time of flight or fight, our attention becomes more focused, our heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscle tighten, all in preparation to defend ourselves from or to run away from a threat.

It is stressful, but this same rush of adrenaline, can be experienced when the brain knows there is no real threat and in turn, the brain translates this experience as enjoyable.

Most of us feel the need to scratch the itch of fight or flight our ancestors hard wired into us, yet for most of us, each day is relatively safe and mundane. That’s why many people say that being scared makes them feel alive?

While there are some people that enjoy actually putting themselves in real danger, most people enjoy being scared in relatively safe environments, where everything is in control, but they can still experience a sense that things are out of control, which is what is desired.

So much of what happens in our day to day life is controlled, that every now and then, most people instinctively want to feel a sense that things are out of control and that’s why many people spend money each year not only on haunted houses and scary movies, but on things such as roller coasters.

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, gives us a chance to confront and think about our fear of death. The same goes for most things we enjoy scaring ourselves with. We like to approach the edge of death without falling in, and then step back away from it.

One thing that makes humans different from all other animals is that we are aware of our existence and the fact that one day we will stop existing.

Being scared reminds us that we are vulnerable and that life is unpredictable and can change at any moment for the worst. It gives us a rush of adrenaline and makes us feel alive. It allows us to stop taking life for granted and appreciate that we are alive.

Energy Drinks: Are They A Serious Threat to Teens?

For years I’ve been hearing that energy drinks are bad for you, but that never stopped me from consuming them on a regular basis throughout college and especially after grad school when I worked overnight at a psychiatric hospital and felt like I needed to be extra alert at all times.

I personally have never had a bad experience with energy drinks, although once I did take an Extra Strength 5 Hour Energy shot before working out and during my workout felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. I never did that again.

Recently there has been a lot of attention given to teens drinking energy drinks, including Anais Fournier, who was 14 and drank two 24-ounce cans of an energy drink and then died six days later after going into cardiac arrest and a coma.

Her death was officially considered to be from cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity.

Drinking those two 24 ounce cans, she had consumed 480 milligrams of caffeine, about five times the recommended limit by the American Academy of Pediatrics and about as much as drinking 14 cans of Coca Cola.

I never really gave a lot of thought to this topic until yesterday when one of my teenage clients came into my office with a huge 24-ounce can of Monster energy drink and suddenly I found myself being a bit concerned for her.

Could drinking energy drinks really have killed the young lady mentioned above and potentially others that are under investigation?  Do they pose a potential risk to the millions of teenagers who drink them on a daily basis?

Caffeine is the most commonly used psychoactive drug in the world. Most teens I know who consume energy drinks do it either to have enough energy needed to make it through the day, to stay up studying, to have increased energy while participating in a physically demanding activity, while partying, and to alter their mood.

Most teens are unaware of the amount of caffeine they are consuming, or don’t care because they think it’s harmless, when in fact it can be harmful if too much caffeine is consumed too quickly and is paired with a pre-existing medical condition.

Many teens are unaware that they have cardiac problems and are at risk for cardiac arrest, thus their caffeine intake should be limited.

Caffeine overdoses have increasingly been on the rise over the past few years with emergency rooms seeing over 12,000 cases last year.

Many researchers believe there is no reason for kids to ingest more caffeine then what is naturally found in the things they already consume, stating that caffeine mixing with the sugar often found in energy drinks can have bad effects on blood pressure and can lead to cardiac problems.

Most teens I know are more at risk when they are out with friends, partying or when they drink energy drinks just before playing a sport. 

Parents should monitor their children’s intake of caffeine and how quickly they consume drinks with caffeine in them.

Wonderful post and I couldn’t agree more. Each year I work with a small number of girls with eating disorders, knowing that there are many more out there who are hiding it or have body image issues that aren’t really to work through yet. It’s sad each time.

Something revolutionary happened this week. A woman posted a photograph of herself in her underwear on the Internet. Although there are thousands of pictures of women in their underwear on-line (and in magazines, catalogs, television, billboards, etc…), this picture was different. It was different because this woman is fat (not my word).

