Thoughts / mental health

Measuring up

At the start of a new year, I often struggle not to fall into asking myself the success-based questions. How am I doing? Am I having a successful life so far or have I had more failure than success? How do I measure my personal success and failure? What is success for me? Was my success really successful or was it considered successful because other people said it was? Did I really fail or was I just looking at myself behind another set of bars created by other people? 

Similarly, when I discover someone that I admire – be it for the research they might have just published, or the idea they came up with, or their project they have completed – I can become a bit obsessed with finding out more about the person’s entire career. What did they do before? Where did they train? Who have they been working with? How old were they when they obtained each of these career or life achievements? And it comes down to - is my level of success comparable to theirs?

And particularly at the beginning of the year, it can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling a bit behind in life. It might be the excessively happy and glowy insta pictures of excessively happy and glowy families starkly reminding us that we’re single and alone and living with our parents (albeit contentedly). It might be putting on the bikini and remembering that – again – we didn’t become that thinner, fitter version of our self in 2017 (despite not really intending to). Or maybe we’ve returned to work and two days in it feels more like 52 days in.

Sometimes it might not be other people’s accomplishments that spur on the feeling that we are lacking in some way, but our own expectations. Have I made the right decision about work? Should I still be plodding away with a side business? Maybe things will be just a bit better once I have achieved x, y and z?

When we keep moving our own goalposts, we keep changing our definition of success, to the point of it becoming meaningless. If our expectations, wishes and dreams keep changing we will forever feel like we’re falling short. Wherever these expectations are coming from.

I’m not suggesting that we should abandon all of our goals entirely. We know that goals are incredibly useful for our motivation, for purpose, for creating order in our lives. But when these goals are continually linked to our unlived experiences or potential, or we have borrowed them from our friends or internalised expectations from what society thinks we should be doing, we’re not aiming for success of our making.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a psychologist hero of mine, whose last name I cannot pronounce) suggests that there’s no inherent problem with our desire to pursue goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. If we become so fixated on finding a partner or buying a house or getting a 6-figure salary, we’re going to struggle to derive any pleasure from the present. And we say goodbye to contentment. And wellbeing.

A lot of our daily activities and goals are ‘exotelic’, meaning we reap the benefits sometime in the future, rather than enjoying them for their own sake in the present. But according to Csikszenbdjbgfdjksbgjdsk (surely that’s about right) if we learn to find meaning and enjoyment in the process or experience of living itself, the burden of internal and external expectations can fall from one’s shoulders.

If we were to look at it from a Positive Psychology perspective (the branch of psychology focusing on human strengths and well-being), we wouldn’t be looking at success in terms of goal achievements and avoiding failures. Success would be all about our sense of well-being. That’s a different kind of success really. Success with a capital “S”.

One of the key takeaways from Positive Psychology is that relationships with other people matter most. In fact, a Harvard study that followed 268 sophomores from the late 1930s and early 1940s over the course of their adult lives showed that the single most important predictor of successful aging, defined by physical and mental health and satisfaction with life at age 75, wasn’t cholesterol level, salary, treadmill endurance or intelligence. It was having close relationships. Based on the extensive data collected over seven decades, the author concluded: “The only things that matter in life are your relations to other people.”

However, contrary to what many believe, this doesn’t mean sacrificing our own well-being. In fact, personal well-being is essential to cultivating quality relationships with others. In the same way that we tend to over-emphasize the importance of power and money when thinking about success, we also over-inflate the value of self-sacrifice. It’s so tempting to buy into the myth that there is something noble about putting our own needs last, and women are especially vulnerable to this.

According to Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman, we experience approximately 20,000 moments each day. But actually taking our focus away from our goals, ensuring our attention is not caught up in our yet unlived experiences is tough. Making the most of each of these moments is a choice.

Let’s remind ourselves of this choice. It’s not easy, this constant wrestle between our lived and unlived lives; our expectations and reality; our future goals and current experiences. But it is entirely possible that by choosing to prioritise moments and experiences that enhance the now and our well-being, we may already be leading Successful lives with a capital “S.”

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The year of living curiously

Happy New Year Hope Street friends. We hope that the holiday season was kind and peaceful to you all.

January somehow brings with it time for reflection on the year that was. And for me, 2017 was to be the year of living curiously. It wasn’t particularly easy, but I did learn a few things.

Firstly, a curious approach possibly helped with what could have been an unsettling year. In 2017 I changed workplaces and jobs twice, I went from project-based work back to intensive clinical practice and I haven’t had a permanent work desk in over 6 months. In the past, these sorts of conditions could have sent my anxiety spiralling. But instead I went all wonder inquisitive-like. Less “how will I possibly cope?” and more “I wonder where I will get to sit today and if I will have a computer?”. It was sort of like making each day at work a football game and not knowing whether your team is going to win or not. The tension was good tension – uncertain, interesting and even a bit fun.

Secondly, I found out heaps of really wonderful things about all these wonderful people. Curiosity helped me make new friends. Hallelujah! And it helped me to discover new things about old friends.

I’ve never really had a problem finding people interesting, but being more curious helped relationships grow and blossom. It is far easier to form and maintain satisfying, significant relationships when we demonstrate an attitude of openness, curiosity and genuine interest. I really stopped worrying about what questions I asked people, if I was interested, I just asked. I gave up the notion of the ‘silly’ question. I tried not to care if my questions seemed obvious. I learnt so much from the people around me and maybe, just maybe, our relationships improved as a result.

I think I became more focused. This is a bit difficult to really say for certain, but after a year of curious living I feel that I’m more committed to what I choose to devote my attention to. Earlier in the piece, I was a complacent information receiver. I’d stick to the shallow end and learn new things superficially. Like skim reading the career highlights of Izzy from Neighbours off Wikipedia and then promptly forgetting. Whereas now, if I am interested in something I’ll invest my energy in reading a long article, watching a documentary and deepening my understanding of the taxidermy practices of the early 20th century (fascinating).

