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Research Roundup 4: Cancer and PTSD, Relationship Insecurity, and More

An uncommon opinion on some recent psychological research findings

Information without context is worse than useless.

A bit of a puzzle doesn’t just not give us the whole picture – it may give us a false idea of the broader perspective. Unless, that is, we can think about how it might fit into the whole.

We hear all kinds of stuff, don’t we?

We learn that whether antidepressants actually help patients feel better is hugely dependent on how the doctor actually presents the medication when prescribing it. Three times as many people respond to antidepressants when they believe in the drug.[1] Very good.

Or we learn that, in complete contrast to most people, the more highly intelligent people socialize the less happy they are with their lives.[2] Okay.

Or we hear the soundbite that tells us that “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults”.[3] “Great!” we say, and we move on.

We have these little shards of glass but no window to see through.

I aim to do something about that.

Alcoholic voles and Facebook friends: Seeing how it all fits together

In this occasional series I aim to bring some wider context to recent pieces of psychological research. How do they apply in the real world, and what light can they shed on what it means to be human?

As a disclaimer, this is just my individual take on how these findings may correspond to the human condition in the round, and I’m sure you might see more than I do, or differently.

So in this Research Roundup I will unpack and hopefully provide some context to five diverse topics:

  • First, I will discuss the prevalence of PTSD in cancer survivors.
  • Along that theme, I’ll offer my ideas on a recent study which showed that patients with PTSD respond differently to certain sounds.
  • For a perhaps welcome change of focus, I’ll look at a study that seems to show that materialistic people collect more friends on Facebook!
  • Next we’ll consider how a fear of getting dumped kills romance (yes, there are studies on everything! I was tempted to comment on a research piece I saw entitled ‘When male voles drink alcohol, but their partner doesn’t, their relationship suffers’.[4] I guess that’s because the male vole starts spending all his cash and time on boozing in various watering holes with his pals!)
  • Finally, I’ll offer my thoughts on some research that shows that poor social skills can harm physical health.

I hope you enjoy my meanderings into the perplexing nature of human nature!

Research piece one: Many cancer survivors are living with PTSD

In a recent study, 21.7% of cancer patients were experiencing PTSD six months after diagnosis, and almost one-third of these patients continued to live under the shadow of PTSD four years post-diagnosis.[5]

In Maria’s video session, which you will have seen if you’ve done my online Rewind Technique course, she is awaiting cancer results and wants help tolerating the uncertainty so she can get on with her life until the results are in. The cancer is in remission and these are routine tests, yet she can’t stop worrying.

But there’s something else.

As she describes the initial diagnosis of cancer, four and a half years before, I can immediately see all the hallmarks of PTSD.

  • The memory (of the diagnosis) hasn’t faded. It feels like it’s happening now.
  • Any hospital situation still causes flashbacks.
  • She can still physically feel the pain of the moment of diagnosis and see her children’s faces when they learned of it.

Flashbacks to non-faded memories happen when the brain makes faulty pattern matches to the present moment. When you look at it that way, the results of the above study start to make a lot of sense.

Amazingly, precious little research or treatment has focused on PTSD relating to the experience of cancer.

My take?

Not surprisingly, PTSD doesn’t just happen in immediate life-and-death situations, because the pattern involved is the same across all kinds of situations.

The moment of diagnosis is a hypnotic moment. Attention is narrowed. All else is forgotten. The imagination is activated (what will happen to me?!). This is what I mean by a hypnotic moment – a moment when the mind, in trance, is open to programming.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most easily hypnotizable people are also the ones who are most likely to have persistent symptoms of PTSD,[6] because PTSD is, in essence, a hypnotic disorder.

I think the fact that the scientific world hasn’t linked PTSD to cancer diagnosis (and other experiences of illness) is because of the straight-line, putting-stuff-into-neat-boxes type of thinking that is part and parcel of the scientific model.

Many professionals see PTSD as something that results exclusively from accident or injury – events like serious road accidents, violent personal assaults, witnessing violent deaths, military combat, being held hostage, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters to name a few.

But how can words be so traumatic? Well, it’s not the words that are traumatizing. It’s the meaning behind those words that ignites the terrifying imagination of death. And it’s that imagining that produces PTSD. Nothing has actually happened. You’ve sat in a room with a doctor. No one has pulled a gun on you or assaulted you. But the trauma has happened anyway.

The moment of being told, “You have cancer” may need to be dealt with so that particular stress can be left behind in the mind and body of the patient.

By the end of the first video session the traumatic memory of diagnosis no longer bothers Maria. She says, “It feels like a memory now, not a feeling!”

