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Yellowbrick Blog

THE ADOLESCENT BRAIN, OR… “WHAT WAS SHE THINKING!?”

Adolescent Brain

By David H. Baron, MD, Medical Director, Yellowbrick
This article appears in Evanston Womens Magazine

Kaitlyn was an “A” student. A very well-behaved child through kindergarten, grade school and most of middle school. She played soccer, had friends, was loving and lovable with her family, teachers and social circle. Always had a flair for the dramatic and started getting parts in school plays in 5th grade.

Until age 14.

Freshman year of high school, a lot changed. New social setting, new school, new teachers who didn’t know her. She had a growth spurt that made her suddenly tall and lanky, a little physically awkward: a target for bullying.

Kaitlyn isolated herself. She stopped making new friends, generally got a lot quieter. Her time and whereabouts became more mysterious. “Where were you all afternoon,” her Mom would ask.

“Hangin’.”

“Hangin’ where, with whom?”

“Friends.”

“Which friends?”

“You wouldn’t know them, stop interrogating me!” (she storms out and slams the door)

Then one weekend, Kaitlyn, the lovable, rule-following “A” student, got stopped by the police for speeding. In her friend’s father’s Porsche. Without a license. At 90 miles an hour.

No drugs, no serious mental illness (though professional help may well be needed). Kaitlyn was suffering from a temporary but potentially severe neurological disruption, known as having a teenager’s brain.

Why do teens sometimes make terrible judgments? Why does a seemingly gifted young person, with a stellar academic record, behave…well…, so stupidly at times? As any parent of a teen knows, sometimes their obliviousness to risk is stupendous. Kaitlyn’s story makes for a great Lifetime movie—when it’s not about your kid.

There’s a reason for all this: the process of teenage brain development. Adolescent brains are neurochemical battle zones. While hormones rage, wreaking havoc on a teen’s body shape and size, sex drive, skin, voice, and as a result, her relationship to herself, the brakes for the impulsive momentum this creates haven’t fully developed into adult form. That seat of judgment, the “pause button” for acting without thinking, is in the frontal lobe (technically the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). On average that part of the brain isn’t fully developed in teens. It won’t be until well into their 20’s.

Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky explains:

“…adolescence [is the time] when someone is most likely to kill, be killed, leave home forever, invent an art form, help overthrow a dictator, ethnically cleanse a village, devote themselves to the needy, become addicted, marry outside their group, transform physics, have hideous fashion taste, break their neck recreationally, commit their life to God, mug an old lady, or be convinced that all of history has converged to make this moment the most consequential… In other words, it’s the time…of maximal risk taking, novelty seeking…. All because of that immature frontal cortex.”1

So, the next time your teen behaves in a way that makes you feel crazy, whatever else you do to help, remember that in a few years their frontal lobe will be more mature, and hopefully, so will they.

1Sapolsky, Robert M. (2017) Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York, NY: Penguin Press, page 155.

Fitting In

What does it mean to fit in? We spend all of high school obsessing over it (or pretending not to obsess over it), all in the name of trying to find a community we belong to. But it also goes far beyond high school and affects us way into adulthood. So much of our lives are consumed with just trying to find a place where we feel like we’re comfortable, happy, and safe—and this sense of community looks different to everyone.

We wanted to take a closer look at what it means to fit in and how we feel when we find a community to engage with, which is why we surveyed 2,000 people to better understand how a sense of community affects us from high school through adulthood. Here’s what our survey had to say.

Fitting In 1

Continue reading Fitting In

Tech and Mental Health

Mental health is an important part of a balanced wellness plan. Although seeking out care for mental health has been taboo in the past, this attitude is changing—especially as technology is playing a larger role in how we get support for our mental and physical wellness, particularly with phone and tablet applications.

