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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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Self-compassion as an antidote to self-criticism.

Posted on June 29, 2015 in Uncategorized - 0 comments - 0
Dr Stan Steindl

Dr Stan Steindl

By Dr Stan Steindl

“You stupid fool!

Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I said that to myself I would be the proverbial rich man! Rich in money, but not rich in terms of my sense of self. Self-criticism can have devastating effects on our mental health. We can be so generous to others with reassurance, logic, compliments and forgiveness, but when it comes to ourselves? Not so much. Why do we do it?

Professor Paul Gilbert from Compassionate Mind Foundation in the UK, answers this question by saying, “Well, you see,” (you have to imagine a Derby accent flavoured with something acquired during American International schooling as a child), “you have a very tricky brain!”

He went on to elaborate, and I think it could be summed up a bit like this…

Our modern brains are the product of thousands of years of evolution. Over the majority of those thousands of years, one of the primary roles our brains have played has been to keep us safe. We have this highly developed threat system that is all about “better to be safe than sorry”. So the brain is constantly on the look out for threat or danger, even preferring to err on the side of seeing danger when it may not actually be there. Better to be safe than sorry, right?

We also have a well-developed drive system. This is the part of our brain that is highly aspirational and seeks food, sex, excitement and pleasure. And this is where you often see a conflict. Imagine the early humans walking along through the forest. They hear a rustle in the bushes. Part of their brain, the threat system, rings alarm bells and warns, “That could be something that’s going to eat me!” At the very same time, another part of their brain gets excited, “That could be something I could eat!” The first leads to fear and an urge to run, the second leads to excitement and an urge to approach.

So, what’s all this mean about me saying contemptuously to myself, “You stupid fool!” Well, bring the brain into this 21st century, and I have a modern version of this same conflict, both the drive to be successful and the fear of my imminent failure. I’m torn, and immobilised…you see? A stupid fool!

But here’s the next problem. Somehow or other, we have developed an assumption that this highly self-critical part of ourselves is going to help us, motivate us, and make us more worthy. On the flip side, we fear that without self-criticism we might become complacent, lazy, and make mistakes. Lets put this to the test.

Can you think of something you feel self-critical about? Maybe, just to begin with, something mild. Try to imagine what your self-critic looks like. Bring their image to mind. What is the self-critic saying to you? Perhaps it calls you names, puts you down, or points out all your weaknesses. How does the self-critic sound? Maybe their words come out harsh or mean. What does the self-critic feel towards you? It often seems contemptuous, disdainful, and angry.

Now…how does all that actually make you feel?

You see, this idea we have that the self-critic is somehow going to improve us just doesn’t stack up. Much more commonly, the self-critic leaves us demotivated, hopeless, sad and small. What’s going on here? Well, some of that answer can be found if we look at what’s going on behind the self-critic. And that turns out to be the conflict between threat and drive…and fear.

The self-critic is the modern brain’s answer, though perhaps misguided, to the fear we feel about this conflict between threat and drive, failure and success. If self-criticism were a car, then fear is its engine. Fear drives self-criticism. We can’t attack self-criticism because this will only escalate the fear and therefore escalate the self-criticism. We need to find ways to create a calm, safe, and contented state of mind to soothe the fear.

The good news is that evolution has cleverly also provided for this. Humans, as vulnerable as we are, needed to develop a soothing system that helped us to care for our young, look after one another, cooperate in groups and generally survive together in what was a world full of dangers. Everyday we treat others around us, especially those we love, with kindness, care and compassion. The opportunity we have is to develop that same kind of compassion for ourselves.

Self-compassion is the answer to self-criticism. It is that ability, within a state of calm, and with a friendly voice, to reassure ourselves that this is not our fault. We are a product of evolution and the brain is indeed tricky. We quite naturally feel worry and fear, anger, sadness, guilt, shame and self-criticism. We have evolved this way, even though it may be less useful today. So we can forgive these feelings, accept that they might be there, recognise that they will come and go, and develop this compassionate self that, when we think, “You stupid fool!”, responds with:

“Hey, you’re doing ok. You just have this tricky brain. You’ll get frightened sometimes, or angry. You’ll even be mean to yourself. Just breathe, smile, connect with the present moment, and remember all that you are, as part of this common humanity, and keep going, bit by bit, in the direction you truly value.

