Category Archives: Random titbits

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

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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.

Compassion-focussed therapy

heart in handsI’ve been reminding myself of some of the basics of compassion-focussed therapy recently, and I thought I’d blog about it because we could probably all use a bit of this. Compassion-focussed therapy is a third-wave CBT approach, which means it has grown out of cognitive behavioural therapy even though it looks quite different to traditional CBT. A key part of it involves learning to show more compassion to ourselves as well as others.

Compassion-focussed therapy draws on neuroscience to explain some of its practices. It highlights three brain systems in particular (for more detail check out Mary Welford’s book Building Your Self Confidence Using Compassion-Focussed Therapy):

  • The threat system: the brain system involved in spotting threat in the environment and preparing us to run, hide, or fight. Back in the day this system helped us spot sabre-toothed tigers. Now we are more likely to experience this as we scan situations for social risks, for work terrors, or relationship frights.
  • The drive and resource acquisition system: the system involved in making us feel motivated to try for things we want and which gives us a sense of achievement when we succeed.
  • The contentment and soothing system: the system involved in attachment to caregivers and affiliation with others. A very social system, and one that kicks in when we are safe, secure and content.

Think about what day to day experiences you are having – run through which tend to activate your threat system, drive system and soothing system… Most work experiences, for example, tend to activate one of the first two.

For many people, especially people experiencing low mood, anxiety, and low self esteem, the contentment and self-soothing system in our brains tends to be less in use than would be optimal for a sense of well being. Connections in our brains get strengthened by use, so if we don’t use a system as much it is also likely to be less easily triggered than the others.

Compassion-focussed therapy helps us to balance the systems out by really focussing on the soothing system and actively practising compassion for ourselves as well as others.

Compassion is defined as a deep sympathy for suffering, alongside a desire to remove that suffering. Kristen Neff, expert in researching compassion, describes it in terms of three key components:

  • Kindness versus judgement: This means kindness in a very active sense of the word – really trying to do what we can to alleviate suffering, either of others, or of ourselves. As well as things that are more traditionally seen as kindness to ourselves (having a break, doing self soothing things) this can also include holding ourselves to account for things like preparing work in advance, doing exercise, eating well, pushing ourselves to try new things even when they feel difficult – things that might feel effortful but which set us up well.
  • Common humanity versus isolation: This is the idea which we might all know, but which is less often felt, that we are all part of a huge human population, all of whom suffer at times.
  • Mindfulness versus over-identification: Noticing how we are in the moment – right now – is vital for knowing if we are suffering and if this is related to our attitude towards ourself.

What can we do about it if we think we are less practised in soothing and self-compassion than we would like? Neff suggests some quick and easy ways to start in a 2 minute video that you can watch here:

  1. Give yourself permission to be kind to yourself. It isn’t selfish, it’s necessary.
  2. Try to notice how you speak to yourself – would I say this to a close friend?
  3. Try writing a letter to yourself as you would to a good friend.
  4. Try using soothing touch when you are feeling stress or suffering – placing your hands on your heart, or face, or clasping your hands together.

World Mental Health Day

blueprint coverToday is World Mental Health Day. I haven’t written on this blog for ages – I’m sorry for the radio silence – but World Mental Health Day has got me back on here. I have been working on a couple of other things which are available or nearly available to read if you’re interested. I’ve written a piece for The Guardian on trauma which you can see here. I’ve also been working on a bigger project this last year or so – a book about child development – all the juicy experiments and theories that I think would be really useful for everyone to know about – and it’s coming out in March. It’s called Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are and it’s available for pre-order on Amazon which is both exciting and terrifying.

nest

World Mental Health day is a great opportunity to pause and think about whether there are ways we could be boosting our own or other people’s mental wellbeing.

It’s easy for simple things that we know are helpful to drift when we’re busy: things like eating well, sleeping enough and being kind to ourselves. It’s easy when we’re stressed and pressurised to forget to ask how others are doing too, and to really listen to what they say when they reply.

Sometimes it can feel overwhelming if someone tells you they’re not feeling ok, and it might leave you feeling helpless – unsure of what to do to help them feel better. But sometimes just the act of asking and listening carefully to the reply is enough. I love this cartoon from Robot Hugs which captures that feeling that someone has really tried to get alongside, not got frustrated by things not getting better immediately. 

