British Psychologist, bestselling author, entrepreneur and speaker. This is my blog sharing ideas, thoughts and research about behaviour.
The number of teenage suicides in England and Wales increased by 67% between 2010 and 2017. At the same time the number of US teens who experienced symptoms of depression rose 33%. Researchers have found that this rise is directly proportional to an increase in smart phone usage and thereby social media.
I became interested in psychology when trying to find the solution to my own issues as a teenager. Being a troubled teen is nothing new. What is worryingly ‘new’ is the impact that our world is having on this susceptible group. This scares, no terrifies me – I have two daughters, one about to enter her teenage years plus a nephew and niece knocking on the door of adolescence.
Taking social media specifically, how and why is it having such a massive impact? A simple framework to remind us how to protect our mental health is the 5 a day. Below I’ve explained how social media undermines each of these factors and written some brief suggestions for parents of teens (although the same applies to adults – for more click here).
Connecting with Others– is essential to our emotional well-being. You could say it’s as important as the air we breath is to our physical being. Without connection, we live continually in survival mode (i.e. stressed out). Our brain evolved to depend on others and to belong to a group.
Social media allows us to connect – to message, to re-connect with old friends, to make new ones, to share worries, but not at the level our brain requires. Take for example the neurotransmitter Oxytocin which plays a critical role in bonding with others, underlies trust and regulates social interaction. Oxytocin also acts as an ‘antidote to depressive feelings’. This is so important in teenagers that their brain actually increases the volume of receptors for Oxytocin. But social media doesn’t stimulate the release of Oxytocin in the way that face-to-face interaction does, hence leaving an immediate void.
Added to this adolescence provides the platform to develop emotional intelligence. Each interaction provides a tiny subconscious lesson which enables the brain to fine tune understanding through trial and error. Without this the brain just doesn’t learn. As a result, it becomes more difficult to connect with people in the real world. The knock-on effect of this that it limits a teens ability to communicate issues, worries and concerns which is essential to prevent anxieties spiralling out of control.
– Encourage them to invite their friends round to your house and to leave their phones in the kitchen.
– Socialise as a family, perhaps invite friends with similar age teens. Then encourage everyone to put their phones down including the adults.
Giving Back. Social media provides a barrier to giving back. While a teen may encourage another friend to ‘follow’ someone or make comments like ‘you are my bestie’ this doesn’t stimulate the bits of the brain that giving a hug or listening to a friend pouring out their heart does. Giving back has the most positive impact on the brain when it’s done in real life.
– Encourage your teen to think of ways that they can give back. It may be as simple as being kind to or helping a sibling with homework.
Learning and Curiosity. It’s easy to get lost for hours scrolling through Instagram images or a twitter feed but that doesn’t teach us much other than who said what to whom and what Kim Kardashian is wearing. Learning, being curious and digging deeper are just not encouraged by social media. It is by its very nature meant to be quick and surface level, not reflective and deep.
– Help your teen find the things that they love in ‘real life’ and encourage them to investigate (curiosity) opportunities to do those things, then help make that possible.
Being Mindful in brain terms means disengaging from the busy chatter in the emotional, reactive part of our brain. However social media actually stimulates the fast thinking bit of the brain having the opposite effect to being mindful. Without carrying out mindful activities (e.g. singing, colouring, walking outside) we cannot develop the ability of the more advanced areas of our brain to manage our emotions. This provides another mechanism by which anxiety and mental ill health can take hold.
– Help them to understand what being mindful means and explore the what works for them . For example, my eldest daughter likes colouring but cannot stand listening to the ‘mindfulness app’ where as my youngest wants to listen to ‘the man’ (i.e. Headspace) most bed times.
Physical activity is something else our physiology has evolved to thrive on. Being active rids our bodies and brains of harmful chemicals such as the stress hormone cortisol. It’s hard however to be active and use social media at the same time. Good in that getting active limits our phone use, bad in that more social media means more chemical toxins build up in the brain.
– Get them outside doing something physically active. Encourage them to try different things until they find something they love.
In short – social media is bad for mental health and particularly harmful to teenagers. The easiest antidote is to think through how our brain and body evolved to live and encourage anything that fits with that e.g. being outside, spending hours sitting and chatting to friends, exploring……I’d love to hear your thoughts.
There are many other exacerbating factors when it comes to social media, including but not limited to:
- negative images normalising behaviours such as anxiety, self-harm and suicide
- real life social norms being removed allowing people to be bullied and trolled
- the addictive nature of social media drawing away from ‘real life’
- the number of likes and followers becoming an obsessional measurement of who we are
My book Defining You which is about understanding yourself better (to improve both mental health and performance) via a range of psychological tools, is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.com, amazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.
Links & References:
When flicking through Linkedin and twitter do you ever get the feeling that you are being bombarded with the same message over and over again? I do. It struck me first when I was doing my business masters many years ago. I felt like the theories were repeating themselves while being vaguely morphed and renamed to suit the current context. The fact that philosophers such as Lao Tzu uttered words regarding leadership thousands of years ago (e.g. 600BC) that have stood the test of time is case in point:
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
A few years later when I did my MSc in psychology I got the same feeling. While the theories we were learning were adapted and updated the words that resonated centuries before still make sense. Take for example:
“Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil.” Plato
“Time is the wisest counselor of all.” Pericles
And the one perhaps most relevant to today:
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates
It makes sense that these still make sense. After all people are people and the human brain has evolved very little (if at all) over the centuries, so the fundamentals of good leadership, behaviour, citizenship remain largely unchanged. What threatened people centuries ago will threaten today, what motivated then will motivate today. The difference in 2019 is the environment we live in. The rate of change itself and the volume of data we have to deal with is increasing exponentially. As a result those fundamentals of behaviour once central to people’s way of life are getting lost in an onslaught of fads and surface level demands
What the 21st century also brings is the ability to research what works and what doesn’t, an improving capability to look at the brain (which often helpfully confirms what we have thought to be true and dismisses the theories sitting on the peripheries) and centuries of experience on which to draw. And yet we don’t.
