Genius is childhood recaptured

Our childhood has a massive impact on who we are as adults and with a huge range of factors from our early years impacting who we become. It’s worth reflecting on your childhood from time to time to take lessons into your life today whether that is how to live with passion, how to love with an open heart or on a more technical level how certain things influenced who you have become. In my book Defining You I explore some of those factors and in this blog post look at just two – self-esteem and social skills. 

SELF-ESTEEM

What is self-esteem? Put simply it’s the belief that you can achieve whatever it is you set out to do. If you have high self-esteem, you think that nothing will derail you; if your self-esteem is low, you may be riddled with anxiety about your capabilities. Self-esteem is relatively fragile in childhood, meaning that it can be built or undermined quite significantly by people or events, and the effect can remain with you into adulthood. 

Research shows that if you were lucky enough to have high self- esteem as a child, it will have had a positive impact on your income as an adult.1 It will also have helped build better mental health,2 which is the foundation not only to living a happy life, but also to fulfilling your potential. However, if you reflect on your early life and see a child riddled with self-doubt, that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed or become more confident in your abilities as an adult. It’s never too late to bolster your self-esteem and have more optimism in your ability to achieve your goals, whatever they may be. Simply being able to pinpoint events or people that knocked or built your self-esteem as a child will help you overcome obstacles that had a negative effect, and reap further benefits from things that had a positive impact on you. 

Think about the following questions. Don’t worry if you can’t answer them right now, just reflect and come back if anything springs to mind: 

  • How much self-esteem did you have as a child? Were you self- confident? For instance, did you throw yourself headlong into activities or hold back? 
  • Why was that? 
  • How do you think this relates to your self-confidence now? Is there anything that really helped build your self-esteem as a child that you could build on? Was there anything that held you back that still affects the way you see the world today? 

SOCIAL SKILLS 

Your environment when you were growing up also influenced the development of your social skills. These include a wide range of characteristics (e.g., empathy, kindness, and cooperativeness), but in a broader sense they refer to your interpersonal effectiveness and ability to forge friendships. Research shows that the social skills you developed as a child have an effect on your satisfaction with life, well-being, and mental health.6 Social skills are a critical foundation to being able to fulfill your potential and be successful.7 They are at the heart of all daily interactions, from deal making and engaging stakeholders to getting people to buy in to whatever it is you set out to achieve. 

When it comes to family influences on your social skills, research shows that if you had a close relationship with your father, you’re more likely to develop better relationships as an adult. If your mother left you to your own devices, you’re likely to be more effective at dealing with other people, whereas if you had a more demanding or critical mother, it may have had a negative impact on your ability to relate to others.8 The research has been carried out on these particular relationships, but most likely can be extrapolated to other situations. 

It’s important to point out that this is not about blaming your parents: most parents want the best for their child and that’s more likely than not to have been the case for you. Exploring how your parents influenced you is more about understanding yourself and the major influences on you than it is about pointing the finger at anyone. 

Although interpersonal skills are in part genetically influenced, they are modified by who we interact with and the situations we are exposed to, and this modification continues to happen throughout life. While profiling I’ve heard many stories of social skills altering as people grow up, such as those who were incredibly shy as children becoming outgoing as adults. If your interpersonal skills are not as fine-tuned as you’d like, don’t worry, this is something you can work on. It is worth investing time to think through when and how you developed your skills in order to build on what has worked, and to overcome or accept and move on from what hasn’t worked for you. We’ll be looking at this in more detail again later in the book. 

Think about the following questions, and if it helps take some notes. Don’t worry if you can’t answer them right now, just reflect and come back if anything springs to mind: 

  • What was your relationship with each of your parents (i.e., mother, father) or significant figures in your childhood? 
  • Was there anything that helped you become more sociable as a child that you could build on now? 

There’s so much to explore in who we have been and what we have learnt through life. Not so much through introspection and over analysis more from observation and curiosity. I hope you find some insights that are helpful. 

Extract taken from my book Defining You which I’ve been lucky enough to have won two awards for (Business Book Awards UK and Axiom Award USA). 

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

Image: pexels.com by June Intharoek

Quote: Baudelaire

References:

1 Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg, & Lindsey Macmillan (2006) Accounting for inter- generational income persistence: Non-cognitive skills, ability and education, CEE Discussion Paper, London: Centre for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics and Political Science.

