Tag Archives: physiology

Can your body make you sin? Post on www.biblical.edu

Over at the faculty blog at www.biblical.edu I have this first post of two on the topic of how our bodies influence our behavior. I raise two questions:

1. Can our bodies cause us to sin?

2. If so, are we responsible or culpable?

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Filed under biblical counseling, Biblical Seminary, counseling, Psychology

Statistics and physiology: why getting it right matters

With recent advances in brain imaging and gene mapping we have significantly more data to help us understand human behavior. For example, we can see how folks with PTSD react to triggers using SPECT scans. We can understand how some folks have genetic markers that indicate a propensity for certain kinds of addictive behavior.

Enter this news story on NPR about one researcher who discovered he had the brain scan of a sociopathic killer–the very kind of people he was studying.

It is essential that we understand how to interpret these kinds of studies that often make the news. I am not an expert in brain scanning but let’s review a simple statistical principle. If you evaluate that 100% of people who have a particular problem (in this case sociopathic murder) have a particular brain scan signature, what can you say about its application to the general public? NOTHING. You cannot say, yet, that having that brain scan signature puts you at risk for becoming a murderer. What we need to know is whether or not that brain scan exists in the general public. I am willing to bet that if we did a large-scale study, we would find that 99% (maybe even higher) of those with a similar signature would NOT be killers. Thus, we cannot predict anything on the basis of the scan.

A similar (non) relationship exists between childhood abuse and becoming a child abuser. Yes, when we research pedophiles we find a high correlation between childhood sexual abuse and those who are in prison. But, when we look at the general public and victims of sexual abuse, we find that less than 1/2 of 1% go on to abuse others. Thus, abuse victims are not likely to become abusers.

However, these studies are not meaningless. In the case of the underactive frontal/orbital lobe, we do see certain features often present in individuals with ADHD: impulsivity, emotional lability, ego-centrism, lesser ability to learn from mistakes, difficulties in planning and forethought, etc. Rather than try to predict big events (like murder), we might use these kinds of studies to understand the common experiences and activity of those with a particular signature. This does not absolve people of responsibility or suggest they cannot make changes in how they operate. But, it might help us grow in understanding that what might be easy for one person may be more difficult for another. Just like we would want to give someone with dyslexia more time to read and comprehend a piece of literature, we might want to make some allowances for someone with a quiet frontal lobe.

It might mean that we understand that everyone thinks thoughts that ought not be repeated but that some have a harder time not saying it. And in the case of those “some”, we might be more willing to cut them slack even while we call them to account for saying what they say.

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Filed under counseling, Psychology

Book Note: Linkages between stress, inflammation, and mental illness

I am in the process of clearing my desk of semester debris. Well, truth be told, I am in the process of clearing a portion of my desk from said debris. The rest will have to wait. In the process, I came across a book I’ve been meaning to read since the dept. purchased it for me: The Psychoneuroimmunology of Chronic Disease: Exploring the Links Between Inflammation, Stress, and Illness (APA, 2010).

Before you all stop reading, it really is an important work! You should care if you are someone experiencing high levels of stress or if you counsel those who do. AND, there IS an answer (you won’t like it!) that can help given at the end of this post.

Yes, it is very technical. You can’t skim this book easily unless you read only the chapter summaries (not a bad idea!). However, I find it very interesting to read about how well-connected (too well!) our minds are with our bodies. Here are a couple of book highlights

1. Chapter one: Stress activates primary and secondary responses that may actually increase our vulnerability to disease. Secondary? Examples given include alcohol abuse, poor diet, non-compliance with treatments. Primary? Your body does a couple of things in reaction to stress. First, your sympathetic system starts looking for inflammation. Immune cells look for an injury. You have more glucose available to burn and cortisol increases which also works to activate anti-inflammatory responses. Inflammation is the problem (a “rapid and nonspecific response to danger”). Too much inflammation? damaged tissue. Too much anti-inflammatory response? Damaged tissue. Those with depression may have become less sensitive to cortisol and so end up with lots of non-specific inflammation. Maybe this is why depression hurts so much!

2. Chapter 3: Poor sleep has serious health consequences, especially concerning chronic diseases. One study indicates that disordered sleep has a direct link to type 2 diabetes, independent of age and body size. Individuals with sleep apneas have a greater production of inflammatory bio-markers. Women may be at greater risk for cardiovascular diseases due to sleep problems than men. One problem (sleep problems) begets the other (inflammation) which creates a vicious cycle.

