Groundhog Day

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.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Image source: petponder.com

‘Bounce-Back-Ability’ Part 2 – Building Emotional Resilience

“How to Build Bounce-Back-Ability aka Emotional Resilience”

“Resilience is important because it is the human capacity to face, overcome and be strengthened by or even transformed by the adversities of life. Everyone faces adversities; no one is exempt.” The International Resilience Project

While some people are born more Emotionally Resilient than others, it is something we’re able to learn and I’ll use the same headings as the last blog to discuss how. A number of people have contacted me asking how this can be developed in children, so this blog has a bent toward that. It does however apply to anyone, of any age.

 

  1. Positive Self Concept & Outlook – a belief that whatever is going on, you’re still in control of the situation rather than it being something that is ‘done to you’.

Having a positive self-concept isn’t something you can suddenly acquire but it can be nurtured. The elements involved are complex but can be broken down as follows:

Self Talk

The way we talk to ourselves is critical, yet we don’t often notice what we’re saying or how we’re saying it.

Just out of interest try observing the words you use to speak to yourself. Are you kind? Probably not, we tend to talk to ourselves in a way we would never dream of speaking to anyone else e.g. “You idiot, why did you do that?”

We put effort into thinking through ways of positioning things more gently with others e.g. “That’s OK it just didn’t work out this time.”

When we’re stressed or annoyed it takes effort to step back and think through how we’re saying things, but it’s worth it. The stories we tell ourselves become our reality, and the words we say to our children become their own internal dialogue for life.

Mindfulness can be very helpful for nurturing a kinder form of self-talk. For kids over 7 years try this free app:

http://smilingmind.com.au/smiling-mind-app/

View of the Future

If you or your children are pessimistic about the future, gently challenge the thinking. Is it really going to be that bad? Are there really no other solutions?

Ask children how they’d like things to turn out and what they can do to make that happen (to divert thinking away from worrying about what they fear most). Encourage them to paint a picture with words or in a drawing of what they want things to look like.

Taking Responsibility

We tend to want to go in and ‘rescue’ children or people we love when things go wrong but that doesn’t help build their tolerance and capability for coping. Children, in particular, need to know what they are responsible for. Learning to accept the consequences of their behaviour helps them to understand the limit of their control and enables them to see that they can make a difference, whether good or bad, to the outcome. In turn this builds a sense of self-efficacy, a belief that they are in control of outcomes rather than things being ‘done to them’.

Problem Solving

It’s all too easy to become passive when things are tough but it’s important to help children, or whoever is struggling, to take decisive action. This prevents them from feeling that something is being ‘done to them’.

Encourage them to talk to people: to bounce ideas around, to ask a person who’s been in the same situation what they did. Help them understand how to get information on the situation.

Enabling someone to make a decision on what to do is empowering and builds a more positive self-concept.

Celebrate Success

Make a point of recognizing when your children have done a good job. Celebrate it. We all, grown ups included, need to feel like we’re important, that we can be proud of what we’ve achieved. It helps us keep going when things aren’t so great.

 

  1. Growth Mindset – a flexibility and openness, adjusting personal expectations depending on what is thrown your way and constantly being willing to learn and develop.

 Learning is key. Keep encouraging your children to learn and explore the world around them, to read, to try different activities, to meet new people and generally be observant, curious and questioning about everything. This is something we should continue throughout life.

As well as taking proactive steps to learn, reflecting on bad experiences is also a helpful aid to growth. When something goes really wrong, writing down what’s happened can help an understanding of how it might be approached differently next time.

 Research has shown that writing about an experience can help us to assign meaning to what has happened and why. Writing actually helps us to create new understandings and insights simply through the ‘act of writing’ (Jackson, 2007).

 

  1. Persistence – the ability to keep on going whatever is thrown at you.

 Whatever a child is trying to do, encourage patience, explain things take time and persistence. Help them to understand the baby steps that need to be taken to get to a bigger target.