Surely we should return to those fundamentals that have been uttered over thousands of years, resisting the need to continually rename and reframe which simply leads to concepts becoming diluted into a myriad of un-actionable ideas. Shouldn’t we instead refine and build on what has been ‘evidenced’ to be true, adapting only in order to meet the demands of the world we live in. It’s a bit like remodelling a house to keep it up to date, rather than knocking it down and building it from scratch every few years. When it comes to behaviour taking this approach would allow us to advance our understanding both as individuals in order to really leverage our potential, and as a society.
What could you do to help this and to help yourself?
- Check your sources. Is the information you’re taking on board from a well-meaning idea junky or something that’s properly tried and tested through either the passage of time or scientific research. What do I mean? Well take meditation – a technique that has been passed down through generations with benefits now backed by scientific research. Today we have hundreds of mindfulness apps to choose from. Some are based on proper research and knowledge (e.g. Headspace) which help people to actually learn how to meditate and progress their mental robustness. Others are just nice to listen to but really don’t do much. It’s really important to find out whether what you are using works otherwise it’s just like throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks.
- Understand what’s core to who you are as a human (i.e. here the same philosophical texts and the functioning of the brain is true for all of us). Everyone is trying to come up with something new, a different angle to try and get themselves heard – but if you capture the key principles, you can filter the information coming at you. This will allow you to pull out what is truly useful (using the techniques above), what is actually new and what will really help underpin a positive life.
- Capture what’s core to you as a unique individual. While your preferences, goals, and areas for growth will morph and evolve through your life – your values, personality, natural strengths, narrative and purpose will remain more stable and consistent. So, it’s worth capturing these. You may think that they’re obvious but we forget them and without having them front of mind it’s easy to lose our way and impossible to perform at our best.
My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.com, amazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.
Image source: petponder.com
I was recently asked to write for ‘The Sisters’ magazine by the wonderful and truly amazing around the world rower Roz Savage. Here’s what I said…..
Over the course of my career I’ve worked as a psychologist with leaders from all walks of life. I love my work, and I’ve always had a deep-seated desire to share what I’ve learnt with a wider audience which has become a large part of my life’s mission. My starting point was writing Defining You, a book which shares the tools and insights I’ve gained from my work and garnered from psychologists across the world with people across the world. In this article, I wanted to share with you a snapshot of what makes female leaders successful and how that could help you.
As a psychologist, I’m often asked if I see differences between the sexes. What I’ve observed is that women, more or less without exception, have higher levels of self-doubt than men. Yet female leaders also tend to be the feistiest of their peer group. Hearing the life stories of hundreds of women, I’ve learnt of exceptional grit: the girl who at school stood up against the bully in spite of the repercussions on her own life or the girl who refused to let dire circumstances prevent her from fulfilling her intellectual capability. Many of these gutsy and spirited girls go on to make it to the top of their field as women. Women who, nevertheless, still have a lower self-esteem than men. So, where does that leave the rest of us? How do we fulfil our potential? Do we have to develop a cast-iron sense of will and capability to stand up against the odds?
Not at all. While those women who do ‘succeed’ in leadership may not fit the norm, they don’t necessarily tower above other women in terms of confidence. What they do have is an accurate level of self-awareness. I say accurate because this is something we women tend to get wrong, focussing more on our weaknesses than our strengths. While it may seem counterintuitive to know your strengths and not be self-confident, they are separate entities. So, it’s worth understanding yourself better as it can help you get to wherever it is you want to go.
Reflecting on our strengths can feel uncomfortable and is an area that women often struggle with. When we’re good at something, there is a tendency for it to just feel like it’s ‘something we do’ – that there’s nothing special about it. Because it comes easily to us, we don’t realise that it’s not something that everyone can do. We also often move away from these things, focussing on what we’re not doing well or even what we don’t like or enjoy, rather than celebrating what we’re good at. As a result, we don’t make the most of our strengths and can end up going down the wrong path.
As a personal example, I loved psychology and studied it at university. I also had an interest in business, so I did a business Masters. Then I made the mistake of doing what I thought was the ‘best next step’ – joining a business consultancy, which didn’t make use of my natural strengths or interests. As I gradually became more miserable, I realised I had to leave. I went back to university to become a Chartered Psychologist. Now I love what I do and although I have self-doubts, if I hadn’t pursued this career, I wouldn’t have been able to help all the people I have, I wouldn’t have written a book that I hope will help even more people, and I wouldn’t have been able to focus on giving back. Instead I would have been a ‘reasonable’ management consultant, not an exceptional one, not fully making use my natural strengths, and not very happy. I don’t hold myself up as a gleaming example, but this gives you a flavour of what I mean.
