I just don’t have time to…..

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.

 

Links:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/power-hour/id1443615779?mt=2

http://magazine.vitality.co.uk/the-importance-of-self-care/

https://www.england.nhs.uk/blog/what-does-self-care-mean-and-how-can-it-help/

 

Image: pixabay.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

I’ve got a dream that’s worth more than my sleep….

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

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References to research in Defining You by Fiona Murden

Photo by Úrsula Madariaga from Pexels.com

References:

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,

 

Are You A Normie?

Last weekend I read an interesting interview with author Angela Nagle about the escalating social and political divide arising online. Nagle’s book is called ‘Kill All Normies’ . That’s us – people like you and me. People who have everyday tastes, opinions, political views, refer to everyday news sources and live in the real world. In other words socially well-adjusted individuals. It’s us that the far-right and other extreme subcultures who congregate online call ‘normies’ – we are the ones who they believe it’s “impossible to explain things to” because “we are ignorant and unenlightened.” Normal in the real world is not normal online.

Nagle’s comments that “Ruthless competitive individualism is being applied to the romantic and private realm and it’s deeply anti-social” really resonated with me – I wrote something similar from the perspective of a newly published author recently. Previously I had little need to engage online, simply to connect with friends or browse websites. Since becoming published I’ve been thrown into this surreal world. It’s the artificial nature that I perhaps unsurprisingly struggle with most. My career of choice as a psychologist is after all to connect with people at depth, one-to-one.

Worryingly when it comes to the online world research shows that people ‘perceive individuals with a large number of subscribers as more attractive and trustworthy.’ That’s all it takes. Yet online followers are picked up by superficial and often meaningless content such as ‘nice, high quality pictures’ (Djafarova and Rushworth, 2017)I watch my own (meagre) followership jump up and down on Instagram depending on how ‘pretty’ the picture I post is. Is a pretty picture enough to show how trustworthy I am? Surely trust is something that has to be earnt over time, through a deep human connection with another person, by reading nuances, words, behaviours, attitudes. Even in the instant when we trust someone on first meeting our brain is still referring to a profound human instinct and picking up on a myriad of subtle cues. The irony of this hurts. That thousands of followers somehow equate to thousands of friends or real-life credibility. Nagle quotes an extreme example of this world where “young men raised on very grim pornography” believe that they are “Marquis de Sade in the virtual world but in the real world have less human contact, fewer prospects and less stake in their community and society than ever before.”

Is it any wonder that community is disappearing and instead we are left with a world of individuals trying to shout louder than the next person? We are each disappearing off into our own version of the world online. We all want to be happier yet this culture is causing us to disappear into make-believe, to shut out the people around us in the hope of reaching out to an artificial reality. Alongside this our collective mental health is rapidly declining.

We all have a cause that we believe in and above all we all believe in the human race, so surely, we should be working together to make the world better – to improve our own lives and the lives of other people. But although on the one hand individualism is being pushed, there are fabulous bodies springing up all around the (real) world looking to counter this and create a more human approach. Take for example ‘The Female Quotient’ a pro parity body who are ‘tapping into the power of collaboration to activate solutions for change’ without I must add excluding men (who are in this case ‘normies’). We need to put our energy behind these collaborations, have our unique voices heard as one of many rather than in isolation in an attempt to push back against a world that no one ever intentionally created. The online world after all grew by accidental means. No one sat down and crafted a vehicle that would help or destroy humanity (and although in some ways it has aided society, we know that in countless ways it has not). Online culture unfortunately plays to many of our primitive fear related instincts for survival, rather than our more advanced meaning driven brain. At its extreme this is enabling viscous sub-cultures to take hold and young people’s happiness to be eroded.

So, I will end by saying that it’s up to us ‘normies’ to re-introduce rational, advanced brain thinking, to back the more humane uses of the online world. It’s our responsibility to stand up for reality, connection, trust and community, to make a positive difference as humans, together in the real world. So put your phone down, close your laptop and go speak to someone – face-to-face.