For more information on Dr Steindl and the team of Clinical Psychologists at Psychology Consultants, visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au


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Inside Out: A movie of the mind, a movie with a heart.

Posted on June 22, 2015 in Uncategorized - 0 comments - 0

inside_out_movie-wideBy Dr Stan Steindl, Clinical Psychologist  

Inside Out is a wonderful movie, and ultimately about our need as human beings to be soothed, comforted, nurtured and consoled. But before we get to that bit…

All human beings have certain primary emotions. Psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers may debate what emotions are involved and what to call them, but those emotions depicted in the movie (Fear, Anger, Sadness, Joy, and by all means, throw in a little Disgust!) are all very important. And each of them have had an evolutionary function to play. Let’s take a look at the evolutionary theory.

First, the threat system.

Human beings have the widely-known “fight/flight” response to danger. Intimately involved in this are emotions of anger (fight) and fear (flight). And the threat system is a “better to be safe than sorry” system, erring on the side of assuming danger even when there might not be danger present. Disgust probably comes into this system as well, turning us away from things that might cause us physical or social harm.

Second, the drive system.

This is the system that is all about gratification and pleasure. In this system, joy and excitement are the primary motivators. This is a very aspirational system, and often the emotions associated with it don’t last in any kind of permanent way. But it relates to our drive for success and can sometimes seem insatiable leaving a sense of disappointment when “a miss is as good as a mile”. Often, our self-esteem can be based on our drive system, so it can be tenuous and fluctuates with every success and every failure.

But the movie Inside Out is about something more. In the movie, the five feelings go on a journey to discover that there is a third important system that all human beings deeply need:

The soothing system.

Human beings are terribly physically vulnerable. Think of those documentaries showing a zebra being born. Within minutes it takes its first wobbly steps and shortly after its wagging its tail and running with the herd. Human babies on the other hand need looking after for years, often decades! There has always been an evolutionary imperative that we care for one another, whether it be to care for our young, look after other members of our tribe, cooperate in groups, or generally survive together in what was a world full of dangers.

The movie makes the point that maybe there is an important role for sadness to play. The emotions associated with the threat system, as well as those associated with the disappointments and failures of the drive system, can leave us feeling and expressing sadness. This then serves as a cue to others to soothe, comfort, nurture and console us. And so the three systems all work together, just like in the movie, to keep us safe, keep us moving and keep us consoled.

Inside Out is about a 12-year-old girl who is discovering many of her emotions for the first time. And it does a very nice job of that. What the movie doesn’t depict is that the soothing system can also eventually start to develop on the inside as well. Think of the following sequence of events:

  • A baby boy lies crying in his crib. His mother comes in, picks him up and cradles him, softly singing a familiar lullaby.
  • A little older, the toddler falls over, scraping his knee. Hurrying over, his mother gets him back on his feet, giving him a squeeze and tells him he will be all right.
  • The boy, now 10- or 12-years-old, is playing football and gets knocked to the ground in a hard tackle. As he’s getting up he looks over to the sideline and there’s his Dad, smiling softly, supportively, and nodding as he gives the boy a subtle thumbs up.
  • As a teenager, the boy starts to look further afield for his comfort and soothing. He looks to his friends, or perhaps heroes or celebrities that he has stuck to his walls, and he finds reassurance there.
  • Finally, the adult has incorporated all these experiences of being soothed and comforted, and creates what might be called a “soothing self”, becoming the one that soothes, comforts, nurtures and consoles himself.

