What if I Don’t Like Marshmallows? Revisiting the “Marshmallow Test” and other Pop-psychology “Myths”

Does smiling make you happier? Can you truly predict the long-term success of an adult based on their love, or lack thereof, of marshmallows in their youth? Is depression always linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain? Tony takes a look at 8 popular psychology studies and concepts and shares the latest research on whether or not the findings of the past still hold true. Tony references the article: “Pop psychology: Eight myths that are probably wrong, or at least wildly overly simplistic” by Christian Jarrett https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/pop-psychology-eight-myths-that-are-probably-wrong-or-at-least-wildly-overly-simplistic/

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Transcript

​​Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode 364 of the Virtual Couch. I’m your host, Tony Overbay. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist and host of Waking Up to Narcissism, both the free episode and now the premium question and answer episode. So go check those out wherever you get your podcasts. And today I want to dive right into a topic. You can go look at the show notes here. There’s going to be a link tree link that will take you to all things. It will take you to sign up for my newsletter, which is still the best way to get ahold of all the information of all the exciting, new things that are coming out. Access to my marriage workshop, access to the new release of a marriage course that is coming soon. And as well as the latest episodes of podcasts and that sort of thing, you can go to tonyoverbay.com and find that out, sign up for the newsletter, or you can do it in the show notes here. So I think that would be a great way to do that as well. And also follow me on Instagram at Tony Overbay underscore LMFT. Find me on Tik Tok, find me on Facebook, putting out a lot of content there. 

But have you heard? Have you heard that smiling makes you happy? And I am one who enjoys smiling and enjoys happiness. So this has always been something that I have very much enjoyed and I have talked about. But one of the things I also love in, I mean, love with a very deep passion is debunking pop psychology myths. Now why? Because if smiling will make you feel happier and it makes you feel happier, then why on earth would I want to take on this psychology study and then now call it a debunked myth? Only because I feel like what we’re going to get to throughout today, I’m going to debunk several pop psychology myths that are coming from a really cool article on a website called sciencefocused.com. But I really feel like when a study comes out and it is in alignment with what you do or how you feel or how you see yourself, 

then it is one of the greatest studies that you’ve ever run into. For example, smiling will make me feel happier. But when it is a study that then goes against who you are or makes you even feel like, wow, I am not even normal enough to fall into line with this study. Take for example, the marshmallow test where the kids were given these two marshmallows or one marshmallow and told if this kid can just stare at this thing endlessly for hours upon end, and then someone, a random stranger comes back in the room. He says, okay, champ you did it. Here’s two marshmallows. 

Now you can see that I have a very, very big bias toward even how that experiment played out. Because it really didn’t happen that way. And we’ll talk about how it did happen in just a little bit. But I have had some of the most frustrating moments of my life, where I think, okay. I am a failed individual. As I sit there in a career of my choice, feeling very connected with my wife and children, and really finding a sense of purpose, but I impulsively and I kind of literally just did this. My son made rice crispy treats last night with chocolate chips in them. So I just devoured a huge one. So that’s ironic because I had devoured that instead of, I guess I could have waited and maybe had two more when I got home. But that impulse, that impulsivity at times then I will tell myself, oh, don’t forget you’re a bad person because you would have been the little kid that just ate the marshmallow and then walked out of there and not gotten two marshmallows later. And when they would have followed up with me, then apparently I’m not happy. Even though I have to remind myself that I’m pretty happy right now in my life. So when the result of the test doesn’t really fit your narrative, then you get to go back to the old, what is wrong with me story? And I will insist on nothing. You are a human being, the only version of you going through life for the very first time at this point in your life. So I do find that often we like to find those studies that really make us feel better and they validate us. And we like to then beat ourselves up for the studies that don’t really fit our narrative. 

