Have Anxiety? Pop a Xanax! (And Other Modern Ills)

mommy's_little_helperI don’t want to say I’m anti-pill popping.

Well, okay, yes I do. (Found me out.)

Here’s the thing. Are drugs good? In general, yes. Put me back in the Middle Ages and I’d have been dead eleven times already.

The worldwide availability of medications of all kinds pushed us from a reasonably dominant species with occasional mass localized extinctions to one that now literally covers the globe. When we marry, we don’t plan on having eight children with three survivors among them. A splinter isn’t likely to take our entire arm from the ensuing infection. We are lucky to have medications. Very lucky.

But somewhere around the middle of the 20th century, we seem to have taken a sharp turn into Pillville. My great-grandfather didn’t go to the hospital until he was dying (literally – he always said people only go to the hospital to die, and in his case at least, he was right). Today, we have medications for impotence, bloating, sleepiness, wakefulness, thin hair, lack of concentration and legs that occasionally move at night.

And as you may have guessed, I have something to say about it. Specifically, about anti-anxiety medications, such as Xanax.

But Isn’t Anxiety Bad? Shouldn’t I Take a Pill?

  1. Not always.
  2. Not always.

Maybe I should clarify.

Sometimes, Anxiety is Useful

I’ll never discount the suffering that comes with anxiety of all types. It can be crippling, and I’m not one to generally go overboard on the superlatives. And no, I don’t believe you should “just power through” anxiety or “just live with it,” two of my least favorite phrases in the English language.

But one thing we seem to have overlooked in our quest to never, ever, ever feel discomfort of any kind is that there is a biological purpose to anxiety. Normal, appropriate anxiety, that is.

Yes, really.

When Anxiety is Good

Imagine it’s the year 20,000 BCE. The leaves rustle before you and a tiger appears. You smile peacefully; it’s all good. This is one of God’s (or the gods’) creatures, let’s all live in harmony, look at his shiny coat, ooo so pretty.

A second later, you’re breakfast.

Not good. Right? The scenario would more likely have gone like this: you see the tiger. You run like H-E-double-hockey-sticks. You possibly live long enough to procreate and continue the species.

Yes. There is a purpose to anxiety. Anxiety sharpens all our senses (this is biological; even our pupils dilate so we can accommodate more in our vision and view what’s coming at us). Our hearing becomes keener. We become on the alert for danger, whether physical or otherwise. Theoretically, we even become smarter, at least during the acute crisis.

We look out for ourselves more, and we look out for others more. We’re more careful than usual. And we survive better – whether it’s anxiety over a big presentation that makes us work all the harder to make it golden, or that sudden adrenaline rush that forces our foot to the brake when a car swerves in front of us.

But somewhere along the line, we caved to the rather novel belief that ALL anxiety is bad….and that in all cases, we should do whatever we had in our power to quash it.

Enter Xanax

xanaxOr more accurately, enter Librium, Xanx’s ancestor. Around the mid-1950s, a phenomena arose: housewives suddenly began expressing their dissatisfaction with their lot (they’d felt it all along, I’m sure, one just didn’t say so). Many overcompensated by becoming “supermoms” and “superwives,” an interesting effect that continues today.

The conflict between wanting and not wanting the traditional life, as well as the added burdens of being the perfect wife and mother, led to a sharp rise in anxiety among this particular group. A few brave souls went to the doctor to admit their frightening feelings.

The solution? “Mother’s little helper,” a catch-phrase for a whole assortment of drugs. The great-granddaddy was Librium, introduced in the 1960s. Librium’s love child was Valium, popular in the 70s. Today, it’s Xanax. They’re all part of the drug class benzodiazepenes – in a word, sedatives.

“We popped them like candy,” my mother some years ago. “Good people, normal people, the doctors were just prescribing like crazy.” “You took drugs?” I said in a squeaky little half-scream. “Not nearly for as long some of my friends did,” she sighed, “just when you and your brother were both babies and such handful. And honey, I was so tired, yet I could never sleep. I was so, so tired and so scared all the time and I didn’t know why.”

Side tidbit: I was fascinated a few years later to observe a virtual replica of that conversation on the then-hit TV series Thirtysomething between the main character and her own mother. (The actors were actually talking about uppers, but the gist was the same.) Nope, Mom was not weird at all. She was simply doing what the medical profession told her would help. But did it?

