20th Anniversary

Clinical psychologist, Lyn Worsley reflects on her journey into psychology, 20 years of The Resilience Centre and her passion to help people to connect. She discusses with Leigh Hatcher her interest in a solution focused rather than problem focused approach to helping people deal with life, and references the Pied Piper effect of computerized devices leading our children away from connecting with their community.

Why do we all get so frightened?

Why do we all get so frightened?
Have you ever thought of why we get so frightened? What part of the brain has this function to make us feel frightened?
Flight or fight is the natural instinct that we human beings possess so that our brain can quickly notify our body to make biological changes to save our life. Usually we only notice some physiological changes when we are fearful or running away such heart bounding, breathing rate increases, clammy hands, and butterflies in our stomach, difficult to breathe, tight chest, etc. Usually we only focus on our behaviour rather than knowing how it works in the brain and why it happens like this. Where does this fear message come from? Let’s look at which particular part of the brain does the alarm job to heighten our awareness to “fight or flight”.

The emotional part of the brain comprises of the limbic system, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the basal ganglia.

The limbic system is the main areas for the experience and control of feelings. It sets the emotional tone of the mind, which filters external events through creating emotional coloring. It tags events as internally important, and stores highly charged emotional memories.

Although we know that generation of emotion is located in multiple areas and interconnected, we only focus on the amygdala, the limbic system, the hippocampus and the basal ganglia in here.
This critical task is processed by the structure called amygdala, which is regarded as the “fear centre” of the brain. It belongs to a small region of the brain called temporal lobe and is located at a point a line goes through your eye and your ear that intercepts with each other. It plays a key role in activating emotion. When it receives information form other parts of the brain, it will assign a level of emotional significance to whatever is going on and rings the alarm bell. For example, when a dog is fiercely barking at us, and is running towards our direction and appears to attack us, the fear centre will send sensory information to the other part of the brain and notify us to “escape or fight back”. At this time other body system will activate the release of the stress hormones cortisol for us to respond to this threat.

In addition, the amygdala also helps us remember a traumatic experience. Take the dog attack as an example. Next time when we see a barking dog coming to our direction even not showing any intention to attack us, we will flee to avoid the threat.

How does the connection work? The amygdala is connected to the hippocampus and runs like a circuit. The hippocampus is involved in storing highly charged emotional memories, both positive and negative. The amygdala is involved in negative emotions and the hippocampus is involved in aspects of memory. When we experience a threat, the memory is being registered in the hippocampus. Next time when a similar event happens, the hippocampus will send the sensory information to the amygdala to alert us that a threat is imminent. This process is going to promote survival in instinctual ways.

Sometimes a situation occurs when the circuit connecting between the amygdala and the hippocampus is dysfunctional. It may produce interference in stopping the amygdala or hippocampus within the limbic area, and as a result it cannot differentiate real from unreal information (Bradley 2000, pp259-260).
The basal ganglia are a set of large structures surrounding the limbic system. It is involved in integrating feelings, thoughts, and movement, as well as helping shift and smooth behaviour. It is also believed that the basal ganglia are involved in forming habits.

Research suggests that the basal ganglia are involved with setting the body’s anxiety as well as forming habits. When we are excited the basal ganglia will cause us to jump; when we are nervous it causes us to tremble; and when we are scared we will freeze.
When the basal ganglia are overactive, we are more likely to be overwhelmed by stressful situations and have a tendency to freeze or become immobile (in thoughts and in actions). To soothe the basal ganglia, research demonstrates that practising mindfulness skills would be able to slow down the activity of the basal ganglia and hence it calms the basal ganglia down, and thus our anxiety reduces.

Tips to calm our amygdala and other parts of our brain include:
1. Start using diaphragmatic breathing. This is the link from the youtube teaching diaphragmatic breathing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgTL5G1ibIo
2. Meditation – research has shown meditation can calm stress and enhance brain function
3. Remove caffeine and cut down sugar will help reduce a high lactate/pyruvate ratio’s connection with anxiety.
4. Vitamins B1, B3, and B6 help decrease anxiety by increasing the body’s ratio of pyruvate to lactate.
Gabriel Wong
Clinical Psychologist
References:
Amen, D. (2016). Change your brain change your life. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
Lazarus, P. (1995). Healing the mind the natural way. New York: G.P.Putnam’s Sons.

