All the different kinds of mind reading – does it exist?

The ability to read minds is a superpower often portrayed in many forms of popular media. The idea of being able to understand our peers, down to the most minute detail, is both seductive and a credence to our innate desire to understand one another. It is our perception, of the understanding of others’ minds, that we use to shape our views of the world. Mount Rushmore, in the United States, for example, only holds meaning because of our collected understanding of the grandeur of the monument, and an appreciation of what/who we gaze upon.

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All humans sort of read minds – it’s called intuition. Based on the feelings, actions and behaviours of another person, someone with well practiced intuition can often tell when something is wrong, or when someone is excited. Believe it or not, these functions are encoded directly into our brain, in an area called the posterior superior temporal sulcus, an area dedicated to recognizing facial expression. The ability “read ones feelings” is so integral to our survival as a social species in fact, that many animals exhibit this level of intuition, dogs being the most obvious example. Have you ever had your pet dog come and comfort you on a difficult day? Ever have your German Shepherd start barking at a stranger when you start to look alarmed and panicked? Ultimately, this phenomenon comes from a profound ability to react to subtle nonverbal communication, like facial expression and body position, on a seconds’ notice.

People have different degrees of intuition. For some people, they are able to “read a room” without ever having met anyone in it. For others, they have a difficult time guessing a loved ones’ thoughts, despite their best effort. There are likely genetic and environmental reasons for this, although they are not well-defined.

Someone practicing as a psychic shows a high level of human intuition and understanding of the human experience, for example. By reading your face, body language, reaction to their readings, and with a little context, they are often able to provide spookily relevant advice to you about, for example, the death of a loved one.

Anxiety and mind reading

A psychic is a great example of a person using an innate ability to their advantage for their profession. Not always, however, does strong intuition on the feelings of others provide us an advantage. Many people with an anxious disposition find themselves hyper-aware of situations, and consequently, it can become overwhelming. Seeing a young group of teenagers for example might set off the anxious persons “spidey sense” and prevent them from walking by the group, whereas someone else may find themselves less preoccupied by this group of people.

An anxious person may also find themselves taking too much responsibility for keeping the flow or a party, group, or conversation comfortable, because they are more sensitive to the various social cues sent out by the attendees. An anxious person would be the first to recognize when Tim was getting bored or when Siobhan is feeling uncomfortable. They might be the first to recognize when dad has had too much, or when the hostess is getting tired. Obviously, having some degree of this behaviour shows high social intelligence. If you find yourself being unable to enjoy your own birthday party for the same reason, it might fall under the umbrella of a disorder.

Cognitive mind reading and depression

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“Everyone hates me.”

“My friends think I’m boring.”

“I know everyone is looking at the weight I put on when I go to work.”

“I give a bad first impression.”

“They all think my clothes is lame.”

One of the most common forms of pathological mind reading, is cognitive mind reading. See the examples above. We have all, probably, had a thought at least something like that at some point in the past. We might even be having those thoughts now.

The above examples represent cognitive mind reading, a phenomenon common to many forms of depression. Cognitive mind reading involves someone often making a negative assumption about someone’s thoughts, as it relates to themselves, out of keeping with reality. “Everyone hates me,” for example. Everyone does not hate you. Most people on the street don’t know you! These thoughts are actually a reflection of a depressive process.

When you become depressed, you put on some “gray-coloured glasses.” What this means is you often view things in a more negative light. The skies are grayer, video games are less fun. And seem esteem deflates. The social intuition discussed at the beginning of this post is no exception. When you’re depressed, this part pf your brain becomes hijacked, and all of a sudden, you may find yourself thinking that the world is thinking a lot more negative of you, even though it isn’t. In reality, those negative mind reading assumptions (where you believe that all of the negative things you worry people are saying about you are true) are a reflection of your brain being depressed. When you’re depressed, your brain colours everything gray. It sucks!

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Cognitive mind reading is one of the most common forms of cognitive distortions seen in depression, and physicians and therapists are well positioned to help you handle this. One of the first steps to this is understanding what cognitive mind reading is, why it’s happening, and importantly, that it’s very common in situations like your own. You’re not going crazy.

