Thinking Traps

By Adam Wright, Clinical Psychologist

 

I’d like to try a little experiment with you.

Think about what you had for breakfast today.

Now think if you can about what you would have thought that would have led to your decision to have that food for breakfast (or to have breakfast at all).

Did you,

a). Carefully consider all available options and make a decision based on a sample of key variables (time, nutritional benefit, taste)?

b). Make a snap decision based on maybe one thing, or a feeling, or automatically choose one option for ‘no reason’

 

Clearly, the rational response to this decision would be a) because that is the method that will provide the maximum benefit for you.

But I strongly suspect that almost all of you would have chosen b). I’m guessing not many of you would have had a ‘rational’ reason for your breakfast choice, even if you can remember what you had. I for one had jam on toast this morning because I didn’t want Vegemite. Not very rational!

 

Unlike almost all animals, humans are capable of rational thought. Yet why do we often think so irrationally?

 

The reason why is because being rational doesn’t always suit our interests. Our brain’s main function is to handle our behaviour to keep us alive. Sometimes that means filtering through masses of information quickly and efficiently, in order to help us make a quick decision. Being entirely rational doesn’t always suit us. If you had gone through all the available breakfast options and chosen the most nutritious option, you would probably still be deciding on what to have for breakfast! Instead, we cut corners by making quick decisions based on a small number of variables – it was the fastest option, I choose what I had yesterday, it tastes the best etc.

 

Most often, this tendency of our brain is not a big deal, aside from making us more susceptible to advertising. But sometimes these irrational short-cuts our brain takes can set us up to feel negative emotions more strongly. Here are a few ‘thinking traps’ that can often increase our feelings of anxiety, anger and sadness:

 

Jumping to Conclusions or Mind-reading

This is when our brain takes a small amount of evidence and ‘jumps’ to a conclusion without considering the whole picture. It can often take the form of guessing what other people are thinking.

E.g.,  “My boss didn’t say hello to me this morning. He’s probably upset with me.”

 

Catastrophising

This is seeing the worst possible scenario and ignoring the other possibilities.

E.g., “I’m definitely going to fail this test!”

 

Over-Generalising

When we make statements that are over-applied, ignoring individual variations.

E.g., “All the people in my class probably wouldn’t realise if I wasn’t at school today.”

 

Personalising

When we over-attribute blame to ourselves without thinking about other factors.

E.g., “It’s probably raining because I didn’t pack my umbrella today”

 

Shoulding or Musting

Using ‘should’ or ‘must’ unnecessarily, placing a lot of responsibility for things on yourself.

E.g., “I should be making sure my friends are having a good time.”

 

Black and White Thinking

Seeing something from a ‘all or nothing’ perspective, drawing on two categories when the reality might be greyer.

E.g., “Either you’re a success or a failure!”

If you recognise any of these patterns of thinking, that’s normal. What you can do about it, is to notice it, name it, and then ask yourself what you would be thinking if you weren’t falling into that thinking trap? For example, if it wasn’t just my fault, what other factors played a part? Is the worst possible outcome I’m imagining really likely to happen?

 

In doing so, you’ll be taking a step back from your thoughts, which will give you a fresh perspective and a chance to think about the same thing differently.

 

Adam Wright is a Clinical Psychologist with an interest in helping people think differently. Find more info about him here.

Asking Good Questions

Recently I was directed to an interesting article on the Huffington Post: 25 Ways to Ask Your Kids ‘So How was School Today?’ Without Asking Them ‘So How was School Today?’

The writer points to the daily struggle parents have with their kids: desperately searching for tidbits of information about your child’s life, only to get one-word answers (if you’re lucky!). In the article some of the questions are downright hilarious and I imagine the questions would get good responses (or at least a smile) from your child if you asked them.

If you look at the questions, one thing they have in common is that they are open-ended questions, which means they require an open response. For example, “Tell me something that made you laugh today” vs “Did you laugh today?” The answer to the second question is yes or no. The answer to the first question could be anything.

But at the same time the questions are not too broad in scope – they are actually quite focused. “Tell me something good that happened today” is narrower in scope than the tried-and-tested “How was school today?”. It’s easier to sift through the mind to find a good thing that happened, than to try and filter 6-7 hours of life’s content into a single response. Adults are much better at that kind of mental gymnastics than kids are, but even we struggle with this from time to time.

As a psychologist, my job involves asking good questions. Something you learn pretty quickly is the power a question can have. A question directs a listener’s mind down a particular pathway. You have to be careful that, when you ask a question, you’re inviting a thoughtful and considered response – not just fishing for confirmation of what you are already thinking. Consider the following… Suppose you were speaking to your child (or partner, friend, coworker – it doesn’t matter who really) and you found out they had a rather bad day and were pretty down about it. Naturally our first port of call in these situations is to gather more information, to find a problem in the hopes of finding a solution. We might ask “tell me more about what made it a bad day?”.

