'Could I be a paedophile and not know it?' 'I keep having thoughts about harming others; does this mean I am dangerous?' 'Why do I keep having awful intrusive thoughts?' In last week's Southern Star, my column explored the problem of OCD-related intrusive thoughts. The column is reproduced below.
If someone told you they were terrified they were a paedophile, that they spent hours every day fighting terrifying, intrusive thoughts involving sexual molestation of children – what would you think?
Consider Mr B, a 35-year-old married man who presented to a psychiatry clinic seeking help for distressing, intrusive thoughts and images towards his two-year-old son. A case study in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry recounts how for years, Mr B had experienced intrusive thoughts, but they intensified after the birth of his son. The thoughts and images would begin shortly after waking every morning, accompanied by anxiety and shame.
Mr B wondered: why was he having these thoughts? Did this mean he was a paedophile? He found the images nauseating, but the worry he might be a paedophile was ‘unbearable’. Consequently, he felt compelled to imagine thoughts of violent sexual abuse until he was sure he was not aroused by the imagery, scanning his body to detect for any bodily sensations. Doing so made him sick – the thoughts were nauseating, not arousing – but he could never get the 100% proof he wanted, worrying he might be a paedophile and ‘just not know it’.
At the end of his tether, Mr B made a suicide plan, vowing to kill himself when he had saved enough money to provide for his children after his death. The suicide plan alarmed his wife, who insisted he get help. At the psychiatry clinic, she outlined how he was a kind man who had been tortured by his thoughts for years. The professionals knew Mr B was not a paedophile; he had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) (continued below...)
Mr B was sceptical – like many, he thought OCD was about compulsive checking and cleaning. However, many people with OCD don’t engage in any obvious, visible compulsions, but they are plagued by intrusive thoughts – a form of invisible OCD that is sometimes dubbed Pure O. Even amongst medical professionals, this type of OCD is often misdiagnosed. Many counsellors are woefully misinformed on the subject, often pursuing outdated therapeutic methods that only worsen the person’s suffering.
Summertime is invariably associated with holidays. In last week's Southern Star, I asked: can psychology help you to have better holidays? The column is now online.
Holidays are worth thinking about. Studies confirm holidays bring many psychological benefits. Taking time out is important for mental health and your sense of well-being. Holidays foster gratitude and can bring people closer together. Problems that seem pressing in your daily life can fade away when we get away. Holidays help us switch off and get in touch with our values and aspirations.
Different people want different things from a holiday, but psychological research shows some simple tweaks can improve your holiday, whatever type you take. Psychologist Dan Ariely likes to say there are three stages to any good holiday – the months of anticipation prior to the holiday, the holiday itself, and the nostalgia you feel years later. To make sure you get the most from your holiday, you should invest in each of these stages.
The pleasures of anticipation should not be underestimated. In one psychological experiment, participants said they would pay more money to kiss their favourite celebrity in three days' time instead of kissing them immediately. They recognised the pleasure was not just about the kiss – it was also about the anticipation. Anticipation explains why people love Fridays (when they are still at work) and hate Sunday evenings (when they're off work but anticipating their return). The pleasure of anticipation means it makes sense to plan your holiday, to imagine how you will spend your days, to enjoy the sheer pleasure of thinking about it.
Now, the holiday itself (continued below...)
I offered some mental health tips for parents who may be concerned about their teenage children in last week's Southern Star. The piece is reproduced below.
The teenage years are a time of enormous change – physical, emotional, sexual, social – so it’s not surprising mental health problems often surface in adolescence.
Feelings aren’t facts, I argued in last week's Southern Star. The column is reproduced below.
Feelings aren’t facts. Regular readers will recognise that phrase often crops up in my columns. It’s a simple but important point because you can get into all sorts of bother if you rely on your feelings to guide your actions and beliefs.
Consider this story about a socially anxious woman, as related by cognitive behavioural therapist Dr Heather Stone. Socially-anxious people have an excessive fear of being judged or being seen in a negative light by others, and tend to think their social performance is much worse than it really is. This particular client was trying to persuade Dr Stone that she performed poorly in public-speaking situations. As proof, she brought in two audio recordings containing separate interviews where she spoke in her area of expertise. The first tape, she said, ‘was a disaster’. The second, she admitted, ‘wasn’t so bad; I guess I did OK’.