Stella Boonshoft is an 18 year-old student at New York University and she loves her body. She is proud of her body and she wanted to use her body as an agent of change. She struggled with hating her body for much of her life. She was bullied and tormented as a child and adolescent. And she learned to make peace with her body. So she posted a semi-nude picture of herself on her blog and opened a nation-wide conversation about body image, misconceptions about health, and acceptance. She is extraordinarily courageous.

Stella posted this picture of…

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Facts versus Opinions

I’m an introvert and a very introspective person. That’s no secret to those who really know me.

Most of the time when I go out with people I find myself sitting back, watching and listening. It may seem like I am not engaged in the conversation, when in actuality, I’m probably more engaged than the people talking.

It’s fascinating. I enjoy doing it. I can do this for hours and not say a word, yet am totally absorbed in the entire conversation, not just what is being said, but how it is said and the true meaning behind it.

I’m listening, analyzing, watching mannerisms, expressions, analyzing those. Listening to speech patterns and tones while all the while analyzing the entire conversation.

I learn a lot about people this way, and about myself. That’s why one of my favorite quotes, I forgot where I got it from, is “I hear what is not being said.”

This brings me to tonight.

Tonight I was telling a story and got rudely interrupted in the beginning of the story by two of my friends who felt the need to voice their opinions as if they were facts, before even hearing the entire story.

I sat back, listened to them, analyzing everything, and waiting to see if they would be courteous enough to ask me to continue my story, but they never did. They were so high up on their self-righteous, egotistical horses, that they never came back to my story.

Some people would have found this rude, I found it a bit irritating, but mostly, I found it intriguing because I was learning so much about these people and how they think, even how they think and see me. I was learning more than I think they knew they were teaching me about themselves, which is the beauty of extrospection.

As I sat and listened, I realized that my two friends were making a mistake a lot of us make from time to time, especially in this political environment. They were mistaking their opinions for facts.

Naturally, we are drawn to information that supports our beliefs. Sadly we tend to stick with those beliefs even in the face of evidence that proves them wrong, and may even believe in them more, as a form of protest or as a defense mechanism.

In many cases, factual evidence seems to matter very little.

As I watch the political coverage, this is played out daily, but one doesn’t have to watch CNN or MSNBC to see this. We encounter this all the time, perhaps even within ourselves as I encountered with my friends tonight.

At one point when they were closing the restaurant we were at and we were the only customers left, they were still engaged in idle conversation, sipping their drinks as the staff was waiting for us to leave.

I told my friends that we should probably pick up the pace, but they told me I should just relax. I replied that I like for people to be respectful of my time and I like to respect other peoples time.

They quickly retorted that we were patrons, paying money and that they would gladly wait for us because we were given them business. They then went on a rampage that included something about the economy and the customer is always right, to which as always, I just listened and analyzed and then replied that I was sharing my opinion, not stating a fact.

They then backed off, but I realized that they were stating their opinions as blatant facts, that as long as a drink was on the table, the business should wait patiently for them to leave.

I didn’t try to elaborate on this with them, because like I stated earlier, even if I could present facts on why we should be respectful of the staffs time and leave so that they could clear the last table, I would have been met with more opinionated hostility, but why?

We all know what it feels like to be proven wrong and what that means to our sense of self and even our sense of credibility. It often gets us to question not just that one thing, but a host of our other beliefs and one thing many people are afraid of doing, and will sometimes fight to death before they do it, is to take a real examination of their self.

Many relationships fail or stall because one or both partners have different opinions and neither one is willing to reconsider, change or even tweak theirs. Instead they fight over and over about the same things, pointing the finger at each other.

These are of course largely unconscious thoughts, which make them that much more powerful. Still, stating opinions doesn’t make them right or facts.

People who are more self-confident tend to be more willing to re-examine their opinions and it’s important that fro time to time we all do this to become well-rounded, well-adjusted people who are able to have healthy relationships with not only other people, but with ourselves.

The Basics of Behavior Modification Techniques

Behavior modification techniques have at times been controversial.

Many people believe that they don’t work in the long run, but I know when done correctly, they can be an effective tool to curve undesired behavior and increase desired ones.

A Very Brief History

Behavior modification is largely derived from tenets of a psychological approach known as operant conditioning created by B.F. Skinner, which proposes that behavior can be shaped by reinforcement or lack of reinforcement.

Behavior modification techniques have been used successfully with adults and children to help with conditions such as attention-deficit/hyper-activity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), pervasive developmental disorders, phobias, and many others.

