The spotlight effect: are people really looking at you?

Last week's Southern Star column examined the 'spotlight effect' - the tendency of people to think all eyes are upon them, even when others may be paying little or no attention. The column is reproduced below.

 

  

All of can think of times when we’ve experienced socially embarrassing moments – spilling your drink on someone you’re trying to impress, your voice breaking when making a speech, tripping over your feet in a busy place and keeping your head down to avoid seeing the smirks from all the people around you. But what if you’re wrong? What if it’s in your head, and people aren’t really paying much attention to you at all?

 

Cognitive psychologist Dr Thomas Gilovich performed a pretty funny experiment to test out this theory. He asked college students to wear a yellow Barry Manilow T-shirt and walk into a room full of strangers (Manilow, a 1970s star best known for hits like “Mandy” and “Copacabana”, is ‘a musician who is not terribly popular among college students’, noted Gilovich). He then asked participants to guess how many people would notice their cheesy T-shirt. About half the students thought it would be noticed; in reality, only around 20 per cent of people noticed it.

 

Psychologists like Gilovich call this the spotlight effect – a well-documented phenomenon whereby people think all eyes are upon them, believing that ‘the social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it really does’. This spotlight effect isn’t just associated with embarrassing moments: as a general rule, we overestimate how much attention others pay to us. We expect people to notice our new haircut or new item of clothing, but is this realistic? Not really – in a second experiment, Gilovich asked students to wear a T-shirt of a famous person they admired and to estimate how many people would notice it. Again, the number of people who took any notice was way lower than what the students expected (continued below...)

 

 

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Southern Star column: The spotlight effect

Would you be self-conscious if you were asked to wear a yellow Barry Manilow T-shirt in front of a room full of students? Do you think everyone would take notice of your cheesy T-shirt? Or is it possible people won't take much. if any, notice? My column in this week's Southern Star explores what psychologists call the spotlight effect - the tendency of people to think that "the social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it really does". As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

CBT – what's it all about?

In last week's Southern Star, I explored some frequently asked questions (FAQ) in relation to CBT. The column is reproduced below.

 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been around for over half a century and there’s more awareness than ever before about its benefits. Still, when I mention I’m a CBT therapist, I’m often asked the same questions. What is CBT exactly? Is it about thinking positive? What makes it different to other psychological therapies? So here goes – CBT in 700 words.

 

What is the goal of CBT?

CBT aims to help you manage problems and improve quality of life and mental well-being by changing the way you think (cognitive) and act (behavioural).

 

What is the theory behind CBT?

CBT emphasises that thoughts, feelings and behaviours are interlinked and strongly influence each other. Negative or fearful thinking can lead to negative feelings that drive negative behaviours. CBT says our emotions are influenced not so much by events and situations, but how we see these events and situations.

 

Can you give me an example?

Well, say two equally-qualified people see a job advertised. One person thinks, “Great, I’d love that job”. This thought creates feelings of hope and excitement and the person applies for the job. The second person thinks, “I won’t get it anyway, they’ll think I’m useless”. This thought leads to negative feelings (sadness, hopelessness, etc) and negative behaviours (they don’t apply for the job). This is a simplistic example, but the point I’m trying to make is that the situation here is not inherently good or bad; it is the person’s interpretation of the situation, their self-talk, that is driving their feelings and behaviours.

 

So CBT is about thinking positive?

No – CBT is about realistically evaluating your thoughts and learning to think and act in a balanced, helpful way. Seeing the glass as half full is great, but CBT doesn’t suggest you cod yourself into thinking black is white or vice-versa. I often say there are three ways of managing a difficult situation – sometimes, you should try and change it; other times, you should change the way you look at it; other times, you may have to accept it (continued below...).

 

 

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Southern Star column: Explaining CBT

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been around for over half a century and there’s more awareness than ever before about its benefits. Still, when I mention I’m a CBT therapist, I’m often asked the same questions. What is CBT exactly? Is it about thinking positive? What makes it different to other psychological therapies? My column in this week's Southern Star examines these and other questions. As always, I'll reproduce the column on this blog next week.

Help to manage your child's school refusal

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on school refusal behaviour.
Refusing to attend school can have damaging long-term consequences.

Last week's Southern Star column explored how to manage the problem of school-refusal behaviour in children and teenagers. The column is reproduced below.  

 

All children and teenagers feel some anxiety about school – that’s normal. Refusing to attend school, on the other hand, is a serious matter that can have damaging long-term consequences. How should parents manage school-refusal behaviour?

 

The first and most important thing to do is understand why the problem has arisen. Psychological researchers have identified four main reasons underlying school-refusal behaviour.

  • Staying at home due to school-related feelings of dread, anxiety, depression or physical discomfort (anxious children often complain of stomach aches and headaches before school, only for these symptoms to ease or vanish when not at school) 
  • Staying at home to escape difficult social or evaluative situations (for example, socially anxious students afraid of giving a speech, taking a test, socialising with peers, etc).
  • To gain attention. Sometimes, children will act out and throw tantrums because they want to stay home with their parents. Separation anxiety may be an issue, although it’s more common in such cases for the child to exaggerate their distress. 
  • Refusing school to enjoy activities outside of school (watching TV at home, sleeping, shopping with parents, etc) (continued below...)
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Southern Star column on school-refusal behaviour

All children and teenagers feel some anxiety about school – that’s normal. Refusing to attend school, on the other hand, is a serious matter that can have damaging long-term consequences. How should parents manage school-refusal behaviour? In this week's Southern Star, I offer evidence-based advice on how to manage school-refusal behaviour. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Are you a complainer?

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton discusses school-refusal behaviour.
Complaining can become an ingrained habit.

In last week's Southern Star, I noted that while it's only right and proper to complain when you've been wronged, complaining can also become a bad habit, negatively impacting on your mood and on the moods of others. The column is now online.

 

Lots of people really like to complain – about the weather, about the boss, about the politicians, about the neighbour up the road who borrowed your corkscrew and who has yet to return it. How much complaining is too much?

 

Now, there are many good reasons why we complain. If you’ve been treated badly, it’s perfectly legitimate to complain about it. The alternative – bottling up your frustrations and saying nothing – fosters bitterness and leaves you alone in your pain. That aside, we’re human and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you vent on occasions; getting a few things off your chest after a long day can be a form of stress relief. Many people will say complaining helps them to feel heard and to feel less alone. Other times, people complain for the craic of it. ‘Nothing has surprised me quite so much as the fact that I miss the giving out’, said Irish Times columnist Jennifer O’Connell after she left Ireland for America. Her point is echoed by comedian and Giving Out Yards author Tara Flynn. ‘Giving out is the national pastime, a way of bonding, even therapy’, she said. ‘If you’re talking raising complaint to an art form, the Irish are full-blown Michelangelos’.

 

Jokes aside, there are obvious downsides to complaining. Yes, it can be a form of bonding – many a relationship has been cemented by giving out about the apparent shortcomings of others – but it can be unfair, with the complainers growing closer by making unnecessarily harsh criticisms of the person being complained about (continued below...)

 

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Southern Star: Are you a complainer?

Lots of people really like to complain – about the weather, about the boss, about the politicians, about the neighbour up the road who borrowed your corkscrew and who has yet to return it. While there are many good reasons to complain, my column in this week's Southern Star notes there are also obvious downsides to what can become an ingrained and negative habit. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

People like you more than you think

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's article on the liking gap
We underestimate how much other people will like us.

We underestimate how much other people will like us, according to a new study. I explored this 'liking gap', as it's known, in last week's Southern Star. The column is reproduced below. 

 

It can be awkward and intimidating when you meet someone for the first time. On such occasions, you might feel you messed up in some way, that you said the wrong thing at the wrong time, that the other person is unlikely to think much of you.

 

You’re probably wrong. Chances are, the other person has a higher opinion of you than you think they do.

 

That’s according to a new psychological study, ‘The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People Like Us More Than We Think?’ In the study, individual participants were asked to have a short conversation with another participant. After, they rated how much they liked the other person and how much they thought the other person liked them. People consistently underestimated the other person’s opinion of them, the researchers found. Shy people were especially prone to this ‘liking gap’, but it was true of all personality types. Quite simply, people like us more than we think they do.

 

This liking gap tends to fade over time. In one experiment, the researchers found that students who had been living together for eight months had reasonably accurate perceptions about how much their room-mates liked them. However, it takes time. If you’re fretting because you think you made a really bad first impression with someone – well, it’s probably not nearly as bad as you think (continued below...)

 

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Southern Star: People like you more than you think

It can be awkward meeting someone for the first time. You might feel you messed up in some way, that the other person probably didn't think much of you.

You’re probably wrong; the other person probably has a higher opinion of you than you think they do, according to a new study called 'The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People Like Us More Than We Think?’. In this week's Southern Star, I explore the findings of the study. As always, the column will be reproduced on this website next week.

No, life isn’t always fair

Intellectually, everyone knows that unfairness is a part of life. Deep down, however, many people like to think that life is fair and that people largely get what they deserve. My most recent Southern star column explored the so-called 'just world fallacy', and how a psychological need for safety can cause people to sometimes blame victims for their suffering, The column is reproduced below.

 

Life isn’t always fair. Parents tell their children that message all the time; by the time we reach adulthood, everyone accepts unfairness is a part of life, that bad things can happen to good people and good things can happen to bad people.

 

Or do they? “What goes around comes around”, “you get what’s coming to you”, “you reap what you sow” – don’t such expressions imply that deep down, many people believe life actually is fair and that people largely get what they deserve?

 

Psychologists call this the just world fallacy – the idea the world is a fair, orderly place where you are rewarded for good actions and punished for bad actions. People want to believe the world is largely fair, so they often explain away tragic events. Unfortunately, this often results in people blaming the victim. To give a personal example: in Dublin some years ago, I overheard a few women talking about a local swimmer who had gotten a heart attack and drowned. Why was a man that age out swimming on his own, one woman asked? In fact, it turned out he wasn’t on his own, although this isn’t the point – the point is her instinctive reaction was to imply the man was partly responsible for his death. You hear similar comments about rape victims (“she was very drunk”, “she shouldn’t have been walking home on her own”), about burglaries (“did they not have an alarm?”), about people living in poverty (“why did they have kids if they can’t afford to care for them?”), about sick people (“he was never great at looking after himself”) – the list goes on. Once you become aware of this tendency, you’ll start to see it all the time in everyday life (continued below...)

 

 

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Three questions to help you manage worries

Worried woman
It's important to learn to manage anxious thoughts.

Last week's Southern Star column explored how to manage worries by using the 'best/worst/most realistic' technique. The column is reproduced below.

 

You’re a bit stressed. Your annual performance review at work is taking place next week and you’re worried as to what your boss is going to say. How can you best manage those anxious thoughts?

 

Here’s a simple CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) technique to try out. Ask yourself three questions: what’s the worst that could happen? What’s the best that could happen? What’s the most realistic outcome?

 

Worst case: The meeting with your boss goes worse than you expected. He brings up a problem that you were unaware of. He’s unhappy as to how to how you managed a recent work situation and you leave the meeting feeling embarrassed.

 

Best case: The meeting goes very well. Your boss is happy with your performance. He also gives you some simple tips as to how you can continue to improve. You’re hoping to be promoted in a few years’ time so you’re glad to have gotten this useful advice, which you intend to implement. You leave the meeting feeling motivated and optimistic.