I read a bucketload of books. 55 in total. I kept a tally, because I was curious as to how many books (fiction and non-fiction) I could read in a year.

As a result of the content and consumption of books I read, I realised that despite believing I was a feminist, I was actually probably not a proper feminist. I have since started becoming a proper feminist.  

I did things I probably wouldn’t have done before. But more importantly, things that I did regularly didn’t feel so dull. I am a big believer in a solid routine, like really solid. But yes, it can get dull. Over time and with practice, curiosity managed to transform some (definitely not the majority) into interesting and enjoyable experiences.

But most importantly, curiosity helped me to find out more about myself. And it wasn’t that bad. In fact, it helped me be kinder to myself.

When we think about curiosity we might think about it as being anything but kind. We might imagine it to be intrusive or mean-spirited, as a demand to know. We might think of curiosity as seeking information with which we can judge – a means to measure ourselves. Maybe we imagine we will use what we discover as a means to feel superior or celebrate someone else’s misfortune. But I found it all to be quite the opposite.

We are born with this open-hearted curiosity. When a baby explores her life, the first thing she does is explore herself. What are these things attached to my hand? What is this shape that I will later call a finger? Can I put it my mouth? Can I waive it around?

A baby explores with open delight, with softness, with gentleness towards herself, with kindness. She does not push away what she discovers. She receives it - all of it, the comfortable and the painful, the joyful and the distressing. She explores and she discovers worlds within worlds. Nothing in her discoveries will be shut out. Nothing she does as she explores herself will be unkind.

As we grow to be adults we begin to curtail our curiosity of our self. We learn to stop looking, or look only on a very selective basis. We learn to judge. To compete and to be in a hurry. We jump ahead in our minds to later, to tomorrow, to next week, to next year. We don’t remember how to be open to what we can discover beyond the surface. We begin to use self-talk like should and have to and can’t. We learn to push ourselves away. We learn to be unkind.

So this year, when I would automatically ignore myself or began to judge my words or actions or imagine catastrophic events in the future, I’d instead try to practice curiosity. ‘I wonder why I said that to David in accounts? What a funny thing to say? It must have come from that interaction I had had with Jenny in HR the day before. Interesting. Perhaps I’m not such an idiot.’ With time it comes more naturally. I find out interesting things about how I work. And I begin to be less automatically harsh on myself.

Happy 2018 my friends. May you begin the year with some curiosity and discover some gifts in your own life today and always.

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Let me give gifts

I am really passionate about giving people gifts. I’m not ashamed to admit that it is one of my most loved things about this time of year. Along with the reruns of Love Actually. And the fairy lights. And the prawns. And the pavlova. And ham. Okay, there’s a few other things.

There’s been some restrictions invoked around this gift giving this year. But it hasn’t really stopped me. I’ve just gone overboard in other areas. More presents for other people. I’ve been baking gifts. And sewing gifts. It’s all happening.

I get that there’s things about Christmas gift-giving that annoy people. There’s the crowds at the shopping centres. The horrendous traffic and car parking rage nightmares. I can see how holiday commercialism is really ruining Santa’s image. And then there’s the irresponsible consumption of plastic toys that may only be used once and then lost under the bed for all eternity.

Whilst some components of gift giving may be the materialistic product of commercialism and a capitalist society. It is way more fascinating than that. Gift giving is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction. It helps us to define relationships and strengthen bonds with our friends and family.

And that’s what I love about the gift giving. It’s like doing a service to a relationship. If you were to say to me that I wasn’t able to give you a gift because you’re going minimalist this month, or your children won’t remember Christmas at this age, then I don’t get to experience the process and connection to you that gift giving provided. I’m not encouraged to think about you and think about things you like and enjoy. You prevent me from experiencing the joy of engaging in these activities. Activities that help me to reflect on you and on our relationship with gratitude and appreciation.

The social value of giving has been recognised throughout human history. For thousands of years, some indigenous cultures have engaged in the ‘potlatch’, a complex ceremony that celebrates extreme giving. Although cultural interpretations vary, often the status of a given family in a clan or village was dictated not by who had the most possessions, but instead by who gave away the most. The more lavish and bankrupting the potlatch, the more prestige gained by the host family.

Some researchers believe evolutionary forces may have even favoured gift giving. Men who were the most generous may have had the most reproductive success with women. (Notably, the use of food in exchange for sexual access and grooming has been documented in our closest ape relative, the chimpanzee.) Women who were skilled at giving — be it extra food or a well-fitted pelt — helped sustain the family provider as well as her children.

People who stop giving gifts lose out on important social cues, researchers say. The people who are on our gift list tell is who the important people are in our life. It gives us an opportunity to take stock and evaluate just where our social relationships are at. But the biggest effect of gift giving may be on ourselves. Being able to give to others has been shown to reinforce our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring.

Gift giving is a practical exercise, but also a psychological one. A 2006 study by neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health found that the giver experiences both an increase in their dopamine levels and an activation of parts of the brain that are attuned to the joys of social interaction. It really does make us happy.

Better to give than to receive, gift-giving is also an act of altruism — unselfish concern for the well-being of others. When we give without expecting anything in return, we are improving our psychological health.

And there is an enormous sense of satisfaction when we see a positive expression on the face of a loved one we’ve just given a gift to. A way to express feelings, giving reinforces appreciation and acknowledgement of each other. The feelings expressed mainly depend on the relationship between giver and recipient.

So, I probably went a bit overboard on the presents again this year. But I’m not concerned about it and I hope no one else is. The gift thinking, gift shopping and gift creating process has only reinforced for me is the amount and quality of important relationships in my life. And as a result I feel very connected to these special relationships and people.