And the Results Are In: Yes, We Still Have Anxiety

Times change and drugs grow up. Today, the sedative du jour is Xanax.

But what has really changed? We’re still feeling that anxiety, obviously…and it’s not just housewives, or working women…or working men. It’s old people, young people, students, the military, the very poor, the overindulged, whites, Asians, blacks, doctors, secretaries and sewerline repair people…and the unemployed.

Call me crazy, but 70 years later, I’m getting the feeling that this whole “drug” thing for anxiety isn’t working. And in fact, it might even hurt. Which leads us to…

What Isn’t Cool About Drugs

Xanax and its predecessors were supposed to save a whole generation from themselves and their very real, legitimate feelings about life and its circumstances. And to be fair, there is a place for drugs when anxiety pops up. In the short-term, they can keep us from crushing fear that threatens our jobs, our relationships and our happiness.

But not only do they seem to have not done the job, they have brought with them some pretty serious consequences.

First of all, there are the side effects. The most obvious are the hazy, sometimes dizzy, flattened-affect bleariness so many seem to experience while taking them. (Makes sense, since their purpose is to sedate.) People are taking these medications before driving their children to school – or driving thousands of miles for shipping jobs. They’re on them while they operate that machine right next to you. Some are on them while teaching your kids…or while performing your outpatient surgery.

I repeat: many thousands of people go through their day half-aware, unaffected by real dangers, and slow to respond. Sometimes a few days a month. Sometimes a day or two a week. For some people, every day. After all, another serious side effect of benzos is that they are, over time, addictive.

Here’s another fun fact: Xanax and other benzos are a popular street drug class, contributing to criminal activity.

And by the way, yes, an overdose can kill you.

No, I’m not just trying to be cranky or sound off ominous tomes a la everyone’s health teacher. But just think about all this for a minute. Are you a little scared? I know I am.

Dude, You’re a Downer Yourself. Is There Any Good News?

Sure. And that news is: you have a choice.

If there’s anything we have our hands on today at the click of a button, it’s information. You don’t have to take one specific drug (or any drugs), and you don’t have to take one doctor’s advice. If you’re suffering from anxiety, get as much information as you can on as many legitimate therapies as possible for treating it.

Then make a decision.

In fact, the single thing that I’ve found anxiety survivors to have in common is that they learned as much as possible about their condition, and they tried a variety of therapies – from herbs to meditation to, yes, sometimes drugs (in the short term) – to combat the issue. There’s several natural panic attack treatments you could try before drugs. It really is true that the more you know and understand about anxiety and about your body, the less scary it all becomes.

Anxiety in and of itself doesn’t mean you’re sick. It isn’t something you automatically have to squash as soon as it rears its head. Some degree of anxiety is a part of daily life, and a little bit is good for you. Every mammal on the planet experiences it. It’s the fear of having anxiety that can make it so crippling. Our own terror of feeling things that aren’t pleasant is probably the single thing that has contributed to over-anxiety.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Educate yourself. Talk to your doctor. Better yet, talk to a few doctors. Talk to your friends. Get on the internet and Google like mad (I’ll help you). Take anxiety out of the realm of “mysterious and scary” and put it back where it belongs: in a place where sometimes it’s a life hindrance, and sometimes it’s just necessary.

We need to take the fear of anxiety down a notch. When we’re in that place, we’re better able to address every aspect of our lives, anxiety issues included. It’s a long road – but it’s a start.

And knowing there’s hope is a beautiful thing.

Is a Little Anxiety Actually Good For You?

Mmmm, lemon meringue pie - photo by Domririel

Mmmm, lemon meringue pie – photo by Domririel

In today’s world, we tend to think of anxiety as a bad thing. And let’s face it, numb, tingling fingers and hands, a twisting stomach and a feeling of “run…anywhere…now, now, now!” certainly doesn’t feel very good.

But are we missing an element to the equation here? What if anxiety can, under certain circumstances, actually serve a purpose?

Stop running and start reading – anxiety is a misunderstood but fascinating process. Here’s how to turn eggs into lemon meringue pie when it comes to anxiety …

Why We Have Anxiety: a Trip Through Evolutionary Lane

When we feel anxiety, our first urge is to get away – fast. It’s known as the fight or flight response: adrenaline courses through your body in the presence of something that, for all the brain knows, might be an actual, physical danger (say, a lion standing in front of you).