Probing for more information is always good for problem solving, and it’s often the natural response. The problem with this approach is that the question seems to covertly confirm that the day was bad or that things went wrong. The problem present can start to take centre stage in the conversation.

If you’d like to try something different, you could start a conversation by asking a different question. “How did you get through the day?” Here the focus is on solutions, coping and resilience, rather than problems and difficulties. This question shifts the listener’s thinking in a new direction. It doesn’t necessarily ignore the fact that the day was bad, but it doesn’t make the problem the central focus.

Some other example questions to think about:

“Who/what got you through that difficult time?”

“How did you cope with that?”

“What’s something that went well (or better) today?”

I encourage you to try asking some of these questions with the people around you, be it your kids after school, your partner after work or your friends. See if it starts a different conversation.

Adam is a Clinical Psychologist at the Resilience Centre.

You can see his bio here

A Psychologist’s take on the new movie – Inside Out

It’s not very often that a movie comes onto mainstream cinemas that fits so nicely into the theme of a ‘psychology blog’ than the new movie, Inside Out.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Inside Out, it’s the latest entry by Pixar.  It tells the story of Riley, a small-town Minnesota 11-year old girl who has to suddenly move house with her parents to San Francisco, about as far away from a small-town existence as you can get. What makes the story interesting, however, is that the movie tells the story of Riley, via her emotions – encapsulated by five distinct emotion personalities sitting in the ‘headquarters’ of her mind.

There’s Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, and we watch as they react to events  in Riley’s world and influence her responses by taking control of the ‘console’ in her brain. As a result, we see them take an active role in the formation of her memories and her personality. Watch the trailer to see how they work together (and how they compare to the emotional counterparts in her parents’ minds).

The movie does an extraordinary job at creating a visual landscape that represents different aspects of our brain and how they work together. There is immense detail – explaining how we forge memories, how we end up forgetting memories over time, how our personality and our tastes and interests dictate our behavior. Some of the details are cute and whimsical, such as the ‘train of thought’ which is an actual train. Other details themselves are firmly rooted in psychological theory; the concept of the ‘five little emotions in our mind’ is borrowed from landmark research in psychology showing the presence of 5 ‘primary emotions’ that transcend all cultures and are recognizable by everyone.

But the movie manages to move beyond the whimsical – it is poignant, funny, charming, but also at times honest, raw, and emotional. And the way it does this is by adding an extra element into the story – how we change as individuals when we go through major life changes.

Why would we want to feel anything other than joy?

We watch the emotions (especially Joy) drive Riley’s behavior in the way we expect them to. When Joy is ‘driving’ Riley will engage in fun, laugh, play and find the best out of a situation. When Anger takes the stage Riley is much different, acting in ways we might expect an 11 year old to express her anger. But what’s interesting is how each emotion is portrayed not as necessarily bad, nor good, but all of them are just doing what they think is best. It’s just that being emotions, they think in one-dimensional ways. Anger solves Riley’s problems through confrontation, while Fear tries to think of a million reasons to avoid those problems.

Often it seems to us that we want to live a life where we are only experiencing positive emotions. But Inside Out challenges that notion, it explores how each emotion has something to offer us in order to grow and change. It begs the question, “what would life be like if we never experienced certain emotions, and what would life be like if we never felt them at all?”

Is there ever any point to having a sad memory of something?

Inside out is a movie about memories, and how we as people are so strongly linked with them. We watch memories play a big role in Riley’s life – from the banal (getting that catchy tune stuck in our head) to big, life changing experiences. But what’s interesting as it shows how memory is not a fixed thing. Memories are forged, they spend time locked in the recesses of the mind, but they also fade away. While it seems like a problem to always be forgetting things, how does it change us as we grow, to discard old ideas in favor of new ones, and new experiences?

But another big-picture question Inside Out asks is, are our memories purely good, or purely bad? Are there experiences that are bitter-sweet in life? Should we try to avoid bad experiences, or do they shape us in unpredictable ways? Is it possible for good to come from a categorically negative experience?

In my life, it makes me look back at times where I found things difficult, or painful, and it begs the question – how did I change as a result of that experience? What have I learned about myself, the world and others because that happened to me? Can I now handle that same situation much better, do I have a new and fresh perspective because my memories aren’t just happy ones, or sad ones, but often a curious mix of the two?

