[Mental Health Hack] Cooler Heads Prevail

Note 1: I’m baaaaack! (I hear this carries more weight when you don’t have to say it every time you write a post.)

Note 2:  An obvious but important disclaimer: I am not a doctor, therapist, or the delightful mishmash of the two, a psychiatrist. I am but a lowly psych-student-sometimes-social-services-intern blogger. Calibrate appropriately, consult doctors when necessary, and full steam cautiously ahead. 

Welcome to Mental Health Hacks, a when-the-hell-ever-ly feature on making your life easier, brainwise. Each post will be short, science-based ideas for life hacks for the neuro-typical and atypical. Your mileage may vary! Your topic suggestions are encouraged!


I mean, you can totally panic if you want to. But here’s something that might help you panic more effectively.

Around the time I started having troubles with [sub-clinical] levels of anxiety, I noticed something weird. When I got anxious (and very occasionally, before I realized I was high-anxiety), I would feel too warm. WAY too warm. Not sweaty, not that the room was too warm, just a slow burning under my skin. The nearest comparison I could give is the shame-heat of feeling humiliation or embarrassment.

In retrospect (or maybe just in confirmation bias), I can recall being scared or stressed as a child and feeling that slow flare. When I felt too warm, it was hard to concentrate on the task at hand, resulting in a frustrating loop of “Too warm, can’t think! But if I can’t think, I can’t finish this project!”…resulting in STRESS SPIRALS. Not fun.

As it turns out, this is quite common. The theory (annoyingly, all behind paywalls) is that stress-motivated vasoconstriction–when blood vessels contract–is to blame. Despite sounding a wee terrifying, the vascular contraction isn’t terribly dangerous in small amounts. Similar results can be achieved by caffeine. Scientists argue, each with pet data, whether the reaction is found in people with panic disorder and not in those with generalized anxiety disorder or the reverse.

But! Everybody seems to agree that in some subset of people, being anxious means feeling uncomfortably warm, and that sometimes the sensation of heat precedes the emotional aspect.  (With fascinating anecdata about severe anxiety leading to a phobia of blushing.)

Okay, so then what?

Reducing the immediate internal inferno can give you the space needed to deal with people and situations. It’s nigh on impossible to respond peacefully and reasonably when EVERYTHING IS HOT AND AWFUL. So–we make it less hot and awful. Additionally, brains are not so great at determining cause and effect with emotions. There’s a high probability that just feeling less heated can reduce your net anxiety.

[PAUSE: Stick a pencil or pen between your teeth. I promise this is relevant.]

Things I’ve found to work:

-A cool or cold washcloth/paper towel/anything on the back of the neck. This also eases dizziness, which usually comes knocking when I’m anxious.

-A fan or cool breeze pointed at my face (good) or back (better).

-Fanning myself with whatever’s closest at hand. This one sounds particularly obvious, but has the added advantage of giving you a way to avoid eye contact.

I’ve also heard that standing with a freezer or fridge door open (or walking into one, if you’re in food service) can help. My experience is that airflow trumps the air’s temperature, but whatever tips your cow.*

*This is why I love the Midwest.

Non-Auditory Voices and Other Quirks of the Brain

March, in Chicago. I’m on my way to the Art Institute, and already late. Music in, coat up around my ears–it’s March in Chicago, after all. I rush by a panhandler sitting on cardboard under a doorway.




I’d attended a class with a friend and had been trying to teach myself sign language for a few weeks. I was pretty sure I’d just recognized some signs from the woman in the doorway. Like me, everyone was hurrying by, avoiding eye contact. But she was signing…pausing…signing again. It was a pattern that looked a little familiar–a memory from working in schizophrenia research. The woman seemed to be talking–quite animatedly–to someone invisible.

Was she signing to voices? How would that even work? Would seeing someone signing to you be an auditory hallucination or a visual one? Would signing-hallucinations be entirely separate from other visual hallucinations (such as hallucinating animals or people following you)?