That is the best gift.

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Too much nice?

Generally, the world appears to enjoy nice people. We seem to like niceness very much and depend on it even more. Why then, do so many say “Oh, you’re just too nice.” Like it’s a very negative thing.

I’ve heard this a bit. And I’ve said it a lot. What exactly though is the assumption behind the negativity here?

Is it because we assume that by being nice a person isn’t committed to success? And obviously this is so incredibly important in our capitalist society. However much we are committed to success, for long periods of our lives we are intensely vulnerable creatures wholly at the mercy of the gentleness of others. We are only ever able to be successful because other people – usually our mothers – have given up a good share of their lives to being nice to us.

Is it because we assume that by being nice, a person isn’t going to be living an exciting life? This could be true. But all feelings – like excitement – are just phases. Things that fleet and pass. Personally, I wouldn’t find anything more sterile and dull than a demand that life be constantly exciting. I’m more inclined to mix it up with some napping.

Or is it just because a person who is being nice is a ‘pushover’? The assumption that a person unable to assert their power is a nice person?

Or maybe the person who is nice just doesn’t have any opinions at all? Maybe they just go with the flow all the time.

Here’s another possible idea. Perhaps the person who is being nice, has gone through particular experiences that has led them to the point where they believe that behaving in a nice manner is the best thing they can do for themselves, for others and for their community?

Perhaps that experience might be some form of tremendous upheaval? They have experience in how to offer genuine words of encouragement and kindness because they have had to become their own biggest cheerleaders. They are the ones who have had to talk themselves out of bed in the morning and off the floor at night. They are the ones who have fiercely fought their own demons. They are the ones who are brave and introspective. Who have successfully and excitedly made things change. The opposite of dull, boring and complacent. They want to do better and be better. They want things to change.

There could be all sorts of things hiding behind being nice.

It is entirely possible though, that too much of a good thing might not work. Like most good things. If we get caught up in too much niceness it could backfire.

If we compulsively say “yes” to everyone else’s wants and needs we’re going to experience greater levels of stress and emotional burnout. We’ll spend all our energy trying to make others happy and we’ll forget to take care of our own wants and needs.

With niceness, it’s about knowing why we’re behaving in this way. Do we behave in this way because we genuinely want to? Or is it because we are expected to or because we are desperate for positive attention? If it’s the latter, we’re going to run into problems with anger and resentment.

But I’m a bit advocate for niceness. If we know the motive for it and it is coming from a place of strength, balance and understanding, there’s no such thing as being too nice.

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Loving at Christmas

We’re here again.

The Christmas social events are booked in. Pretty sparkling lights are being switched on. The shops are filled with gifts and are pulling at our purse strings. Mariah Carey is crooning in the malls and ‘Love Actually’ is on the tele. There’s magic in the air.

There’s also work deadlines to meet before the holiday can begin. Attempts to fulfil unaccomplished goals before the end of the year. And if 2017, hasn’t been a particularly easy or content year for us or a loved one, the approaching holiday may not in fact be the ‘most wonderful time of the year’.

The countdown to the holidays can be stressful for anyone. But for any of our friends who might be dealing with challenges like grief, divorce, or physical or psychological illness, that stress can feel even more intense. It’s possible they might be concerned that they’ll ruin the holiday for others by failing to muster enough holiday cheer. They may feel pressure to take on obligations that they’re not quite up for.

But as always, there are ways that we can help.

1. Acknowledge that this holiday may be hard

If life has changed for a loved one this year, it makes sense that the holidays will probably change as well. It can help to acknowledge that out loud. Using words. Encourage your friend to let go of the pressure to live up to past holidays.

2. Let them decide who they want to be with...

Our friend might feel pressure to spend time with certain people during the holidays, even though they don’t feel up to it. We can encourage them to see only who they want to see. Just asking them who they want to spend the holidays with can be empowering, because it gives them permission to make the best choice for themselves.

If our loved one is is separated from their support network because of distance or other factors, talk with them about strategies for staying connected. This could include scheduling calls or video chats, writing letters, or making special gifts to give in person in the future.

3. And give them space if they need it

People deal with difficult situations in different ways. Some of us need our friends and family close by, while others need some space. Trust that that our loved one knows what they need better than anyone else. Because they probably do. That said, there are ways we can remind them they aren’t truly alone while still respecting their boundaries. Let them know that we’ll be checking in with them. We can text, email, call, quietly leave cookies at their door, or stop by for a brief visit. We could even ask which option they prefer beforehand.

4. Take some holiday planning off their plate

Let’s face it, the planning part of holidays sucks. If our loved one is indeed up for some company, we could take some pressure off by gathering the right people and start hashing out the details. The goal is to help our loved one enjoy the day by taking some of the work off their plate. Make a holiday plan together. If there’s a holiday dinner, prepare a menu, make a shopping list, and figure out who’s in charge of what.

5. Talk about traditions

For people who have experienced a big change, traditions can be a source of comfort—or a painful reminder of what has been lost. Talk to your friend about what feels right. Are there traditions they want to keep? Do they want to start something new? If they’ve lost or are separated from someone they love, we might suggest honoring that person in some way—say, by lighting a candle or making a donation in their memory. If that’s too painful, skip it. This is all about what feels right.

6. Tell them it’s okay to take a break

A favorite song, the smell of a layered salad, a special ornament—they can all bring back memories of happier holidays. It’s okay to cry, take breaks, or change plans. Think about how to quietly help our loved one take a moment alone if they need it, especially if we’re spending time in a group.

7. Encourage self-compassion

Remind our loved one that there's no need to feel guilty for any perceived missteps they might make—and if they can, to forgive others for the same. Everyone screws up from time to time. We all say or do hurtful or thoughtless things without meaning to. This is hard, and we’re not perfect. But every interaction gives us a chance to try again.

