Introducing….my dog Zoe.

Recently, at The Resilience Centre, we have been running a weekly group for adults titled “A Life Worth Living”.  It’s basically designed to help people who struggle with their emotions and tend to experience intense feelings which interfere with their quality of life.  Amongst other things, the program includes some skill building around how to stay in the present moment and tolerate distressing emotions. I was telling my teenage daughter about the course a bit before heading out to my first group session.  Her insistence that I take our dog Zoe as a possible comfort for some participants was intense.  I could see how her relationship with our dog had been very significant for her in hard times.  Perhaps she had a point? Perhaps having a dog like Zoe in the room might bring a useful dimension for some people?

I need to point out that not all dogs would be good for this job.  Zoe just happens to be a dog who radiates CALM.  She is as chilled as they get without being lazy.  She’s curious, and perceptive, and she can rest in one place for a long time.  I decided to take her along to the group and since then I have not looked back.

Not everyone is a dog lover so some participants have been ambivalent.  Others, however, have eagerly welcomed her.  Having a dog in the room has provided an ice-breaker (in varying states of nervousness) and allowed people to share their own dog stories before perhaps talking about themselves.  She has provided an additional avenue for distraction or soothing when group members feel uncomfortable for whatever reason. Being able to focus on simply patting a dog and tap into the various senses that go along with that is very calming for some people.  Just as sitting in nature might be for others.

Animal Assisted Therapy is reported to have a number of benefits for those with mental health challenges including:

  • decreased anxiety
  • increased sense of comfort and safety
  • reduced loneliness
  • enhanced self-esteem and confidence
  • increased prosocial behaviours
  • decreased behavioural problems  1.

One therapist in the US talks about using her dog in the therapy room:

“Clients find solace and calm while petting Lainey, even when they are talking about something stressful. She immediately notices when someone is emotional and makes herself present to be pet or provide a much-needed hug”.  2

I am working towards having Zoe in the room that I practice in.  If you would especially like this; please express your interest at the time of booking an appointment with me.  If you prefer not to have Zoe around or have some sensitivity to dogs please let reception know also.

EMOTION COACHING – A brief outline

Recently I presented a Hot Topic on Emotion Coaching. This is a model that aims to help children regulate their emotions. Research links emotional competence with improved relationships, communication and behaviour so it’s a very useful tool to have as a parent. Below I have outlined the 5 main steps of Emotion Coaching with a short explanation under each one. It’s definitely not a comprehensive outline; rather a taster for anybody wanting to know more. My main source is John Gottman, Ph.D., who is the author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.

Gottman’s 5 Key Steps to Emotion-Coaching

Being Aware of the Child’s Emotions

Often we’re only tuning in to the high intensity emotions. This can be stressful if both your child and yourself are getting worked up or feel overwhelmed. Remember that there are also moderate intensity emotions and this is what Emotion Coaching is best suited to. Start by trying to increase your awareness of what/how your child is feeling at different points in the day. You will also do well to ask yourself about your own feelings in a range of circumstances. Take the time to talk about and share feelings with your child in an age appropriate way. The more you do this the more natural it will become for you both. If the child is very young, use tangible expressions of feelings e.g. with characters in their play or with feeling faces, drawings etc..

Recognising the Emotion as an Opportunity for Intimacy and Teaching

When it becomes obvious that a child is feeling a particular emotion we are likely to have some kind of reaction. Perhaps we don’t want them to feel that way because it will be uncomfortable for them. Perhaps we want to distract them from it or suppress it because either we don’t have time to sit with them or we can feel that it’s affecting us. Often we fear emotions escalating or think that what we say or do could make it worse. If this is the case, we’re seeing our child’s emotion as something to manage, deal with or discipline. How would that make you feel if someone felt they had to be the boss of your feelings? The key point here is that ignoring emotions or trying to fix them doesn’t make them go away. They just come back bigger the next time.

Acknowledging how they feel is to say “it’s OK to have feelings” and “you matter to me, lets work it out together”. No need to see high emotions as a danger or crisis; it’s an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.

Listening Empathetically & Validating the Child’s Feelings

To listen empathetically is to use both non-verbal and verbal behavior. We have to look like we’re listening with our body and facial expressions and we have to show that we’re listening by what we say. To empathise is to step into the other person’s shoes and imagine what it might feel like at their age to experience that. We might reflect back what we are observing and hearing e.g. “You seem a bit sad”. We then need to validate that it’s OK to feel sad e.g. “I would feel sad if that happened to me” or “I think anybody who lost their favourite toy would feel sad…”

In other words, we don’t want to be dismissive of their emotions. We want to connect with them at that moment and help them to feel understood and that it’s OK.