For a movie that ostensibly looks like the wacky adventures of different colored cartoon characters, it is incredibly deep and thoughtful. I thoroughly recommend watching this movie. Ultimately I think its greatest strength is how it is able to make you think by presenting ideas in ways children can understand. I hope that if you watch this movie, that it will prompt you to consider how you see your emotions, your memories, and the idea of growing up. I hope that it leads to some deep and thoughtful conversations.

By Adam Wright, Psychologist

More information can be found about Adam here

References:

The concept of 5 primary emotions comes from the work of psychologist Paul Ekman. More about his work can be found at this website: http://www.beinghuman.org/mind/paul-ekman

 

Transition to University – Some Things to Consider

By Adam Wright, Psychologist.

On the 28th February this year, summer will officially end for thousands of people across Australia, as they begin the first semester of university or TAFE for 2015. This group of people will be very diverse, ranging from the fresh 18-year-old straight-out-of-a-gruelling HSC, to mature age students re-training after years in the workforce. No matter who you are or what your story is, university can be a very rewarding experience, but it can also be a very daunting and troubling experience. Having gone through university both as a student and as a student counsellor, I thought I would dedicate today’s blog to a list of things to consider about university, for those who will be taking the plunge at the end of the month.

 

1. There is a lot more freedom of education at uni

For those of you who have come out of school, you have probably become very used to a specific style of education. You go to school every day, follow a strict timetable with little variation and leave at the organised end of school every day.

But Uni is different. If you don’t go to your job or you skip school pretty soon people start asking questions and actions start being taken. At university your lecturers and tutors are teaching a class of hundreds (especially 1st year subjects). Often for courses there are comparatively fewer checks of attendance – there may be course requirements for attendance to tutorials but not lectures, and many universities offer lectures to be downloaded like podcasts and listened to at home. A uni staffer once told me how the numbers of students lying on the grass tended to increase across the semester, as people started to realise that attendance was not compulsory and the motivation to sit in a crowded theatre for 2 hours started to diminish rapidly!

This new sense of freedom can be intoxicating. Suddenly you are presented with an opportunity to learn at your own pace, to schedule your life with much greater flexibility and even to prioritise social activities ahead of study.

 

2. University has a very unique emphasis on self-driven learning.

The overall aim of school is to meet broad learning criteria in order to facilitate moving from one grade to the next. What you learn is very largely determined by the school. The role of your teacher is to help with that process, and so they take a very directive and supportive role in making sure you meet the criteria. With the HSC, schools often take a very hands-on approach with the student to make sure they are getting the highest ATAR.

However at Uni, lecturers and tutors are often not as personally involved as teachers are, and the emphasis is very much on self-directed learning.

Lecturers and tutors often do their teaching work as a supplement to their usual work, which is research-based. Lecturers teach multiple classes and tutors often have multiple classes they see once a week, not once a day. You are very much expected to do your own reading and complete your assignments yourself. Staff are available to assist you in your learning, but it is still very much your learning.

It is a legal requirement to finish schooling up to and including year 10, but there is no requirement for people to finish university. If you don’t do the work or you are failing the subject, no-one will seek you out to discuss how you can get back on track. Failing a subject and having to repeat it the next year is a very real thing for university students.

For a lot of people this sudden change can be a very alienating experience. This level of freedom and autonomy is very unusual in life, and it can be very unsettling.

 

3. There is a host of available services to make University bearable.

The good news is, universities are very aware of this, and a lot of resources are expended to make sure that overall, the university experience is rewarding and not unmanageable. Every university has a free and diverse support system, offering counselling (usually free to students), disability support, welfare support, careers counselling and more. Most university websites have a section on their website for these services, which if it isn’t in a header in the ‘current students’ section of the website, can be easily accessed by typing ‘counselling’ or something similar into the search bar/Google.

These support services exist because universities believe every student should be able to progress through their degree on the strength of their merit and hard work. That means, if you would otherwise be succeeding were it not for stress, anxiety, disability or other difficult circumstances, universities are committed to helping where they can to prevent those circumstances affecting your ability to learn and achieve your goals. You do have to access them yourself, however, to gain their full benefits.

 

4. University is what you make of it

There is so much breadth to what you can do at university, the real take-home message has to be that uni is what you make it to be. I thought to finish, I would encourage you to think about your values when it comes to uni. Some final things to consider:

What are your interests? Chances are there is a student social group for that interest!

How do you see university, is it a stepping stone to a career, a chance to further discover yourself and your interests, or something else entirely?

What aspects of your character/personality would you like to see develop? Where do you think you should be challenged in your life?

What kind of person would you like to see yourself being as you walk through the gates?