8. Commit to being there beyond the holidays

The holidays can be especially tough, but there's going to be other hard times —like birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and weddings. As others get back to their post-holiday routines, those who are struggling may feel support dwindle. We can do simple things to ensure we're there for the long haul. Set a reminder to send a text message regularly to let your friend or loved one know you’re thinking about them. Mark key dates in our calendars and commit to calling when they come around.

 9. Send them a 'real' card.

I’ve just remembered why I was meant to write this blog. To let you know that we've got authentic and genuine Christmas and New Year cards available.

As always, our aim was to put some humanness into these cards. To acknowledge that things are not always wonderful and shiny and peaceful and joyful for everyone during the festive period. But if we continue to show kindness and respect and compassion for each other when things might be really shit, then there still might be a little bit of hope.

The cards can be found here. 

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What the doctor might not mention ...

I fought against taking medications for mental illness for a long time and now I have been contentedly taking them every morning for a long time.

I had resisted them because I was a big believer in psychology. And the ability of cognitive techniques to get me through. I also felt there was something genuine and authentic about my strong emotions, even if they were tortured and despairing. I had always identified as someone who “thought too much” and approached the world very critically, so something about this sustained sadness felt very much like me.

I did wonder – and I still do – if by going on medication, I’d be denying a part of my true self. I thought that perhaps bouts of paralysing depression and anxiety were just part of the human condition, and something didn’t feel right about ‘curing’ it with medication.

But part of the human condition is also about having some sort of desire to keep living. And that’s what I got back when I went down the antidepressant path. My sleeping patterns changed and my motivation wakened. I got a bit of my spark back.

There’s a lot of misconceptions about antidepressants out there. And I held some of them.  Here’s some of the things that a doctor might not let you know.

The beginning part is really pretty shit.

Chances are, you’ll probably feel a lot worse initially.

I have been fortunate enough to have been in a hospital each time I have started on a new medication. Otherwise, I just don’t know if I would have had the patience to stick with it.

The initial period felt like I wasn’t even a part of the world – electric currents surging through the body, pounding headaches, nausea, crippling anxiety, dizziness and light headedness, total exhaustion. Not the most pleasant experience.

Depending on the type of antidepressant, it can take anywhere between two and eight weeks to feel the effects. Immediate results are not key here. Some medications, like Venlafaxine, can induce some bizarre sensations, like brain zaps or muscle spasms. You might experience nausea or headaches, so most medical professionals advise that you don't go on them during a period where you really can't afford to take time off.

The other key thing to note is that often with these medications they will start to relieve the physical symptoms of the psychological disorder before the mental or emotional symptoms. As such, we might start to begin to feel more motivated and energetic, but still be experiencing very negative self-talk, feelings of hopelessness and a depressed mood. This combination of factors can increase our suicide risk during the initial phase.

Trial and error is common.

And once you start one medication, you might find out that antidepressant is not the right one for you. And the process needs to start again.

I’ve been really lucky with the medications I’ve tried, but I think I’m an outlier.

There is still so much that we don’t know about mood disorders. Sure, we’re learning more about it every day, but as of right now, we don't have it down so well that we can hear a list of symptoms, prescribe the appropriate medication, and then let the drugs do CPR on our broken rainbow generators.

Certain types of depression require specific types of medication. Couple that with the fact that each person reacts to those chemicals differently, and you basically have to set up a dartboard, prescribe whatever you hit, and see what happens.

I’ve known people who have had to go through months and years of trial and error of medication games trying to find something that might “work”. It’s horrendous. The real trouble starts when the person gets frustrated, not understanding exactly how long it takes for these things to show any sign of working. Couple that with it taking up to six weeks to even know whether or not a medication will work or not. For some, this can be an enormous process that takes massive amounts of time and dedication, and often the person will feel much worse before they feel better.

The side-effects can range from harmless to hellish.

Antidepressants are pretty serious brain drugs. They can also have some pretty serious side effects.

Side effects generally depend on the type of antidepressant and the individual, but common side effects include weight gain or appetite changes and reduced sexual desire.

Most people are aware that antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication can cause impotence in men, but it can also have a severe effect on women's sex drive. Many people on this kind of medication have difficulty achieving orgasm, some only for a few months, and others for as long as they’re on it. I can’t personally comment on this, as I am gloriously single.

The most notable side effects I experience are drowsiness, increased night sweating and blunted emotions.

I’ve always loved to sleep, but now I seem to be somewhat affected by what Dr Matt calls the “Zoloft doze”. The afternoon nap, which is not really a nap, but a solid and very deep sleep and which doesn’t impact my ability to catch the zzz’s at night time.

Because of the drug's effect on REM sleep, there are numerous studies to suggest that they worsen the quality of sleep in depressed patients. Some are activating, while others are sedating, so it's important to know the right match for you. Currently, I could sleep for 12 hours and wake up and hit the snooze button. This is pretty common for individuals using SSRIs and SNRIs.

I sweat more during my sleep. Bit gross, but apparently normal. Up to 22 per cent of patients report excessive sweating after taking antidepressants. Many also encounter intense night sweating.

And my emotions are blunted. My highs aren’t as high as they were. And I don’t cry in Love Actually anymore. Or at funerals.

Withdrawing from them may be atrocious.

Antidepressants are not addictive medications – you don't get cravings for them or need to keep increasing the dose to get the same effect.

However, all psychiatric drugs change your brain and body chemistry, and if you have been taking them for a while, your body will have adjusted to them. This means that you may experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them – especially if you've been taking them for a long time. Withdrawal or discontinuation syndromes from these medications, is something that has only been acknowledged as thing by the pharmaceutical companies in the past ten years or so.