And that’s just the problem in modern society: our fearful jolts are less the mountain variety kind, and more focused on worry over our health, awkwardness in social situations or someone younger and fresher creeping up to steal our jobs out from under us.

But the original purpose to anxiety (and yes, there is a purpose) was to get us out of danger, as quickly as possible. The body produces, in most mammals, chemicals that make us so uncomfortable we have to high-tail it out of there.

In the days of small, isolated villages or nomadic collectives, this served us well. Invaders, animals and precipitous cliffs or murky forests presented real, immediate dangers to our very lives. If we hadn’t had an overwhelming urge to run, many of our ancestors wouldn’t have made it – and perhaps we ourselves wouldn’t be here today as a species.

The Mechanics of Anxiety

In order to produce such an overwhelming fight-or-flight urge, our bodies had to produce some pretty strong, uncomfortable urges. Similarly to how deeply we desire sex and how urgently we feel hunger, anxiety was just one of a collection of life-saving devices to early man – in fact, arguably all the way up to the 20th century even in some first-world cultures.

Anxiety works by sending signals to our brains that danger is near. Here’s how it happens:

  • Our senses (seeing, hearing, touch or that creepy “sixth sense” we can never quite put a finger on) send a signal to our brain that something dangerous is happening or may be about to happen.
  • The body produces adrenaline, the “go-go-go” hormone that puts us into action – immediately.
  • That adrenaline causes our hearts to beat faster and more oxygen to pump into our lungs in preparation for either running from, or fighting, an attacker.
  • The adrenaline is used during the process of fighting or fleeing.

Where it All Went Wrong

Far from being bad or evil, anxiety has been a life-saving device for human beings over the millennia. Why, then, is it such a nuisance today – and even in some cases, a hindrance to our daily lives, causing some sufferers to stay away from social interaction and to suffer uncomfortable effects?

The answer: the brain responds to any sense of danger with the anxiety route described above. But today’s anxieties are more often based on things we can’t literally get a grip on and either throttle or run away from: a clanging noise from our car’s engine, loss of a loved one, a make-or-break career presentation coming up in just one week.

When our fears aren’t physical, our adrenaline can’t do anything about them. So the “run” chemicals stay in our bodies and produce feelings that are very uncomfortable, even terrifying. Our bodies are telling us to run – but there’s no place to go.

Should You Listen to Your Anxiety?

There are many ways to deal with anxiety that doesn’t have a physical cause (we’ve outlined our favorite methods on other articles on this site, and if your anxiety is taking over your life, you should seek medical help). But what if some of our anxiety is good for us? Is that possible?

Yes, it is. Here are some ways anxiety can actually be a heads-up and produce positive changes in our lives.

  • Anxiety Can Be a Warning. Is your Spidey sense tingling? Are you feeling like something is “off” somehow, but you can’t quite figure out what it is? Sometimes, our brains signal anxiety for a reason. We’re not advocating paranoia here; you don’t have to triple-check that you left the stove off or look in on the kids four times a night. But a general sense of “something’s wrong!” could be a heads-up that something in your life isn’t quite right. Take inventory of your daily life and think about the things that are bothering you. Is there something that can be done about them? Anxiety can be a call to slow down, take stock and make changes where you can to have a happier life.
  • Anxiety Makes You Faster. Even in today’s coddled white-collar world, physical dangers do exist. If you’re walking down a deserted street and suddenly need to flee when someone comes up behind you, all that adrenaline will really come in handy. Don’t go overboard on your fears, but do be aware in situations that may actually be dangerous.
  • Anxiety Can Heighten Awareness. All those spacey, otherworldly feelings of colors being too bright and objects being too close? They don’t mean you’re “going crazy” during an anxiety attack. They’re there for a purpose: heightened awareness is critical in a dangerous situation. If it’s not an oncoming tiger that’s the problem? Use that heightened awareness to fix what is. For instance, you might come up with a truly superior presentation for the boss, rather than sitting there worrying about it and getting more and more panicked.
  • Anxiety Can Be a Wakeup Call. If something really is wrong in your life, your subconscious knows it. Take inventory. Is there something in your life you need to change? Do you need to slow down and smell the roses? Is your teenager’s pulling away a signal not to panic and worry, but to pay more attention to her and get her to open up? Is your fear of school tests a nudge to study more? Don’t be afraid to address what’s not quite right in your life; you do have the tools to solve your issues.
  • Anxiety can be a warning of depression. Although anxiety is different from anxious apprehension, any anxiety can lead to – or live alongside – depression. So how is this good news? If you realize your brain “fires off” than a typical, non-anxious brain, you can be aware of the pitfalls and stop them in their tracks. Be gentler with yourself. Look for the little things in life that make you happy. Don’t let yourself burn out. You may be able to waylay depression or other related disorders by heeding the warning that anxiety gives.

