TIME Mental Health/Psychology

What 28-Years of Solitary Confinement Does to the Mind

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One Louisiana prisoner may get out of solitary confinement after nearly 30 years

Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, 59, has spent the last 28 consecutive years in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, but a prison warden says he may be released to the general inmate population.

Whitmore reportedly spends 23 hours a day in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell. “We will get him out,” Warden Burl Cain, warden of the prison, told the Medill Justice Project, a group that investigates potentially wrongful convictions. “We’d rather him out. I need his cell. I’ve got some young people, predators, that need to be in that cell. When I can conclude he’s not going to cause me the blues, then he can come out of the cell.” Whitmore is in prison for second-degree murder.

According to the Medill Justice Project, Whitmore’s eyesight has deteriorated and he has hypertension. And if he’s similar to other cases of prisoners in solitary confinement, his health and mental health have likely deteriorated in other ways, too.

“Human beings require two very basic things: social interaction and meaningful activity. By doing things we learn who we are and we learn our worth as a person. The two things solitary confinement does is make people solitary and idle,” says Dr. Terry Kupers, a professor of psychiatry at the Wright Institute in Berkeley California, who has spent over 40 years interviewing thousands of solitary confinement prisoners.

Though the impact of solitary confinement can differ person to person, there are some basic symptoms that are particularly widespread among inmates. Prisoners of long-term confinement—which Kupers says that’s about three months, though for some effects start to appear much sooner—often experience high anxiety that can cause panic attacks, paranoia and disordered thinking, as well as anger and compulsive actions, like pacing or repeatedly cleaning the cell. Basic cognitive functions are also dulled. “I have prisoners tell me they quit reading, which is one of the only things you can sometimes do,” says Kupers. “I ask why, and they say it’s because they can’t remember what they read three pages before.”

Prisoners in solitary confinement often develop confusion over when to be alert and when to sleep. In a report, Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement, Stuart Grassian, a former faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and a consultant in criminal cases writes: “[Solitary confinement prisoners] often find themselves incapable of resisting their bed during the day—incapable of resisting the paralyzing effect of their stupor—and yet incapable of any restful sleep at night. The lack of meaningful activity is further compounded by the effect of continual exposure to artificial light and diminished opportunity to experience natural daylight.”

Grassian tells TIME that without stimulation, people’s brains will move toward stupor and delirium—and often people won’t recover from it.

Even when prisoners are let out of solitary confinement, Grassian says, they are so overwhelmed by stimulus that they become incapable of tolerating their new environment and have trouble integrating back into the general population. Their brain waves jump and they become highly reactive. “I’ve talked to many of these prisoners who say it’s hellish for them,” says Grassian. “The often end up spending a tremendous amount of time in their cell.”

Whether Whitmore will be released into the general prison population remains uncertain but the fact that he has been attempting to take legal action against the prison may work in his mental favor, since Grassian says thinkers tend to do better.

“People that can use their minds tend to do relatively better,” he says. “They are able to maintain a degree of stimulation internally.”

And that’s all many can rely on.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

The Part of Your Brain That Senses Dread Has Been Discovered

This tiny part of your brain tracks bad experiences

A tiny part of the brain can keep track of your expectations about negative experiences—and predict when you will react to an event—researchers at University College London say.

The brain structure, known as the habenula, activates in response to negative events such as electric shocks, and they may help people learn from bad experiences.

The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, marks the first time this association has been proven in humans. Earlier studies showed that the habenula causes animals to avoid negative stimuli by suppressing dopamine, a brain chemical that drives motivation.

In this study, investigators showed 23 people random sequences of pictures followed by a set of good or bad outcomes (an electric shock, losing money, winning money, or neutral). The volunteers were asked to occasionally press a button to show they were paying attention, and researchers scanned their brains for habenula activity using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. Images were taken at high resolution because the habenula is so small—half the size of a pea.

When people saw pictures associated with painful electric shocks, the habenula activated, while it did not for pictures that predicted winning money.

“Fascinatingly, people were slower to press the button when the picture was associated with getting shocked, even though their response had no bearing on the outcome,” lead author Rebecca Lawson from the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said in a statement. “Furthermore, the slower people responded, the more reliably their habenula tracked associations with shocks. This demonstrates a crucial link between the habenula and motivated behavior, which may be the result of dopamine suppression.”