For this reason, it's always advisable to reduce the dose slowly instead of just stopping taking them.

I always knew this, but one time I skipped a couple of doses. I think it was a public holiday and I couldn’t really be bothered finding the after-hours chemist and I thought a couple of days wouldn’t be noticeable. I was wrong.

Pretty quickly I had a runny nose and headache. I was dizzy and had trouble standing up straight and walking. And the ‘brain zaps’ – sort of like electric currents going through my brain – were unpredictable and just weird. Sleep was impossible. Disorientating, weird and awful.

Never again.

Some medications are renowned for causing particularly bad withdrawals, and others have barely any. It also depends on the person.

Your days of taking party drugs may be over. Or you will be.

I am sometimes gobsmacked that psychiatrists and doctors don’t make this clearer. Working in the drug and alcohol services, it never ceases to surprise me the number of people who I see who prescribed SSRIs and are also known to take party regularly, yet have no idea that this combination is potentially fatal.

Because SSRIs block or inhibit the reabsorption of serotonin back into the neurotransmitter it means that there is quite a bit of serotonin swimming around in the brain. This helps lift the cloud of depression. However, some licit and illicit drugs (e.g., MDMA, ecstasy, speed, methamphetamine) also act on the serotonin pathways in the brain causing even bigger amounts of serotonin to be swimming around in the brain. And it’s got nowhere to go – because the SSRI is blocking it’s path.

And here’s the thing, too much serotonin – serotonin toxicity – can be fatal.

They’re not a cure.

Unlike other things we might see doctors for – rashes, broken arms, infections – the prescriptions they give us for our brain, are not on their own enough. Relying solely on pills to treat or manage a mood disorder is usually a massive disappointment; although they do help relieve some of the anxiety and stress caused by depression, they don't address the underlying mental issues. They just help with some of the symptoms.

All the research shows, that psychological treatment (therapy of some sort) is needed in conjunction with the medication for some sort of effect to occur. There are often things outside the realm of a physical chemical imbalance that need to be addressed. Work is too stressful. You're intimidated by large crowds. You have nightmares about geese with guns. Those things need to be talked out and confronted. Pills can't do that for you.

There is stigma around taking them.

And despite these medications being not all that easy to take, they still come with a bit of stigma within the community – Aren’t you just treating the symptoms and not the cause? Have you tried natural remedies? How do you know what you’re like now without them?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to these questions. And psychiatry hasn’t really figured out how anxiety and depression works. Or how antidepressant medications work. But like most things, my use of medication, is a personal choice that suits me really well right now, despite the allowances I make.

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When life goes doesn't go to plan

My dearest friend,

Doesn’t life throw us some curve balls? Sometimes these unexpected things are perfectly delightful – like finding an unused $20 note in a winter jacket – and some are just a mild inconvenience – like missing a flight or getting a flat tyre. Some have a bit more too them.

We may not think of it in quite such naive terms, but we usually start out – somewhere in the semi-conscious mind – with a script of how our lives might go. We’ll get some schooling and education, there will be some friendships and some moments of self-discovery, first loves and riotous fun.  We’ll then have some sort of career – maybe one that pays, but not merely done for money. Hopefully (this is dream land, remember) we’ll be competent, respectable and fairly honoured for the intensity of our efforts. At the same time we will develop a central relationship, maybe a marriage. A union that will last forever, be mutually satisfying and come with sincere friendship. There’ll be kids too, offering us a chance to nurture a grateful, adorable small person, the best of its two parents, whom we will watch grow into an admirable, motivated adult. With the current advances in science, we will go on to lead an active and pain-free life, mentally and physically healthy, into our early eighties. Our parents will themselves have died at an advanced age and when the time comes for us, the end will be swift and painless. Easy.

But life hasn’t got the script in your case. Or most cases. You’ve found yourself with an unexpected event with lifelong consequences. That doesn’t quite fit into the script that we’ve been handed by the advanced, secular, consumer society we live in.

I’m so super proud of how you have handled such an off-script and surprise event.

Research shows us that negative emotions, like fear and anger and frustration can actually cause our brain’s executive network (responsible for problem solving and higher order thinking) to constrict and work less effectively. But on the other hand, positive emotions help your brain generate more creative solutions to problems.

Sure, some negative emotions arose in relation to this unexpected event. But you didn’t react based just on these. And that’s way important. There’s a world of difference between a reaction and a response.

A reaction comes from an automatic part of the brain. Almost life a reflex. Reactions are very quick, especially if we feel threatened in some way. On the other hand, a response is something we consciously choose to do based on a more thoughtful assessment of a situation. For example, when someone cuts us off in traffic our automatic reaction can be to get angry and assume the driver is deliberately rude, thoughtless and incompetent. But by pausing and taking time to think, we give ourselves a window of opportunity to pick a better option. We might decide that retaliating is not in your best interest or we may realise that the driver wasn’t deliberately trying to be disrespectful, but was simply not paying attention.

You did a great job of pausing. You restrained a reaction long enough to ensure that you chose the best response for you given the situation. This takes wisdom. And self-knowledge. And grace.

And you didn’t judge this unexpected event.

For most of the things that happen to us, there's generally no way of knowing whether they will be a ‘bad’ thing or a ‘good’ thing—and which one an event turns out to be often has a lot to do with how we respond. If an intimate relationship ends and our response is to blame our self, become despondent, and never leave the house, we will increase the likelihood of not finding another relationship. However, if we accept that, for whatever reason, it was not the right relationship for us, maintain a positive attitude, believe that a better relationship is coming our way, and then get involved in fun activities, we significantly increase the likelihood of finding another great partner, possibly one who is an even better match.