Sport is a great learning ground for both nurturing persistence and watching it in action. For example when Andrew Murray was playing Juan Martin del Potro in the Olympic final he refused to give up. Watch that game with a child (or on your own) and get them to notice what’s happening, how fed up Murray looked at times, how hard he had to work to win. When the going gets tough it’s all too easy to say I’ve had enough, but the rewards are much greater if we don’t.

N.B. Regardless of whether they are winning or losing, remember to always praise children for not giving up. The same is of course true for adults.

 

  1. Strong Social Network – having strong interpersonal relationships and being willing to ask for help.

A broad social network is critical for everyone. Research has time and again shown how this helps bolster emotional well-being and even physiological health (Ozbay et al, 2008).

 Having trusting relationships, adults and friends who will offer care and emotional support, is critical for children.

Encourage children to form relationships with different people. Support contact with people who really care about them (and do the same for yourself) and help them work through who is best to talk to about a particular problem. Foster the notion that ‘asking for help’ is a real strength (not a weakness).

But if nothing else simply offer a child love. Being responsive to a child can help to actually “reverse the physiological changes that are activated by stress” helping to protect the child’s brain, body and immune system. The same applies to a friend or relative who you know who is distressed.

 

  1. Emotional Awareness – an ability to understand and accept emotions, to manage rather than deny, suppress or give in to them. This may mean being sad, but not letting the sadness linger.

It’s not always easy to put what we are feeling into words, especially when we’re little, so we need to help children to learn how to express their thoughts and feelings. Comparing the emotion to something else can help e.g. ‘it feels like a brick on my head’ or ‘I feel like I’m a big balloon waiting to explode’. Or giving the emotions names e.g. ‘sad’ may take on the name of a cartoon character such as ‘Eeyore’ from Winnie the Pooh.

One of my favourite ways of explaining emotions to kids is creating a mindful glitter jar:

http://www.mindful.org/how-to-create-a-glitter-jar-for-kids/

Letting children know that it’s OK to feel anxious, upset or angry at times is really important. Research shows that encouraging children to be gentle with themselves helps to nurture emotional resilience (Bright, 1997).

Encouraging children to notice what other people are feeling is also very helpful. It not only dramatically improves the ability to relate to others but also helps self-development, which improves emotional resilience (Giordano, 1997).

 

Is that it?

Like all these things it’s not that easy, nor is it black and white. This only scratches the surface of a very complex behavioural concept. If nothing else, remember: to take care of yourself and those you love, be gentle with your mind (even if you are aiming to achieve great things your journey there will be a lot easier if you are) and that the most emotionally resilient people of all will always ask for help.

 

Links and References:

www.headspace.com

http://www.bibalex.org/Search4Dev/files/283337/115519.pdf

http://www.heysigmund.com/building-resilience-children/

Bright J. (1997) Turning the Tide. Demos Publishers, London.

Giordano B. (1997) Resilience: a survival tool for the nineties. Association of Perioperative Registered Nurses Journal 65, 1032– 1036.

Jackson, D., Firtko, A. and Edenborough, M. (2007) Personal resilience as a strategy for surviving and thriving in the face of workplace adversity: A literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 60; 1-9

Ozbay F, Johnson D.C, Dimoulas E, Morgan C.A, Charney D, Southwick S. Social support and resilience to stress: From neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont) 2007;4(5):35–40

 

 

 

I Want It NOW!

Catch a train, wait in a queue or go out for dinner and everyone is intensely staring at a screen. It feels like we’re submerged by technology in a world that is moving at an ever-faster pace. Everyone wants everything ‘NOW’.

As Julie Andrews would say….“Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start”….this is where you may need to exercise some patience before I get to the point!

Taking a leap back to 50,000 years ago (which is around when our brains stopped evolving) there were certain factors that were critical to our survival including eating, reproducing and being part of a group. Consequently our brain structure evolved to encourage and reward these behaviours (and any other behaviour that meant we escaped death).