Intrigued, Dr Stone listened closely to the two recordings, searching for any poor answers, long pauses, stutters, and so on. However, she found both interviews to be ‘nearly flawless’ and ‘essentially the same’. After listening, the client also recognised that the two interviews were fairly identical and that she did well in both cases.
So why had she initially believed one interview was so much poorer than the other? It turned out that in the first case, she was sitting face-to-face with the interviewer in a recording studio, something most people would find stressful. The second case was a phone interview. She was at home, recording the interview while she sat in bed, in her pyjamas, with her cat. Consequently, the first interview was more stressful. She felt more nervous in the face-to-face interview, whereas the second one felt more comfortable. This gave her the feeling one was terrible and one was OK, but this distinction was only in her head – not in reality.
‘Socially-anxious persons incorrectly use their anxiety as a measuring stick that tells them how well they are functioning’, says Dr Stone. ‘Rather than considering objective criteria, they make the mistake of evaluating their performance based on how anxious they are – but this turns out to be an unreliable measure’.
This is known as emotional reasoning – the mistaken assumption that if something feels true, it must be true.
‘But feeling judged doesn’t actually equate to being judged’, Dr Stone points out. ‘Feeling stupid doesn’t equate to sounding stupid. For this reason, it would be helpful to use the coping statement, “It feels true but it might not be true” (continued below...)
Chronic worry can be awful, but it’s not nearly as awful if you learn to laugh at it, I suggested in last week's Southern Star. The column is reproduced below.
In his book The Worry Trick, psychologist and anxiety expert Dr Dave Carbonell relates how a client in her late 30s came to him seeking help with her severe health anxiety. People suffering from clinical health anxiety are extremely fearful of terrible illnesses. Hyper-vigilant, they are always looking for possible signs of illness, fearing they have a terrible disease the doctors have missed.
Anyway, in their first meeting, the woman told Carbonell: ‘All my life, I’ve been afraid I’ll die young’. It was probably too late, he replied; the earliest she could die now would be middle-aged. ‘After she got over the urge to slap me, she laughed really hard, and talked about all the worries she’d experienced that never came close to happening’, writes Carbonell. ‘Putting the funny part of her worry on the table like that helped her get some emotional distance from the upset she’d been feeling, and helped her tackle the worry trick more directly’.
The ‘worry trick’, to use Carbonell’s phrase, refers to the fact that worry convinces us there’s danger, tricking us into getting into fight-or-flight mode even when there’s no danger. He gives another example of how laughing at your worries can stop you getting sucked into a pointless and tiring internal battle. Another client frequently had panic attacks in public places. She knew panic attacks were harmless, but fretted they made her look like a ‘crazy person’. One of her fears was that her eyes would bug out and her hair would stand up, scaring everyone around her (continued below...)
In last week's Southern Star, I explored the downsides of superstitious thinking. The column is reproduced below.
Are you superstitious? Would you feel uncomfortable if you walked under a ladder or lost a lucky charm you carried around with you? Or perhaps you think there’s probably no truth to these old notions, but there’s no harm in heeding them anyway?
Is this true? Are these just harmless quirks? Or can holding onto superstitious beliefs get you into trouble?
Certainly, many people are superstitious. Most buildings around the world don’t have a 13th floor. In China, the number eight is viewed as a lucky number; as a result, the country’s tallest skyscraper is 88 floors high and the Beijing Olympics began at 8.08pm on August 8th, 2008. Anyone familiar with University College Cork (UCC) will have heard the old warning that you’ll fail your exams if you walk across the quadrangle on the campus. A UK survey carried out by psychology professor Richard Wiseman found superstitious behaviour and beliefs to be “surprisingly high, even among those with a scientific background”, with 77 per cent of people saying they were at least a little superstitious and 42 per cent saying they were very or somewhat superstitious.
The survey found touching wood to be the most popular superstition, followed by crossing fingers, avoiding ladders, not smashing mirrors, carrying a lucky charm and having superstitious beliefs about the number 13 (continued below...)