So let’s start with this marshmallow test. And before I do that, let me just tell you this article again, this is from sciencefocused.com. It’s called “Pop Psychology, eight myths that are probably wrong, or at least wildly, overly simplistic” by Christian Jarrett. And this was published back in 2020. So you may have heard this first one. This is that children with more willpower are more successful in later life. So in the 1960s, the American psychologist, Walter Michelle, began a series of iconic experiments that involved challenging several dozen young children to sit alone with a marshmallow for around 15 minutes and resist eating it. Their reward, if they waited, was to eat the first marshmallow plus another. So famously the researchers then caught up with the same kids in the 1980s and nineties. And by that time they were adults. And they found those who have been successful at this delayed gratification task had subsequently done better in life in terms of exam results and avoiding getting into trouble. The results appear to suggest that if we could teach kids to have stronger willpower, then their lives would benefit. Now I am going to have a hard time not turning to humor on today’s podcast. And one of those is I am not a fan of marshmallows, quite frankly. So I think I probably would have done quite well avoiding a marshmallow and yet, I’m very impulsive in other things in other areas of my life. So I would have delayed this gratification. They would have given me the two marshmallows, I guess maybe I would have eaten them. It depends on if I had had breakfast that morning. 

And then at that point, and if I’m now I’m viewed as whatever the definition of successful is then see that delayed gratification works. But if you would have put, I don’t know, a couple of chocolate chips there or a cookie, I’m eating that first one. I don’t think that there would have been a way on earth as a child that I could have sat there and stared at a cookie for 15 minutes, maybe a snickerdoodle, maybe an oatmeal cookie with raisins, but you give me a nice chocolate chip cookie, heaven forbid it’s warm. And I am going to eat that and forget the delayed gratification. So in 2018, psychologists at York University and the University of California, Irvine conducted the first replication attempt of the marshmallow study, which is interesting because I think this one has been, I’ve heard this used a lot and to think that it went from the sixties, seventies, and then we wait until 2018 for somebody to replicate it. But the psychologists at New York University, University of California, Irvine replicated but this time they used data from hundreds of children. And then unlike in the original research, Tyler Watson, his colleagues also controlled for a host of social and situational variables, such as parental education background and how responsive parents are to their kids. And so the team found the correlation between the delay of gratification and later success. And in this case into adolescence was far weaker than the original research reported. So moreover, the correlations to this delayed gratification became statistically non-significant when the researchers factored in different social and family variables. 

So, I don’t know how many times people have heard that study about delayed gratification and felt like if they have to, if they can sit with something and then delay that, then they will be more successful in life. And I think this is one where there are just so many variables. There’s a friend of mine and I think this is really hilarious, he and I were talking about this one. So it was probably a year or two ago. And he said, you know, what it feels like to be me is I will eat that marshmallow now and I have now grown to the point in business and in his life where he is confident that I know where to find the marshmallows. And I really resonated with that because I feel like it’s more of a, once you are acting in alignment with what you’re doing, the things that really matter to you, you feel like a real sense of purpose and you are acting upon value based goals in your life. And you aren’t spending a lot of emotional calories trying to defend what it is that you want to do, or someone else that is close to you in a relationship is breaking down your reality. Then I feel like, yeah, you are going to find all the marshmallows that you want, and you may on your journey to find marshmallows all of a sudden find again, cookies or grapes or whatever that looks like. But that’s where I love busting a good pop psychology myth. Now, if delayed gratification in that concept of being able to sit with that discomfort of staring at a marshmallow or whatever that looks like becomes empowering to you, then by all means lean into that. 

But I feel like the theme that we’re going to have throughout this podcast today is if you’re saying, I didn’t, that wasn’t the case for me. What’s wrong with me? I’m going to go back to nothing. You’re a human being and all of this is just good data to take in to try to understand you a little bit more. So the second one, let me jump into one, it is one that I think a lot of people are familiar with as well. And this is that Stanford prison experiment. So this is the concept around power corrupts. So does evil reside within us or are we corrupted by our circumstances? So in 1971, the Stanford University psychologist, Philip Zimbardo sought to demonstrate the potential power of situations and social roles to corrupt individuals’ morality. So anticipating this scenario is drummed up by reality TV decades later. This is where I do appreciate the humor in the article. And Christian Jarrett writing this article. But he says that this is, yeah again, anticipating scenarios drummed up by reality TV decades later. Zimbardo and colleagues created a mock prison and they recruited 12 male college students to play the role of guards and 12 to play the role of prisoners. So the idea was to study their interactions for two weeks. But what has been known as the Stanford prison experiment had to be aborted just six days in because the levels of cruelty that were perpetrated by the guards upon the prisoners were horrific, including forcing them to clean toilets with their bare hands. To Zimbardo the shocking lesson was clear that powerful situations can overwhelm our individuality. Turning good people bad. And so his interpretation chimed in with these ideas about the roots of evil. And apparently he was saying that this helped to explain atrocities in the past and the future. And what’s fascinating as Zimbardo would later invoke this research while testifying in defense of one of the US guards accused of cruelty toward prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003, in 2004. But over the years, Bartow’s study was subject to a lot of criticism and re-interpretation.