It’s not easy. The threat and drive systems are powerful forces. But if we practice, we can develop this kind of “soothing self” in ourselves and in our children, and we know that self-compassion, that ability to be kind and caring, understanding and forgiving, and aware of ourselves and our primary emotions, can protect us from emotional ill-health, such as anxiety disorders, depression and shame.

When we feel fear, anger or sadness, our soothing self can be there, with a friendly voice, and say, “Hey, you’re doing ok. You just have this emotional brain. You’ll get frightened sometimes, or angry. You’ll even be mean to yourself! Just breathe, smile, connect with the present moment, and remember all that you are, as part of this whole world of people, and keep going, bit by bit, in the direction you truly value.

For more information on Dr Steindl and the team of Psychologists at Psychology Consultants, visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au

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Compassionate Management: The Secret Ingredient of Corporate Success

Posted on June 15, 2015 in Uncategorized - 0 comments - 0
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dr Stan Steindl

I was at the airport the other day, uncharacteristically early. Very early. In fact, I was there in plenty of time to catch an earlier flight home. The only problem was on this occasion I had a cheap ticket. But I thought, “Why not? I’ll go and see if the help desk can…well…help.”

I shuffled up to the imposing counter and the customer service person peered at me over her glasses. “How can I help you?” I tried to explain my situation but before I finished she was telling me that I have a cheap ticket and they cannot be changed.

I felt a little surge…but then I took a breath and consciously reflected on the situation, and her as a person, just like me, both of us just doing the best we can. I smiled kindly and said, “No, no, I understand. I just thought I would check but I suspected nothing could be done.” She seemed surprised. We nodded and I walked away.

It was less than a minute later that I heard over the load speaker, “Could Dr Steindl please return to the [help desk].” I returned to the desk and the customer service person was much more welcoming. “I changed my mind,” she said, smiling broadly, “We can get you on the earlier flight.”

Why am I telling this little story?

Well, it demonstrates, even in a very small way, the positive effect that acceptance, non-judgment, kindness and, especially, compassion can have on the people around us, often motivating them to do the same.

And this same phenomenon translates to the workplace.

When someone disappoints us, lets us down, makes a mistake or fails us, our natural impulse is to criticise, reprimand or punish them. This is especially the case in the workplace, where managers traditionally use a more punitive approach with their staff. We expect that it will “make them listen” or “teach them a lesson”.

An alternative style of management is emerging, and gathering more and more empirical support. This new style is to adopt compassionate management practices.

Compassion is defined as a combination of several components. There is the awareness component of compassion, being able to notice when another person is distressed, struggling or suffering. There is also the empathy component, or the ability to resonate with that feeling, recognising that distress is an experience we all share. Further, trying to be non-judgmental towards the person who is distressed, and not defining them by the immediate problem, but remembering all that they are as a whole person. And finally, having the intention to do something that will relieve the distress, and nurture or develop that person.

Compassionate management has been found to have significant benefits at work. Managers who are compassionate at work are more likely to have loyal and committed employees. Compassion increases the employee’s willingness to trust their managers. And employees feel increased happiness and well-being, and continue to maintain support for the organisation, even in the face of bad news.

And beware, anger, hostility and aggression from managers have the opposite effect, eroding loyalty, damaging trust and creating stress, thus contributing to far less optimal performance amongst employees.

Greater loyalty, trust, happiness and well-being lead to vastly improved performance on the job and greater corporate success.

Sometimes managers worry: “What if my being more compassionate causes them to think I agree with them, or I’m letting them of the hook, or I’m not holding them accountable?”

But the compassionate manager recognises that disagreeing with someone, giving them corrective feedback or keeping them accountable can all sit very comfortably in the context of compassion. In fact, delivering difficult messages in a compassionate way can actually make it more likely that the employee will listen, rather than delivering difficult messages in an angry way causing them to react defensively or shutting down to the conversation.

The great news is that it’s possible for us all to cultivate more compassion. A number of programs have been developed that aim at cultivating compassion through lived experiences, meditative practices and other techniques. So, why not give it a try? Here are some steps for managers to keep in mind when developing a compassionate approach with employees. Remember the acronym C.A.R.E.:

Create space, calmness and awareness.

