Archive

for July, 2015

Compassion and happiness: It’s not just about what you could or should do, it’s about what you WILL do.

Posted on July 29, 2015 in Uncategorized - 0 comments - 0

by Dr Stan Steindl, Clinical Psychologist

Taken by Darinka Maja February 2006, Montreal.

Taken by Darinka Maja February 2006, Montreal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Challenge: Compassion can make us and others healthier and happier, and yet there can be barriers to taking action.

The Science: An established approach to motivating health behaviour change can offer insight into cultivating compassion.

The Solution: Take some time to reflect on 5 key motivational considerations and arrive at a commitment to act.

The Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” And according to Matthieu Ricard in his recent 2015 book Altruism, this notion of the “two-fold benefit” of compassion has its origins in ancient Buddhist teachings, and can similarly be found in many other spiritual traditions.

Modern science is now starting to catch up. Emma Seppälä and her colleagues at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE, Stanford University) have recently shown that being compassionate and socially connected are predictive of a person’s improved physical and psychological health outcomes, from benefits to the immune system to reduced anxiety, stress and depression.

Makes sense right? Being compassionate is great for everyone, so let’s do it!

The challenge: Moving from feeling compassionate to acting compassionately

Definitions of compassion include an action component. Beyond feeling for someone who might be struggling or suffering, compassion involves us doing something about it. And this transition from compassionate feeling to compassionate action can be difficult.

Dacher Keltner discusses a number of appraisals that can influence a person’s choice whether or not to act with compassion towards someone who is suffering. Is the sufferer relevant to me and my life? Are they to blame for their own misfortune or do they deserve my help? Do I feel like there is anything I can actually do to help? Can I cope with the situation they are in or the way that might make me feel? All natural questions, but they can create discomfort, distress or other barriers to action that make us avert our gaze and walk away from a person in need.

Enhancing our own motivation to act with compassion

The good news is that there is a whole field of study that focuses on how to enhance motivation and help prepare people to take action. The approach, first defined in Bill Miller and Steve Rollnick’s 1991 book, is called motivational interviewing (MI). Since that first publication, and across two subsequent editions, MI has developed into a detailed and evidence-based approach to enhancing motivation for change among a wide range of health behaviours. And it gives us some clues about five key motivational considerations when cultivating compassion.

(1)What would you LIKE to do or change in order to act more compassionately in your life?

This is an important first step. Try to think carefully through the different options there might be in terms of compassionate action. What sorts of things would fit with your preferences? Big or small, think about the kind, helpful or compassionate actions you would like to take in your life. Then start to focus this down to one or two things with which to start.

(2) What are your personal REASONS for taking these actions or making these changes?

Being compassionate needn’t be about why someone else thinks it’s a good idea. Think instead about what you see as the benefits or advantages of compassion. It might be the positive impact this can have on the life of fellow human beings. Or it might be the benefits you may receive from your own compassion towards others. Remember, it’s a “two-fold benefit”, so explore why you feel acting with compassion would be a good thing to do.

(3) What is it that makes acting more compassionately IMPORTANT to you?

Once you have a sense of your reasons for compassion, start to drill down to what makes compassion really important to you. How does compassion fit with your values, or your guiding principles? Think about the kind of person you really want to be, the relationships you really want to have, and the contributions you really want to make. Reflect on how compassion can take you and your life in a valued direction.

(4) Ok, so if you were to act with more compassion, HOW would you go about it?

This can be a tricky step. Sometimes a person can feel like compassion is very important to them, and yet lack the confidence to go ahead and take action. Try to carefully define how you might start to be more compassionate. Plan for little gestures to begin with, take little steps and gradually build confidence with some small successes. Be sure to look for opportunities that present around you for spontaneous acts of kindness, helpfulness and compassion.

And now, if you like, it’s time to commit!