Of course, it’s important to know what we’re not so good at, where we can grow and develop, and what to watch out for in terms of tendencies that can trip us up. But that doesn’t mean we throw ourselves headlong into something that goes totally against the grain. When it comes to ‘weaknesses’ it’s important to initially identify the things we need to be aware of and that may never change. For example, I have a tendency to burst with ideas when I’m talking to people. Consequently, I often butt in or speak over others in my excitement. This for me is a crucial behaviour that I need to be aware of. I’ve tried to change it, but I can’t, so I accept it as part of who I am and am very conscious of managing it. Next, it’s about looking at which expertise to develop in order to do what we love. For example, to do psychology I had to go back to university. Then, and this can be the hardest part, it’s knowing what to leave behind. For me that was trying to be a good management consultant which was just never going to fit with who I truly am.
Some of these questions may help you think through your own passions and strengths, and help you identify areas for development:
Do you still love doing the same things that you got lost in for hours in as a child? Maybe you haven’t engaged with those things for years or you could use them in different ways now.
Which jobs and responsibilities have you most loved and most hated?
What is working well for you in your current life and career? What do you find fulfilling, meaningful, enjoyable, and important? What drains you, makes you stressed and anxious, or wastes your time?
What are the tendencies you have that you don’t think will ever change? How can you be more aware of them and stop them from getting in your way?
What do you need to develop in order to do what you want? How will you do that?
Talking to a friend to explore who you are may help. Be open-minded, curious, and enjoy. Choose your path, leverage your strengths, and reach for the stars!
My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.com, amazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.
Photo Credit: Pexels.com
New year’s resolutions should be no different to the goals we make at any time of year in order to move closer to who we want to be, how we want to operate and what we want to achieve. The problem is, as soon as its new year we all go a bit mad and create a long list of things that we feel will appease us from the sins of Christmas and New Year. Inevitably we then fail and feel rubbish about ourselves as a result. The reason is, making goals at any time needs to fulfil certain behavioural considerations. I hate the term but they really do need to be ‘SMART’ otherwise they just won’t work. So, for those who are making resolutions, I thought this extract from my book may help. Good luck and happy 2019!!
Key points to consider before you start:
- Don’t try to change too many behaviors at once. It just won’t work, and the sense of failure you will inevitably feel as a result could prevent you from living out your purpose effectively.
- The changes you are aiming to make should take you out of your comfort zone and stretch you, but shouldn’t push you to extreme discomfort. It’s better to take smaller, successful steps than a giant leap.
- Pick the things that you feel intrinsically motivated to work on (as opposed to doing it because you feel you ought to or someone else has told you to).
The headings below are the areas you should consider with each resolution you set. The italics provide an example of what sort of thing you may want to write.
Goal: Becoming more empathic.
The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to fill out the remainder of the plan so this may be expanded to:
I’m going to work on my empathy to become better at relating to other people when I’m feeling stressed and under pressure.
What will success look like and what will the positive outcomes be?
Becoming a more effective influencer and forming more positive relationships.
What obstacles may I come up against and what can I do about them?
Internal obstacles e.g., feeling demotivated, having self-doubt, fear, anger, anxiety. Frustration and impatience. Action to overcome: create a trigger that reminds me to take a step back
External obstacles e.g. lack of money, lack of time, lack of skills, health constraints.
Need to gain skills in the area of communicating more effectively.
Which strengths can I make use of to help me?
Interest in other people
Ability to listen
Desire to grow as a person
Action and by when? How can I break down my goal into smaller steps, how can I action those steps, and when by?
Take the overall area for goal and make it into something that you can carry out a step at a time. It’s very important to make your actions ‘time-bound,’ setting a day, date, and even a time for each of them where you can.
- Make sure that I am consciously listening to people at least once a day. Start doing this in my first meeting of the day from tomorrow and continue for two months, until March 3rd.
- Show empathic curiosity, really try to understand what the other person is saying and putting myself in their shoes. Continue doing step 1 and from March 3rdbuild in step 2 once a day for two months, until May 3rd.
- Go on a communication and influencing course by July 2019.
- Bring the understanding I get from the course into my everyday communications—continue with steps 1 and 2 and build the information into the company presentations I’m doing on August 31, thinking through how best to get the message across so that people can connect with it.
What will my review mechanism be?
You need to know how you’re doing against your specific goals, otherwise you don’t know how close or far away you are from achieving them. Measuring behavior change can be tricky, but there are some simple methods you can use, like rating yourself, asking for feedback, and logging progress.
- Check I’ve completed the actions above by the specified date.
- Ask for feedback from people who work with me.
- Make a log in my diary of the interactions I have every day.
- Rate myself out of 10 in terms of how I think I’m progressing.
TIPS TO HELP
- Create reminders: reminder for your specific actions somewhere that you will see frequently, e.g., on your daily to-do list, in your diary, an alarm on your phone. This is a small but critical step – the difference between making something happen and just thinking about it.
- Create a cue: tie the actions into something you do every day, e.g., if your goal is to start flossing your teeth, use brushing your teeth as a reminder.
- Reward yourself: every time you achieve success, however small. The reward should be something that will really provide you with personal satisfaction.
- Enlist social support: ask a friend, relation, colleague, or even a member of the community to encourage and support you.
- Persist: repetition is key to making a behavior stick. Research has shown that it can take from 15 to 254 days to truly form a new habit.
My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.com, amazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.
Photo Credit: Brooke Lark Unsplash
In the summer of 2017 I was writing my book to a very tight deadline amidst being a parent, keeping my business running and life in general (which tends to be busier today for all of us than ever before). As an outlet to help me think and stop me going completely bonkers I decided that I needed to run every day. This was great until one day I made the very bonkers decision to take the dog with me. She pulled me over, it hurt but I didn’t think much more of it. I didn’t after all have time. Although it kept hurting, I kept running every day – strapping my ankle tighter and tighter.