And not everybody hates your jacket.

Thought reading

While cognitive mind reading is extraordinarily common, with many depressed and non-depressed people experiencing some degree of this on any given day, thought reading is relatively rare.

Thought reading is a delusion, and is actually one of the more classic features of a

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psychotic (not psychic) illness called schizophrenia. When someone is experiencing thought reading, they literally believe that they are privy to the thoughts of others. I can literally hear your thoughts. This can be differentiated from cognitive mind reading in a few different ways.

  • Someone with thought reading may (though not necessarily) literally hear the thoughts as a form of auditory hallucination.
  • When you ask someone with cognitive mind reading to explain how they know “Yousef hates me,” they will usually give a lot of evidence, as if building an overwhelming court case. “Look at the way he did this… look at this behaviour… and I just know he does because this… he hugged me last and it seemed uncomfortable…” Someone experiencing thought reading will often reply, “I can hear their thoughts.”
  • The clinical picture is wildly different in both (though there are of course borderline cases). Thought reading is accompanied by psychosis. Cognitive mind reading is accompanied by anxiety and depression.

An important note here is that cognitive mind reading usually upsets the person and causes them problems. Thought reading has a variety of much more extreme reactions attached to it.

A twenty two year old male presents to the unit acutely psychotic and paranoid. During the course of the admission, he is very aggressive, and damages much of the furniture on the wards in a psychotically driven rage. When he’s better treated, you speak to him, and he discussed that he read the thoughts of the female nurses, and they all thought he was disgusting, which angered him.

A thirty year old male tells you about the microchip he had implanted so he can now read minds. He plans to kick some ass on the stock market with this new information. You diagnose him with a grandiose delusion.

If you are worried you have some form of mind reading, it’s most likely some degree of cognitive mind reading. If you’re concerned, see your doctor. They might help!

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

The four kinds of OCD – Intrusive thought predominant

From Part 1:

Mental illnesses are complex, and are extremely variable in their presentation. In a woman, depression often comes out as tearfulness. In a man, the same depression might cause uncontrollable anger. To aid in the diagnosis of mental illness, physicians and mental health professionals rely on patterns, or rules-of-thumb, to aid their clinical skills. People tend to fall into patterns, or groups, though this isn’t always the case. The following describes four common subgroups of OCD, but rest assured these descriptions will not perfectly capture everyone suffering from the illness.

Part 2

Part 3

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Intrusive thought predominant

“Hi Doctor, we have a consult for you,”

“Go ahead.”

“He is a 18 year old male with daily, intense suicidal ideation. We’ve placed him on a form 1 and he’s in the emergency waiting for you.”


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Early on in my career as a psychiatry resident, I met a young man, just graduated from high school at one of the hospitals I was working in. I was working in the Psychiatric Emergency Service (PES) at the time, and had been asked to see the man by an Emergency Medicine colleague.

As these things go, you don’t always get the most information. Really all I knew about this person was that he was eighteen, was going to university for engineering, and had daily, intense suicidal thoughts.

As I walked down the hallway to meet him, I considered a differential in my head. Could it be depression? Psychosis? Had a manic depressive fallen into my lap? Or a personality disorder, perhaps?


“Hi, my name is Dr. Barron, I’m one of the psychiatry residents.”

“Hi I’m Sam, nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you as well. My emergency medicine colleague asked me to speak with you, is that OK?”

“Yes of course.”

“Let’s start with your understanding of why you are here in hospital.”


We began speaking, and very quickly it became apparent that Sam was not depressed. He wasn’t psychotic. He definitely wan’t manic. I couldn’t even get a whiff of a personality disorder off of him. What the hell was going on?

I didn’t know it yet, but what I was seeing was a common manifestation of OCD, called intrusive thoughts. These thoughts are intense, and are very bothersome to the person. Some classic examples include:

  • Suicidal thoughts (killing yourself)
  • Violent thoughts (killing a random person or a family member)
  • Sexual thoughts (homosexual behaviours if you are heterosexual, heterosexual behaviours if you are homosexual, or pedophilia)
  • Blasphemous thoughts (against your own religion*)

An important point here is that blasphemous thoughts typically only occur when someone cares about being blasphemous i.e. it would not be considered a blasphemous thought to pee on a church if you didn’t care about peeing on churches.