Helping your child transition to school

By Kristen Bayliss
Psychologist, The Resilience Centre

At this point in the year the minds of many parents of preschool aged children
turn to the challenges and excitement of starting school for the first time.
We know that there are many transitions coming up for these children- from the
identity transition of ‘becoming a big school kid’ to the context transitions of
negotiating greater independence for tasks such as independent toileting, lunch
box balancing and lost hat finding.

While much emphasis can be placed on trying to accelerate classroom skills
teachers and researchers agree that children being ‘ready to learn’ at school has
a lot more to do with the socio-emotional skills and attitude to learning that a
child brings.

Being able to concentrate at a task for longer than 10 minutes and then switch
tasks successfully is an important foundation for a kindergarten child who has to
remain engaged and responsive to numerous different activities in a day- each
one important for their overall learning development.

At this stage children who are able to generate social solutions and negotiate
compromises amongst their peers are well placed for building stable and varied
friendships. These skills also form the foundation of logical problem solving and
the emergence of emotional intelligence. Families can enhance these skills by
asking their child to reflect on fairness and inviting them to solve common family
problems and disagreements with fairness and empathy. Co-operative board
games provide a fun opportunity for kids to experience working together for a
common goal, while traditional board games such as Ludo or checkers are a
useful education in winning graciously and losing well.

Starting school is also an important time to make sure your child’s emotional
literacy is developing well. School-ready children should be moving beyond the
basic ‘mad, bad, sad’ labels for their feelings and are ready to grapple with the
complexity involved in identifying emotions such as frustrated, lonely, left out,
disappointed, nervous, excited and proud. Being able to describe their
experience and feelings in these specific ways makes it more likely that a teacher
will be able to quickly get to the bottom of ‘tricky’ feelings and help your child
find solutions to problems in the classroom and playground.

Much can be made of the newfound independence and identity transition of
school starters and parents often feel the temptation to expect alot more from
their child’s behavior. Supporting independence at this stage often means
accepting some level of regression in behavior and self-regulation. Children who
are putting their all into adjustment to new routines, expectations and
relationships often have nothing left in the tank when it comes to managing
sibling squabbles, completing regular chores and maintaining an even emotional
keel through the week. Knowing your child’s weak points (tiredness,
possessiveness or wanting to throw off the shackles of conformity) can allow you to prepare to provide after-school experiences that refresh and rejuvenate them-
and you!

Mum’s House, Dad’s House at Exam Time: A survival guide.

By Julieanne Greenfield and Davide Di Pietro

It can be challenging enough for a teenager to negotiate two households after their parents’ separation, let alone juggle this on top of exams! Most students find exam time a stressful period, so your teenager doesn’t need additional stressors.  How can you make things better for your adolescent doing exams?

If it’s a recent separation, by all means write a note to the school or have a word with the Year Advisor, telling them about the family circumstances and the impact on your teenager. If your child is sitting for external exams, special consideration forms will be available, as a safety net if needed.

If the separation is long-standing, an important consideration is that time sharing arrangements are for the benefit of your child and must be suitable for the child’s age and stage of development.  Schedules made when the child is younger may need to be reviewed when the child starts high school or transitions into more advanced grades. This applies especially when there has been shared care. Family Court orders are static, but family needs are bound to change as children get older, their peer group becomes more important to them and extracurricular activities and study demand the young person’s attention. If changing the schedule proves difficult, there are specialised services, such as the Resilience Centre’s Family Clinic to help you.

What are some of the considerations you need to consider for your student at exam time?