 

Realistic case: Your boss is quite happy with your work. He mentions a few areas where you could be doing better (time-keeping, how best to manage difficult customers), but you know this already and realise it’s nothing personal. Overall, it’s a relatively uneventful meeting.

 

Here’s another example (continued below...)

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Southern Star column on managing worries

What’s the worst that could happen? What’s the best that could happen? What’s the most realistic outcome?  I'm in this week's Southern Star, where I discuss the 'worst/best/most realistic' technique, a simple CBT strategy that can help you manage various anxiety-related thoughts. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Variety really is the spice of life

Woman hiking
The more newness in your life, the longer it seems.

In last week's Southern Star, my 'Your Mental Health' column explored how novelty and variety make time seem to go slower, and how new experiences keep us fresh and help us to feel alive. The column is reproduced below.

 

Sometimes, time flies. You might look back on an event and say: time has flown, it’s hard to believe that was 10 years ago. Other times, the opposite is the case: a weekend might seem as long as a week, a week as long as a month. 

 

What’s going on? What is influencing our perceptions of time? 

 

Short answer: novelty. Variety really is the spice of life. The more novelty in your life, the longer it seems. That’s why a year in childhood seems so much longer than a year in adulthood. When you’re a child, you experience new things – new smells, sights, tastes, people, lessons – all the time. As you emerge from childhood, you don’t experience the same number of daily revelations, but most people experience more firsts – first romantic relationship, first job, first car, first time living away from home – in their younger years. All these new experiences elongate your perception of time. In contrast, we fall into familiar routines as we get older. The daily grind of work, the household chores that must be done – it’s easy for one day to blur into the next, so much so that at the end of the year you’re going, “where did the year go?”

 

For the same reason, time seems to go more slowly when you holiday in less familiar locations. You pay more attention to all the newness around you; you may experience more novelty in a day than you would in a month at home. To give a personal example, I recall a somewhat ambitious driving holiday abroad some years back. A typical day might have began with breakfast in some city hotel, hitting the road in a hire car, briefly stopping off in several picturesque old towns, and travelling long distances on the way to the next destination. Every day brought new landscapes and new experiences. It felt like a long holiday, as if I had been away forever. In fact, it was a brief break – I was away for only six nights. 

 

Research confirms novel experiences seem like longer experiences. In one revealing experiment, participants were sat down in front of a computer. An image of a shoe was briefly flashed multiple times and a picture of a flower on just one occasion. Participants reported that the flower was shown onscreen for longer – in reality, all the images were shown for the exact same duration. The novelty of the flower image grabbed the brain’s attention, making it seem like time expanded as it was being viewed (continued below...)

 

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Southern Star column on the importance of novelty and variety in life

Sometimes, time flies. You might look back on an event and say, it's hard to believe that was 10 years ago. Other times, the opposite is the case: a weekend might seem as long as a week, a week as long as a month. Why so? In this week's Southern Star, my column explores the importance of novelty and variety, and how time goes slower when you pack your days with new experiences. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Why bad is stronger than good

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's column on negativity bias
"Negative experiences stick like velcro, while the positives slip away like teflon".

You might receive dozens of compliments and a single critical comment, but that one negative comment is the one you remember. Why so? In last week's Southern Star, I explored how we have a built-in negativity bias and why "bad is stronger than good, as a general principle". The column is below.

 

Imagine this scenario. You’ve done a job you’re happy with you’re with and everyone says you did great. Well, almost everyone. There was one one semi-critical comment. Which will you remember – the multitude of compliments or the one minor criticism?

 

If you’re like most people, it’s the critical comment that you’ll hold on to. Negative experiences stick like velcro, as neuropsychologist Rick Hanson puts it, while the positives slip away like teflon. Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. The unhappiness you experience when you lose money has been shown to be at least twice as great as the happiness you experience when you gain money. It’s the same in countless other fields. ‘Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good’, writes psychologist Roy Baumeister. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form than good ones, and more resistant to disconfirmation. Bad words (“crime”, “war”) attract attention quicker than good words (“love”, “peace”). ‘Hardly any exceptions’ can be found, says Prof. Baumeister. ‘Bad is stronger than good, as a general principle’.

 

Brain scans confirm the psychological research; there is more electrical activity in the brain when people are shown a picture that conveys negative feelings compared to pictures that stir positive feelings. Similarly, our brains respond to bad news by immediately storing it our long-term memory; in contrast, it takes the brain an estimated 12 seconds to make the same journey for good news. Some research suggests this negativity bias is evident in babies as young as seven months, and it increases from there. After three years of age, children start to use roughly twice as many negative words as positive words. The negativity bias is especially evident in children who have been mistreated, so nurture as well as nature plays a part.

 

There are sound evolutionary reasons for this negativity bias, which was formed in order to keep us safe. When our ancient ancestors were roaming the savannah, they needed to be hyper-alert. Shaving a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator, writes cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, improved your odds of living long enough to reproduce. 

 

The problem is, we’re no longer roaming the savannah. What was once a life-preserving instinct now hobbles us on a day-to-day basis (continued below...)

 

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Southern Star column on our negativity bias

You’ve done a job you’re happy with you’re with and everyone says you did great. Well, almost everyone. There was one one semi-critical comment. Which will you remember – the multitude of compliments or the one minor criticism? In this week's Southern Star, my mental health column explores our built-in negativity bias and why, to quote psychologist Roy Baumeister, "bad is stronger than good, as a general principle".

Some regrets are more painful than others

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on regret.
We regret the things we didn't do in life more than the things we did do.

In last week's Southern Star, I offered some advice on how to minimise painful feelings of regret. The column is reproduced below.

 

It’s often said people regret the things they didn’t do in life rather than the things they did do. Is this true? How should you spend your life if you want to minimise painful feelings of regret?

 

Cornell psychologist Prof Thomas Gilovich is something of an expert in this area, and he just doesn’t believe people who say they have no regrets. ‘To live is to have at least some regrets’, says Gilovich, ‘and if you don’t, there’s a concern that maybe you aren’t learning sufficiently’. The point Gilovich is making is that regret isn’t all bad. We’re human, so it’s inevitable we’ll all mess up occasionally. It’s not nice to feel pangs of regret when you reflect on something you should have done differently, but we should aim to learn from our mistakes and experiences, helping us make better decisions going forward. 

 

At the same time, no one wants to be consumed by regret. Feelings of “could have, should have, would have” can make you miserable, so it’s worth knowing if there’s truth in the old idea that we tend to regret the things we didn’t do more than the things we did that went wrong.

 

Short answer: yes, it’s true. Research conducted by Gilovich in the 1990s found that in the short term, people regret actions that didn’t work out. Often, however, these feelings tend to fade. In contrast, the regret experienced over inactions tends to fester (continued below...)

 

 

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Southern Star column on regret

It’s often said people regret the things they didn’t do in life rather than the things they did do. Is this true? How should you spend your life if you want to minimise painful feelings of regret? Are some regrets more painful than others? The topic of regret is the subject of my column in this week's Southern Star. As always, I'll publish the column on this website next week.

OCD is no laughing matter

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's column on OCD.
OCD is characterised by obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviour.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can be painfully debilitating. It's important to understand OCD rather than making ill-informed jokes about it, as I explained in last week's Southern Star. 

 

 

Organised people often laugh about how they’re “so OCD” in their ways, but obsessive compulsive disorder is no joking matter.

 

Earlier this year, reality TV star Khloe Kardashian was criticised by mental health campaigners after she launched KHLO-C-D Week, a series of posts documenting ‘tips and tricks’ for keeping things nice and tidy. There are two reasons why tidy people shouldn’t use such language. Firstly, OCD is not a personality trait; it’s a serious mental illness that can be incredibly debilitating, one ranked as among the 10 most handicapping conditions by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

 

Secondly, it completely misrepresents the nature of OCD, which is characterised by obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviour. Sometimes, this does indeed fit the popular stereotype. Former footballer and OCD sufferer David Beckham, for example, has spoken of having to rearrange hotel rooms and to line up cans of drinks to make ‘everything perfect’. However, OCD takes many forms. This might be excessive cleaning and washing; excessive checking; repetitive actions, such as touching, counting, or repeating certain words; compulsive reassurance seeking; fears about deliberately harming yourself or others; fears of becoming a paedophile or developing an unwanted change in your sexual orientation – the list goes on (continued below...) 

 

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Southern Star column: OCD is no laughing matter

Organised people often laugh about how they’re 'so OCD' in their ways, but my column in this week's Southern Star explains why obsessive compulsive disorder is no joking matter. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

No, things are not getting worse – they’re getting better

Hans Rosling
Factfulness author Hans Rosling

The world is getting better in most respects but surveys show most people think it's getting worse. This overly dramatic worldview can have consequences for our mental health, as I explained in last week's Southern Star.

 

A question: over the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has (a) almost doubled, (b) stayed the same, or (c) almost halved.

 

The correct answer is C – extreme poverty has halved. Steady progress has been made for some time. In 1966 half the world lived in extreme poverty, but that had fallen to 9% in 2017.

 

However, few people are aware of this progress, according to surveys carried out by the late physician and statistician Hans Rosling. In most countries, fewer than 10% answered correctly. The same pattern was evident in questions asked about vaccination rates, population growth, education levels for girls, and various others questions. The world is getting better, but almost everyone thinks it’s getting worse.

 

How is this related to mental health? Well, firstly, negative media coverage makes the world seem a worse place than it really is, and this has consequences. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker cites a literature review which found consumers of negative news are prone to “misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others.” They also become fatalistic, adds Pinker; why vote or donate money when things keep getting worse anyway?

 

Secondly, cognitive biases mean we are naturally alert to negative information. To give an example I’ve used before, you notice when you’re cycling into the wind, but you forget about it when it’s at your back. Similarly, in our everyday lives, its easy to focus on what goes wrong and forget or take for granted all the little things that go right. People have an “over-dramatic worldview”, to quote from Factfulness, Hans Rosling’s new book. This worldview is “stressful and misleading” and “comes from the very way our brains work”. People like “gossip and dramatic stories, which used to be the only source of news and useful information”. We crave drama. This means people can be quick to judge, quick to condemn, quick to jump to conclusions – with negative implications for relationships and quality of life (continued below...) 

 

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Southern Star column: The world is getting better, not worse

The world is getting better in most respects (declining poverty, improved vaccination rates, education levels for girls, etc) but surveys show almost everyone thinks it’s getting worse. Why so? I discuss this question in this week's Southern Star and explore how our thinking biases can have consequences for our mental health. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Fight your fear of flying with CBT

CBT and fear of flying column
To fight your fear of flying, you must learn to tolerate discomfort.

Many people are excited at the prospect of flying abroad for their summer holidays. For others, however, the thought of flying is enough to bring them out in a cold sweat.

 

Fear of flying is common. An estimated one in four people are nervous about flying. For around one in 10 people, the problem is especially acute.

 

People fear many different things about flying. Obviously, many are scared for one simple reason - they’re afraid the plane will crash. A more common fear is the fear of having a panic attack on board. The fear of being trapped, of crowds, of heights - all of these can be triggered by the flying experience. Other people may have trust issues and hate the feeling that they have no control over events. Broadly speaking, however, most flight phobics fear that they will become overwhelmed by anxiety during the flight.