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So wait. Suicidal thoughts can be intrusive? How is that different that a regular suicidal thought? Well, in intrusive thought predominant OCD, the thoughts are egodystonic, meaning they are in direct conflict with that persons values. In other words, a person with intrusive thought predominant OCD does not want to kill themselves, hurt someone, abuse a child, or disrespect a religion. In fact, they are often extremely disturbed by these thoughts.

Another important point to remember is that all forms of OCD have some level of intrusive thought based symptoms, however, the intrusive thoughts are not the predominant feature.

  • In contamination based OCD, intrusive thoughts of contamination cause extremely debilitating compulsions, focused around cleanliness, which tend to be the primary feature.
  • In doubt based OCD, compulsory checking tends to be the predominant feature.
  • In numeracy/symmetry based OCD, extreme cognitive rigidity and intolerance, as well as compulsions, tend to be the predominant feature.


“So doctor, what do you think is wrong with me?”

“Well, this sounds like OCD, a treatable illness. This doesn’t mean you have to kill yourself, or hurt anyone. These thoughts you are having don’t represent anything about who you are, or anything bad about you. In fact, the fact you’re so bothered by them shows how much you value human life. We’re going to help you.”


These are real examples of OCD at it’s strongest. Fortunately, most of the people in the above example recovered reasonably well. Why share this? OCD remains one of the most under-recognized mental illnesses, and hopefully this helps dispel some of the myths.

Editor’s note: Read about what OCD isn’t!

Stay tuned for OCD – What to do about it.

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

The pills aren’t working

“I’m never trying this again, it was awful. I thought you said this thing was supposed to make me feel better?”

“I’m sorry that happened to you. As we discussed, some side effects like nausea and headache are quite common when you start–“

“Start?! I took this thing for four whole days, doctor. I need a different pill. Will my depression and anxiety every go away?”

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Medication selection can be a painful time for patients. As with our diagnoses, often times there is trial and error in selecting the right medication that works for you. When it gets to the fourth, fifth, and sixth medications in some cases, it can be demoralizing, not only to the struggling person, but to their doctor. The fact is the science isn’t the most clear to the researchers in the laboratory, let alone a doctor in the office, and for that reason arriving at a suitable psychiatric treatment regimen can take some time.

Don’t despair – the medications work! Not only often, but usually. I see and help people recover every single day in my office, and it can be refreshing. However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, struggling lasts a little longer than we would like it to. Sometimes, people lose faith in the system and look elsewhere for help. These cases can be tough; but there’s an upside! In my opinion, the majority of these treatment failures are actually preventable. So what am I talking about?

There are many reasons a particular medication regimen does not work. First and foremost, the most common reason I see, as described in the example above, is a misunderstanding of the expectations of an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication.

Anti-depressants take time to work.

The textbooks would tell you that you need six weeks at a suitable dose to have a full effect. What does this mean? Here’s an example;

Week 1 – Sertraline (Zoloft) 25mg, oral, daily
Week 2 – Sertraline 50mg, oral, daily
Week 3 – Sertraline 75mg oral, daily
Week 4 – Sertraline 100mg, oral, daily

Week 9 – Sertraline 100mg, oral, daily
Week 10 and onwards – Sertraline 100mg, oral, daily

The dose this person required was 100mg, and not until 100mg was achieved for six weeks do we see full effect.

What if 100mg isn’t enough? Well, a further increase may be required. The maximum recommended dose of sertraline is 200mg. You and your doctor may ultimately try a 100mg dose for a few weeks, decide it is sub therapeutic, and titrate further. Yes, this means we can be talking week 15, 16 in some case. But remember – this is for full effect. In reality, a skilled clinician and a patient can often tell after the first four weeks of a treatment whether there may be a significant benefit from a particular medication. That’s what the doctor’s are for!

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Side effects are expected and will happen.

And they aren’t permanent. Like anything, your body takes time to adjust to anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. In fact, the presence of side effects shows that the medications are getting to the brain and having some kind of effect! It’s important to appreciate that this is a normal part of the journey, not only with starting, but with significant dose increases.

