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|The Silver Lining Around Fearful Living
We are so intimately connected to the world we live in. Not just with what is immediately around us, but also with what is happening on the other side of the globe. We can instantly communicate with people of all cultures, and even see their homes and villages on Google maps. It’s fascinating. But if you think back to when you knew so much less about the world it seemed so tantalizingly full of wonder and possibility. It seems there is a tradeoff between that sense of mystery and how much you know. This got me thinking: one good thing about fear, other than it stops you from doing stupid, dangerous stuff, is that can hold you back from learning the facts inside out, which may help keep that creatively inspiring sense of wonder alive.
A STUDY OF THE IMPACT OF THREAT ON EXPLORATORY BEHAVIOR
These ideas date back to a study I carried out as a graduate student with killifish from two lakes: one with killifish predators and one without killifish predators. The fish were caught and put into a relatively small section of a large tank until they had acclimatized. This small section was separated from the rest of the tank by a door that was initially shut. The larger section contained objects that were unfamiliar to them.
(Gabora & Colgan, 1990)
When the door was opened and the fish were allowed to leave their “comfort zone” and enter the unfamiliar portion of the tank, both groups explored it equally thoroughly, first increasing and then decreasing the amount of exploration, and in the end covering the same amount of territory. When I plotted exploration over time I got a hump-shaped curve, and the total area under the curve was the same for both groups. However, there was a big difference between them: the fish from the lake with predators took a lot longer to explore their new surroundings than the fish from the lake without predators.
By tuning only one parameter, the 'fear' parameter, the 'Explorer' computer program replicated the shapes of the curves that had been obtained by plotting exploration over time with the killish shown above.
I wrote a little computer program called “Explorer” in which there were two competing desires: the desire to explore a new environment and the desire to avoid fear (Gabora & Colgan, 1990). Unless the fear was at the maximum level, Explorer would always explore a new environment until it had covered it entirely. It’s exploration level would first increase as it “conquered” its fear and then decrease as there was less new territory to cover, just like what I observed with the killifish. But the higher the fear level was, the more slowly the curve rose and fell. Just by changing the fear parameter I got graphs that mirrored those of the two populations of killifish.
I spent many long hours watching those fish, and sometimes I felt sad for the ones from the lake with predators, thinking about how their past experiences held them back. But meanwhile I myself was slowly getting to find the town I was living in a little to “known” and predictable. I remembered how when I had first arrived in that town, the roads and alleys I now knew so well had had a mystique about them. It had seemed they could lead anywhere, and that feeling of possibility was creatively inspiring. That’s how I started thinking there is a tradeoff, loosely put, between knowledge and potentiality. It’s a theme that, in various ways, I’ve been exploring ever since.
A STUDY OF THE IMPACT OF THREAT ON CREATIVE WRITING
A student of mine, Sean Riley, thought it would be interesting to test the hypothesis that situations that are demanding, threatening, or involve conflict, put one in a more creative state of mind. There was indirect evidence in the literature that this is the case. For example, it had been shown that individuals who are in the midst of conflict set broader and more inclusive cognitive categories (De Dru, Carsten & Nijstad, 2008). Creativity is also positively correlated with group conflict (Troyer & Youngreen, 2009) anxiety (Carlsson, 2002). There was also some indication that negative affect leads to greater creative output (Akinola & Mendes, 2008).
One of the threatening photographs used in the study.
(Riley & Gabora, 2012)
We tested the hypothesis that threatening situations put one in a more creative state of mind by conducting a study with 60 participants, students at the University of British Columbia (Riley & Gabora, 2012). First the participants viewed a series of photographs and rated each one with respect to how threatening they found it. Next they then wrote two short stories: one based on the photograph they rated as most threatening, and the other based on the photograph they rated as least threatening.
The creativity level of the stories was assessed by multiple judges, all published authors of works of fiction, who were naïve as to the purpose of the study and who were not shown or told about any of the photographs. What we found was that the stories based on threatening pictures were rated significantly higher in creativity than the stories based on non-threatening pictures.
So here in my own lab we had evidence that even just looking at threatening pictures enhances creative output! Why would this be?