Helping the Child to Verbally Label the Emotions being experienced

When children are young, sometimes they don’t know what they’re feeling or that there’s even a word for it. This might be the first time they’ve ever felt that way. Your helping them to name that emotion is teaching them about feelings. This can be a worthwhile practice even prior to your child talking as language development starts much earlier than when they say their first words. Feelings are categorized into 5 main groups (as you may have noticed in the movie Inside Out): Joy, Sadness, Worry, Anger and Disgust. We can also coach our children through role modeling: if you are having a feeling in a certain situation then take the opportunity to put words to it out loud. e.g.“I’m feeling very frustrated because the traffic is just not moving”.

Helping Children to Problem Solve (& setting limits where appropriate)

Often children get emotional over an incident that happened or a problem they feel stuck in. This is when we can explore options regarding what to do about it. Problem solving has a step by step method that I won’t go into here but is useful to know. You may find that you already do it quite naturally. It’s important to acknowledge at this 5th step that not all feelings can be ‘solved’. Some just have to be accepted and sometimes they’ll feel uncomfortable. The good thing about feelings is that mostly they are transitory and temporary. This can be a comfort to anybody and a way to even soothe ourselves. As the wise saying goes: “This too will pass”.

Coming soon for more on this subject: go to Online Hot Topics on The Resilience Centre webpage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Valuing the present over procrastination

Sometimes when I am trying to write… the words don’t come.   It weighs on me that it’s due and I think about that more than what I’m trying to write. I become hard on myself for not writing earlier when I had time to be creative and I long for the hour when I can simply have it done. Call it writers cramp, call it procrastination, call it whatever you will but it’s an uncomfortable state of mind that gets worse the longer I leave it.

  • “Why didn’t I write those ideas down when they came to me a month ago?”
  • “How can I sit down and write when so much else is going on?”
  • “I wish I could just blink and it would all be done”
  • “Why has this become so hard when normally I love to write?”
  • “What if I can’t submit? What if I can’t do this part of my job?”

Those thoughts that I’ve listed above are self-berating and judgemental.  They drag me into the past in which I am full of regret, they wish that the present were different and they catapult me into the future of scary “what-ifs”. Those thoughts are fighting with “what is” and are refusing to accept the universal law of “sometimes things are just hard”.

So what to do? All this ruminating is clearly stopping me from being present. Of course, I could procrastinate a little longer and get lots of other things done but will I be fully attentive to those things that I’m doing? Won’t I just have this writing thing niggling away at the back of my mind the whole time? Hhhmmmm…. sounds torturous. I don’t want to waste my favourite month of December. I am left with only one option acceptable to me and that is to start writing.

And how good it feels to be writing! I can’t believe it; I’m almost at 300 words. It’s not a perfect piece but it’s something.   I also find myself very much in the present and quite focussed whilst I’m writing.  Now that it’s almost done, I can be present to everything I love about this season. The early morning birds, my children getting excited about Christmas, and the prospect of a summer holiday.

May you find a way to be present this December. That will surely guarantee a less exhausted January!

What is it about Public Speaking?

inline-Scared-Of-Public-Speaking-Use-These-3-Variables-To-Flip-FearJane was having trouble with “performing”.  Standing up in front of people to present information did not feel natural.  It was high pressure and intensely worrying.  What she really wanted was to see public speaking as quite natural and not a performance; to feel comfortable enough in herself so that she could engage her audience in a steady and interesting flow of words.

She noticed this natural feeling when she spoke on various topics with friends. There had even been a handful of times in which she spoke confidently up the front and enjoyed herself.  When she looked at those experiences closely the key for Jane seemed to be ‘connection’.  What had worked for her was an authentic connection with her audience, herself and with the topic she was speaking on. During those occasions it all seemed to come together beautifully.  Why then, would she go on to feel so incredibly nervous in doing something that: a) she’d already done successfully before; and b) had gained a lot of satisfaction doing?