3. Chapter 4: “Western diets typically contain an abundance of proinflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and are low in anti-inflammatory omega-3s.” (p. 96). In other words, dietary fish oil helps promote healing and may lower symptoms due to inflammatory diseases. More fish oil, less vegetable oil.

4. Chapter 5: Links between stress, depression, PTSD, hostility and inflammation. Each of these things increases inflammation, increases sleep disorders which in turn…(you get the picture).

Okay, does anything help l0wer stress and increase healthy immune system functioning? This is the answer I promised at the top of this post. Are you ready? It is so simple you will hate it!* (that will be something to explore at a later date–why do we resist the things we CAN do to help our situation?)

1. Diet. Having a better (lower) ratio of Omega-6s to Omega-3s (more cold water fatty fish) seem to lower rates of depression. Higher Omega-3 consumption predicts lower suicidality, lower depression, and bipolar disease. It appears these amino acids help stop the overactive inflammatory response caused by repeated stress.

2. Exercise. It will initially raise inflammation markers (hence why many with RA feel that any exercise creates more pain), but later lower it if continued on a regular basis.

3. Counseling. Cognitive-Behavioral social support interventions have shown to reduce the inflammation effect by lowering stress. be effective in doing just that.

So, encourage your stressed clients or friends (even better, do it with them) to eat well, exercise (just walk!) and seek social support. In doing so, they will find relief from inflammation and the effects on the mind and body. I guess it is time for me to get up from this desk, skip the doughnut, and walk up to the library for a bit of exercise. On the way, I should stop by a colleague’s desk and get him to come with.


*Simple? Yes. Quick fix? No. Sure bet to solve all our problems? Absolutely no.


Filed under counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Depression, Psychology

End of semester thoughts

Looking at a stack of papers I need to grade and yet not feeling the energy to do so. Late night classes take more out of me than I care to admit. My physiology class ended with student presentations and a look at bipolar disorder. As we concluded the class, I asked them to remember that,

  1. Even with all the advances in neuroscience, we must humbly admit we still know little how we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
  2. It is good for counselors to keep learning about the body and at the same time hold what they know lightly. Tomorrow may bring evidence to the contrary
  3. Yet, what we know about the body can be helpful. We ought not to look down upon our ignorance but remember that doctors do not always explain or walk with patients
  4. There are great medical interventions available, but (and that but shouldn’t diminish what I said before it),
  5. Over and over we saw that the basics (maintaining balance in life, self-care, mindfulness) are so important to health, perspective, etc. No, they aren’t magic interventions. Yes, they pay-off over time rather than immediately.

On this last point I am pondering a bit and so let me be hyperbolic. Most people who come to see me for paid counseling come because they think (naively) I have some expertise that will shed light on their situation and a solution to their problems. They want me to do something. Why else pay that kind of money? And yet much of what I have to offer isn’t rocket science. Beyond a few fun techniques, what I have to offer is a listening ear, a willingness to walk with the other person in their travail, and encouragement to keep going back to the basics. Most people like the first two but balk at the last one. Why do we balk at going back to the basics? Two reasons: (1) we want something that will fix the problem NOW, and (2) we’ve tried the basics and they didn’t seem to work (see reason 1).

Examples of what I mean.

  • If you are a parent and you go to a counselor to deal with your young child’s behavior problem. More than likely, you will get some counselor telling you to use some reinforcement strategies. And what do many parents say? “I tried that and it didn’t work.” Chances are they did try it and either they didn’t keep at it or they didn’t realize they were doing something that reinforced the wrong thing, or they had a misguided view of what success should look like
  • A couple is struggling with fighting. They go to the counselor who encourages them to return to the basics of respectful talk. Usually, they will feel like they have already tried it–and it didn’t work. Chances are… You get the picture.

In physiology, we see that care for the body includes mindful meditation (My friend and former professor says a substitute word would be “watchfulness”) on the world as God sees it, developing and maintaining good circadian rhythms, watching food intake, exercise, maintaining healthy relationships and social supports. In every mental illness, these things are shown to decrease the severity of symptoms and delay relapse.

Here’s the problem: we forget the basics and because they don’t give immediate results, we go searching for other fast-acting mechanisms. For example, I want to feel safe. Instead of engaging in centering prayer over the long haul, I fall prey to the temptation to act in such a way to avoid all possible danger–thereby increasing my fears of danger.