My own inclination is to explain it in terms of potentiality. The non-threatening photographs depicting situations that would likely continue to unfold along predictable, mundane paths. In contrast, the threatening photographs depicting situations where there are a wide variety of possible outcomes, ranging from death to ‘happily ever after’, and a greater variety of feelings that would be generated by these different outcomes. Another way of saying this is that the potentiality of threatening situations is higher -- there is more at stake -- and having something at stake is vital to good story telling.
Another way to explain this is in terms of the role of the creative process in reconciling potentially stressful inconsistencies in our worldview (Curl, 2008; Gabora, 1999). We want to believe that the world is just and fair, and that we, and those we empathize with, are deserving of, and will in the end receive, just and fair treatment. A threatening stimulus confronts and contradicts this view of how the world operates. In response, we tap into our creative potential and hone in on an explanation for the threat’s existence. This is done in an attempt to reconcile the worldview dichotomy, and impose a sense of meaning and understanding as to why this negative reality exists, ultimately forging a new and cohesive worldview structure.
This is related to Freud’s belief that when we are thwarted and in a negative emotional state, we need to find solutions, so we are more inclined, form strong associations and make deep connections. Because of the way our mind encodes information as distributed patterns of activation, this enables more overlapping of concepts previously thought to be unrelated, and is conducive to creativity (Gabora, 2000). Thus there is a positive correlation between negative affect and creativity (Akinola & Mendes, 2008).
These explanations may not be mutually exclusive, and there could be a grain of truth to them all. Whatever explanation you choose, it seems to be the case that there may be a silver lining to threatening situations. In processing them you work something out or come to some kind of acceptance, and if you do this through music or words or the tools of an artist you may be left with a gift, a creative “precipitate” of this transformative process.
Akinola, M., & Mendes, W. B. (2008). The dark side of creativity: Biological vulnerability and negative emotions lead to greater artistic creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(12), 1677–1686.
Carlsson, I. (2002). Anxiety and flexibility of defense related to high or low creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 14, 341–349.
Curl, K. (2008). Assessing stress reduction as a function of artistic creation and cognitive focus. Art Therapy, 25(4), 164–169.
De Dreu, C. K. W., & Nijstad, B. A. (2008). Mental set and creative thought in social conflict: Threat rigidity versus motivated focus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(3), 648–661.
Gabora, L. (1999). Weaving, bending, patching, mending the fabric of reality: A cognitive science perspective on worldview inconsistency. Foundations of Science, 3(2), 395-428.
Gabora, L. (2000). Toward a theory of creative inklings. In (R. Ascott, Ed.) Art, Technology, and Consciousness (pp. 159-164). Intellect Press, Bristol, UK.
Gabora, L., & Colgan, P. (1990). A model of the mechanisms underlying exploratory behavior. In (S. Wilson & J. A. Mayer, Eds.) Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Simulation of Adaptive Behavior (pp. 475-484). Cambridge MA: MIT Press. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.7405]
Riley, S. & Gabora, L. (2012). Evidence that threatening situations enhance creativity.Proceedings of the 34th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 2234-2239). Austin TX: Cognitive Science Society. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1308.4245]
How threatening stuff can bring out your creative side
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One good thing about fear, other than it stops you from doing stupid, dangerous stuff, is that can hold you back from learning the facts inside out, which may help keep that creatively inspiring sense of wonder and possibility alive.
Mature Audiences Only:
Oscar-contender “American Sniper” is breaking box office records. What’s the secret? At an unsettled moment in the nation’s history, the movie shows us a hero based on Chris Kyle, an actual sniper whose “kills” in Iraq broke records. Shooting from rooftops, out of sight, he drops 160+ unsuspecting people at amazing distances. Though he’s conscientious about the women and children he sometimes kills, he’s cleanly enraged at the Iraqis he shoots. No apologies. Troops call him “Legend.”
Chris Kyle could be seen as a skilled assassin, but he insists he’s just trying to save other Americans from enemies. From infancy, when we wail for help, we look for heroic rescue from doctors, lovers, scientists, gurus, warriors—and now, apparently, snipers. At home, okay, values are under fire from all sides and incomes are in trouble.  It's tempting to think that this hero might save us. But why a sniper?
