My educational background is in psychology, and I went pretty far with it. So often my friends ask me what you can use from psychology in writing fiction. The short answer is: understanding science doesn't have all the answers, and remember that correlation is not causation. However, if they want a long answer, well...there's a lot.

I remember going into an Introduction to Personality class in my undergrad years. The first thing the professor said was "if you're not a psych major, but a writer, and you're here for writing tips, get the hell out. I don't have any." Well, he was right in one aspect: he had no answers, but the class did, as did the subsequent classes built on it.

Psychology is pretty interesting (well, to some of us). On the surface it seems common-sense, Then you learn more and it seems confusing, then you learn even more and it's common sense again, but you have to prove it with data. I won't cover much of abnormal psychology (just read the DSM for more info, or Google case studies to see examples of behavior). However, since those are the most-asked questions I get, so in Part One let's go over the first three of the most common psychological disorders in real life and fiction: ADHD, depression, and anxiety. In Part Two we'll cover manic-depression (aka bipolar), borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder (aka sociopaths or psychopaths).

ADHD/ADD: a disorder where the brain is under-stimulated, poorly producing beta waves, resulting in inattentiveness and sometimes hyperactivity, among many other symptoms.

What it looks like to an outside observer: Squirrelly and/or behavior, inability to focus, sometimes hyper-focus, sometimes hyperactivity, and in adults hyper sexual periods alternating with asexual periods.

What it feels like to have: (I have ADHD so this one is very easy to describe). It SUCKS. You think about it constantly. All your life all you ever hear is "Sit down! shut up! stop doing that! God, you're annoying! Why can't you pay attention? Why can't you finish what you start? Why do you fidget all the time? What's wrong with you?

I want to run, ALL THE TIME. In my head I am always running. If I don't fidget it feels like my head will explode. I can't keep to a hard schedule and I can't budget to save my life. I do chores randomly to have something to do and take walks all hours of the night. I can only write or do any task with music playing or a TV on because silence is HELL for me. When people talk about serious things I get cartoonish lampooning images in my head and have to suppress laughter. Sometimes I can get so lost in an Excel spreadsheet I stay there for hours. I can’t keep to one subject when talking and bird walk constantly.  And I have this haunted feeling that comes over me where I am positive I need to leave where I am, go somewhere, because I may miss something important, even if it’s just a deep thought I need to be somewhere else to have. You don' t know how many times that feeling has ruined my life, or what I would give to never feel it again.

How it's treated: Stimulants and cognitive-behavioral therapy. When properly dosed by a psychiatrist stimulants take away the impulses and strange feelings, allowing you to remain a creative person and productive member of society. When prescribed by general practitioners who don't know any better they make you a drooling zombie and the art you so love goes away. Cognitive-Behavioral therapy teaches you to modify thinking and behaviors through behavioral and operant conditioning (rewards), such as leaving your keys in the same spot every night so you don’t lose them.


What it’s like after successful treatment: You feel calmer, less scattered. You don’t fidget as much or daydream constantly. You sleep better, become less of a night owl, and your sex life evens out. The impulsivity decreases, so you have the urge to rearrange furniture less. It’s the closest to normal a sufferer can feel, and they all tell themselves they are normal. Let us live the lie, please.

An example of describing a character with it: ADHD- John was a tempest in a teacup, constantly bouncing like an eager child. He was a silly man, exuberant but charming, and his high energy could be contagious, but only in the best of times. ADD- Diane was a dreamer. First teachers spoke, then bosses, and all the while she daydreamed. Her eyes were always fixed to the far-off horizon, and she was a woman filled with secret smiles none of us were privy to.

Depression: There are many types, but Major Depressive Disorder is the one we call depression. It's when serotonin levels in the brain go down. This can be caused by stress, abuse, trauma, hormone changes, or just because your body is a bastard who will betray you. It basically decreases your motivation and energy until you feel you are living under the torture of an incubus or succubus.

What it looks like to an outsider: A person with depression often appears quieter, moodier, their thought patterns and speech may seem darker. They typically do not groom themselves as well as they used to and lost interest in hobbies and socializing. They can appear to be lazy or unmotivated to the unsympathetic.

What it feels like to have: Most of us will go through depression at least once in our lives. There is always a change in your sleep: depressed people have more REM sleep, and more REM dreams than non-REM (REM dreams are almost all nightmares and anxiety dreams, non-REM are the nice and weird ones). So some sleep more, some sleep less, some sleep the same amount but no matter what none of them feel sleep is as restful as it used to be. The libido changes: some cease or decrease sex and masturbation, some increase masturbation but decrease sex. All have a harder time achieving orgasm. Some eat more, some eat less, but there is almost always a change in appetite. Thoughts of suicide crop up more often, but usually do not preoccupy the mind. Anxiety often also appears, more in men than women. Aches and pains come more frequently, feel stronger, and migraines can start or become more frequent. Most depressed people are unaware they are depressed, and often tell themselves they have the blues, they can fix it alone.