In 2002, there was a team of British social psychologists, Alex Haslam and Steven Riker. And then they conducted a similar experiment called the BBC prison study and in their version, the prisoners actually united and over through the guards, showing that the events of the Stanford experiment were not an end all be all, that they were far from inevitable and then footage also emerged that was an embargo in the role of the prison superintendent. And so what he may have been doing was instructing guards on how to behave, which seemed to undermine the spontaneity of the events that unfolded. So the belief was that these guards just all the sudden had this group think, and then they reacted in a way that they were then inflicting this punishment onto the prisoners, but there is some curiosity or belief that maybe Zimbardo then in this role, prison superintendent and in instructing his guards and how to behave that it did undermine the entire experiment in a sense. I mean, I guess in theory, the prisoners or the guards could have rebelled against Zimbardo, but he was definitely acting in a way that would influence those prison guards. 

And then more recently an audio recording was uncovered that reveal one is embargoed collaborators and the role of a prison warden. And that he was persuading one of the guards to treat the prisoners more cruelly, including telling him that if he did a good enough job, that the experiment could lead to a real life prison reform. So now all of a sudden you’ve got this incentive telling this person that is acting as a prison guard that maybe the work that was being done there could really have a real impact on the real life prison system. So then I can only imagine if this person is looking for that validation, that they may be going big on trying to amp up their role. Critics like Haslam say that the recording shows that the Stanford study was no more than a form of live theater than a science experiment. And then Zimbardo and his defenders counter that whether the guard’s sadism was inevitable or not, the study’s message holds. Then in the wrong circumstances, otherwise normal people are capable of extreme cruelty. And I can understand that because I would like to think that if I was asked to be one of those prison guards, knowing that this is a simulation, that there’s no way that I would go against the, yeah, I wouldn’t be cruel, but then I wonder if all of the people going into their thought the same thing and I would love to maybe follow up and do some research around what was that like for those prison guards or the prisoners years later. Because I would imagine in this day and age, we could find some data about that too. 

So, there’s another one that I think is so interesting. This one’s about smiling. And, I have heard this one so often. And I didn’t actually realize what the test was that they used. So the myth. I hate to call it now because it sounds great that smiling will make you feel happier. And I am a smiling person and I enjoy being happy. So these two seem to go along with me like peas and carrots. I need a new, what goes along really well. Ben and Jerry. But the roots of this idea, date back to Darwinians facial feedback hypothesis, where he proposes that the outward expression of emotion can then in turn affect our feelings. So if we’re smiling, we’re going to feel happier, if we’re frowning, we’re going to feel more sad. So then this 19th century philosopher, psychologist, William James, then he proposed a similar idea and that is that it’s the physical changes. For example, it is associated with fear that then leads you to feel afraid and not the other way around. Not that you all of a sudden feel afraid. And then you have these physical changes. So theories inspired, what would you consider a modern classic of pop psychology published in 1988. So researchers led by psychologists. Fritz and Strock asked volunteers to watch cartoons while holding a pen between their teeth. Thus forcing a smile. Or with the pen held between their lips, forcing a frown. 