 

Adam Wright is a registered psychologist at the Resilience Centre

Unlocking the Secrets of the Brain –What’s happening in psychology research right now?

Last year, I was quite taken by news reports that physicists had managed to identify the Higgs Boson. This extremely miniscule and elusive particle was finally revealed, which left scientists around the world cheering and the rest of us scratching our heads wondering what was going on.

It is quite common for the media to report on the latest scientific breakthroughs. However, almost every time it is difficult for news agencies to not only explain in simple terms what it means but also if there is any practical applications to these findings.  This is especially so in the area of psychological research. However, just as in other disciplines, science and technology are making extraordinary breakthroughs. For today’s blog I thought I would go through some cutting-edge areas of psychological research and attempt to explain exactly what is happening, and what the practical applications of this work might be.

  1. Genetics

Ever since scientists unlocked DNA as the biological source code behind making us who we are, work has been done exploring the map of our genes, or units of DNA that determine specific traits we share. These traits determine everything from eye colour to the specific functioning the cells we are made of. Scientists are poring through our genetic data for evidence of what makes some of us more or less likely to develop medical conditions, from deafness to breast cancer and everything in between. This kind of work is painstakingly difficult, as there are approximately 20,000 genes to sort through for the tiniest of variations.

In the past, we were only able to sort through a handful of genes at a time. And recently, we’ve discovered that disorders of our brain, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are way more genetically complex than a couple of slight code variations on 1 of 20,000 genes. Rather, there are possibly hundreds of slight variations across all those genes. The good news is that increases in technology have enabled us to scan the whole gene collection (referred to as our ‘genome’) at once. These so-called ‘Genome Wide Association Studies’ are much more powerful than what we could do before. As a result, we’re picking up on more variations and smaller variations than was possible in the past.

Why is this important?

Interestingly, the variations that are coming to the fore specifically relate to how individual cells work in our brain. For disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, research has shown both of these to be highly genetically based disorders. The more we understand these little differences, the more we can begin to understand what cells and chemical processes are working differently to cause these disorders. Furthermore, we’ll potentially be able to target drugs towards these specific chemical processes. This is a big deal, as current treatments for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are fickle in their response, and tend to have wide-ranging side effects that can sometimes be as medically damaging as the illness itself.

  1. Epigenetics

You might be thinking that’s a typo but Epigenetics is a very new area of scientific exploration, and it has to do with the interaction between genes and our environment. In the past, lots of studies have been done on monozygotic (identical) twins, because they share 100% of the same genes. If our development was purely either genetically based or environmentally based, we’d expect twins to either share all illnesses or have no illnesses in common. However, the truth lies in the middle. A recent comparison of lots of schizophrenia twin studies revealed the chance of both twins getting the illness to be between 75-90%. For a very genetically-based illness, that still leaves up to 25% of the likelihood determined by other environmental factors.

Our DNA is the code in our genes that determines our development and functioning, and there are chemical processes that take this code and ‘read’ it out, determining how our cells grow and function. Recent research is now suggesting that certain aspects of our environment can change the chemical processes behind this code-reading. For example, it has long been established that early life stress can increase the risk of later depression. Now research is suggesting that not only does stress impact the brain, it impacts the genes in our brain cells, affecting how they grow and develop, as well as how they function.

Why is this important?

Aside from the confirmation that we are not just a product of our genes or environment, Epigenetics is opening up completely new avenues of scientific exploration. Once we know the risk of illness present in our genes, we can start to tailor treatments towards managing environmental factors that could interact with the genes.  This has the potential to make major breakthroughs in the area of psychological illness prevention.

3. Neuroscience

I’ll bet many of you reading this have had an MRI scan. It’s when you are placed in a narrow metal tube, part of a gigantic machine, that takes pictures of your arm, leg, head, whatever the doctor’s are interested in. It’s big, loud and generally unpleasant. But it’s also part of a revolution in the world of brain science.

There is a similar type of brain scanning called functional MRI (fMRI).  It’s the same as a regular MRI, but it enables researchers to measure localised brain activity in the present moment. Suppose you sat in one of these machines and read words on a screen. Each word will correspond with a whole bunch of electrical impulses in your brain, and an fMRI scan can pick up exactly what parts of the brain are involved. It’s almost as if we have a window into the brain as it is actually working.

The great thing about this type of research is that it opens up so many areas we otherwise would not have been able to explore. Not only can we see how specific tasks, thoughts, emotions etc. look in the brain, we can also compare these across different populations. We can for example, look at how the brain of a depressed person is working compared to someone who is not depressed. It’s well established that seeing others experience emotions can trigger the same emotions in ourselves. A recent fMRI study was able to show which specific brain cells were active in that process, which we have now termed mirror neurons. This has major implications for our understanding of not only how we show empathy, but also how we learn from others, a skill that is vitally important in children’s growth and development. 