  1. Creating a study space: It’s probably a good idea for teenagers to have the stability of living in one household during the exams, certainly during the school week. The choice might come down to which is the primary residence, or if there is fifty-fifty shared care, which is the quieter, less busy household? It may be that the quieter household is not the primary residence, and the teenager may be able to study for the exams better at the spends-time-with parent’s house rather than the lives-with parent’s home.
  1. Make getting to school easy: Proximity to the school is another important consideration. Time spent travelling is time that could be put to better use studying, or exercising to promote the young person’s alertness. While travel time can be used for study to some extent, it’s better to minimise it, so that your student can prepare for exams at home or in an environment with fewer distractions.
  1. You are what you eat: Good nutrition is essential, especially during times of stress. You can support your teenager’s brain function with balanced and nutritious meals. Some foods that contain Vitamin B1, such as brown rice, sunflower seeds, tuna, pork and beef can help with poor concentration and attention. Junk foods will make your teenager sluggish and his or her brain foggy. So another consideration of where you student should be based during exams is which household is better positioned at that time to prepare nourishing meals.
  1. Flexibility: What if your teenager lives primarily with you and spends every second weekend with the other parent?  Would the other parent consider suspending or modifying the weekend stays until the exams are out of the way? This might also apply in the couple of week’s lead-up to the exams, especially if the exams are major ones, like the HSC.  This is a case where a family conference might be called for. Including the adolescent can be a really helpful way of coming up with a solution that works for the whole family. Sometimes, making changes and trying different things can be challenging and confronting for many of parents. It’s usually good to remember that these changes are temporary arrangements based on what is most helpful for your child, and not setting a new precedent for how things will look in the future. Nevertheless, its times like these where you might consider getting help from a third party such as a Family Group Conference Facilitator to help you get through it all.
  1. Pieces and puzzles: The thing about puzzles is that you can’t complete them without all of the pieces, so use all the pieces! The young person is a key piece in a separated family and should most certainly have a say in the arrangements. Parents need to respectfully listen to their child’s request for time, or to modify the schedule, and ensure that the teenager does not witness any conflict between the parents, especially on the teenager’s account.
  1. De-stress, it’s not your test: Exams and assignments can sometimes be more stressful for parents than for young people. Parents can sometimes spend so much of their own energy looking in and worrying that any attempt to help might be taken the wrong way. For parents, keeping calm on the outside usually means working hard on the inside. As a parent of a studying teen, make sure you still find time to do the things that make you ok: a short mindfulness exercise, a workout at the gym, a chat with a friend or a good glass of red. Just one!

With a little bit of planning and tuning-in to your teenager, both student and parents can look forward to coming through with flying colours!

Share the Journey

By the Resilience Centre Team

October is Mental Health Month and the theme is “Share the journey”. This is recognition that it is our connections to others which gets us through the hard times and make the good times even better. “Supportive relationships can motivate us on our journey to better mental health and can improve our ability to cope with life’s challenges” WayAhead Mental Health Assoc NSW

Connecting with others improves resilience. Positive connections with family, friends, at work or school, in the community, with groups which share common interests, or perhaps even with the local shopkeeper who always has a nice word to say, help us to better deal with life’s challenges.

Because “life’ happens!

Sharing our stories with others who face or may have faced similar challenges and experiences, help us to connect, give us hope and build relationships.

We would like to share with you our own observations, tips and strategies for strengthening your social connections and relationships:

• Make the effort. Often we’re all waiting and hoping that someone else will initiate. Be that someone. Start a conversation or invite someone to have coffee.

• When you feel overwhelmed, remember that a small effort is still better than none at all. Sending a short text message or smiling and saying hi takes only a minute and a little bit of energy, but might really make a difference to someone.

• Don’t be fooled by the idea that everyone else is confident and has plenty of friends – scratch the surface and most of us worry about whether we really belong, are truly liked or whether we have enough ‘real’ friends. This is why most people are delighted if you take an interest in befriending them.

• If you’ve ever seen someone take the plunge and speak up about something, or even just speak in public, you’ve probably felt that person is really brave and courageous. If you do it, other people are probably thinking the same thing about you.

• Sometimes we are in situations where we just don’t know what the right thing to say is. It’s better to say we don’t know what to say, than to not say anything at all.

• Come and sit at the table of humanity where we all have one thing in common – imperfection. When we are struggling with something, open up to someone and connect. We all struggle but we’re stronger if we share in it together.

• Small connections count and they build over time. Who knows where they might go? What are your small connections? My dog Zoe greets another neighbourhood dog so I, in turn, greet that dog owner. Day after day, week after week, we share just a minute of that morning space on our walk.

• Stay attuned to signs that others would appreciate social connection and encouragement. Catching the eye of a frustrated shopper and offering a smile, holding the door of a lift open for someone clearly running late and in a flap. These actions have the byproduct of enhancing our sense of affinity and connection with others in our community.

• Keep a gratitude journal to train yourself to notice small kindnesses in the every day.

• Alone-ness is over-rated in tough times…We’re stronger when we are sharing the journey.

We thank our clients for sharing their journey with us.

Fathers and mothers sharing the ‘mental load’

By Ruth Fordyce
Psychologist, The Resilience Centre

There has been quite a bit written recently about the ‘mental load’ carried by mothers. Many mothers now return to the workforce fairly soon after having children, and begin the juggle of part time working (or in some cases full time), as well as what is essentially still a huge role carrying the domestic ‘load’. This includes of course the obvious tasks of housework, cooking, caring for the children and so on – but many women are becoming aware that it’s the ‘mental load’ that is exhausting, as much as the physical tasks that need to be completed.