So, you’ve thought about what you’d like to do compassionately in your life, the reasons you’d like to do it, what makes acting with compassion important to you and how you would go about it. The fifth key consideration? It’s time to commit to some first steps.

Commitment is a vital part of behaviour change. It’s beyond what you could, should or would do, and is more about what you will do. Decide what compassionate actions you are going to take. Tell a friend or a partner about your commitment. If you wish, you can sign the Charter of Compassion to further affirm your commitment. So, have a think about commitment…what will you do to act compassionately?

Here are some great starting points:

  • Smile to a stranger in the street, or say “good morning.”
  • Say a sincere “Thank you!” to a shop assistant, or compliment their work.
  • Let an anxious looking driver merge in front of you in traffic.
  • Ask someone “Are you ok?” and then wholeheartedly give attention to their response.
  • Make a donation to a cause you feel strongly about.
  • Join a community organisation that helps out local people in need…get involved!

Aristotle said, “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.”

Living compassionately takes a lot of courage, and it helps us and others to feel healthier and happier. Think through your motivations and affirm your commitments. Then, if you take a risk and act with compassion, you won’t regret it!

To read more about Dr Steindl visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au

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Stress Down Day- 24 July 2015

Posted on July 23, 2015 in Uncategorized - 0 comments - 0

Stressdowndayby Dr Jillian Millar, Clinical Psychologist

Lifeline’s Stress Down Day is Friday 24th July, a dedicated day to have fun, stress less and feel good. The majority of us are living very fast paced lives, juggling increasing work hours with our busy family and social lives whilst trying to keep up to date with the responsibilities of everyday life (paying bills, keeping house, etc). The demands on our time and personal resources continue to increase and multi-tasking has become the expected norm. Unfortunately this intensifies the pressure and stress we must manage which can lead to physical and mental health problems. High levels of stress can cause issues with mood such as agitation, anger or irritability, sadness and even anxiety and depression. Stress is also associated with a lack of energy/fatigue, changes in appetite, concentration difficulties, aches and pains, disturbed sleep patterns and problems in our relationships. Physically, stress responses result in elevated blood pressure, heart rate and can lead to higher cholesterol. Intense or prolonged stress may even cause disruptions to our digestive system with diarrhoea, constipation, and exacerbation of Irritable Bowl Syndrome. Stress sends our body to go into the ‘Fight or Flight Survival Mode’ which amongst other things impedes our immune system’s functioning in order to divert energy to immediate or short term circumstances as opposed to longer term goals. This is why we tend to get sick during high stress periods. Thus it is vital for our health and wellbeing that we remember to manage our stress levels on a regular basis. In an attempt to highlight the importance of de-stressing Lifeline created Stress Down Day to both bring awareness and provide an opportunity to fundraise for their important work within our community. Consider whether your business, work place, or social circle might be interested in holding an event. Check out this link for some hilarious ideas such as wearing a onesie to work… http://stressdown2015.gofundraise.com.au/ On an individual level, consider what you might be able to do that could assist in your own stress management. Here is a brief list of things that will help reduce stress in your life:

  • Spend time in nature – go for a walk or a picnic in a park, eat your lunch outside on work days.
  • Listen to music – make time to listen to music and allow yourself to move to it/dance.
  • Get a massage – book a relaxing massage even if it’s a 10 minute shoulder massage in a shopping centre.
  • Stop and be present – Set aside 5 or 10 minutes to stop what you are doing and look around, run through each of your senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, feel) what is going on in that moment.
  • Set limits on To Do Lists – decide on an achievable number of things to do then reward yourself with something you enjoy.

JillianTo read more about Dr Millar visit: www.psychologyconsultants.com.au

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Managing my threat system when flying home from Bali

Posted on July 16, 2015 in Uncategorized - 0 comments - 0

By Dr James Kirby, Clinical Psychologist

Airport-waiting-to-FlyI love to travel, in fact my wife (Cassie) and I try to get overseas twice a year. We love experiencing new cultures, food, and experiences. I also find when I am in a new place I am really living in the present moment, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. I sometimes think when I am back home I should live each day like I am a tourist, as it helps me connect with what is around me, as opposed to being on automatic pilot during the day.