Why is this important?

When it comes to mental illness and mental health, the more we know at a miniscule level about how the brain is working, the more we can discover how to address those issues and develop new treatments, both pharmaceutical and psychological.  It also allows us to develop early intervention and prevention strategies to stop issues at an earlier stage.

Science and technology are taking our understanding of the brain to levels never previously heard of. Like the Higgs Boson, perhaps the applications of our knowledge is a long way off. But progress is continuing just the same. And every brain scan, genetics or epigenetics study that someday makes the news is an exciting step towards that future.

References:

Labonte, B. & Turecki, G. The Epigenetics of Depression and Suicide. In   A. Petronis and J. Mill (eds.), Brain, Behavior and Epigenetics, Epigenetics and Human Health, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2011

Sullivan, P.F, Kendler, K. & Neale, M.C. (2003). Schizophrenia as a complex trait: Evidence from a meta-analysis of twin studies. JAMA Psychiatry; 60:12;

Vingnemont, F. & Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: How, when and why. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10:10

Sklar et al., (2011). Large-scale genome-wide association analysis of bipolar disorder identifies a new susceptibility locus near ODZ4. Nature Genetics 43(10); 977-983

Navigating Mental Health Online: Four Websites Worth a Visit

As we all know, the internet is a vast repository of information, and the topic of mental health is no exception. Just a quick search of the words, “Mental Health” on Google elicits a staggering 592 million hits.

For whatever reason you might be motivated to expand your knowledge or understanding of mental health, jumping into the web for information can be a daunting experience. Before too long page after page of ambiguous, misleading information can leave even the most web-savvy individual feeling overwhelmed.

We psychologists are trained in the most recent and up-to-date information, and so an important part of our profession is knowing where is the best information online is. A little bit of knowledge is a powerful tool- to gain understanding of a condition, to reduce stigma about mental health and to provide avenues for support for sufferers. To that end, I thought I would dedicate today’s blog post to four websites I have found over the years to be a helpful resource. A few good places to start your online research.

1. Beyond Blue

www.beyondblue.org.au

Beyond Blue is a mental health organisation that is all about raising awareness. As a result, their website aims towards providing a lot of information about mental health and its impact. There is a wealth of statistics and easy-to-access facts about a range of mental disorders. The site also features a lot of information about how mental health relates to a range of topics, including school, university and aged care.

The website serves as a good entry point to learning more about mental health. Whether you’re looking for answers or support, or you’re a student looking to do research, it should be considered one of the first points of online contact.

2. The Black Dog Institute

www.blackdoginstitute.org.au

The Black Dog Institute is a mental health organisation with a narrower scope than Beyond Blue – It specialises in depression and bipolar disorder.

The website serves a similar purpose as Beyond Blue, and they have a range of fact sheets covering all aspects of depression/bipolar, including major symptoms, known causes and treatment options. In addition, they have a number of handy applications, including self-tests for bipolar and mood management. There is a section dedicated to specific information for health professionals. Finally, Black Dog is a research organisation, and if you’re interested in giving to the mental health community, they are a good stop for looking into opportunities for volunteering, both for raising awareness and research purposes.

3. headspace

www.headspace.org.au

There are websites that cater specifically to providing information and awareness for adolescents and young adults, and headspace is a good one to look at. Headspace is all about helping young people understand mental illness and realise that firstly, they’re not alone, and secondly, help is available. 

One thing I really like about the headspace website is that it has a link to eheadspace, which is an online counselling service for people aged 12-25. It’s available for online chat, email or phone and the staff are trained counsellors and psychologists. If you’re having a rough night and need someone to talk to, it might be worth seeing the eheadspace website and checking whether it would be right for you.

www.eheadspace.org.au

4. Authentic Happiness

www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu 

This website is a little different to the others. Whereas the first three refer to mental disorders, this is a website dedicated to the area of positive psychology. Positive Psychology is a relatively new sub-area of psychology, and it focuses on good mental health, rather than just on the treatment of mental illness.

This website is not as fancy, or as easy to navigate. But it is a treasure trove of information about promoting positive mental health. It’s run by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. If you’re interested in all the latest ideas about promoting positive change and wellbeing, then I recommend diving in to this website and exploring the information and presentations it has to offer. It also is host to a number of questionnaires that measure lots of positive-psychology concepts, including identifying your strengths.