  • Step out of autopilot and notice your own frustration, anger or whatever your feelings may be. Rather than being reactive, take time to reflect on the kind of compassionate manager you would like to be and create intention to respond according to that.

Activate empathy, understanding and acceptance

  • Use careful active listening to aid in your understanding of the person, their concerns and their struggles. Avoid jumping to criticism and reprimand, and instead try to remember the whole person, who they are beyond this current mistake. Try to see the situation from their perspective and think about how you might be helpful.

Reflect on your shared humanity

  • Remember that we are all human beings, doing the best we can. All of us have good bits and not so good bits. Forgive them their mistakes, and acknowledge their strengths. Remember your own mistakes and how they helped you to grow.

Enact kindness, care and support

  • Don’t crush them further. You don’t need to let them get away with it. But treat them kindly and fairly, help them constructively learn a lesson and inspire them to do better because they know you genuinely care.

Incorporating compassionate management practices into a business creates so many opportunities. Not least, compassionate management makes a positive contribution to people and their well-being. Furthermore, it also benefits the corporate bottom line, making it the secret ingredient to corporate success.

For more information on Dr Steindl and the team of Clinical Psychologists at Psychology Consultants visit our website www.psychologyconsultants.com.au

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Sydney Musings and the Charter for Compassion

Posted on June 9, 2015 in Uncategorized - 0 comments - 0

STanby Dr Stan Steindl, Clinical Psychologist, Psychology Consultants, Pty Ltd

Sydney Musings

Whenever I’m in a big city, I love to watch the people. Today in Sydney I’ve taken time out to just sit and connect with the humanity of the place. It smacks you in the face, the heaving, seething, weaving masses of people. And yet I marvel at the way that, despite all these individuals, the group generally functions pretty well. How do they do it?

Of course, there are certain exceptions. But it really is incredible how this large number of people are able to live their lives in such a cooperative way. I notice how they move about:

People collect at a street corner while the traffic flows past them. Then the traffic stops, and the people make their way across the road. The crowd seems to thin for a few moments, and then the traffic moves again and another group of people start to collect on the street corner.

It may seem simple, or even mundane, and yet there is an elegance to the way people exist together. It’s like a dance. Everyone is cooperating with one another.

I also notice, beyond this simple cooperation, that there is something more.

Just in front of me, a little boy trips over. His mother bends down and picks him up, soothing him and gently rubbing his sore knee. Then over my shoulder I hear a man sitting in the cafe behind me call out, “My compliments to the chef, those eggs were sublime!” And then the proverbial happens: A young woman approaches an older woman heavily ladened with grocery bags, and helps her across the street.

These acts of comfort, gratitude and kindness are happening all the time, all around us, every day. It reminds me that what really makes society work is people’s natural and innate adherence to the “golden rule”. Treat others as we would wish them to treat us.

Every religion of the world, every spiritual tradition, every philosophical or ethical approach is imbedded with the principle of compassion. In fact, compassion is adaptive. As Charles Darwin said in The Descent of Man, “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” And it is no less true for us now than when our ancient ancestors were cooperating with one another, looking after one another, to survive the harsh realities of the world in which they found themselves.

Compassion is hard-wired within us. People practice compassion everyday. But perhaps there is also more we can do. Perhaps Sydney could do more? Or the other capital cities around Australia? Or even our smaller communities? Well, the good news is that there is a worldwide movement that is trying to achieve just that.

The Charter for Compassion

In 2008, Karen Armstrong received the TED prize for a talk she presented titled “Compassion: An urgent global imperative.” From there she used the prize money to found the Charter for Compassion. The Charter’s vision is “A world where everyone is committed to living by the principle of compassion.” Since its inception, the Charter has developed a worldwide network of hundreds of cities, towns and countries who have declared their commitment to cultivate compassion within their communities.