Are you superstitious? Would you feel uncomfortable if you walked under a ladder or lost a lucky charm you carried around with you? Or perhaps you think there’s probably no truth to these old notions, but there’s no harm in heeding them anyway?
Is this true? Are these just harmless quirks? Or can holding onto superstitious beliefs get you into trouble? My column in this week's Southern Star argues that superstitious thinking can maintain anxiety and drive poor decisions. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.
Afraid of flying? My column in last week's Southern Star offered some CBT tips on fear of flying.
Summer’s here and many people are looking forward to holidaying abroad in the coming months. If you have a fear of flying, however, then holiday plans are likely to trigger feelings of dread and anxiety.
Around one in four people are nervous about flying. Some people experience mild anxiety; others experience absolute terror. The reasons can vary. Some focus on flight safety, fearing the plane will crash due to mechanical failure or a terrorist incident or some such variation. People with panic disorder fear their own anxious feelings and worry they will get a panic attack on the plane. Socially anxious people are less afraid of their anxious feelings, but they worry others will notice their anxiety and judge them badly, driving feelings of embarrassment and shame. Others will talk of feeling trapped, of the lack of control they feel, of the discomfort brought on by turbulence, or of various other flight features that make them uncomfortable.
Instead of focusing solely on your fears, try to get in touch with your values and aspirations. Have you turned down opportunities because of your fear of flying? Do you put off thinking about holidays due to your fears? Can you imagine how much better things would be if you did the opposite – that is, if you savoured the thought of holidays and spent pleasurable time planning your trip and adventures?
What about safety? There were two well-publicised plane crashes over the last six months, but that doesn’t change the fact that flying is the safest form of transport. The odds of dying in a plane crash are about one in 11 million, compared to odds of one in 5,000 for dying in a car crash. In fact, there’s a much better chance of being struck by lightning or of drowning in the bathtub than there is of dying in a place crash (continued below...)
Around one in four people are nervous about flying. My column in this week's Southern Star offers some advice for nervous fliers. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.
There is no word more important in life than “choice”, I argued in last week's Southern Star. The column is now online.
"I can’t do it”, “I didn’t have time”, “I have to” – so many of the words we use imply our decisions are already made for us, that we have little if any choice in all kinds of matters. So here’s a question: who’s driving the boat?
That question is posed in Choice, a thought-provoking essay written by New York-based psychologist and CBT therapist Dr Steven Phillipson. In it, Phillipson relates how in India, very young elephants are trained to be compliant by being chained to a thick tree, thereby severely restricting their movements. The size of the tree and the thickness of the chain are gradually reduced as the elephant matures. By the time the elephant reaches adolescence, its handler is able to lead it around with only a thin stick and string. By now, the elephant could easily overpower its handler and free itself. However, because it associates the string and the stick with the chain and the tree that kept it restrained its entire life, it doesn’t even try to escape.
‘Since learning of this training method’, Dr Phillipson writes, ‘I have been haunted by the suspicion that we miss many of life’s opportunities for growth because of our blind adherence to the programming from our past’. All of us have been conditioned by our experiences in life and this can lead to us acting on autopilot rather than making active, mindful choices (continued below...)
“I can’t do it”, “I didn’t have time”, “I have to” – so many of the words we use imply our decisions are already made for us, that we have little if any choice in all kinds of matters. My column in this week's Southern Star argues that we have more freedom, more choices available to us, than we might think. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.
Emotions are contagious. If someone smiles at you, it’s hard not to smile back. And if someone barks in anger at you, well, you know yourself.
The contagious power of emotions – especially negative emotions – is obvious on social media, particularly Twitter. Things can get nasty on Twitter; people say all kinds of things they would never say in face-to-face conversations. One person disagrees with another, things get heated as others join in to defend their friend, insults get hurled and the contagion spreads. Soon enough, it’s no longer enough to say the other person is wrong or misguided – s/he is a bigot, a scumbag, a loathsome person who should rot in Hell.
I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Social media can be ugly, with people seemingly forgetting they’re hurling insults at a real person with real feelings. It was refreshing, then, to read about a recent case in America where the opposite happened, where one person responded to harsh words with kindness and compassion, setting in train a life-changing series of events (continued below...)