Anxiety Disorder: When Things Go Too Far

Please note that we’re talking about normal, transient daily anxiety. If you have an anxiety disorder, such as social anxiety or agoraphobia, your normal anxiety reactions are going overboard. We in no way mean to minimize what you’re suffering. Seek help immediately; it’s out there. You’d be surprised how many other people suffer anxiety. You’re not alone.

But do know that your physical and emotional reactions to anxiety are not, at least at the outset, abnormal. And in a few cases, they could actually give you a window into parts of your life you haven’t looked at until now. If you can, take advantage of these opportunities when they come up to look inward, to change what you can and to come to peace with what you can’t. You just might find enrichment to your life you never knew was there…and be the better for it.

Panic’s On Sale? I’m There!

shopping

Photo by Drinksmachine

Does society – and the way we view what we “must” have – contribute to panic attacks? And if so, what can we do about it? As the shopping…er, the holiday season approaches, I’m reminded of what’s really important…and why having it all ultimately leaves us empty-handed.

Here’s my take on how society, shopping, and “having” all contribute to panic…and how we can turn things around to be happier than ever before.

First Panic Attack

I fully remember witnessing my first panic attack – though I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time.

My six-year-old sister, two years older than I and thus “in charge of” me, was pulling me by my hand through the grocery store. We were trailing behind Mom, who pushed a cart full of food and tried to jam it yet fuller with items.

“Oh, this one’s on sale,” she’d say, and grab a box of something we were never going to eat off the shelf. Then she’d move the cart forward a few inches.

Suddenly she grabbed the shopping cart bar hard with both hands. “Girls, it’s time to go,” she said.

“What about the groceries?” my sister asked as Mom yanked her us through the store at top speed, abandoning the over-full cart. But Mom didn’t answer. She just HAD to get out of the store, through those double doors.

Something magical happened once we were outside. Mom began breathing more normally and she became Mom again.

What had happened? It took years before I found out – and discovered that my mother had been agoraphobic for years.

Nature? Nurture? The Mall? What’s the Culprit Behind Panic Attacks?

There are a gazillion theories behind the cause of panic attacks. And trust me, I’ve studied (or at least glanced at) them all. Why? Because somehow, I inherited my mother’s tendency toward panic attacks.

The biological theory is perhaps most popular right now, and it has merit. Panic, social anxiety and similar disorders do tend to run in families. It makes sense, really. Other tendencies, both tangible – such as blue eyes or short legs – and intangible, like oversensitivity and a sense of humor, do.

And then again there’s the “nurture” theory. We observe most of our “firsts” from the people we spend the most time with, and we model those behaviors – and those fears. (If Mother is terrified of something, well then, that something really must be terrifying, no matter how benign it may seem at a glance.)

There is, too, simple negative experience: you suffer sudden anxiety in a certain place or at a certain event, and you project that the same thing might happen next time, so you begin avoiding those places or those scenarios, which actually cements the fear and can compound it.

Anticipating the place or event, our bodies react with the fight-or-flight response, quickening our heartbeat, making our breathing shallow, and creating a physical fear (the fear of our own body’s safety) on top of the emotional one.

What If It’s the Way We Live Our Lives?

But the one thing I, in my admittedly very unprofessional opinion, believe may be missing from the varied theories and experiments is that the way we live our lives makes us more apt to panic.

Look around you. You can’t turn on the TV without seeing ads for what you absolutely must have…or else. You can’t go outdoors without seeing people whose children seem better dressed, better behaved, smarter than your own…what are you doing wrong? At work, everyone is “multitasking” and Skyping at megaspeeds with two hands and one foot, outdoing you in your quest to be the best.

Every single day we’re told, either overtly or subtly, that we should be doing more…and that we should have more. And not only more, but the very best.