 

People who suffer from fear of flying can be divided into three main groups. There are those who don’t fly or haven’t flown for many years, despite having the chance to do so; others will fly only if it’s absolutely necessary and will suffer huge anxiety on the flight; others will fly when they need to, but with anxiety.

 

For those haunted by Hollywood movies depicting catastrophic crashes, it’s important to know flying is the safest form of transport. The odds of dying in a plane crash are one in 11 million. In contrast, the odds of dying in a car are one in 5,000, so just remember the drive to the airport is much more dangerous than the flight. In fact, all kinds of incredibly unlikely events - drowning in the bath, dying from food poisoning, from lightning, from a falling ladder - are more likely than dying from a plane crash. The odds of some kind of flight-related terrorist incident are similarly tiny (continued below...)  

 

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Southern Star: Fear of flying

Many people are excited at the prospect of flying abroad for their summer holidays. For others, however, the thought of flying is enough to bring them out in a cold sweat. In this week's Southern Star, I offer some CBT-related advice on how people can fight their fear of flying. As always, the column will be reproduced on my blog next week.

Nine thinking errors that hurt your mental health

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on cognitive distortions.
In CBT, thinking errors are known as cognitive distortions.

In CBT, thinking errors are known as cognitive distortions – essentially, unhelpful thinking patterns that often drive low mood, anxiety and relationship conflict. In last week's Southern Star, I explored how it pays to be aware of common thinking errors that can hurt your mental health. The column is reproduced below.

 

There is the thing that happens, and then there is the story we tell ourselves about that thing. Often, the story we tell ourselves is distorted and one-sided, which is why it pays to be aware of common thinking errors that can get you into trouble.

 

In CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), these thinking errors are known as cognitive distortions – essentially, irrational thinking patterns that often drive low mood, anxiety and relationship conflict. Dr David Burns, who helped popularise CBT through his bestselling books, has a handy checklist of cognitive distortions.

 

1 – All-or-nothing thinking: Instead of seeing shades of grey, you see everything in black and white, using words like “always”, “definitely” and “totally”. Things are either brilliant or terrible – the night out was the “best night ever” or the “worst night ever”.Burns refers to a client who, after eating some ice cream, said “I’ve blown my diet completely”. Upset by this thought, she then gobbled down the rest of the bowl.

 

2 – Over-generalization: ‘You see a single negative event, such as a romantic rejection or a career reversal, as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it’, writes Burns in his Feeling Good Handbook. ‘A depressed salesman became terribly upset when he noticed bird dung on the windshield of his car. He told himself, “Just my luck! Birds are always crapping on my car.”’

 

3 – Jumping to conclusions: You jump to a negative conclusion long before you have evidence to support your conclusion. This is fuelled by mind-reading (for example, you believe someone is thinking negative thoughts about you even though you have no real evidence as to what’s running through their mind) and fortune-telling (“I’ll do terrible in the test”, “the interview will be terrible”, “things will always be like this).

 

4 – Emotional reasoning: This is when you mistake your feelings for reality. You feel terrified of flying so you think flying must be dangerous. You feel angry so you think you’re being treated unfairly. You feel guilty so you think you must be a bad person. You feel inferior in social company so you think you must be inferior.

 

5 – Mental filter: This refers to when you focus in on a single negative detail and forget or even not notice all the positives. Your colleagues praise your work but one person passes a mildly critical comment that you dwell on for days, darkening your reality ‘like the drop of ink that discolours a beaker of water’.

 

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Southern Star column on cognitive distortions and CBT

All of us are prone to common thinking errors. In CBT, these thinking errors are known as cognitive distortions – essentially, irrational thinking patterns that often drive low mood, anxiety and relationship conflict. In this week's Southern Star, my column looks at nine cognitive distortions that we should all be aware of. As always, I'll reproduce the column on my blog next week.

For kids, not all praise is good praise

Family playing and praising children.
Try to praise children for their efforts, not for their abilities.

In last week's Southern Star, I explored why when it comes to children, effort-based praise is better than personal praise. The column is reproduced below.

 

It’s important to praise children but be careful – sometimes, the wrong type of praise can backfire.

 

Psychological studies show praising children for their effort, for example, is very different to praising children for their intelligence. In one important study, a group of children were given some relatively easy puzzles to solve. After the test, they were divided into two groups. The kids in the first group were praised for their intelligence, and were told ‘You must be smart at this’. In contrast, the children in the second group were praised for their effort: ‘You must have worked really hard’. 

 

After, the students had to undertake another test, but they were given a choice. They could do another easy test, just like the first one. Alternatively, they could choose a more difficult test, with the researchers telling them they could learn a lot from attempting the puzzles.

 

What happened next is revealing. Among students praised for their effort, almost all – 90 per cent – chose the difficult test. In contrast, a majority of children who were praised for being smart chose to do the easy test.

 

As the author noted; ‘When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game. Look smart, don't risk making mistakes’. That’s exactly what those young students opted to do – they chose the easy option, so that they would not run the risk of losing their status of “being smart” (continued below...)

 

 

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Southern Star column on praising children

It’s important to praise children but be careful – sometimes, the wrong type of praise can backfire, as I discuss in this week's Southern Star, which is now on the shelves. As always, the column will be reproduced on this website next week.

Letting go of negative stressors

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on letting go of stress.
It's important to learn to manage stress.

In last week's Southern Star, I discussed how cultivating a compassionate mindset can help people to better manage the daily stresses of life. The column is reproduced below.

 

Some people go “ugh” when they hear the word compassion, associating it with what they perceive as touchy-feely do-gooderism. But what if I suggested that cultivating a compassionate outlook could help you better manage the day-to-day stresses of life?

 

Consider the following true story, told by psychologist and MyTherapist.ie blogger Dr Elaine Ryan. One morning, she was driving to work and a motorbike rider was coming towards her. She stopped her car well before the “lolly pop” lady was going to come up to help children across the road. This appeared to greatly upset the man on the motorbike. He slowed down, almost stopped his bike, leaned in her driver’s window and stuck his middle finger at her.

 

That’s not nice – not nice at all. Dr Ryan’s immediate reaction: heart pounding, surprise, annoyance.

 

Once she gathered herself, she had a choice. Choice 1: she could get angry and react to that anger by getting out of the car, but he had already driven away. She could stew about the incident (“What did I do to him? How dare he!”) and replay it angrily as she drive to work. Still upset hours later, she could speak about it over dinner when she got home and get angry all over again.

 

Choice 2: let it go by adopting an attitude of compassion towards the rider. He might be stressed and having a bad day. He might have anger problems, having never been taught to manage his emotions when he was younger (continued below...)

 

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Southern Star column on letting go of negative stressors

I'm in this week's Southern Star, where my latest column explores how cultivating a compassionate mindset can help us to better handle the stresses of daily life. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Anxiety: the myths and the realities

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on anxiety myths and realities.
If you treat yourself as if you are fragile, your self-belief will suffer.

In last week's Southern Star, I explored the myths and the realities surrounding the treatment of anxiety. The column is reproduced below.

 

When it comes to the treatment of anxiety, there are a lot of myths out there. Think positive thoughts, reduce stress levels and avoid stressful situations, get reassurance from loved ones – many folks think these steps will help people kill their anxiety, but such advice tends to be ineffective or even counterproductive.

 

Myth 1: Suppressing your anxious thoughts is good.

People often want to run from their thoughts and try to train themselves out of negative thinking patterns by, for example, snapping a rubber band on their wrist every time they have a “bad” thought. However, studies actually show that suppressing your thoughts “makes them stronger and more frequent”, notes the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Think of it this way: if I asked you not to think of a white bear, what do you think you’d start thinking about?

 

Myth 2: Avoid stress and situations that make you feel stressed.

We need to be careful here. Obviously, everyone wants to minimise their stress levels. However, a certain amount of stress is unavoidable in life. Not only that, it’s important for your confidence and self-esteem that you feel able to handle stressful situations. If you treat yourself as if you are fragile, your self-belief will suffer and you will become demoralised. “Avoiding anxiety tends to reinforce it”, says the ADAA. “You can be anxious and still do whatever you have to do”.

 

Myth 3: You should carry a paper bag in case you hyperventilate.

“Paper bags can serve as safety crutches that keep you anxious about being anxious”, the ADAA points out. “Hyperventilation, while uncomfortable, is not dangerous”. Safety behaviours are central to the maintenance of anxiety in all its different forms. For example, a socially anxious person might clench a glass in social situations to prevent their hand from shaking; they might wear a polo neck or wear their hair in a certain way to cover blushing; they might sit in the back of a room to avoid being noticed. Like carrying a paper bag, these actions only reinforce the idea that the situation is dangerous, thus perpetuating the person’s anxiety.

 

Myth 4: Anxiety often begins in childhood and is triggered by negative early experiences, so therapy should focus on this period. 

Yes, anxiety often begins early in life. Negative and invalidating experiences can make a child fearful. Other times, anxious parents unintentionally teach their children that the world is an unsafe place. However, there’s a big difference between apparently discovering the origins of a problem and solving that problem. Irrespective of the origins of one’s anxiety, it tends to be maintained by current thinking and behaviour patterns. That’s why effective anxiety treatment “focuses on the here and now”, notes the ADAA, “including new skills to manage thoughts, emotions, discomforts and behaviour”.

 

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Latest Southern Star column: anxiety myths

In this week's Southern Star, my latest column looks at the myths and realities regarding the treatment of anxiety. As always, I'll reproduce the column on this blog next week.

Is laughter the best medicine?

Child laughing.
Laughter helps us to take ourselves and our lives less seriously.

In last week's Southern Star, I talked about the healing power of laughter. The column is reproduced below. 

 

There’s a certain truth to the old cliché about laughter being the best medicine.

 

The late cognitive psychologist Dr Albert Ellis certainly believed in the power of laughter. Like most cognitive therapists, Ellis believed anxiety and depression were underpinned by distorted and unhelpful thinking patterns. Unlike his fellow cognitive therapists, however, Ellis used some pretty eccentric methods to get his points across. He encouraged his clients to sing songs that made fun of themselves, and would even hold public seminars where he would involve his audience in sing-alongs.

 

One of his favourite anti-anxiety songs was ‘Wild About Worry’, which went to the tune of ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry’. ‘Oh, I'm just wild about worry’, Ellis would sing, ‘And worry's wild about me!/ We're quite a twosome to make life gruesome/ And filled with anxiety!’ Another, ‘What If, What If’, went to the tune of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube: ‘I think of what if, what if!/And scare myself stiff, yes stiff, quite stiff!/When things are as certain as can be, I ask for a perfect guarantee’.

 

Another favourite was ‘Beautiful Hangup’: ‘Beautiful hangup, don't go away!/ Who will befriend me if you do not stay?/ Though you still make me look like a jerk/ Living without you would take so much work!’ Ellis also satirised some people’s dire need for love and approval (‘Love, oh love me, only me, or I will die without you!/ Oh make your love a guarantee, so I can never doubt you!/ Love me with great tenderness, with no ifs or buts dear/ If you love me somewhat less, I’ll hate your goddamned guts dear!’) (continued below...)

  

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Southern Star column on the power of laughter

This week's Southern Star is on the shelves. My latest column looks at the power of laughter, how it brings people together and reduces anxiety, depression, guilt and obsessive thinking. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Never, ever humiliate someone

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on humiliation and depression.
John Lonergan: "It is never right to humiliate a person".