The study also showed that the habenula responds more the worse an experience is predicted to be. For example, researchers said the habenula responds much more strongly when an electric shock is certain than when it is unlikely to happen. This means that your brain can tell how bad an event will be before it occurs.

The habenula has been linked to depression, and this study shows how it could play a part in symptoms such low motivation, focusing on negative experiences and pessimism in general. Researchers said that understanding the habenula could potentially help them develop new ways of treating depression.

TIME Research

Study: Interrupted Sleep May Be as Harmful as No Sleep at All

Sleep Medicine Booms In The United States
Ryan Gamble has wires applied to his head by lab technologist Amy Bender in preparation for a polysomnographic recording system demonstration at Washington State University Spokane's Sleep and Performance Research Center December 13, 2006 in Spokane, Washington. Jeff T. Green—Getty Images

Just one night of interrupted sleep negatively affected mood, attention span and cognitive ability

Fragmented sleep could be as physically harmful as a total lack of sleep, according to an unprecedented study.

Lead researcher Prof. Avi Sadeh and his team at Tel Aviv University found that an interrupted night of sleep — which is common for doctors and new parents — is similar to having only four hours of consistent sleep. The experiment published in the journal Sleep Medicine studied the sleep patterns of students using wristwatches that monitored when they were asleep or awake.

Students slept a full eight-hours one night followed by a night of interrupted sleep in which they received four phone calls directing them to complete a brief computer exercise before returning to bed. The morning after both nights, the volunteers completed tasks to measure their attention span and emotional state — results proved that just one night of interrupted sleep had negative effects on mood, attention span and cognitive ability.

Sadeh believes that several nights of fragmented sleep could have long-term negative consequences equivalent to missing out on slumber altogether. “We know that these effects accumulate and therefore the functional price new parents — who awaken three to ten times a night for months on end — pay for common infant sleep disturbance is enormous,” he said in a statement.

The study also acknowledged that many people of varying ages and professions are susceptible to fragmented sleep — a finding that Sadeh hopes will provide an impetus for creating solutions. “I hope that our study will bring this to the attention of scientists and clinicians, who should recognize the price paid by individuals who have to endure frequent night-wakings,” Sadeh said.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

You Would Rather Endure Electric Shocks Than Sit Alone With Your Thoughts, Study Finds

If you’re crazy busy like most of us and crave some time — just a few minutes, please! — to stop and just think, be careful what you wish for. That’s the upshot of a new study just published in the journal Science. The summary is written in such plain English (very unusual!) that you might as well read it for yourself:

In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

Yes, people would rather stick their finger in an electric socket than sit quietly and think. Or rather, men would: 67% of male participants in one study “gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period,” write University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and his co-authors. On average, the study participants who elected to self-zap gave themselves 1.47 shocks in a 15-minute interval — “not including one outlier,” the paper says, in an impressively straightforward way, “who administered 190 shocks to himself.” (O.K., they didn’t involve actual electric sockets, but it’s still kind of surprising.) Women were far less likely to shock themselves, with only a 25% participation rate.

Why is just sitting and thinking so difficult and unpleasant, you probably wonder. So do the authors, in just those words. Perhaps, they say, “when left alone with their thoughts, participants focused on their own shortcomings and got caught in ruminative thought cycles.”

Another possibility, the authors suggest, is that thinking is just too complicated. In order to do it, you have to choose a topic to think about — a trip to the beach, for example — then mentally experience the trip. Exhausting!

But no. Questioning participants after the experiments revealed that neither explanation held much water. The reason we hate sitting and thinking, despite our fond hopes to the contrary, remains a mystery.

And yet, write the authors, stating the painfully obvious: “There is no doubt that people are sometimes absorbed by interesting ideas, exciting fantasies and pleasant daydreams,” and they do have an answer of sorts.

Research has shown that minds are difficult to control, however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.

Which may not be good news — but it’s at least good to know.

