Category Archives: Psychology

The Bell Jar

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While reading the first half of The Bell Jar, I couldn’t help but draw connections between Sophie’s feelings and the dilemma facing many college students today.  In The Bell Jar, Sophie is almost out of college.  She is an English major living the high life with other students, but she is not quite comfortable with her situation.  She feels that the road she is on is ending, and that she doesn’t have a viable option for where to go in life.  She didn’t get into an advanced writing course, and she doesn’t want to marry her childhood sweetheart.  She is imagining a fig tree where she has many possibilities in life, but she doesn’t know which path to take.  As she spends more and more time considering her options, she feels the figs of the fig tree falling, and fewer and fewer options in her life.

Today, many students are running the race of college scholarships, high GPA, volunteerism, etc…, only to find out that the race they are winning at is now ending.  They are graduating from college with high scholastic merit, only to find out that they now need to run the race of life, and that their prospects in that race are grim.  Many students who graduate from college cannot find a job out of college, or that job isn’t what they were expecting and they don’t earn enough to pay off their college debt (which can total in the 30-40,000 range for undergraduate students.  Graduate students are, of course, more).  They feel like they are facing the fig tree of the novel, where they see so many possibilities in front of them.  They may get married, move to another state (or even another country), go on for more education to *hopefully* better their chances of career achievement, or get a job that they are totally overqualified for and really don’t want.  Many college students feel the sense that there is a ceiling over their heads, or that they feel squeezed from pressure.  In other words, they feel that they are in the bell jar.

With that context, I can completely understand the depression this young woman feels, even though this book was written in the 1960s.  It was written forty years ago, yet it can still be applied to the condition of college students today.  That is why it is a modern classic.  It transcends the time that it was written and is applicable to the world of today.  I would not expect every college student to go further down this path, but that is her story.

Because of her mental state, Sophie feels trapped in major depressive disorder.  She thinks about the many ways she can kill herself, and eventually ends up in asylums.  One of the more notable (and disgusting) moments is her stirring a raw egg into raw hamburger and eating it.  In this way, the book serves as a case study in abnormal psychology.  We see a young woman who feels trapped in the life she is living, and her tragic venture into the depths of the human psyche.  We see glimpses of how psychiatric patients were treated during the 1960s, including severe shock therapy.

Sophie is eventually let out of the asylum because her doctors feel that she is ready to go out into the world again.  She feels as though she was reborn from the experience.  Is she mentally able to face the world?  Will she find her new path in life?  We do not get the answer to this question in the book because it doesn’t show what happens to her later.

The Bell Jar is a fascinating case study of depression and mental disorders.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone interesting in learning how a person at the height of their college career can end up in a mental asylum.

This book easily deserves five stars.

For another review from Jill’s Cabana Stories, click here.

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Social Anxiety Disorder

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Do you have an intense fear of social situations?  How do you do with public speaking?  Are you afraid of constantly being judged and criticized by others?

If so, you could have one of the most common mental disorders in America:  social anxiety disorder, or social phobia.  In this disorder, the person is afraid of looking bad or being humiliated in front of others.  The person may have a lack of social skills.  These fears can build into panic attacks.  Because of this, the person may avoid certain social situations, or have severe distress over them.

Another common feature of social anxiety is anticipatory anxiety, or having fears about a social situation and being judged before it happens.  The person may be aware that their fears are unsubstantiated and unreasonable, but they can’t control it.  It just exists for them.  They can’t get around them.

In general, the person feels that something is wrong with them in social situations, but they can’t figure it out what “it” is.  Before or during the situation, the person may feel their heart pounding.  They may sweat, shake, and get an upset stomach.  Your muscles might tense up.  In more severe cases, the person may have something called “derealization” where you literally “black out” and can’t remember anything about the situation.  Say you’re giving a report, and ten minutes later, you’re done, but you can’t remember what you said.  All you knew was that you were so anxious and nervous for it, and are now so relieved it is over.

Some common situations that provoke these feelings include eating or drinking in front of others, using the phone, going to the bathroom in public places, interacting with others in parties or on dates, giving reports or asking questions, and in general being the center of attention.  Because of the nature of this disorder and where it can lead (it can significantly affect your life), the person may develop panic disorder and/or depression.

The disorder is more common in women than men.  It most often surfaces in adolescence or early adulthood, but can also originate in childhood.