Side effects suck and the last thing your doctor wants to do is make you feel worse – like all things in mental health, trust me, it’s an investment! Side effects like nausea and headache and anxiety tend to go away after the first half week-full week of therapy (yes, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications can cause transient anxiety – it’s your brain adjusting to the changes). Doctor’s are also all about safety, and don’t worry, the side effects are reversible with dose decrease.

What is considered a true treatment failure?

Part of my job when you come see me for a mental health problem is to take a detailed medication history; people have often tried multiple medications over time, and if something hasn’t worked in the past, it’s unlikely to help in the future. But what constitutes “doesn’t work?”

Not the above example. For a course of an SSRI to be considered a treatment failure, you need to have completed at least six weeks on an appropriate dose of that medication. A rough estimate of an “appropriate dose” is half the maximum dose.


The moral of the story? The medications work, they take time, and they can be a nuisance. Careful time, understanding, and collaboration with your physician is the best way to work through a mental health disturbance. With patience, I promise we’ll help you.

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

The four kinds of OCD – Numeracy and Symmetry

From Part 1:

Mental illnesses are complex, and are extremely variable in their presentation. In a woman, depression often comes out as tearfulness. In a man, the same depression might cause uncontrollable anger. To aid in the diagnosis of mental illness, physicians and mental health professionals rely on patterns, or rules-of-thumb, to aid their clinical skills. People tend to fall into patterns, or groups, though this isn’t always the case. The following describes four common subgroups of OCD, but rest assured these descriptions will not perfectly capture everyone suffering from the illness.

Part 2

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Numeracy and Symmetry

Have you ever seen a kid walking in the mall (sorry Gen Z), jumping from small blue tile to small blue tile?

“Avoid the lava!”

“Watch out for the monsters!”

This is a completely normal behaviour, and many children, including myself, dabble a little in the lava-tile game.

But imagine if to you, it meant a little more. Imagine that your found yourself unable to walk on white tiles, because of a crippling sense of anxiety that if you did, something bad would happen. You would probably know this doesn’t make much sense, which only adds to the madness.

It wouldn’t be easy going to the mall.

This type of behaviour, in it’s extreme form, falls under the umbrella of a symmetry/numeracy based obsession. In this type of OCD, the obsessional thought is usually something along the lines of, “if this isn’t this way, than something bad will happen.” There may or may not be a specific type of “bad”-consequence perceived. Some examples;


An eight year old boy goes through the home and makes sure every single TV and computer has the volume set on an even number. His father has the TV on 15 one day, and the child gets very upset and throws a temper tantrum when his father doesn’t let him change it. The next day, his mother asks him what happened. The boy responds, “if the numbers are odd numbers, I’ll die.”

A twenty four year old woman is late for work every day. She’s eventually fired from her job, and ends up in a doctor’s office while she is off of work. “I think I need help doctor.” “OK. You’re in the right place. What do you think is going on?” “Every time I look in a mirror, I can’t leave until I catch my nose at the perfect angle, perfectly symmetric. I don’t know why, I just can’t. Some days it takes up eight or more hours.”

A fifteen year old is teased at school for his quirky behaviour. He doesn’t tell his parents why, and they only know that he is being bullied. One day, when dad is picking the boy up from school, dad notices the boy jumping from dark tile to dark tile on the sidewalk. “What was that about?” dad asks when the boy gets in the car. The boy blushes and says, “can we just go?”


These are real examples of OCD at it’s strongest. Fortunately, most of the people in the above example recovered reasonably well. Why share this? OCD remains one of the most under-recognized mental illnesses, and hopefully this helps dispel some of the myths.

Editor’s note: Read about what OCD isn’t!

Stay tuned for OCD – What to do about it, and the remainder of the, “four kinds,” series.

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

Why does anxiety make me tense?

It’s mid-July, and that means vacation. You’ve been waiting for this all year. You can’t wait to have a few weeks to just sit, relax, maybe take in a few books. And don’t forget the wine.

You arrive home and see your husband. He’s beaming as he gets off the phone. You kiss him hello and for a moment, everything is still.

