TIME psychology

The Dog Will See You Now

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The growth of animal-assisted therapy means that man's best friend may soon be man's best medicine

During a couples-therapy session, therapist Ellen Winston of Lakewood, Colo., brought along her assistant, Sasha — who happens to be a dog.

The couple were dealing with behavioral problems in their children and, on top of that, getting a divorce. “The split was not entirely amicable, and there were very hurt and angry feelings all around,” Winston says. “The parents struggled to have a civil conversation and it often escalated into yelling, and then tears, on both sides.”

During the sessions, the couple would sit on complete opposite sides of the couch. Sasha would hop in the middle, curl up and fall asleep. Both partners would stroke Sasha at particularly emotional moments, and it helped them calm down. Still, they continued to get agitated, often letting therapy sessions intensify into screaming matches. When that happened, Sasha would quickly get up and walk to the door. Winston used those moments as teaching points.

“We [discussed] that if this is how they interact regularly, their children were likely also picking up on their moods and acting out as a result. This was one of the first times they realized that their children may be impacted by the parents own relationship.”

(MORE: Comfort Creatures)

Winston’s sessions are one of the ways animal-assisted therapy is changing. Animal-assisted therapy is different from service animals who accompany someone dealing with anxiety or depression. Those are certified as emotional-support animals (ESA), who are daily companions and covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Therapy animals, on the other hand, are meant to be used in counseling, whether a professional session or an informal one. Although the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association have no formal position on animal-assisted therapy, there’s evidence that small practices and individuals are exploring it. Animals are appearing in all sorts of places: in emergency rooms, prisons, juvenile-detention centers, nursing homes and, increasingly, your therapist’s office. There are no official numbers yet, but Pet Partners, a nonprofit that registers animals for animal-assisted therapy use (the largest organization to do so in the U.S.), says there were more than 1 million reported interactions between registered animals and patients last year. This number includes everything from nursing-home visits to therapy sessions.

Kathryn Kimbley, director of HumAnima CIC, an animal-assisted therapy service in West Midlands, England, brings her therapy dog Flossie to individual sessions with clients, as well as to larger groups, to comfort patients with depression, behavioral problems or even mental-health issues like PTSD. “Dogs can act very much like a social catalyst. In various settings they will encourage people to interact with one another,” Kimbley says. “It lifts the mood and makes people feel better.”

Kimbley has found that her clients feel more at ease talking to her when they’re physically distracted. “If someone is talking, they might sort of tap their foot or fidget. They have this energy they want to redirect somewhere, and they have no outlet for it. So if Flossie is in this situation, it is much easier for them.”

A therapy pet can also modulate a relationship between a client and his or her counselor. “You are dealing with powerful and overwhelming emotions, but you can’t hug a client,” says Kimbley. “With a dog present, that need is therefore met.”

(VIDEO: Rescued Stray Becomes a Therapist)

Emerging research confirms the benefits of pets on people. A 2009 study found that preschool kids with special needs were better able to follow directions during assigned tasks if they were with a trained poodle than when they were alone, with another human or with a stuffed animal dog. Other research has shown that animals are social facilitators: people tend to be viewed as more trustworthy if they have a pet, and pets are known to instigate more conversations among strangers. Animals can also lower a person’s anxiety level. “You can see some of the same changes in physiological response from looking at a fish tank as you do with petting a dog, cat or a horse,” says Sheryl Pipe, an adjunct professor of anthrozoology (the study of human-animal interaction) at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. “But in terms of social facilitation, that is better suited for mammals.”

Of course, there are certain people who don’t respond well to animals in their sessions, and therapists need to distinguish between those who will benefit and those who need pet-free space. And not just any animal will work. Therapy animals are most successful when they’re a bit older and have more experience. There are no set guidelines for training animals used in therapy, and many groups use their own rubrics. Kimbley makes sure her animals are properly socialized and can react normally in a variety of situations.

But, Pipe warns, a therapy animal should be considered a partner rather than a tool. “We tend to have a greater willingness to consider the impact on our partner than our tools. We have to make sure an animal is happy participating and still has adequate time to behave like the animal that they are,” says Pipe.

“The field is still relatively in its infancy, but the data that’s beginning to come in is really encouraging in terms of how impactful this work can be.” Man’s best friend, it seems, can also be man’s best medicine.