After a few weeks I had no choice but to see my physio on the fourth session announced that I needed to see a specialist. This required an appointment with the GP, the specialist himself, further appointments to have x-rays and MRI and yet another appointment to find out the results. By this time, it was October of 2017.
The consultant said that I’d snapped a ligament and needed surgery which would be followed by a ‘long slow recovery’. But – you guessed it, I didn’t have time for that. So instead I continued with life, went on two snowboarding trips and continued to try to exercise on and off. Still in pain by April 2018 I realised that maybe I should get something done. I found the best specialist in London thinking he may give me a different opinion – but a snapped ligament is a snapped ligament. Alas – I still needed surgery and “should expect a long slow recovery”.
This however I really didn’t have time for. I was told that the first 6 weeks I’d been in a cast and not able to drive. So, once again I put it off. By October 2018 I conceded that something needed to be done. By then the damage was worse – the surgeon had to reconstruct muscles and tendons around my ankle, the long slow recovery was, because of my ‘busyness’ going to be even longer and slower.
The lesson learnt may seem obvious but it’s so important to make time. Make time for getting things checked and sorted otherwise you a) waste even more time b) make things much harder for yourself and those around you and c) worst of all risk your health.
The same is true for so many things. We just don’t have time to….
- go for a run
- read a book
- go to the gym
- cook healthy meals
- meet a friend for lunch
- see relatives
- have a nap when we’re exhausted
- start a new hobby
- reflect on personal development
- go for a walk and, and, and………
But we should. This is self-care and self-care is critical.
I was recently asked to comment on an article for Vitality headed ‘Self-Care beyond the bath bomb’. The article points out that self-care typically conjures up images of self-indulgence, spa days, candles around the bath, time locked away from reality etc., but that’s not what self-care is about. The NHS take self-care seriously but the angle differs quite significantly from the stereotype:
‘Self-care is about keeping fit and healthy, understanding when you can look after yourself, when a pharmacist can help, and when to get advice from your GP or another health professional. If you have a long-term condition, self-care is about understanding that condition and how to live with it.’ NHS England
This is much more about our overall health (which includes mental health) and points to exactly what I didn’t do. I didn’t make time. It’s a difficult shift because for our parents’ generation (assuming you’re my age) were led to believe that you just got on with things like ‘pulling yourself together’ if you’re depressed or struggling on without seeing the doctor if you’re ill. Today we know that it’s not a healthy approach but the ‘way of doing things’ has seeped into the way we see the world.
How often do you put off seeing the doctor, having your eyes tested or other personally important matter because you just don’t have time? But what would happen if for example you missed the indicators for cancer because you put off an appointment? It’s not just you who is impacted, it’s your family, friends, employer, colleagues. Especially if something that could be dealt with earlier on then becomes more serious and takes longer to recover from (my ankle is point in case) or worse still. We need to try and shake the JFDI attitude that we’ve been brought up and start to take care of ourselves.
What are you too busy to do?
- It could be helpful to write a list and then prioritise the things that really need to be dealt with.
- Commit to doing something on the list every day (starting with the most important to your physical and mental health) that you would normally say ‘I don’t have time to’ and do it for a week or two.
I’d love to hear what happens….
N.B. Whilst dispelling the myths of self-care your most important thing may well be having a bath with a bath bomb thrown in – if that’s what helps you to feel good.
I’d recommend adidas global ambassador Adreinne’s new podcast The Power Hour (and not just because I’m an upcoming guest but because she’s awesome) where various busy people (e.g. Ella of Deliciously Ella) tell Adrienne how they make more time for the things that matter.
Rightly or wrongly, a young slim female is seen as more pleasing than an older bigger woman. As women we chase this while arguably men and society perpetuate our need to. Beauty promises the fulfilment of many of our deep-seated psychological drivers: a need to be judged as attractive, to have sex, to remain in a relationship and to feel validated by our social groups. This desire to be attractive is startling when measured in economic terms.
– Globally, our investment in appearance totals over £122 billion a year with spending on everything from make-up, clothes, shampoo to facials, manicures, hair styling and dental work.
– Research published by the AS Watson group in 2013 showed that women, over a lifetime, spend an average of £18,000 on products for their face. In the same year, the average income for women in the UK was £23,100.
– In 2012, when the UK was in recession, cosmetic surgery procedures totalled 43,162 with women accounting for 90.5% of the figure (British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons).
This all stems from a primitive driver which our rational brain may view as superficial or insignificant. So why can’t we just rise above these more primitive instincts? In large part because it’s biological, but also because it’s become ingrained in our culture.
Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, is someone we’d expect to be celebrated for her intellectual capability. In 2012, Beard wrote and presented the BBC 2 documentary Meet the Romans which helped make Roman history more accessible and received accolades for Beard became who became one of the few intellectuals able to entertain and educate at the same time.
However, critics focused not on her subject matter, which she so skilfully brought to life, but her appearance.
“For someone who looks this closely at the past, it is strange she hasn’t had a closer look at herself before stepping in front of the camera. Beard coos over corpses’ teeth without apparently noticing she is wearing them. The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment.”
This scathing review shows our tangled attitudes towards beauty and appearance. Tweets included: ‘she looks like a human scarecrow’, ‘Can’t she brush her hair?’, ‘Did she try to look so haggard?’ and ‘Shouldn’t she be sexing herself up a bit?’ And it wasn’t just men, TV producer Samantha Brick said: ‘Ms Beard is too ugly for TV … The greatest tragedy isn’t Ms Beard’s wild hair, ungainly posture or make-up free face: it’s the fact that the BBC didn’t offer her guidance on her appearance in the first place.’