Humiliation is a very intense emotion. Few experiences – even the loss of a loved one – can surpass the psychological damage caused by humiliating events, as I cautioned in last week's Southern Star. The column is reproduced below.

 

You might be aggrieved with someone – your partner, child, co-worker, whoever – and want to “teach them a lesson”, to “take them down a peg or two”, to “put them in their place”. Don’t – any act that aims to humiliate is dangerously misguided.

 

One man who witnessed a lot of humiliation in his career is former Mountjoy governor John Lonergan. In his book The Governor, Lonergan relates how a prisoner complained he had been wrongly accused of drug-taking. Prior to meeting the prisoner, Lonergan checked CCTV footage. It confirmed the prisoner was lying and Lonergan printed out six incriminating images. In the meeting, Lonergan told the prisoner the CCTV confirmed he was guilty, but didn’t tell him he was sitting on the proof. The prisoner complained about the lack of justice in “this kip of a jail”, but Lonergan stayed silent about the prints, instead talking about the importance of honesty, honour and keeping your word. Finally, after 57 minutes of denials, the prisoner grinned and said ‘Mr Lonergan, it was worth a try’. Away with you, said the governor, and serve your punishment.

 

Lonergan never told him he was sitting on the evidence. ‘By getting him to admit his wrongdoing he had learned an important lesson and, above all, I had not humiliated him. That would have been the easy thing to do, to push the prints in front of him and tell him he was a big liar. But I believe that it is never right to humiliate a person, irrespective of the circumstances’.

 

Lonergan’s thoughts are backed up by research. In one study, psychologists examined brain scans of participants exposed to situations involving feelings of anger, happiness or humiliation. The humiliation scenario was this: ‘You see your internet date at the arranged location. Your date takes one look at you, turns around, and quickly walks away’. The scans confirmed human brains detest being humiliated – humiliation is more negative than anger and more intense than happiness, the psychologists found. It’s a very intense emotion (continued below...)

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Southern Star column on humiliation

Never, ever humiliate someone - that's the theme of my Your Mental Health column in this week's Southern Star. Research shows few experiences – even the loss of a loved one – can surpass the psychological damage caused by humiliating events. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Depressed? Watch the words you use

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column exploring the link between language and depression.
Absolutist words like 'totally' and 'definitely' are associated with depression.

Last week's Your Mental Health column in The Southern Star column explored new research regarding the link between depression and the words people use in their everyday language. The column is reproduced below.

 

"Me”, “myself”, “I”, “always”, “definitely”, “totally” – these may sound like a bunch of harmless words, but they can actually be indicative of depressed thinking.

 

A new study has found depressed people use a lot more first-person singular pronouns – words like “me”, “myself” and “I” – and a lot fewer second- and third-person pronouns (“they, “them”, “she”). The study, which examined language used by over 6,400 members of different mental health online forums, also found absolutist words like “always” and “completely” were roughly 50 per cent more common in anxiety and depression forums than in non-mental health-related forums.

 

Frequent use of words like “I” and “me” indicate a person is more focused on themselves and less connected with others, which is what one generally expects to find with depression. Similarly, the usage of absolutist words is not surprising – after all, when you’re down, you’re more liable to think in a negative, black-and-white fashion.

 

However, we should be very careful of the language we use. The above traits are not simply a consequence of being depressed – they can be a cause of it. The researchers found the same kind of language was found in depression recovery forums. We know that people who have experienced at least one depressive episode are at greater risk of experiencing a relapse at some stage in the future. This tendency towards absolutist, self-focused thinking, the study suggests, may play a part in causing a depressive relapse.

 

Other studies have reached similar conclusions regarding the dangers of excessive self-focus, which is especially associated with social anxiety. In conversation, for example, you may find you are completely focused on yourself and on the impression you are leaving – so much so you barely take in what the other person was saying. Afterwards, you ruminate on your performance and engage in acute self-criticism that further dampens your mood. Rumination – going over things again and again, replaying negative events – has been linked to “increased sadness, distress and anxiety, reduced motivation, insomnia, and increased tiredness, self-criticism, pessimism and hopelessness”, to quote cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) expert Dr Edmund Watkins (continued below...)

 

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Southern Star column on the language of depression

In this week's Southern Star, I discuss an interesting new study which finds that the language used by depressed people differs from the words uttered by non-depressed people. Depressed people, the study finds, are more likely to use first-person pronouns such as 'I', 'me' and 'myself' as well as words indicative of absolutist thinking (for example, 'never', 'definitely', 'always', etc). As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Emotional reasoning: why feelings are not facts

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column explaining why feelings are not facts.
Emotional reasoning can play a large part in depression and anxiety.

Emotional reasoning – mistaking your feelings for reality – can be bad for your mental health and well-being, as I explained in last week's Southern Star. The column is reproduced below.

 

I feel bad, therefore things are bad. I feel things are hopeless so they must be hopeless. I feel fat, therefore I must be fat.

 

The above statements are examples of emotional reasoning – that is, mistaking one’s feelings for reality. It’s a common habit: most people engage in emotional reasoning to some degree, often relying on their feelings rather than rational thinking to build arguments and make decisions. Have you ever felt anxious about something and thought to yourself, “I can’t explain it, but I know something bad is going to happen”?

 

Emotional reasoning is an assumption your negative emotions ‘necessarily reflect the way things really are’, writes cognitive behavioural therapist Dr David Burns, author of The Feeling Good Handbook. ‘“I feel terrified about going on airplanes. It must be very dangerous to fly.” “I feel guilty. I must be a rotten person.” Or “I feel angry. This proves I’m being treated unfairly”. Or “I feel so inferior. This means I’m a second-rate person”. Or “I feel hopeless. I must really be hopeless”’.

 

Emotional reasoning can drive counter-productive behaviours and cause significant emotional turmoil. Someone with low self-esteem might not apply for a job for which they are qualified because they feel inferior. Someone with an eating disorder might continue with a restrictive diet because they “feel fat”, even though they are dangerously underweight. An anxious person might avoid situations because they feel unsafe, even though there is little evidence supporting their fears. Emotional reasoning can play a large part in depression; the intensely negative feelings of hopelessness associated with depression can cause people to see things as much more dire than they really are.

 

The term “emotional reasoning” is associated with Dr Aaron Beck, the founder of CBT who first described the problem way back in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the myth that it’s good to go with intuition and gut feelings persists. Do an internet search for “gut feelings” and you’ll be greeted with posters such as “Always trust your gut feelings, as they never lie the way people do”; “Your body can pick up on bad vibrations. If something deep inside of you says something is not right about a person or situation, trust it”; “Your brain can play tricks, but your gut is always right”.

 

This is nonsense (continued below...)

 

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Southern Star: Feelings are not facts

I feel bad, therefore things are bad. I feel things are hopeless so they must be hopeless. I feel fat, therefore I must be fat. These kinds of statements are examples of emotional reasoning - that is, mistaking your feelings for reality. In this week's Southern Star, I discuss why emotional reasoning can be bad for your mental health and well-being.

As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Emotional pain hurts more than physical pain

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column comparing physical and emotional pain.
Emotional pain is wrongly seen as less important than physical pain.

Most of us know that it’s reckless to ignore physical pain. It’s important to recognise that the same is true of emotional pain, as I argued in last week's Southern Star. The column is reproduced below.

 

Which is worse – physical pain or emotional pain?

 

One might instinctively think the former is more important. After all, people generally pay a lot more attention to their physical health than their emotional health. When someone says that “health is wealth”, they’re usually referring to physical health. Whereas it’s a cultural norm to periodically check in with your doctor to get a physical check-up and make sure everything is working as it should be, there’s no such thing, really, as an annual psychological check-up.

 

If you pause for a minute, however, you’ll realise the significance of emotional pain. In Breaking Bad, arch-villain Gus Fring threatens the show’s protagonist, Walter White, saying: ‘If you try to interfere... I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter’. Gangsters, notes British psychologist and Overcoming Depression author Prof. Paul Gilbert, often threaten to harm the children of their enemies rather than their actual enemy, precisely because they recognise that the thought of emotional pain is worse than the thought of physical pain.

 

If you broke your leg many years ago, you’ll likely experience little if any distress when you recall the event. However, if you recall an event that caused psychological pain – the death of a loved one, a cruel comment from school or work bullies, being rejected by a romantic love interest – you will likely experience a fair degree of emotional pain. As a general rule, notes Dr Guy Winch in Psychology Today, physical pain “usually leaves few echoes” whereas emotional pain “leaves numerous reminders, associations and triggers that reactivate our pain when we encounter them”.

 

Similarly, painful emotional experiences shape people much more than painful physical experiences, impacting their mental health and self-esteem. A bullied child may grow up to be an introverted and under-confident adult; someone who lived in fear at an early age might develop chronic anxiety and desperately avoid all kinds of situations which provoke uncertainty; social isolation and rejection can shape negative thinking patterns that drive hopelessness, anger and all kinds of toxic emotions. 

 

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Southern Star column on emotional and physical pain

Most people pay more attention to their physical health than their emotional health, despite the fact that emotional pain generally hurts more than physical pain. In this week's Your Mental Health column in The Southern Star, I discuss why it's important to recognise and react to emotional pain. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Vietnam, heroin and breaking bad habits

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on how our environment shapes our behaviour.
Our everyday environment shapes our behaviour in all kinds of ways.

How can we break bad habits? Last week's Your Mental Health column in The Southern Star discussed how changing your environment in all kinds of subtle ways can help. The column is reproduced below.

 

Breaking bad habits isn’t easy, which is why many people will have already given up on their New Year resolutions. To understand why, consider the following story about heroin addiction among US soldiers during the Vietnam war.

 

There had long been a history of opium use in Vietnam and many American soldiers succumbed to the appeal of the drug during the Vietnam war. In 1971, the US government was told 15 per cent of American soldiers had become addicted to heroin. Alarmed, authorities insisted soldiers detox in Vietnam and that they not be allowed return home until they passed a urine drug test.

 

Authorities were concerned recovered addicts would relapse upon returning home. Heroin addiction was regarded as almost incurable and relapse rates were typically extremely high.

 

That didn’t happen in this case. Experts were stunned to discover that within a year of returning home, just 5 per cent of soldiers had relapsed. Almost all – 95 per cent – remained clean.

 

Why? Their environment had changed radically. Vietnam was a psychological minefield, a potent cocktail of trauma, stress and boredom. Heroin was easily available. Soldiers became friendly with fellow users. The environment was a breeding ground for heroin use. In contrast, soldiers returned to a completely different environment in the US – a mundane one, free from the stresses and strains that had catalysed their initial addiction.

 

Heroin addiction is not a big problem in West Cork, but the same point applies – people’s everyday environment shapes their behaviour in all kinds of ways. In one experiment conducted by Dr David Neal, a psychologist specialising in behaviour change, cinema-goers were presented with a bucket of either fresh popcorn or stale, week-old popcorn. People who didn’t usually eat popcorn at the cinema ate much less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn; the taste difference, after all, was substantial. However, people who typically ate popcorn at the cinema ate just as much stale popcorn as fresh popcorn. Taste and freshness didn’t matter; people ate out of habit (continued below...)

 

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Southern Star column on breaking bad habits

Breaking bad habits isn't easy, as subject I discuss in this week's Southern Star. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Why do people get happier as they get older?

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column explaining why people get happier as they get older.
Older people tend to be less self-critical and more accepting of negative emotions.