In the next video session with Maria, two months after the first, she tells me she was able to put her fears of the test results aside – and, thankfully, the results were fine. To this day, the memory of the actual diagnosis still has no effect on her.

We are metaphorical creatures. Words are metaphors for realities, and therefore have the power to not only make us happy but to terrorize us too.

Words have the power to not only make us happy but to terrorize us tooClick To Tweet

And this brings us neatly to the next recent research piece.

Research piece two: PTSD sufferers react strongly to certain sounds

Recent research has uncovered a new neurobiological marker that may aid in recognizing PTSD in patients.[7]

Lead researcher Dr Ali Mazaheri, of the University of Birmingham, said:

“We know that a symptom of PTSD can be heightened sensory sensitivity. In this study, we tested the brain’s response to a simple auditory sensory change by playing simple (standard 1000 Hz) tones every second, and then intermittently playing a slightly altered tone (1200 Hz), known as a deviant. What we found was that patients who had developed PTSD showed enhanced brain responses to deviant tones, suggesting their brain over-processed any change in the environment.”

My take?

This research was interesting in that the control group was made up of people who had undergone a traumatic experience but hadn’t gone on to develop PTSD. That group didn’t respond so sensitively to auditory changes in the environment. So we know it’s not just the traumatic experience itself, but the development of PTSD that increases this sensitivity.

Common sense tells us that being traumatized is a form of super-quick non-cognitive learning in the brain. One of the ‘learnings’ is to be more vigilant: ‘once bitten, twice shy’.

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I suspect people with PTSD would show more acuity to changes in the visual and kinaesthetic fields, too. They are on high alert. Too high alert – that’s the problem. Until the PTSD is gone, their heightened stress levels will have them jumping at all kinds of environmental stimuli.

Watch a horror movie then put the trash out. You will notice all kinds of sounds you normally don’t bother processing.

So if you’re on high alert (because your unconscious mind is continually scanning for threat when other people are relaxed) then of course sudden changes in environmental sounds will produce a bigger response within you.

Okay, that’s enough about trauma. Let’s do Facebook.

Research piece three: Materialists collect Facebook friends and spend more time on social media

According to a new German study, materialistic people spend more time on social media on average than their less-materialistic peers.[8] Why could this be?

Researchers administered a questionnaire to 242 Facebook users, asking them to indicate how strongly they agreed with statements such as:

  • “I often compare how I am doing socially.”
  • “My life would be better if I owned certain things I don’t have.”
  • “Having many Facebook friends contributes more success in my personal and professional life.”

The results suggest that the correlation between materialism and greater frequency and intensity of Facebook use could be explained by the findings that materialistic Facebook users are more likely to:

  • have more Facebook friends than their less-materialistic peers,
  • objectify their Facebook friends and use them to attain personal goals, and
  • feel the need to draw comparisons between themselves and others on Facebook.

My take?

I guess we see our territory as our possession. But that ‘territory’ need not be physical. ‘Territory’ originally meant land, and it might be land, but people can also get territorial over their ideas, treating them as material objects, guarding them jealously, and fearing they will be ‘stolen’. And if ideas can be considered territory, it’s not a stretch to see that some people may also come to view friends as possessions.

So in this way we can metaphorically treat people as objects. Especially if they are absent people, as with social media.

The drive to collect friends may come down to the instinct to gather materials, to get more ‘possessions’ – or it may be a genuine effort to connect with, get to know, and share with people. The key here, of course, is the perceptions and attitudes of the person with the friends.

Are they connecting or collecting?

If we perceive the concept of materialism in this more flexible, metaphorical way, we can see that it’s the effect having or not having has on the individual that’s key.

Someone could own nothing at all and still be ‘materialistic’ if they have a materialistic attitude to gaining attention or ‘virtue’, or take pride in (believing they are) being non-materialistic. Collecting more virtue points is still collecting. The materialistic impulse is still working. Spiritual traditions have warned against this kind of subtle, self-deceptive hypocrisy.[9]

Alternatively, someone might live in a palace, but if they are genuinely not led by the nose by greed, can they really be said to be materialistic? (Incidentally, the word ‘greed’ has fallen out of favour, apparently because it smacks of being judgemental – but really, it’s just a synonym for ‘materialism’.)

Can people be ‘greedy’ in non-obvious, even socially sanctioned ways? Let me know what you think.

Next, let’s talk about being rejected from a romantic relationship, or, more specifically, fear of that.