For one thing, in the style of Texas conservatism, this hero is vehemently sure he’s right. The movie invents a super-villain sniper named Mustafa for the hero to beat as Batman does. In his memoir Kyle’s not afraid to say he’s proud of killing “savages” and occasionally looting their homes because they’re dependent pussies like US welfare trash.  This is reassuring at a time when racism, welfare- and immigrant-bashing are in the air again back home, which usually means that people want to relieve stress by taking a poke at someone who can’t poke back.
Taking a swipe at someone—a “sly verbal attack”—is one definition of sniping. In the culture wars, rant broadcasting and politics regularly hide their sponsors and shoot at distant targets. Instead of attacking “lazy niggers,” say, you demand cuts in “wasteful big government” programs that rescue the poor. Fox news has become the model for character assassination by innuendo. 
Here’s where things get interesting. Like a billionaire in politics, sniper has the power of life or death over his victims, so the movie masks the unfairness by showing him facing danger all the time. And as in a video game, the targets die remote, sanitary deaths. No sticky blood, no spilled brains, sobbing relatives, and scary feelings to forget.
In addition, the sniper breaks records like a football star and is dubbed “Legend” by worshipful buddies. Back home, Texas feted Kyle in Cowboys stadium. But as in professional sports, the sniper-hero showed entrepreneurial initiative, monetizing his celebrity in a ghost-written best-selling memoir and other deals. He found Hollywood before Hollywood found him. And he dramatized popular religion too, inking a cross on his skin as he killed Muslims, and trying to help injured veterans at home.
Even Kyle’s death befits politically charged heroism. His widow Taya claims that “After he returned from war he was “blessed to be able to serve countless numbers of veterans during hunts and shoots. He discovered a new use for guns: healing.” That is, he thought that shooting would make crippled veterans feel heroic again. But when Kyle and a friend took a mentally disturbed Iraq veteran target shooting as therapy, the patient thought guns meant killing, and fearing they would kill him, killed them both.
To die trying to help yourself and a veteran undo the injuries of war is poignant. But it also confirms the political feeling that you can’t help some people. Better not try. The dead hero was celebrated in Cowboys stadium, but nobody pointed out the terrifying conflict that made Kyle’s “therapy” and death revealing.
Heroism has no natural limits. How much is enough? To keep breaking records can be addictive. If warriors and hunters don’t know where to stop, they become predators. This unspoken anxiety is one reason that publicity is now remaking the sniper into a loving family man. Taya Kyle turns the danger on its heads by arguing that guns are “healing.” She’s now a celebrity gun-advocate. In an address to the National Rifle Association Convention, she suggested that guns “were part of the fabric of Kyle’s identity.” People magazine (Feb. 9), by contrast, makes Taya a celebrant of the devoted family man (“He is still with me”). You can hear her straining as she preaches that her husband “loved his fellow man enough to take on the immense responsibility of using his gun—the only effective tool he had—to stop the evil coming at them.”
Nobody should pick on a widow. But Mrs Kyle dramatizes the twisted values of many troubled Americans today. For starters, her “love of fellow man” cliché implies that humankind needed to be rescued from alien “evil.” In fact, Kyle was killing Iraqis—also his “fellow man”—to save other Americans who were in Iraq killing Iraqis because of blatant official lies. Her husband’s rifle was not “the only effective tool he had.” He could have used his reason to challenge the lies that sent him to Iraq in the first place. Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. The troops were not rescuing anybody from super-weapons, because the WMDs were a cynical propaganda tool. Most of the world openly protested at the lie; about half of US soldiers couldn’t handle it.
Kyle, says Taya, was supposedly “blessed” (more religiosity) to serve “countless” (more cliché) crippled veterans by taking them target shooting and hunting.
The woman knows that a psychotic Iraq veteran (Eddie Routh) murdered her husband. He thought it was in self-defense—the same motive given by president Bush for our invasion of Iraq. Routh hadn’t been properly treated at the VA because “it costs.”  But one painful truth leads to another: back home, Kyle himself suffered alcoholism and PTSD, and he too was trying to heal the emotional anguish of killing people without giving up guns and the rewards of heroic fantasy.
