June 25, 2012

Meds for Normal People: Medication Poll Results

A couple months ago, I was conducting a psych assessment with a pain centre patient with depression secondary to chronic pain and disability. Among other things, he reported low mood and frequent crying, rumination, change in appetite, irritability, poor sleep, and fatigue. After the assessment, I offered him short-term psychotherapy--and suggested the possibility of an antidepressant in addition to the medical interventions he was receiving for pain. (NB: I'm limited to suggestion because psychologists don't have prescription privileges).

The patient was dismayed! His eyes filled with tears and he protested "I didn't think it was that bad!" His reaction took me by surprise. I thought an antidepressant would be a positive intervention that could alleviate some of his depressive symptoms and allow him to benefit as much as possible from psychotherapy and from medical interventions for pain; he interepreted my suggestion of an antidepressant as an alarming sign that he was worse off than he thought.

My patient's reaction got me wondering about the current man-on-the-street perspective on mood-stabilizing medications. Time for a poll!

Method: I sent an inbox message to 169 Facebook friends, inviting them to respond to an anonymous online poll about medication. The question: Have you ever been prescribed antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication? The possible answers were yes, no, and yes but I didn't fill the prescription or didn't take the medication. To encourage participation, I posted three reminders as my Facebook status in the following three weeks. 

Participants: Fifty-five people responded. The anonymous nature of the poll precludes official sociodemographic data, but I would describe my sample of Facebook friends as roughly 70% white; 90% Anglophone; 90% urban; 80% professionals with post-secondary education, and ranging in age from 25 to 50 years old.

Results: 64% of respondents (n = 35) reported that they had never been prescribed medication for anxiety or depression. 31% of respondents (n = 17) had been prescribed medication, and 5% (n = 3) had been prescribed medication but hadn't taken it.  

Discussion:  I expected the percentage of medication-takers to be higher than 31%. This may be a bias borne of working in environments where many patients and clients take medication, but many of my friends, family members, and acquaintances also take or have taken antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. To me, taking meds is both normal and common.

What do you think of these results? Are 31% (meds taken) and 36% (meds prescibed) greater percentages than you would expect? The statistic could be inflated by a response bias--that is, my Facebook friends who take or who have taken medication may have been more likely to respond. Alternatively, the statistic may reflect an over-prescription of antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication. I have personally had the uncomfortable experience of being handed a prescription for an antidepressant by a general practitioner who had met with me for ten minutes, and I know this isn't an uncommon experience.

Confusion and stigma surround the use of these medications, and it's not always easy to know who is a good candidate. I bet that of the 35 respondents who have never been prescribed meds, a few could have benefited from them at some point. I also wouldn't be surprised if a few of the 17 respondents who have used antidepressants or anxiolytics would have been just as well without it.

Opinion: Taking meds doesn't mean that you're weak, that you're an addict, or that you're severely ill; if you're prescribed medication for symptoms of anxiety or depression, it simply means that you're experiencing a very common symptom that medication can be partially effective in alleviating. I believe in the use of antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication as a tool for coping with or recovering from anxiety and depression, with a few ground rules:
  1. A person taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds should be closely followed by his or her prescribing doctor.  The doctor must be available to answer questions about side effects, increase or decrease the dose as needed, and check in once in awhile to make sure the meds are having the intended effect. Otherwise it's really easy to end up taking medication for years without evaluating its impact, or to start independently experimenting with dosage--both problematic.
  2. For uncomplicated anxiety and non-recurrent depression, medication is ideally a short-term solution and anyone taking meds is also in psychotherapy, working on identifying and resolving the issues that contribute to anxiety or depression. Therapy without medication is also an option, but sometimes symptoms of anxiety and depression can make it difficult to benefit from (or even attend) therapy (e.g., you're too depressed to get out of bed to go to therapy; you're too anxious to sit still for fifty minutes). A well-prescribed medication can provide the stability and lucidity necessary to allow therapy to do its work.

June 07, 2012

Let's Talk Change

Setting goals is easy, meeting them is hard, and not achieving them is discouraging. What's the best way to set realistic objectives that we can feel confident about meeting?

I learned a trick that's been useful in helping clients set and achieve goals. Say a client sets the objective of meditating for ten minutes five times per week. I'll ask him "On a scale of 0-10, how confident are you that you can achieve this goal?"