And if you are not driving right now, grab a pen and try this. It is kind of interesting. I couldn’t help, but to do it myself. So hold a pen between your teeth and yet you are smiling and you hold a pen between your lips and it makes you frown. So the smilers found the cartoons funnier, and I feel like I desperately want to find out what the cartoons were because I don’t care if I’m frowning or smiling. If it’s a cartoon that I don’t really like, then I can’t imagine that would make me happy. But they suggested that the mere act of grinning then could have a positive effect on feelings. So this result in later variations soon led self-help authors to propose that you could simply smile your way to greater happiness. But one might make the argument then that you can smile your way to greater happiness. If you were watching a cartoon that makes you smile, and you’re also, you have a pencil in your mouth between your teeth, so that you are forced to smile. But then in 2016, there were 17 separate research labs and they recruited nearly 2000 participants in an attempt to replicate the cartoon study and the findings were inconsistent across the labs. So when they were all pulled together, the result was a negative smilers were no more amused than frowners. Now, again, who knows what cartoon they watched in 2016, because there were a lot of them now that I don’t think would be very funny at all, but it might be premature. Then they say to write off the facial feedback theory. Because Strock pointed out the modern replications videoed the participants. 

So these new ones from 2016 on, they videoed the participants. And maybe at this point, in this day and age, we’re so used to being videotaped. That’s not even a thing, right, videoed wouldn’t affect you at all. But he said he actually would interview the people. He was in the room. So that might have interfered with the results, maybe making participants self-conscious. So if they knew that this person was in the same room as them, then that might lead them to do more of the smiling and then self-report that then no, I feel way happier. And then this one’s kind of interesting to also other research findings, such as those involving Botox patients that are consistent with this facial feedback hypothesis that Botox treatment interferes with facial expressions. And those who’ve had, it seemed to experience emotions differently from other volunteers. So that one’s kind of interesting too. I really talk about self confrontation. I have done one or two episodes on oxytocin, the cuddle hormone. And I really, if I’m again, self confrontation. I worry it’s a nice way to put it that I had this episode years ago, I probably would’ve just skipped this one because it would have made me uncomfortable to then have to self-confront and say, oh, what if my episodes about oxytocin are incorrect? Because one of the pop psychology myths that is being busted, oxytocin as the cuddle hormone. So he goes on to state that, especially around Valentine’s day, the popular media gets excited about oxytocin, often referring to it as the love hormone. And he said, it’s absolutely true that this chemical is released in the brain. When women give birth and they breastfeed, but also when people cuddle and they have sex, hint the media nickname. 

But there were studies conducted in the early two thousands that suggested that sniffing oxytocin, sounds like a great name for an alternative band, made people more trusting, generous, and better at empathizing with others. So sniffing oxytocin, people were more trusting, generous, and better at empathy. But then subsequently the molecule has been mooted as this breakthrough intervention for various conditions from autism, all the way to schizophrenia. And Christian says if it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is because now more recent research has questioned those early findings on the chemical effects of both failing to replicate them and painting a more nuanced picture. For instance, he says, while oxytocin might increase feelings of bonding with friends and family, they actually can sharpen dislike for outsiders. And it can even heighten aggression and those with violent tendencies. So in short, oxytocin is certainly an intriguing chemical, but is far more than just the cuddle hormone. So that’s where I feel like, okay, I’ve got the data. I need to say that it still can be considered a cuddle hormone. But in different situations, man, it can be different things. Here’s one that I have stumbled upon a time or two, and I have thought about talking about, but I haven’t. 

And this is that we all have a preferred learning style. When people say I’m more of a visual learner, I’m more of an auditory learner, he says, do you find it easier to learn by reading an article or listening to a podcast, like this one? Maybe you prefer images over text. Survey suggests that most of us believe that we have a preferred learning style, be that visual, auditory, kinetic, which means learning by doing or something else. But a majority of teachers believe that as well. So in the education system, he says, in fact, the whole industry has been built up around finding ways to measure people’s learning styles and then guide teachers on how to teach those different styles. But this is probably the most striking example of where folk wisdom, he says, clashes with psychological science time and time again. So there have been multiple carefully controlled studies that have failed to find evidence that support learning styles approach. So he said that most studies in this area follow a similar format, volunteers report their preferred learning style, because I would tell you right now, I think I’m an auditory learner, because I like podcasts and I listened to books, but I don’t know if I retain as much information as I do if I actually am watching or looking at things visually learning. So he says that most studies in this area follow a similar format. So then the volunteers report their preferred learning style. And then some of them are presented with material and they’re favored modality while others are not. And then a test then ensues, nearly every study has found that those who learn via their preferred style do not perform any better than a comparison group, not taught to their preference. 

