Author Archives: psychologymagpie

New Year – ‘one shot’ resolutions and don’t worry how you feel at midnight

new yearNew year is expectation-tastic with its contradictory pressures of having a stonking New Year’s Eve, and then a sanctimonious fresh start on New Year’s Day.  The fantasy is that suddenly, all those things we wanted to be but fell short of last year will suddenly click into place.

In my 20s the focus was mostly on plans for the night of New Year’s Eve. I once spent a New Year on my own. It was great. I made myself spaghetti and wrote a short story. It was good because I had the choice though. Like most things, if you can decide to do something it feels better than if the situation is inescapable. I was alone but I didn’t feel lonely, and I had the luxury of knowing that if I did I could probably run out into the night and find a friend at short notice.

The opposite of loneliness is connection, which we can feel with people even if they aren’t with us, but which is harder to feel when we’re under threat, or when black and white dichotomies in viewpoint make overlaps in perspective harder to spot. Power, territory, and certainty, featured heavily in many of 2018’s conversations instead of curiosity, explanation and a search for connection. I think many of the consequences of those conversations were all the worse for that.

Now that I’m solidly in my late 30s the question of what I’m doing for New Year gets asked much less, but questions about New Year’s resolutions remain.

One view is that New Year is just another day. This might sound like a negative but actually I see it in reverse: we can change things any day we like. Each day, each hour, each moment can be a fresh beginning. The reality of making changes is that it doesn’t happen once and stick. If it did we’d all be doing it. It’s a process, a cycle going round and round as we fall off whatever wagon we’re on and struggle back on again. For me this year I hope to work on many of the same things as last year, and the year before that. That’s not failing, it’s living a life and thinking about it as you go.

The pressure for New Year to be happy, like the pressure for Christmas to be the same, can mean it’s harder to feel contented and easier to feel disappointed or lacking. It’s just another moment though, and whatever we feel at the stroke of midnight on the first of January we can be sure it will be transient.

An interesting alternative view to New Year’s resolutions comes from Lee & Dai’s (2017) paper on how temporal landmarks affect motivation. They found that people do make more changes after time landmarks like the start of a year or just after a birthday. The authors concluded that these landmarks can be helpful, for encouraging a sense of “fresh start” – a sort of ‘line in the sand’ between our old and new selves. The study findings showed that it was hard for people to stick to a change though, and the authors concluded that it might be more helpful to pick a “one shot goal” to take advantage of that spike in motivation that we might get from a new year, or even a new month or week.

Whatever you get up to for New Year, however you feel on the bong of midnight, and whether you pick a goal you want to bosh in the first few weeks of 2019 or not, Happy New Year from me.

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Nostalgia

teacakeThe death of the high street is everywhere at the moment. House of Fraser is in trouble, and its Birmingham branch, formerly Rackham’s, is one of the stores to close. The Exeter branch, formerly the artist known as Dingles, will stay open, though for how long is hard to tell.

I have a nostalgic fondness for department stores. They remind me of going with my mum to have a toasted teacake in the shop cafe as a treat when I was little. Those moments felt really special, oddly grown up, to be in a cafe just us two. The toasted tea cakes always had a lot of butter on, and the loos had a dated picture of a posing woman on the door and those funny sanitary towel bags on top of the cistern which I was too young to know what to do with, but which I admired for their funny Victorian lady on the front.

My mum has memories too, of her and her own mother going to the Rackhams in Brum. Mum took me there as well, when we were up visiting Nan and Grandad, and the cafe felt familiar even though I hadn’t been there before.

Nostalgia is often described as “bittersweet”, it has a sadness and a happiness in it, a pleasurable memory but usually of people or places long gone, like a pleasant dream about someone you loved but who is no longer here.

Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut from the University of Southampton have described nostalgia as a state where the mind is “peopled”, through symbolic connections with important others.

In a series of studies, they induced nostalgia in one group of people by asking them to reflect on a nostalgic event from their lives and write a brief narrative. In a control group of people they asked them to reflect on and write about an ordinary event. They also induced nostalgia with song lyrics, music, or scents.

They found a bunch of differences between how the nostalgic group performed on a range of measures and how the control group did, finding nostalgia tended to be associated with increased motivation to go to new events, optimism, inspiration, creativity and sociable feelings. Reflecting on positively remembered past events in this way seemed helpful for going forward.

This is quite the opposite of the effect of the sort of rumination we can sometimes get into when we are looking back over our shoulder at things we’ve done and chewing over them in a self-critical or despairing way, which often leads to it being harder to do the stuff we want to.

What will be the new department store cafe experience? Where will a stolen moment of pleasure be amongst the hectic day-to-day of necessary bits and bobs? What will be the reassuringly same-y place where you can know what to expect, even if what to expect is a dribbly stainless steel teapot and a bit of a queue?

There is one place where I recently had a similar kind of feeling – an atmosphere that prompted memories of other cups of tea… My money’s on a revival of the garden centre cafe.

Anti-exorcism

rosaryAn article in the Telegraph today interviews Dr Gallagher, a psychiatrist based in the US, all about how he thinks demonic possession is real and exorcism can be helpful.