With the various demands of her work, Jane’s anxiety around performance kept appearing.  As soon as she was given the challenge, however far off the date was, it made it’s presence felt on her sub-conscious radar.  She’d begin thinking about it at odd times, and then all the time.  Not the excited kind of thinking, but the ruminating type where thoughts get repetitive or go nowhere. “What will I say?  Will I be interesting enough? What if I get super nervous again?”  Despite the presentation being weeks away, it was as if her body was preparing her for something that was bigger than it actually was.  She found herself feeling a little bit too energised; that jumpy state of over-alertness that prevents one from being completely in the moment.

Jane knew that she was a procrastinator at the best of times.  Perhaps if she began preparing the presentation immediately then she’d start to see that it wasn’t as big a deal as her mind and body were trying to tell her.  So she sat down to write a draft and, as the minutes of concentration and focus progressed, the worries and uncomfortable feelings began to dissipate.  The more she used the rational thinking part of her brain, the less her feelings could dominate.  Using the structured and organised side of herself she was able to complete a full ‘outline’, helping her to feel more in control.  Admittedly, much of the talk was still to be fleshed out but there was time for this later.  For now, she felt much better.

Several days passed uneventfully.  The jumpy feelings were manageable and there were enough demands in her home and professional life to be distracted by.  Soon enough, the actual week of the presentation was upon her.  If the diary hadn’t told her, the symptoms in her body certainly had.  The energy was palpable; getting her ready for what seemed like a climb up Mt Everest but was actually just standing up in front of a group of people to speak.  Her psychologist (whom she saw for a bit of help) later explained that these physical sensations were simply the body doing it’s job in the fight/flight response.  A bunch of messages from the brain to the body preparing her for action and potentially enabling her to perform well.  This mechanism is perfectly normal when it occurs briefly before the event, but is a sign that it needs managing if it is experienced too far in advance.  Ok, so what would calm her down?  What would make the sick feeling in her stomach and the racing heart go away?

Jane had noticed that sitting down and preparing her talk a few weeks prior had helped her to feel more in control.  Why not just do that?  Alas, she tried but it was useless. Constructive concentration when the presentation was only 2 days away seemed out of her grasp.  She was stressing out badly in her thoughts: “I’m running out of time!  Why didn’t I finish my preparation when I was calm? Now I can’t think straight.”  She felt down on herself and worried about not doing a good job: “I’m hopeless at this; why am I even doing it?  What if I freeze or my words get all muddled?”

She would need to try some different approaches.  How had she managed these situations in the past?  What seemed to work when it came to slowing herself down?  If she could manage this, then she might be able to sleep and then think more clearly upon waking.  Perhaps some exercise to take her mind off things and regulate her breathing?  And after that, she’d ring a friend who could empathise and listen as she bounced around a few ideas for the talk.  Jane knew that she had turned a corner when gradually she found herself feeling calmer and even thinking “hey, I have a lot of good things to share about this topic”.  Focussing on all the things she knew – both about herself and the content of her talk – enabled her to feel more confident.  No time to waste, she was off and away.

When the day of the performance came, Jane’s nerves returned with a vengeance. Somehow she’d managed to finish her preparation but now she just needed to execute. “Breathe and take it slow, breathe and act normally”she told herself.  Put your feelings in their place and put your mind on the job. Remember how you love this topic?  If you show your passion for it, the feelings will follow and then your audience will engage and you’ll find yourself connecting”.  And up she stood; with calm and with confidence.

What is it about public speaking?  It comes naturally to some but is a source of great anxiety for many.  Approximately 3 in 4 people experience “glossophobia”:  fear of speaking or performing in public (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossophobia). It’s real and it’s intense. Many have not experienced some of the small successes that Jane could draw on.  If you are one of these people and you want to address it; there is hope and there is help.  Keep your eye out for future presentations in which I, Sarah (a little bit like Jane:), shall seek to work on some of my own fears around public speaking by – err umm gulp – doing it.  It’s guaranteed to be authentic (but not uncomfortable). Please contact us at The Resilience Centre if you’d like to to be notified about what Sarah is doing on this topic in the future.

Sarah Piper is a Registered Psychologist at The Resilience Centre in Sydney.

Find out more about Sarah by clicking here. Email her at: sarah@theresiliencecentre.com.au

 

 

 

BREATHE

When somebody we love is rushed, fearful, or stressed, a common thing to say to them is “Breathe”.  It may sound a bit weird considering we are breathing all the time but it’s not weird at all; it’s profoundly good advice.