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular mental health applications over time, and what these apps have to offer to help us improve our mental health. Continue reading Tech and Mental Health

Pressure & Youth Sports Study

Youth sports can offer a wide variety of positive benefits, such as team-building, personal commitment, friendly competition, and exercise. However, youth sports can make some children feel overwhelmed, under pressure, and like a failure for what is supposed to be a fun, important learning experience. We surveyed 1,000 Americans to get a sense of how rampant the pressure to succeed is within youth sports, as well as see what kind of effect it has had on people throughout their lives.

Continue reading Pressure & Youth Sports Study

The benefits of group therapy

Group therapy

Group therapy is gaining in popularity, thanks to the fact that it has proven to be both cost-effective and just as beneficial as individual therapy, according to a 2012 article from the American Psychological Association.

In the article, Dr. Gary Burlingame, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, cited more than 50 clinical trials that compared patients who were assigned to group therapy or individual therapy, all of which showed that both types of therapy worked equally well for improving people’s mental health.

Despite its proven effectiveness, some people are hesitant to try group therapy because they are afraid to talk about their inner-most thoughts in front of a roomful of strangers. But, Dr. David Daskovsky, Senior Psychologist at Yellowbrick, says group therapy can be enormously helpful to those who are willing to give it a try.

Groups can be especially helpful for young adults who are in a life stage where they are establishing their own identity. “Young adulthood is a time when people are defining themselves. They’re dealing with issues of belonging, and trying to figure out how they can integrate themselves into a new social world.”

That’s why the young adults at Yellowbrick participate in group therapy several hours a week — sometimes in groups focused on inter-personal processes, sometimes in psycho-educational groups, sometimes in groups focused on specific issues such as trauma, addiction or eating disorders.

Most group therapy sessions, at Yellowbrick and in other settings, feature about five to 10 people facilitated by one or two therapists. Typically, group members are encouraged to jump into the conversation and share their own thoughts and give feedback to others in the moment.

So what exactly are the benefits of group therapy? Here are a few ways group therapy can help you:

  1. Realize You’re Not Alone
    Often in life, it’s easy to feel as if you are the only person who has ever dealt with the problems that you face. Being in a group of other people who are struggling with similar issues can help put your own problems in perspective. “Group therapy really helps people to feel and to be less isolated and less alienated because they can see that others share and can understand their difficulties,” Daskovsky says.
  2. Reduce Social Anxiety
    Group therapy can also help people learn how to make friends and improve social interactions — something Daskovsky says is especially important for young adults who are in a stage of life where they are defining themselves and trying to figure out how to integrate themselves into a new social world.“Often people come for treatment to Yellowbrick because they have anxiety about being in social situations,” Daskovsky explains. “Groups provide the opportunity for people to get more comfortable being with other people and learn to identify and express their feelings in the presence of others.”
  3. Learn How to Deal with Conflict
    Whether it’s a dormitory, a team, a club, when you have a mix of personalities in a group setting, you’re bound to experience some conflicts. Daskovsky says these conflicts in a group psychotherapy, while uncomfortable, are actually very useful because one can learn how to deal with conflict in a direct and helpful way with the support of the group members and leader.
  4. Learn How to Speak Up
    If you grew up thinking that you were supposed to stuff your feelings or that your opinions didn’t matter, group therapy is a great way of learning how to have a voice. “People learn how to hold their own in a group. If you are a person who tends to give up your own opinions in deference to others or out of fear of conflict, a group can provide the opportunity to practice recognizing and expressing your own preferences and opinions. ” Daskovsky says.
  5. See How You Behave in the World
    One of the most beneficial aspects of group therapy is the fact that you can observe how you typically act in a group situation and experiment with trying out new behavior. “Groups are a microcosm of the larger social world,” Daskovsky explains. “The roles that we tend to take on in the world will be present in the group.”For example, if you’re typically someone who is a caretaker of other people, or someone who dominates, or someone who shrinks from competition with other people, you are likely to reenact those roles in the group. Group members can function like a mirror to help each other to recognize the roles each member takes. “For example, there are some people who hesitate to speak, feeling as if everyone else’s problems are more important than their own, but then feel resentful that their issues go unnoticed, while some others tend to take charge but end up feeling burdened by the responsibility” Daskovsky says. Noticing these characteristic patterns is a first step towards being able to make changes.
  1. Deal With Shame
    A major source of difficulty for many emerging adults relates to hidden shame, e.g., about not “keeping pace” with your peers or not having achieved what you think you “should” have achieved at this point in your life. Research and clinical experience indicate that the way to move through and past shame is to move towards it, that is to practice speaking out about the hidden and shameful aspects of ourselves in the presence of others. Group therapy is usually a safe and supportive place to begin to face and deal with shame.