“Healing” with guns can be lethal. If like Eddie Routh you suffer from the terror of death and guilt about killing—with the fear that strangers might in turn kill you in revenge—guns are a symptom not a solution. In shooting targets and live bucks in a preserve, crippled veterans were trying to magically undo their terror and suffering by replaying combat, this time slaying the enemy bullseye target and the unarmed trophy buck to rekindle a conviction of mastery.
You can see how such a compulsion to undo fear might lead scared cops to shoot unarmed black “animals.” The justification is always heroic rescue: someday police violence will save your life. We’re told that Kyle’s father bullied him as a kid to save sheep from wolves, as if sheep and wolves were clearly labeled in a game. Behind this, needless to say, is a sorry history of pulp westerns, atrocious lynching, “incursions,” and degraded religion. Homespun sanctity justified the Puritans and other ethnic cleansers who saved white settlers by manipulating native American folks to the happy hunting ground.
Kyle kept leaving his family to go back to Iraq. Back home, he suffered panic and other symptoms of PTSD, drank and brawled too much. Taya says he sometimes jokingly pretended to shoot bad guys on TV with a real gun. The conventional explanation of PTSD is that combat reflexes persist when you’re no longer in peril. But being safe is also a let-down from the high of combat and triumphant survival. Kyle’s memoir and other projects were ways he tried to keep his heroic identity pumped up and to reintegrate his identities as killer and dad. More than once he told improbable tall tales of Rambo-like derring-do, such as plugging two wannabe carjackers at a Texas filling station and having the CIA excuse him from legal consequences because he was so special. Again: heroism can be addictive.
In a way the sniper-hero played out a national myth, since the US keeps trying to recreate the heroism of D-Day and saving Pvt. Ryan, today styling us the “global policeman.”
But reality needs to have its say. “Sniping” implies devious aggression, as in an ambush. The emphasis on the sniper’s skill tries to offset that sour reality. In fact sniping is all around us these days. Executive power (no paper trail) and technological remote control are prime examples. A CEO nods and in fifty towns paychecks disappear. Poof. A house explodes in Yemen and only a metal scrap in the rubble points to a drone from somewhere over the horizon. It’s all sniping. Like CCTV cameras, NSA snooping, cell phone tracking, and social media’s data grab, the sniper scope slyly oversees you and the world.
And sniping is the skill of a kleptocracy too. On Wall Street the so-called “invisible hand of the market” squeezes a trigger and regulations die in Congress, and valuations writhe in the markets. Using swaps, unseen bankers whack Birmingham, Detroit, 500 cities in Italy, and gasping Greece.  A financier can buy a company and out of the blue, legally, kill your union contract, cripple your pay, and blow away your health insurance altogether. Credit card, mortgage, pension, student debt, pink slip: blam. You never knew what hit you.
Maybe you were taken by surprise because you were watching a movie about a heroic sniper from Texas whose only motive for killing people is to save his American buddies. It’s a movie inspiring executive fantasies of zapping enemies from a lofty perch, as if ordinary life is really a euphemistic style of warfare. So sit back, enjoy the record kills. And if you can’t get to the rooftop yourself,
Wait for Rescue.
Resources used in this essay:
HKF for Tacit Muse
The Psychology of Abandon will soon be out in paperback from Leveller's Press.
Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil has powerful insights into the creaturely motives underlying heroism and the drive for self-esteem.
1. Tyler Durden, “Fired before Hired: How corporations rigged the American dream,” zerohedge, January 28, 2015
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|The Implicit Assumptions Test
Let’s say you have a pet cause to which you want to draw attention and support. There are a number of ways you might go about trying to do so, honesty being perhaps the most common initial policy. While your initial campaign is met with a modest level of success, you’d like to grow your brand, so to speak. As you start researching how other causes draw attention to themselves, you notice an obvious trend: big problems tend to get more support than smaller ones: that medical condition affecting 1-in-4 people is much different than one affecting 1-in-10,0000. Though you realize it sounds a bit perverse, if you could somehow make your pet problem a much bigger one than it actually is – or at least seem like it is – you would likely attract more attention and funding. There’s only one problem standing in your way: reality. When most people tell you that your problem isn’t much of one, you’re kind of out of luck. Or are you? What if you could convince others that what people are telling you isn’t quite right? Maybe they think your problem isn’t much of one but, if their reports can’t be trusted, now you have more leeway to make claims about the scope of your issue.