Breathing is easiest when we are “in the moment”.  Attending fully to what we are doing at the present time.  Not being critical or judgemental about what’s happening or how we or anyone else is doing it; just, simply, doing it.  An enhanced version of this which contributes greatly to our wellbeing is when we are so attentive to what we are doing that hardly anything can distract us.  This is known as “flow” – a term coined by Mihaly Csikszetmihalyi ¹.  If by chance you’re not doing anything at all then having an “in the moment” experience would simply involve being; to observe this state and participate in it fully.

For many people who are living a fast-paced life and struggling with a brain that can’t seem to rest; this practice of mindfulness, which I have described above, seems near impossible.  A mere attempt at this “practicing of the present” will reveal that our breathing is more rapid than necessary and, perhaps for some, it’s a little uncomfortable.  In addition to this, the more we realise that our breathing is out of sync, the harder it is to get it back to regular.  Oh SIGH; why is it that something we’ve been doing since birth suddenly becomes complicated the very moment we need it most?

And boy do we need it!  Breathing provides us with approximately 90% of our energy thus re-vitalising us in a big way.  Yet apparently, through the way we live and our ignorance to the potential of breathing, we don’t use it to it’s full potential.  What a shame; to see a free, renewable, human energy source sitting there under-utilised.  How can this be?

Many reasons, but here is one simple take on it.  Often when we are stressed or anxious we are blaming ourselves or thinking very hard about how to “fix it”.  Alternatively we might be thinking about how to “flee it” as the physical symptoms are certainly not pleasant. So whether it’s fight or flight, this is what keeps the brain on high alert, making us exert more energy than what is appropriate for the situation. And this is when we unconsciously breathe faster.  So when the advice from a loved one comes in to “breathe” they are simply meaning “breathe slower”.

So what can we do? How can we change our programming for the benefit of our physical and mental well-being?  Firstly, AWARENESS is an almighty step.  Awareness that we need to slow down our breathing and to make it deeper, quieter and more regular. Secondly, PRACTICE. Practice deep breathing a few times a day to remind your brain that it doesn’t need to be on high alert all the time.  The health benefits are endless ² and the mind benefits mind-blowing.

Here’s an acronym I created for BREATHE that might guide you:

B: Be (ie: cease doing).  This practice is not to be multi-tasked; all devices off.

R: Resist the temptation to fidget or give up.  It’s a new skill and you’ll need to focus.

E: Enter in to the present moment and establish a pattern for your breath.

A: Attune to that simple sensation of the breath going in and the breath going out.

T: Think of nothing but the here and now.  Breath going in, breath going out.

H: Hang out and sit there a while.  Start with 3 mins and extend it as it gets easier.

E: End it when you planned to.  Small bits of practice at a time, don’t over-do it.

 

1: https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en

2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VJVHcp7xmg

Other interesting and practical reads associated with this topic:

http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/ACF3C65.pdf
http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/07/22/reduce-your-anxiety-this-minute-3-different-types-of-deep-breathing/

 

Sarah Piper is a Registered Psychologist at The Resilience Centre in Sydney. Find out more about Sarah by clicking here.

Rhythm

Recently I have been personally challenged by the concept of rhythm.  Rhythm in many different parts of my life; personal relationships, physical movement, spiritual growth and professional development to name just a few.  It’s not a word I’ve generally associated with these activities but for some reason, at present, I’m drawn to it.

As a psychologist in private practice, I often notice that periods of low mental health can often be characterised by a lack, or a loss, of rhythm.  This may be due to an unforeseen or tragic circumstance which has thrown us off course or a life transition such as starting university, retirement or becoming a parent.  It may also be due to sheer exhaustion, cumulative stress or a loss of meaning in one aspect of our life.  And let’s not forget the small things; a physical injury that alters our exercise routine,  a change in the way things are done at work, a close friend moving away. All these, and more, can contribute to a loss of rhythm.

We all live to our own beat.  A beat that changes as we change, that adapts to the activity and is unique to you. Whether it be fast, slow or syncopated, it is somewhat repetitive; a pattern that regularly re-occurs.  Similar to hearing our favourite song, there is a certain comfort in being able to anticipate the rhythm as it gives us a fair idea of what comes next.  When we can see a short way ahead, it helps us to “know”. This knowing gives us a sense of control and allows us to plan.  When we know how some things in our day or week look, we can initiate them automatically, almost without thinking; for example starting each day in the same way or allocating Monday for this and Tuesday for that. Such a routine would significantly decrease how much thinking we do about the future and enable us to be more mindful of the existing moment.