2 A. Goodman, H. Joshi, B. Nasim, & C. Tyler (2015) Social and emotional skills in childhood and their long-term effects on adult life. London: Institute of Education.

3 T.E. Moffitt, L. Arseneault, D. Belsky, D., et al. (2011) A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(7): 2693–98.

4 Goodman et al., op. cit.

5 M.B. Rutherford (2009) Children’s autonomy and responsibility: An analysis

of childrearing advice, Qualitative Sociology 32(4): 337–53. J.M. Causadias, J.E. Salvatore, & L.A. Sroufe (2012) Early patterns of self-regulation as risk and promotive factors in development: A longitudinal study from childhood to adulthood in a high-risk sample, International Journal of Behavioral Development 36(4): 293–302.

6 Goodman et al., op. cit.

7 D. Goleman (2003) What makes a leader? In L.W. Porter, H.L. Angle, & R.W. Allen (eds), Organizational Influence Processes, 2nd ed., Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 229–41.

8 University of Haifa (2007) The quality of a father–child relationship affects intimate relationships in adulthood, https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_ releases/2007-02/uoh-tqo021907.php

Nothing will work unless you do…

…and yet we’re still not teaching kids how they work.

Having profiled hundreds of leaders as well as people from across a range of backgrounds, I have seen the clear patterns and links between life success, well-being and fulfilling potential with the psychological skills learnt in the teenage years. However, it’s not just what I have seen myself, this is backed by a huge amount of data and research. Literally hundreds of studies of what is often referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL) have documented the short-term benefits and more recent studies have shown the benefits lasting across time with both economic and societal return on investment for SEL in schools (e.g. Belfield et al., 2015).

One study analysed data from 82 schools involving nearly 100,000 students looking at the impacts of SEL across a time span of 6 months to 18 years and clearly demonstrated the benefits to students from all types of backgrounds, both underprivileged and wealthy. Social emotional learning was shown to prepare students to move successfully through school and college, and to be productive workers and good citizens with positive mental health. The only catch being that without ‘quality implementation’, not using people who really know what they’re talking about or using evidence based schemes, the potential positive impact of any learning is significantly reduced (Taylor et al., 2017).

From the other end of the spectrum, the impact of a lack of SEL in schools has a huge economic cost. A recent Cabinet Office report revealed that the government in England and Wales is spending nearly £17 billion on the short-term costs of ‘picking up the pieces from damaging social issues affecting young people, such as child abuse and neglect, unemployment and youth crime’ which extends further still when looking at the longer-term impact or the wider social or economic costs’. The report suggests that the solution is to ensure that ‘everyone is able to realise their full potential by developing the range of skills we all need to thrive’ namely the following social and emotional capabilities:

  • Self-perceptions, self-awareness and self-direction (including self-esteem and the belief that one’s own actions can make a difference);
  • Motivation;
  • Self-control/self-regulation (generally characterised as greater impulse control and fewer behavioural problems);
  • Social skills, including relationship skills and communication skills;
  • Resilience and coping.

The report found that teaching these skills led to ‘top’ job advantage, qualifications, adult mental health, life satisfaction, socio-economic benefits, labour market health and other health related outcomes. It concluded that their findings provide a robust case for increased local and national commitment to supporting the social and emotional development of children and young people.  Further support was offered by the current education secretary in February 2019 setting out the vision for building character and resilience being ‘as important as academic achievement’. The question remains however, what is actually being done?

Added to all of this I would argue that it’s critical for children to understand how the brain works. Without this knowledge the picture is far from complete. Children need to learn how to work with their brain, optimise their performance and understand the fundamental mismatch between the brain and the world we live in. This provides the backdrop to why we do many of the things which feel odd or work against common sense. For example how even a strong willed independent person can end up conforming to a group, why our emotions don’t always make sense, why analysing things in the outside world helps to create resolution but analysing things in our own head can cause massive issues.

I don’t believe it should be just leaders who learn these skills i.e. those who already have a pretty good grasp of their social and emotional capabilities.  So, I am starting a school tour where giving free talks to sixth formers. The aim is to help them understand some of the basics and provide them with access to tools and materials to support this in a more ongoing context. If you know a school that may be interested, please do let us know.