 

 

 

 

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

25 Minutes of This Will Get Rid of Your Stress

Woman meditating near Douglas fir trees
Woman meditating near Douglas fir trees Aaron McCoy—Getty Images

In just half an hour, by focusing on your breathing, you can start to relax and melt away your cares.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University investigated how effective mindfulness meditation can be in countering the body’s stress response. For that type of meditation, you need a laser-like focus on your breathing, and, some advocates say that as your body fills up with air, your muscles contract. That helps you to push out other distractions — like deadlines or your to-do list — and start to relax.

MORE: The Mindful Revolution

They randomly assigned 66 volunteers to either participate in mindful meditation for 25 minutes for three days, or go through a cognitive training program in which they learned how to analyze poetry passages. The people who meditated reported less stress, and even showed that they were better at coping with stress compared to those who relied on their behavior training.

MORE: Burnt Out? 7 Mindfulness Apps To Help You Refocus

The new study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, is not the first to show the positive effects of mediation. An analysis from February showed that Transcendental Meditation (TM)–a 20 minute mediation that simply requires closing your eyes and quieting down outside thoughts — sometimes by repeating a mantra — significantly lowered teacher stress and burnout. Fans of TM include chef Mario Batali, music mogul Russell Brand, Paul McCartney, Arianna Huffington, and Dr. Mehmet Oz. Now it looks as if there’s some promising science to back them up.

TIME Research

Women More Likely Than Men to Seek Mental Health Help, Study Finds

And women seek help earlier

Women with chronic physical illnesses are 10% more likely to seek support for mental health issues than men with similar illnesses, according to a new study.

The study from St. Michael’s Hospital and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Science also found that women tend to seek out mental health services months earlier than men. Researchers looked at people diagnosed with at least one of four illnesses: diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Of people diagnosed with these conditions, women were not only more likely than men to seek mental health services, but they also used medical services for mental health treatment six months earlier than men in any three-year period.

For the purposes of the study, “mental health services” were defined as one visit to a physician or specialist for mental health reasons, such as depression, anxiety, smoking addiction or marital difficulties.

“Our results don’t necessarily mean that more focus should be paid to women, however,” study author Flora Matheson, a scientist in the hospital’s Centre for Research on Inner City Health, said. “We still need more research to understand why this gender divide exists.”

The findings, published in the British Medical Journal’s Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, could suggest various conclusions about the way that different sexes use mental health services. It may mean that women feel more comfortable seeking mental health support than men or that men delay seeking support. The study could also imply that symptoms are worse among women, which would encourage more women to seek help and to do so sooner.

“Chronic physical illness can lead to depression,” Matheson said. “We want to better understand who will seek mental health services when diagnosed with a chronic physical illness so we can best help those who need care.”

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

How Student Loan Debt Hurts Your Health

President Barack Obama speaks during an event on the bloging site Tumblr, in the State Dining Room on June 10, 2014 in Washington, DC.
President Barack Obama speaks during a Tumblr Q&A in the State Dining Room on June 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is trying to ease student loan debt—and it might be more important to our wellbeing than we realize

President Barack Obama addressed the cost of higher education this week as he announced changes that would ease student loan debt. Concern over student loan debt has spiked in recent years as college tuition has continues to rise. Last year, the percentage of students who defaulted on their loans in two years reached 10%—the highest rate in almost two decades, according to the Department of Education. But beyond the financial hardships, several studies show that debt is also associated with significant mental and physical health problems, particularly in young people.

A study from Northwestern University linked debt to high blood pressure as well as poor self-reported mental and general health. The researchers looked at the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which allowed them to analyze previously existing conditions of debt and health in subjects. They included 8,400 young adults, ages 24 to 32 years old.

Elizabeth Sweet, lead author of the study, says she was particularly surprised by the effect debt had on people’s physical health. “There had been a fairly strong and consistent link between debt and depression, debt and thoughts of suicide,” says Sweet. “But very little had been done to look at the impact on physical health.” And the psychological issues associated with debt can lead to broader health problems, according to the researchers’ analysis. Mental health issues can lead to poor dietary choices, low physical activity and substance abuse. The addition of raised blood pressure can also lead to cardiovascular and metabolic conditions.

Sweet says that while her study shows concerning links between debt and health problems, the topic needs more research. Sweet plans to conduct a five-year study funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities to further explore the ways various types of debt can impact physical and mental health.