How it's treated: SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and therapy, possibly anti-anxiety drugs. SSRI's keep your body from sucking up as all the serotonin it releases, tricking it to thinking there is more. Truthfully these are designed for six months of use and become virtually useless after six months, but are so popular people take them over a lifetime, enjoying the placebo affect that develops once their bodies acclimate to the SSRI. Anti-anxiety drugs are given if anxiety is a large part of the depression, and therapy is always recommended, found to be the most helpful and least-used treatment.


What it’s like after successful treatment: You feel like a weight has been lifted. Productivity goes up and you feel like you are reclaiming lost ground. You will always say your depression is gone, but never say cured. There will be worry it is coming back. It feels like clouds parting and sunshine coming in.

An example of describing a character with it: Julie seemed to be fading away from the group. She seemed to be always busy, didn't make the weekly meetups so often. Her hair was always in a ponytail those days, and she seemed listless when they could pry her off the couch.

Anxiety: a disorder where the GABA amino acid and dopamine are out of balance which bring on consistent stress, worry, apprehension, panic, and anger. It can be caused by trauma, physical damage, substance abuse, depression, environmental stress, and even genetics.

What it looks like to an outsider: Your friend may appear jittery, they may jump at shadows. They are almost always very easily frustrated, have trouble focusing on things, and often their temper gets stronger. Men with anxiety have normal erections and little change in their sex drive, but it becomes harder to orgasm. Both arousal and ability to orgasm diminish in women, so an overall decrease in sexual desire is usually present.

What it feels like to have: Your patience is shredded. You're on your last nerve all the time. You feel bottled up, ready to explode. Your emotions go from 0-60 a flat second. Confrontations and arguments leave you shaking, in the grips of a panic attack or boiling over with rage. Your mind often wakes before your body does, making you panic you're paralyzed. 

How It's Treated: Anti-Anxiety medications and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Anti-anxieties are also made to be used for up to sixmonths, after six months the body becomes immune. If a patient continue on medication they’ll be switched. These typically help increase the amount of dopamine in your brain. Cognitive-behavioral therapy works on anger management and panic desensitization (learning to calm yourself) primarily.


What it’s like after successful treatment: You learn the power of taking a deep breath. You learn how to slow your thoughts, argue constructively, and calm your panic. Speech patterns change from “you are nuts! You are the problem! You make me so angry!” to “I think we have a problem here. Perhaps we should take a time out and let cooler head prevail.” Therapy can be ongoing, you will have good periods and bad periods all your life, but your feeling of helplessness abates and control returns.


An example of describing a character with itANXIETY WITH ANGER- Frank was just so damn angry all the time, those days. He could never relax. What the hell was with him? He made such a big deal out of everything. Sure, she had burned the pot roast, but she had ordered pizza to save the day. Why did he blow his top? ANXIETY WITHOUT ANGER- Jeanine couldn’t stop shaking. First her boss had chewed her out, now that idiot who’d cut her off rolled down his window and screamed threats. She couldn’t stop shaking. Jeanine swerved the car to the shoulder fighting tears. God, she was so scared. It was over and done, he was up the freeway, but why was she so scared?


Those are the basics of the 3 most common mental disorders in the real world. You will run into people with these disorders time and time again, and many of you will/already have them. Try to write about them with a mind for what the disorder really looks like.


In lifelong conditions such as ADD and ADHD it is possible not to know you have them. For example that haunted feeling I mentioned having I didn’t know until therapy that it was a product of ADHD, not my personality. Also, no one develops ADD or ADHD as an adult, they just go undiagnosed as children and get a diagnosis as an adult. But some people do outgrow ADHD and ADHD, having it as children but not as adults. Lucky bastards.


All three of these disorders are linked to improper brain function and all can be treated with medicine and therapy. However, ADD/ADHD has no cure, and often depression and anxiety will be lifelong wars where battles come and go. By writing about them with sensitivity and understanding you may reach a reader unaware they have the disorder, so please try to show what a difference treatment can make. Doing so can change the world for the reader.


And lastly, remember, in most societies mental problems are highly stigmatized. Most people can’t admit to their friends, loved ones, or coworkers they suffer, and many cannot even admit it to themselves. Remember that women are more likely to seek help than men, but most people will go to their general practitioner for a drug advertised on TV, far fewer ever go to a therapist of psychiatrist.


In part two we conclude the common mental disorders, in part three we’ll cover building a personality and understanding personalities, and in part four we’ll cover how relationships develop. All lessons from psychology that can make your writing stronger. Happy writing!