MORE: Bringing Dogs to Heal: Care for Veterans With PTSD

TIME Child abuse

Dylan Farrow’s Child Abuse Accusations: What We’ve Learned About When, and How Children Should Confront Abuse

Experts still don't have all the answers, but have a better appreciation for how to help young victims confront their abuse experience

Dylan Farrow’s open letter responding to her adoptive father Woody Allen’s lifetime achievement Golden Globe reignited the child abuse questions that captivated the media in 1993, when Farrow’s mother, Mia, then Allen’s girlfriend, split from the director. Then seven-year old Farrow’s claims that Allen had raped her became the lynchpin of a bitter custody battle; Allen continues to deny the claims, and was never prosecuted.

Farrow’s letter provides an opportunity to understand what psychologists have learned about when it’s too early to address child abuse with victims (making it too traumatizing) and when it can do harm (if children are forced to relive the experience without proper support). In the years since, some experts say, they have come to a slightly better, although still emerging sense of how reliable childhood memories and recollections are, and the lasting impact of abuse on survivors.

MORE: Woody Allen Lawyer Says Dylan Farrow Is Mia’s ‘Pawn’

While cases of sexual abuse involving children have declined since Allen was first accused— between 1992 and 2010, the number of substantiated abuse cases fell by 62%, according to the National Child and Abuse Neglect Data System and other databases— around one in five girls in the U.S. still suffers at least some form of sexual molestation during childhood.

In about a third of those cases, affecting 6% to 7% of girls overall— the perpetrator is a family member, according to David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. But the most common perpetrator is a non-family acquaintance, such as a neighbor, the older sibling of a friend or a coach or teacher, he says. Abuse by strangers — the stereotypical accoster in the park or kidnapper in an unmarked van— only occurs in about 3-4% of cases.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the prevailing principle guiding sexual abuse cases was “believe the children,” which experts hoped would give young victims the benefit of the doubt when confronting potential adult abusers. But that led to dozens of wrongful convictions, particularly of daycare personnel and in cases with little or no physical evidence . Now, says Finkelhor, “The field is much more cautious about child testimony.”

That’s because psychologists are learning more about how repeated interrogation and the experience of testifying affects memory and recollections, particularly among young children. Studies showed, for example, that false convictions tended to result when children were constantly interrogated with leading questions or pressured to “tell the truth” that the interrogator wanted to hear. “There have been all kinds of protections developed in the last 20 years about how to talk to children in the course of investigations so as not to create confabulation or not to impair the testimony so it could be impeached in court,” says Finkelhor. For example, using anatomically correct dolls has been shown to produce false testimony, so investigators no longer use them.

Still, the truth is especially difficult to discern during custody cases. “The [studies] show that in some cases these are true allegations that emerge because the family is no longer trying to keep [itself] together and hide this particular secret, but that in some situations it seems to be an allegation that doesn’t have support and is probably not true,” Finkelhor says. No one really knows how common false allegations are in custody trials— but clearly neither the extreme view that they never happen or that all reports are true is correct.

And since the end of the 20th century, dozens of studies have shown how fragile and unreliable memory can be. More work even shows that it is possible to implant false memories in both adults and children using very simple prompts and suggestions. In an interview with TIME last year, Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of California in Irvine, noted that in her research, she was able to implant a false memory of witnessing Satanic possession, albeit in only a minority of participants. “I’ve been planting bits of false memory in my experimental work for decades,” she said. In response to Farrow’s letter, one of Allen’s attorneys says Farrow’s recollection of the abuse that occurred 20 years ago was planted by her mother.

MORE: Fighting Excess Drinking with False Memories

But that doesn’t mean that children — or adults for that matter — cannot ever testify accurately. The age of the child, his or her own level of maturity and the circumstances of the abuse all play a role in credibility. The older the child, the more reliable their memory can be, but unfortunately, child predators tend to prey on the youngest and most vulnerable who are least likely to be believed.

And that means that when a young child is victimized, it’s difficult to determine whether subjecting him to a court experience, and forcing him to testify, will be helpful or harmful to their recovery. “These cases are very hard on children, whether they testify or not,” Finkelhor says. Research shows that testifying itself doesn’t necessarily increase or decrease the child’s trauma— but what does matter is how long the proceedings drag on and how the parents respond to the child. The longer the case takes, the worse the outcome— for instance, children can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal thoughts or addictions. Also important is how willing the child is to testify and what fears he or she has in connection with doing so. “Having support from their primary caregivers is crucial,” says Finkelhor.

MORE: When Seeing the World As Good Can Hurt Sex Abuse Survivors

Farrow wrote: “That [Allen] got away with what he did to me haunted me as I grew up. I was stricken with guilt that I had allowed him to be near other little girls. I was terrified of being touched by men. I developed an eating disorder. I began cutting myself.” Would she have felt the same way if she had testified at age seven? That’s an open question that experts are still trying to answer. Farrow, now happily married, credits the support of family and friends for helping her to confront those emotions— as well as the survivors of sexual abuse who, she wrote, “have given me a reason not to be silent, if only so others know that they don’t have to be silent either.”