“Debt is becoming a much more visible issue in this country because it’s so ubiquitous, and such a big issue that young adults are dealing with,” Sweet says. “These health issues are a warning for more health problems down the road, so we have to think about this as a long-term phenomenon.”

In President Obama’s first ever Tumblr Q&A on Tuesday, he told listeners that he wants to make college more affordable for young people. “Too many of us see college as a box to check […] as opposed to an opportunity to figure out what are we good at,” he said.

But in the meantime, millions of people are still struggling to repay loans.

“Debt is something that’s stigmatized we think of it as bad. We put a lot of responsibility on individuals to be responsible with money and not get into debt and to pay off debt,” says Sweet. “If you can’t get an education in this country without going into debt, you have to think bigger—making education more affordable and changing policies to help people not go into debt.”

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

4 Ways to Stop Procrastinating

Ways to Stop Procrastinating
Merve Karahan—Getty Images

Choices are never easy, especially when it comes to life’s big ones. Phoebe, 39, came to see me one day, distraught after learning from a doctor that she might not be able to conceive. “How long have you been trying?” I asked. “On and off for eight months,” she told me. Even though she had always wanted a baby and had been married for seven years, she confessed that she’d had a lot of trouble committing to getting pregnant. She didn’t understand why; in fact, she’d had a similar problem deciding whether or not to marry her (very) long-term boyfriend, to the point that she almost lost him.

Of course, getting married and starting a family aren’t decisions you enter into lightly, but Phoebe had a major case of life procrastination. That’s what I call voluntarily putting off something you truly want to do, despite knowing that you’ll probably be worse off because of the delay.

People tend to think of procrastination in terms of concrete to-dos—waiting until the last minute to turn in a work report, say, or paying bills late. But it can also take hold when making life decisions both small and large, from Should I join a gym? to Do I ask for a raise? These missed opportunities can damage your career or relationship and also give you a nagging, frustrating feeling that you’re stuck in a rut of your own making.

Health.com: 12 Ways We Sabotage Our Mental Health

Research shows that about 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators, but many more of us occasionally put off until tomorrow what we need—and even want—to do today. Yet for the most part, we don’t realize that it’s happening or that, in the process, we’re undermining our own happiness. Procrastinators tend to be far more stressed than those who don’t have this habit; they get sick more often, too. If you can suck it up and act, however, you’ll find your day-to-day a lot more pleasant and rewarding: Your mind will be released from all that ruminating and second-guessing, paving the way for other opportunities. After all, life is richest when filled with milestones and accomplishments—not with regrets of what you should’ve and would’ve done, if only.

So why would a woman push off a marriage or baby she really wants? Why would someone stay in a job she no longer likes? It’s not that they’re lazy or overly laid-back. Life procrastinators may dread failure. They may have a fear of success, an urge to be defiant, a perfectionist streak or a need to take risks—all of which can get in the way when trying to make a decision. Take my diagnostic quiz to see if you are a life procrastinator, then keep reading to discover what’s driving your indecision and find real-world solutions that will finally set you free.

‘I don’t want to fail’

If you’re so afraid of being bad (or, worse, just OK) at something that you’d rather not try it at all, here’s a news flash: You’re a perfectionist. Perhaps you hardly ever work out because you’d feel terrible if you killed yourself at the gym but couldn’t lose the last 10 pounds or hone that six-pack. Carrying this to the extreme, you may also believe that you are only lovable and worthwhile if your performance at everything is nothing less than outstanding.

Health.com: 19 Natural Remedies for Anxiety

Try this: The next time you’re hemming and hawing over something you could crash and burn at, take a page from Sheryl Sandberg and tell yourself, Done is better than perfect. Chances are, no one will notice if the results aren’t up to your exacting standards; they’ll just be impressed that you got results, period.

‘I’m afraid of being successful’

On the flip side, some of us become paralyzed by imagining that if we excel, we will be expected to keep performing at that level. Or we freak out that the achievement would change our lives in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. Concerns you may have: If I ask for that promotion and get it, who’s going to help out with the kids if I have to put in more hours at the office? Are my work friends going to stop inviting me to lunch?

