Take a Break

Last week I had the pleasure of talking to writer Holly Corbett about vacation or as we say in the UK, holiday (see Forbes article). The conversation was sparked by the stark percentage of people who do not take all of their allocated days – in the USA it’s 56% of men and 44% of women. In the UK we take a little more but one third of us are still guilty of leaving days for the company pot to swallow up. I don’t get an allotted number of days because I have my own company. In some ways this makes things far easier (in others more difficult) – but in most ways the lead up and aftermath of holiday is the same for me as anyone.

 

Pre Holiday

We’re off on our summer holiday in a week. I’m excited but also facing a mounting list of things to do both at work and home. For example, one client approached me mid June with a request for 12 profiles (each profile takes 4 hours in person and 6 hours of additional work) by end of July, so I engaged a colleague and we held time in our diary. So far only one has come our way and they are trying to squeeze as many as possible into the week before I go.  This will ultimately create overspill both into my holiday (I can’t ignore them as soon as I step into the airport) and into the time when I get back.

 

I’m doing a book signing next weekend and much as I’m enthusiastic about the opportunity (Camp Bestival is by all accounts ‘The’ best family festival in the UK), there’s prep to be done and I’m dreading the crowds. I’m not suggesting I’ll have crowds flocking to see me, it’s the fear of being in and amongst crowds of people which makes me feel ‘marginally’ agoraphobic at best (don’t worry talk organisers none of this will be apparent to the naked eye I promise).

 

Yet another stress point – the prospect of remembering stuff to take away with us. I find packing for myself stressful let alone an entire family. I hate hauling around loads of stuff yet without a bit of planning I go for the ‘grab and stuff’ approach and end up taking half the house. I don’t know how I managed to circumnavigate the globe for 10 months with just one backpack (granted it was more or less as big as me but then again I’m not very big).

 

Post Holiday

I stupidly buttressed my holiday not only with a talk before but doing a 4 hour session for 60 underprivileged teenagers on my return. And I have an operation on my ankle following which I won’t be able to move for 2 weeks or drive for 6. As a result client work is also piling up into the week I’m back (above and beyond the remaining 11 profiles).

 

On Holiday 

Other concerns? Well, being notoriously last minute we’ll inevitably have forgotten to do or book at least one thing which will cause tension. We’re going to the West Coast of Canada and USA which means a 10 hour flight with our youngest asking ‘Are we nearly there yet’ before we even leave the tarmac plus we have the joy of kids waking up at 2am for the first few days to look forward to. Then there’s the arguments between the kids and the inevitable frustration of my tweenie daughter wanting to approach the holiday as a continual shopping spree (which makes me feel I’ve done something very wrong at some point – ‘experiences not things make us happy’) and utmost disgust when we end up somewhere remote for at least part of the trip.

I am looking forward to it though – honestly!

 

What I’ll do to ease some of the strain:

Create boundaries – believe it or not I have. My book launches in the USA and Canada this week so I could have (in fact did originally plan to) throw myself into a book tour alongside our holiday. I’ve decided this just isn’t going to be good anyone so the talks are on hold. Ultimately there need to be boundaries that work for us (not the company we work for) whoever we are.

Set child expectations – we’ll aim to do a bit of what everyone wants. For me that’s being away from anyone, for my eldest it will be shopping, my youngest Disneyland and anything that requires our undivided attention and for my husband whatever it takes to not stay still for more than 5 minutes.

Get plenty of light – in order to overcome the jet lag as naturally as possible (which sort of contradicts itself as we clearly did not evolve to move several thousand miles in the space of a few hours).

Get sleep – I feel lazy, selfish and like I’m wasting my time away when I sleep but I need it for my mental health and general functioning. This of course is true for all of us.

Explore –because I love it and to because it makes taps into curiosity which is so good for brain health. Using our brain to explore new things, places, people – literally allows us to return from our break with fresh perspectives. It also helps us to make lasting memories not just because of the fun we have in the process but because we remember things better when they are novel (it’s all to do with dopamine and other related goings on in the brain).

Be active – relaxing doesn’t necessarily mean sitting on a sun lounger (although a little of this may be good), it’s about using our bodies in the way nature intended. That means moving: anything from walking to learning a new sport (e.g. windsurfing, playing tennis) whatever works for you, it’s also great for our brain health as well as our bodies.

Then of course there’s reading. Bill Gates and Arianna Huffington’s suggested reading are in the links below but they both seem to have missed mine off the list. Defining You is out today in the USA and Canada (amazon.com and amazon.ca) and available in the UK via amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, Foyles and WH Smiths and in Australia.