What do women mean when we refer to this ‘mental load’? We’re talking about things like:
– keeping on top of notes and newsletters from school/childcare
– tracking important dates each week and month, anything from when the vaccinations are due, to what day of the week the library books need to be returned
– buying birthday presents for parties your children have been invited to
– thinking ahead to the next stage in your child’s development … What do we need to start the baby on solids? When should we try toilet training? We need new school shoes soon (again!) … and so on, and so on!

When women return to work after having children, it seems there is often an expectation they will continue to manage all of this thinking and planning, rather than it being shared by both parents.
This point is made brilliantly in this post, which went viral earlier this year on social media:

https://english.emmaclit.com/2017/05/20/you-shouldve-asked

It highlights so effectively that when fathers expect to be delegated to, or offer to ‘help’ around the house or with the children, this implies that the mother is in charge of the domestic duties, not him. This doesn’t reflect the equal partnership that many women are wanting in their family life – and indeed that many fathers would also say they aspire to!

So how do we get fathers more involved? Certainly in my local neighborhood I see a lot of dads involved at least in the drop off and pick up at childcare and school. When I went to the Easter and Book week parades at our primary school this year, there were lots of dads in attendance too. Does this indicate simply a willingness to attend specific events or complete particular tasks in the weekly routine – or does it also reflect that some dads do spend a lot of time thinking about and planning family life, and are willing to shape their working life (at least somewhat) around prioritizing involvement with their children?

And where are the dads’ voices in this? Most of the articles and posts I have read on this topic are the thoughts of women (see one exception below). So I thought perhaps enough from me, as yet another woman writing on this topic! Why not try and start a conversation with some families where Dad IS involved in the planning level of family life; who is sharing the ‘mental load’, if you will.

Is this you? Are you a dad who shares the mental load?

(and does your wife/partner agree that you share the load?!)
How have you implemented this? Have you been this involved from the very beginning or has it evolved over time?
What are your tips for other families who want to make this happen?
What are the challenges that dads face, that might block them from being a more equal partner in the planning and managing of family life?

For example, here are the thoughts of one dad:
https://www.lifehacker.com.au/2017/05/how-to-share-the-mental-load-of-chores-with-your-partner/

If you are a mother reading this, encourage your partner to respond or have a conversation about it and give us some feedback!

 

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

Forgiveness – how it works in abusive relationships

In the second of this three part series of weekly podcasts on forgiveness, Lyn Worsley discusses how forgiveness can work in abusive relationships, both personal and work related ones. Starting with self respect. forgiveness enables both parties to move towards growth.

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.

How to achieve an optimal healthy Brain?

How to achieve an optimal healthy Brain?

The engine is the most vital part of a car. When we refuel, many cars require a high-performance petrol to run the engine. It appears the intake is going to affect the outcome, i.e. enhancing the performance or functions of the car.
By the same token, the brain is the commander of the mind and the body. It consists of the cognition, long term and short memory, decision making, controlling emotions, and also coordination of the whole body system through the spinal cord, all the nerves and muscles in the body. There are many self-help books, fitness centres, and programmes to advocate for physical health. On the contrary, there are not many books or advocates talking about how to achieve an optimal, healthy brain both short term and long term.
Every organ or devise has a lifespan. We occasionally hear that someone needs a lung transplant, a heart transplant or a kidney transplant. Have you heard of any brain transplant? How do we protect our brain life or even maintain the various functions of the brain to enable it to be run effectively? In other words, how do we reduce the chance of clinical dementia when we are going to age? Younger people may say it will not happen now as dementia only happens in older people. One thing worth mentioning is the brain starts ageing from the age of around 24. We need to think about how to match our brainspan with our lifespan now. According to the neuroclinical psychologist Dr Nichola Gates (2016), there are four steps to achieve optimal brain function and reduce clinical dementia.

Boosting our healthy brain

Most people already know what to eat to reduce heart disease, diabetes, lowering our cholesterol, etc. But is there any food out there that is particularly beneficial for our brain?
First of all, we need to include elements of the Mediterranean diet in our meals. Food that is low in saturated facts, and high in anti-oxidants are preferable, and also include wholegrains, high amounts of omega 3 food such as oily fish, eggs, avocado, etc., vegetables and fruits. Processed meat such as ham and salami might have to be avoided as it might be carcinogenic. Food that can promote good mental health should include food containing calcium, protein, vitamins D3, B3, B5, B6, and B12, folic acid, Vitamin C, zinc, copper, and amino acids including Tryptophan. All vitamins Bs are good for mental health especially B6 and B12.