You were able to see that this unexpected situation could have the potential to open other doors. We never know what will come of a situation, so rather than assuming a situation is bad, which only generates lots of unhelpful, negative emotions, you kept saying, "We shall see." You were looking ahead with hope.

And you’ve been planning since for everything to turn out well.

A lot of people don’t do this. Myself included. Many people hope for the best, but plan for the worst. The problem with this strategy is that we act on our expectations, yet our actions create our experiences. If we want a good outcome, we have to be plan for one because that is what leads to the actions that create good experiences.

An unexpected event is one you didn’t plan for, but you’ve shown that that doesn’t mean you can’t plan to create the best possible outcome from the situation. We all have the ability to shift our attention from an unexpected event that seems like a big problem and focus instead on finding the solution. The minute we ask what we can do to make something better, we have taken the first step in planning for events to go well.

It’s time now to trust in your ability that it will all be okay.

You’ve been through difficult things in life already. There’s been loads of challenges. And to date, you have survived them all. You’re strong. You’ve got the power to handle this. Trust yourself.

Because the truth is that the script we’ve been sold is not the truth. I haven’t come across anyone yet who gets through their allotted span without at least one (or five) major off-script event. Something, somewhere, will go catastrophically wrong. Not potentially, or incidentally, but necessarily. Because of our humanness.

We cannot know what it will be exactly; what is certain is that it will be something; an event committedly disastrous in nature that will stop us in our tracks, make us question every resilient assumption and break our hearts. The only thing we can do, is be aware that that the script was a bit of a false hold. The unexpected stuff is what makes us know we are human.  

Love me. xoxo

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The toughest gig going

I’m not a parent. But I spend quite a lot of time with people who are. My own, mostly. And being a parent has got to be – hands down – the hardest job in the world.  

Firstly, there is the way in which parenthood is sold to us all.

In general, society promotes deep enthusiasm about parenthood. The act of bringing a new person into the world as a cause of unalloyed joy and celebration. There is a lot of concentration on the high points, with the troubles acutely edited. In general, the script is that parents should accept with no guilt and good grace that, of course, being a parent is wonderful and difficult; rewarding and depleting; exciting and, at times, a bit tiring.

The problem is, that the evidence doesn't really back up this preconceived picture. Using data sets from Europe and America, numerous scholars have found some evidence that, on aggregate, parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003), and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.

Regardless of whether we love being a parent or not, for some of us, society’s well-intentioned enthusiasm for parenthood can have unintended habit of triggering a very difficult consequence: it might become extremely hard to admit publicly to having problems around our new families. It might feel like a grave and serious failing of our own, a mark of a particularly deficient nature. We might feel unbearably guilty at certain thoughts we may have in the privacy of our hearts: that we’d rather not see our family for a few days; that we look very wistfully at the time before we had children; that we suspect we’re not naturally cut out to be a parent; that at certain points we resent our own child. Despite these feelings probably being particularly common.

Donald Winnicott, a mid-20th century psychologist who worked with parents and children, was particularly concerned by how many parents he observed in his consulting rooms who reported they were deeply disappointed with themselves. They reported feeling they were failing as parents and hated themselves deeply as a result. They stated they were ashamed of their occasional fights with their partners, their irritability, their times of boredom around their own child; their many mistakes; they were haunted by a range of anxious questions: are we too strict, too lenient, too protective, not protective enough? What struck Winnicott, however, was that these people were almost always not at all bad parents. They were not, by some fantasy ideal standard, perfect: but they were – as he came to put it, rather wonderfully – ‘good enough.’

And here’s the thing – good enough here is even better than perfect! Because EVERY SINGLE CHILD  will live the rest of their life in a very imperfect world. We cannot get on if we are dependent on those around us living up to the highest imaginable ideals. The good enough parent is at times irate, stupid, a bit unfair, a bit tired or a touch depressed. There will be delays, confusions, mistakes, outbursts of irritation – and always (or almost always, which is enough) a background of deep love and good intentions. The good enough parent is the perfect parent for the times half a century ago. And now.

And to add further complexity to the job of parenthood, there’s the component of just running the household with other people. The success of which pretty much determines more of our satisfaction from day-to-day than any other part of our lives.

Domestic life, properly understood, is the neglected locus of some of the most profound and noble challenges open to any of us.

The Romantic view of love forgets about this part of the love story. It is fascinated by, and deeply sympathetic to, the troubles and confusions surrounding the search for a life partner. It is deeply disturbing then, from the Romantic point of view, to find that a loving couple (people who are truly ‘right’ for one another, who overcame conflict and prejudice to be together) are liable to wind up spending a great deal of their lives – after they have finally found one another – bickering: over the TV remote control, the state of the kitchen work surfaces, whose turn it is for the nappy change  and who is meant to sweep the floor and when. Standard love stories rarely take us into these challenges. But these are the real challenges of love. And of life.

Because we don’t ever see these things as ‘challenges’ or haven’t formulated household labour as ‘real work’, we don’t ever really accept that household management and division are going to be hard and important. So, when it comes to looking at the buttload of domestic activities that exponentially pile up once children are involved– doing the laundry, keeping the fridge stocked, cleaning up after meals, making the beds, arranging a roster for picking up the kids, deciding what friends to see and when – these are things that we think should just happen in the background of real life. They never demand much thought. They are mere chores. No one could be meant to do them. It is simply a matter of everyone taking a fair turn at a boring, banal but sadly unavoidable drudgery.

And when we expect something to be easy and it turns out not to be, there’s a particular kind of struggle and bad mood that follows. Arguing about who should take out the rubbish, or whether to keep the bedroom window slightly open at night take on a distinctively painful form. Not only are we seriously angry, we can’t take our anger seriously. We fall into that pattern of behaviour typical when a problem hasn’t faced up to its own complexity. There might be nagging. There might be some passive avoidance. Or sulking. There might even be some door slamming. All of these are just symptoms of deeply serious issues that have fatally insisted on their own simplicity.