 

Links:

https://www.gatesnotes.com/About-Bill-Gates/Summer-Books-2018

https://www.inc.com/marla-tabaka/6-books-arianna-huffington-wants-you-to-read-for-personal-growth.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/shelleyzalis/2018/07/24/vacation-is-good-for-you-and-your-company/#329a5d911329

https://www.fastcompany.com/90199683/theres-a-gender-gap-in-vacation-time-too?

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/11592958/A-third-of-British-workers-dont-take-their-holidays.html

Photo: Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Self Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of the Future

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

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

Taking Responsibility

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

Problem Solving

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

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

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

Celebrate Success

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is that it?

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

 

Links and References:

www.headspace.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

‘Bounce-Back-Ability’ aka Emotional Resilience

Bounce 1

Part of my job is carrying out in-depth psychological profiling to ‘check out’ the fit of leaders for roles. One client requested that I include an assessment of Emotional Resilience for every leader I saw, and I was more than happy to oblige. I’ll explain why later, but for now….

What does Emotional Resilience mean?

The word resilience comes from the Latin ‘resilio’, which means to jump (or bounce). Adding emotional refers to our ability to bounce back from stressful life events. It’s our ‘bounce-back-ability’.

We can’t avoid stress, it’s there everyday, for everyone. While the spectrum ranges from minor hiccups, like being stuck in traffic to major events, such as loss of a loved one, we all experience it. Leaders arguably encounter higher levels of stress than ‘Your Average Joe’, but it’s critical for everyone’s emotional health to manage stress.

Are some people born with more Emotional Resilience than others?

‘Yes’ there are some people who are ‘naturally’ more resilient. We all know people who glide through life without a care in the world and those who are pulled down by every minor glitch. BUT there’s also a major environmental component. So we can learn to be more resilient, and it’s definitely worth doing.

 Does our environment support us?

Unfortunately not, the International Resilience Project, which sought to understand how ‘youth’ from around the world cope with adversities found that “Only about 38 per cent of the thousands of responses….indicate that resilience is being promoted.” Sadly we’re just not set up to understand let alone promote positive psychological constructs.

Taking a personal example, a good friend died a few weeks ago, followed by my Granny. With the best intentions I was told to ‘be strong’, ‘don’t be sad’, ‘keep your chin up’. These are the typical phrases we offer to help. But what these comments unintentionally infer (and therefore what runs as an undercurrent across society) is that we shouldn’t experience the feelings, we should suppress them or avoid them. What’s more if we can’t or don’t, we’re doing something wrong or we’re weak. But this isn’t what emotional resilience is. In fact it’s a very unhealthy way to approach things.

So what does Emotional Resilience look like?

As I opened on the theme of leadership, I’ll use Nelson Mandela to illustrate the factors involved, a man who encountered extreme adversity yet came out stronger the other side.

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

Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years, without a strong belief that things were going to ultimately turn out OK it is unlikely he would have emerged the man who then became President e.g. “I am highly optimistic, even behind prison walls I can see the heavy clouds and the blue sky over the horizon.”

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

Throughout his life Mandela questioned, observed, reflected, learnt and adjusted his mindset. Rather than leave prison a bitter person, he emerged a wiser and more rounded individual e.g. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

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

Mandela kept focused on his mission throughout his life. He had an utter belief in his vision of creating a better South Africa e.g. “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

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

Mandela formed deep bonds with a range of people, even one of his prison guards from Robben Island, Christo Brand. Such was the depth of their friendship that Brand describes feeling like “He’d lost a father” when Mandela died.

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

Mandela faced negative emotions but he didn’t let them overcome him e.g. “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

A leader who has Emotional Resilience can perform even when the going gets tough, they can shoulder the responsibilities that they take on with the role. But we all need it, and in my next blog I’ll talk about how we can get more ‘bounce-back-ability’.

N.B. It’s important to understand that someone who is mentally ill won’t simply be able to ‘snap out of’ his or her condition by thinking differently. There may be a genetic or chemical component to their illness that needs to be addressed, alongside learning to approach their thoughts in an alternative way. This does not make them weak. e.g. successful people from every walk of life may be emotionally resilient yet still suffer from bouts of depression.

 

Links and References

http://resilienceresearch.org/research/projects/international-resilience

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/may/20/nelsonmandela

Conversations with Myself, Nelson Mandela

Stein MB, Campbell-Sills L, Gelernter J (2009) Genetic Variation in 5HTTLPR is Associated with Emotional Resilience. American Journal of Medical Genetics, Oct 5; 150B(7): 900–906.