Research indicates that there is a link between the brain and the gut. Most of our serotonin neurotransmitters are manufactured in our gut rather than in our brain. Chronic stress can affect our immune system as well as changing the barrier function in the gut making it more prone to infection. Most of the Irritable Bowel Syndrome is caused by anxiety, and it demonstrates the gut-brain-stress link existence within our system.

Reducing our brain burden

All drugs have a different pharmacological effect on the brain as they have different effects on the perception and cognitive function. Too much or over stimulation of dopamine due to substance abuse can increase the dopamine level by five to ten times the normal levels thus overwhelming the brain, leading to the consequences of reducing the capacity for critical thinking, decision making, learning, and memory, as well as poor brain function.

Research shows that there is a 16% chance of getting dementia for smokers. Some life style factors that can also lead to dementia such as lack of exercise, chronic stress, cardiovascular disease, smoking, poor sleep, illicit drug, alcohol, diabetes, and obesity are unhealthy brain burdens.

Excessive consumption and chronic alcohol abuse will damage the brain. When alcohol reaches the brain, it damages the connective tissue at the end of the neurons which results in disrupting neural communication. Fortunately, it is a temporary damage, and the brain will repair it once the ethanol remits. Chronic alcohol abuse and excessive consumption of alcohol over a period of time will affect the cerebellum and the frontal lobes. Frontal lobe dysfunction leads to difficulties to make decision and judgement, regulate emotions and affect the executive functioning. Cerebellar atrophy will lead to the classic symptom of ataxic gait which affects muscle coordination in balancing and walking. Wernicke syndrome can also happen due to extreme loss of Vitamin B1 as it is being depleted by alcohol. People with Wernicke syndrome shows ataxic wide gait, and involuntary changes to eye gaze with rapid side-to-side movements. Moderation of alcohol consumption is crucial in order to extend our brainspan.

The nicotine in cigarettes will disrupt the neurotransmitter systems that associated with dopamine and reward, as well as causing oxidative stress. In addition, research suggests that a new compound in tobacco called NNK has been found to provoke white blood cells in the central nervous system to attack healthy cells. As a result gray matter is decreasing in the brain that leads to the thinning of the cerebral cortex which involves thinking and memory.

Building brain reserve

The last ten years of neuroscience research suggests that our brain can change and grow due to neuroplasticity. Reserve here means resilience. We have to build up this capacity for the brain to function well and develop functional resilience against pathology and trauma. The research found out that by engaging the brain in more stimulating and mental activities, physical exercise, and social connection will benefit our brain by increasing the performance, stimulating brain growth and decreasing the chance of developing dementia.
A study (2017) revealed that adults who participate in high levels of physical activity tend to have significantly longer telomeres than their counterparts. Telomeres are nucleoprotein structures positioned at the end of chromosomes. As a consequence of mitosis, telomeres naturally shorten and as telomeres shorten, cell senescence increases, and eventually cell apoptosis occurs. In other words, high level of physical activities can enable us to live longer as telomeres will be lengthened instead of shortened. Another research revealed meditation also has some effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal, and thus it increases positive states of mind and hormonal factors that promote telomere maintenance. In short, both physical activities and meditation can lead to longer telomeres which mean cell division can still be continuing when we are ageing.

Cultivating wise mind

Marshal Linehan (1995) explained that the wise mind is the balanced part of us that comprises our inner knowledge and intuition. It is that place where reasonable mind and emotion mind overlap. Emotion mind is driven by our emotion whilst reason mind is mainly based on our logic and analytical mind. It can be cultivated through practising of mindfulness skills. The practice of mindfulness skills over time will help us develop our self-awareness and insight. It enables us to look inside and the environment around us without judging, as well as accepting the whole situation. This will foster an internal calmness which empowers us the capacity to regulate our emotions and alleviate our stress. As we know that chronic and long-term stress will develop into depression as stress hormones damage the hippocampus.

References:
Epel, E. Daubenmier, J.; Moskowitz, J.; Folkmna, S.; and Blackburn, E. (2015). Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Journal of American New York Academy Science, 1172:34-53.
Gates, N. (2016). A brain for life: How to optimize your brain’s health by making simple lifestyle changes now. Australia: HarperCollinsPublishers.
Linehan, M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual, second edition. NY: Guilford Publications.
Tucker, LA. (2017). Physical activity and telomere length in U.S. men and women: An NHANES investigation. Journal of Preventive Medicine. July, 100:145 -151.

Gabriel Wong
Clinical Psychologist