Research piece four: Relationship insecurity kills love and commitment

Italian researchers Simona Sciara and Giuseppe Pantaleo set out to determine whether fear and anxiety over the potential for a romantic relationship to end could actually affect the intensity of love and commitment in the relationship.[10]

They manipulated people in order to alter their perceptions of the stability of their relationships, using such techniques as providing statistics about relationship failures and giving false feedback about the likelihood their relationships may end. Harsh, I know! Afterwards, they asked these people questions about their feelings towards their partner and their level of commitment.

It was found that participants were more likely to report more intense romantic feelings and commitment towards their partners when they had not been manipulated to believe that their relationships could end. However, when participants had been led to believe there was only a slight possibility of the relationship ending, their levels of commitment were actually higher.

According to Sciara, this shows that “when faced with a ‘too high’ risk of ending the relationship, participants clearly reduced the intensity of their positive feelings towards the romantic partner.”

My take?

I think as therapists (or people in romantic relationships), it’s important to understand how our clients view the fragility or strength of their relationships. To describe it unromantically, a romantic relationship is an investment. If you feel it’s unlikely that the investment will pay dividends (Keats eat your heart out!), then commitment to it will diminish.

Pantaleo put it this way: “Reduced relationship commitment … leads to dissolution considerations and, thereby, to actual relationship breakup. Relationship breakup, in turn, plays a critical role in the onset of depression, psychological distress, and reduced life satisfaction.”

“Dissolution considerations!” That’s one way of putting it. Basically if you don’t believe something will work, you will bother less with it, meaning it has less chance of working.

I have to say, I’m a little sceptical about all of this. If someone is told their relationship might break up (and they are really into their partner), I would expect the intensity of commitment to increase, not decrease. Insecure people tend to over-monitor and maybe put too much into the relationship. Though, to be fair, those who were told the risk of relationship break-up was only slight did tend towards higher commitment.

Perhaps the best advice is to enjoy everything while it lasts and leave the imagination out of it.

Of course, for some it can be hard to get into a romantic, or any, relationship in the first place. And unfortunately, according to this next study, poor relationship skills should come with a health warning.

Research piece five: Poor social skills may harm our health

It’s a no-brainer that poor social skills can be linked to poor mental health, but a recent study shows that difficulty in social situations, social anxiety, and poor relationship skills may also entail poor physical health.[11]

The study surveyed 775 people aged 18 to 91. Participants were asked questions designed to measure their social acuity and skills, as well as questions about their levels of stress and loneliness, and mental and physical health.

Based on their responses, participants were scored on four specific indicators for social skills:

  • Ability to provide emotional support to others
  • Self-disclosure: ability to share personal information with others
  • Negative assertion skills: ability to stand up to unreasonable requests from others
  • Relationship initiation skills: ability to introduce yourself to others and get to know them.

Those who scored low on these indicators were more likely to report emotional upset, stress, loneliness, and poor physical health.

My take?

This is hardly rocket science. Well, obviously not – it’s psychology, but you know what I mean! The researchers surmised that the negative physical health effects of ‘stress’ have long been known, but we’re only just beginning to understand the negative health impacts of loneliness (in this case, caused by weak social skills).

But of course, loneliness is stress. It’s a signal that a primal emotional need, for human connection, or intimacy, or status, or excitement, or perhaps for all of these, remains unfulfilled in life.

Thirst, hunger, loneliness, boredom, and other unpleasant human sensations are all signals of a lack of completion of some need. And stress is the currency of those signals. In the long term, stress is not just bad for mental health, but also, as these researchers found, for physical health.

Social popularity is a kind of status, and low status is linked to worse health outcomes above and beyond other lifestyle factors. Being low in the ‘pecking order’ is not good for any kind of health.[12]

Then again, maybe there’s another factor at play. Being alone more often means there’s more time to mull and ruminate, and we know that can harm mental health and drive the onset and maintenance of depression.[13]

Good people are good for us, and plenty of them.

But I also think that, because social skills are skills, people can learn them. Of course, some people don’t pick up the subtleties of social interaction as instinctively as others. Perhaps they are a little context-blind when it comes to social interaction, as is the case with people with Aspergers syndrome.

However, everyone can learn to get better socially, whether that means learning the ‘rules of social engagement’, managing social anxiety, or most probably both.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on some of the recent (ahem, no doubt taxpayer funded!) psychological research pieces.

It’s worth contextualizing all the information we have in the world, because understanding the great scheme of things is as vital as seeing the detail. Individual trees are wonderful, but so is the forest.

And you can watch live online therapy session videos dealing with anxiety, social skills, relationship insecurity and more with Uncommon Practitioners TV. Click here to find out more.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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