Whether you’re starting your online journey or are a well-seasoned traveller; and whatever your reasons for searching mental health on the web, I hope these four websites provide something for you to grab hold of. Happy Surfing!

 

By Adam Wright, MAPS

Registered Psychologist

Alpha Psychology and the Resilience Centre

Beating Back the Winter Blues

Given that we’re heading into the final month of winter before things start to warm up and the days start to get a little longer, I’ve been reflecting on the seasons and how they can make a difference to the way we feel and the way we behave.

Summertime in Australia is a beautiful thing, and it’s clear how much of our national lifestyle is geared towards that extra heat and those extra long days. It’s not uncommon for after a hard day’s work to come home and then spend time in the outdoors, whether it’s a barbecue outside, or a swim, or playing (or just as likely watching) sport.

But when it gets to the height of winter, it’s a different story. The days’ sunshine has ended before the majority of commuters have gotten home. Once you’re off the train or the bus, it’s straight inside the house. For those who work a 9-5 day 5 days a week, winter can make the working week that much more of a drudge, leaving the weekend to cram in everything else. It’s not surprising therefore, that winter can come to be associated with lower moods.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a fancy clinical name for depression that cycles throughout the seasons, leaving people feeling okay in the summer months but depressed during winter. In Australia it’s less common, as we don’t have the situation our more northerly neighbours can experience in winter time – freezing temperatures, only a few hours daytime and little to no sunshine for days or weeks on end. That’s not to say however, that living a winter lifestyle that we have in Australia can leave us more vulnerable to lower moods and depression.

How can winter relate to feeling depressed?

As psychologists, one thing we have found consistently is that depression can start to form a spiral. Naturally as humans when we don’t feel 100%, we tend towards doing less things. Especially less pleasurable activities. As one of the key symptoms of having depression or low mood is a tendency to interpret events in a negative light, we can then turn this inactivity back on ourselves – “I’m so depressed I can’t even go for a run” for example. These negative thoughts about ourselves can then lead to further low moods. And the cycle continues from there.

For people who are currently experiencing depression, this spiral is made worse due to two key symptoms experienced by sufferers –

1. A tendency to feel less pleasure or interest in usual activities

2. a tendency towards increased feelings of tiredness

Both of these contribute to that lack of motivation, leading to more inactivity and thus lower moods. So when we think about winter, and how there is less opportunity to do activities, it can become the starting point for this vicious spiral.

So what can I do to beat back these winter blues? 

The key to breaking this cycle is the fact that while we tend to not do things when we feel down or motivated, there is usually nothing physically stopping us. The blocks we have are most often mental in nature. What research into depression has shown, is that a deliberate focus on pleasurable activities can help lift moods and fight the symptoms of depression.

While the idea is simple, the execution is difficult. It is very difficult to push through and do pleasurable activity when the motivation is simply not there. But there are a few things you can do to make the process easier.

1. Think of the things you found most pleasurable when you weren’t feeling down.

What were your normal activities you took pleasure in that you’ve stopped doing them? Ask yourself, Why were they pleasurable for you?

2. Re-commit to these activities in a reduced fashion

Sometimes when we try to get back into everyday activity when we feel depressed, we hold ourselves to our previous standards before we were feeling down. Getting back into a 5 kilometre jog every morning might seem too overwhelming if you haven’t done it for 6 months, and that is going to lower your motivation. Start small, with a mind to getting bigger. But most importantly, schedule the activity in at a specific time, don’t wait for when you feel better or more motivated. The hardest part is often starting the activity.

3.  Pay attention to how you felt before you started, how you feel afterwards and compare the results

Try to treat each activity like an experiment. Do the activity despite not feeling like it, and see if there is any difference in your mood as a result. Most likely you will have the sense that you achieved a goal, however small, and that thought is usually a rewarding and comforting one. It’s handy to keep a journal of this, so you have some actual information to refer to when you’re feeling at your worst and activity levels drop to their lowest.

Whether it’s winter or summer, long days or longer nights, the vicious spiral of depression and low motivation can be difficult to break out of. But following these initial steps can be the first ones towards reclaiming your old life back.

 

Recommended Reading

For more information on self-help tips for depression, be sure to check out the following websites:

The Black Dog Institute webpage: www.blackdoginstitute.org.au

Beyond Blue: www.beyondblue.org.au

Adam Wright is a practitioner at Alpha Psychology. Feel free to check out his bio for more information or call Alpha at 9869 0377. 

Living life to the full – Values and a values-directed life.

Do you ever wonder “where am I going?” 

Do you find it hard to set goals? 

