Tag Archives: wellbeing

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.

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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.

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.

Is living in the city bad for our state of mind?

app picture mechelliMental health problems are more common amongst city dwellers – but why? Is it the stress? The noise? The lack of green spaces? A study involving scientists from King’s College London, architects from J & L Gibbons, artists from Nomad Projects and design experts from the Van Alen Institute, is trying to find out how the urban landscape affects how we feel.

To take part, download their free app, called Urban Mind, which will prompt you at random, seven times a day for seven days, to answer questions about how you feel and where you are. The app gathers geotagging data, and if you choose to you can also upload images and sound files, to give a full sensory picture of your location.

The geotagging – which says where you are – can then be used to compare with existing mapping data to see whether you are in a deprived or affluent area, whether there are many trees or rivers nearby, and even what levels of pollution there are.

Dr Andrea Mechelli, Reader in Early Intervention at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience and lead investigator on the project, hopes the app will enable a rich dataset to be collected.

“This has been developed to look at how the built urban evironment affects our mental wellbeing, Dr Mechelli said. “It’s important because within the area of urban planning and design a lot of decisions are made without much scientific evidence. The longterm aim of the study is to design some policy guidelines in this area.”

Dr Mechelli’s usual area of research is psychosis, and he sees the Urban Mind project as highly relevant to mental illness as well as mental wellbeing. Whilst some people may be genetically more vulnerable to developing certain mental illnesses, environmental stress can be a major trigger to make this more likely.

“Although we’re not looking at mental illness directly we’re looking at something that’s related,” said Dr Mechelli. “We’re all on a continuum, some of us tend to be more anxious, some less so… some may have slight psychotic symptoms that are much more common than we tend to think…. By understanding how the general population responds to the environment we’ll also understand how the environment becomes a risk factor. Longer term the study might reveal how the environment may contribute to the development of mental illness.”

Dr Mechelli, who grew up in a small village but now lives in London, thinks living in the city has many effects, socially, physically and culturally. “There are certainly aspects of urban living that are not very healthy but there are also aspects that can be very positive,” he said. “For example social networks, less risk of social isolation.”

Previous studies have shown downsides to urban life, Mechelli explained: “some aspects of city living are not good for us, for example increased sensitivity to stress and increased vulnerability to many mental disorders.”

Whether we find the city exciting or stressful might depend a lot on our individual characteristics, so Urban Mind asks some initial questions about what we are like and where we grew up to try to understand how this interacts with environmental factors.

Mechelli is excited about the project which he described as a “true cross-sector collaboration” between science, architecture and art. Anyone can download Urban Mind and participate, and Mechelli thinks using the app might make us appreciate the effects of our environment more.

To download the app check out the Urban Mind website. Images from the pilot data are available from the project-related Instagram and will be on exhibition at This Public Life – Festival of Landscape Architecture to be held in Melbourne, Australia, 15-18 October 2015.

For more on how where we are affects how we feel try these pieces on whether green spaces make us more creativehow natural light can make us feel more awake and how hospital architecture can make us feel better or worse.

This piece is cross-posted on Huffington Post UK

Top ten psychology apps

IMG_5986It can be a conversation killer to tell people you’re a psychologist. “Do you go round analysing people?” is a common response. “Are you reading my mind?” is another. Psychology is very people focused. It’s all about us: why we do things, who we are, what we think and feel and how our minds, brains and bodies interact. While this can be disconcerting if you think someone is reading your mind (we’re really not, we’re too busy worrying about our own), there is something intriguing about reflecting on our own and others’ motivations. Most people like the idea of some evidence-based advice on how to lead a happier or better life, and psychology can provide this.

There are loads of apps that claim to use psychological principles to increase wellbeing in some way, encouraging you to keep track of your mood, to manage worry, to influence what you dream about … all sorts. There are others that don’t sell themselves as psychology but draw on psychological principles. Can an app really distil something useful from psychological research and plug you into some life-influencing wisdom? I think some of them can and I review ten of the best here for Observer Tech Monthly.