The true reality is that, this stuff is the hard stuff. The challenges of who gets up out of bed to turn the light off (and all other financial and practical responsibilities of sharing domestic life) is a sign that this is tough gig. Probably the toughest there is. Conflict in these areas is the logical consequence of the difficult tasks we have been accorded. If we admit that sharing a space and a life with other people is very difficult, we come to conflicts with a very different attitude. And it means that we’re doing it right.

Lastly, there’s reading all the ranting about parenthood available for parents on the Internet. By people who aren’t even parents. Exhibit A.  It has got to be the toughest job around.

 

This week is Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Awareness Week. We will be helping to spread some awareness to help you become PNDA Aware. You can also check out the PANDA website for more info.

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How charitable are we really?

It seems that we are all a bit impressed by the idea of charity. But often from a distance. Without looking at the idea too deeply.

We might watch something on the tele that moves us and makes us think a little bit more about someone else’s circumstances. Or we might put our loose change in one of the many buckets that litter the streets and supermarkets. But how many of us actually practice charity systematically?

Take me for example. The organisation I work for is a charity. I volunteer on Saturdays for a charity. My side project/business makes donations out of its profits to a charity. Do I practice charity regularly? I wish I did. I’d be a way nicer person.

At its most basic, charity means – giving someone something they need but can’t get for themselves. Normally that something is understood to be something material. We overwhelmingly associate charity with giving money.

At its core, charity goes well beyond the financial. But let’s begin there.

It’s quite lucky really that charity is more than just emptying our pockets, because unfortunately our higher income earners are much less financially charitable than the lower income earners. It's not news anymore, but it's still a surprise to more: the poor are more generous than the rich. For decades, surveys have shown that upper-income Americans ... are particularly undistinguished as givers when compared with the poor.... lower-income Americans give proportionally more of their incomes to charity than do upper-income Americans. (See, "The Charitable-Giving Divide" in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.)

Turns out its quite difficult for us to be financially charitable. Firstly, we are more willing to help a single individual than many.

Take this experiment -  one group was given general information about the need for donations, including statements like "Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children." A second group was shown the photo of a 7-year-old Malian girl named Rokia, and told that she is desperately poor, and that "her life will be changed for the better by your gift." People in the second group gave more. A lot more.

‘Futility thinking’ also plays a role. Giving money to help the ‘poor ‘is, we say, just drops in the ocean. We focus on those we cannot save rather than on those we can. People will give more to save 80 percent of 100 lives at risk than they will to save 20 percent of 1,000 lives at risk—in other words, more to save 80 lives rather than to save 200 lives.

We could easily make some subtle to overcome some of our psychological barriers to giving. Just as the psychological ‘bystander effect’ makes us less likely to help when others are around, knowing that others are giving makes us more likely to give. The more people talk about what they give, the more we can expect others to give or even pledge it online (for example, check the work at thelifeyoucansave.com).

Financial charity it tends to flow in one direction. The philanthropist may be very generous but they are habitually the giver rather than the recipient.

But in life as a whole, and especially in relationships, charity is unlikely ever to end up being one-sided: who is weak and who is powerful changes rapidly and frequently. You are likely to be, as it were, a patron in one area and a beggar in another.

Charity is much more than just about money. It’s more about recognising that a person needs help with something that they can’t do for themselves – and that their helplessness is not a sign of anything other than a part of the human condition.  We freely give because we appreciate how often we wouldn’t have made it if other people had not – at key points, in different contexts – cut us some slack.

It is in our relationships with others that charity can have the biggest impact. Here we don’t generally require the charity of money, clothing and free meals. What we can be short of is charity of interpretation: that is, a charitable perspective on our weaknesses, eccentricities, anxieties and follies – failings that we are unable to explain or win sympathy for, that we merely act out, with vulnerability and hurt.

It might be that our partner has made a big boo boo in their professional life. They made a significant decision at work that played out pretty badly. They may have been severely criticised; there was even talk of legal action. For months, they have been extremely agitated, and hard to live with. They couldn’t articulate their fears. They were sulky and annoying. They might have had to have stern meetings and altercations with senior management, clients and maybe even people on Twitter.

As their partner, we could make the conclusion that our partner is a bit inept, greedy and maybe even unprincipled. But, the charitable soul would do the work that their partner has not been able to do. They do the explaining for them. They understand enough about their past to have a picture of where their impatience and over-ambition came from. They hold in mind what happened with their parents and with the move to another country and with the brother who died too young. They lend a picture of who the ‘human’ is that is sufficiently generous and complex as to make them more than just the ‘fool’ or ‘weirdo’  they could so easily have been dismissed as.

The genuinely charitable person gives generously from a sense that they too stand in need of charity. Not right now, not over this, but in some other area. They know that self-righteousness is merely the result of a faulty memory, an inability to hold in mind – at moments when one is totally right – how often one has been deeply and definitively in the wrong.

This is the hardest form of charity, I reckon. So much more challenging than emptying our pockets. A much more gruelling and systematic task. To continually be generous and kind to each other in the spirit of humanness.

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Did you hear about ...?

Us humans talk an awful lot. We are the only species on the planet that exchanges information predominantly through speech. Some of our friends, like the dolphins or the primates, have their own languages, but they don’t rely on verbal communication like we do. Almost to the exclusion of other channels like us humans do.

And what is it we’re talking about. According to the research, most of us are just mostly talking about other people. In fact, a whopping two-thirds of our conversation consists of gossip. Of course, we discuss other incredibly important things like the meaning of life, world events, the performance of the Wallabies on the weekend and how funny Gogglebox was last week, but overwhelmingly it appears we talk about the affairs of others.