So that just means if I identify that I’m an auditory learner. And then somebody else beside me identifies that they are a visual learner. And then we go in and we do a test and I am given auditory material and they are not given visual material, then one would think that I would score quite a bit higher on whatever the test is, then the person that was not given their preferred learning style, but the data is saying no. So again, nearly every study has found that those who learn via their preferred style do not perform any better than a comparison group, not taught to their preference. And he said, what’s more, participants rarely show much insight into their supposed best learning style. Their performance is often better and their non favored methods in which I could absolutely see that happening for me that as I say, no, I’m an auditory learner that I can only imagine that if I was given something to view or read that I could definitely see in certain situations that that would be the way that I would retain more information or learn more. There’s a few more. Let me tackle, firstborns are natural leaders. There’s one line here that I think makes this whole one just gel and resonate because I’ve done a podcast on birth order and I’d reached out to my kids and I talked to each one of them before the episode. This was a couple of years ago and they just backed up, it seemed like exactly what the article I found that was talking about birth order said, but then I wonder how much of that is the expectation effect. I was just making the narrative bit, the one that I was about to record. 

But, so he says, what do Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Boris Johnson have in common? How about Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk? Well, they are all the eldest among their siblings, providing anecdotal evidence to back up the popular idea that firstborns have distinct personalities that help them become leaders. And then this rationale has a logical appeal. After all, the eldest child enjoys the undivided attention of their parents for a time. After which they get to boss their younger siblings around. So that would kind of make sense. But then, however, this pop psychology theory, the evidence doesn’t really support it. In 2015, when psychologists carefully analyzed the personality traits of hundreds of thousands of people, that’s a lot of people, and then correlated them with the people’s birth order position and their family. No clear association was found. And then a subsequent Swedish study did find that firstborns were more likely to end up in leadership roles. But the correlation was really weak. Then the belief is if there is a link. Then it probably has more to do with the opportunity than aptitude. Such as being the one chosen to take over the family business. That was the line that I thought really resonated and hit home. 

Okay. We have just a couple more and I will save one for the end. If I had to say that one was a little more controversial than any, we’ll save that till the end, but let’s talk about crowds. So the pop psychology myth would be that crowds make people mindless and violent. Although I think at the beginning of the article, Christian said eight myths that are probably wrong, or at least wildly, overly simplistic. Because I think this one is one that I can imagine there would definitely be some truth to, depending on the situation. But he says media accounts of riots often imply that a mob mentality has taken over and such reports reflect the commonly held belief that when large groups of people get together, people lose their individual morality and run amuck with the herd. And then similarly newspaper reports of disasters often describe crowds as if they are mindless with talk of stampedes and blind panic. But the reality set, according to many contemporary social psychologists is that there is a logic and purpose to much crowd behavior. That violence is far from inevitable. When large groups assemble, just look at the restraint shown on American civil rights marches in the 1960s. But he said, even in the case of writers, while they may often be violent and destructive, they usually have a shared purpose and a clear sense of identity. During the English riots of 2011, for example, the damage was mainly at large targets seen as symbolizing inequality. Such as high end shops. And also it wasn’t the case that anyone who saw the riots on television or encountered them in the street was sucked zombie-like into the mob, rather was in neighborhoods where there was already a strong sense of disenfranchisement. That people were far more likely to join in. And then he said, it’s a similar story for crowds and emergencies. Analysis of real life events, such as the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and the overcrowding at a Brighton beach concert in 2002, suggest that blind panic is rare and that people will often stop to help one another. 