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References:

https://www.economist.com/open-future/2018/08/03/how-the-grotesque-online-culture-wars-fuel-populism

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right (7 Jun 2017) by Angela Nagle

https://www.thefemalequotient.com

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/530566/the-impact-of-the-internet-on-society-a-global-perspective/

Djafarova, E and Rushworth, C (2017) Exploring the credibility of online celebrities’ Instagram profiles in influencing the purchase decisions of young female users. Computers in Human Behavior, 68. pp. 1-7

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

 

 

The Myth of Sanity

Sanity is a myth, none of us are sane, yet insanity feels scary, foreign and a million miles from the life that most of us lead. Insanity conjures up images of mental asylums, white coats, sedated patients, a ‘one flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ hive of panic-stricken individuals. Our 19th and 20th century foray into locking up the clinically ill has only served to heighten a perception of mental illness as being a million miles away from normal. A black and white divide between those who are sane and those who are not. As a result, we’ve come to fear any sign that we may be less than 100% normal, deeply burying signs of ‘weakness’ and fearing the stigma of what it means to be mentally ill.

Why sanity is a myth!

In reality there is no divide between being OK and being insane, we all suffer from symptoms of one kind or another. It’s only when the volume gets turned up to a deafening or debilitating pitch that it gets labelled, but it’s always there. If any one of us were to pick up the DSMV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which lists out psychiatric conditions, we could pick out symptoms that we recognise in ourselves.  Just take a look at the list below which relates to GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder):

  1. Too much anxiety or worry over more than six months. This is present most of the time in regards to many activities.
  2. Inability to manage these symptoms
  3. At least three of the following occur:
    Note: Only one item is required in children.

    1. Restlessness
    2. Tires easily
    3. Problems concentrating
    4. Irritability
    5. Muscle tension.
    6. Problems with sleep
  4. Symptoms result in problems with functioning.
  5. Symptoms are not due to medications, drugs, other physical health problems
  6. Symptoms do not fit better with another psychiatric problem such as panic disorder

It’s the frequency and intensity (in italics) which tip these symptoms from everyday annoyances toward mental illness i.e. impaired cognition (thinking), emotions or behaviour. It’s easy to see how the tipping point is similar to physical illness. We don’t go to the doctor until the pain in our side has been there for 3 months, or the headaches have become so severe that we can’t go to work.

So what is mental health?

Earlier this year I spoke to Lord Stevenson about raising awareness of what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to mental health. Stevenson and Farmer put together an independent review of mental health in the workplace for the Prime Minister and they open their review by saying:

By mental health we do not mean “mental ill health”. We mean the mental health we all have, just as we all have physical health. The World Health Organisation defines good mental health as “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

With that in mind I put together the diagram below to show the parallels between physical health and mental health and the comparative places in which we seek help. As always I emphasize the fact that a better understanding of psychology could help everyone at every stage of this continuum.

Picture1

Realising Our Own Potential

Bringing this into the world I work the focus lies on the peak performance end of the continuum. A large part of my job is to help exceptional people remain in or reach their place of peak performance – to keep them at their absolute optimum. They need to be there so that they can realise their own potential, cope with the stresses of life but in most cases make a significant ‘contribution to his or her community’. These people have a responsibility not just to themselves but to those who they lead or influence, it’s critical that they understand their tipping points and avoid falling off the edge.

In my book I refer to stress and peak performance within the context of the Human Function Curve developed by Cardiologist Peter Nixon. This model is useful because while developed in the context of physiological stress and performance it also readily applies to mental stress and performance bringing together the similarities between physical and mental health.

The model helpfully points out that stress on either the body or the mind isn’t always detrimental—we need a certain amount in order to perform at our optimum which is just as well because and in reality we cannot escape stress. Both stress on our body and our mind are part of the equilibrium that is life. The curve illustrates that there is a need for a balance of good and bad stress, with optimal stress and performance at the midpoint.

Picture2

Taken from Defining You

If you think of this in the context of an athlete training – they need to keep stretching their body out of their comfort zone in order to improve, but then allow time to rest in order to train again. That stress will cause physical discomfort when the athlete is training but also allow them to improve their performance. However too much time training without a rest will result in injury.