Unfortunately, attractiveness often supersedes what a woman can offer to the world beyond her sexual worth. Despite this advanced civilisation we live in, with our apparent respect for sophisticated meaning-driven values, the male brain still harbours primitive impulses that override the best intentions and society gets caught up in this way of thinking.
Australian psychologists Ronay and von Hippel did an experiment to look at what’s happening at a biological level. They set up in a skateboard park in Brisbane to observe 96 male skateboarders, with an average age of 22. They asked the boarders to choose one easy trick (one they could do well on most attempts) and one difficult trick (one they were still learning and they could do well approximately 50% of the time). They did each trick 10 times whilst being filmed by a male researcher. Following a break, they were then asked to make ten more attempts of both tricks again. Some of the skateboarders did them for the male researcher, while the others did them in front of an attractive 18-year-old female (who had been rated as attractive using widely recognized scientific criteria).
The skateboarders took far greater risks on the difficult trick when the girl was watching and testosterone levels were significantly higher among the guys who skateboarded in front of the attractive girl than the ones who skateboarded in front of the male researcher. This experiment shows that young men will risk physical injury to impress an attractive young female.
The critique of Beard – scorning her for not matching up to idealised standards of female beauty – is the flipside of the same impulse. It’s where the idea of the beautiful young princess and ugly old ‘witch’ which permeates fairy tales has come from; arguably a primitive and unhealthy attitude to attraction.
The reality is that Mary Beard may look pleasant to some people and unattractive to others. The serious concern is that her appearance apparently disqualified her from doing her job even though she was fronting a serious documentary about Roman culture, not presenting a game show. It shows how our survival-driven approval of youth and beauty has a nasty flipside: disrespect towards those who are seen to embody unattractiveness, disfigurement or age. However, as the backlash against the critiques faced by Beard, the public support that ensued also demonstrates that some people are able to override these impulses. After all, a lot of us pride ourselves on ‘not judging a book by its cover’.
What did you think when you saw the photo on this blog? Little girl or little boy? It’s a girl called Sky Brown who’s one of the youngest professional skateboarders in the world. You may not have, but we do tend to quickly judge and often incorrectly based on societal expectations and primitive responses.
I like my book cover (I didn’t design it) – but what about the contents? Find out for yourself –
Defining You is on offer in the USA and Canada for $3.99 from 19th November to 3rd December with all major eBook retailers.
In the UK it’s available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Also available on amazon.com, amazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.
Last summer we drove from Yosemite to Santa Monica through acres and acres of smouldering forest, the smell of charcoal and smoke filling the air, the landscape black and barren. This week fires have raged through Northern and Southern California, killing 44 as I write, with an expectation of the death toll rising. But sadly, California is not alone – Somalia, Kenya, and other East African countries have experienced below average rainfall since the late 1990s, contributing to a 30% reduction in crop yields and famines. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of hurricanes and destructive weather events across the world. Even the UK is having longer hotter summers. The UN recently issued a report warning that we only have 12 years to stop the ‘irreversible damage to the Earth.’ We should surely be harnessing any means possible to prevent this furious catastrophe from happening, yet psychology is often overlooked.
What’s psychology got to do with it?
Dr Gifford at the University of Victoria B.C. is among psychologists beginning to shout louder about the potential of the field when it comes to mitigating these issues saying:
“Climate change is a human problem. It’s the result of 7.6 billion people making decisions every single day.” But we don’t fully realise that “makes it a psychological problem.”
It really is that straight forward. This month’s Monitor on Psychology published by the APA (American Psychological Association) talks about the part psychology should be playing and how it has to date been applied in a patchy and ad hoc manner. The cynic in me would say that our use of ‘applied psychology’ is focussed more heavily on how to get consumers to buy things and engage with tech. Ironically the job of psychologists is made harder from the intensity of the technology in our environment and the human disconnect with the natural world. Put most simply – when we have our head stuck in answering e-mails, we’re unlikely to remember to turn the light off.
Here are just a few of the ways in which psychology can be used:
- Help organisations to help employees. Organisations are a direct route to making hugely impactful changes, in part because of the number of people in employment. Making strategic use of knowledge when it comes to human drivers e.g. competition and peer pressure, can help us to foster sustainable behaviour even beyond the office. For example, one U.S. non-profit (Cool Choices) created a contest where teams of employees competed for points by engaging in sustainable behaviours at home. Simple activities such as installing low-flow showers and swapping bulbs for low energy LEDs. The results were analysed to find that employees reduced their household electricity use even 6 months after the ‘game’ had ended. This one small example shows the impacts of understanding psychology on sustainability both during and after the study took place (due to habituation).
- Work with cities. Cities are another hub through which large and effective interventions can be introduced. Work with local policy makers and city councils can help leaders to understand how to reduce carbon footprint through using psychology. This may for example take on the form of educating people and then making it clear who else in communities understand the issues. What does this do? Engages peoples’ need to adhere to social norms – they then use what they’ve learnt and it becomes part of their everyday behaviour and a societal norm.
- Carry out more research into when and why people engage in sustainable behaviour. Psychologist Dr. Suzanne Holt Ballard is co-founder of Future Cities Lab which collaborates with cities worldwide on issues relating to sustainability, citizen health and well-being. They are analysing data relating to air pollution, climate and human activity patterns in cities such as New York and Paris. They will then map the connections between urban design, human mobility and health research to allow future ‘smart cities’ to not only reduce the output of fossil fules but also encourage citizens to make healthy personal choices.