At the same time, we’re told that our “individuality” is paramount. (Um…what?) It’s a mental and emotional juggling act with no winners…only a constant race to a place we’re not even sure we can identify, much less assure ourselves that we actually want.

That can leave anyone paralyzed. Really, it would be weird if a total standstill, and the panic of not knowing what to do, didn’t ensue. Believe it or not, panic attacks are not the abnormal thing here. They’re our body’s way of trying to get us out of a situation we know deep down that we don’t want to be in.

Choices and More Choices …

Because of this neverending quest for The Best of Everything, we’re presented with choice after choice.

Choice should be a good thing. And usually, it is.

But when you’re bombarded with it, and with the implied demands that come with it (are you “choosing right”? Are you “doing it right”?), it becomes not a welcome beckoning, but a prison at least partially of our own making.

I use shopping as my example in this article because it’s the perfect picture of this process – and of its very logical consequences. But here’s another.

Throw a toddler into a room over-full of toys of every description and color and what does she do? At first, she thinks she’s in heaven. She runs from one object to the next; she can’t decide which she wants. She grabs for one toy, tosses it aside, runs for the next one.

After a half hour or so, you’re surprised to find that she’s had a meltdown over what seems to you to be nothing, and is sitting on the floor in the full throes of a tantrum. But you shouldn’t be surprised at all. She’s overstimulated and she has too much at one time.

Suddenly she’s terrified that if she decides upon just one thing, she’ll miss out on all the rest…even if she’d never have enjoyed all the rest in the first place. You may have witnessed the same phenomenon at Christmastime (and experienced it yourself as a child). You give your little ones dozens of gifts, they’re thrilled, their eyes are dazzled, it’s all magical…then at the day someone is sitting on the floor sobbing uncontrollably (hopefully it’s not you).

You may have wondered why. Now you know. It’s overstimulation – and the demands that too many choices can bring. Just like (gasp – you didn’t know this was coming) first-world society.

Is There a Way Out?

Of course we’ll never stop wanting “stuff.” And we’ll never stop wanting to be the best, or at least our own personal best. That’s all part of being human; you aren’t doing anything wrong. Trust me. Humans evolved to be curious, inventive and to seek out new and better ways of doing things. Often, that involves having newer things.

But perhaps if we toned things down a little, narrowed our must-haves down to what would truly make us happy, and focused on what’s right in front of us rather than fantasies of “having it all,” we’d reduce our overstimulation. We would, quite literally, bring down our own inner panic and turmoil.

I turned my personal shopping experience around by dropping the big players (WalMart, Big Lots, etc.) and browsing my local mom-and-pop shops instead. It’s an amazing experience and no, it’s not always more expensive to shop in this way. You walk into the store, see a limited but fascinating selection of items, and you speak to a shop keeper who cares about her little store. It’s a smaller experience…but somehow, it’s a more human one. And it seems to bring all the comforts of home.

I minimize in other areas of my life too, of course. (It isn’t all about shopping…wait, did I really just say that?) I curl up with a good book once in a while. I kick a ball around with my children. It didn’t have to be the best, most intelligent, most thought-provoking and impressive book, and it didn’t have to be a full-on soccer match. Nobody had to win an award to make those experiences special. They just were. And they continue to be.

As the holidays roll around, and I witness all the tear-jerking commercials of families who are having the perfect Christmas, I remember that those are actors, that is a set and no real Christmas tree grows that symmetrically. I don’t need to “buy” the best Christmas ever for my family. The best Christmas ever is one where we’re all together, joking around in our own slightly off-kilter way, overeating and sort of regretting it, and singing what we remember of Christmas carols, sometimes on-key just to, you know, mix it up.

You will never be “the best.” You’ll also probably never be the worst. Stop trying – and stop buying your way toward that mythical brass ring. Take a stand and be different. Remember that old adage, “Be the change you want to see in the world”? It sounds trite, but it’s true. It’s much truer than you think, in fact.

You can’t take it with you – and sometimes you can’t even buy it here. That’s just life, and it’s true for everybody. Just trust me on this one. You don’t win this game by being the best. You win it by politely putting down your hand and walking away…and discovering what, in the end, really makes you happy.

Wishing you peace this Black Friday, the holiday season and all the year through.