These parts of the brain act quickly so that if we are under threat we run away; if we are hungry we eat whatever is available; if we have an opportunity to mate we get on with it. I call this part of the brain, the survival driven brain. We are still led by these ancient drivers today. When we follow them we get a quick fix, a rush of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which make us feel (temporarily) good.

The other part of our brain (simply speaking) is more concerned with feeling fulfilled, finding purpose in life and contributing to society. It’s much slower and takes more effort to engage. This is the part that employs patience and manages the more troublesome survival driven brain. Unfortunately, whilst it is the wiser part of the brain, when we’re facing a threat or if we’re over stimulated, it doesn’t get a look in. Our ancestors needed the brain to function like this so that survival was the main focus of attention. I call the part that carries out these processes the meaning driven brain.

Although we don’t face the same urgency to run away from predators today, our brain operates in exactly the same way. So we still have a survival driven brain that dominates a large majority of our behaviour.

 

How Does This Relate to Technology & Wanting Everything Now?

Technology is great, it’s fast, responsive, and it allows us to live life via the touch of a finger. This plays to our survival driven brain’s need to get a quick fix and rapid response. It also meets the need of engaging with others and therefore belonging and reproducing (e.g. via selfies and tinder). Meanwhile, constant notifications received via social media act as reward cues, releasing dopamine and encouraging us to do the same thing again and again. A short lived rush which originally evolved to help us survive now keeps us hooked on our social media.

 

So Why Does This Make Us Want Everything Instantly?

This habituates us to getting everything immediately and reduces our ability to hold out for a reward or response. Professor Christopher Lucas from New York University School of Medicine has looked at the interaction of kids with technology. He explains how children focus on social media and video games in a different way to focusing on schoolwork. Using technology the brain receives frequent, intermittent rewards which habituates us to need more of the same. When children are in a classroom the rewards are not immediate, they are received over an outstretched period of time. This doesn’t live up to expectancies, so children disengage.

The same is true for adults. The constant stream of information and sensations we receive when we interact with technology not only leaves us wanting a quick fix to every situation, it also distracts us from more meaning driven activities that have a longer term benefit. It puts us in survival driven mode and on edge, constantly on the look out for danger or needing another reward.

 

What can we do?

As with every area of psychology, the first step is to become more aware. It’s very difficult to live outside of the norms that society and our environment creates and technology is very much part of those norms, but we can limit the amount of time we use it. We can also take part in more meaning driven activities, that offer prolonged levels of reward such as: sport, reading, gardening, mindfulness or simply doing a good deed for someone. Ultimately doing these things will give back to us as individuals, helping us to train our brains to be more patient and giving us lasting benefits.

Mindfulness:

If you’re interested in mindfulness I would highly recommend Andy Puddicombe’s headspace app.

https://www.headspace.com

 

Technology is Not All Bad:

https://www.headspace.com/blog/2016/07/14/were-addicted-to-pokemon-go-and-thats-ok/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-media-psychology-effect/201203/brain-behavior-and-media

 

References:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/10/health/views/10klass.html?_r=1

Egerton, A. et al. (2009). The dopaminergic basis of human behaviors: a review of molecular imaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehaviour. Rev. 33, 1109–1132

Satoh, T., Nakai, S., Sato, T., and Kimura, M. (2003). Correlated coding of motivation and outcome of decision by dopamine neurons. Journal of  Neuroscience. 23, 9913–9923

Caplan, S. E. (2003). Preference for online social interaction: A theory of problematic internet use and psychosocial well-being. Communication Research, 30, 625–648

Yoo, H. J., Cho, S. C., Ha, J., Yune, S. K., Kim, S. J., Hwang, J., Chung, A., Sung, Y. H., & Lyoo, I. K. (2004). Attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms and internet addiction. Psychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, 58, 487–494