TIME Brain

The Pesticide on Your Fruit May Lead to Parkinson’s

Green apples in the sunlight
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A new study links likelihood of the brain disease to a combination of chemicals and genetics

Following a study that showed that the banned chemical DDT was linked to a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, new research out this week shows that pesticides are associated with the development of Parkinson’s disease.

It’s not the first time the chemicals have been linked to the brain disease, but the latest study from UCLA researchers shows that the effect is exacerbated by genetics. Since Parkinson’s is known to be determined by a variety of factors, including family genetics, this new study shows how the two factors could be intimately involved.

In the study, published in the journal Neurology, researchers looked at 360 people with Parkinson’s from three California farming communities that used pesticides. They compared these people with 816 from the same regions who did not have the disease.

Prior research has shown that the pesticide benomyl (which has been banned in the U.S.) interferes with processes in the brain and contributes to the development of Parkinson’s. In this new study, the scientists developed a test targeting other chemicals that could contribute to Parkinson’s, and found that 11 other pesticides contribute to the disease in the same way as benomyl.

(MORE: Study Links DDT to Development of Alzheimer’s Disease)

Here’s how it works: the pesticides inhibit an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), which is supposed to keep a naturally occurring toxin in the brain called DOPAL in check. When ALDH is inhibited, the detoxifying doesn’t happen, and this causes DOPAL to build up and contribute to Parkinson’s development.

Mostly interesting was that the population from the farming communities who had the gene variant ALDH2 were six times more likely to develop the disease, indicating that the gene variant made them especially vulnerable.

“We were very surprised that so many pesticides inhibited ALDH and at quite low concentrations, concentrations that were way below what was needed for the pesticides to do their job,” study author Dr. Jeff Bronstein, a professor of neurology and director of the Movement Disorders Program at UCLA, said in a statement. “These pesticides are pretty ubiquitous, and can be found on our food supply and are used in parks and golf courses and in pest control inside our buildings and homes.”

Building evidence of pesticide-related brain disorders is supporting the case for the dangers of pesticides, and giving researchers more insight into what treatments may be best for people who develop the disease from these chemicals.

MORE: Promising First Test to Detect Parkinson’s Disease

TIME psychology

Broncos Fans Are Probably Eating Their Sorrows Away

AMFOOT-NFL-SUPER BOWL
AFP / Getty Images

Fans of losing teams: science isn't on your side

So, it’s pretty obvious that if you’re team loses, you’re going to be rather down. But what if it’s a very humiliating loss on the greatest stage possible, like the Broncos experienced against the Seahawks at the Super Bowl Sunday night?

Don’t be too surprised if Broncos fans are binge eating–seriously. Some research suggests that NFL fans of the losing team often eat more saturated fat and sugar the Monday after the take down. In a 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers analyzed what people ate in several cities, and paid special attention to consumption on an average Monday vs. consumption on a Monday after an NFL game. They found that saturated fat intake went up 16% the Monday after a game in cities where their team lost. It went down in cities where they won.

And it’s not just eating habits that change after a drubbing. When a team looses, especially if it’s a major loss, fans also tend to cut off their association with the team, a behavior coined as “CORFing,” which stands for Cut Off Reflected Failure. So it becomes “they” lost instead of “we” lost. Of course, the opposite is true when a fan’s team wins the game–then, fans see themselves as an integral contributor to the victory and want to take part in the glory.

(MORE: Super Bowl 2014: The Science Behind The Super Fan)

There are biological changes that a loss can trigger as well. Since fans tend to identify with their team, when the team lets them down, they take the loss personally and lament it as if they had played in the game themselves. So players experiencing a loss can see a decrease in testosterone while some fans will get a boost in the energy and sex-drive hormone while watching a winning team. How do scientists know this? Researchers analyzed saliva samples from men watching World Cup games, and found that their average levels of testosterone changed depending on whether their team was winning or losing.

Granted, the study of sports losses isn’t an exact science. Other research on hormone levels doesn’t correlate as consistently with wins or losses, but since anxiety and mood do drop among the losing team fans, and hormones play a role in mood, it’s possible they are connected.

So, if you see unhappy Broncos fans, know that they can’t help themselves. They’re mourning.

TIME Veterans

Report: Suicide Rate Soars Among Young Vets

The number of male veterans under 30 ending their own lives jumps by 44 percent in two years

The number of male veterans under the age of 30 who commit suicide jumped by 44 percent between 2009 and 2011, the most recent year for which data was available, according to numbers released Thursday by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Roughly two young veterans a day commit suicide.