Psychologists believe three vulnerabilities cause social anxiety disorder:

Biological:  You have a biological vulnerability to it.  One of your neurotransmitters is serotonin.  A neurotransmitter is a special chemical used in the brain to transmit messages from one nerve cell to another.  Sometimes these chemicals get out of balance, making for some wonky brain situations where the chemical can’t send the message properly.  This can cause the brain to react in a certain way to situations, including the provocation of anxiety.  There’s also a genetic part to this because the disorder appears to run in families.

Psychological:  The person may have had an embarrassing social situation at one point that later helped develop the disorder.

Environmental:  The person has some stressful situations that help bring out the disorder.

These factors together are part of the diathesis stress model.  The model helps to explain the relationship with genetics and the person’s environment in causing a disorder.  In this model, the person has a biological vulnerability to develop a disorder (diathesis), and psychological situations and environmental stress “pushes a person over the edge,” creating the disorder.

The diagram below is a schematic of this model.  When a biologically vulnerable individual has negative environmental situations (or stressors), they have a negative outcome and develop the disorder.  When the vulnerable individual doesn’t face these stressors, they don’t develop the disorder.  However, if the person doesn’t have the vulnerability (or is a “resilient individual”), they will not develop the disorder, regardless of whether their experiences are positive or negative.

Diathesis Stress Model

Diathesis Stress Model

Social anxiety disorder is best treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  In this theory, the therapist helps the person uncover the dysfunctional thinking patterns that create anxiety in social situations.  The person learns to react differently to social triggers.  Systematic desensitization involves exposing the person gradually to more anxiety-ridden situations.  The person is exposed to the situation in a safe environment with the therapist to work through his/her fears.  With this treatment, the prognosis, or outcome of social anxiety disorder, is generally good, with the person leading a productive life.

Multiple Personality Disorder

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Picture of a Person with Multiple Personality Disorder

Photo Inspired by the Movie Sybil

When a person thinks of multiple personality disorder, the first thought that usually comes to their mind is the movie Sybil. Sybil had these full alter identities that each had their own personality. They all had a history, likes, dislikes, and temperament. Sybil suffered from child abuse from her mother, which created alters because she had to escape from the world that her mother inflicted on her. Sybil exhibited bizarre behavior, and tried to kill herself when one of her personalities had taken over. This other personality was severely depressed. Eventually, though treatment, Sybil was able to “meet” the personalities and become whole once again.

In real life, people with Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) (formally changed to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)) do not always show patterns of extreme behavior. They typically have extreme memory loss from when they dissociate, or detach from their surroundings. They claim they have “lost time” from extreme memory lapses. People may have panic attacks, insomnia, or depression. They may have a history of substance abuse or suicidal thoughts.
People may go for part of their life not knowing that they have DID, or may deal with the personalities as they live their everyday life. An example of this is retired NFL player Herschel Walker. He was diagnosed with DID. During his fourteen years as a running back, he had twelve alternative personalities.

Another common myth is that DID is the same as schizophrenia. People with schizophrenia do not have alters. They have a general confusion about what is real or unreal, and typically experience delusions or hallucinations. However, people with either disorder may hear voices in their heads, withdraw from social interaction, and show increased risk of substance abuse of suicide.

Although diagnosing DID is difficult, evidence suggests that DID is a real disorder, and that people with multiple personalities are not faking it. Alternates show different patterns in heart rate, blood pressure, and brain activity. There is also evidence that people with DID have a smaller hippocampus and amygdala. Therefore, one cannot claim that a person with DID is just “faking it.” Obviously, there are cases may use multiple personality disorder for personal gain. However, this does not mean that DID does not exist.

The most commonly accepted cause for DID is early childhood trauma abuse. Many people find this controversial, as many people that have suffered early childhood abuse do not develop DID. However, this argument can be made for other types of disorders or medical problems, yet the evidence shows causation between the two. For example, not all smokers develop lung cancer, and not all alcoholics develop liver cirrhosis. The majority of people with DID experienced early childhood trauma. These experiences were too much for the child to endure, so their brain “turned off” their brain, so to speak, and developed alternative identities as a coping mechanism. Not all children develop this disorder because of abuse, but evidence does show a link between the two.

The most common treatment that psychotherapists use to treat DID is to try to have the identities coexist peacefully together. The goal is not to necessarily integrate the personalities, or eliminate them, because this could cause a personality to commit potentially violent behavior as a survival response. Therefore, people with DID usually have to find a way to live their lives with the alternative personalities.

This is a video blog of a person with MPD or DID talking about their experiences:

© Amy Burney, Amy’s Fantastical Writings