When it comes to our minds, at a low level of stress, we may feel bored or disinterested, finding it hard to get ourselves going.  As stress increases, so does our physiological and psychological arousal until it reaches an optimal level, enabling improved performance: for example, performing better in a presentation or exam, finding it easier to concentrate and get things done, or being more able to think on our feet. In the same way that the stress causes a degree of physical discomfort for the athlete training, the mental annoyances that personally bother us are turned up in volume as we move along the spectrum. I for example get really anxious in the run up to giving a big talk and as a result experience more of the items in list C above e.g. restlessness, irritability, muscle tension and problems with sleeping. They aren’t however sustained, once I’ve done the talk they subside. Too much stress, too many talks in one week or one month could however be crippling. In the same way as too much stress on an athletes body can cause a muscle or tendon to tear, too much stress on our mind can cause us to tip over the edge with a need to take time to recover. At this point our performance follows a downward trajectory, leading to negative emotions and overall cognitive decline, risking mental ill health.

The Cyclical Nature of Mental Health

Over the years working with high performers, I have become acutely aware of the fine line between brilliance and denial, or talent and collapse. Individuals who are at the top of their game are vulnerable and can quickly face mental deterioration. This is not helped by the picture that has been painted of insanity. The most successful high achievers see nothing of themselves in people who fit this description, in fact they often fear this more than most – mental illness has also been branded as failure and failure is a long way from what they identify themselves with. Yet we only have to look at the list of those who have fallen prey to mental illness to see how close these two ends of the spectrum lie. From the brilliantly funny and talented Robin Williams who took his own life to Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemmingway, Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf are just a few. In reality, peak performance is often knocking on the door of mental illness.

In this sense I see mental health as existing in a cyclical nature rather than on a continuum. We need to inhabit the right hand side of the cycle, moving back and forward from comfort zone, stretch zone and peak performance as we listen to our body and our mind, responding to the need to rest and refuel. Without this continual fine tune and awareness peak performance or even being stretched leads to the normal stresses of life becoming too much and tipping us over into mental illness. At this point it’s not so easy to pick up where we left off – we have to recover before we can perform at our peak again or even exist in our comfort zone. In the worst case, for those like Cobain and Williams, that recovery never happens.

The Cycle of Mental Health

Picture3

We all face immense pressures which we cannot just get rid of, but we can be more aware of both in ourselves and others. We don’t generally swing from OK to mentally ill. There aren’t just two ends of a spectrum – we all pass back and forward through the cycle. If we compare it to physical health, we are not in hospital or running a marathon, there are a whole host of physical states in between. With the brain, which is the most complex organ of the body, those states cover even more shades of grey.

I’m passionate about being a voice and joining other voices to move our societal understanding of mental health toward the richness and complexity that inhabits life. To help society understand that there is no sane or insane, rather a constantly changing state of mental states, influenced by a complex set of external and internal factors. At a personal level, we not only need to understand this but learn to understand our own mental tendencies and weak spots, how to refuel, how and when to ask for help. We need to improve everyone’s understanding of behaviour so that we can not only destigmatize mental illness but so that we can optimise mental health and realise human potential across the human race.

The Myth of Sanity – was a title borrowed from the brilliant US Clinical Psychologist Dr. Martha Stout the book is below.

For more from me –

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden – available at amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK.

From July 24th 2018 Defining You will also be available across the English speaking world e.g. amazon.com, amazon.au, amazon.ca

Defining You gives access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

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Links and references:

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing

Murden, F (2018) Defining You: How to Profile Yourself to Unlock Your Full Potential

Stevenson, D and Famer, P (2017) Thriving at Work: The Stevenson / Farmer Review of mental health and employers

Stout, M (2002) The Myth of Sanity: Tales of Multiple Personality in Everyday Life

Image: Pexels.com

My Vision, My Dream…

This is a short video I put together following the Game Changers event I went to at The House of Commons. It shares my vision.

 

The how comes in the form of working with other people which I aim to do via the dot-to-dot charity. Please let me know if you have any thoughts, ideas or want to collaborate in any way.

Fiona x

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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

Mindfulness – Mindful What?

2016-07-31 16.40.37

Mindfulness has become a ‘buzz word’ advocated by the likes of Davina McCall, Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah Winfrey, through to companies such as Google, eBay, Twitter and even The Bank of England. Whilst some argue that it’s a fad, it’s actually been around since the 1970’s and is based on Buddhist meditations practiced for 2550 years.

But What Is It?

Mindfulness is a practice of turning our attention away from our thoughts and the ‘chatter in our head’, toward sensations. Concentrating on what we can hear, smell, see, taste and feel in the present moment. This puts us in the ‘here and now’ rather than fretting over the past (e.g. why did I eat that) or worrying about the future (e.g. will I ever lose weight).