People tend to think that life goes downhill as you age, but the research shows the opposite is true: lifetime happiness tends to be U-shaped, with most people getting happier as they get older. Why? My column in the January 26 edition of The Southern Star discussed this important subject, and is reproduced below.

 

As you get older, your looks fade. Mentally, you become less sharp and your memory declines. Your physical health suffers.

 

And you get happier.

 

Well, not everyone gets happier as they age, but it’s pretty common. Countless international studies show lifetime happiness resembles a U-shape. Young people entering adulthood tend to be relatively positive and optimistic, but then happiness levels gradually decline and keep heading south for a few decades. The mid-like crisis is a real phenomenon, with people tending to be least happy when they are in their 40s or early 50s (apparently, 46 is the worst age!). After that, however, things pick up: people keep getting happier right up into their 70s and beyond.

 

Although the evidence supporting the U-bend theory is very strong, the idea is invariably greeted with disbelief. In one study, researchers got a group of 30-year-olds and a group of 70-year-olds and asked them who was likely to be happier. Both groups agreed the youthful people were more likely to be happier, and both were wrong – the older were the happier crew.

 

We live in a culture that has long venerated youth and denigrated old age. The Who’s Pete Townshend famously wrote the line “Hope I die before I get old”, a sentiment echoed by a young Mick Jagger (“What a drag it is getting old”). This, coupled with the aforementioned physical and mental declines associated with age, means people tend to think life goes downhill for most folk, when the truth is otherwise.

 

Why? External factors play a part. As kids leave home and work pressures fade away, people have more time for themselves, more time to do as they please. Even if you remove these factors, however, the U-bend is still evident in the research. That indicates people’s lives change on an internal as well as an external level, and that these changes help them to become more happy and content.

 

What are these internal changes? (continued below...)

 

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Southern Star: Older, wiser and happier?

Contrary to popular belief, people tend to get happier as they get older. My column in this week's Southern Star examines the reasons why. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

New year resolutions and CBT: Fail better

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on 2018 new year resolutions.
The main reasons people fail with resolutions is they tend to be unrealistic and vague.

In last week's Southern Star, my column examined some practical tips from CBT psychologist Dr Judith Beck relating to new year resolutions.  The column is reproduced below.

 

This column is going to offer some advice on new year resolutions. Before I start, however, let me first explain why I really would prefer not to be writing about new year resolutions.

 

It’s not that I don’t believe in goals. I do – goal-setting is a central part of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Is my reluctance to pen these lines motivated by the fact that resolving to change one’s ways simply because it’s January 1 can seem a bit arbitrary and half-hearted? Partly, although I appreciate the symbolism of a new year representing a blank slate, a time to take stock and begin again (continued below...)

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Southern Star: New year resolutions

In this week's Southern Star, my column explores some tips from CBT psychologist Dr Judith Beck relating to new year resolutions and goal-setting. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Dealing with Christmas stress

Linda Hamilton column on coping with Christmas stress.
Financial, familial and psychological pressures can weigh on people at Christmas.

It’s great to invest in Christmas, but the holiday season also brings its own pressures, not least the pressure to be happy. Last week's Your Mental Health column in the Southern Star offered some tips on how to cope with Christmas stress. The column is reproduced below.

 

The old song says Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year”, but it can also be a stressful period where a combination of pressures – financial, familial, psychological – mean many people approach the holiday season with a sense of foreboding rather than joyful anticipation.

In fact, Christmas can be tricky even for people who love the festivities. In one study, most people said they enjoyed Christmas but nevertheless almost half (44 per cent) said it could be very stressful. There is so much to do at Christmas – shopping, cooking for large numbers, catering for visits from in-laws and relatives – and the planning and work can result in tensions spilling over and to feelings of being overwhelmed.

 

Then there are the family dynamics. A trip back home, particularly for adult children who may not have been in the same room as all of their siblings over the past year, can often be a ‘psychological minefield’, to quote author and Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman. It’s common for both siblings and parents to regress back into family roles adopted many years or even decades earlier. Most of the time, this is perfectly harmless and can involve an element of comedy that binds the family together, but other times old family alliances and divisions resurface. People can needle each other and push each others’ buttons, with all kinds of emotions – envy, resentment, sibling rivalry and competitiveness – bubbling over. 

 

It’s important to have realistic expectations when it comes to family dynamics, to know your own triggers and to plan accordingly. If certain family activities invariably lower your mood, politely try and avoid them or at the very least shorten your participation in them. Everyone needs their own space so it’s important to find room for the stress-relieving measures you use in normal day-to-day life, whether that be taking a hot bath, making time for a short mindfulness session, a walk with the dog – whatever works for you (continued below...) 

The most ancient and ultimately ineffective stress reliever – alcohol – should be consumed in moderation. Alcohol is a depressant: far from curing the blues, it accentuates them and its disinhibiting effect makes you far more likely to blurt out harsh words that are later regretted. Instead, try to stay active. It’s nice to take it easy at Christmas but cabin fever can set in, and hours spent overindulging in front of the TV can lead to restlessness and fatigue.

 

Christmas is, of course, an expensive time of the year, but it’s important to be commonsensical and not spend more money than you can afford. Use cash and debit cards and stick to a reasonable Christmas budget. Ideally, families should agree to a designated spending limit, so that the cost of presents don’t exceed a given amount. The psychological strain associated with a new year debt hangover shouldn’t be underestimated. Besides, it’s unnecessary: the aforementioned Christmas study found people derived greatest satisfaction from family and spiritual activities at Christmas, while the materialistic aspects – namely, spending money and receiving presents – undermined the seasonal experience.

 

 

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Coping with Christmas stress

The old song says Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year”, but it can also be a stressful period where a combination of pressures – financial, familial, psychological – mean many people approach the holiday season with a sense of foreboding rather than joyful anticipation. In this week's Southern Star, I offer some advice on coping with Christmas stress. The column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

The psychology of gratitude

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on the psychology of gratitude.
Gratitude is associated with physical and psychological health benefits.

I came across an old Southern Star column of mine that I forgot to upload. Better late than never, so the column is below...

 

Does the idea of cultivating gratitude via gratitude diaries and the likes make you squirm? It shouldn’t – far from being touchy-feely do-gooderism, practising gratitude helps people live happier and more objective lives.

 

Most of us are much quicker to notice what goes wrong in our everyday lives whilst ignoring or forgetting about what goes right. Think of it this way – when you’re running or cycling into a strong wind, you’ll focus on how you’re being blown back and frustrated by the breeze. Then you turn around and the headwind becomes a tailwind, pushing you forward, but do you notice it? Or is your memory dominated by that strong but temporary headwind?

 

The analogy is used by Cornell University psychologists in a new study, ‘The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry’. In a series of clever experiments, researchers found Republican and Democrat voters both believed the electoral map worked against their own party; football fans focused on the difficult games in their team’s schedules; sons and daughters thought their parents were harder on them than on their siblings; and academics thought they faced bigger career hurdles than their colleagues in other departments.

 

“Barriers and hindrances command attention because they have to be overcome”, the study noted, whereas benefits “can often be simply enjoyed and largely ignored.” We focus on what goes wrong and forget about what goes right; we remember the headwinds but not the tailwinds (continued below...)

Actively cultivating gratitude militates against this tendency, helping us see our lives in a more objective fashion. It also improves our psychological and physical health. In one famous study, ‘Counting Blessings Versus Burdens’, one group of students were asked to look back on the previous week and write up to five things they were grateful or thankful for. In contrast, a second group was asked to list up to five hassles they had experienced, with both groups continuing the practice over a 10-week period. After 10 weeks, the gratitude group felt better and more optimistic about their lives. Notably, they also exercised more and paid fewer visits to doctors than the group who focused on their daily hassles.

 

Countless other studies have reported similar findings. In another study, people experienced a big happiness boost after writing and delivering a letter of gratitude to someone they had not properly thanked for an earlier act of kindness. Another paper found expressing gratitude to a partner changed their view of the relationship; not only that, it helped people to be more comfortable in expressing their relationship concerns.

 

 

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Daniel Gilbert: Lessons from Professor Happiness

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on Daniel Gilbert's happiness research.
People are unable to accurately predict what will make them happy or unhappy.

Last week's 'Your Mental Health' column in the Southern Star looked at what people can learn from happiness research, particularly the findings of 'Professor Happiness', psychologist Daniel Gilbert. The column is reproduced below.

 

All of us can imagine scenarios that seem nightmarish, just as we can picture idyllic lives where we don’t have a care in the world. But what if the nightmarish scenario turned out to be more manageable than you thought, and the blissful scenario wasn’t actually that blissful?

 

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert is known as Professor Happiness because of his research into what makes people happy and unhappy. Gilbert’s interest can be traced back to a particularly stressful period in his life. Over a short period of time, his mentor passed away, his mother died, his marriage collapsed, and his teenage son developed problems at school. As bad as the situation was, Gilbert wasn’t devastated. Life went on. He mentioned his surprise to a friend who was also going through a difficult time, telling him: ‘If you’d have asked me a year ago how I’d deal with all this, I’d have predicted that I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning’. His friend nodded and asked, ‘Are we the only people who could be so wrong in predicting how we’d respond to extreme stress?’ 

 

Gilbert has spent the last two decades asking such questions, conducting studies to assess whether people can accurately predict their emotional reactions to future events. The answer is always the same – people are unable to predict what will make them happy or unhappy (continued below...)

 

HAPPINESS PREDICTIONS

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Column: Life lessons from Professor Happiness

All of us can imagine scenarios that seem nightmarish, just as we can picture idyllic lives where we don’t have a care in the world. But what if the nightmarish scenario turned out to be more manageable than you thought, and the blissful scenario wasn’t actually that blissful? I explore such matters in my 'Your Mental Health' column in this week's Southern Star, drawing on the research of 'Prof. Happiness', psychologist Daniel Gilbert. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.

Nobel prizes and Michelin stars: Kahneman and Beck on coping with disappointments

Linda Hamilton column on how CBT can help us cope with life's disappointments.
'We all have serious disappointments... but it isn’t life itself' - CBT founder Aaron Beck.

In last week's Southern Star, I discussed how when things go wrong in life,  CBT can help us see that things may not be as black as they seem. The column is reproduced below.

 

'Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it'.

 

That line comes from cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, author of the bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s observation applies to all kinds of situations, both good and bad. However, it’s particularly relevant when things go wrong in life, when we are hit by disappointments, and when things seem blacker than they really are.

 

Consider the following story told by Dr Aaron Beck, the celebrated founder of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). In a podcast, Beck relates how one of his clients was a very qualified economist who was depressed. The economist thought he was in the running for a Nobel Prize and was devastated when he discovered the award wasn’t, in fact, going to come his way. Acknowledging the client’s disappointment, Beck drew a pie chart and asked the economist to estimate visually the importance of his career and the recognition that came with it. The client drew in the pie chart, estimating that it was about 85 per cent or so (continued below...)

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Column: Coping with disappointments

All of us will experience seemingly major disappointments in life, but it's important to keep a sense of perspective on what is really meaningful, as I discuss in my column in this week's Southern Star.

Southern Star supplement: Six tips for positive ageing

Linda Hamilton column on tips for positive ageing.
Holding positive views about ageing is associated with longevity.

I had a short piece in last week's Southern Star where I outlined six tips for positive ageing. The piece is reproduced below.