Suicide rates for female vets also increased by 11 percent between 2009 and 2011. The suicide rate among veterans remains well above that for the general population, with roughly 22 former servicemen and women committing suicide every day.

The troubling spike in suicide rates among younger vets comes as overall suicide rates for people using the Veterans Health Administration have held relatively steady in recent years. Suicide rates among older veterans decreased 16.1 percent between 1999 and 2010, while the overall population of older U.S. males ages saw a 27.3 percent increase in the rate of suicide over the same period.

The leap in rates for the youngest vets has officials especially worried, Stars and Stripes reports. The cause of the increase remains unclear, but officials searching for reasons point to post-traumatic stress disorder, combat injuries and the difficulties young veterans face in re-entering civilian life.

“Their rates are astronomically high and climbing,” Jan Kemp, the VA’s National Mental Health Director for Suicide Prevention, told Stars and Stripes. “That’s concerning us.”

[Stars and Stripes]

TIME mental health

Can Winter Really Make You Sick? The Truth About Seasonal Affective Disorder

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The cold is bad enough, but winter's shorter days make the season a downer, to say the least. But how real is seasonal affective disorder (aptly known as SAD)?

SAD is often a catch-all term to describe the winter dumps, but experts say it’s often misused and the condition is actually less common than people think. “There are a lot of myths. SAD is not a myth. It is a mental disorder that is incompletely understood and also something that is complicated by questions about the role of evolutionary biology,” says Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, the president of the American Psychiatric Association.

That diagnosis is different from the lows that many feel during the winter months. In fact, research shows many people overestimate the impact of seasons on their moods in general.

Where is the line between SAD and the simple doldrums? How much winter sadness is the product of a mood-based disorder, and how much is a natural outcome of being cooped up indoors? SAD is considered a subtype of a mood disorder like depression or bipolar disorder, so a very small percentage are actually diagnosed with it specifically. In order to meet the qualifications for a SAD diagnosis, according to the Mayo Clinic, an individual must be show the following:

  • depression and other symptoms for a minimum of two consecutive years during the same season.
  • depression-free periods following episodes of depression
  • unexplained behavior and mood changes.

For most other cases of seasonal mood changes, Lieberman says making some lifestyle changes such as exercising or keeping good sleeping habits can help. “It’s important to realize that just like people on Mondays have physical and emotional symptoms, you deal with it. You don’t take a treatment for Mondays.” It only warrants treatment when it starts to interfere with daily life, he says.

What about the bright light lamps that claim to relieve depression during the darker months? They’re based on the idea that light therapy can boost melatonin levels, and also serotonin in the brain — higher levels of serotonin between nerve connections can have anti-depressive effects. But as appealing as that sounds, Lieberman says there isn’t solid evidence behind it. “Light therapy is not a sham, but the evidence is not that strong,” he says. But since it’s not invasive, it also isn’t harmful — except perhaps to your budget.

So if you’re not feeling your usual cheerful self this winter, see your doctor. If he doesn’t diagnose you with SAD, try adding some physical activity to your day and getting regular sleep. And remember that spring is just a few months away.

TIME psychology

The Literary Misery Index: What the Economy Has to Do With What You’re Reading

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Authors tend to write about what they see and experience, including economic hardship, according to a new study.

The analysis, published in the journal PLOS One, found that when words commonly associated with misery show up in books, it meant that 10 years before, the economic situation was pretty grim.

To reach this discovery, researchers from Bristol and London sifted through a database of more than five million digital versions of books from Google. They created a literary misery index calculated by adding the amount of sadness-related words and subtracting the number of happiness-related words. They then compared this literary misery index to a well known measurement called the economic misery index, which is the sum of inflation and unemployment rates. The literary misery level in a given year was associated with the average of the previous 10 years’ economic misery index.

“When we looked at millions of books published in English every year and looked for a specific category of words denoting unhappiness, we found that those words in aggregate averaged the authors’ economic experiences over the past decade. In other words, global economics is part of the shared emotional experience of the 20th century,” said study author Alex Bentley, a professor at the University of Bristol in a statement.

They reported that market economic misery corresponds with WW1, the aftermath of the Great Depression, and the energy crisis of 1975. The literary misery comes about a decade later, which the researchers speculate could be due to the time gap between when a writer was young and live through these experiences and formed these memories, to when they actually began writing published work.

The researchers even repeated the study with books written in German, and found the same connection.

Although the findings may seem obvious, it documents collective memories that people develop and rely upon for inspiration. Which means that in less than a decade, we can expect another series of misery-heavy tomes reflecting the downturn of 2008-11.

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