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“Guess what?” he says.

“I don’t know, you bought good steaks for the weekend?”

“Well also that, but something else… my mother is coming to stay with us for a week!”

The calm serenity melts out of your hands and you instantly feel tight. Your muscles start to ache and your teeth are grinding. You notice your heart rate is picking up as your husband asks, “are you OK honey?”

It’s an uncomfortable feeling.

I think we can see why our fictional character may be anxious in this case. A surprise visit by the in-laws on her vacation. Yikes! (If you’re reading this my in-laws, totally love you guys!)

So she’s anxious – but why does anxiety make us feel this way?

Like I’ve spoken about time and time again, anxiety is not a mental illness. It is a personality trait. Like all personality traits, anxiety can both serve us and hurt us. Anxiety makes us not forget our wives’ birthdays, and makes us turn off the stove. On the other end, anxiety can be the root of some mental illnesses, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

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Anxiety originally involved in humans as part of the adrenaline nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system. It’s function? To help us stay safe in the jungle, and to help us fight off a predator – but doesn’t help us do much about it. Fortunately for us, we have evolved a way around this. As I’ve discussed previously, the brain operates through it’s connections, and those connections exist in very complicated but specific ways. This means the brain likes patterns. Anxiety is no exception. The anxious nervous system directly connects to the adrenaline nervous system, and turns it on when we are feeling anxious. What does the adrenaline nervous system do? Well it’s also called the fight-or-flight nervous system. This nervous system prepares our bodies and allows us to either fight off a predator such as a boar, or flight/run like crazy from something like a tiger. To allow us to do these things, the adrenaline system dilates our pupils, to improve our vision in the dark. It raises our heart rate and blood pressure to get blood to our organs and muscles, and tightens our muscles, in anticipation of a great battle or a long sprint. It freezes our digestion to preserve resources. The benefits of this connection-based system are obvious when we examine someone like a caveman.

Not so much with anxiety.

The brain doesn’t always distinguish one situation entirely from another, a symptom of it’s pattern-based operation. These same connections are activated when anxiety is caused by a seemingly harmless threat, such as news your in-laws are visiting. Increased heart rate and blood pressure can feel overwhelming and make it impossible to sleep. Muscle tightness turns into uncomfortable chronic tension. Frozen digestion becomes abdominal pain.

But there’s an end. As these things go, the physical symptoms of anxiety typically burn out over the course of a few hours. There may always be more mild chronic symptoms in the background but in general, anxious people are not always in relative crisis. Funny enough, the duration of the average panic attack (about fifteen minutes) last about as long as our adrenaline stores last.

And we can retrain these connections. Through cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) you and a therapist work together to identify the thinking patterns that lead to a number of mental illnesses, including anxiety. Once you identify those patterns you can begin to change them, and “train” your brain to not always turn on your fight-and-flight response, at least so intensely, when you feel anxious.

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

Mental illness exists for a reason (part 3)

In part 1 of Mental illness exists for a reason, we discussed the evidence behind genetic control of temperament in two different primate species, Chimpanzees and Bonobos.

In part 2, we discussed how having a variation of behaviours within a species makes that species adaptable to a broad range of environments. Voles were a great case study on how polymorphic genes lead to a variety of behaviours within a species, allowing voles to thrive in a wide range of habitats on the planet.

In part 3, we will be discussing the role of the gene we have been examining, vasopressin 1a receptor, in human behaviour, and extrapolating from that why mental illness may exist.

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Humans are not voles. Before we get started, I want to reiterate that there are thousands of genes which interact to have an effect on human behaviour. No one gene is responsible for the beauty that is the human mind. When we examine human behaviours in studies, like the one I will be discussing today, we are observing trends in behaviour, and not absolute rules. Remember, personality is thought to be at most 50% genetic, and each one of those thousand genes are in direct interaction with each other, and our ever changing environment, at any given moment, to produce the “climate” of traits that becomes our personality.

So what’s the deal with vasopressin 1a receptor? What is it anyway?

