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Why Is Mental Illness Scary?

Why Is Mental Illness Scary?

by Praveen R. Kambam M.D.

Halloween has it’s origins in All Hallows’ Eve—the evening before All Saints’ Day—a somber time to honor the saints and the dead. Despite its religious roots, Halloween today is a secular season of scares, filled with costume parties, jack-o’-lanterns, haunted houses, pranks, and of course, horror movies. Given that Americans will spend an estimated $6.9 billion on Halloween this year, we certainly seem to love being scared.

Halloween allows us to face our fears in a safe way. We’re wired to experience a “fight-or-flight” response to threats, causing intense emotional and physical reactions. Halloween horror gives us this adrenaline rush and allows us to vicariously explore the forbidden, dark, and sinister without truly being exposed to danger. And in some small way, Halloween lets us expose ourselves to our fears and take steps toward gaining mastery over them.


But what taps into our most primal fears? The dangerous, the supernatural, and the unexplainable—the things that often scare us the most —are incorporated into iconic horror characters. But along with vampires, witches, and ghosts, mental illnesses have inspired some of the most popular—and profitable—horror characters.

Some of the most popular horror fiction link mental illness with evil.  Take, for example, the trope of the homicidal escaped psychiatric patient, like Michael Myers in the slasher classic Halloween. Haunted house lore often starts with a suicide within the home. Psychiatric hospitals themselves become the backdrop for spooky carnage, as seen in American Horror Story: Asylum.

Indeed, mental illness has become such a common horror trope that it’s even reflected in popular Halloween costumes. You can complete the serial killer look with a straitjacket, an orange jumpsuit, and a “biter mask.” If that’s not your style, you can always go as a “mad” scientist or a “deranged” ax murderer.

So how did mental illness get lumped in with ghouls and goblins? Part of the answer may lie in negative stereotypes of people with mental illnesses as dangerous and unpredictably violent, thus making them “scary.” Our brain’s natural tendency to confirm negative stereotypes ingrains this myth in our minds.

Another potential explanation involves our incomplete knowledge of neuroscience. While psychiatric knowledge and treatments have advanced considerably in the past century, there is still much to be learned, furthering the stereotype of mental illness as a mysterious or unexplainable entity. Such mystique fosters fear of the unknown and allows supernatural explanations to be linked to mental illness, much like demonic possession was once linked to epilepsy.

The thought that many of us could develop a mental illness may be scary in itself, causing us to subconsciously separate ourselves from “them.”

Drawing on mental illness as a Halloween horror theme may seem like another “safe” way to delve into our fears, but is it potentially problematic? 

Reinforcing and perpetuating negative stereotypes of people with mental illnesses as dangerous and unstable can cause real-life harm. People with mental illnesses are often discriminated against when it comes to housing, school, and employment opportunities. They may face bullying and harassment and are sometimes ostracized by others who fail to understand their conditions and treatment. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General identified stigma against mental illness as a major barrier to our public health, causing many to needlessly suffer in silence rather than seek care.

Some are taking a stand against this stigmatizing Halloween trope. Two British retailers came under scrutiny recently for selling a costume labeled “Mental Patient,” complete with meat cleaver and blood stained white coat, and a costume called “Psycho Ward,” including an orange jump suit, syringe, and Hannibal Lecter-type mask. Following public outcry, both companies issued formal apologies and removed the costumes from shelves. Likewise, in the U.S., activists protested haunted houses that have “haunted asylum” themes and depict psychiatric patients as violent monsters.

There is also hope that Hollywood can incorporate more accurate and less stigmatizing mental health depictions, while at the same time creating more compelling characters and nuanced stories. Television shows outside of the horror genre—Homeland, for example—have done this with critical success. 

Perhaps the evolution of dramatic mental health depictions will blaze a trail for much-needed updates to depictions of mental illnesses in the horror genre.


“How Can I Stop Being in Love with Someone who Abuses Me?”

“How Can I Stop Being in Love with Someone who Abuses Me?”

Understanding the root cause of abusive relationships and breaking free


Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D.
Understanding Narcissism



History repeats itself, that is one of the things wrong with history.

If you are still in love with someone who physically and emotionally abuses you, your main problem is your past not your present. It is quite likely that in your childhood, you loved a parent who abused you.

Children love their parents and seek their approval, even when the parent is abusive. Eventually, over time your brain made the connection and love became coupled with abuse. In fact for some people, Love = Abuse.

As one woman said to me: “How will I know if he cares, if he doesn’t beat me?”