You finally get that big fish you always knew you actually caught
This brings us once again to the matter of the implicit association task, or IAT. According to it’s creators, the IAT “…measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report,” making that jump from “association” to “attitudes” in a timely fashion. This kind of test could serve a valuable end for the fundraiser in the above example, as it could potentially increase the perceived scope of your problem. Not finding enough people who are explicitly racist to make your case that the topic should be getting more attention than it currently is? Well, that could be because racism is, by in large, a socially-undesirable trait to display and, accordingly, many people don’t want to openly say they’re a racist even if they hold some racial biases. If you had a test that could plausibly be interpreted as saying that people hold attitudes they explicitly deny, you could talk about how racism is much more common than it seems to be.
This depends on how one interprets the test, though: all the IAT measures is very-fast and immediate reaction times when it comes to pushing buttons. I’ve discussed the IAT on a few occasions: first with regard to what precisely the IAT is (and might not be) measuring and, more recently, with respect to whether IAT-like tests that use response times as measures of racial bias are actually predicting anything when it comes to actual behaviors. The quick version of both of those posts is that we ought to be careful about drawing a connection between measures of reaction time in a lab to racial biases in the real world that cause widespread discrimination. In the case of shooting decisions, for instance, a more realistic task in which participants were using a simulation with a gun instead of just pressing buttons at a computer resulted in the opposite pattern of results that many IAT tests would predict: participants were actually slower to shoot black suspects and more likely to shoot unarmed white suspects. It’s not enough to just assume that, “of course this different reaction times translate into real world discrimination”; you need to demonstrate it first.
This brings us to a recent meta-analysis of some IAT experiments by Oswald et al (2014) examining how well the IAT did at predicting behaviors, and whether it was substantially better than the explicit measures being used in those experiments. There was, apparently, a previous meta-analysis of IAT research that did find such things – at least for certain, socially-sensitive topics – and this new meta-analysis seems to be a response to the former one. Oswald et al (2014) begin by noting that the results of IAT research has been brought out of the lab into practical applications in law and politics; a matter that would be more than a little concerning if the IAT actually wasn’t measuring what it’s interpreted by many to be measuring, such as evidence of discrimination in the real world. They go on to suggest that the previous meta-analysis of IAT effects lacked a degree of analytic and methodological validity that they hope their new analysis would address.
Which is about as close as academic publications come to outright shit-talking
For example, the authors were interested in examining whether various experimental definitions of discrimination were differentially predicted by the IAT and explicit measures, whereas they had previously all been lumped into the same category by the last analysis. Oswald et al (2014) grouped these operationalizations of discrimination into six categories: (1) measured brain activity, which is a rather vague and open-to-interpretation category, (2) response times in other tasks, (3), microbehavior, like posture or expression of emotions, (4), interpersonal behavior, like whether one cooperates in a prisoner’s dilemma, (5) person perception, (i.e., explicit judgments of others), and (6) political preferences, such as whether one supports policies that benefit certain racial groups or not. Oswald et al (2014) also added in some additional, more recent studies that the previous meta-analysis did not include.
While this is a lot to this paper, I wanted to skip ahead to discussing a certain set of results. The first of these results is that, in most cases, IAT scores correlated very weakly to the discrimination criterion being assessed, averaging a meager correlation of 0.14.To the extent that IAT is actually measuring implicit attitudes, those attitudes don’t seem to have much a predictable affect on behavior. The exception to this pattern was in regard to the brain activity studies: that correlation was substantially higher (around a 0.4). However, as brain activity per se is not a terribly meaningful variable when it comes to its interpretation, whether that tells us anything of interest about discrimination is an open question. Indeed, in the previous post I mentioned, the authors also observed an effect for brain activity, but it did not mean people were biased toward shooting black people; quite the opposite, in fact.