Which brings me to this research, months later: Exploring how deaf people ‘hear’ voice-hallucinations.

Participants born profoundly deaf reported non-auditory, clear and easy to understand voices. They were all confident that they did not hear any sounds, but knew the gender and identity of the voice. They reported seeing an image of the voice signing or lips moving in their mind.
Individuals with severe language deprivation and incomplete acquisition of either speech or sign, were remarkable in that they did not experience either auditory characteristics or perception of subvisual imagery of voice articulation, suggesting that language acquisition within a critical period may be necessary for voice-hallucinations that are organised in terms of how spoken or signed utterances are articulated.

Among other fascinating discoveries, people with acquired deafness could have auditory hallucinations, even if they did not currently have the ability to hear. Those born profoundly deaf and who had grasp of a communication method also could hallucinate voices, but in non-auditory ways. Those hallucinations would be organized, with genders and actual identities that could be distinguished from one another.

Incredible on its own, but even better, it gives us more information about schizophrenia. If both hearing and d/Deaf people with schizophrenia can experience similar hallucinations of people communicating information, where variance is found simply in the presentation of the information, it suggests an underlying structure of the disease that is independent of the communication system of the afflicted. It matters less how you do it–schizophrenia doesn’t appear to distinguish. Something is changing within language processing. 

Science is cool, y’all.

Update: I forgot to include a link to Charles Bonnet Syndrome, the condition of having visual hallucinations when visually impaired.

Kate Makes Nutella Sandwich Cookies

Alternate recipe: ignore all the instructions, stick face in Nutella, devour.

Leaving Columbus for a quick Chicago jaunt…which means I’m on a bus with wifi and readers at my mercy. Evil laughter and all that.

These cookies are incredibly simple and good enough to serve as currency (In fact, they’re how I paid for my last bit of couch surfing.)

The vegan variation is less tested than the original, but was successful the last time I tried. I’m sure much of the potential variation comes from different vegan chocolate spreads. I used this one, which is barely sweetened and a little too thick, but worked well otherwise.

– 2 eggs
 vegan: two mashed bananas
– 1 cup Nutella….and then lots more for filling. Trust me on this.
 vegan: any chocolate spread substitute–there are quite a few
– 1 cup peanut butter
– heaping 1/2 cup sugar
vegan: vegan Nutella substitutes are often less sweet, I’d use 2/3 cup or more.

Preheat oven to 350.

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well. Roll the dough into balls about 2/3 to 3/4 the size of a golf ball. Space widely on an ungreased baking sheet. Unlike the simple peanut butter cookies that this recipe is modeled off, these will spread as they cook, and I put nine to a sheet to compensate.

Press each cookie twice with a fork (run it under cold water between every two balls of dough to prevent sticking), and put the pan in the oven. (If you’re confused by the fork instructions, it should look like this, and you want the cookies to be about 1/2 in thick after you’ve pressed them.)

Bake for about fifteen minutes, or, if you’re me, put them in the oven, forget to set a time, get distracted in conversation for at least ten minutes, spend last five minutes checking them constantly.

Do not remove them from the pan for at least five minutes. They will break, you will be sad, and in your sadness, you will have to eat all the broken cookie pieces. Wait…

After five minutes, transfer them to a cooling rack (or plates, if you don’t have one). The cookies are still fragile, and need to lie flat. Avoid stacking. When the cookies are barely warm to touch, you can make the sandwich part. Spread one tablespoon’s worth of Nutella on the bottom of one cookie, then stick it to the bottom of a second.



[If you get impatient and make the cookie sandwiches too early, the Nutella will melt and make a huge mess. You can counteract it a little by sticking them in the fridge or eating them all immediately.]

