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

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.

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

* indicates required



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

 

 

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