Contact: lorna.walls@aroka.co.uk

References:

Cabinet Office report, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2015 ‘SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING: SKILLS FOR LIFE AND WORK’ edited by Leon Feinstein, Director of Evidence, Early Intervention Foundation

Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school‐based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta‐analysis of follow‐up effects. Child development, 88(4), 1156-1171.

“Nothing will work unless you do” Maya Angelou

Photograph: Pexels.com

Happiness – Mental Health 5 A Day

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?

  1. Connect

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

 

  1. 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
  1. 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
  • Breathe
  • 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).
  1. 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
  1. 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.

 

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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References and links:

Photo courtesy of Liz Waight Photography http://www.elizabethwaight.com

www.headspace.com

https://fionamurden.com/2016/07/31/mindfulness-mindful-what/

http://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-yourself/five-ways-to-wellbeing/

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/improve-mental-wellbeing.aspx

https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

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

Plastic, Elastic – Bouncing Back to Success

Emotional Resilience is closely linked to success. In fact, some argue that success is reliant on it, for example US psychologist Angela Duckworth believes that the prime gauge of achievement isn’t IQ or talent, but the possession of what she calls “grit”, aka resilience. But success is not the only benefit that resilience brings, research links it with mental health, physical health, ability to learn, to innovate, to deal with failure and to thrive in spite of tragedy or daily life stressors.

It’s not news that those who make it, those who win medals, entrepreneurs whose businesses succeed against the odds, all have resilience. When it comes to achieving despite the odds, the same famous role-models are quoted e.g.

  • J.K. Rowling who went from being a single parent battling depression, rejected by 12 publishers to the world’s best-selling children’s author.
  • Oprah Winfrey born into poverty and suffering many hardships as a child who has become one of the most influential women in the world.
  • Walt Disney among other trials was fired from a newspaper for “not being creative enough” and told Mickey Mouse would fail because the character would terrify women. He went on to be nominated for 59 Academy Awards, winning 32.

When we’re at our lowest point these inspirational examples are given in good faith and we’re told to ‘never give up, keep trying’. But if it was that easy wouldn’t we all just carry on regardless to fulfil our dreams? Wouldn’t we all be OK irrespective of what life throws at us?

So, what’s their magic?

Over the centuries many people have tried to figure out what distinguishes those who keep trying from those who give up. Churchill said “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” And courage is one facet of personality that has been linked to resilience. However this belief reflects a more outdated understanding of resilience, as something you’re simply born with or not, something straight forward and one dimensional. More recent research has revealed that resilience is a complex and dynamic process of interacting systems involving our genes, personality, social support system and cultural background.

With an updated view, academics have proposed definitions of resilience such as ‘a process to harness resources to sustain well-being’. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Thousands of years ago we lived in egalitarian tribes where we were dependent on one another to survive, the belief systems and group support systems were a necessary facet of staying alive. It wasn’t just the person with courage or individual with grit, but also the one who knew how to bring others together, to harness the power of the group and to get along with their fellow tribesmen and women who stayed alive. Today with the help of others and making use of the right resources we can not only survive but if we get it right, we can thrive. 

You can have the magic too…

 Taking the traditional meaning of emotional resilience some of us are left wanting – if we were not born with the personality to keep on getting up every time we fell whether through courage, determination or optimism it’s not something we can easily change. However, the most recent academic insights provide hope – while yes, some people are indeed born more resilient than others, research shows that we can all develop our emotional resilience regardless of where we start. How? By working on:

Social connections – nurturing relationships with family, friends and people more broadly is a critical contributor to resilience. Knowing or learning how to ask for and how to accept help is a sign of strength not weakness. Unfortunately, society often teaches us otherwise so this can feel counter intuitive. It is however the way we evolved to survive – going against it is literally going against nature and the way our brain works.

Reframing – our brains naturally kick up negative emotions – we can’t get rid of them but we can reframe them more positively as something we are in control of. This prevents negative thoughts creating a catastrophic story that leaves us feeling helpless. For example, if we failed an exam we could think:

 Negative approach –

Thought: “I failed my exams because I am not very bright.”

Outcome: out of your control and with negative meaning.

Positive reframing –

Thought: “I failed my exams because I didn’t work hard enough.”