The article doesn’t give any alternative point of view, or ask Dr Gallagher any particularly challenging questions, so it’s possible to read it and think it’s not that controversial.

The practice of exorcism is worse than controversial though. It’s not a neutral thing to do that might not work but doesn’t cause harm. It’s often frightening for the person and may prevent them from being able to access treatment that can be helpful. It often involves being restrained. The few exorcisms I have heard described to me have been been confusing and frightening at best and brutal and sad at worst. 

The way the psychiatrist in the Telegraph article talks about exorcism uses examples where a person has requested it themselves. This is by no means always the case however. Often the use of exorcism is instigated by families of young people who are experiencing significant mental health problems, for instance psychotic experiences such as hearing voices or seeing things other people can’t see. Whilst people are entitled to make sense of experiences through different frameworks of understanding, if the framework leads to the use of a ritual that is frightening and involves labelling a person as possessed or bad then this is not ok.

Exorcism is also be used when no mental health problems are present, but for some reason the child has still been scapegoated as possessed or evil.

Whether or not a child is experiencing their own mental health difficulties at the time, these scenarios are all abusive, and the London Safeguarding Board has clear guidelines about why this is unacceptable. The guidelines talk about how to work respectfully with faith communities engaging in this, whilst removing risk to the child.

Adults can be vulnerable too, and use of exorcism with adults against their will is just as abusive.

Use of exorcism with freely consenting adults presents more of a complex dilemma: we are all free to make decisions about what we want, but exorcism remains problematic in my view, in the way it offers false hope and possibly delays access to other more evidence-based help for whatever is making someone want to request an exorcism. It also often involves restraint even if it has been requested, which I think has huge potential to be traumatic.

The psychiatrist interviewed in the Telegraph offers “discernment” assessments to say whether or not he recommends exorcism. He is clear that he doesn’t think priests should charge for exorcisms, but he doesn’t state whether he charges for these assessments.  I would be very surprised if these are also free of charge, although I don’t know for sure, and the book on discernment that Dr Gallagher has coming out soon certainly isn’t.

 

Wellbeing for all

Screen Shot 2018-06-01 at 18.28.22A new NHS framework promoting health and wellbeing in healthcare staff was launched mid-May.

The investment of time and resource to write this report is to be celebrated. The framework emphasises the importance of NHS staff wellbeing and gives some concrete ideas for improving working conditions and individual skills to cope with difficult work. These have the potential to be helpful.

However, the report ignores one of the key reasons why this document is needed in the first place: funding constraints.

The NHS is losing staff and the staff it has are under huge pressure, largely due to the mismatch between the funding available to the NHS and the funding needed. The ongoing increased need for healthcare services is well-documented although there is less coverage of how the increasing need is likely linked to the chronic and ongoing cuts to social care and early intervention healthcare.

This framework for helping staff wellbeing highlights some fantastic services where things are working well, including ones with teams dedicated to staff wellbeing and training programmes in place which try to tap into key staff values. In these services there is clear use of staff time and resource fir these purposes. This is as a result of local decisions to prioritise staff wellbeing. The framework itself lacks any ring-fenced funding attached to its suggestions so it relies on already overstretched services choosing to follow its recommendations.

When there is not enough to go around for patients, it is really hard for staff to feel comfortable with using resources for staff wellbeing, even though research has shown associations between staff engagement and better patient experience, as well as reduced staff sickness.

These links between staff and patient wellbeing are important, as are the financial savings which the framework highlights, but staff wellbeing is also important for its own sake. Working in a caring profession is hugely rewarding and also hugely challenging. Occupational risks include compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and burnout. The divide of patient and staff wellbeing is helpful for research into how staff engagement and wellbeing can affect the experience of people using services, but it risks suggesting that these are two separate groups of people who will never overlap. In reality most NHS staff are also NHS patients at some point. All people need health services sometimes, for both mental and physical health problems.

This is a human need, and thinking about how work affects us all is also a human dilemma to consider. The boundary between our professional and personal selves is not always a clear one. It moves, it changes, sometimes it feels more permeable than others. The more we can think of both patients and staff as human beings with broadly similar needs for good care, good communication and realistic expectations, the more successful I think we will be at looking after everyone. The framework is a helpful tool, but to truly champion wellbeing in healthcare services, for everyone involved, takes ring-fenced time and money to show that wellbeing for all is important.

Cuts and knives

knife“This is a complex crime and you cannot arrest your way out of it,” said Amber Rudd this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme, as she talked about the rise in knife crime in young people in London.

I couldn’t agree more that arresting our way out of this is not the answer. But then what is? The rise of violent crime in London’s youth is complex, although sadly not surprising.

The impact of the policy of austerity on young people should not be under-estimated. Cuts to services have been brutal and chronic. Cuts to education maintenance allowance, to social service provision, to youth services such as career advice centres and voluntary sector project groups, to mentoring schemes, to child and adolescent mental health services…  the list is long. These cuts have accompanied the reductions in police numbers which are more highly reported, yet not necessarily more important.