 

Stay connected

The Grant Study, the world’s longest-running study into adult happiness, has followed hundreds of people over a 75-year period. It found you could predict people’s subsequent physical health not by looking at cholesterol levels, but by assessing how satisfied they were in their relationships. “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80”, notes Professor Robert Waldinger. The moral: stay connected and invest in your relationships with your partner, family, friends and neighbours. “Taking care of your body is important”, adds Waldinger, “but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too”.

 

Stay physically active

Regular exercise – around 30 minutes daily – is invaluable. Research suggests it can increase people’s physical capacity by 10–15 years. It aids brain function in older adults, provides us with social interactions, and boosts mood and well-being.

 

Stay mentally active

The bad news: working memory starts declining at age 35. The good news: people are holding onto their long-term memory longer than they used to. The more you exercise your mind, the better, so keep learning and stay mentally active. Sudoku or crossword puzzles, reading, learning a new language or a new skill – countless mental activities keep the mind in shape. Just ask Dr Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): now 96, Beck continues to work and expand his CBT research into new areas.

 

Stay young at heart

How old do you feel? Surveys show most people feel younger than they really are, and that’s good: people who feel younger tend to live longer. The reasons are various, but staying physically and mentally active keeps you feeling younger, boosting self-confidence and quality of life.

 

Positive ageing

The negative aspects of ageing are well-known, but what about the positives? Studies show older adults have fewer rows, are less angry, better at accepting misfortune and controlling emotions, and less likely to self-criticise. Holding positive views about ageing is associated with longevity, so remember this: studies show happiness is typically U-shaped, dipping between youth and middle age and heading back upwards after that.

 

Practice gratitude

Psychological research shows simple gratitude exercises – for example, listing three things for which you feel grateful – help relieve pain and fatigue, boost physical health and raise energy levels. To quote the late Seamus Heaney:

To be first on the road,

Up with the ground-mists and pheasants.

To be older and grateful.’

Positive ageing piece in Southern Star

In the Good Life supplement accompanying this week's Southern Star, I have a short piece outlining six tips for positive ageing. 

Southern Star: CBT and the burglar in the bedroom

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on CBT and the burglar in the bedroom.
CBT suggests we are largely disturbed not by events, but by the view we take of them.

In last week's Southern Star, I explored one of the key messages of CBT: the idea that emotional distress is caused more by how we see events than the events themselves.  If you disagree, please read the column, which I hope will give you some food for thought!

 

Here’s a question to ponder: are your emotions guided more by events and situations, or by how you see the events and situations?

 

One of the key messages of CBT is that people ‘are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them’, as the late psychologist Albert Ellis put it. The idea is not a new one – the Stoics of ancient Greece had a similar philosophy. Nor is it debated solely by psychologists and philosophers: ‘The problem is not the problem’, says Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. ‘The problem is your attitude about the problem’.

 

Is it true? Well, consider the following examples (continued below...)

 You’re in bed at home and hear a loud noise, a thud, in another bedroom. You think ‘Is that a burglar?’ Feeling anxious and fearful, you might curl up under the covers or call the police or shout a warning.

Alternatively, another person is in bed at home and hears a loud noise, a thud, in another bedroom. They think, ‘Did I leave the window open? Something must have blown down’. Casually, they go downstairs and see what happened.

 

Another example: You’re at work and see two office colleagues giggling at their desks. Your first thought is negative: ‘They’re laughing at me’. Feeling angry and defensive, you ignore your colleagues and keep to yourself for the next few hours, complaining to your partner about your job and colleagues when you get home.

Alternatively, you might think, 'I wonder what the joke is?’ This leads to different feelings (curiosity, possibly mild annoyance), which leads to a different behaviour (you keep talking as normal).

 

A third example. In 2009, a plane crashed in the Hudson River in New York in 2009. The pilot’s skill meant all 155 people came out alive. How did those people feel? Some might have been distressed and anxiety-ridden – they nearly died. They might say, ‘I’m never flying again, it’s too dangerous, I’ll never get over the shock.’ Others might feel huge relief and happiness. Others might feel exhilarated. They might say: Life is short, carpe diem, seize the day! Travel the world while you still can!

 

 

 

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Column: CBT and the burglar in the bedroom

Are our emotions guided more by events and situations, or by how we see the events and situations? It's crucial to have insight into this nuanced and very important subject, which I discuss in my 'Your Mental Health' column in this week's Southern Star. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week for non-West Cork readers who may not be able to access this week's paper.

Southern Star: Learning life skills with CBT

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on CBT and life skills.
Psychological knowledge is ultimately about gaining life skills.

I forgot to upload my October 19 Southern Star column! Here it is, somewhat belatedly...

 

Everyone knows what it’s like to be stressed; everyone knows what it’s like to be anxious; everyone knows what it’s like to be down. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how best to manage these problems.

 

It’s hard to overstate the importance of mental health awareness. Globally, over 800,000 people die by suicide every year, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates around 20 times that number attempt to take their own life. Globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds. In Ireland, it is the leading cause of death in men aged 15-34 (continued below...)

Of course, you don’t need to be a suicide risk to suffer from mental health problems. To repeat: everyone knows what it’s like to be stressed and anxious and down. In a recent survey of 20,000 British workers, three in four said they’d experienced symptoms of poor mental health at some point in their lives. In a recent column, I discussed an academic study in New Zealand which found enduring mental health is the exception, not the rule – five in six people experienced mental health problems at some stage of their lives, the study found.

 

There’s not nearly as much misunderstanding and stigma regarding mental health as there used to be, but we still have a long way to go in this regard. Firstly, we need to foster a culture where vulnerability is accepted, where people can casually say: ‘Things have been tough for me lately, I’ve had a lot on my plate and I’m feeling pretty stressed’. Secondly, we need to remember mental health is about more than depression and the likes, in the same way physical health is about more than heart disease and cancer.  Just as most people recognise sleep, nutrition and exercise are vital for their everyday physical health, we must all be conscious that the same factors are essential for mental wellbeing.

 

 

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Public talk on CBT and mental health at Scannell's Pharmacy, Ballineen

I’m delighted to have been asked to give a talk on the subject of CBT and mental health at Scannell’s Pharmacy, Ballineen, next Monday, October 23, at 7pm. At the talk, I'll be discussing how thoughts, feelings and behaviours interact to influence mood, and how to apply usable CBT techniques to improve quality of life. For further information on same, please see Scannell's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/scannells.pharmacyballineen/

 

Column: Learning life skills with CBT

I'm in this week's Southern Star, where my latest column focuses on the value of fostering good mental health and learning life skills through CBT.

Southern Star: The dangers of 'positive' thinking

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star CBT column on the dangers of positive thinking.
Books like The Secret offer advice that can do more harm than good.

Some self-help books offer potentially harmful advice on positive thinking, as I noted in in last week's Your Mental Health column in The Southern Star. The column is reproduced below.

 

It’s better to view the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, but be warned: an excessive focus on positive thinking is not good for your mental health.

 

In particular, I’m thinking of some of the advice doled out in popular self-help books that preach the gospel of positive thinking – books like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, the late Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life, and Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. The three books, which have sold millions of copies, are often recommended by concerned, well-meaning people to friends or family who may be experiencing depression or anxiety. Unfortunately, they often do more harm than good (continued below)...

‘Positive thinking often involves trying to believe upbeat statements such as “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better,” in the absence of evidence or even in the face of contrary evidence”, cautions psychologist Martin Seligman. Louise Hay, for example, recommended readers recite positive affirmations such as ‘All is well in my world. Everything is working out for my highest good’, ‘I live in the perfect space’, and ‘I always work with and for wonderful people. I love my job.’ The Secret, too, is full of affirmations, many of them materialistic (‘You will attract everything you require – money, people, connections’). One affirmation featured in a trailer for the movie version is, ‘Everything I touch turns to gold’. A man then touches a statue; it turns golden.

 

We’re told our thoughts determine our physical health. "Illness cannot exist in a body that has harmonious thoughts”, writes Rhonda Byrne. “We create every illness in our body”, according to Louise Hay. “Releasing resentment will dissolve even cancer” (she claimed to have cured herself of cancer in the 1970s). Venereal disease, she said, is linked to sexual guilt; kidney stones are caused by “lumps of undissolved anger”; Alzheimer’s is linked to a “refusal to deal with the world as it is”; rheumatoid arthritis to “feeling victimized” and “chronic bitterness”.

 

 

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Column: positive thinking is not a cure-all

I'm in this week's Southern Star, where my latest column explores how an excessive focus on positive thinking can be bad for people's mental health. 

Southern Star: Test your thoughts with behavioural experiments

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star CBT column on behavioural experiments.
Behavioural experiments help call the bluff of our negative thoughts.

Last week's Southern Star column looked at why we should put our thoughts on trial with behavioural experiments. The column is reproduced below.

 

Imagine the following. You call into your neighbour’s house and are surprised to see her sprinkling salt all over the floor. ‘Why are you doing that?’, you ask. ‘To keep the tigers away’, she responds. Stunned, you point out there are no tigers in Ireland. ‘Exactly’, she responds.

 

Your neighbour’s mistaken belief can be easily disproved – she has no reason to fear a tiger attack, and will see as much if she just stops sprinkling the salt. Until she stops engaging in this activity, however, she will continue to believe this safety behaviour is protecting her from a non-existent threat (continued below...)

 

CBT: TEST YOUR THOUGHTS

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Column: Behavioural experiments

Our thoughts and beliefs can feel true, but are they true? One way to find out is to conduct behavioural experiments, a subject I discuss in this week's Southern Star, which is now on the shelves.

Southern Star: Almost everyone likely to experience mental illness

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star CBT column on the frequency of mental illness.
Almost everyone struggles with their mental health at some stage.

My most recent Southern Star column explored recent research indicating that almost everyone experiences mental illness at some stage of their life. The column is reproduced below.

 

You’re more likely to experience mental illness in your life than you are to develop diabetes, heart disease or any kind of cancer – combined. Put another way, almost everyone develops a diagnosable mental illness at some stage in their life.

 

An exaggeration? Not according to recent research conducted by a team of New Zealand psychologists who tracked the mental health of almost 1,000 people as they progressed from childhood to middle age. Participants, who were all born in the same town between 1972 and 1973, received in-depth mental health assessments eight times between the ages of 11 and 38. The vast majority – 83 per cent – developed mental health problems at one stage or another, with only 17 per cent reporting 'enduring mental health' (continued below). 

These figures may seem high to many. However, they tally with four recent long-term projects conducted in the US, Switzerland and New Zealand. Those studies, conducted over 12- to 30-year timespans, found that between 61 and 85 per cent of people developed a mental illness at one stage or another.

 

 

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Southern Star: Watch out for the 'three major musts'

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on Albert Ellis, CBT and the 'three major musts'.
'Three major musts: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.’

In last week's Southern Star, I advised people to watch out for the 'three major musts' that hold us back and generate unnecessary psychological distress. The column is reproduced below.

 

‘There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.’