- When and why they don’t –take for example the role of ‘fast fashion’. The BBC recently aired a documentary featuring presenter Stacey Dooley which highlighted the impact on the environment of, most surprisingly to me, cotton production. The huge volumes of water used to process cotton dry up local water sources and the pesticides damage ecosystems. Yet, when my daughter wants to get that t-shirt from H&M I will be as guilty as the next person of saying ‘OK’ rather than suggesting a more expensive and sustainable product. Why? Well that’s complicated and for another blog….
- Use tech and AI –while on the one hand tech is part of the problem, leveraging psychological knowledge in the development of tech and AI could enable hugely impactful solutions. At the individual end of the scale simple there’s home tech like the ‘smart’ thermometers which can reduce energy usage. At the other end of the scale using ‘big data’ should allow psychologists to analyse far richer sets of information, collecting data at a scale and volume that without technology would just not be feasible. The outputs of this will help to generate more insightful and accurate answers on what works, for whom, where and why in order to focus on behaviour change interventions that really work.
The UN are beginning to understand the role of psychologists play enlisting their help writing the next report for 2021 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). But we tend to forget how central the role of psychology and in this area which is in such dramatic need of attention it can only be a good thing. Psychology seems to simple, so common sense but the subtleties involved really require people who are trained to understand in order to optimise their use. Psychology really can and should have a lot to do with addressing climate change.
References and links:
BBC 3 – Stacey Dooley’s ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bn6034
Henderson, R. M., Reinert, S. A., Dekhtyar, P., & Migdal, A. (2015). Climate Change in 2018: Implications for Business. risk, 1.
Ro, M., Brauer, M., Kuntz, K., Shukla, R., & Bensch, I. (2017). Making Cool Choices for sustainability: Testing the effectiveness of a game-based approach to promoting pro-environmental behaviors. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 53, 20-30.
Weir, K. (2018) Building a Sustainable Future, 49 (5) 48.
Weir, K (2018) Climate Change is Our Call to Acton, 49 (10) 43.
Photo taken in Mariposa, California
Having just spoken to a journalist about mental health 5 a day and also raising it on a podcast last week I wanted to re-share this post – it’s a great reminder for us all. It’s not my idea – it was the NHS who came up with it but it’s such a simple and helpful concept. Yet it’s not ‘getting out there’ so here’s my contribution…..
As a society we’re well aware of how important our physical health is but tend to brush our mental health aside. Yet at any given time one in six adults have a mental health problem, amounting to an economic cost of £77 billion a year.
We all strive to be happy and want the same for others; yet we tend to cower at the mention of anything to do with mental health. Why is that? In my experience it’s because:
– we’re scared to look too closely – we don’t know what we’ll uncover so we keep things shut away
– we misunderstand mental health – society encourages us to ‘be strong’, not to admit to feeling fear, sorrow or anything negative (which when you know how the brain works, is actually extremely unhelpful)
– we de-prioritize mental health – thinking “I’ll get to it tomorrow, it doesn’t impact my job, life, health as much as other immediate concerns”
– we think it’s common sense so doesn’t need our attention – but on the other hand we don’t know how to behave in a way that’s helpful.
So what’s the answer?
If you follow my blog (and general ranting) you’ll know that my main aim in life is to find answers, unfortunately there’s no quick solution. However, last week a friend and fellow psychologist Louise Jones introduced me to the Mental Health 5 a Day. It isn’t a magic bullet, but it does effectively pull together fundamental aspects of keeping our head healthy.
What is our Mental Health 5 a Day?
Our brain hasn’t evolved for 50,000 years and a fundamental need of our ancient brains is to belong. When we are isolated from other people it has a hugely negative impact on our brains dramatically undermining our well-being. However extensive research shows that social support can dramatically improve our mental health.
What you can do:
- Make a continued effort with your closest friends and family
- Listen and be in the moment with people rather than thinking of what you’re going to say next
- Pick up the phone rather than sending an e-mail
- Speak to someone you may normally rush away from
- Be Active
In 2006 I did a study (Bunce & Murden, 2006) which showed the impact of continued physical activity on protecting the frontal lobe of the brain, the bit that helps us to plan and organize and more importantly to regulate our emotions. Exercise has also been shown to ward off depression, decrease anxiety and rebalance the hormones in our bodies.
What you can do:
- Use the stairs, park your car further away from your destination, get up and move every 45 minutes
- Find an activity which you genuinely enjoy instead of forcing yourself to do something you hate – if you like gardening do that rather than going for a run, and remember that a little everyday is more effective than one big burst
- Set yourself a goal to train for – I recently met an inspiring mum who is doing a ‘white collar boxing match’ to raise money for the mental health charity Mind. Creating a goal that benefits others or even just sets a deadline for ourselves makes it much easier to get active
- Get a fitbit (or similar devise) to raise awareness of how much you’re moving
- Be Mindful
Mindfulness is about connecting with what’s going on around us, taking notice of sounds, scents, sensations and our breathing. Doing this quietens the constant chatter created by the interaction of our ancient brain and the modern world.
Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness, from emotional regulation to body awareness, emotional resilience, pain tolerance, reduction in anxiety, improved focus and heightened cognitive performance (Fox et al., 2014) and enhanced creativity (Colzato et al., 2012). See – more about mindfulness.
What you can do:
- Practice yoga
- Use the headspace app
- Make an effort to notice the sight, sound, smell and tastes you encounter in everyday activities. For example as you’re taking a shower feel the sensation of water on your skin, listen to the sound of the water washing away, feel your feet on the shower floor. You can do this when you’re eating, walking, sitting on the train, cleaning your teeth etc.