To consolidate, think about the experience of lacking routine when a new year begins. After returning from a holiday break, we find various demands and opportunities abound. The mornings may feel a bit chaotic or uncertain with questions like “how will today work?” or “what should I do next?”  After a while, once we’ve bumbled around in a stop-start sort of way, we work out what is essential and what is simply nice to do.  This forms our two contrasting elements which are also essential for rhythm.  Just as music will have an upbeat and a downbeat or long and short notes, our life rhythms require opposites like “need to do” and “want to do”.  Both are important; they provide enough fluctuation to keep life interesting.  If we only do what is absolutely necessary and never allow time for ourselves or plan enjoyable activities, then we are left with a fairly dull or exhausting beat.

This then begs the question: is there a difference between rhythm and routine?  To this, I would say “yes”.  A life that is balanced with both work and play (need to do and want to do) is often a practical base for positive mental health.  Routine is the regular procedure, the unchanging, steady beat,  sometimes described as “the daily grind”.  Rhythm, however, is what syncopates this beat; it gives our life momentum, interest or challenge, and keeps us moving forward.   If we are to see rhythm in our lives, we need to ask ourselves “what energises me?”, “what gives my life meaning?” or “what is it that I really LIKE to do?”.  Perhaps it is friends or family, keeping fit, playing music, learning new things, having fun or giving to others.  We are all unique in what brings us joy and motivates us…what is it for you?

Take a moment here to identify these for yourself.

Then…of course, because these things make us feel good, we want them to keep happening so we can rely on them.  So plan some ‘want to do’s’ into your routine.  Maybe daily, weekly or six-monthly – it will depend on what it is.

Go on…plan it.  If you don’t, then quite possibly it won’t happen.

My sense is that we enjoy and appreciate the good things in our life when it’s not the only thing we do.  We need that steady beat in the background that gives our life structure and predictability.  Yet we make it more interesting and purposeful when we add our personal flair to it.  May you discover your own personal rhythms, giving life to your routines.

 

Definition sources: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/routine  http://www.thefreedictionary.com/rhythm                                              http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/syncopate

Soul Goals

At this busy time of year, the last thing we’re probably thinking about is New Year’s Resolutions and setting goals. Every November I personally resolve to be more prepared and less REactive about Christmas however that rarely comes to fruition. This hectic season often feels like a fast flowing current that we get swept up in and can’t get out of. It becomes more about getting ‘through’ Christmas than simply enjoying it. By the time we feel OK to relax, it feels all too soon to compile a set of task oriented goals for the coming year. And perhaps if we failed to achieve what we set out to do in the previous year, we’ll be a lot less keen to list a whole new set of benchmarks for the following year.

So what are our options?  To aim high and commit or to not aim at all? The former might involve listing some things we’d like to change or improve about our lives and setting some measurable outcomes as per the SMART method of goal setting.  The latter might be to not aim at all and hope to be happy with whatever outcome befalls us.  Certainly there is less pressure that way, but also a loss of direction and perhaps satisfaction.

This dilemma has got me to thinking that perhaps we’re missing a step.  That being the all important stage of reflection.  Unless we take some time to reflect on what has worked or not worked in the previous year, or perhaps be honest about what our gifts are (and are not) we may be moving forward unwisely.  In order to do this step authentically, we need to move from our brain to our soul. Here’s an acronym for SOUL that I’ve created and sincerely hope to use over my summer holiday:

S: Still – there’s an old proverb that says “muddy water, let stand, becomes clear”.  Imagine that old bottle of muddy water you brought back from the creek, hoping to find tadpoles in? It was hard to find them when the bottle was all shook up; but slowly, as you waited for the silt to sink to the bottom, the water became clearer and you could find what you set out to catch.  In other words, when we sit awhile, and let all that’s going on around us simply settle, things in our life usually become clearer.

O: Overview – once we’ve sat still for a while, it might be time to take a look at the year or the season of our life that has just passed.  What went well?  What values seemed to grow within?  What relationships opened up?  What was there to be thankful for?  It’s probably best to create your own questions in this section.