Your past connection between love and abuse persisted into the present and is one of the reasons that you still love your abusive mate.

Unfinished Situations Persist in Memory

Gestalt Psychologists Kurt Lewin (1890-1941) and Bluma Zeigarnik (1900-1988) theorized that unfinshed situations from the past press for fulfillment in the present. Bluma Zeigarnik went on to research this topic and published her findings in 1927. This need for closure and its persistence in our mind has come to be called “The Zeigarnik Effect.”

The Relationship “Do Over”

One way to understand your choice of this abusive person and your continued love for him or her is that you are attempting to get closure. Your relationship with a parent (or an important early caregiver) was abusive and unsatisfactory. On an unconscious level, you chose a new person to love who reminded you of your abusive caregiver. This allowed you and your adult lover to recreate aspects of your abusive childhood relationship. Your main desire is not to be abused again, but to have the new relationship turn out better than the childhood one. Subconsciously you believe that, if this new person could love you in the way that your parent did not, you would be able to resolve lingering issues from your traumatic childhood. In essence you were seeking (and still are seeking) a “Do Over” relationship that ends satisfactorily so that you can move on.

This makes it harder to let go of your abusive lover because you had unconsciously chosen this person not just for his or her own charms, but for the similarity between the way the two of you relate to your past relationship with your abusive parent.


Contact Therapy 121 for confiential Counselling via your phone.


How do you stop loving your abuser?

I suggest that you enter psychotherapy and work on your childhood issues with your parents. You are like someone who has caught their coat on a nail in the past and now you cannot go forward without first going back to unhook it. Without working on the underlying source of your problem, even if you get over this person, you may choose another who is just as unsuitable.

Some Steps to Take Now:

Identify the Caregiver: It may help you to reflect on how you have felt during this romantic relationship and compare it to how you felt as a child. This can help you identify the caregiver who first created this pattern of love and abuse.

Replace: When you start longing for your abusive lover, replace his or her face and name with that of the original person (parent or caregiver) who started this whole dysfunctional relationship pattern with you.

Remind: Then remind yourself that your abusive lover is just the stand-in for your parent. Children cannot let go of their parents—but this abusive person is not your parent. You can let go. What your inner child wants is something that your abusive mate can never give you.

Punchline: At first glance it may seem illogical that you still love someone who physically and emotionally abused you. But…if you understand that it was an attempt to finally get emotional closure from a childhood wound, it begins to make more sense.


What Do You Do With Too Much Time on Your Hands?

What Do You Do With Too Much Time on Your Hands?

Everybody’s always complaining about how busy they are. Stressed out, running around, too much to do, no time to relax.

Yet, the opposite problem exists for many people. They have too much time on their hands. Nothing to do and all day to do it. And, that’s not just retired or unemployed folks. It’s also working people who don’t know how to spend their time off.  So what do they do? They keep working.  Surprisingly, more than half of Americans don’t take all their paid vacation days.

Clearly, no one likes being stressed out, with no time to relax or do what they want to do.  That’s why we crave leisure time. A break from work — yay! A break from household tasks — whoopee! A break from childcare — wow, time for myself!

What makes leisurely pursuits so enjoyable is their break from regular responsibilities. But when we have nothing to look forward to for the day, for the week, for the month, leisure time is anything but enjoyable. It’s unnerving. It makes us uneasy. It makes us feel unnecessary. And it is oh, so boring.

With too much time on your hands, not only do you feel bored but you probably also feel lonely, anxious, angry and depressed. And, if you are living with others, it’s so easy to point fingers of blame (“we never do anything”). Let’s face it, most people simply don’t know what to do with themselves when they are alone (or with a partner), when they have no structured activity or scheduled socializing.

Recognizing what you’d like to do, initiating the event, and then following through with making it happen is hard to do on your own. Hence, people have a tendency to while away their leisure time with passive activities — such as watching TV, playing video games, drinking or sleeping the day away.


All leisure time activities are not the same in value either. Those that have the highest potential for making us feel joyful and jubilant are those that are active, such as participating in games, sports, hobbies, travel and socializing. This is true whether you have a weekend off, a summer off, are independently wealthy or are fully retired.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the best-selling book Finding Flow, says that most people feel happiest when they are “fully involved in meeting a challenge, solving a problem or discovering something new. Most activities that produce flow — a peak feeling of happiness — come from being fully involved in something, focusing our attention and making demands on our skills.”

