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Building On The Strengths Of Your Perfectionism

I often think of the well-known expression “perfect is the enemy of good” when I am endlessly rewriting an article to make it better (when it is already good enough) and in the process just make or even miss a deadline. But this old saying also reflects the dark view many people have of perfectionism. As a personality trait, it is seen as obsessive and at times pathological. People who are perfectionists may become so focused on setting a high standard for themselves that they live their lives as if graded constantly on a report card.

But perfectionism has a bright side, too. Desirable aspects of this personality trait include conscientiousness, endurance, satisfaction with life, and the ability to cope with adversity. This helps explain why some perfectionists become corporate leaders, skilled surgeons, or Olympic champions.

Dr. Jeff Szymanski, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the International OCD Foundation, believes it is possible to become a better perfectionist—by building on the strengths of this quality and learning to minimize its drawbacks. In his new book, The Perfectionist’s Handbook, he discusses this theory in greater detail and provides exercises people can try at home. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Do You Think You Have OCD?

When I leave for work in the morning, I go through my precommute checklist. Train pass, check. Wallet, check. Coffee mug, check. Smart phone, check. Keys to the house, check. Only when I’m sure that I have everything I need do I open the door and head outside.

Sometimes I worry that this morning routine is becoming too much of a ritual. Is it possible that I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD for short)?

Probably not. The fact that I am able to get out the door every morning means that my daily ritual isn’t interfering with my ability to function, says Dr. Jeff Szymanski, a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School.

You have OCD when obsessions and compulsive behavior Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

FDA-Approved Drugs Are Not Always Effective: The Benefits Of Alternative Medicine

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On Saturday, while thousands of Boston Bruins fans gathered at Government Center to celebrate the team’s recent Stanley Cup victory, a hundred or so true die-hards met a few blocks away at a Massachusetts General Hospital conference to talk about complementary and alternative medicine for psychiatric disorders. While I hated to miss the Bruins parade, I’m glad I attended the MGH conference.

I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic about so-called natural therapies for one simple reason: they don’t have to go through the same rigorous testing in clinical trials that medications do. At the same time, I realize that FDA-approved drugs don’t work for everyone. One in three adults with major depression, for example, can’t completely improve their mood and other symptoms even after trying multiple antidepressants.

Clearly, we need better options for treating mental health disorders. The MGH conference convinced me that some types of complementary and alternative medicine—or CAM, for short—might be worth trying. The presenters, all psychiatrists who treat patients at MGH, backed up their recommendations with scientific evidence. Several of them also contributed to the American Psychiatric Association’s recent report on CAM therapies.

We’ll be doing a story on CAM therapies for psychiatric disorders in an upcoming issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. For now, here are some things I learned on Saturday: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

The Psychological Price Of Surviving Cancer

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One of my closest friends is a two-time breast cancer survivor. Terry (as I’ll call her) has been cancer free for eight years—long enough to be considered cured (generally defined as being in remission at least five years). But in no way is she “free” of cancer. Every abnormal blood test, every callback for another mammogram terrifies her so badly she can’t sleep until doctors rule out a recurrence. In some ways, the ongoing psychological and emotional challenges she faces have been worse than the physical treatments she endured.

I thought about Terry when I read the latest government statistics on the number of cancer survivors in this country. Nearly 12 million Americans—4% of the population—are still alive after a cancer diagnosis.

In many respects this is terrific news, and a testament to improved diagnosis and treatment options. But survivorship comes at a psychological price. We discussed these challenges at length in the  Harvard Mental Health Letter, but here’s a quick look at some of the major issues. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Does “I Know CPR” Mean You Can Do CPR?

While I was browsing the produce section of my grocery store the other day, the sound of a panicked voice coming over the store’s loudspeaker made me jump. “Does anyone in the store know CPR? Anyone? CPR? We need you in baked goods!”

I froze. In theory, I know how to perform CPR — cardiopulmonary resuscitation. I took a two-hour course on it nearly 25 years ago. But I hadn’t given it much thought since then and I certainly hadn’t practiced what I learned.

My mind started whirling as I tried to remember the sequence of steps. They’d changed the rules a few years back — I knew that much — so I wouldn’t have to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But where exactly on the chest was I supposed to push? Should I form a fist and push down with my knuckles, or use the ball of my hand?

Suddenly, sirens wailed outside the store. The rescue squad had arrived. Too late, as I learned afterward, for this man, who was a victim of a sudden cardiac arrest. This type of heart attack strikes so fast that there usually aren’t any warning signs. You might see someone grasp his or her chest, collapse, twitch and gasp a few times, and then lie deathly still.

At that point, every minute counts. Enough oxygen remains in the person’s bloodstream to nourish the brain for several minutes — but a bystander has to circulate oxygenated blood to the brain and other organs by pushing down on the chest hard and fast, mimicking the heartbeat.

I’m a health writer. I knew this intellectually. But until those agonizing moments in the grocery store, I never really understood on a gut level just how important every minute is. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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