 

The above quote comes from the late cognitive psychologist Dr Albert Ellis, a famously plain-speaking therapist who believed people make life unnecessarily tricky by holding all kinds of irrational beliefs about themselves and others. Ellis listed a dozen or so especially common examples of these beliefs, some of which included: 

  • It is a dire necessity for adults to be loved by significant others for almost everything they do;
  • Certain acts are awful or wicked, and people who perform such acts are terrible individuals;
  • It is horrible when things are not the way we like them to be (continued below...)
  • Human misery is externally caused and is forced upon us by outside people and events;
  • If something seems dangerous, we must be extremely upset and obsess endlessly about it;
  • It is easier to avoid life’s difficulties than to face them;
  • I must be thoroughly competent, intelligent and achieving in all important respects;
  • My past shapes my present so if something once strongly affected my life, it must indefinitely affect my life;
  • I must have certain and perfect control over things;
  • I have virtually no control over my emotions and cannot help feeling disturbed about things. 

Over time, Ellis boiled these down to the ‘three major musts’: I must do well and win the approval of others or else I am no good; other people absolutely must treat me kindly and fairly or else they are rotten; anything other than a comfortable, easy life is awful and insufferable.

 

 

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Column: Watch out for the "three major musts"

‘There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.’

Cognitive psychologist Albert Ellis believed people make life unnecessarily difficult by holding all kinds of unhelpful beliefs about themselves and others. My column on Ellis's ideas can be found in this week's Southern Star

Southern Star: Unhappiness is more common than you think

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on how unhappiness is more common than people think.
Studies show people underestimate the difficulties faced by others.

In last week's Your Mental Health column in The Southern Star, I explored how people tend to underestimate how common it is for others to feel lonely and unhappy. In truth, everybody hurts sometimes. The column is reproduced below.

 

Imagine the following scenario. Office colleagues Liam, John and Mary go for a drink after work. They’re all coping with their own private difficulties – Liam is feeling hassled by his boss, John has money problems that are taking a toll on his family life, and Mary is feeling isolated and alone after a relationship break-up.

 

At the bar, however, the mood appears convivial, and each person wears a smile. When asked how they’re doing, Liam, John and Mary all say things are “grand”, thinking it would be inappropriate to say otherwise on this social occasion. As a result, Liam thinks he’s the only one going through a tough time. He thinks he is the only one putting on a face, that the others’ outward show of contentment is genuine. Unknown to him, John and Mary are making the exact same miscalculation (continued below).

 

SOCIAL COMPARISONS

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Southern Star column: Don't fall for the Trump effect

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on repeating lies and CBT.
We often mistake familiarity for truth.

We're more inclined to believe statements if we've heard them before, even if there's no truth to them. Confusing familiarity with truth can lead to interpersonal problems and conflict, as I explored in last week's Southern Star. The column is reproduced below.

 

'A reliable way to make people believe a lie is frequent repetition’, says cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, ‘because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth’.

 

Marketers, propagandists and politicians like Donald Trump have long instinctively understood Kahneman’s message. It’s a disheartening message but a very important one. We like to think our beliefs – about ourselves and others – rest on objective foundations, but that’s often not the case.

 

Lies, distortions and misconceptions get repeated; after a certain amount of time, they become so familiar that they get mistaken for long-established truths.

 

It may sound simplistic to say that merely repeating a message makes us more inclined to believe it, but a mountain of research confirms this point. Experiments show people rate statements that have only been repeated once as more believable than statements they have heard for the first time. This is true even if the person making the statements has been repeatedly lying, and it occurs even if people are warned in advance that repeated statements are no more likely to be true than unrepeated statements (continued below)...

 

REPETITION

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Southern Star: Postnatal depression, no need to suffer in silence

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on CBT for postnatal depression.
Around one in seven new mothers experience postnatal depression (PND).

There’s more to motherhood than blissful baby-gazing. Postnatal depression (PND) is very common – around one in seven new mothers experience PND – so why do so many women suffer in silence?

 

Although PND usually occurs within a month or two of giving birth, depressive symptoms often initially set in during pregnancy. Indeed, the term perinatal depression is increasingly used nowadays, recognising the fact that around one third of women with PND will have first experienced symptoms before the birth.

 

Anyone who has experienced PND will tell you the distress experienced can be considerable and that the feelings of anxiety, irritability and sadness should not be underestimated. In this respect, it’s vital not to confuse PND with the ‘baby blues’. Most new mothers experience the baby blues, feeling weepy and moody shortly after giving birth. However, these feelings go away on their own, usually within 10 days of the birth (continued below...)

 

PND V BABY BLUES

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Column: The psychology of gratitude

Does the idea of cultivating gratitude via gratitude diaries and the likes make you squirm? It shouldn’t – far from being touchy-feely do-gooderism, practising gratitude helps people live happier and more objective lives. My column on the psychology of gratitude can be found in this week's Southern Star.

Southern Star: Talking to children about terrorism

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on how to talk about terrorism to children.
'Bad news' stories can induce anxiety in children.

Terrorist atrocities and other bad news stories can distress children, especially those of a sensitive nature. My recent Southern Star column on the subject is reproduced below.

 

In the wake of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, where a child as young as 8 was among the victims, parents are asking: how should we talk to our kids about terrorism and other “bad news” stories? (continued below...)

Many children are troubled by what they see on the news. The Manchester atrocity was especially harrowing, as it specifically targeted pre-teen and teenage concert-goers. The increased frequency of ISIS attacks in Europe indicates the topic will not vanish from our TV screens any time soon.

 

 

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Column: Talking to children about terrorism and other bad news

Southern Star readers can find my latest column in page 2 of the Community section, where I discuss how to talk to children about terrorism and other bad news stories.

Southern Star: Coping with exam stress

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on CBT tips for exam stress.
Exam fears are normal, but excessive stress can overwhelm students.

Last week's Southern Star column offered some tips for students on how to cope with exam stress. The column is reproduced below.

 

Exam season is upon us. Preparing for State exams – particularly the much-hyped Leaving Certificate – can induce heightened anxiety.

 

It’s perfectly normal to experience exam-related anxiety. Indeed, a certain level of performance stress can motivate students to become more focused and productive. Surplus stress and fear can be overwhelming, however. Not only is that detrimental for a young person’s mental health, it’s counterproductive academically, negatively impacting concentration levels and memory. A frightened student is more likely to underperform – something pushy parents should always remember.

 

In a recent online article where he offered some tips on curbing exam anxiety, musician and mental health campaigner Bressie said he would not patronise students by saying everything ‘will be grand, and sure the exams are not the be-all and end-all’. When he sat his Leaving Cert, Bressie added, he ‘wanted to kick any adult in the shins’ who offered such advice (continued below...)

 

CATASTROPHISED THOUGHTS

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Tips for exam stress in Southern Star

The Leaving and Junior Cert exams take place in a few weeks. In this week's Southern Star, I offer some tips for students on how to cope with exam stress.

Southern Star: Anxious parent, anxious child?

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column, 'Anxious parent, anxious child?'
Children are little detectives who pick up on parental anxiety.

Last week's Southern Star column noted how anxiety tends to run in families and offered tips to parents on how to break the cycle. The column is reproduced below.

 

Anxiety runs in families – research shows the vast majority of anxious children have anxious parents. What can parents do to break the cycle?

 

Anxiety is contagious, and it’s not always passed from parent to child. Sometimes, a child-to-parent transmission effect is at work: anxious kids may make their parents anxious.

 

There also tends to be a biological component. Twin, siblings and adoption studies suggest genes explain roughly one-third of childhood anxiety.

  

Still, many parents are quick to acknowledge they are worriers, and it’s little surprise that parents’ anxious behaviour can shape anxious responses in children. Kids learn about the world by observing how parents see and respond to events. Constantly keeping a watchful eye; always telling kids to be careful or being overprotective; fretting and reassurance-seeking; avoiding various situations due to fear (avoidance is the classic symptom of anxiety) – such behaviours transmit the message to kids that the world is a dangerous place (continued below)...

 

LEARNED ANXIETY

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Column: Anxious parent, anxious child?

Anxiety runs in families – research shows the vast majority of anxious children have anxious parents. In this week's Southern Star, I explore the research and offer tips on how parents can do to break the cycle.

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Southern Star: Dealing with stress

In last week's Southern Star column, I explored how different people deal with stress in different ways and examined the problem of self-generated stress (that is, stress that we unintentionally bring on ourselves). The column is reproduced below.

 

Stress is a universal experience. Everyone experiences stress, but some deal with it better than others. Some brush off seriously stressful situations; others are crippled by seemingly minor predicaments. Some situations are inherently stressful; other times, we bring stress on ourselves.

 

Can stress be avoided? If not, can it be minimised?

 

Some stress is unavoidable. After all, even positive events – getting married, buying a home, getting promoted at work, driving the Amalfi coast – can be stressful.  It’s hardly surprising people often find it difficult to cope with major life stressors; the death of a loved one, or a relationship breakup, or countless other such situations (continued below)...

Then there are the persistent everyday stresses – trying to meet workplace deadlines, dealing with a difficult colleague, getting that college essay in on time whilst keeping up to speed with other subjects as the exam date draws nearer, having to defuse your child’s temper tantrum while simultaneously preparing dinner.

 

 

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Column - Getting to grips with stress

My 'Your Mental Health' column in this week's Southern Star looks at stress, with a particular focus on the problem of self-generated stress. 

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Southern Star: Mindfulness - a passing fad or the real deal?

Mindfulness CBT column.
Mindfulness is not a dubious fad, but nor should it be seen as a panacea.

In last week's 'Your Mental Health' column in The Southern Star, I examined what the research says about the alleged mental health benefits of mindfulness. The piece is reproduced below. 

 

Mindfulness was once regarded as a niche Buddhist practice. Now mindfulness books are bestsellers, companies like Google and Apple run mindfulness programmes, and it’s being billed as a treatment for all kinds of mental health problems. Is mindfulness the real deal, or just another fad?

 

According to one Harvard study, people spend 47 per cent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing at the moment. Mindfulness aims to wake us from this autopilot mode, to direct our attention to what is happening in the present moment and to train ourselves to pay attention in a non-judgemental way – in essence, to de-clutter our minds.

 

Mindfulness is the subject of many misconceptions. It’s sometimes seen as a spiritual practice, but mindfulness is simply a form of mental health training. Anyone – atheist or believer – can practice mindfulness (continued below)... 

Others imagine it to be supremely relaxing, whereby you set aside time for yourself and zone out. Mindfulness can indeed be relaxing, but quieting a busy mind can take time. Some people initially find the breathing exercises involved in mindfulness programmes can make them more anxious, and berate themselves for “failing”. ‘I seem to be unable to meditate’, says one person quoted in a Guardian article on the subject. ‘My mind is very busy, and I just end up thinking about how I should be meditating, with all sorts of other thoughts whizzing by as well’.

 

 

 

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Column: Mindfulness - passing fad or the real deal?

Some people portray mindfulness as a panacea for life's difficulties; others see it as a passing fad. In this week's Southern Star, I explore what the research has to say about the apparent mental health benefits of mindfulness.

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Southern Star: Tackling the Worry Bully in children

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on CBT for anxious children.
CBT helps kids to understand and stand up to their Worry Bully

In last week's Southern Star, I explored how teaching children CBT skills helps them to deal with their anxieties. The column is reproduced below.

 

 

Here’s a simple proposal to improve the nation’s collective mental health – teach cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) skills to children in primary schools.

 

Lessons in CBT would significantly reduce anxiety levels among 9-10 year olds, according to a 2014 Oxford study published in The Lancet Psychiatry. The study involved nine one-hour CBT lessons in 40 UK primary schools. Lessons benefited all children, regardless of their initial anxiety level.

