The Latest In Psychology News

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Therapy may be more available than ever before

Psychology can be considered an ever-evolving field. Recent developments generally include learning that a positive mindset may prevent the onset of seasonal affective disorder, that exercise may help with depression and aging, that psychological stress can directly impact mitochondria, and that people can become addicted to social media. Another shift in the field of psychology may be that online therapy is generally becoming more popular and has gained more evidence suggesting it can be as effective as in-person therapy.

Recent developments in psychology

Psychological stress at the cellular level 

Recent studies have shown that psychological stress may have a direct impact on mitochondria, the organelles that typically produce energy within every cell in our bodies (apart from red blood cells). Mitochondria are generally the only organelles with their own genome (their genes are usually referred to as mtDNA). 

Some researchers posit that stressful psychosocial experiences, including chronically stressful experiences such as discrimination, adverse childhood experiences, job strain, low socioeconomic status, social isolation, and caregiving, can be “sensed” by mitochondria, thus affecting their release of certain chemical signals and even altering their mtDNA. When mitochondria must consistently alter their functions to react to chronic stress, the rest of the body may be affected as well. Some consequences may include heightened risk for certain diseases, chronic inflammation, and accelerated aging. 

A lifetime of accumulated mutations in our mitochondria may instigate the aging process. However, a related finding may shed some light on how to keep our mitochondria thriving, even as we age. Since the 1960s, scientists have generally known that endurance exercise can increase the number of mitochondria in muscle cells. Researchers have since tested whether endurance exercise could reduce the effect of aging in mice that were prematurely aging due to mitochondrial dysfunction. 

Mice that were made to run for 45 minutes, three times a week, for five months typically showed remarkable changes. None died prematurely, and despite their mitochondrial condition, they usually showed fewer physical signs of aging. They also tended to have greater physical capacity than sedentary mice with and without the condition.   

Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can be defined as a type of depression often linked to the lower amounts of sunlight that normally occur in the winter. One study surveyed residents of several Norwegian towns north of the Arctic Circle that receive no direct sunlight during the winter months. Most residents expressed positive emotions and attitudes toward their polar night. Instead of dreading winter and its days of longer darkness and cold, people typically celebrated it and concentrated on what they loved about the season. They often spoke of their love of skiing, cozy nights at home, and beautiful snow.

The study concluded that it was generally the residents’ mindsets that seemed to be the determining factor in their winter well-being. Their positive mindset toward winter in the months leading up to the season may be correlated with their higher sense of life satisfaction and mental health during winter. 

Exercise for teen depression

Over one in 10 teens may report experiencing a depressive episode at least once a year. Therapy and medication often relieve the symptoms of depression, but when these treatments are concluded, depression symptoms may return.

One review of existing studies on exercise as a treatment for adolescent depression found a moderate but sustained improvement in depression among teens who participated in exercise interventions. Researchers found several factors tended to be especially helpful when prescribing exercise for depression: 

  • Doing multiple kinds of exercise (such as a weekly habit of running, dancing, and weightlifting) typically kept teens more interested in their exercise routine than just practicing a single type of exercise. 
  • Group exercise activities, such as team sports, often helped relieve depression symptoms more quickly than solo sports. Group activities usually allowed teens more social connection and support.
  • The positive effects of regular exercise were typically seen after at least three months of incorporating the habit. 
  • Moderate to vigorous exercise three or more times a week for 20 to 60 minutes per session was generally found to have a more significant effect on alleviating depression symptoms than light exercise and fewer or shorter sessions. 

When exercise was added to therapy and medication, there was usually a lasting improvement in the teens’ depression symptoms. This could be attributed to the endorphins released during exercise, but other factors, such as exercising with other people, working with a trainer, and finding a type of exercise that the teen enjoyed, also tended to help their symptoms.

Social media addiction

There may now be a name for a particular social media addiction: Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD). Although it’s not currently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), this disorder may manifest in Facebook users who show similar behaviors to people with substance use disorders. People with FAD may think about Facebook frequently throughout the day, even when not using the platform. They may develop a tolerance to the uplifting effects of time spent on Facebook and need more and more time on the platform to feel the same positive effects. They may even experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety when they lack access to Facebook.   

Therapy may be more available than ever before

The expanding influence of psychologists 

Psychologists are frequently becoming consultants and leaders in diverse roles outside of the therapy office. For example, many technology companies are hiring psychologists to be part of their design teams. As smart devices become more ubiquitous, applied psychology can make their use easier and more productive. 

Psychologists may also be giving their input on workspace design, such as color schemes and room layouts that may be the most supportive of collaboration and concentration. Psychologists can also advise companies on how to prevent burnout, stress, and fatigue from affecting their employees. 

The rise of online therapy

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, online therapy has generally been growing in both availability and demand. In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) on psychologists, 96% said telehealth could be effective therapeutically, and 97% responded that telehealth should remain available post-pandemic. 

Benefits of online therapy

Online therapy, whether offered by a psychologist’s practice or a platform like BetterHelp, can make therapy more accessible for people who may not have the time or ability to travel to a therapist’s office. Clients can schedule an online session from anywhere they have a stable internet connection and a smart device. BetterHelp can also reduce wait times for finding a therapist. Potential clients can get matched with a licensed mental health professional within 48 hours of completing a simple intake questionnaire. 

Effectiveness of online therapy

Regardless of the type of mental health concerns you may be experiencing, a growing body of evidence suggests that online and in-person therapy typically have the same level of efficacy. Either option may be a valid choice for those seeking professional help with their mental health.

Takeaway

The study of the human brain and behavior often continues to propel researchers and psychologists into previously unexplored niches. In this round-up of psychology news, we learned that a positive mindset could help people weather the darkest winter, that exercise can have both antidepressant and anti-aging properties, and that psychology may be turning its attention to diverse fields, including the realm of social media. One of the biggest innovations in the practice of psychology may be the rise of online therapy options, especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
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