Emotions are contagious. If someone smiles at you, it’s hard not to smile back. And if someone barks in anger at you, well, you might feel pretty angry yourself. In this week's Southern Star, my column explores how the contagiousness of emotions – both good and bad – can be especially obvious on social media. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.
Are you a worrier? Are you prone to 'what if...?' thinking? Does not worrying make you feel unsafe and irresponsible? My column on kicking the worrying habit in last week's Southern Star is reproduced below.
‘Worry, worry, worry, worry/Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone’.
Fans of the American musician Ray Lamontagne might recognise the above words. Later in this song, Trouble, Lamontagne sings: ‘Sometimes I swear it feels like this worry is my only friend’.
It might sound like a contradiction. On the one hand, the words suggest the narrator is weighed down by his worries. He cannot control them, they will not ‘leave my mind alone’. On the other hand, worry is his ‘only friend’.
In fact, the words reveal a real insight into the nature of chronic worrying. Generalised anxiety disorder, to use the official term, is characterised by excessive worry that is very difficult to control. Burdensome as this is, worriers also tend to have positive beliefs about worry. Not worrying is seen as irresponsible and unsafe, while worry is seen as a form of problem-solving (continued below...)
Are you a worrier? Are you prone to 'what if...?' thinking? Does not worrying make you feel unsafe and irresponsible? My column in this week's Southern Star offers some advice on kicking the worrying habit. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.
Whose life are you living? How concerned should you be by other's opinions? My column in last week's Southern Star is reproduced below.
How concerned should you be by the opinions of others? Are you happy with the choices you’ve made in life, or were those choices swayed by social pressures?
Those questions came to mind after reading a recent article by Paul Dolan, author of a new book called Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life. Dolan, who comes from a working-class background, is a respected happiness expert and Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics. However, that brings its own expectations. He relates how he was once involved in a panel discussion at a festival. Afterwards, a man approached him to say how he liked Dolan’s first book, Happiness by Design, before pointedly adding: ‘But why do you have to play the working-class hero?’ Dolan, he said, had twice cursed during the panel discussion. ‘When you reach a certain level’, he was told, ‘you have to modify your behaviour’.
This was not an isolated example. Dolan previously wrote a Guardian article about what makes him happy and what doesn’t. In it, he mentioned he had never read a novel and had no intention of starting, playfully adding: ‘Each to their own, eh?’ Apparently not – he was ‘judged very harshly for this by other academics as well as in the press’ (if you read the insulting online comments accompanying that article, you’ll see he’s not exaggerating). Not only is he expected to conform to images of how professors should behave when working, ‘I am expected to use my leisure time in ways that conform with the stereotype, too’ (continued below...)
How concerned should you be by the opinions of others? Are you happy with the choices you’ve made in life, or were those choices swayed by social pressures? My column in this week's Southern Star explores what Prof. Paul Dolan, author of a recent book called Happy Ever After?, has to say about these important questions. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.
Last week's Southern Star column took a closer look at Aware's CBT-based Life Skills programme, which begins in Kinsale next week. The column is reproduced below.
Life can be tough at times. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel stressed, to feel sad, to worry, so it’s vital we learn the life skills that equip us to deal with everyday challenges and to improve our quality of life.
Life Skills, then, is an appropriate name for the free (refundable deposit of €30 required, or €10 if unwaged) six-week group programme run by the mental health charity Aware. I’ve delivered a number of Life Skills programmes for Aware and will be doing so again in a fortnight, when the programme will be held in the Trident Hotel in Kinsale.
Based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Life Skills was developed by Chris Williams, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Glasgow. It’s an excellent and user-friendly programme that helps people to learn about how we think and how these thoughts can influence our actions in helpful or unhelpful ways. The core point of the programme is that we need to be aware of the vicious circle that underpins so much stress, anxiety and low mood (continued below...)