Try this: Accept uncertainty. The reality is that any choice you make (even if you decide to keep things status quo) will have upsides and downsides. Imagining the potential negatives (My friend at work will be so jealous) and telling yourself that it will work out (She’ll deal, or else I’ll find a new confidant) can help you stop obsessing and start doing. Worried that you’ll be less available for your loved ones? That’s a classic fear of success. Keep in mind that if and when you accept a new position or job, you can set boundaries at the outset. Thing is, you can’t do that unless you apply first.

Health.com: 15 Everyday Habits to Boost Your Libido

‘I don’t want to be told what to do’

You aim—fine, you need—to be in charge. You probably grew up with an authoritarian parent who was very controlling. Unfortunately, now you’re asserting yourself by delaying things that must be addressed, like making basic updates to your circa-1950s kitchen. Your story is: “Hey! No one can order me around!”—even though no one really is—”I’ll do it on my terms!” Which may be never.

Try this: When you find yourself resisting a change, ask yourself how you’re really feeling at heart. Indecision often masks anxiety, sadness or anger. Perhaps your parents were always fighting about money, so even though you have the cash to renovate, you feel stressed-out about spending it. Figuring out which emotion is stopping you from acting can make a decision clearer because it becomes more obvious that the conflict over taking action is coming from you. In other words, you are fighting only yourself.

‘I get a rush out of doing things last-minute’

Some put-offers aren’t anxious at all: They thrive on the excitement of scrambling to hit deadlines, often because they find the daily grind boring—and boredom terrifying. A thrill seeker who wants to go on some fantasy vacation, such as a boat cruise in the Galapagos, may delay purchasing tickets but keep checking to see how many spots are left until, finally, she is forced to commit because the trip is almost booked.

Health.com: 25 Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Health

Try this: If you’re always telling yourself that you’re at your best when under pressure, prove it (in a small, innocuous way). Do a task—like tossing in a load of laundry or completing your expenses at work—at the last minute, as usual. Then one day perform that same chore ahead of schedule. You’ll most likely notice that your overall routine seems a little saner and that you have more free time on your hands when you knock stuff off early. Even better: You’ll have a full underwear drawer—and a cool trip to look forward to.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

The Secret to Forgiving Yourself

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Jamie Grill—Getty Images/Blend Images

The surest way out of a guilt trip is to fess up and make amends. Then you can really 'Let It Go'

A new study suggests that in order to forgive yourself, first you need to be forgiven by others.

Researchers at Baylor University surveyed 269 guilt-wracked subjects to recall past offenses. They told stories of gossiping, cheating and inflicting physical harm, among other guilt trips.

They were then asked how much they had forgiven themselves. A striking difference emerged between the participants. Those who had confessed to doing wrong and begged forgiveness from the wronged party were more likely to feel a “moral right” to forgive themselves.

Those who had kept their turmoil pent up in their heads reported feeling less of a moral right to forgive themselves, a state of mind which in the long run can contribute to depression and a weakened immune system.

“Our study found that making amends gives us permission to let go,” said researcher Thomas Carpenter.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Why Did You Just Yawn? Perhaps Your Brain’s Too Hot

A new study suggests people might yawn because their brains are too hot, not because they’re bored or tired. A group of researchers identified temperature as the only significant predictor of yawning, indicating yawns could be used to regulate brain temperature.

Chances are you read this sentence about yawning and you yawned. Right? Well, a new study suggests that you may not really be yawning because it’s contagious, or you’re bored or tired.

You’re actually yawning because your brain is too hot.

A group of researchers at the University of Vienna tested subjects in Austria and Arizona and tracked their activity, finding that that the only significant predicator of yawning was temperature: subjects were much more likely to yawn at higher temperatures. Other factors like sex, season, age, humidity, time spent outside, and hours of sleep the night before did not have a significant effect on the likelihood of a subject’s yawning.

Ultimately, it appears that yawning is related to regulating brain temperature and creating a state where arousal in a yawner can be achieved. The idea is that if it’s hot, but still cool enough so that a large intake of air will bring your body temperature down, you’re in perfect storm territory for yawns.

The study builds on research that shows that in both rats and humans, yawns are preceded by intermittent rises in brain temperatures, and that brain temperature decreases immediately afterward.

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