Reinforcing Positive Behavior 

Reinforcing consequences are anything a person receives as a result of their behavior, that increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring again.

For example, if a child gets a laugh from a parent when they swear, they are more likely to do it again. Or if they get praise for bringing home good grades, they are more likely to continue trying to bring home good grades.

Reinforcers, as the name suggest, reinforce behavior. Some good behaviors, some bad behaviors.

We use reinforcers all the time, often without realizing it. As the saying goes, we teach people how to treat us, because we often reinforce their behavior towards us, good or bad.

When people, especially children hear the word consequence, they usually assume that it is something negative, but consequences can also be positive.

Positive reinforcers are consequences a person wants to receive. They are used in behavior modification to increase desired behavior, usually through a reward system.

Behavioral contracts can be used to outline details of the reward system. As an example, a reward could be one hour of video games per day if all homework assignments for that day are complete, or all chores are done.

Sometimes negative behavior is also unintentionally rewarded. As an example, if a child yells enough and the parents gets annoyed and gives in to the child’s demands, that child is being reinforced to yell whenever he/she doesn’t get their way.

In these cases, the unwanted behavior needs to be stopped through what is called “extinction”.


Extinction is basically stopping an undesired behavior by removing it’s rewards. Examples of rewards for undesired behavior include getting what they want after:

  • pleading
  • crying
  • throwing a tantrum
  • yelling
  • withdrawing

Time-out is one of many effective techniques used to extinguish undesired behaviors by removing the person from any rewards.

As I stated before, the saying “we teach people how to treat us” comes back to this, even as adults.

In a relationship, if our partner is being insensitive to our needs, yet we cling to them more and shower them with attention, then we are rewarding their behavior.

Negative Consequences for Behavior

Penalties, punishment and negative reinforcement are all forms of negative consequences.

Penalties are when someone loses something as a result of a behavior, such as the removal of a favorite toy or a privilege.

A punishment is when someone receives a consequence for a behavior that they don’t want, such as a spanking.

Negative reinforcers include the withdrawal of a privilege or addition of extra chores/assignments.

Differences Between Negative Reinforcement and Positive Reinforcement

Punishment, penalty and negative reinforcement usually result in minimal effort on part of the person to achieve the desired behavior.

Positive reinforcement is the only method that will encourage people to give voluntary, extra, enthusiastic effort to achieve the desired behavior.

The key to behavior modification is to use negative consequences as necessary, but to focus more on positive reinforcements.

The Five B’s of Effective Parenting

Lastly, the five B’s are very important when it comes to using behavior modification techniques with effective parenting:

  1. Be positive– try using positive consequences more than negative
  2. Be specific– be specific what behaviors are being punished or rewarded
  3. Be certain– your child should know without a doubt what to expect from you        based on their behavior.
  4. Be consistent– if you don’t apply rules consistently, your child can never be certain of what to expect
  5. Be immediate– act immediately when your child deserves a positive or negative reinforcer.

When used correctly, behavior modification techniques are positive tools and great ways for kids to learn in a rather safe environment about consequences.

They learn that in life, often there are no right or wrong decisions, but they have to be able to deal with the consequences (positive or negative) of their decisions.

Teens, Marijuana and Nutella

The other day during a group therapy session, one of my teenage clients told me she had been tempted to use marijuana for the very first time.

I questioned her about why she was tempted to smoke marijuana and she informed me that she wasn’t going to smoke it, she was going to eat it. She had been offered some marijuana sprinkled on a cracker covered with Nutella.

This was the first time I had ever heard of teens eating marijuana on a cracker with Nutella, but that’s not the point of this post. Most teens believe marijuana is harmless, and I spend a lot of my time trying to convince them that it’s not.

From my experience, working in the field of substance abuse, I tell them that in a lot of cases, marijuana zaps motivation. Teens I work with who use marijuana usually start failing classes, missing school and eventually dropping out or getting kicked out of school.

Also, there is growing evidence supporting a correlation between marijuana use and schizophrenia.

Marijuana doesn’t cause schizophrenia, but it does seem to activate schizophrenia and other mental illnesses in individuals with a predisposition to mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia.

In the book The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn Saks she shares intimately about her battle with schizophrenia that all started after her first experience with marijuana.