In the human body, brain function is dependent on something called neurotransmission. In a nut shell, neurotransmission is when two different nerve cells, called neurons, communicate with each other. Neurons are constantly communicating with each other at any given time to produce consciousness, vision, hearing, touch, and just about any neurological function you can imagine.

Credit: Nature

How does neurotransmission occur? Through chemicals called neurotransmitters. In a neuron “discussion,” the first neuron sends a neurotransmitter to the second neuron. There is a receptor on the second/receiving neuron that picks up the message. Vasopressin 1a is this kind of receptor. Depending on the shape or form of the receptor, different things will happen to the second/receiving neuron. This is how variation in the receptor produces variation in effects!

Why is this important? Vasopressin 1a receptor has been implicated in pair bonding behaviours, across a wide range of species, including humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and voles. Consistently, a “longer” form of the gene has been associated with increased pair bonding and less aggressive behaviours. Think the lazy, horny Bonobo and the monogamous Prarie Vole’s. And some humans.

A group at John Hopkins set out in the mid-2000’s to investigate the role of vasopressin 1a receptor in humans. You can read their study here. To summarize, the group found that a number of variations of the vasopressin 1a receptor exist in humans. That makes this a polymorpic gene. As expected, certain forms of the gene correlated with certain behaviours in humans. Longer forms of the gene were associated with increased pair bonding, as determined by a questionnaire. Amazingly, not only did carriers of the longer gene tend to report happier marriages, their partners did as well. Carriers of the shorter gene were unhappier in their marriages on average and were considerably more likely to have had a threatened divorce within the last year.

So why can’t we all be married, well fed, and happy?

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Like the Prarie Vole, humans live in a wide variety of environments. This is different than Chimpanzee’s and Bonobo’s, who are really good at living in the kinds of places they live, but not great at living elsewhere. Humans live in mountains, on swamps, the plains, the coasts. There’s hardly a terrestrial environment on this planet that we haven’t conquered. The point? Humans have had to be extremely adaptable to achieve this level of success across the wide range of environments we inhabit. This doesn’t only apply to geography. The massive differences between an urban metropolis and a rural village cannot be understated. The variation in cultures across the West and East is difficult to appreciate. These differences in the societies in which we lives requires a broad range of behaviours to be within our species to succeed.  We need people who thrive in a big city, among thousands of their peers, in cramped, noisy, stimulating environments. Without them, the economic engines of our nations would collapse. We need people that can’t stand the city, who need wide, open expanses, and tranquility to survive. Without them we wouldn’t be able to feed the masses. The point is that variation in our personalities allows some of us to succeed, and to excel, so that society and the species may go on.

But that doesn’t mean we are all meant to succeed. Or rather, that we are all meant to succeed in every environment.

Variation means exactly that – variety. For every person that thrives in a city there’s another who suffers. Sometimes, there is a fundamental mismatch between our personality, and our environment. Try as you may, a monogamous Vole ain’t gonna do well at a polygamous Vole frat party. A Bonobo chimp would be dead meat caught in a Chimpanzee civil war.

These mismatches occur in humans as well; sometimes, we may call that mismatch, a mental illness.

Join me in part 4 for a discussion of how we can use our understanding of why mental illnesses may exist to help guide treatment and recovery!

Editor’s note: I do not want to diminish the role of, “nurture,” in the nature vs nurture argument. By no means in personality 100% genetic (most studies show it’s around 50%)! This blog simply looks at the genetic side of things.

I would like to credit Dr. Albert Wong at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health for inspiring most of the content of this blog post.

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

Chest pain is in your head

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It’s a beautiful winter’s day in suburban Ontario and you’re shoveling snow. It’s the first snowfall of the year so you don’t absolutely hate the task at hand. Yet. You stop to breath in the beauti—-


The snow plow is on you in seconds and quickly packs your hard-shoveled driveway back in. As you swear to yourself, you continue to shovel.

Suddenly, there’s chest pain. Your vision goes black in the corners and you grab for something. You stabilize yourself on the side of your home and take deep, laboured breaths. You manage to pull your cell phone from your pocket, and dial 911.

“Hello you’ve reached 911 what’s your emergency?”

“I think I’m having a heart attack.”


“I don’t get what you’re saying.”