U: Under – Many of us would accept that our lives have many layers.  This section is about reflecting on some of those under layers.  Not being content to just live life on the surface, but to explore what can sometimes be hidden away underneath.  What tugs at your heart but can’t be felt in the normal day to day?  What cries out from within but can’t be heard?  What longs to see the light but struggles because it lies so deep down?  We may be talking about identity, longings, deep emotions or even hurts.  This is an opportunity to stop and take a look in a moment of solitude so that we can come to an acceptance of who we are and why.  If you sense that this is a fearful exercise, it might be wise to have a trusted friend or professional alongside you.

L: Look – This implies that our eyes need to be open.  Open in a metaphorical sense in that we are prepared to look at ourselves, our relationships, our purpose and meaning in life and our future. Looking works on many levels: Look up (perhaps to the stars or a higher power you believe in?)  Look out (to a beautiful horizon or simply outside yourself) and Look within.

As a result of this time of reflection, you may decide to do something differently or even set out a plan.  Whether it prompts action or not, there’s nothing lost in taking stock of our soul.

 

 

Walk and Talk or… Walk or Talk?

I recently read an article about a psychologist who walks with her clients. A kind of walk and talk therapy. I was drawn to it for a number of reasons, not least because I love to walk myself. My own experience of regular walking has a number of facets. Perhaps you can relate to some of these benefits:

  1. It’s a quiet time to think. Blissful uninterrupted thought! No electronic devices alerting me to messages I’m expected to respond to, no children needing assistance and no knocks on the door or phone calls.
  2. It’s outdoors, in fresh air and natural light. A chance to get in touch with the weather, the seasons, and the changes in our local landscape.
  3. It energizes. Many a morning I’ve felt sluggish to start with, only to find after 20mins that I’m somehow walking faster or with more of a rhythm. By the time I get home, I’m significantly more motivated than if I hadn’t walked at all.
  4. Sometimes it’s social. A walk together provides a way of seeing a friend and exercizing at the same time. A win-win all round, which also provides a bit of accountability to either exercize or simply connect. A chance to ask that wonderful Mental Health promoting question “Are you OK?” [1]
  5. Sometimes it’s therapeutic. Whether I’m talking or thinking to myself on a solo walk or I’m with a friend and we’re talking and listening to each other; both have benefits. If I’m alone, I sense that I’m being heard in a spiritual sense and in the second case there is much value in simply being listened to in an accepting and non-judgemental manner (and doing the same for my friend).

A number of these listed benefits are also grounded in research. Thirty minutes of moderate exercize (ie: brisk walking or other) on most days of the week can be an adequate treatment alone for non-melancholic depression[2]. I even read somewhere that just 15mins of exercize per day can increase your life expectancy by 3yrs! Interesting also that the environment in which we walk can have an impact. For example, a recent study comparing walks in nature and walks in urban settings found that the brain was affected differently. Nature walks, by comparison, significantly decreased ruination, anxiety and negative affect and increased working memory’s performance[3]. This would explain the growing number of walk-talk therapists in New York’s Central Park!

It has got me thinking about different scenarios, and what might warrant a ‘walk and talk’ therapy session with a psychologist, versus a situation where a walk on one’s own or with a friend might simply be enough to lift our mood and help us to feel more OK. There’s no particular right or wrong answer here although there are some points I’d like to raise:

  1. Walking has a number of physical and psychological benefits all on it’s own. Taking the initiative yourself is not only going to make you feel more energised, it’s more likely to enhance your sense of control over your own well-being thereby raising one’s self-esteem with the feeling “I can do it”.
  2. Sitting with a psychologist also brings opportunities for the change we want to see in our lives. It’s fairly normal to get a bit stuck sometimes and this can also be a way of taking initiative.
  3. The two can work together well if a person is also struggling to get moving, reluctant to get out of the house or lacking in opportunities for fresh air and sunlight.

Other ways in which walking with a psychologist might be more beneficial than walking on one’s own or with a friend might be:

  1. If you’d prefer not to be alone or you find it difficult to find someone to walk with;
  2. If you find it difficult to talk very deeply about yourself with people you know. Confidentiality is a very important factor in these delicate moments of revealing one’s inner self;
  3. If you find that a session in an office is a little too formal or confronting and perhaps the relaxed ‘side by side’ approach is more appealing;
  4. Sometimes walking gets you talking and hopefully thinking out loud. In this case, a psychologist might be able to pick up some repetitive or unhelpful thoughts and challenge them, or guide you into more helpful ways of thinking;
  5. If you find it hard to stop and be still, take in your surroundings, and simply breathe in the fresh air then a psychologist can guide you in some simple mindfulness practices – giving your brain a lot more oxygen and a little mini-holiday – thereby showing you some techniques to practice that might enhance your own well-being.
  6. If you feel that you just need be heard. The non-judgemental and empathetic ear of somebody trained to listen can have more value than you might think.