Millennials And Debt—The Long-Term Effect

Credit cards, student loans, mortgages, car payments—today’s millennials have more debt than ever, and studies show that there can be a long-term health effect on the stress this causes.

Two-thirds of millennials aged 23 to 35 have at least one source of long-term debt, while one-third have more than one source. Average student loan debt in the United States amounts to $40,000, while 37 percent of Americans younger than 40 have accrued student loan debt. Student loan debt in the United States is higher than any other kind of non-mortgage debt in the United States, and according to a recent report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, student loan debt now totals more than $1.2 trillion. More than 40 million Americans, more than Canada’s entire population, have student loan debt. Continue reading Millennials And Debt—The Long-Term Effect

Brain Training: How Strengthening Your Brain Can Improve Your Mental Health

Brain training

When people talk about mental health, they don’t often think about the “health” part of the phrase. In fact, most people assume that the only way to recover from mental illness is to take medication or spend hours talking to a therapist.

But it turns out that it’s possible to train our brains to improve brain health, just the way we train our bodies.

“Your brain is an instrument. It’s a living, changing, malleable thing,” explains Elizabeth Wade, an occupational therapist and Life Skills Specialist at Yellowbrick. “The more you use your brain, and the more different ways you use it, the more flexible and adaptive your thinking patterns can become.”

Having a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, can interfere with your ability to think clearly. Someone with depression may have brain waves that are slowed down, while someone with anxiety and stress may have activity in a rigid but chaotic pattern — both of which would prevent someone from being able to make reasonable, meaningful decisions.

In fact, brain scans of the young adults who come to Yellowbrick show that initially many have significant cognitive impairments in areas such as attention, memory, decision-making and executive functioning.

Wade says many people with mental illness have a tendency toward rigid thinking and often have difficulty seeing multiple options or solving problems. For example, someone with mental illness may think “I’m not good at making friends,” or “I’m a terrible person,” and the more the person thinks those same thoughts, the more ingrained they become in his or hermind.

That’s why Yellowbrick uses brain training to re-wire our neuropathways, helping us to make our brains become more flexible, which allows us to ultimately think different thoughts.

In order to do this, the young adults at Yellowbrick participate in computer-mediated cognitive exercises designed to enhance problem solving, memory, visual spatial understanding, attention and more. For example, one brain training module may require you to remember a string of numbers, while another one may have you organize images, solve a Rubik’s cube, or mentally rotate a picture. In addition, the young adults engage in real-world cognitive training, including group problem-solving, where they have the opportunity to see that there are many different ways to approach a problem.

Wade says by challenging your brain, you are activating different neuropathways and improving your ability to adapt to the challenges of the world.

Of course, if you don’t have access to these specially designed computer brain training programs, there are other ways you can strengthen your brain on your own.