Society these days seems to be focused a lot on goals. You’re probably rolling your eyes at the mention of the word. The workplace seems to thrive off words like ‘goal’, ‘predicted outcome’ or ‘key performance indicator (KPI)’. The message seems to always be “achieve more, do better and always meet your target”.

The two questions I raised above seem to always go hand in hand; when you don’t know where you want to go with your life, you might find it hard to set goals. 

Working hard towards that work performance target might not seem worth the effort – you don’t enjoy work anyway. Getting a high distinction in that uni essay might not seem worth the hassle – you don’t even know if this subject is in the career path you want to take. Exercise is boring and you just can’t get up early in the morning for that bike ride you know you should be taking…

What is missing in these statements? Values

You might have heard the word ‘values’ before in the context of goals and goal-setting. Sometimes we tend to think that values and goals are the same thing but there is a distinct difference between a value and a goal. Knowing that difference can make all the difference. 

What is a goal?
A goal is something you want to achieve, and it can be anything but it is always a concrete target. A great example of a goal is deciding to go for a run every morning for a week. It is simple, defined, and you can work towards achieving it. 

What is a value?
Differently to a goal, a value is not strictly achievable – it is something that you want to be. It could be a characteristic that you want to embrace, something about yourself that you want to change, something that you aspire to but can’t actually ever become completely. Say, you’ve decided that you want to be a better wife and mother to your kids. What can you do to achieve that? Do you ever stop trying to be better? Will you ever reach perfection in being a wife and mother? 
The reason why these questions can’t be answered is because being a better wife and mother is a value, not a goal. 

How do goals and values work together?
The great thing about values is that they become a source for new goals. 

Once you know what your values are, you’ll find that setting and keeping goals is a lot easier. Want to be a better mother? What could you do this week to get you a little closer to being a better mother? You might decide to give your children a compliment every day… now you have a goal based on a value. When you have goals that are based on values, you’re setting a goal in a firm foundation. 

Achieving your goals
Motivation is something that can sometimes be hard to find or maintain. One big motivator for achieving goals is the promise of a reward. You’re probably more likely to go for a run every morning this week if I promised I’d give you 20 dollars for doing so. That is what we call extrinsic motivation – the motivation is coming from an external source. Seems perfectly effective but the reality is that we cannot control the external. What if I stopped paying you to run? You’d probably stop running because the motivation has disappeared. 

Values-based goals have a firm foundation because the motivation is lasting. Essentially, by achieving your goal, you will be taking a step towards being the person you want to be. That source of motivation is intrinsic, and researchers have found thatintrinsic motivation is a lot stronger than extrinsic. You probably would still set and achieve goals to spend more quality time with your children, regardless of whether I paid you for it. That’s because the motivation comes from the sense that you are being more like the person you aim to be – and that positive feedback is inherently rewarding. 

Basically, the point I am trying to make is this – if you’re finding it hard to set and maintain goals in your life, stop and think about your values first. Ask yourself, am I striving to achieve things in my life that bring me closer to the person I want to be or am I simply aiming for goals because I think I should be? 

There is a lot of research to suggest that living a values-directed life is a good start towards promoting resilience and wellbeing in your life. If you find yourself stuck in a rut, not descending but certainly not flourishing like you thought you could, perhaps it’s worth taking the time to work out some of the things about yourself or others that you like and how you might move towards growing and refining those qualities within yourself. Set goals around those values. A good start can often be to think about someone you admire. What is it about that person that you admire? Often those things are your values. When you have them, start to think in baby steps what you could start doing right now to be a little more like that.

 

Recommended Reading

Values and Values-based living is one of the core aspects of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). If you would like to know more about values and ACT, I recommend the following books and websites:

1. Get Out of Your Mind and into Your LIfe: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. By Dr Stephen C. Hayes

2. The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling and Start LIving. By Dr Russ Harris

3. Dr Harris has a website titled The Happiness Trap.

Adam Wright is a practitioner at Alpha Psychology. Adam has training and experience in using ACT and mindfulness to treat anxiety, depression and other disorders. Feel free to check out his bio for more information or call Alpha at 9869 0377. 

 

Bipolar – I’ve heard the word, now what does it mean?

A phrase heard more and more commonly these days is describing someone as bipolar. “She seems really bipolar,” “He’s acting weird, he probably has bipolar.” To describe someone as bipolar has become a fashionable label. But what does it really mean to suffer from bipolar disorder, and to be “bipolar?”  Is it a state we are in when going through life crises? Do we get bipolar? Or is it a part of our personality, a stable aspect of our behaviour?
I thought I would dedicate my blog post today to further exploring what it is like to suffer from bipolar disorder and to perhaps challenge some of its myths.
What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar Disorder is essentially, a biologically-based ‘mood disorder.’ Sufferers of bipolar experience episodes of depression – periods of constant low mood that can last from as little as two weeks to as long as several months. These episodes of depression come with varied symptoms such as changed sleep or eating patterns and significantly less desire to take part in pleasurable activities.