Though many people would agree that such activities improve their mood, they still frequently fall into passive pursuits. Why should this be so? The answer is clear. It takes more time, energy and thought to schedule a tennis game with friends than to flip on the TV. Even if you’re planning a solitary activity, like taking a stroll on the boardwalk, you have to organize yourself to dress right, drive there, park and get motivated to walk. It’s not a major production to do, yet it’s still much easier to not bother and let the time go by passively.

If, when you have leisure time, you feel more listless and lethargic than rested and relaxed, it’s time to get going. Stop taking the easy road. Instead, push yourself or gently pull yourself forward. Get involved in activities that require movement, learning and/or socializing.

As your mood improves, your outlook on life will blossom. Then you’ll realize you no longer have too much time on your hands. Nor, will you be “crazy busy.” Happily, you and your free time will be dancing in tandem.


The power of love: how relationships benefit body and mind

The power of love: how relationships benefit body and mind

“All you need is love,” sang the Beatles. When one considers the widely documented health benefits of being in a happy relationship, they might have been on to something. In this spotlight, we take a look at the health reasons for celebrating being with someone.

Couple kissing.

Research has demonstrated a myriad of health benefits – physical, mental and emotional – associated with being in an affectionate relationship.

With Valentine’s Day approaching, many people fortunate enough to find themselves in relationships will be preparing for a day of celebration. The health conscious may look at boxes of chocolates and meals in restaurants warily, but it is worth remembering that outside of these indulgences, a wealth of health benefits have been identified for people in relationships.

Many will be aware that sex is a form of exercise, increasing the heart rate and reaching an average peak at orgasm comparable to forms of light exercise, such as walking upstairs. It is also fine for people with heart disease to have sex, so long as they can still do equivalent activities (such as walking up two flights of stairs) without experiencing chest pain.

Outside of this, though, several other health benefits arise from being in a relationship. And being in a loving relationship is not simply a bed of roses; different types of relationship have their own effects. We investigate.

Put a little love in your heart

The heart is one of the most conspicuous symbols of love, and perhaps it is unsurprising that love is associated both literally and figuratively with one the most important organs in the human body. With February being American Heart Month, it seems prudent to examine the less obvious benefits to the heart first.

Research has indicated that being in a satisfying relationship can lead to improved survival rates after coronary bypass surgery – an aggressive treatment for heart disease. The effects of satisfaction were reported to be just as important to survival as traditional risk factors, such as obesity and tobacco use.

This finding may have been due to happy relationships encouraging healthful behavior, such as quitting smoking and keeping fit.

Less active displays of intimacy than sex can also be beneficial to cardiovascular health. One study found that couples holding hands for 10 minutes followed by a 20-second hug had healthier reactions to a public speaking task than participants who merely rested quietly.

The couples that had brief warm social and physical contact exhibited lower heart rates, lower blood pressure and smaller increases in heart rate, with results comparable for men and women.

“These findings suggest that affectionate relationships with a supportive partner may contribute to lower reactivity to stressful life events,” write the authors. The implication from the study is that affectionate relationships could be related to better cardiovascular health.

Hypertension can be dangerous, leading to serious conditions including heart failurestroke and heart attack. Research has also found that it can increase the risk of cognitive decline later in life. However, lowering blood pressure is not the only aspect of being in a relationship that benefits cognitive functioning.

Always on your mind

Sex has also been found by researchers to improve mental health. A small study of 46 men and women suggested that like other forms of physical activity, sex reduces levels of stress.

Researchers conducted stress tests involving acts such as doing mental arithmetic out loud, finding that people who had sex coped better with stress than participants that had no sex at all.

A person’s sense of well-being can also be improved by sex. A much larger study of 3,000 people aged 57-85 demonstrated that those who were having sex rated their health much more favorablythan those who were not.

In this study, it was not just sex that led to improved well-being, but being in a satisfying relationship overall. The researchers found that participants in close relationships were more likely to report they were in “excellent” or “very good” health, rather than merely “good” or “poor.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, thinking positively in this manner could lead to further health benefits, including reductions in the risk of the following:

  • Common cold
  • Depression
  • Distress
  • Overall mortality.

Dr. Larry J. Young, of Emory University in Atlanta, GA, told Medical News Today that the benefits to health and well-being that come from being in a relationship are best understood from seeing what happens when a relationship is lost, either by death or splitting up:

“Loss of a loved one (e.g. spouse or romantic partner) leads to an increase in mortality, immune suppression, cardiovascular disease and depression.”