We returned home yesterday from Bali and Lombok in Indonesia, places we had not been before, and it was a relaxing and lovely holiday. However, this blog isn’t about the holiday itself, it is about the flight back home, and that was a bumpy ride, to put it mildly. My first overseas trip was when I was 15, I went to Japan, and on that trip I had no problems with turbulence. It has only been in the last 4-5 years where I have really started to become quite anxious when we experience turbulence on a flight. Let me give you an example, the flight will be going smoothly, I’ll be watching a movie maybe even enjoying a drink (scotch), and then ‘bump’ there will be some turbulence. What do I do? Well I grasp the armrests of my chair, in an automatic response, I guess thinking this will somehow help stabilise me. I take my headphones off, as I want to be alert, and I wait, monitoring, until I think it is safe again. And only when it is smooth flying again do I go back to watching my show. Not the greatest way to manage my anxiety when turbulence hits.

Cassie (my wife) has never had a problem with turbulence but now that we have been on so many flights together she has ‘caught’ my anxiety. The magic of conditioning. So we are now about as bad as each other and I feel very guilty about this. As we are both clinical psychologists we should be able to manage this anxiety and fear of turbulence when flying, right? Well it has been a bit of a struggle. I know about the anxiety cycle, I do controlled breathing, and I try to use some cognitive restructuring around the turbulence to help me. Sometimes these things do work, however, I still ‘feel’ on edge during the turbulence and sometimes the ‘rationalising’ doesn’t really work for me. Despite my anxiety around turbulence I have never not flown, and I always will fly. I value travelling far too much, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has been useful in helping me to continue to fly while still having my ‘struggle with anxiety’ as opposed to not flying at all, see Steve Hayes book “Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life”.

However, it has been Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) that has really helped me calm down much more. CFT says that we, that is, humans, are all part of the ‘flow of life’ and as a result we have a ‘tricky’ brain. Our brains are not something that we have created or designed, rather something we have been given through years of evolution. The human brain has fantastic capabilities such as being able to imagine, create, plan, anticipate, reflect, ruminate, and have self-awareness, all of which help us to do incredible things like communicate through language and build and fly in planes. However, they can also come at an emotional cost, as this little example of a zebra will illustrate. Imagine a zebra in an African savannah eating grass. There is nothing a zebra likes to do more than eat grass. However, it then spots some rustling in the bushes, the zebra becomes alert and then runs to safety. Now 9 times out of 10 the rustling is just wind or maybe a small animal, but that one time it could be a lion, and it is better to be safe than sorry. When the zebra has found a safe spot in the savannah what does it do again? Well it goes back to eating grass, the thing it loves to do (read “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky). Now if you put a human brain in the zebra, what does it do when it is safe – well it thinks “Oh my goodness that was a near thing, could you imagine if it was a lion, what if it ate me? That would be awful, being eaten alive would be the worst!” Yes, as humans we tend to ruminate or ask the ‘what if’ questions over and over, which leads to more anxiety, fear and distress. And indeed that is what happens with me and my relationship with turbulence.

Paul Gilbert who developed CFT describes three key emotion systems in the human brain:

  • Threat and self-protect system – helps us keep a look out for danger and to be better safe than sorry, with emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, disgust.
  • Drive and resource seeking system – helps us seek out important resources, such as find food, sexual partners, friends, with emotions like excitement, joy, happiness.
  • Soothing/affiliative system – helps us soothe ourselves and feel content, calm, and safe.