Outcome: within your control “It was a good life lesson, because of it I have worked harder at things that matter to me ever since”—and with positive meaning

Research suggests that “framing” our life so that things have meaning and outcomes we are in control of is so powerful that it positively changes brain functioning.

(extract from Defining You)

Psychological flexibility Dr. Russ Harris defines this as the ability to adapt to a situation with awareness, openness, and focus and to take effective action guided by your values. It’s about being able to accept and regulate our emotions rather than letting them control us. Learning to be more accepting of situations and thoughts is an extremely powerful tool. Read “The Happiness Trap” for a very accessible and robustly researched account of how to do this. Also practicing mindfulness (suggested apps below) will help develop the skills needed to better regulate your emotions.

Learning and reflection through journaling –  writing things down can help to develop insights and find the patterns or traps that we may be being pulled into – creating a greater level of perspective. It also helps to create constructive meaning to events especially if our focus is on what we have learnt, what may have been gained from experiences and how we may like things to pan out in the future.

Self-awareness – working on our personal development helps us to understand the situations which drain us and those which energise us so that we are better able to regulate our emotional and physical well-being.

Ratio of 3:1 – research shows that people who have a ratio of 3 times as many experiences of positive emotions to 1 of negative emotions on a daily basis (3-to-1 ratio) are more likely to be resilient. You may not naturally have this but working on the factors relating to resilience (e.g. connections, reframing) will help you to create and sustain this ratio. Erstwhile if all else fails (and even if it doesn’t)…..

Keep on keeping on– at our most difficult times and lowest points, putting one foot in front of the other even when we don’t believe, is what we need to do to ultimately reach our intended goal. Our emotions ebb and flow, but if we can keep on ‘doing’ in spite of losing hope, we’ll still be on the right track once our hope has returned. Years ago a professional athlete said to me “The difference between those who win medals and those who don’t make it is comes down to who is prepared to go out and practice whatever the weather, however they feel, they just do it day after day”. This reflects what Duckworth believes – that the prime gauge of achievement isn’t IQ or talent, but the ability to keep on keeping on. If every day you do something to keep moving toward your goal, little by little you will gradually move away from where you are and toward where you want to be.

As with any of these things read more, explore and try things out to find what works best for you.

 

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden will be out in April 2018 (UK) and July 2018 (USA, Canada, Australia and rest of the world). To pre-order a copy go to amazon.co.ukamazon.com or Waterstones. It will also be available in WHSmith’s UK from April 2018.

The book gives you unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

Subscribe to our mailing list to get more news, tips and tools from Fiona

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Mindfulness Apps & Reading

Duckworth, A (2016). GRIT: the power of passion and perseverance. Harper Collins

Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.

Buddhify: http://buddhify.com

Headspace: www.headspace.com

iMindfulness: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/imindfulness/id473747142?mt=8

Mindfulness Daily: www.mindfulnessdailyapp.com

Smiling Mind: www.smilingmind.com.au

 

References:

Brown K.W.  & Ryan R.M. (2003) The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(4): 822–48. C.R.

Cloninger (2006) The science of well-being: An integrated approach to mental health and its disorders, World Psychiatry 5(2): 71–6.

Duckworth, A (2016). GRIT: the power of passion and PERSEVERANCE. Harper Collins

Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.

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

Meichenbaum, D. (2007). Important facts about resilience: A consideration of research findings about resilience and implications for assessment and treatment. Melissa Institute: Miami, FL, USA.

Murden, F (2018) Defining You: How to profile yourself and unlock your full potential. Hodder & Stoughton.

Southwick, S. M., Bonanno, G. A., Masten, A. S., Panter-Brick, C., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: Interdisciplinary perspectives. European journal of psychotraumatology5(1), 25338.

http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx

Image Source: http://images.google.com/hosted/life/3664e28d065fab17.html

 

Happiness – Mental Health 5 A Day

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?

  1. Connect

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

 

  1. 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
  1. 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
  • Breathe
  • 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).
  1. 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
  1. 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.

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References and links:

Photo courtesy of Liz Waight Photography http://www.elizabethwaight.com

www.headspace.com

https://fionamurden.com/2016/07/31/mindfulness-mindful-what/

http://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-yourself/five-ways-to-wellbeing/

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/improve-mental-wellbeing.aspx

https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

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