- Notice what time frame your mind is in – if you’re thinking about the past or future gently bring your mind back to the present (it’s critical that you are gentle – our mind doesn’t respond well to force).
- Keep Learning
We evolved to be curious beings; it’s one of the things that kept our ancient ancestors alive. Today continued adult learning has been shown to positively impact confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, life-satisfaction, capacity to cope and general well-being (Field, 2012). Learning also helps us to develop social skills, ultimately extending social networks, and promoting tolerance of other people (Schuller et al 2004).
What you can do:
- Watch a Ted Talk
- Ask people about their lives and really listen to what they tell you
- Try a new sport
- Take up a musical instrument
- Learn a new language
- Read, read and read some more or if you don’t like reading try watching and reflecting on everyday life – play the detective to keep your mind mentally agile
- Give to others
While we may seem like a selfish species researchers have found that altruism is ‘hard wired’ into our brain, just not supported by our modern world. Selflessness is closely linked to our well-being triggering the reward mechanisms in the brain. That’s why people such as Bill Gates are so philanthropic – because all the money in the world can’t buy happiness – happiness comes from giving to others.
What you can do:
- Compliment someone
- Say thank you
- Smile at someone you don’t know
- Offer to help
- Do something for charity or get involved in community service
- Let someone in front when you’re driving in busy traffic
- Stand up for someone if others are being unkind or negative
- Include the person who’s always left out
You may find it useful to write down your mental health 5 a day. And remember, although the general principles are globally applicable we’re all different, the individual aspects need to be tailored to what works best for you.
References and links:
Photo courtesy of Liz Waight Photography http://www.elizabethwaight.com
Bunce, D & Murden, F. (2006). Age, aerobic fitness, executive function, and episodic memory. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 18(2), 221–233
Colzato, L., Ozturk, A. & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Front. Psychology. 3, 116 18 April
Fox KC, Nijeboer S, Dixon ML, Floman JL, Ellamil M, Rumak SP, Sedlmeier P, Christoff K. (2014) Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. Jun;43:48-73
Field, J. (2012) Is lifelong learning making a difference? Research-based evidence on the impact of adult learning John Field. Pages 887-897 in David Aspin, Judith Chapman, Karen Evans and Richard Bagnall (eds.) Second International Handbook of Lifelong Learning. Springer, Dordrecht, 2012
Schuller, T., Preston, J., Hammond, C., Bassett-Grundy, A., and Bynner, J. (2004). The Benefits of Learning: the impacts of formal and informal education on social capital, health and family life, London, Routledge
Sometimes I feel so tiny that I could disappear into a crack in the floor. It’s a funny feeling, but not in the ha-ha kind of way – insecurity, anxiety, disquiet (a colleague once said that I had ‘an unquiet mind’) all muddled up together. A feeling that I’m not quite good enough and that things would be so much better if I could just hide where no one could see me and I could have no responsibilities.
I may be an extreme example, but I think we all feel like this sometimes. My version comes in part from being mixed up (as a psychologist I may know many of the answers but that doesn’t mean I can apply them to myself) and so from within. Other ‘from within’ factors include things like comparing ourself to others, the way we talk to ourself and even chemical imbalances in our brain. But when it comes from outside, when it’s someone else who is ‘making’ us feel bad, it can knock even the most self-assured of us. For example:
The dinner party guest who drops quotes from Descartes then gives a detailed breakdown of why Marxism is more relevant to politics today than ever before. Things you know nothing about.
The colleague who points out that you can’t spell, and your grammar is appalling.
The friend who always has a better story to tell when you have exciting news to share.
While there are definitely some people who are just inherently ‘self-aggrandizing’ – these comments are generally not made to hurt. In fact, they are more likely to come from an unconscious need to show off. Why? So that that person feels accepted and secure. This reflects the irony of human behaviour. In an attempt to try and be liked and accepted we make other people feel insecure. They then strive harder to be accepted themselves making it likely that they will unintentionally create the same bad feeling in someone else.
My insecurity really is my problem (i.e. it’s mainly from within), but sometimes it’s heightened by other people. Many years ago I told a colleague about one remark (it’s helpful working with psychologists) who said ‘It really says more about them than it does you’. While this may seem obvious it’s one of those points that it’s really useful to have up your ‘mental sleeve’ when the moment strikes.
Other little things you can do to help:
- Avoid people you feel insecure around and spend time with those who make you feel good. This may sound obvious – but that doesn’t mean we do it. We’re sometimes compelled to spend time with the people who make us feel bad about ourselves because we desperately want to change the way they see us. So we waste our time with them rather than spending time with people who make us feel good. It’s worth being more conscious of how people make you feel and making a concerted effort to move toward the good and away from the bad.
- Change your posture. As Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy has shown through her research, holding yourself in a different way affects the chemicals released in your body and therefore impacts how you feel. Pull your shoulders back, chin up and (depending on where you are) take up more space by holding our your arms and legs. “When our body language is confident and open, other people respond in kind, unconsciously reinforcing not only their perception of us but also our perception of ourselves.”
- Pay someone a compliment. The joy of making someone else feel good, will in turn make you feel better whatever is getting you down.
- Remember it’s invisible. Most people think I’m confident. No one knows (until now) that I often feel utterly crap about myself. The same is probably true for you and it’s worth remembering. It gives a layer of protection at the very least.
