Monday, 16 July 2012

“Happy Thought Therapy” Can Be Deadly

We’ve all seen them; Those “happy thoughts” little posters that are plastered all over the internet, especially on sites such as Facebook.  They’re supposed to uplift our spirits and help us remain mindful of how wonderful life really is.

What is truly alarming, however, is when mental health practitioners – some armed with very little knowledge of how deep some psychological wounds can be – build their practice around this “happy thoughts” fad.  Unfortunately I see far too many people claiming to be counsellors or therapists who have built their practices around this pop-culture, quick-fix trend, some going so far as to declare all other therapeutic approaches and psychiatric measures as part of a global conspiracy to keep people ill.

Let me be clear in my message: Being exposed to prepackaged “happy thoughts” WILL NOT cure serious mental illness, nor alter an Axis II personality disorder, nor alleviate the devastating symptoms arising from exposure to trauma, such as war, rape, child abuse, or sexual abuse.

I call upon my colleagues who employ this simplified “think yourself happy” approach to mental health issues to do some serious reading of current research, especially in the field of neuroplasticity and epigenetic research.

An example to illustrate my point is research conducted at McGill University in Canada and published in January, 2011, that found early childhood trauma not only impacted the function and structure of the brain, but also altered the expression of DNA in the affected person.

For The epigenetics of social adversity in early life: Implications for mental health outcomes, [McGowan, et al, 2011] researchers studied the brains and DNA from 24 men who had been abused as children and completed suicide.  They compared their findings with those from men who had died suddenly through accidents or suicide and had no history of abuse. 

Their findings indicated that the men who had experienced early childhood abuse had altered function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis [HPA] – this is a trio of glands that produce an array of hormones including cortisol, the “stress hormone”.  The NR3C1 gene is part of this system and produces a protein called a glucocorticoid receptor that sticks to cortisol.  When cortisol latches onto this receptor it triggers a chain reaction that deactivates the HPA axis, dialing down the body’s response to stress.  In those who experienced early childhood abuse, the NR3C1 gene is often blocked from proper function.

With diminished glucocorticoid receptors, the body’s affect-control system becomes dysfunctional and the HPA remains active in normal situations as well as stressful ones.  A person’s ability to tolerate stress is severely compromised and the result may find them living in perpetual distress which can lead to anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide.  This state of being is not the fault of the affected individual and no amount of “happy thoughts” will change the epigenetic damage that early childhood abuse caused.

But how does a person who is struggling with post traumatic symptoms feel when all around them, people purporting to be counsellors and therapists are espousing the effectiveness of simply “thinking yourself happy”?  How does that person feel when no matter how hard they try, their symptoms persist?  Are they able to recognize that it is the “therapy” that is the failure?  Or do they conclude that they are?  And there-in lies the danger of declaring a single pop-culture technique as a cure-all for mental or emotional problems.

This is not to say that there is no hope for those whose HPA system has been affected.  Recent studies into the efficacy of a number of therapeutic approaches such as Trauma-Focused, Dialectic, and Cognitive Behaviour Therapies, Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing, and other techniques, combined with tailored mindfulness practice have shown remarkable changes in the brain’s function and structure.  But any therapy must be tailored to fit the individual and the therapeutic goals and pace must be arrived at in collaboration with the individual.

My greatest fear is that an individual who struggles daily with distressing thoughts and feelings as a result of abuse, will bypass proven successful approaches by trained and experienced therapists and buy into the “happy thoughts” trend - Then do their best playing a game they cannot possibly win and declare themselves a failure, losing all hope and begin to believe that the only relief they will find lies in suicide.

To those practitioners who employ this “happy thoughts” philosophy, please cease claiming it is an answer for all mental health conditions.  Presenting such philosophies falls in the realm of a life-coach, not a therapist.

To those who find themselves experiencing ongoing distress from trauma, I would offer the words of Jamie Tworkowski, founder of To Write Love On Her Arms; “Hope is real.  Help is real.  Your story matters.”  Keep searching until you find a therapist who will truly listen to you and offer real therapeutic interventions, not just a rehash of slogans from internet feel-good posters.

Aaron D. McClelland, RPCc


  1. This is fascinating, that the actual DNA and structure of the brain can be altered by early childhood abuse. As a layperson, this blows me away.

    1. And on the flip-side, tailored therapies that stimulate neuroplasticity are reversing those structural changes in the brain and helping people recover from traumatic experiences. I'm not aware of any research into how these therapies effect the epigenetic damage, but I'm hoping to see that in the near future.

  2. I absolutely love this article, Aaron. I recently wrote an article for World Women Global Council addressing popular (or positive) psychology as a falsified source to healing. Because of the validity effect, it's sad to say that many individuals have come to the unfounded realization that this is what works to heal mental health issues. There is a time and place for it; however, it is not for deep healing when it comes to the victims of domestic violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, PTSD, and so forth. There is a huge social wave making it almost impossible to believe anything different from this. The mentality is, because everyone is selling it, doing it, writing about it, well then, it must be right. Statistics show that mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are on the rise. When you think about this, is this social wave of positive psychology really working then? I am so glad to have found you on the CPCA site. I look forward to reading more of your article with great pleasure. Desiree Leigh Thompson,