The context that we are raising young people in is one where there are fewer and fewer resources to help them with their education, wellbeing, safety, and emotional understanding, and at the same time one where more and more is being expected of them. More frequent exams, negotiation of digital social landscapes, employment hunting in a world with fewer jobs and more expensive university fees… The environment we have created is one where there is not enough to go round, where there is huge pressure on the individual, and one in which the backdrop of “adult” discussion on the news is routinely of war and violence.

Subsequent discussion on radio 4 this morning mooted the usual suspects: the idea that we could blame knife crime on violent lyrics, or on social media. I’m surprised video games didn’t get a bit of a look in too. Of course it isn’t this simple, and of course we have more responsibility.

In the clinical settings I have worked in the violence I have witnessed has often been related to fear: a fear of being hurt, of not knowing what will happen next, of being out of control, of not knowing who to trust. Training on managing situations where someone is likely to be violent included making sure that they had a way out of the room: that they didn’t feel trapped.

What ways out are we giving young people? How are we helping them with the people and things that they are afraid of?

This problem is complex, and there is also lots more we could be doing to unpick it. The under-funding of key services mean we are raising a generation with fewer opportunities and under greater pressure. It is hard to statistically model the effects of all of the different ingredients of this cocktail, although it’s important to try, but in the absence of a clear cause of rising youth violence, I think we could be doing more to call out the common sense explanations and to do something about these. Looking at police capacity to be present is one thing, and likely important, but we can go much further than this – and look at how to increase the numbers of youth workers, youth services and youth opportunities that are available. 

Supermoon!

Supermoon by Adrian Scottow

Image by Adrian Scottow

It was a Supermoon the other night and I was admiring it and thinking about how the moon looks like it is glowing, when in fact it is reflecting light from the sun.

It made me think about how things are not always what they appear to be, and how it’s possible to view the same thing in different ways, sometimes depending on what other information is available to us.

Optical illusions are a nice example of seeing things differently. The duck-rabbit, for example, which can be either a duck or a rabbit depending on how you look at it or what you expect to see.

rabbduck

The old woman/young woman (at the bottom of the page) is another example where you can see two different images depending on how you are looking at the picture. 

How we perceive situations and relationships can be similarly tricksy. The same situation can be interpreted in a variety of ways, often depending on how we are feeling that day.

If I send a text message and my friend doesn’t reply for a bit I could have different perceptions about what that means: they might want to reply but be really busy, they might be cross with me, they might not have good phone reception, they might have injured their thumbs, they might have run off to join the circus…. there are multiple possibilities, some more likely than others. We often jump to one conclusion pretty quickly though, without considering other options or weighing up the relative likelihoods of different scenarios. Those conclusions can be problematic if they are overly negative or self-critical – the ones where we assume someone hates us, for example.

Some useful things to try if you catch yourself jumping to a conclusion:

  • how much do you believe that conclusion?
  • try to weigh up the evidence for and against that conclusion
  • force yourself to generate some other possibilities too
  • weigh up the evidence for and against the new possibilities
  • ask yourself what you would say to a friend if they were jumping to your original conclusion?
  • check in again – how much do you believe that first conclusion now?

old young woman

Guilty pleasures and are pets good for us?

dog grooming

Photo by Ricky Brigante

I’ve been indulging in a guilty pleasure recently: binge-watching The Apprentice. I don’t have a telly and tend not to watch loads, but when I do I really get into it. The Handmaid’s Tale, Bake Off, and now Alan Sugar and his job applicants…

There is something I enjoy about watching the naked ambition and downright competitive nastiness of the candidates. Every series someone says “I’m not here to make friends”, which is blatantly obvious in the scenes in the boardroom where they are all fighting for their place in the competition and passing the blame.

A recent episode combined the pleasure of reality tv with the pleasure of seeing loads of pets, because the candidates had to work in a pet grooming parlour. Dogs were having blueberry facials and pawdicures, and attending doggy dancing lessons (it was great).

There’s a lot that gets said about pets and happiness, and people generally tend to presume that having a pet boosts your wellbeing. The evidence on this is mixed though, as Harold Herzog, from Western Carolina University, found out when he reviewed it in 2011. Although there are many studies which show associations with better physical health, happiness and wellbeing, there are also many studies showing no impact on loneliness, or even worse, adverse effects on some physical health measures. Herzog concludes that we just don’t know enough about whether pets are good for us, although he acknowledges that his review doesn’t consider the benefits of therapy dogs and cats (which do seem to be helpful in a range of settings).

Thankfully, Herzog wrote as a call for more research (which still applies today) rather than trying to put the dampeners on the idea of getting a pet. It’s more a “we just don’t know” whether pets will make us happier or healthier, than a warning against getting one. Whether or not a pet will make us feel happier or healthier probably depends on a lot of individual factors relating to how much we like animals, how much the specific pet influences our exercise routine and what the reasons for getting the pet are in the first place.

As for why watching The Apprentice seems to make me feel happier – pets or no pets – that’s one to mull over another week.