Todays’ world is bad enough at eroding self-esteem with an environment littered by unrealistic comparison points. Where we can we should be kind to ourselves and to those around us. That takes a determined effort: to be self-aware, to see what we’re feeling and not project it onto other people, and to see what others are making us feel and try to step away from it if it’s not helpful.
Ultimately we all want the same thing – to feel good – so even if you can’t feel good yourself, try and make the effort to make someone else’s day a bit better.
As the brilliant Maya Angelou said:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Links (more from Amy Cuddy):
…..or is it?
We’re hearing more and more about how getting enough sleep is critical to our physical and mental health. In common with most living creatures, we need to spend about a third of our lives asleep. Yet most of us live busy and stressful lives often ignoring or minimizing this fundamental need. Even when we’re tired at night, we push ourselves to stay awake, checking emails or having another drink at a party or watching one more episode on Netflix. We have, in our advanced society, an increasingly dysfunctional relationship with sleep.
The repercussions on our wellbeing range from the mildly inconvenient to the worryingly severe. When we haven’t had enough sleep, we tend to get moody, our memory becomes impaired, we make poor decisions at work, we snap at members of our family and so the list continues. More significantly, lack of sleep is frequently a contributory factor in an accident or injury. Over a prolonged period, sleep deprivation can have serious health implications, including an increased risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease. It reduces our ability to fight infection leading to higher rates of illness. It can also be a negative influence on a range of mental health issues including clinical depression, anxiety and paranoia, and at the extreme end of the spectrum inducing psychosis and even death.
Sleep deprivation affects a surprisingly large proportion of the population.
- In the UK, one in three people have chronic insomnia and four out of five people have disturbed or inadequate sleep.
- A study of 10,000 people carried out over two decades by the University of Warwick and University College London found that people who reduced their sleep from seven to five hours a night nearly doubled their risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
- Research carried out in the Netherlands demonstrated that sleep-deprived workers across a range of industries were 70% more likely to be involved in accidents than their well-rested co-workers.
- Doctors working frequent 24-hour shifts make 36% more serious medical errors and five times as many serious diagnostic errors than those whose work is limited to 16 consecutive hours.
- People who get less than 7 hours sleep a night are 30% more likely to be categorized as obese than those who get nine hours of sleep or more.
Sleep deprivation is not just an issue for the person who is tired; it generally impacts the people around them too. A child who has had less sleep is badly behaved, an adult who has less sleep is grumpy, crotchety and possibly unkind and a worker who is tired and operating machinery, driving a car, flying a plane, sailing a ship or carrying out a medical operation, can be lethal. So why don’t we just ensure we get more sleep? For a start, we’re only just starting to understand just how important sleep is and what the severe repercussions of prolonged sleep deprivation are. Then there is the problem of us, as humans who have in large part not evolved over the past 50,000 years, have a profound mismatch between our physiological drivers and the frenetic and complex contemporary world we live in.
So what can we do?
In 2009, Littlehale coached the Sky cycling team in their sleep habits, seeking to maximize their recovery during the Tour de France race. They were advised to do the following:
- To ensure their room is at the best temperature (typically between 16 and 18 degrees Centigrade).
- To eliminate sugary and fatty foods and to be careful about consuming caffeine later in the day. Alcohol is something to be avoided completely. Athletes are given a milk-based protein drink at bedtime to encourage drowsiness.
- To remove any electrical devices from their bedroom, but if that is not possible, they certainly shouldn’t look at their mobile, TV, or computer in the 90 minutes before bed. The light emitted from them can affect the natural circadian rhythm and prevent sleep.
- To use 90 minute sleep cycles, which is the period of time required for us to go through all of the phases of REM and non-REM, to work out when to wake up. Working on this principle, sleep should be 6 hours, 7.5 hours or 9 hours which he explains can be shifted according to what’s going on in someone’s life to ensure they maximize their sleep.
- Then as always I also advocate mindfulness and meditation—medical research is increasingly showing that meditation can be more effective than other interventions for the treatment of insomnia, while also improving sleep quality across healthy populations.As little as 10 minutes a day can have a positive impact on sleep quality.
Extract adapted from my first (unpublished book) and my book Defining You which is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.com, amazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.
References to research in Defining You by Fiona Murden
Photo by Úrsula Madariaga from Pexels.com
Gary Morley (2014) Sport sleep coach’s top tips to improve your slumber, CNN.com, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/12/sport/golf/sport-sleep-coach- nick-littlehales/index.html
D.S. Black, G.A. O’Reilly, R. Olmstead, et al. (2015) Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: A randomized clinical trial, JAMA Internal Medicine 175(4): 494–501.
Travis Usinger (2014) Effect of internet administered mindfulness training on anxiety and sleep quality, Undergraduate Honors Thesis, University of Colorado, Boulder, https://scholar.colorado.edu/honr_theses/727
M.M. Mitler, M.A. Carskadon, C.A. Czeisier, et al. (1988) Catastrophes, sleep, and public policy: Consensus report, Sleep 11(1): 100–9.
Alhola & P. Polo-Kantola (2007) Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance, Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 3(5): 553–67. A.J. Krause, E.B. Simon, B.A. Mander, et al. (2017) The sleep-deprived human brain, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 18(7): 404–18. J.J. Pilcher & A.I. Huffcutt (1996) Effects of sleep deprivation on performance: A meta-analysis, Sleep 19(4): 318–26.
W.R. Gove (1970) Sleep deprivation: A cause of psychotic disorganization, American Journal of Sociology 75(5): 782–99. A. Kales, T.L. Tan, E.J. Kollar, et al. (1970) Sleep patterns following 205 hours of sleep deprivation,