The second finding I would like to mention is that, in most cases, the explicit measures of attitudes toward other races being used by researchers (like this one or this one) were also very weakly correlated to the discrimination criterion being assess, though their average correlation was about the same size as the implicit measures at 0.12. Further, this value is apparently substantially below the value achieved by other measures of explicit attitudes, leading the authors to suggest that researchers really ought to think more deeply about what explicit measures they’re using. Indeed, when you’re asking questions about “symbolic racism” or “modern racism”, one might wonder why you’re not just asking about “racism”. The answer, as far as I can tell, is because, proportionately, very few people – and perhaps even fewer undergraduates; the population most often being assessed – actually express openly racist views. If you want to find much racism as a researcher, then, you have to dig deeper and kind of squint a little.
The third finding is that the above two measures – implicit and explicit – really didn’t correlate with each other very well either, averaging only a correlation of 0.14. As Oswald et al (2014) put it:
“These findings collectively indicate, at least for the race domain…that implicit and explicit measures tap into different psychological constructs—none of which may have much influence on behavior…”
In fact, the authors estimate that the implicit and explicit measures collectively accounted for about 2.5% of the variance in discriminatory criterion behaviors concerning race, which each adding about a percent or so over and beyond the other measure. In other words, these effects are small – very small – and do a rather poor job of predicting much of anything.
“Results: Answer was unclear, so we shook the magic ball again”
We’re left with a rather unflattering picture of research in this domain. The explicit measures of racial attitudes don’t seem to do very well at predicting behaviors, perhaps owing to the nature of the questions being asked. For instance, in the symbolic racism scale, the answer one provides to questions like, “How much discrimination against blacks do you feel there is in the United States today, limiting their chances to get ahead?” could have quite a bit to do with matters that have little, if anything, to do with racial prejudice. Sure, certain answers might sound racist if you believe there is an easy answer to that question and anyone who disagrees must be evil and biased, but for those who haven’t already drank that particular batch of kool-aid, some reservations might remain. Using the implicit reaction times also seems to blur the line between actually measuring racist attitudes and many other things, such as whether one holds a stereotype or whether one is aware of a stereotype (foregoing the matter of its accuracy for the moment). These reservations appear to be reflected in how very bad both methods seem to be at predicting much of anything.
So why do (some) people like the IAT so much even if it predicts so little? My guess, again, is that a lot of it’s appeal flows from its ability to provide researchers and laypeople alike with a plausible-sounding story to tell others about how bad a problem is in order to draw more support to their cause. It provides cover for one’s inability to explicitly find what you’re looking for – such as many people voicing opinions of racial superiority – and allows a much vaguer measure to stand in for it instead. Since more people fit that vaguer definition, the result is a more intimidating sounding problem; whether it corresponds to reality can be besides the point if it’s useful.
References: Oswald, F., Blanton, H., Mitchell, G., Jaccard, J., & Tetlock, P. (2014). Predicting racial and ethnic discrimination: A meta-analysis of IAT criterion studies. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 105, 171-192.
Race and Ethnicity
Does the IAT measure what proponents claim it does?
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A recent meta-analysis claims that implicit measures of racial attitudes aren't predicting much of anything. If their predictive value is so bad, why do people seem to hold them in such high regard?
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Ethics and Morality
Race and Ethnicity
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|Scientists identify new mechanism to aid cells under stress
||A team of biologists from NYU and Harvard has identified new details in a cellular mechanism that serves as a defense against stress. The findings potentially offer insights into tumor progression and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s — the cell’s inability to respond to stress is a major cause of these diseases. “Our [...]The post Scientists identify new mechanism to aid cells under stress appeared first on PsyPost.
|Anorexia nervosa: Research underlines the importance of getting help before chronicity sets in
||A study led by Howard Steiger, PhD, head of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute Eating Disorders Program (EDP), in Montreal, in collaboration with Linda Booij, a researcher with Sainte-Justine Hospital and an assistant professor at Queen’s University, is the first to observe effects suggesting that the longer one suffers from active anorexia nervosa (AN), [...]The post Anorexia nervosa: Research underlines the importance of getting help before chronicity sets in appeared first on PsyPost.
|Six Ideas to Celebrate Valentine’s Day Your Way
|| Are you cringing with dread about the deliveries of red roses that will come to the office to what seems like everyone but you? Are you hoping to sleep Valentine’s Day away and avoid all the celebrations of romance that will be everywhere you turn? With hearts everywhere...