Natural Remedies for Anxiety

worried

Worried, by Kristin Andrus

Anxiety affects some 40 million adults, making it one of the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in the U.S., according to statistics. Most sufferers do the sensible thing: we visit our doctor when we experience anxiety we just can’t control.

But typically, the answer is a quick nod from the doctor – and a prescription for Xanax, Valium or an antidepressant, such as Paxil.

Though anti-anxiety medications certainly have their merits, not everyone wants to go the pharmaceutical route. What if you’d rather try to attack the issue in a more natural, non-drug way? There are ways you can help yourself without a prescription. Here are some of the best ways to treat anxiety gently and naturally.

Yoga

You may have heard quite a bit of esoteric things about yoga. According to practitioners, yoga can help treat depression, anxiety and other non-physical ailments. Is it true?

More and more, science is saying, yes! The ancient principles of yoga, which include chakras (points along the body where energy “collects”) and ley lines, where energy flows, are beginning to see some scientific merit.

Apparently, tension really can cause the flow of physical things, such as your blood, to perform less than optimally. This causes a general feeling of tension in the body, which translates to tension (anxiety) in the mind.

Yoga positions help free up this energy and physical flow. In addition, the calm, flowing nature of yoga produces a natural sense of calm. Choose a beginners class or DVD and pick a quiet, undisturbed time to perform yoga.

Make sure you lie still and relaxed in a state of quiet contemplation for a few minutes afterward. Over time, this sense of peace should translate into the rest of your day, reducing overall anxiety.

Breathing Techniques

Anxiety produces certain physical changes in the body, including shallower, rapid breathing as compared to when one is in a relaxed state. This is a natural “fight or flight” phenomenon; quickened breathing in the presence of anxiety prepares you to go running if real danger is present.

Unfortunately, this effect can be circular. You feel anxiety and your body responds by changing its breathing. But because there’s nothing to physically run from, the energy has nowhere to go, and the feeling continues – causing the physical effects to remain. This makes your body sense that danger is still present, and on and on the cycle goes.

Slowing your breathing will signal your body that danger is no longer present, reducing anxiety. When anxiety hits, find a quiet place and close your eyes.

Breathe in very slowly. Don’t gasp and don’t gulp down air. Allow the air to enter your lungs slowly and fully. Hold for two seconds, then allow the air to gently puff back out in one long, slow breath. (Panic Away has more on this technique.)

Repeat three or four times. Don’t overdo it; allow the process to feel natural. It should feel like a slow, relaxing sigh.

Supplements

Natural supplements are an area that’s beginning to experience a great deal of attention. And there’s a reason: many of them do work, in studies as well as in realtime use.

A few anti-anxiety supplements to consider are:

  • Valerian root. This plant has traditionally been used for sleep. In smaller quantities, it “takes the edge off” anxiety. Be sure to use exactly as directed on the bottle. DO NOT overuse valerian root, as it can depress your system if too much is taken.
  • St. Johnswort. St. Johnswort is great for both depression and anxiety, which often go hand in hand. Start out slowly with St. Johnswort with the lowest recommended dose. Be sure to use sunscreen daily if you use this herb, as it can make the skin photosensitive (more sensitive to the effects of the sun).
  • Passion Flower. New research points out that this treats depression and anxiety similar (and perhaps even more effective than) St. Johnswort, and without the side effects. It is often combined with other calming herbs into a tea.
  • Vitamin B. A good Vitamin B complex can do wonders for anxiety. This family of vitamins directly works on the nervous system, calming it and putting it “back in order” to minimize anxiety overall.
  • GABA. This amino acid is known to reduce anxiety when used regularly. It is available as a supplement but can also be found naturally in some foods, such as banana, nuts and fish.
  • Kava. Like valerian root, kava has a light tranquilizing effect. Be careful using kava if you have experienced liver issues. Ask your doctor.
  • Green tea. Green tea contains the amino acid L-theamine, which is known to reduce anxiety. Take one to two cups per day.

Always research a supplement before beginning a regimen. Try the above supplements individually; otherwise, you won’t really know what’s working and what isn’t.

Good luck – help for your anxiety may be just around the corner, and more easily and inexpensively than you thought.

