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Social Network Helps the Stressed and Depressed Cope

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When you’re anxious, stressed, or depressed, your inner monologue often goes to a dark place. It can start to seem like everything you do is stupid, all obstacles are impossible to overcome, and everyone hates you. A therapist can help you see that these thoughts don't correspond with reality, but not everyone has access to a therapist 24/7. 

Enter Koko, an app that allows you to enlist a team of strangers to be your pseudo-therapists. It’s a social network built on the ideas of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and “reframing,” or rethinking your perspective. 

Creator Rob Morris developed the tool, which launched on Apple's app store this week, while completing his PhD at the MIT Media Lab. In a study of 166 people with symptoms of depression, the crowdsourced technique Koko employs helped people improve their moods and learn cognitive reappraisal, a therapeutic tool that teaches people to tweak the way they're thinking about a problem.

Image Credit: Koko

When you log in to Koko, you can post the negative, depressive, anxious thoughts that often go unshared on general social media channels, where people feel pressured to present themselves in a flattering light. You can post, for instance, “I just ruined an important work presentation, and I feel like an idiot.” The app will prompt you to delve deeper into your feelings about the situation. Then, other users can comment on your post—but they have to say something deeper than “oh, that sucks!” Instead, users are supposed to reframe the negative thought, helping the stressed party find the positive aspect of the situation, no matter how small. They might, for instance, point out that public speaking is a common fear, and it’s important to give yourself credit for trying your best. 

The practice of helping others see their problems in a new light can, in turn, help you learn to rethink your own stressors. And having a community to turn to in tough times can help people feel less alone, allowing them to unload anonymously to a supportive group. It’s not a comprehensive substitute for talking to a mental health professional, but it's a lot more helpful than posting cryptic statuses on Facebook or telling no one at all. 

Koko is available for iOS now. An Android app is forthcoming. 

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Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too
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There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.

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The Surprising Link Between Creativity and Schizophrenia
A mural of Salvador Dali and Vincent Van Gogh at the International Fair of Contemporary Art in Madrid in 2006
A mural of Salvador Dali and Vincent Van Gogh at the International Fair of Contemporary Art in Madrid in 2006
Philippe Desmazes, AFP/Getty Images

Creative people—or at least those with degrees in creative fields—have a 90 percent higher chance of being diagnosed with schizophrenia than people working in non-creative fields, according to a new study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry. It also found that artistic types are 62 percent more likely to have bipolar disorder, and 39 percent more likely to have depression.

Researchers at King's College London mined a registry of 4.5 million people in Sweden and found links between those who had studied an artistic field (like music or art) and those who had been hospitalized for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression, compared to the general population. Schizophrenia occurs in about 1 percent of the general population.

But that doesn't mean that creativity causes mental illness, as Big Think points out. As scientists like to say, correlation does not equal causation. In the current study, the researchers say the link can be explained by the fact that the brains of creative people may function differently. "Creativity often involves linking ideas or concepts in ways that other people wouldn't think of," James MacCabe, the lead researcher, told New Scientist. "But that's similar to how delusions work—for example, seeing a connection between the color of someone's clothes and being part of an MI5 [UK security service] conspiracy."

This isn't the first study to examine the relationship between creativity and mental illness—and not everyone is convinced that such a relationship exists—but the King's College researchers say the huge scope of their study is different. "High-quality epidemiological evidence has been lacking," they write.

A similar study of the Swedish population from 2011 found a link between bipolar disorder and those working in a creative field, but found no link for schizophrenia or depression. And in 2015, a controversial study by the CEO of a biological research company purportedly found that people working in creative fields were more likely to carry the genetic variants for mental illness. However, those variants only had a tiny effect on creativity—less than 1 percent.

[h/t Big Think]

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