If I don’t exercise (and I don’t much) I rarely get immediate feedback that my body is falling apart. If I don’t eat right, I don’t immediately gain 10 pounds. If I don’t pray, I don’t immediately get embittered. So, I assume that these basics aren’t all that important. Or, I know they are important but since they don’t pay off now, I don’t do them. I only do what demands I do it to avoid a crisis.

How do we stay on track with the basics? We need another person(s) willing to keep us on a short leash. As a kid I ran because I had a friend who was going to wonder where I was. As a doctoral student, I played basketball at 6 am because my peers would  ask me where I was. I lost some weight a couple of years ago because my wife and I worked together. Notice that the social accountability is a key facet to help us build the disciplines long enough to see that the pay off is more than can be delivered by an exciting new technique.


Filed under Biblical Seminary, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Cognitive biases, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Psychology, teaching counseling

Physiology Phriday: Anticipation and Anxiety

Anticipation and its relationship to anxiety.

This week we have been thinking about how we evaluate our world. Evaluations or judgements come from a variety of locations. Our expectations and desires prep us to look for certain kinds of “data.” Our histories and past perceptions prep us as well. Finally, what is actually happening is part of the data we use to evaluate ourselves and our world. Notice that we aren’t as logical and objective as we’d like to think. Instead, we ANTICIPATE life and then respond to data that fits into that anticipation.

The primary feature of chronic anxiety is that anticipation of negative, dangerous outcomes. The anxious person views ambiguous data (e.g., a boss who is grumpy, a funny feeling in the chest, etc.) and reads that data in the worst possible light (I’m going to get fired, I’m having a heart attack).

If the problem is bad habits in thought patterns, it would make sense that the treatment ought to be to challenge these logical fallacies with the truth. And while cognitive counseling does indeed work (clear data that one can challenge and reject anxious, ruminative thinking) most find that counseling stops anxiety from growing but doesn’t often stop it from starting in the first place. This struggle to fight anxiety leaves many Christians feeling quite guilty for not trusting God more. 

But what about the amygdala? There is significant research that anxious people have very activated flight/fight activity in the amygdala. In fact, brain scans of this area show greater activity in anxious people than non-anxious people even when they are responding to neutral events. Thus, the anxious person’s brain is in a chronic state of hypervigilance even when nothing is going on. Hypervigilance maintains higher levels of norepinephrine the body, which in turn keeps the adrenal system in high alert. Medications (of the SSRI and NSRI type) have the capacity to positively impact serotonin and Norepinephrine and thereby allow individuals to decrease the negative hormonal activity in the brain.

Which comes first?

So, does biological hyperactivity in the amygdala result from either bad experiences or bad thinking? Or does a predisposition towards overactivity of this part of the brain encourage negative and anxious thinking, forming a vicious cycle? 

Seems to me good treatment needn’t answer this question. Good treatment would include (a) medications that might make it easier to slow down the anxiety processes (biology and behavior), (b) recognition that vigilance can be directed via counseling work away from the feared object and to a better understanding of the brain, and finally (c) that one changes the goal from cessation from fear to a more godly and humble response to Jesus in their fear.

What I mean by (b) is that the anxious person see themselves as like unto a person with colorblindness or dyslexia. In each case, the brain functions in a way to send the wrong messages. The dyslexic person learns to recognize the problem and designs a means to compensate in order to truly see the right order of letters/words. The anxious person accepts that their brain sends certain messages but that their job is to stay remember that while something real is happening it is not necessarily the way their brain is putting the “facts” together. Thus, the work is not to remove the fear but to practice a better response to it.

Ironically, when the person reinterprets the stimulus differently, they do see a marked reduction in fear triggers.

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Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Cognitive biases, counseling science, Psychiatric Medications

Inside the brain of a Christian Psychologist

Ever wanted to get inside the head of a christian psychologist? Now you can explore the CAT scan images of a psychologist’s head courtesy of yours truly. Consider offering diagnoses and explanations as to how such an mind might work.

headtop viewvertical slice

These images were taken to rule other matters that might be causing sinusitis. I found looking at my head both nerve wracking AND exciting at the same time.

Conclusion: Negative sinusitis. Nothing missing of note.


Filed under christian psychology