4 Brain Training Tips

  1. Try Something New
    “One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to try something new every day,” Wade says. You can drive a new way to school or work, make a new recipe, read a new book, etc. “When you do something new, you’re no longer on autopilot. You’re noticing things, you’re alive and in the moment.” Not only does that help create new neuropathways, it also doesn’t give you time to wallow on your problems.
  2. Consider Multiple Options
    When facing a problem or making a decision, brainstorm possible solutions with the critical part of your mind turned off. Give yourself the freedom to explore and propose approaches. Consider the pros and cons of each option only after you have developed a list of possibilities. This method reduces rigid thinking and opens you up to more creative solutions.
  1. Do Things the Hard Way
    Another way to train your brain is to avoid using technology as a crutch. Instead of copying a phone number one digit at a time, try to remember the entire thing at once, then check to see if you are right. Or try to figure out an arithmetic problem by hand, using your calculator only as a backup. Engaging in any activity that is mentally challenging, including the ones mentioned, will strengthen your brain.
  2. Exercise
    Getting your body moving is another great way to support the health of your brain. Wade says exercise can help boost the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain, which is the most energy-intensive organ in the body. Studies have shown that exercise can help with memory, attention, and executive function.

5 Signs That You May Be Minimizing Trauma

trauma

We all have a tendency to minimize traumatic events. We tell ourselves, “That’s in the past. I should be over that by now.” It’s certainly a healthy response to want to let go and move on. But trauma doesn’t typically resolve on its own, and eventually our bodies and minds will let us know when something needs to be addressed.

“No one wants to say ‘I’ve been traumatized,’” says Robbie Bogard, Director of Integrative and Group Services at Yellowbrick. “You may not define your symptoms as trauma-related. You just know something is wrong.”

Ironically, one of the reasons trauma becomes minimized is that there is such a broad variety of experiences that qualify as traumatic. Serious physical injury is one obvious cause of trauma, but any event that leaves you feeling frightened, alone and interferes with your life going forward can be considered traumatic. It can be the result of a powerful one-time event, or come from a series of unpleasant experiences that leads to long-term problems, such as growing up with an alcoholic parent, being shamed about being overweight, being date raped or being in an abusive relationship, or many other scenarios.

Traumatic experiences overwhelm the mind and body’s ability to integrate the experience into memory and store it as you would other life experiences. For that reason, it keeps showing up in many ways, including those described below.

So how do you know if you are suffering from something you’ve told yourself was “no big deal”?

Signs You’ve Experienced Trauma

  1. You feel overwhelmed
    Did something happen unexpectedly? Were you unprepared for it? Did you feel helpless to prevent it? Do you feel you can’t talk to anyone about it because no one else can understand? Feeling that you have no control over your life or no one to turn to is a sign of trauma.
  1. You have flashbacks
    Are you being triggered by certain sights, sounds, or smells that remind you of the incident? Is your life being interrupted by intrusive symptoms, whether in the form of upsetting images, memories, nightmares, crying, or sudden anger? Any strong emotional or physical reaction that doesn’t seem to be connected to the present situation can be the result of a buried trauma.
  1. You often “space out”
    Feeling numb or having flat emotions is a common result of trauma. Maybe you have difficulty staying present, or find yourself disconnecting from others. This desire to isolate or zone out could mean that you haven’t processed a painful memory.
  1. You overreact or respond inappropriately
    Do you startle easily? Does the slightest stress send you into panic mode? Bogard calls this a “hyper-aroused response” and says it’s another sign that you may be minimizing a trauma.
  1. You feel ashamed
    Do you sometimes feel that you can’t do anything right? Do you find yourself thinking, “If only I hadn’t done that, this never would have happened”? One of the most common types of trauma is interpersonal trauma, which includes physical or sexual abuse, or bullying. Shame plays a big part in this kind of trauma, as well as a tendency to blame yourself.

These five signs of trauma can be your mind know you have important emotions that need to be processed. If you’ve been denying or ignoring any of them, know that there are steps you can take to begin to truly move past trauma.

Steps to Recover From Trauma

  • Seek out someone who is experienced in helping others.
  • Tell a trusted friend.
  • Join a group for survivors of trauma.

Bogard says that the goal is to be supported as you connect your feelings to your memories. Integrating the two will allow you to release self-blame, sadness, anger, and fear. You’ll minimize not the trauma itself, but the ability it has to affect your life.