My column in this week's Southern Star takes a closer look at Aware's CBT-based Life Skills programme, which I will be delivering in the Trident Hotel in Kinsale in a fortnight's time. Developed by Dr Chris Williams, professor of psychiatry at the University of Glasgow, Life Skills is a very user-friendly programme that helps people to learn about how we think and how these thoughts can influence our actions in helpful or unhelpful ways. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week. As for Life Skills, places are still available. Booking handled by Aware; to book, please see https://ti.to/Aware/life-skills-march-2019.
In last week's Southern Star, I explained why CBT largely focuses on the here and now rather than the distant past. The column is reproduced below.
“I’m very good at the past. It’s the present I can’t understand”.
That line – from a character in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity – is one many people will relate to. Focusing on past events might help you understand where a problem originated, but it does not necessarily solve that problem or improve your day-to-day life. That’s why cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) largely focuses on the here and now. Dr Harry Barry gives the example of someone stuck on a motorway after suffering a puncture: is it better to have the skills to know how to change the tyre or to walk miles back to the scene of the puncture?
Now, there are exceptions. With some difficulties – for example, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or childhood trauma – past events obviously tend to be a focus of therapy. Additionally, it’s fair to say all of us are shaped by our past and develop core beliefs about ourselves at an early age, beliefs that can shape our adult behaviour.
Nevertheless, it’s important to be aware that the factors that can start a problem are not necessarily the same ones that keep a problem going. To give another example, one used by the late Oxford CBT expert Prof. David Westbrook; look for the factors keeping a fire going rather than looking for the match that started the fire.
Book shelves groan under the weight of guides devoted to the question of obtaining happiness. But what if the thought of being happy unsettles you? What if feeling good leaves you feeling bad? Last week's Southern Star explored a very real problem - fear of happiness. The column is reproduced below.
Fear of happiness is a real thing found all over the world, according to a 2013 study investigating attitudes towards happiness. The researchers devised a Fear of Happiness scale which asked people if they agreed with various statements, including: 'I prefer not to be too joyful, because usually joy is followed by sadness'; 'I believe the more cheerful and happy I am, the more I should expect bad things to occur in my life'; and 'Excessive joy has some bad consequences'.
Sometimes, this fear is related to superstitious thinking. However, people can be wary of happiness for many reasons that have nothing to do with superstition. Low self-esteem can be a factor. Research shows people with high self-esteem tend to savour positive experiences, whereas people with a poor self-image often dampen positive feelings and distract themselves from them. Perfectionism can be another reason. Psychologist Dr Paul Gilbert, who has conducted research regarding fear of positive emotions, notes perfectionists may experience happiness 'as being relaxed or even lazy, as if happiness is frivolous and one must always be striving' (continued below)...
Book shelves groan under the weight of guides devoted to the question of obtaining happiness. But what if the thought of being happy unsettles you? What if feeling good leaves you feeling bad? My column in this week's Southern Star explores a very real issue that is more common than you might think - fear of happiness. As always, the column will be reproduced on this website next week.
In last week's Southern Star, I wrote about the mental health benefits of exercise. The piece is reproduced below.
The physical benefits of exercise are well known, but keeping active is also vital for maintaining mental fitness and well-being.
When your body feels better, so does your mind. Exercise release natural endorphins which can significantly boost mood, combating feelings of fatigue and helping people feel energised and healthy. Consequently, it’s one of the quickest ways of relieving stress. Physical activity can build feelings of competence and improve self-esteem. It helps people to sleep better. It can also boost your brainpower, enhancing concentration levels and improving alertness. In fact, these cognitive benefits can be extensive and long-lasting. One recent study, for example, found that young people who run or take part in aerobic activity maintain their thinking and memory skills for middle age, while another study found physically active middle-aged people are at reduced risk of dementia in older age.
Importantly, research increasingly suggests exercise can play a role in treating depression. Active people are less likely to be depressed. Exercise reduces the risk of developing depression in the future. And while exercise might seem like the last thing you want to do if you are depressed, it’s important to remember that exercise has been shown to help ease depressive symptoms.
In this week's Southern Star, I note that while the physical benefits of exercise are well known, keeping active is also vital for maintaining mental fitness and well-being. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.
In last week's Southern Star, I offered some advice regarding New Year resolutions to boost mental health. The column is reproduced below.