Our neo-cortex, which is the most advanced part of our brain, has given us incredible opportunities as a species e.g. the ability to speak, read, write, pass on knowledge, project into the future and have an awareness of ourselves. In the context of our modern world and coupled with the primitive survival driven parts of our brain, it can also cause us the odd problem.

Take for example, walking into a room full of people we don’t know. Our more primitive brain sees this as a threat (a throng of people we don’t know could kill us). It releases chemicals that put us on edge. Our more advanced brain responds with chatter such as:

“What’s wrong with me? Why am I so nervous, all I’m doing is walking into a room?”

“Maybe they won’t like me. What happens if no one talks to me? I’m going to look like a right idiot just standing there on my own.”

This is how many of us naturally respond, but in order to get the most out of our brain we need to be gentle with it not talk to ourselves like we’re idiots. Mindfulness helps us to treat our mind with care and teaches us to move our attention away from this unhelpful chatter. Consequently it’s incredibly helpful when it comes to our mental well-being and resilience to stress.

Is There Any Proof That It Actually Works?

Psychologists have been studying the impacts of mindfulness since the late 1970s with research showing the positive impacts on both physical and mental health.

When it comes to physical health studies have shown it’s positive effect on HIV pathogenesis, inflammatory disorders, drug abuse, chronic pain and immune system disorders.

And in terms of mental health, among other things it can reduce depression relapse, neuroticism, absent-mindedness, rumination and social anxiety. It also improves certain factors such as life satisfaction, conscientiousness, self-esteem, empathy, optimism, emotion regulation, attention and working memory.

More recently neuroscientific research has shown that individuals who are mindful are better able to regulate emotional responses ‘via prefrontal cortical inhibition of the amygdala’ or in other words through the advanced and rational brain managing impulses kicked out by the primitive brain.

But does it REALLY work?

I know from personal experience that it brings a greater sense of calm, reduces anxiety and stops a racing mind, and it’s not hard to see how it helps people to regulate their thoughts and emotional responses more effectively. But, it’s not a silver bullet. Why? Because:

  1. It takes a concerted effort: even with Headspace’s 10 minute a day approach it’s all too easy to deprioritize it in our daily to do list (I manage once a week if I’m lucky).
  1. It needs to be understood in the context of the brain. Knowledge of what’s normal and what’s not makes it immediately more impactful. This can’t be learnt from mindfulness alone.
  1. People need to know how to apply it to daily life experiences. Without this understanding, it will only counter stress during meditation.
  1. It’s been taken out of context. When practiced as spiritual meditation, mindfulness is put into the perspective of other life factors. For example showing compassion toward others, being a good member of a community, living an ethical life and searching for meaning. These are factors that produce a deeper level of satisfaction, playing to our advanced rather than primitive brain and are something that mindfulness in isolation lacks.

In spite of these potential limitations I still strongly advocate its use as a positive psychological tool. Mindfulness has taken something that was largely inaccessible to Western life and turned it into something that can be understood and applied by anyone. If nothing else it helps us to protect our brains from the fast-paced over stimulating modern world that we live in.

What about you – what are your thoughts on mindfulness? What have your experiences been? I’d love to hear.

 Links:

 https://www.headspace.com

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/15/mindfulness-study-meditation-7000-teenagers-impact

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-matters-most/201306/top-10-things-most-people-don-t-know-about-mindfulness

References:

Bishop, SR, Lau, M, Shapiro, SL, Carlson, L, Anderson, ND, Carmody, J, Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230–241

Creswell JD (2016) Mindfulness Interventions. Annual Review of Psychology, 68

Creswell JD, Lindsay EK. (2014). How does mindfulness training affect health? A mindfulness stress buffering account. Current Directions in Psychological Science 23(6):401–7

Schonert-Reichl KA, Oberle E, Lawlor MS, Abbott D, Thomson K, et al. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social–emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology 51(1):52–66

Shian-Ling Keng, Moria J. Smoski, Clive J. Robins (2011) Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies. Clinical Psychological Review August; 31(6): 1041–1056

Zenner C, Herrnleben-Kurz S, Walach H. 2013. Mindfulness-based interventions in schools-a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology 5:603–603