She thought the hallucinations and thoughts that came and stayed for days were all normal and so she didn’t tell her parents out of fear of being punished for having smoked marijuana.

I’ve worked with a handful of schizophrenic patients who had their first schizophrenic experience after smoking marijuana and initially thought that their experience was typical until much later when the hallucinations and delusions didn’t go away for days, weeks or never.

These people all had a predisposition to schizophrenia which seemed to be activated after they started smoking marijuana. If they hadn’t started smoking marijuana, that doesn’t mean some other life event wouldn’t have activated the gene, but who knows.

Teens argue with me that marijuana is not addicting, but it is. Marijuana is psychologically addicting, why else do people who are regular marijuana users do the some of the same things people addicted to harder drugs do when they are addicted?

Some of the signs of being addicted to anything is when that thing starts to interfere with and effect your life negatively.

Teens I’ve worked with who claim not to be addicted to marijuana have:

  • Missed numerous days of school to stay home and smoke mariuana
  • Come to school high and thus got expelled
  • Got caught smoking marijuana at school and thus got expelled
  • Got pulled over while driving and smoking marijuana
  • Have violated their probation for smoking marijuana after being on probation for marijuana in the first place
  • Have lost jobs for smoking marijuana on their lunch break
  • Have stolen from family and friends to support their marijuana use
  • Have damaged relationships with family and friends over their marijuana use
  • Can’t get jobs because they can’t refrain from marijuana long enough to pass a drug test

These are all signs of addiction. These are all the same things people with cocaine, crack, heroin, alcohol and crystal meth addictions do. Yet these teens still think they aren’t and can’t be addicted to marijuana.

Then they argue that marijuana should just be legal. I’m not going to argue that point here, but even if marijuana was legal it still wouldn’t be available to people under 18 and most likely, not to people under 21.

Even then, employers would probably put in place rules where you couldn’t either test positive for marijuana or at the least, not come to work high. Same goes for places of higher education, the department of motor vehicles and such.

So while teens think legalizing marijuana will mean a free pass to smoke at will, it actuality won’t.

Marijuana use also leads to a higher risk of experimenting with other drugs and I’ve seen enough teens using hard drugs that started with marijuana to know that this is indeed true.

No teen I know who smokes weed can imagine smoking crack, but most people I know who smoke crack started off by smoking weed and didn’t see the day coming when they would be smoking crack or shooting heroin.

I’m not saying marijuana is all bad or trying to bash people who use it, but I do know one think for certain, and that’s that no teenager should be smoking or experimenting with marijuana, especially as their brains are still developing and they have enough trouble making good decision when they aren’t influenced by substances as it is.

The Most Commonly Diagnosed Mental Disorders

We are bombarded all the time with the depressing number of people diagnosed with illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, but did you know that mental illness is even more prevalent?

Like cancer and heart disease, mental illness is a medical condition that does not discriminate by age, sex, race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

Mental disorders often strike people when they less expect it, when they are in the prime of their lives and are often associated with other high risk behaviors such as gambling and substance abuse.

Like any other illness, they also vary in degree from mild, moderate and severe. In developed countries, these are the top 10 diagnosed mental disorders:

10. Autism Spectrum Disorders (Pervasive Developmental Disorders)

I’ve written a previous post on pervasive developmental disorders. They start when children are very young and are often difficult to diagnose. As a matter of fact, I know a parent who has just acknowledged (after much denial) that  her 17 year old son has Asperger’s, something he should have been tested for and began treatment for years ago.

9. Schizophrenia

To me, schizophrenia is one of the most interesting mental illnesses. I used to enjoy working with schizophrenic patients when I worked in the mental hospital, although I did feel very bad for them.

Imagine being tormented by voices telling you bad things about yourself, thoughts that someone is trying to poison you, or seeing visions of dead bodies everywhere. That’s just some of the things people with schizophrenia I’ve worked with were tortured by.

To be diagnosed with schizophrenia, a person has to have two or more of the following:

  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorganized speech
  • Disorganized or catatonic behavior
  • Emotional flatness

Contrary to popular believes, most people with schizophrenia are harmless.

8. Bipolar Disorder

Most people with bipolar disorder are diagnosed by age 25, although different things can bring out underlying bipolar symptoms, such as pregnancy.