Last week's Southern New Year resolutions can be counter-productive – all too often, people beat themselves up for not following through on their overly-ambitious plans. One resolution worth making, however, is to better look after your mental health. Here’s some simple advice that can help boost your well-being in 2019.
Work on your strengths, not your weaknesses
This simple idea comes from psychologist Prof Jonathan Haidt in his thoughtful book The Happiness Hypothesis. ‘How many of your New Year’s resolutions have been about fixing a flaw?’ asks Haidt. ‘And how many of those resolutions have you made several years in a row? It’s difficult to change any aspect of your personality by sheer force of will, and if it is a weakness you choose to work on, you probably won’t enjoy the process. If you don’t find pleasure or reinforcement along the way, then – unless you have the willpower of Ben Franklin – you’ll soon give up. But you don’t really have to be good at everything. Life offers so many chances to use one tool instead of another, and often you can use a strength to get around a weakness’.
Join a group
Social isolation can be a killer – recent research suggests loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and that it is a better predictor of early death than either diet or exercise. Is there a local group you could join? Social contact is especially beneficial when we feel we are helping others; could you volunteer to help out with a local charity? Don’t underestimate the value of simple social connections – they calm the mind and can help ward off anxiety and low mood (continued below...)
New Year resolutions can be counter-productive – all too often, people beat themselves up for not following through on their overly-ambitious plans. One resolution worth making, however, is to better look after your mental health. My column in this week's Southern Star offers some simple tips that can help boost your well-being in 2019. As always, the column will be reproduced on this blog next week.
It’s commonly assumed that suicide rates rise at Christmas. In fact, the opposite is the case, but suicide rates do tend to spike on New Year’s Day. Why so? And what can you do if you’re concerned about a loved one? My column in last Thursday's Southern Star is reproduced below.
Contrary to popular belief, suicide rates typically decrease in December and over the Christmas period. The main reason is that while Christmas can bring its own stresses, it also tends to be a time of increased connectedness, family time and social support. However, multiple international studies show this is followed by a notable spike in suicides on New Year’s Day.
There are a number of factors at play here. Some people may postpone a planned suicide so family and friends can enjoy Christmas. Alcohol is a depressant while simultaneously loosening inhibitions, so excessive alcohol consumption on New Year’s Eve can be dangerous. Then there is what psychologists call the “broken promise effect” – the disappointment that follows when something a person had been excited about fails to live up to raised expectations (this broken promise effect is thought to be a factor in the fact suicides often rise after holidays and weekends).
Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that New Year’s Day is a time that emphasises reflection. If you’ve had a tough year, looking back can be painful and the road ahead may appear more bleak than it really is. Seeing the fireworks being set off in cities all over the world as the clock strikes 12, apparent images of togetherness and optimism as others ring in the new year to the strains of Auld Lang Syne – for someone who is down on their luck, such images can leave them feeling small and alone, like they don’t measure up to others. Few holidays inspire social comparisons like New Year’s Eve, and social comparison is a dangerous game (continued below...)
It’s commonly assumed that suicide rates rise at Christmas. In fact, the opposite is the case, but suicide rates do tend to spike on New Year’s Day. My column in this week's Southern Star explores why it's important to know the facts around suicidality and offers some advice for people who may be concerned about a loved one. As always, the column will be published on this blog next week.
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...)
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.
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...).
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.
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.
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.
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...)
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.
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...)
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.
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...)
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...)
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.
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...)
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.
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...)
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".
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...)
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.
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...)
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.
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...)
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.
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...)
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.
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’.
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.
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...)
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.
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...)
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.
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”.
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.
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...)
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.
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...)
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.
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...)
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 – 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...)
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.
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.
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.
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...)
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.
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...)
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.
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...)
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.
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.
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.
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...)
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...)
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.
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...)
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.
I had a short piece in last week's Southern Star where I outlined six tips for positive ageing. The piece is reproduced below.
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.
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.
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.’
In the Good Life supplement accompanying this week's Southern Star, I have a short piece outlining six tips for positive ageing.
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!
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.
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.
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/
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.
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”.
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.
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...)
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.
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.
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:
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.
‘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.
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).
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)...