However, true to the ‘bipolar’ name, sufferers also experience periods of elevated mood, termed, ‘mania’ or ‘hypomania.’ These highs vary significantly from individual to individual, on a spectrum of severity. On the less severe side (hypomania), people may feel increased feelings of wellbeing, increased energy, become more talkative and social, become more productive in their work or home life and find less need for sleep. The periods of hypomania can last as little as a couple of days through to weeks, especially if untreated.
The symptoms above may seem like quite a blessing. Who wouldn’t want to have a week or two where they felt great? I know I would appreciate the energy to knock off a couple of projects. However there is a darker side to the highs. Often hypomania can produce a loss of inhibition and a tendency towards more risky behaviours. This can range from being more likely to take a stranger home with you after a night clubbing, through to playing chicken with cars on the street. The changes in personality can make individuals much more irritable, impatient and quick to anger, causing fights with family and friends.
The severe end of the highs is called mania. While mild hypomania can cause little disruption (and actually feel quite good), severe mania can cause massive amounts of individual and family disruption and often leads to hospitalisation. Sufferers can experience hallucinations such as voices, delusions,  severely disrupted speech and complete life disorganisation to the point where he or she cannot look after themselves in their current state.
The impact of bipolar

People who suffer from bipolar disorder experience a recurrent pattern of these two mood states; periods of depression and periods of hypomania or mania. The patterns vary widely from individual to individual – some can have very rapid cycling, alternating between the lows and highs without very little space of normality in between. Others still can have long and severe episodes of mania that only occur once every 3-5 years. No two individuals experience bipolar disorder the same. Periods of normal mood are often few and far between and episodes are almost always out of an individual’s control (the exception being certain recreational drugs and medication which can cause episodes in vulnerable people, and often the symptoms disappear when the drug is ceased).
As you can imagine, bipolar disorder can be very debilitating. Sufferers often struggle to maintain jobs; they find it hard to make it to work when they are depressed, and often do strange things like unexpectedly quit when they are high. Relationships are often strained, and there are higher rates of divorce in families with a bipolar parent. And for those who experience psychotic symptoms while high, trips to the psychiatric hospital are a common occurrence. Bipolar disorder ranks with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Schizophrenia as one of the top three psychiatric disorders in terms of life burden.
The Myths of Bipolar

Bipolar disorder is little understood, and only in the past few years have researchers begun to gain some understanding of the illness. The term ‘Bipolar’ has only been in widespread use for the past 10-20 years, previously it was referred to as ‘Manic Depression.’
When  we meet someone who seems particularly up and down in their emotional states, it has become recent practice in the media and somewhat in society too, to use the word bipolar. As you can see though, bipolar is far more complicated than having up days and down days. Furthermore, whereas  typical ups and downs are usually related to good or bad events, bipolar episodes can be triggered suddenly, without warning.
To be bipolar is not to have a ‘bipolar’ personality. While there are often behaviour changes when having a depressed or manic episode, these changes revert when the episode ends. To have bipolar does not necessarily mean several mood swings in a day, it generally occurs over a longer time frame.
What can be done for someone who suffers from bipolar?

The purpose of this post has been to highlight in general terms, what it means to have bipolar disorder and to differentiate the disorder from the use of the word ‘bipolar.’ However, bipolar is infinitely more complicated that a single blog post may cover. Bipolar is a lifetime illness, that often runs in families; hence it is often part of the story of generations of individuals.
Bipolar is debilitating, but there are things that can be done for those who suffer from it. Medication is usually the front-line treatment, and good results can be found from drugs that are taken regularly. Psychiatrists are usually the professionals used to manage bipolar in patients. As a psychologist, there are lots of things that can be done to help mitigate the experience of bipolar; to encourage self-awareness about your individual cycles, to encourage positive and healthy lifestyles and establishing support networks for when the illness strikes again.
If any of the descriptions of bipolar sound like your life, it may be daunting to ask a health professional about bipolar, but early detection can really help get a front foot against the illness. A first step however, may be to consult the Black Dog Institute Website – www.blackdoginstitute.org.au. There is a wealth of information there and plenty of resources to provide support and guidance.

References:
Mitchell, P.B., Slade, T. & Andrew, G. (2004)  Twelve-month prevalence and disability of DSM-IV bipolar disorder in an Australian general population survey. Psychological Medicine 34; 777-785.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text revision). Washington, DC.