Walking, as you know, is all about movement. The very act of putting one foot in front of the other symbolises a desire for movement or change; a hope that things won’t stay the same. The feeling of being stagnant or standing in the one place can make us feel like we’re going nowhere and this may frustrate us. Perhaps we don’t even realise that we are being stationary. Sometimes, there is so much going on in our head or our heart that it feels very busy or heavy and we just feel tired all the time.   At first it will be hard to get going but, usually, when we physically start to move then we create hope for movement elsewhere in ourselves.

So if that’s the physical movement, what other kinds of movement might we be looking for that a psychologist could help us with? Metaphorically speaking:

Cognitive: Perhaps our worries or thoughts are all consuming and we need to get unstuck.

Behavioural: Often we imagine that doing something different or changing our environment or routine might be good for us. We’re probably right!

Emotional: The Latin derivative of the word emotion is ‘out’ + ‘move’. So…idealistically speaking…if we’re out moving about then we’re creating space for emotional change. Seeing a psychologist could get both your body and your emotions out and moving.

Directional: In some stages of life, it’s normal to be unsure about what to do or where to go in life. Sometimes just getting going ‘somewhere’ can kick off the process of movement and get us thinking about the bigger picture of our own lives.

Walking as a form of exercize is one way to create movement in our lives but there are also others. One very specific way of walking which has been described as having therapeutic or stress relieving benefits is to walk a Labyrinth. This is an ancient construct and pattern used for meditative walking. It is also used in the modern day and in recent years is gaining renewed interest and momentum[4]. The contemplative journey of the labyrinth calls people to let go of their worries as they enter in, to receive a peace and calm as they pause at the centre, and to resolve to engage with the world in a new way as they walk out. Considering that the labyrinth is generally walked without talking, I’ll have to write a separate blog on that subject.

In the meantime, enjoy your walking OR your talking and if you decide you’d like to do both then suggest it to your therapist.

 

[1] https://www.sane.org/releases-2011/1026-are-you-okay

[2] http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/Exerciseanddepression.pdf

[3] http://walking.about.com/od/mindandspirit/ss/A-Nature-Walk-is-a-Great-Prescription-for-Your-Brain.htm

[4] for more information see http://www.sydneylabyrinth.org/faq/

 

Taking Stock on Screens – and a challenge to take charge

by Sarah Piper, Psychologist

It’s like we’re being ambushed. They’re coming at us from all angles, and in all sizes. Like an army that just keeps storming new fronts: first it was television,then it was video games, then came computers, mobile phones, fancy i-pods, i-pads, laptops, tablets…the list goes on and we’re surrounded on all sides. Irrespective of all their fantastic uses, they’re all SCREENS, compelling our eyes to watch and dominating many aspects of our lives. It’s like they arrived first and foremost as an exciting piece of technology to ‘help us’ and to ‘make our lives easier’. Somehow they came disguised as a friend, yet increasingly they seem to manipulate; demanding much of our attention and complicating a lot of our time. Now, many years on, as I reflect on the impact of screens, I’m left feeling that the ‘friendship’ they offered didn’t really have our best interests at heart.

So what’s the problem with screens? We’re all adapting pretty well to them, and let’s be frank, they’re pretty useful and efficient (when they work). Technology has been a great connector on many fronts and it has enabled all manner of things to progress faster than we ever dreamed of. What is it exactly that I think is a stumbling block to our human development?

It’s the simple fact that the screen is not a human face and the screen is incapable of feeling. Forgive me for stating the obvious but, in order to develop as relational beings, we need regular contact with real people. This includes all people we come across, in all of their human-ness, whether it be appealing to us or not. To be able to see someone’s face and their expressions (real time), to be able to hear them exactly (irrelevant of a microphone’s quality), to touch and to feel, to smell them (for better or worse), and to taste (in more intimate cases) is something a computer cannot replicate. A while ago, when our family went overseas to live, it was the easiest farewell comment to friends and family: “I’ll miss you but we’ll keep in touch over Skype”. It temporarily alleviated the pain of being separated from those we loved but in reality we realized that computers were a poor substitute for real human contact. As much as we encouraged the children to keep up with their friends and extended family, the complaint was always “it’s not the same”. More than anyone else, it’s the very young and the very old who notice these things most accutely. On a screen there is no human company in the flesh: and that means no hugs or handshakes, no eye contact or kisses, and no distinctive smells (whatever their aroma!).