In essence, this altruistic behavior is maybe due to a sense of togetherness that’s forged as groups of strangers go through a common experience. I do believe that we do have this desire to connect through shared experiences. And so often again, I think there’s the outliers where there’s a group of, I don’t know. Now I feel like I can say anything here and be offensive, whether it’s a group of old women that are knitting or it’s a group of punk rockers, who am I to judge? That there, the belief is that every now and again, there could be an outlier and they’re going to all of a sudden be throwing their knitting needles or are beating each other up in a mosh pit. But in essence, most of the time people are having a shared experience. And so that actually can be a positive thing. So last but not least is one that I think could be a little more controversial, which is that depression is due to a chemical imbalance. So I found this one really interesting. So again, I’m just going to present this data. He says the most commonly used antidepressant drugs increase the availability in the brain of a chemical called serotonin. So he says whatever the rights and wrongs of antidepressants cause, he says, some credit the drugs for saving their lives. While some critics fear the overmedicalization of emotional problems can have some lasting effects because of the complex roots of the issues. He said their rising use has fed the notion that depression is caused by some kind of a chemical imbalance in the brain that requires correction. 

And again, this is just one, this in this article, he says the reality is that most psychiatrists believed that the chemical imbalance idea is an oversimplification. So I want to be very clear in saying that I know people close to me that antidepressants, I believe, really have saved lives. So it is absolutely beneficial for some and then, but I like that he’s saying, okay, perhaps it’s an oversimplification because he said part of the issue is that it’s based on flawed logic. Just because these drugs increase serotonin levels, it doesn’t mean that a lack of serotonin is the cause of depression. And they gave a similar, another analogy of your headache is not caused by a lack of paracetamol. So beyond that post-mortem research has failed to show that people with depression have lower levels of serotonin and studies that have artificially lowered people’s serotonin levels have not induced depression. So he says that the truth is that there isn’t necessarily a psychiatrist or neuroscientist who could honestly say what the healthy or correct level of brain chemicals should be. And that’s where I appreciate that maybe this is just oversimplified because for some, I know that it absolutely helps them. And for others, they feel like it hasn’t necessarily helped. He said many mental health campaigners have embraced the chemical imbalance idea, believing that it will help to reduce the stigma by showing that depression has a clear physical cause, but then he went on to say, sadly, if anything, biological explanations of the mental illness seem to have increased some of the stigma, perhaps, because they cause people to perceive mental health conditions as being more fundamental to the sufferer and therefore more difficult to treat. 

So I really feel like that one could be nuanced quite a bit. And I do believe it’s probably oversimplified because I know that antidepressants have really worked for people, but I think it’s safe to say that there are some people that have not had success with an antidepressant, but I think it’s fascinating to see the way that they talked about it isn’t necessarily that people have a lower level of serotonin, but then increasing the serotonin for some people can help as one of my clients said long ago, keep their thoughts from going into the basement and the basement is where things can be a little bit scary. And I feel like maybe this is a place where I can put absolutely, I do not have data that goes behind this, but I was at an interview last night and the person was talking about my concept around raising your emotional baseline or self care. And I said, this is one of the places where when I first started as a therapist, I felt that I was almost going to be this, I don’t want to say anti-medication therapist, but I was gonna lean to the side of people maybe don’t need as much medication as they have or given. But then one of the very first clients I ever worked with was a guy going through a divorce from an emotionally immature, now I know as a narcissistic or borderline personality disordered woman. And in that scenario, he became very suicidal. And his antidepressant, he said is the one, he’s the one who coined that term about my elevator doesn’t go all the way to the basement. And the basement is where the scary things reside. So the antidepressant absolutely kept him out of the basement to the point where he could then reach the tools that he needed to get through from a day-to-day basis. 

And I sometimes feel that if people are unmedicated, but they are feeling so down that they can’t even access the tools, that medication is a great way to bump your baseline up. So maybe you can then reach the tools, use the tools, start to have confidence in the tools so that if you ever decide that you want to not be on the medication anymore, or maybe a lower dose, then you can anticipate a, perhaps a slight decrease in your emotional baseline. But in the grand scheme of things, though, you now have access to the tools that will help you get yourself back to a better place. So speaking of a better place, I think we are at a place where we are done, but I appreciate you taking the time today to hang out with me and talk about busting, pop psychology myths. This really is one of my favorite things to do. I know that I will fit in there any time that it takes more than 21 days to create a habit or the myths around anger. And so I really do enjoy these. I hope you enjoyed this as well. And if you think this will resonate with anybody, feel free to forward this their way. And I appreciate all the support and I will see you next time on the Virtual Couch.

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