In 2010, the Australian Federal Parliament was one of the first governments in the world to sign the Charter, but it is now time to be doing more. Anyone and everyone can sign up to the Charter, as individuals or organisations. Let’s start to form compassionate communities, compassionate cities, compassionate universities and compassionate organisations throughout Australia. Let’s join the movement, and take action. If you are interested, go to www.charterforcompassion.org and learn about starting a Compassionate Community Initiative.

And in the meantime, here’s a little task for you. See if you can notice, as you carry out your day, examples of beautiful acts of cooperation, comfort, gratitude, appreciation, forgiveness, kindness or compassion from one human being to another. It might be something you do, or something you observe from a family member, a friend, a colleague or even a stranger. Let’s celebrate the compassion that is all around us everyday, and have that inspire us to bring even more compassion to the world in which we live.

To read more about Dr Steindl and the team of Clinical Psychologists at Psychology Consultants visit our website www.psychologyconsultants.com.au

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Compassion’s place at the borders: A response to Andrew Bolt

Posted on June 1, 2015 in Uncategorized - 1 comment - 0

STanBy Dr Stan Steindl, Clinical Psychologist

I’ve always been bemused by the apparent derogatory term “do-gooder”. I wondered to myself, “Isn’t doing good a good thing?” I mean, doing good is reflected in the Golden Rule, is it not? Treat others the way we would want to be treated by them.

This concept, broadly described as “compassion”, is in every religious tradition, and every philosophical, moral and ethical doctrine since ancient times.

So, of course, I shook my head sadly when I came across Andrew Bolt’s recent article in the Herald Sun, in which he declared “Border is no place for compassion.” Sigh.

Charles Darwin said in Decent of Man, “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” He actually said nothing about survival of the fittest, that was said by a fellow called Herbert Spencer. Darwin’s assertion could actually be translated as survival of the kindest.

Humans are at their best when they are kind, cooperative and compassionate. Now, this does not mean boundless compassion. Compassion is not the same as simply “being nice” or “giving in” or “letting people off the hook”. But we also know that reprimand, humiliation, punishment, and imprisonment more often have costly effects, especially in the contexts of social, cultural or racial differences. Resentment deepens, divides widen, intentions worsen and people start to take sides.

Compassion is often defined as a feeling and an action. Professor Paul Gilbert, from the Compassionate Mind Foundation in the UK, defines compassion as “…an awareness and sensitivity to the suffering of others, with a motivation and commitment to try and alleviate it.”

And compassion has many benefits. Professor James Doty from Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) in the US, has found in the research that “compassion results in lower blood pressure…increases in the immune function…decreases in stress…compassion is what it’s going to be that saves our species.”

Compassion is good for the receiver and the giver, leading to improvements in the well-being of all.

Mr Bolt’s threat system is activated. He is afraid, and his fight/flight response comes through in his writing. And that’s perfectly ok. We all experience shock and fear in response to the horrors that are happening around the world. These are very difficult times, and the people he is talking about in his article are very different from him and are perceived as a very dangerous threat.

There is no doubt that when we are feeling threatened, compassion is difficult to practice. People worry that compassion will make them weak, or they will be taken advantage of, or they will be harmed in some way. But compassion is strong. It is wise. It is considered. It is kind. It is collaborative. It is encompassing. It is for the benefit of all parties.

Compassion is exactly what we need at our borders. In fact, compassion is what we need at all borders: borders between one person and the next, one family and the next, one community and the next, and one nation and the next. At the borders, compassion promotes peace.

Chris Hadfield is the astronaut well-known for singing Space Oddity from the International Space Station. He also had many insights while in space. Not least he said that looking down from above at our beautiful blue planet, “…you recognise the unanimity of our existence. The commonality.”

When we widen our gaze it is very clear that there is no “us and them”, there is only “us”. And we need to find a way to make compassion work so that we can all look after us. It will take time to shift in the direction of compassion, especially for governments who have so many competing responsibilities. But it seems to me that it is imperative that we do shift into an age of compassion.

Everything depends on it.