ADHD and iPads: Is There a Link to Behavioral Disorders and Technology?

playing on the iPad

“Who’s iPad is it?” Photo by Melanie Holtsman

Currently considered an “epidemic,” attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – or ADHD – affects some one in eight children in the U.S. The number represents more than a 40% rise in diagnoses during the past decade. As this number continues to grow, specialists are worried – and so are parents.

Could our reliance on technology be making the problem worse? Or can some children actually be helped by the availability of iPads, smart phones and TV? Here’s the lowdown on one of the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorders among children today – and a great debate between two definite factions.

ADHD: A Growing Problem

As youngsters, we all knew that one child who just couldn’t sit still in class and seemed to forget what we’d told him or her only a moment before. Most were considered “high-strung” or were nicknamed “hyper” by parents and classmates. A few may have been officially diagnosed as hyperactive.

Today, that’s changed. According to CDC statistics, 12% of boys and nearly 5% of girls ages 3-17 will be diagnosed with ADHD at some point. That’s a whopping 5.2 million children affected by the disorder.

Most concerning of all, this total number represents a 41% rise over the past 10 years. Something changed over the past decade, but what? And can we do anything about it?

What is ADHD?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines ADHD as a neurobiological disorder. It’s split into three possible categories: predominantly inattentive (with an inability to properly process details), predominantly hyperactive-impulsive (an inability to sit still and an increase in accidents and injuries) and combined-type.

ADHD is not limited to children; adults are diagnosed with the disorder as well. Symptoms of ADHD may include difficulty concentrating and staying on-task, a tendency to daydream, squirming/fidgeting, difficulty listening and taking turns, and a tendency to acting or speaking quickly without thinking.

The cause of ADHD is still unknown – and under hot debate. Some experts are becoming more and more convinced that the fast-paced and very unreal world of screen technology may be at least partially to blame. Yet others claim this link is a case of alarmism and that there just aren’t the direct studies to prove it.

It’s become a heated debate, and screen media is coming more and more under fire as we consider the wisdom of raising our children in a gadget-reliant society.

Is Technology at Fault?

It’s no secret that we’ve become a plugged-in society – and that doesn’t just mean adults. According to a 2010 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids ages 8-18 spend more than a full seven hours daily in front of some form of entertainment media. That’s a 20% increase over the past five years alone.

Pediatric specialists are questioning the wisdom of this rather unsettling number, and with good reason. According to experts, reliance on screen media causes easy boredom … and a mind that reacts to quick, flashy and ever-changing visuals and audio. That’s bad enough for adults, who are as gadget-addicted as kids.

The problem here is that with children, the mind is still in development and could potentially be, in a sense, “re-wired” to respond to a world that doesn’t actually exist. What this translates to is that we may be actually helping train our children’s minds not to be able to focus for appropriate periods of time on such mundane tasks as, for example, face-to-face social interaction and homework.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics website, studies link this excessive use of media to such issues as problems at school, sleep and eating issues and, yes, attention difficulties.

A Matter of Debate: Some Say Technology Could Actually Help

Interestingly, amid the controversy surrounding a possible link between ADHD and techno-gadgetry, a dissenting faction has emerged. And although few would debate that less total time spent on media is a bad thing, some people argue that ADHD-geared technology might improve the lives of sufferers.

And it’s not just a shot in the dark: studies are showing that kids with ADHD may actually find improved symptoms using appropriate media and software. According to McGraw, Burdelle and Chadwick in a 2005 study, “(Interventions on ADHD) operate on the physiological level and, therefore, lend themselves to technology-based applications.” (Read the reference to the study here.)

One category of techno help, assistive technology, is endorsed by such trusted sources as Scholastic.com and Franklin.com. Hand-held planners, keyboards, notepads and software have a new niche in ADHD and other learning or behavioral applications.

And special ADHD software is being developed to develop math issues, reading and writing issues and daily organization.

Real Help for Kids with ADHD

When it comes to technology, there are real ways in which to minimize the theoretic risk of behaviors related to ADHD, experts say. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two to three hours maximum per day for any child ages three and up for media-based technology (including TV and texting). For kids ages two and under, the organization recommends no media at all.

When kids do turn to technology, make it count, experts say. Choose education-based software and games. These can be fun; in fact, “game”-based educational software is one of the most engaging forms of learning kids can experience. Supervise all TV shows and online activities.

Last of all, put down the technology and step sllllowly away. Statistics aside, real-time interaction and play remains the number one way to engage children’s bodies and minds … in a way the brain most definitely intended.