How does this question help?

1) Eliciting change talk. Say my client replies that his confidence level is six out of ten. My next move is to say "Hmm, six out of ten. Why not zero? Why is your confidence level at six instead of at two or three or even zero?"

This question may seem counterintuitive, but if I say "Why not seven or eight?" my client will produce a list of reasons why he can't meet his goal: he's too busy; he's not sure he'll be able to fit it in; he's not sure that meditation is for him. Suddenly he's resisting his goal. If I say "Why not two, three, or even zero?" the client will produce what's called change talk: it's not that hard, it's only ten minutes per day; he's been wanting to try meditating for a long time; it seems like something that could help him with stress. Suddenly he's making declarations about why he chose this goal and why it's important to him, boosting his own motivation.

2) Evaluating realisticness. Say my client replies that his degree of confidence in meeting his goal is one out of ten. I could still go for "Why not zero?" but it's important to consider that if his confidence is so low, the goal may be unrealistic and need adjustment. If my client has three children and works full time, meditating five times per week may not be possible for him. If we adjust the goal (e.g., meditating twice per week) and his degree of confidence increases to five or six out of ten, we're on the right track. I can then ask "Why not zero?" and he'll produce change talk: it's only twice per week, the kids go to bed at 8pm, leaving time for meditation in the evening; it will help him unwind at the end of the day.

The 0-10 confidence scale technique comes from motivational interviewing (MI), a coaching/counselling approach designed to increase motivation for change by helping people explore ambivalence and other barriers to change. MI incorporates the stages of change model, recognizing that people who want to make behaviour change or meet new objectives aren't always completely ready to do so.

I like to use the 0-10 confidence scale on myself and often find that low confidence is a symptom of an unrealistic goal (e.g., not eating out at all this week). I try to adjust my objective (e.g., eating out no more more than twice this week) until my level of confidence is at least six or seven, and then ask myself "Why not zero?" until I hear myself saying things like: I have the time this week to shop and prepare lunches; I actually prefer eating at home most of the time; I can put the money I save aside for my upcoming vacation.

Try it out!

June 05, 2012


Emotions can be inconvenient. Sometimes we experience intense and difficult feelings at work, during a social occasion, or at some other awkward moment. It's not a convenient time to explore the emotions in depth or to sit and have a good cry, so what's the best strategy? Ignoring feelings? Suppressing them?

Like thought suppression, emotion suppression doesn't usually work; paradoxically, it can make feelings more intense. The trick is simply accepting that the inconvenient emotions are happening and allowing them to be present. It doesn't make feelings go away, but allowing eliminates the struggle against the feelings, freeing up your energy and attention for other things.

Here are two strategies for allowing:

1) Replace but with and. Say you're at a a great social event that you really want to enjoy, and you can't stop worrying about something stressful you have to deal with the following day. You're saying to yourself I'm at this great party, but I'm really anxious. Replacing but with and means telling yourself I'm at this great party and I'm really anxious. Whereas the original phrasing implies that there's no way you can enjoy the party with anxiety present, replacing one small word creates a new sentence that implies that the two can co-exist: you're anxious and also, the party is great.

2) Draw a picture. A client told me this story recently: At work one morning, he received a personal email that provoked intense sadness, fear, and jealousy. He tried to ignore his emotions and turn his attention to his tasks, but the feelings got stronger and stronger. The client needed to focus on his work; remembering the concept of RAIN, he decided to switch strategies and try allowing his feelings to be present. He wrote sadness, fear, and jealousy on three respective post-it notes and stuck them to the side of his computer monitor, illustrating each word with an emoticon-style face.

What happened? Emotion post-its turned out to be a great way of simultaneously defusing from emotions and allowing them to be present. The feelings/notes remained present in the corner of the client's mind/computer monitor, but the struggle to get rid of them was over, allowing him to redirect his attention. The feelings/notes became less and less distracting and after half an hour, the client was absorbed in his work. When he returned to his desk after lunch and saw the post-its, he laughed.

Neither replacing but with and or drawing a picture involves ignoring, suppressing, or denying feelings, and both strategies can help manage intense emotions at inconvenient times. Let me know if you try either of these tricks!