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If anti-smoking laws make you angry, try ‘reframing’ the problem

Posted on May 28, 2015 in Uncategorized - 0 comments - 0

747px-Smoking_AIGA_symbolBy Dr Mark Wetton, Clinical Psychology Registrar, Psychology Consultants Pty Ltd

One of the common techniques used by psychologists is called ‘reframing’. Put simply, this means to look at a problem in a different way. The idea is that by doing this you can usually either: (a) find a different solution to the problem, or (b) cope better with the current situation so that it is less of a problem for you.

State governments around Australia have been gradually introducing increasingly strict ‘anti-smoking’ laws governing where people can legally smoke tobacco. One way to view anti-smoking laws is that they unfairly restrict the personal freedoms of tobacco smokers. But, if a tobacco smoker thinks about the laws in this way, it is more likely that he or she may be frustrated and angry due to these laws.

To cope with this frustration and anger, tobacco smokers have a choice. They can either: (a) attempt to change the laws (unlikely to work, even if you are a politician); (b) ignore the laws (possibly resulting in hefty fines and trouble with the police); or (c) reframe their viewpoint on these laws.

To use the ‘reframing’ technique in this case, a tobacco smoker can try asking him or herself a few simple questions:

1. How would I benefit if I was to quit smoking in the future?

2. Have I ever tried to quit smoking before, or am I planning to quit smoking some time in the future?

3. How will these new anti-smoking laws make it easier or harder for me to quit smoking? 

After answering these questions, a tobacco smoker might be able to take a different view of the laws, for example:

‘The new laws make it more difficult for me to smoke where I want to, so if I want to quit smoking in the future, it is probably going to be easier now than it used to be. The government is actually helping people to quit smoking.’

Hopefully the result of using the ‘reframing’ technique in this case will be that the tobacco smoker will actually feel more motived than ever to attempt to quit smoking. If they are able to quit or reduce their smoking, they will reap the health benefits much earlier in their life, not to mention saving money. And finally, they may not be as angry or frustrated day-to-day, which is likely to change their life for the better.

World No Tobacco Day is held every year on 31st May, this year the World Health Organisation is calling on countries around the world to help end the illicit trade of tobacco. For more information on advocating effective policies to reduce tobacco consumption visit: http://www.who.int/campaigns/no-tobacco-day/2015/event/en/

To read about Dr Wetton and the team of Psychologists at Psychology Consultants visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au

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Compassion and New Year Resolutions

Posted on May 25, 2015 in Uncategorized - 0

New Years Resolution & Self-Compassion

By Clinical Psychologist Dr James Kirby

When the clock strikes midnight on New Years Eve we all celebrate and enjoy the moment. However, not long after, we get met with that dreaded question?

So what are your New Years Resolutions?

This can lead to all sorts of responses, such as: lose weight, exercise more, spend more time with my children, save more money, drink less, or even find a new hobby. Sound familiar? Our New Year Resolutions really can be quite diverse. However, one common element to all of these resolutions is that they require a lot of hard work. All the resolutions I listed are also quite vague and not that specific, yet we hear them all the time, indeed many of them are ones I have set myself.

I set lose weight and exercise more as my New Years Resolutions for 2015.

It has been about three weeks since New Years Eve, and around this time many of us can feel like we have failed with the resolutions we set ourselves. Some of us may have even forgotten exactly what we did choose as our resolutions. For example, some research estimates suggest that about 60% of New Years resolution gym memberships go unused, and that these gym memberships are rated as one of the biggest money wasters for our back pocket. Despite this knowledge, joining the gym is still one of the most common New Years resolutions.

One of the problems with New Years Resolutions is when we don’t meet them this can make us feel depressed, frustrated, and sometimes angry, as many of us see it as a sign of failure. Since New Years Eve I have exercised more, but losing weight, well that hasn’t happened yet. One of the problems with these New Years Resolutions is that often they aren’t specific, and research has shown that we are more likely to succeed or come close to success if we set short-term specific goals (Locke, Shaw, Saari. & Latham (1981).