This lack of real human contact can be seen in many areas of life that the screens seem to have invaded. The part that I see most often is for young people and adolescents. All their friends are using social media and this results in many of them communicating late into the night. This in turn affects how they sleep; whether it be from the screen light that has decreased their natural melatonin levels thereby making them feel quite awake or perhaps it is the conversations that have been going around on the group chat leaving them to lie awake in bed trying to process what was said. In addition to this, if there is an electronic device in the bedroom, there’s a high probability of being woken by a ding or a beep. That is certainly an interruption they don’t need! It can be lonely in a bedroom doing study for hours on end and it’s possibly made lonelier by the pressure to keep up with social media. For a young person going through a tough time, the absence of a comforting or even distracting human presence may only serve to make things worse. Any adolescent is unlikely to be aware of this themselves, but a caring adult in the house might have a ‘sixth sense’ that too much time alone in one’s room with a screen might just be a toxic combination.

Only five to ten years ago, I’m sure it was quite a relief for many parents to send their offspring to school knowing that they’d have to talk face to face to their friends and not rely on other digital devices. Now that many students need a laptop or similar for school, the whole game-plan in the playground seems to have changed. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to see groups of kids or even kids on their own just glued to a screen. Is there no respite? If, as Andrew Fuller suggests, “it is the skills of negotiation, problem solving, lateral thinking and emotional intelligence that predict young people’s ability to be successful” then how does this all pervading use of technology assist them? Perhaps we are doing them a dis-service by allowing these devices to be such a huge part of our lives? No doubt you’ve felt a similar hunch yourself; that this embracing of technology may not be to our benefit.

One of the most moving experiences I had in a counselling job overseas was with a 13yr old girl named Jacquie*. As the oldest of three in a fairly affluent, stable family, she had a father who was quite good with technology and a mother who wasn’t. When Dad was at work, Mum was happy to have her children using the screens ‘a lot’ as this afforded her large chunks of time get all the domestics done and keep her house pristine. Consequently, each of the 3 children tended to go off on their own and play on their phones or I-pads. Jacquie, meanwhile, was having some social difficulties at school, often feeling like she didn’t fit in. She strongly disliked the tendency of many of her friends to play on their phones at lunchtime and she wondered why people couldn’t just talk anymore. To make things worse, she would arrive home to find that her younger sisters were playing on their screens and didn’t really want to do anything and her Mum just looked busy. She had heaps of fun and interactive ideas but it was made pretty clear to her that she’d be doing them on her own. It became obvious that Jacquie was lonely and this was a significant part of her very low, sad mood. Fortunately the story doesn’t end there. Not many sessions later, I had the joy of seeing her smile and even look me in the eye as she recounted a recent day trip that the family had taken. It turns out that she had courageously told her father how she was feeling and suggested that sometimes the wi-fi be turned off and perhaps the family could start doing more things together. The next session was my first experience of her beautiful smile, as she described an outdoor day trip that the family had taken. This tentative step of openness had made a massive difference in her ability to make changes for the better. The best thing being, in Jacquie’s words, that “we talked”.

All the research on this topic is interesting but somewhat inconclusive. It would certainly make things easier if some hard and fast rules were laid down as a result of some significant findings. Or would it? I suspect that we can come to our own conclusions about what is right for us and what is appropriate for our children; what helps and hinders our sense of well-being and connectedness. That wistful question about why the family doesn’t talk as much anymore and that niggling feeling that it might have some connection with the dominance of screens in the household just might be addressed by the old saying “all in moderation”. We can’t ignore technology altogether yet we can be deliberate in how we use it or perhaps how we engage together on it. Here are a few simple questions as you take stock of your personal or family situation in this area:

– What are my boundaries around screens both for me and for my family?(when, where, how, who with, why etc…).
– How can I actively promote more opportunities for human togetherness

so that significant relationships might have the opportunity to develop? And finally, a question to be answered without Google: If there were 100 things to do before screens were invented, and now there are 101, what are your other 100?

 

* name has been changed for confidentiality

References
Creating Resilient Families http://www.tps.vic.edu.au/2013/PDFs/Resilient-families.pdf