12:56pm Saturday 21 September 2019

Rutgers Psychologist Aims to Curb Self Destructive Behavior with Computer-Aided Therapy

By Carrie Stetler

What if there was an app that could prevent that ice cream binge when you’re feeling down?

Rutgers Psychologist Aims to Curb Self Destructive Behavior with Computer-Aided TherapyRutgers psychologist Edward Selby is working on that. He’s designing a phone app and computer program that could steer people away from self-sabotaging behavior.

Can a phone app stop a binge before it begins? Yes, according to Rutgers psychologist Edward Selby.

In his research, Selby found that games like Sudoku and crossword puzzles calmed subjects and warded off problem behaviors like food and alcohol binges, picking fights, and reckless driving — especially if subjects monitored their behavior via cell phone or computer.

His program would work by encouraging people to track their thoughts, and before they’re likely to act out, it would suggest an alternative behavior or present them with a distracting game.

Selby “The hope is to teach people through computer-aided therapy that they can use certain behaviors as soon as they start to feel upset. They can take some time and do a puzzle online,’’ said Selby, who is seeking funding for the program and the clinical trials it would require.

Edward Selby

An “emotional cascade’’ is Selby’s term for the intellectual and emotional build-up that triggers a sudden loss of self-control. It begins when someone is upset, then “ruminates’’ on it until they feel worse, which spawns more self-defeating thoughts and deeper levels of anger and despair.

“It has a flowing effect that gets bigger and bigger,’’ said Selby, an assistant professor of clinical psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Emotional cascades are especially characteristic of people with borderline personality disorder and bulimia but can also apply to other types of addictive or self-destructive behavior, says Selby.

In one of Selby’s studies, people recorded their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors for two weeks. When they reported negative feelings, and concentrated on the emotion, it often resulted in self-destructive behavior.  “There was a good chance that within five hours, they were going to act out,’’ he said.

But subjects reported that taking their emotional pulse on a regular basis helpd break the cycle. So did healthy distractions.

In addition to solving puzzles, other activities that can prevent a binge include watching movies, rigorous exercise and socializing–as long as it doesn’t involve “co-rumination,’’ when people dwell on a problem together, said Selby.

Going for walk or taking a shower were also ineffective. “Things that encourage you to do a lot of thinking aren’t going to help,’’ he said. “What works is doing things that aren’t related to the problem, that get your mind off it.’’   

But Selby knows that even with therapy and self-monitoring, emotional cascades can be hard to stop. “People don’t always want to try new things when they know that binging on food, or drinking too much will help them feel better,’’ he said. “It takes a lot of time and practice to hang in there.’’

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