All of these systems are very important, however, our threat system is overly developed, and rightfully so, it keeps us alive. Remember the zebra example, we want the threat system to come online and override the other systems so it has our attention so we can be safe. We don’t need much help developing our threat system, it works pretty darn well, but we do need help developing our soothing system, something I used on my recent flight home. What’s important here is that although the emotions of fear, anxiety and anger can be very difficult, it’s not our fault for having them, it is our brain doing what it has evolved to do, and that is to see a threat and self-protect. And although it is not our fault for having these painful emotions, we do have a responsibility to learn how to help soothe them. Paul Gilbert writes about this brilliantly in his book “Mindful Compassion”.

Now going back to that flight, when the turbulence hit me I was in my threat system, I was alert. Initially it was anxiety that took hold – I was thinking “oh goodness what is wrong” (replace goodness with a profanity, your choice). I looked at Cassie, she was anxious as well, she said “Oh why is this happening?” This increased my anxiety but also made me angry I was thinking “this is ridiculous we shouldn’t be having turbulence, and this bloody turbulence is upsetting my wife”. A little bit later sadness came on board and I was thinking “poor Cassie she has never had anxiety like this before when flying, this is my fault”.

At that point my sadness made me think of CFT (this is important as sadness can be quite a helpful emotion – the movie Inside Out is a good example of this). One of the key components in CFT is to help develop our soothing system, it helps us feel safe, calm, and content. Something I needed on that flight home. Immediately I did an imagery exercise, so in my “minds eye” I imagined a safe place, a place where I feel ‘free’ and ‘comfortable’, a place that would welcome me, make me feel at home. That safe place for me is at the beach down at Burleigh Heads. I imagined the smell of the ocean, the feel of the sun on my skin, and the sights of the golden sand. That helped direct my attention away from anxiety to a place of feeling more comfortable, welcomed, and it slowed things down for me. Slowing is important. I then thought to myself “OK thanks anxiety, I know you are here to warn me, and its not my fault you are here, just my brain doing what is has evolved to do, but right now I don’t want you to run the show.”

So I then thought about my ideal compassionate image – another CFT exercise. My ideal compassionate image is someone (I don’t know the gender, for me that isn’t clear – that’s important with imagery it doesn’t have to be picture perfect, a felt sense is fine) who has a soft voice, has a welcoming embracing attitude towards me, and this compassionate image has the strength, wisdom and commitment to support me (Paul Gilbert identifies strength, wisdom and commitment as fundamental elements of compassion). I spent a few minutes imagining what it felt like to be in the presence of this compassionate image and what it felt liked to be cared for in this way. After spending a few minutes doing this I let the image fade away, and what did I notice, well I was a lot more calm, my attention had broadened to other things beyond the turbulence, like I needed a drink of water and also needed to go the toilet. I also felt comfortable to reach out to Cassie and tell her ‘hey things are going to be ok, turbulence is normal’. All of a sudden I had a calm courage, and I was focused on things that mattered, like my wife. I was no longer grasping the arm chair, I was sat back in the chair, not relaxed – like muscles all floppy, but in a state of calmness and stillness. This remained for the rest of the flight, and at differing times I went back to my safe place.

We then arrived back home, and later that night after dinner Cassie said to me “thank you for today in the plane, you really helped”. And at that point we both had the startling realisation that it was I – the one with the fear of turbulence that calmed Cassie down, and not the other way round. I mean none of this would have been a problem if I wasn’t anxious in the first place, but that was just my tricky brain at play, and that’s not my fault, but I am now learning on how to take responsibility for it.

One final important part of this story is that when I first started to engage in the calming exercises on the plane I found it very difficult and wanted to abandoned them almost straight away thinking to myself “don’t bother with this, focus on the turbulence like you usually do, otherwise how will you know it has finished” – (my threat system coming online again). This helped me deepen my empathy for what many of my anxious clients are struggling with on a daily basis. Engaging with suffering is difficult and takes courage, and that is why we all need encouragement when dealing with our fears.

Note. That photo is of Cassie and me at the airport waiting to fly

For more information on Dr Kirby visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au

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