So instead of setting a resolution such as exercising more, what would be better is setting a setting a specific goal such as:

I will aim to exercise three afternoons a week for 30 minutes for the first month.

And then after that first month review how you have been going. If it hasn’t been going as planned you can try to work out how to overcome any obstacles, you might even need to modify the goal, and then try again for the next month. Alternatively if you have met that goal, make sure you congratulate yourself for the efforts you have made. Setting achievable and specific short-term goals are often better than vague, open-ended goals, because we can gauge how we are going. However, when we take a moment to review how we have been going it is important to have a little bit of self-compassion with these resolutions.

But what is self-compassion?

Self-compassion has been defined as involving three important components (Neff, 2003), and I will use exercise as an example of how to apply self-compassion to your resolutions.

  1. Being mindful as opposed to over-identifying with the problem. For example, being mindful that you are struggling with exercise at this present time, as opposed to seeing yourself as a complete failure always with exercise.
  2. Connecting with others as opposed to isolating yourself. For example, realising that you are likely not the only one struggling with exercise, indeed many others struggle with exercise as well.
  3. Being kind and loving to yourself as opposed to being judgemental. For example you could say to yourself, “May I be forgiving of myself, and continue to try and exercise.”

We know when we are more self-compassionate as individuals; it helps with our own psychological health (Neff, 2003). We also know that individuals with greater self-compassion have been found to have less anxiety and depression (Neff & Dahm, 2014). People with higher levels of self-compassion also have been found to ruminate less (Neff, 2003), and tend to have fewer negative emotions such as irritability, hostility or distress (Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007).

So as you can see much can be gained by being a little more self-compassionate. I do a lot of research and clinical work with parents. And often parents will come to the clinic with the problem “I just don’t know if I am doing it right?” In these situations often parents are looking for a little bit of reassurance that they are actually doing a good job. To me it would seem parents would benefit greatly from some self-compassion. For example if you are a parent struggling in a particular situation with your child the following may be useful:

  • I am noticing this is a moment where I am struggling with parenting
  • I am not alone with my struggle, others also struggle with parenting
  • May I give myself the compassion that I need in this moment

Self-compassion is something I think we can all benefit from. It just involves those three important points: (1) being mindful, (2) connecting with others, and (3) be kind and loving towards yourself.

So have a look at your New Years Resolutions. Do you need to change them to specific goals and start again for February? And when reviewing them, be sure to do so with some self-compassion.

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Sleep and PTSD

Posted on May 25, 2015 in Uncategorized - 0

Trying to forget the unforgettable- musing on PTSD and sleep

By Clinical Psychologist, Kathryn Smith

Lest We Forget will be pledged across the nation this Anzac Day as we approach 100 years since Gallipoli but for many of our veterans and ex-servicemen, forgetting the unforgettable seems a challenge too great.

Trauma regularly touches our community. Watch the evening news and you will witness traumatic events like car accidents, assaults, hold ups, natural disaster, terrorism and war.

Experiencing a traumatic event or the atrocities of war can have a marked impact on people’s lives.  While most people are able to recover from trauma, others go on to develop psychological disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is characterized by sufferers persistently re-experiencing the traumatic event, through intrusive recollections, distressing dreams, or flashbacks. Sufferers may also try to cope through avoiding things that may be associated with the event, or memory. They may also experience mood and other changes such as irritability, anger, concentration difficulties, hypervigilance or being startled easily.

But consistent amongst PTSD sufferers is disturbed sleep with symptoms of increased arousal, nightmares, dream re-enactment on occasion, and excessive movements during sleep. Many of these problems contribute to insomnia.

Recent studies by University of Calfornia’s Berkeley research team led by Prof. Matthew Walker found that REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the vivid dreaming stage of sleep that comprises 20% of a normal person’s sleep cycle, is compromised in PTSD sufferers. This has significant implications for well-being and recovery.