“Let me start from the beginning. Everything checked out fine with your heart. Your rhythm is normal and there are no signs of a heart attack. I think the most likely explanation is a panic attack.”

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“So you’re saying it’s in my head? That’s ridiculous. How could you possibly know it’s not a heart attack?”

“Besides the fact that your blood tests and EKG were normal, sir, you are 28. You have no previous cardiac history, you don’t smoke, and your family history is insignificant. Taking all of this together, there is no likelihood that this is a heart attack.”

“So I’m going crazy?”

“I didn’t say that…”

Panic attacks are real, intense manifestations of anxiety. Features of panic attacks include chest pain, shortness of breath, tunnel vision, dizziness, sweating, anxiety, and a fear you are dying, just to name a few. Best of all, panic attacks can have a clear trigger (snakes, for example!), or culminate out of apparent nothingness. Panic attacks can be unpredictable and debilitating, and are definitely uncomfortable. To put the icing on the cake, panic attacks can often present like a heart attack. Your fear of dying just got a lot better, didn’t it?

One of the most common consultations I have seen in my office are individuals who have presented to hospital numerous times with non-cardiac chest pain. The consulting physicians are usually suspicious of panic attacks. These consultations often unfold in a similar fashion – the discussion around the patients understanding of what’s going on, a discussion of their mental health and personal lives, and inevitably, feedback.

To all of my doctor friends out there in the internet, here’s what not to say when you suspect someone is experiencing panic attacks:

“It’s all in your head.”

Medicine and psychiatry are a lot of things, the least of which is not, being a source of reassurance. By dismissing an individual’s symptoms as “in their head,” you have immediately invalidated that person and there’s little chance they will listen to anything else you have to say.

But panic attacks are in your head, and so is the chest pain. But this is also the case with true cardiac chest pain. What am I saying? Everything, including true heart attacks, are to some extent, in your head!

What the hell am I talking about?

In your body, there are a specialized type of nerve cell called neurons. Neurons are like wires that connect different parts of the body and allow parts of the body to communicate with each other. There are neurons that go from your brain to your muscles, for example, which send messages on how to move. There are neurons that go from our skin to out brain which tell our brain what we are feeling.

This is equally true in heart attacks.

When you are having a heart attack, blood is suddenly cut off from a part of the heart and damages the heart muscle. This causes chest pain. The neuron that goes from your heart to your brain sends a message to your brain that you are having chest pain. This is how you become aware of it. As is appropriate when you’re having a heart attack and experiencing chest pain, you then begin to feel anxious. This anxiety protects us and drives us to call an ambulance and seek help.

So what’s going on in a panic attack?

pahaIf you recall, neurons are like wires. Like wires, messages can pass down nerve bundles in both directions. Messages can be sent from the heart to the brain (as in a heart attack), or from the brain to the heart. In panic attacks, our brain “hijacks” our natural nerve circuitry and sends the message in the opposite direction (brain to heart). This causes the cycle (chest pain -> brain aware -> anxiety) to reverse (anxiety -> brain aware -> chest pain)!

The take home message? The chest pain in panic attacks is as real as the chest pain in a heart attack. The difference is that the pain in each scenario is driven by a different cause (heart damage vs anxiety).

Why do I find this is important to understand? In my experience, when people seek help for panic attacks, often times a patient and physician can get too caught up on whether the chest pain is “really” happening. It definitely is. But to understand and accept that your chest pain is real and is highly unlikely to be caused by heart damage, for all of the reasons listed in the opening dialogue of this post, is empowering and indespensible.

Editor’s note: This article is not a substitute for medical consultation! If you think you are having a heart attack, particularly if you carry risks factors, you should seek medical attention.

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

Language matters – Does everybody have mental illness?

“It’s my OCD.”

“She’s so bipolar.”

“He’s depressed.”

Does it ever seem like everybody nowadays has some sort of mental illness? Behaviours we find uncomfortable somehow explained by the latest acronym? They all have anxiety. Who doesn’t have depression?