The focus of World Mental Health Day this year is mental health in the workplace. Stress at work can be a major problem, in all sorts of professions, and trying to create kinder and more compassionate workplaces is a really important thing that we can all do. It starts with making sure we’re taking care of ourselves, so I hope if you’re reading this it encourages you to think of a kindness you can do for yourself today, as well as something you might be able to do to make a colleague’s life a little easier.

cup

Current status: anticipating

img_3358Anticipation has been described as “emotional rehearsal for possible future situations”. At the moment I am emotionally rehearsing for a holiday to Iceland, getting excited by imagining floating lumps of ice in frozen lakes and exploding geysers.

Research into anticipation shows that we get more excited about picturing a future experience than anticipating a future material purchase. People feel less excited about waiting to receive a shiny thing they have bought than waiting to have an experience they have paid roughly the same amount for.

Studies also suggest that we get more intense feelings of pleasure from anticipating something than we do reminiscing about the same event. The same is also true for negative experiences: our anticipation of them is worse than our recollection of them. Van Boven and Ashworth showed just this in 2007, by devising a series of five experiments, asking people for their recollections and their anticipations of a diverse range of experiences, including a hypothetical skiing holiday, an annoying noise, and menstruation. People’s feelings before all of the events were reported as stronger than their feelings afterwards.

In a similar vein, a classic experiment from the eighties by Loewenstein showed that people were willing to pay three times as much to kiss their favourite celebrity if it was three days in the future, instead of immediately, suggesting they wanted to be able to savour the anticipation of the snog as well as the snog itself.

These studies highlight how much more fun we can get out of doing things than buying things, and they also make me think about the virtue of advance planning. If we can see a positive experience coming towards us from over the horizon then we can squeeze even more pleasure out of it than if it takes us by surprise. It might be worth booking a few more holidays in for next year.

Back to school

leavesIt smells of back to school today. There is something about the change of season from Summer to Autumn that makes me feel, even in my mid-thirties, that I should be buying a new pencil case and trying on new shoes.

Research on memory suggests that smells are very powerful cues. One study, by Willander & Larrson, gave 93 older adults one of three different types of memory cue: a word, a picture, or a smell. The researchers asked the adults to relate any event from their life to the cue. The memories triggered by the smells were older than those triggered by the words or pictures. Smell-triggered memories were mostly from the first 10 years of life, whereas word or picture-triggered memories were most from early adulthood. The older adults who took part reported more of a sense of going back in time with the smells, and also reported that the memories they recalled were ones they hadn’t thought about as much as the memories that the words or pictures brought up.

I remember the night before the new term started as being quite terrifying, even though I liked school in general. I wonder if the smell of Autumn means that there is a collective feeling of that same anticipatory anxiety for us all as grown ups at this time of year. An excuse to have a minor existential crisis and not feel bad about it, perhaps. Or at least to buy a new coat.

 

Backlash against mindfulness

Mindfulness has been written about loads in the last few years. From some of the articles you’d think it was a magical cure all, and perhaps inevitably, it seems to me that recently the worm has turned, and people have got bored, or irritated, with mindfulness.

Only a few weeks ago I was interviewed by a CQC inspector who rolled his eyes when I said that I ran a mindfulness group on the ward where I work. He was fed up of hearing about mindfulness, which reminded my of this piece a few weeks back by Eva Wiseman, on how she’s had enough of mindfulness colouring books being sent to her. To me, the backlash is interesting for a few reasons:

buddha

  1. Reasons behind the backlash. The pattern here feels familiar to me – setting something up to be brilliant then rubbishing it, when the reality is somewhere in the middle (as the evidence base suggests).
  2. The experience. The boredom and irritability that people describe feeling about mindfulness actually reminds me a bit of what it’s like to sit and practice mindfulness sometimes. It isn’t about having a blank mind, it’s about having your mind as usual, watching your mind do its thing, which often is boring, or annoying, and not always calm and peaceful.
  3. The idea of mindfulness having grand claims. Mindfulness itself has never claimed anything – it just is. It isn’t mindfulness practice that has big promises, marketing strategies and glossy packaging. That’s what we, as people, do with it. Mindfulness is just being in the here and now, instead of getting caught up in the past or the future.
  4. Mindfulness aids. You can use a colouring book to do it but you don’t have to. There are a growing number of mindfulness resources, like these books, available, and they are not for everyone, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to use new ways to help people meditate.

One group who are brilliant at explaining mindfulness to children using clever resources (and no colouring books) are the mindfulness in schools project. They use this clip from kung fu panda to explain what mindfulness is. Check it out if you want to see what Ugway is talking about.

If you aren’t bored or irritated by the idea and you want to give it a go then you could try the ubiquitous Headspace app or Mark Williams‘ down to earth introductory book: Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

Mindfulness might not be a panacea, and it might be boring sometimes, but I’d still really recommend it.