 

And little wonder. Identifying emotions, developing problem-solving skills, confronting and coping with difficult situations – these are skills that should be taught early in life.

 

Mental health difficulties are not confined to adults – not by a long shot. By the age of 13, one in three young people is likely to have experienced an emotional disorder, according to a 2013 Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) report. International research into adult mental health disorders shows half of all lifetime cases start before the age of 14.

 

Depression is rare in pre-adolescents, although it does increase sharply during the teenage years, especially amongst girls. Unlike depression, anxiety is a big problem amongst young children. Anxiety disorders usually start early – the typical age of onset is just 11. Children are especially prone to suffering from separation anxiety and phobias, both of which tend to start around the age of seven. Pronounced social anxiety is another early-life problem, typically beginning around the age of 13 (continued below).

 

CBT FOR ANXIETY IN CHILDREN

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Column: CBT, children and the Worry Bully

West Cork readers may be interested in this week's Southern Star column, where I explore how CBT skills can help children to tackle their anxieties.

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Southern Star: Living with uncertainty

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on CBT and tolerating uncertainty.
Learning to tolerate uncertainty helps people to overcome depression and anxiety.

Last week's 'Your Mental Health' column (pictured opposite) explored how learning to tolerate uncertainty is an essential skill that can help alleviate depression and anxiety. The piece is pasted below.

 

Let’s say you’ve left a phone message for someone and you don’t hear back. What do you think is the most likely explanation?

 

Some will assume the person didn’t deem them important enough to ring them back. Others might suggest the person didn’t get their message, or that they were too busy and consequently forgot, or that something cropped up that prevented them from ringing (an accident, a domestic crisis, or countless other possibilities).

 

In truth, we have no way of knowing for sure – there are innumerable potential explanations why your call went unreturned. The inherent uncertainty of such situations can be irritating and stressful, and people often to decide to seize on one possible explanation rather than juggling different possibilities. Lessening uncertainty and ambiguity is all very well, but if you choose the negative explanation – that the person didn’t think you were worth calling back – it comes with a cost, in that it will negatively impact your mood.  

 

Intolerance of uncertainty partly explains “why people gravitate toward negative thinking”, writes Dr Patrick Keelan, a Canadian cognitive behavioural therapist (CBT), in his blog. Being able to tolerate uncertainty “is one of the most important skills a person can practice to overcome depression”, he adds (continued below...) 

 

ANXIETY AND UNCERTAINTY

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Column: Living with uncertainty

This week's 'Your Mental Health' column in The Southern Star explores how being able to tolerate uncertainty is one of the most important skills a person can practice in order to combat depression and anxiety.

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Southern Star: would you tolerate an abusive parrot?

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on CBT and self-esteem
Low self-esteem: Tolerating your internal bully

Last week's Southern Star column on CBT for low self-esteem is pasted below. The column can also be read on the Star's website at http://www.southernstar.ie/life/roundup/articles/2017/03/08/4136075-would-you-tolerate-an-abusive-parrot/.

My photo of the column (left) isn't the straightest; I was about to change it but decided to leave it be, given that the theme is about self-acceptance and being able to say, 'I'm not perfect, but I'm OK':)

 

Let’s suppose that once upon a time, you were given a parrot. This parrot has no special wisdom. It’s just a brightly-coloured tropical bird doing what parrots do – reciting things mindlessly. However, this particular parrot is a poisoned parrot. Its utterings are poisonous, designed to put you down. You are subjected to endless critical commentaries on your life, your performance, your appearance, on how you measure up (continued below).

 

Say you return home late from a difficult day at work. Traffic is crazy. Drained, you stick pizza in the oven. The parrot chants, ‘There you go, always late. You can’t manage to get back in time. You can’t even manage to do a decent shop, not to mind put a proper meal together. And look at the size of you. Useless. Absolutely pathetic!’

The author of this story, UK-based cognitive behavioural therapist (CBT) Carol Vivyan, invites us to ask how long we tolerate this abusive parrot before throwing a towel over the cage or getting rid of the bird altogether?

 

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Active Retired talk in Kinsale

I'm delighted to have been asked to give a talk to the Kinsale Active Retired Association. The talk, titled 'Mental Health and Wellness', takes place in the Temperance Hall in Kinsale on Tuesday afternoon. Looking forward to it!

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CBT, low self-esteem and the poisoned parrot

People routinely put up with negative self-talk, tuning into a voice that belittles, insults and ridicules their efforts. In this week's Southern Star, I examine the damaging effects arising from low self-esteem.

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Column: Disarming the anxiety gunslinger

Southern Star piece on CBT and panic attacks.
Understanding the physical symptoms of panic attacks is key to overcoming the problem.

It's vital to understand the physical symptoms of panic attacks, a subject I examine in last week's Southern Star column. The text is reproduced below. The article can also be read on the Star's website at http://www.southernstar.ie/life/roundup/articles/2017/02/24/4135251-disarming-the-anxiety-gunslinger/.

 

Many years ago, whilst working as a medic in Tanzania, Dr Harry Barry was strolling home one night when he suddenly encountered a leopard.

He froze – a discerning response as any hint of movement would have drawn attention. He started trembling, perspiring, hyper-ventilating. His muscles became taut. Dr Barry’s amygdala – a little organ in our emotional brain – was getting him ready to flee, activating his stress system by releasing adrenaline. He ran, got back to his dwellings, and his breathing and heart-rate returned to normal. The danger had passed.

 

Dr Barry, a retired GP who now works as a cognitive behavioural therapist, often tells this anecdote to shed light on the nature of anxiety. Anxiety is not solely a thinking problem, whereby sufferers endlessly worry and catastrophise. Anxiety also entails strong responses within our internal stress system. Emotions like fear are processed in the limbic system of the brain. This system includes the aforementioned amygdala and the hippocampus, a region associated with reliving traumatic memories (continued below...)

 

ANXIETY: PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS

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Disarming panic and chronic anxiety: Southern Star column

West Cork readers can read my latest 'Your Mental Health' column in The Southern Star, where I discuss panic attacks and chronic anxiety.

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Southern Star column: Addressing the problem of anxiety

For anyone who missed my column on anxiety in last week's Southern Star, the text is reproduced below.

 

To worry is human. Money, health, family problems – everyone knows what it’s like to worry about such matters, just as almost everyone gets anxious about exams and job interviews and the likes. Chronic anxiety is different; excessive and intense, such anxiety can be crippling, consuming, resulting in a severely restricted life.

 

The distress caused by anxiety disorders is underestimated. There can be a perception that it’s “only” anxiety, that it’s not comparable to depression. In reality, the lines often blur; people often suffer from anxiety and depression simultaneously. That aside, anxiety can be every bit as debilitating as depression, and the relative inattention paid to the subject is all the more misplaced given that anxiety disorders present as the most common mental health condition.

 

How common? One major study found 14% of people across Europe had been affected by an anxiety disorder over the previous year (continued below). 

Other large population-based studies found up to one-third of people will be affected at some stage of their lives. The data can vary across countries, although surveys consistently show anxiety disorders to be the most common mental health condition. Women are roughly twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders as men, while we also know that anxiety affects the very young. Indeed, the median age of onset is just 11, with children most likely to suffer from phobias, separation anxiety and social anxiety disorder. Early therapeutic interventions are therefore crucial to offset the risks of anxiety becoming a chronic condition. Other anxiety disorders occur later in life; among people suffering from generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), for example, the median age of onset is 31.

 

 

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Latest column: Addressing anxiety

In my latest 'Your Mental Health' column in The Southern Star, I look at the problem of anxiety - the most common mental health condition and one that be very debilitating. 

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Southern Star: How to beat those January blues

Southern Star piece on beating the January blues
The January blues is a real phenomenon, rooted in physiological and psychological causes.

My latest Southern Star piece (pictured) offers some practical advice on how to overcome this seasonal phenomenon which affects significant numbers in Ireland. 

The article can be accessed on the Southern Star website at http://www.southernstar.ie/news/roundup/articles/2017/01/28/4133559-how-to-beat-those-january-blues/.

The text is reproduced below.

 

How to beat those January blues

LAST Monday (January 16th) is alleged to be the most depressing day of the year. The key word is “alleged” – psychologists dismiss as nonsense the idea that so-called Blue Monday (the name given to the third Monday of January), is the most depressing day of the year. The idea was based on pseudoscientific calculations originally publicised in 2005 by a travel company in an attempt to urge the public to book holidays. 

 

By contrast, the January blues is a very real phenomenon, rooted in physiological and psychological causes. According to the Samaritans, suicide levels peak in January. The lack of daylight characteristic of January influences the stimulation of hormones, such as melatonin and serotonin, which affect mood. The psychological causes are easily identifiable; the escapist buzz of Christmas has passed, the weather is generally bleak, the promise of spring seems distant, stressors seem to mount (money debts, failed resolutions, return-to-work pressures). Many report feeling flattened and stuck in low mood.

 

If you’re feeling down, it's useful to firstly acknowledge your feelings. To alleviate anxiety, recognise that low mood and decreased energy are natural, transient responses during these dark months. 

 

NEGATIVE CYCLE

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Southern Star piece

A brief heads-up to Southern Star readers to say that I've a piece in this week's paper (January 21st) that looks at how to manage the January blues.

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My Southern Star piece on New Year resolutions

Realistic New Year resolutions psychological tips Linda Hamilton Southern Star
Realistic New Year resolutions

West Cork readers may have noticed my New Year resolutions piece in the December 31st edition (pictured) of The Southern Star, which suggests people can improve their chances of achieving their 2017 goals by focusing on incremental changes and avoiding self-criticism. 

To read the article on the Southern Star website, see http://www.southernstar.ie/news/roundup/articles/2017/01/01/4132435-be-realistic-with-your-resolutions/

Not all of the newspaper article appears in the online edition so I've pasted the text of the full article below.

 

 

Be realistic with your resolutions

New Year. New Resolutions. New You. No more procrastinating, mindless spending, drinking, and eating. You will get fit, quit smoking, lose a stone, learn a language, save money, travel, connect with people. You will become a better person, partner, parent, friend, sibling. 

 

Will you? 

 

Research indicates almost half of those making New Year resolution have infrequent success; another quarter has no success at all (continued below).

 

Is it any wonder our noble intentions are met with resistance? In our quest to revolutionise ourselves, we overcommit, set unrealistic goals, lose motivation and become overwhelmed. We compensate by punishing ourselves with guilt and self-criticism, falsely believing that if we whip ourselves into action we will commit to our goals. We become stuck in negative cycles, berating ourselves for being weak and ill-disciplined. Self-esteem suffers, we surrender and give up. 

 

As a cognitive-behavioural therapist (CBT), I’ve reservations about New Year resolutions. I understand how a new year can instil a desire to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”, to borrow from the poet Philip Larkin. Goals are good. At the same time, creating lasting change is an active and reflective process, not something dictated by mindlessly obeying a date on the calendar. 

 

It’s worth asking if you are genuinely ready for change. One effective way of evaluating this is to do a simple cost-benefit analysis, identifying potential obstacles and benefits to changing a negative behaviour or learning a healthy one. For example, enrolling in a night class might mean sacrificing valuable free time. A short-term benefit might be learning a new skill. Long-term benefits might be making new friends, becoming more confident. If the pros outweigh the cons, it may be time for change. 

 

 

 

 

 

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