“The dream stage of sleep, based on its unique neurochemical composition, provides us with a form of overnight therapy, a soothing balm that removes the sharp edges from the prior day’s emotional experiences,” explains Dr Walker.

The good news is treatment can help to improve sleep disturbance in PTSD, particularly taking a holistic approach that combines psychological treatment like cognitive behavioural therapy and image rehearsal therapy with medication for sleep.

Reducing feelings of stress is imperative when on the road to emotional and mental recovery after experiencing trauma. A few simple ways to help improve sleep health include:

  • Making sure your sleep environment feels safe and comfortable. If darkness causes feelings of anxiety, which is common amongst PTSD sufferers, try keeping the room dimly lit.
  • Avoid watching the news before bed.
  • Develop a relaxation routine before bed.  This can be as simple as a warm bath or listening to relaxing music.
  • Avoid stimulants like coffee after 3pm.
  • Try not to consume more than one alcoholic drink within 3 hours of bed.

Psychology Consultants run a long standing group programme for insomnia sufferers called Towards Better Sleep, a cognitive behavioural treatment programme that uses evidenced based techniques that focus on sleep education, behavioural techniques, correction of unhelpful thinking about sleep and insomnia, and relaxation strategies.

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Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Posted on May 25, 2015 in Uncategorized - 0

Therapy Dogs and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

By Dr Stan Steindl

As the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli approaches, we are inspired by the great heroics of soldiers in combat serving and protecting our nation, and we are humbled by the enormous sacrifices they’ve made. Many men and women over the last 100 years have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and we remember them. A great many other men and women who returned from the various wars and overseas missions have gone on to live under the heavy burden of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Though for a long time not formally recognised, the psychological effects of combat-related trauma have been observed and documented throughout the twentieth century. ‘Shell shock’, ‘combat fatigue’ and other more disparaging terms have been used to describe combat veterans suffering from PTSD. References to this condition can be found in many writings from Ancient Greek texts through to Shakespeare’s works, through to articles at the time of the American Civil War. However, PTSD became a recognised psychiatric condition in the early 1980s after our experience of veterans returning from the Vietnam War.

Since then, we have developed a number of evidence-based treatments for PTSD. Multidisciplinary approaches, incorporating medicines, psychological counselling, coping skills development and exposure-based therapies seem to help with this condition, making things more manageable and aiding the veteran to return to higher levels of functioning and quality of life. However, PTSD does not yet seem to be something that can be ‘cured’ and constant efforts are being made to improve treatments and services for supporting veterans.

I have now had the opportunities to work with hundreds of veterans over about the last twenty years. They have always impressed me with their ingenuity and advocacy, and to be frank many of the veteran support initiatives have come from the veteran community themselves. Over recent years I have started to notice the latest in such initiatives: therapy dogs.

Many veterans now have therapy dogs, designed to offer companionship, support and comfort to veterans with PTSD. One veteran and defence force personnel support organisation, Young Diggers, has set up The Dog Squad, which connects veterans with puppies and rescue dogs. An intensive training program is undertaken so that these dogs and their owners become very well-trained and disciplined with one another.

So, how might a dog be helpful for veterans?

Well, dogs are vigilant and protective. They can wake a veteran from nightmares or reassure them during flashbacks. They respond well to authority, which many veterans and military personnel are used to. They love unconditionally and uncomplicatedly, welcoming the veteran home every single time, and not playing complex emotional games. They can help the veteran to relearn trust and safety, and to relearn how to love and be loved. And they offer the veteran meaning, purpose, connection and a reason to get into the day.

None of this has been empirically validated as yet, but it seems to have a lot of face validity. Dogs are our best friends after all! But also, I have seen it work. Veterans, who soften, relax, smile and simply become comfortable in a situation where a well-trained therapy dog is present. I hope that this approach can continue to be explored, and properly developed, into a program that can really add value to veterans’ PTSD treatment.

For more information on Dr Stan Steindl and the team of Clinical Psychologist at Psychology Consultants, visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au

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