“Bipolar” is a term loosely used these days, usually to describe someone who seems to have mood swings, although in most cases, people with bipolar disorder don’t change their moods from moment to moment, and if you ever get to meet someone with severe bipolar disorder and they are not on their medication, you will know it and probably never forget it.

I’ve seen grown men swinging from trees and women drop from exhaustion after running ragged for four days straight, partying, sleeping with half a dozen men and charging thousands of dollars on credit cards they can’t afford.

7. Panic Disorder

Sweating, rapid heart beat, nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, fear, loss of control, chest pains, tingling, smothering sensation, these are all symptoms of panic disorder.

Panic disorder and panic attacks are common, and can be triggered by certain events such as riding in an elevator, being in a crowd, having to give a speech or being in a place where there is no easy escape (agoraphobia).

1 out of 3 people with agoraphobia become housebound and are basically held hostage in their own homes by their illness.

6. Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders include obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

OCD is a combination of reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and actions (compulsions) that a person performs because they believe it gives them control. For instance, a person may believe they have to take 50 baths a day or they aren’t clean and they may lose their job, friends and family to this behavior.

PTSD occurs after a person experiences a terrifying even in which they face great bodily harm, death, fear or helplessness. They may then have reoccurring thoughts, nightmares, heighten fear and avoidance behaviors. Many rape victims and soldiers coming back from war experience PTSD, but so do people who have been robbed, beaten or in a car accident.

GAD is basically when someone has anxiety, stress and worry for at least 6 months period for no specific reason. Some of these people are considered “worry worts” in layman terms, but their anxiety can cause them to have a host of physical systems and a decreased quality of life.

5. Phobias

Phobias are related to anxiety disorders and there is almost a phobia for everything although social phobia is one of the more common phobias.

In social phobia, everyday situations causes the person to become self-conscious and nervous, often leading to physical responses such as sweating which then causes the person to become even more self-conscious and nervous.

Children with social phobia often go through great lengths to avoid going to school and once at school may either be super anti-social or go to extremes to avoid other students by skipping, or staying in the clinic and feigning and illness.

A person can pretty much have a phobia of anything. Check out http://www.phobalist.com

4. Attention Deficit/Hyper Activity Disorder

This is another one I’ve written about previously. ADHD is very common and most children learn to manage their illness or outgrow it altogether, but some will have ADHD throughout their adult life.

3. Eating Disorders

Anorexia nervosa,  bulimia nervosa and binge-eating are common illnesses, usually affecting females.

People suffering from anorexia, when a person looks in the mirror, no matter how thin they are, all they see is a fat person. They then go through great lengths to restrict their food and burn calories until often they are on the verge of starving themselves to death, and sadly many do just that.

People suffering from bulimia are often of normal body weight, but binge on large quantities of food, then feel guilty about it and then may try to vomit it back up, exercise obsessively, or use laxatives to try to get rid of the food and calories.

People who suffer from binge-eating are caught in a vicious cycle of over-eating, feeling guilty about the over-eating, and then over-eating to try to self-soothe themselves, which all of course leads to weight gain and shame.

2. Personality Disorders

All humans have personality traits, most which are relatively fluid, based on our culture, upbringing and experiences. Many of us even have some traits of personality disorders, but people with true personality disorders have traits that are so rigid that they impair their ability to function and get along with people in their everyday life.

Some of the most common personality disorders diagnosed include:

  • Antisocial personality disorder– these people don’t follow rules of society, often care little about other people unless they can use them for their own gain, they can’t empathize or feel sorry for people, they generally show no remorse. They often have criminal behavior.
  • Avoidant personality disorder– these people are anxious, usually over-controlled and fear criticism, making them hesitant to become involved with other people. There for, they tend to avoid people as much as possible.
  • Borderline personality disorder– these people are generally impulsive, unstable, suicidal at times, fear abandonment while at the same time they tend to push people away from them, resulting in tense, unstable relationships.

1. Mood Disorders

Mood disorders are the number one most diagnosed mental illness in developing countries and something that nearly everyone can relate to in one form or another.

Mood disorders are sustained emotions that go beyond the usual, normal feelings of sadness, to deeper feelings such as dysthymic disorder and major depression.