Are We Now All Mentally Ill?

temper tantrumThe Tantrum, by Forest Runner/Flickr

Think you’re normal? Think again. If you’re part of modern Western society, the likelihood is 50/50 that you’re suffering from mental illness – at least according to the new DSM-V.

The DSM: What it Is, What it (Should) Do

If you’re not familiar with the DSM, allow us to introduce you to the latest tool to tell you just how mentally ill you really are. (We’re not downplaying it, the manual has helped thousands – see below for more info on this subject.)

DSM-5In a nutshell: DSM stands for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This psychiatrist’s handbook outlines specific illnesses and their sub-categories. Each category is given a list of criteria. If you meet the strictures of those criteria (say, four out of five symptoms), medical investigation is warranted.

It has its pitfalls, but to date the DSM is the best and most comprehensive catalog psychiatrists have at their disposal. Let’s take a look at some of the changes to its latest installment.

DSM-V: Bigger…But is it Better?

The DSM has undergone quite an evolution in its long career. Its first incarnation, the DSM-I, was published in 1952 and featured a comparatively modest 106 disorders.

After subsequent revisions, the latest edition – the DSM-V – was launched in May of 2013. This latest incarnation features 15 brand-new mental disorders and lists such issues as Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (temper tantrums) and “behavioral addictions.”

In other ways, the DSM has been pared down a tad; Asperger Syndrome, for example, no longer exists. (Traits formerly diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome will now fall under the autism umbrella.) It also makes new distinctions: for instance, substance abuse has now been separated from substance dependance.

Have We Gone Too Far?

Allow us to say this from the outset: we in no way wish to minimize mental illness. The effects can be devastating to the sufferer and to his or her loved ones. If you’re suffering from symptoms of any mental illness, seek treatment immediately.

However, when we’re categorizing temper tantrums, drinking too much coffee or going on shopping binges as mental illness, it may be time for a second look. These are behavioral, surely. But mentally ill? We’re not so sure. And you shouldn’t be, either. Consider that close to 50% of Americans can now be classified as having some form of illness under the DSM-V.

Frankly, it’s hard to swallow that number.

Pills and More Pills: Mental Illness and the Pharmaceutical Industry

The modern availability of medicine is a wonderful thing. People living in first-world countries have been born into a very lucky time indeed. We’ll never dispute that medicine is crucial to many individuals’ quality of life.

Where we take exception is Big Pharma’s role in all this – particularly as regards mental illness. When you’re seeing ads on TV actively pushing (er, marketing) pills for every ailment under the sun, it’s pretty obvious where the motivation lies.

Shocker time: the U.S. pharmaceutical industry pulls in a whopping $25 billion annually. And that’s not just because there are very real ailments out there (which is a given). It’s because, from all appearances, Big Pharma not only creates drugs but overinflates the price of them. (My cousin was recently prescribed Viibryd for her depression. Without drug coverage, she went to get her 30-day prescription filled. $500. Yes, really. And this isn’t for chemotherapy, folks. It’s for a fairly simple chemical compound.)

Where mental illness comes into play is that when we’re giving a literal diagnosis for over-shopping, over-exercising or being too angry, we’re also opening up the FDA to approve new drugs for such.

No, we don’t think Big Pharma is The Big Debbil. But we do think the DSM-V has delivered a whole new money market for the pharmaceutical industry. And they’re just that: an industry. We’d like to believe big drug companies won’t take advantage of people’s fears in this way, but unfortunately, history says otherwise.

So. Am I Sick or Not?

Ultimately, your life really is in your own hands. Don’t be quick to panic if you feel you fall into one of the new or existing mental illness categories. See your doctor (immediately), talk to him or her and then do your own homework.

Finding a doctor who works with you rather than whisking you away with a wave of a hand and a prescription after a five-minute talk is paramount. And they’re out there. Many doctors are as leery of the newest mental illness criteria as patients. A great doctor will help you determine whether you need help.

And remember: if history repeats (and it does), there’s a DSM-VI in our perhaps not-so-distant future. Don’t be surprised if your illness suddenly disappears in the eyes of the psychiatric community when that happens … or if you suddenly have new ones.

Just be knowledgeable and with a skeptical eye, prepared, and take your own health into your own hands. No sense going crazy about it.