That’s because everyone does have anxiety. Or at least, feelings of anxiety. And the same goes with depression. Anxiety has evolved inside of humans to serve vital functions. To be afraid of the lion stalking in the night. To think that standing precariously on the edge of a cliff might not be a good idea. Today, anxiety makes us on time for work. It helps us meet deadlines. Yes, it sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable, but can you imagine humans, without any anxiety? Not a society I want to live in.

Not everybody has Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or Major Depressive Disorder. These are mental illnesses; they are defined by criteria contained within a manual, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V (DSM-5). What makes these disorders different from anxiety, and sadness (colloquially known as depression nowadays)? They are pervasive in people’s lives and cause difficulties in functioning.

Mental health awareness is amazing and the reduce the stigma campaign has done wonders for mental health research and support for those suffering from mental illness. A side effect of this campaign has been the increasing use of psychiatric terminology in common speech, resulting in confusion between what a physician means when they use certain terms, or when a term is used on Instagram. This has always happened – the word “paranoid” being a great example – but we are seeing it happen at an increased rate due to social media.

The message? We all have anxiety, sadness, and rigid behaviours (often misdefined as OCD). It’s normal. Those traits probably make you stronger, to some degree. The presence of those features does not mean you have a mental illness. If you are worried you have a mental illness, you should see your doctor. They can often help.


Editor’s note: Mental illness is very real and very debilitating. But the stigma remains. Throughout my career I’ve worked with people from all walks of life, mental health skeptics included, and I’ve come to appreciate that at least some of their frustration comes from the fact that seemingly “normal,” well people are endorsing having mental illness. I think what they are describing is a good example of why language matters, so hopefully this can help!


Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

Living on the edge




“Hi there! You have been randomly selected as a winner of our draw! All we need is your credit card number-”

“For fuck sakes.”

Photo by Adrianna Calvo on

Have you ever answered a robocall at four in the morning? You hear the ungodly buzzing of your device – turned on vibrate, so as “not to wake anyone” – and you’re sure it must be a family member in crisis, or a work email that can’t be missed. Instead, you are greeted by the disorienting sound of a fog horn and the robotic voice of the latest phishing scam as they tell you, “the Captain’s calling!,” and start wooing you with free cruise trips, with one catch. They need your social insurance number.

Fat chance.

The next day, you’re at work. You laugh with your colleagues about the Captain, and you realize the same thing happened to all of them as well, at some point. There’s a certain comradery in the shared psychological torture.  That night you can’t get to sleep, and you wonder, “why am I so damn restless?!”

Hopefully, this exact scenario hasn’t happened to you, but I’d be willing to bet you have answered a phone call in bed at all sorts of hours in the morning. It’s a habit many (and probably most) of us do in our technologically driven society. While most of us realize that getting up numerous times a night isn’t allowing for the most restful sleep, many people often do not realize the deeper psychological consequences of bad phone hygiene.


In broad strokes, anxiety can be defined as a, “fear of uncertainty.” Which makes sense. Anxiety can be accompanied by several symptoms – concentration difficulties, fatigue, irritability, restlessness, and muscle tension. These symptoms are caused by an increase in the part of our nervous system that controls adrenaline, called our sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system that allows us to react to uncertainty. In prehistoric times, the benefit from these functions is obvious. You want to be angry, on edge, and have tight muscles (and definitely do not want to be asleep) when the sabretooth tiger is attacking you. Today, these symptoms often cause us discomfort.

Smart phones are wonderful things. They allow access to hordes of information at any given time, and have allowed us to connect with each other on an unprecedented level. They have also allowed us to, unlike ever before, take work home to an entirely different degree. The expectation in many offices today is that emails should be answered immediately, regardless of the time of day (and even if you’re on vacation). In other words, smart phones, while wonderful, represent the endless possibility of something significant happening – a family death, a big deal, the Captain – at any given time, which requires our response. And we sleep with it. Ew.

Our smart phone addiction has contributed to a baseline feeling of uncertainty that in many of us turns on the adrenaline nervous system, and causes us the symptoms of anxiety. Bad phone hygiene, such as sleeping with your phone, and not setting limits insofar as when you will answer your phone, contributes greatly to the symptoms of anxiety, not just on the night of that inappropriate call, but for many nights to come.



Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Canada.