Monday Miscellany: Theoretical Godlessness, Social Psychology, & Coffee

Today in Social Psychology is a Many-Variabled Beast: that marshmellow test, where children had to do a ‘delay of gratification’ exercise in waiting to eat a marshmellow in return for having two marshmellows as a reward….is actually way more complicated. There’s this article, and also this one. As it turns out, when you try to simplify social psychology and apply it across the board, you’ll miss things.

We have a new blogger! His name is Alex Gabriel, you should read what he has to say about coffee, and he once made me incredibly happy by designing this poster:


Somewhat like Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds*, PsyBlog is here to help you use Real Actual Science ™ to unbork your brain. In this case, Six Weird Tips To Lose Weight. Er, sorry,  Six Quick Tips To Get Your Brain in High Gear Fast.

Melanie Tannenbaum makes my inner psychnerd happy when she talks about psychology’s brilliant, beautiful, scientific messiness:

Psychology is a science.

Shut up about how it’s not, already.

I clearly cannot just say that without explaining why psychology is a science, although sometimes I wish I could just join the biologists, chemists, and physicists who are never faced with having to answer such questions. So I will start by quoting the main thrust of Dr. Berezow’s argument, and then explaining why the 20-year-olds who take my Intro Social Psych class each semester could have told Berezow why he’s wrong by the end of our first week of class.

Is talking about body image actually useful? Well…maybe not.

HeadQuarters is the Guardian’s new psychology blog, and it’s quite a bit better than I usually expect from mainstream psych-journalism. Take a look at this piece on anti-depressants. There’s science! Very little jargon! Even nuance!

For something totally different, Dancers Among Us.

We’re not all mentally ill:

Mental illness is many things. But there’s one thing it most emphatically is not — and that is everyday fears, worries, doubts, and attractions. (Of the items on Rick Warren’s list, “compulsions” is the only one that belongs.) Seeing mental illness as ordinary emotions is a fundamentally flawed view,  one that harms people actually living with such illness.

What have you been thinking through lately?

*59 Seconds is excellent and worth reading. General premise: what can science tell us about being more happy? Think self-help, but evidence-based. 

The Un-Hiatus and Whelm-y-ness

Internet! I have been gone for far too long. I’m in my last few days in Ohio and have been caught up in polishing off my internship at the Secular Student Alliance (Yes, working there is even better than you’re imagining.), packing up and moving, and facing the fact that after nine months off and working at two different Grown Up Jobs, I will actually have to go back to writing essays and turning in homework.

All of this has meant I’ve been away from my beloved G&H. So here I am! Back! Mostly! Still exclamatory! I have intentions of blogging regularly after this weekend. So, with many apologies for the accidental disappearance, I give you one graphical illustration of ‘whelmed’ and a promise to produce actual content.

overwhelmed: (adj) the condition of being more than one standard deviation past whelmed.

overwhelmed: (adj) the condition of being more than one standard deviation past whelmed.



Falling in Love With People

I think one of my favorite things about people is how they light up when you find exactly the right thing that they love to talk about.

Sometimes it’s people–the friends who accomplished something, the family that’s visiting in a few weeks. The new baby and the recently graduated cousin. Or the people who create–the car half-finished in the garage, the quilt that just needs a few more stitches. The garden that’s just coming up in the spring–if only those damn squirrels would leave it be.

There’s the people with topics, who leap in to tell you about the Perseid shower coming up when you mention how pretty the sky is, the ones who hear you ponder a question and offer book recommendations in response. Oh, and the people with ideas! The questions, the new rabbit holes of unconsidered variables, the research you haven’t heard of.

And people are these collections of things that have captured their passion. Astronomy and hypnosis and philosophy and smithing and treehouse architecture and all just waiting for you to ask the right questions. Their eyes will get a little bit wider, their gestures, more energetic. They give you their real smiles–the ones that aren’t just for agreeing and nodding along and making small talk.

And then some of you out there make fun of them for lighting up at the mention of dollhouses or sports or fashion or that one television show. And they back off. They curl their toes in their shoes and change the subject. And maybe the next time, they won’t say “yes! I love talking about the finer points of fencing!”