For more information on Yellowbrick’s trauma recovery treatment, click here.

It’s a Shame: The symptoms of shame and how to combat it

symptoms of shame

Shame is one of the most powerful emotions that we feel. It can cause us to sever relationships, sink into depression, fuel addictions and eating disorders, and even lead to suicide.

“Shame has to do with the negative feeling about ourselves, which can get activated anytime we are frustrated or get challenged,” explains Dr. Bryn Jessup, Director of Family Services at Yellowbrick.

“Shame is an existential feeling of unworthiness,” Jessup says. “When people feel shame, they believe that they are ultimately an inadequate person or an unworthy person.”

For many people, shame is an emotion you feel to a varying degree almost every day. Anytime you think you’ve done something wrong, don’t know something, or just feel uncomfortable in a social situation you may be feeling a version of shame.

How Shame Affects Young Adults

It’s also an emotion that is especially potent for young adults, who are in a stage of life where they are constantly learning new things. For example, young adults who are taking a challenging college class, doing an internship, or starting a new job will face many things they don’t know. They may feel shame asking for help, but that is the only way they’ll be able to learn.

“You have to have face-to-face interactions where you’re seeking someone’s assistance and support and asking for help. For many people, that is a recipe for activating shame,” Jessup says.

Plus, young adults are also in a life stage where they are making new friendships and forging new romantic relationships — both of which are ripe for feeling inadequate, insecure or unloveable.

Since feelings of shame are so prevalent in early adulthood, it’s especially important for young adults to learn to identify feelings of shame and know how to deal with them.

What Are the Symptoms of Shame?

Shame is an emotion that can take many forms. Here are some common symptoms of shame:

  • Wanting to Disappear
    Most often, shame causes people to want to bury their heads and disappear — anything to pull out of connection with another person. If you’ve ever wanted to avoid returning a phone call, back out of a date, or call in sick for a job interview, you probably were feeling some amount of shame.
  • Anger
    Another common way people react to shame is by feeling anger. Often it’s easier to blame someone else than to think you may have done something wrong, and the anger helps mitigate your own feelings of shame.For example, when a parent yells at a teenager and the teenager runs to his room and slams the door, the teenager’s anger is really covering up his own feelings of shame.
  • Self-Blame
    Shame can also cause people to heap blame onto themselves. For example, when a teacher corrects you or gives you criticism, if you respond by thinking, “I am such an Why did I even take this class? I should quit,” you are feeling shame.
  • Addiction
    When you’re feeling shame, you may want to use something (alcohol, drugs, food, sex etc.) to give you temporary relief from those negative feelings. However, if those substances get in the way of your life, you may feel ever more shame for using them, causing a vicious cycle.

How to Combat Shame

Ironically, sharing your negative, self-critical thoughts with another person is one of the best ways to combat shame.

Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work who has studied topics such as shame, vulnerability and worthiness, has been a strong proponent of sharing your vulnerability, essentially admitting your feelings of shame so you can be more connected to others.

For example, if you go on a date and say, “I’m really afraid you’re not going to like me,” the other person will most likely respond to your authenticity and give you a positive affirmation.

That’s why going to individual or group therapy can be immensely helpful in rewriting the shame messages in your head.

“If a client begins to have an experience of the therapist who knows the worst truths about them and is still willing to be in a relationship with them, they can often start to let go of some of their core shame,” Jessup says.

Plus, therapists can help you identify certain situations that tend to provoke feelings of shame in you.

“Therapists can help by providing insight into your shame dynamics,” Jessup says. “Once you track what’s going on inside you, then you have options.”

To learn more about how shame impacts young adults and contributes to self-destructive behaviors, come to our upcoming seminar entitled, “Shame Resilience: Hiding in Plain Sight,” taking place at our Evanston headquarters on Dec. 9.