Love is not the same for everyone

It should be pointed out that no one seems to experience love in precisely the same way as everyone else. We are all drawn to different kinds of people and expect many different things from a relationship. It should not be surprising, for this reason, that the health implications of love also vary.

Happy affectionate couple hugging.

Could levels of affection and attachment style determine the health benefits couples receive from their relationship?

Recently, MNT reported on a study investigating the effects of attachment style on pain relief. Adult attachment style refers to patterns exhibited by individuals in relationships related to how they seek or avoid closeness.

Typically, the presence of a partner in a painful situation would be considered comforting and a relief, yet this was not the case for every participant in the research.

In a small study of 39 women, “moderately painful” laser pulses were administered to the participants’ fingers while their romantic partner was present and then absent. The authors found that the more women were avoidant of closeness in their relationships, the more pain they experienced when their partner was present.

The authors concluded that “partner presence may not have beneficial effects on the experience of pain when the individual in pain is characterized by higher attachment avoidance.” The presence of others may disrupt the preferred method of coping with “the threat value of pain” for such individuals.

For the women reporting high closeness with their partner, it may be oxytocin – a hormone sometimes referred to as “the love hormone” – that could be responsible for their experiencing reduced levels of pain.

Lead author Dr. Charlotte Krahé told MNT they believed that oxytocin might be part of a neurobiological mechanism involved in shaping the effects of interacting with close others on the pain experience.

Oxytocin has been associated by researchers with parts of the brain that are involved in emotional, cognitive and social behaviors. Acts of intimacy, such as sexual intercourse, holding hands and looking into another person’s eyes, stimulate the release of oxytocin in men and women. The hormone is produced in larger amounts in mothers when they are giving birth or nursing.

In an article published in Nature, Dr. Young suggests that long-term bonding between mates may be regulated by the same mechanisms as those involved in maternal bonding.

Oxytocin “interacts with the reward and reinforcement system driven by the neurotransmitter dopamine – the same circuitry that drugs such as nicotine, cocaine and heroin act on in humans to produce euphoria and addiction,” he writes.

“I think this is the only reason that we do hug and touch each other all the time. I think this is the mechanism that keeps oxytocin levels high in relationships,” says Dr. Rene Hurlemann, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Bonn in Germany.

Addicted to love, and then withdrawal

“We have evidence that it is the withdrawal from oxytocin after social loss that leads to the depressive side effects, at least based on our studies in monogamous prairie voles,” Dr. Young told MNT.

A giggling nun.

A study of nuns has demonstrated that romantic relationships and sex are not required for good health and long life.

In a paper published in Psychopharmacology in 2012, Dr. Young and James P. Burkett reviewed research on drug addiction alongside research on social attachments. “The psychology of human love and drug addiction share powerful overlaps at virtually every level of the addictive process, from initial encounters to withdrawal,” the authors conclude.

Oxytocin was found to play a modulatory role in many aspects of drug addiction, along with additional roles in the processing of memories and information involved in social attachment.

The association between oxytocin and addiction was explored further last year in research conducted by the University of Adelaide in Australia. The study suggested that poor development of oxytocin during early childhood could explain why some individuals succumb to addictive behavior.

Dr. Young and Burkett state that the overlaps in the psychology of human love and drug addiction suggest that forms of treatment for one domain may be effective in another. “[For] instance, treatments used to reduce drug cravings may be effective in treating grief from the loss of a loved one or a bad breakup,” they write.

These findings suggest that further research into the neurobiological mechanisms of love could reveal ways in which its positive healthful effects could be brought to people that find themselves without it.

Not all doom and gloom for single people

Single people can feel quite downhearted around Valentine’s Day, being surrounded by people experiencing a joy that, at that moment in time, eludes them. Reading about these examples of health benefits for happy and affectionate couples may well contribute toward to this.

It is not all doom and gloom for single people, however. Research has found that having a good network of friends can have many of the same positive effects as being in a relationship.

One study of 1,500 people aged over 70 found that participants who reported having strong friendship groups tended to live longer than people with fewer friends. The authors suggested that this finding could be due to friends having a positive influence on lifestyle choices.

Despite all the health benefits that sex provides, research has also demonstrated that a life of celibacy can also be one that is long and healthy. A longitudinal study of 678 nuns aged 75-107 found many participants maintaining an active lifestyle and demonstrating strong cognitive function well into old age.

So, while there is much to celebrate about being in a relationship around Valentine’s Day, it is by no means the be-all-end-all, especially when looking from a health perspective. Good health and long life can be enjoyed by anyone, no matter what their relationship status is.


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