And you, out there, sneering at their love for beekeeping or birdwatching?

You are ruining it for the rest of us. 


Monday Miscellany

My friend Robby said something I like quite a lot:

It’s hard damn work to be a brain. Not only are there THINGS to be sad about aplenty, but there are like a bajillion frillion chemicals you got to juggle just to keep things in working order at the best of times, to say nothing of the not-best of times when you have stress lasers firing all the time.

I am impressed with brain for being so awesome almost all of the time. We didn’t evolve to be happiness factories, yet somehow we manage to have lots of happiness a lot of the time. That is pretty sweet.

I was rereading Chana’s archives and particularly liked this piece, A Personal Journey to Rationalism.

Healer Syndrome

We start believing our own marketing messages. We start believing that we can treat practically anyone, that every patient does need us, that we do offer a unique and therapeutically potent service. We start thinking of ourselves as healers, whether the word ever crosses our minds or not. Any excessive self-promotional behaviours are fully justified by our self-confidence: it’s not wrong when you really can help almost everyone … right?

This is the most dangerous form of healer syndrome — subtle and insidious.

Ed is taking a step back and changing how he uses mental illness in conversation and blogging.

James Croft on why he comes back to this movement.

But, however dispirited and burnt out I sometimes feel, something keeps me coming back to Humanism, and it is simply this: Humanism represents the highest human values in a way unmatched by any other social movement or lifestance. No other movement can claim so proudly that they put the highest human values right at the center of their worldview, unadulterated. In Humanism there is nothing valued above the dignity of persons, the primacy of reason, and the necessity of hope for the future. Humanism represents the single best hope for the future of our species: given the potential threat of climate change it may be that if our species has a future at all could be dependent on how Humanistic a world we create.

I hope so very much that the future looks a lot more like you. To Katie and Arin.

The upside of denial.

 What have you written recently?


Clearing out my drafts–from sometime in May, updated and edited. TW: ED for brief discussion of bingeing and depriving


I’m sitting in the dark again. My bed is big and wide and green and it’s become my landing place. There’s a bowl on the desk to my left –the last remains of a meal I can call balanced. I need to take it to the kitchen. I need to take a shower and pair my socks and call the gas company and turn in the notes I wrote up and organize my planner and plan tomorrow’s meals. I need to nap, to vacuum, to go to the gym. To-do lists became overwhelming this week, so I started making lists of people I owed apologies.

I’m so sorry. I meant to finish it.

I haven’t moved for two hours.

The funny thing is, this is Better. This isn’t wanting to scream because the jeans hugged my hips. It isn’t spending weeks being repulsed by my own skin. It isn’t deciding that two handfuls of granola are lunch, an orange is dinner.

I eat at least two meals every day. I’ve maintained a healthy weight for most of my time at college. I can sit in class and not lose track of an hour, wrapped up in trying to figure out if my lap is bigger than the last time I looked.

But I won’t keep mirrors in my room. If you go walking with me, you’ll notice me turn away as we pass tall store-front windows. I’ll look up at you, engage with conversation more, smile at someone on the street. But I’ll try to avoid my reflection.

This doesn’t feel like Better.

I’m happy and it feels…fragile. I look for all the things that go wrong. A few panic attacks later, I revise fear of the unknown downwards enough to be manageable.

I don’t know how to trust being unhappy. It’s impossible and irrational to think that I will be happy for the rest of my life. But every time I notice boredom, lethargy, sadness, I fear it. What if this is the first sign? What if I can’t stop feeling this way?

I worry when I lose weight. Clothing’s looser than usual and suddenly I’m reviewing every meal. Did I skip last Tuesday’s lunch intentionally? I feel hungry, and I worry it’s the start of bingeing. If I eat, will I be able to stop? It’s a razor edge, this being healthy business.