Before some of you take the moral high ground and plead that you are way too intelligent, sensible and way too compassionate for gossip, it might be worthwhile thinking a bit further on the topic.

The term “gossip” tends to have a negative connotation. It can be defined as ‘casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true’.

Unsurprisingly, we do not like when they find that they are being gossiped about, and as such there is a moral stigma attached to the people who are gossiping too much. However, more often than not, the gossips are not entirely negative — they tend to be a mixture of both positive and negative things. We provide other people with our assessment of another person’s reputation as we see it, typically involving both the person’s strengths and weaknesses, and with only limited evidence to substantiate either. These assessments might still be viewed unfavourably by the subjects of gossips, even when the assessment is predominantly positive. Nonetheless, we accept positive assessments with pleasure, but tend to be annoyed by criticism.

And how many of us can actually walk away from a juicy story about one of our acquaintances and keep it to ourselves? It’s so very tough! Surely, each of us has had firsthand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret.

When we disparage gossip as a character flaw of those shallower than ourselves, we overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of what makes the social world tick. Unfortunately, the nasty side of gossip overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions.

In fact, gossip can actually be thought of not as a character flaw, but as a highly evolved social skill. Those who can’t do it well often have difficulty maintaining relationships, and can find themselves on the outside looking in.

As social creatures, we’re made to gossip

Like it or not, we are the descendants of busybodies. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others is a by-product of a prehistoric brain.

According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognized that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.

Living under such conditions, our ancestors faced a number of adaptive social problems: who’s reliable and trustworthy? Who’s a cheater? Who would make the best mate? How can friendships, alliances and family obligations be balanced?

In this sort of environment, an intense interest in the private dealings of other people would have certainly been handy – and strongly favoured by natural selection. People who were the best at harnessing their social intelligence to interpret, predict – and influence – the behaviour of others became more successful than those who were not.

And then these genes of those individuals were passed along from one generation to the next.

Avoiding gossip: a one-way ticket to no friends

Anthropologists believe that throughout human history, gossip has been a way for us to bond with others—and sometimes a tool to isolate those who aren’t supporting the group.

Some argue that, at least in the workplace, gossip serves a useful purpose. In the workplace, studies have shown that harmless gossiping with one’s colleagues can build group cohesiveness and boost morale.

Gossip also helps to socialize newcomers into groups by resolving ambiguity about group norms and values. In other words, listening to the judgments that people make about the behaviour of others helps the newbie figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Northeastern University professor Dr. Jack Levin, says that gossip can be good for our emotional health. (He makes an exception for the weapons-grade rumour-mongering that destroys reputations.) In general, he believes, gossip is a force that ties together social and business networks. Others identify it as a way to see behind the curtain of employer pronouncements.

Today, good gossipers are influential and popular members of their social groups.

Sharing secrets is one way people bond, and sharing gossip with another person is a sign of deep trust: you’re signalling that you believe that the person will not use this sensitive information against you.

Therefore, someone skilful at gossip will have a good rapport with a large network of people. At the same time, they’ll be discreetly knowledgeable about what’s going on throughout the group.

On the other hand, someone who is not part of, say, the office gossip network is an outsider – someone neither trusted nor accepted by the group. Presenting yourself as a self-righteous soul who refuses to participate in gossip will ultimately end up being nothing more than a ticket to social isolation.

Fear of whispers keeps us in check

On the flip side, the awareness that others are likely talking about us can keep us in line.

Among a group of friends or colleagues, the threat of becoming the target of gossip can actually be a positive force: it can deter “free-riders” and cheaters who might be tempted to slack off or take advantage of others.

Biologist Robert Trivers has discussed the evolutionary importance of detecting gross cheaters (those who fail to reciprocate altruistic acts) and subtle cheaters (those who reciprocate but give much less than they get). Gossip can actually shame these ‘free riders’, reining them in.

Studies of California cattle ranchers, Maine lobster fishers and college rowing teams confirm that gossip is used in a variety of settings to hold individuals accountable. In each of these groups, individuals who violated expectations about sharing resources or meeting responsibilities became targets of gossip and ostracism. This, in turn, pressured them to become better members of the group.

For example, lobstermen who didn’t respect well-established group norms about when and how lobsters could be harvested were quickly exposed by their colleagues. Their fellow lobstermen temporarily shunned them and, for a while, refused to work with them.

Celebrity gossip actually helps us in myriad ways!

Firstly, it appears our brain can't help not getting excited by the headlines on the covers on the trashy magazines.

The part of the brain responsible for our social behavior is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is involved in social cognition and executive control. Social cognition refers to our ability to regulate our behavior and actions based on the real or assumed presence of other people. This is a trait that makes some want to conform to the norms and rules of society in which we live. Executive control channels our actual behavior and thoughts in the desirable direction. Studies with the use of functional MRI brain scans revealed the patterns of activation in the prefrontal cortex in response to positive and negative gossip about themselves, their best friends, and celebrities. A very interesting and revealing picture has emerged from these studies.

Two separate areas of the prefrontal cortex get activated in response to positive and negative gossip: positive gossip activates the orbital prefrontal cortex region, while negative gossip activates the superior medial prefrontal cortex. The intensity of responses was, however, very different depending on whether the gossip was about the subject of study or other people. Substantial activation of the superior medial prefrontal cortex was observed in both cases, regardless of the subject of the negative gossip. The orbital prefrontal cortex region was highly activated by positive gossip about the subjects themselves. However, this response was rather muted when the subjects listened to positive gossip about their friends or celebrities.

This study revealed volumes about the internal processes in our brain. It is quite clear that our ego makes us very attentive to any kind of information about ourselves passed around by other people. However, when it comes to information about others, we are biased to notice and register negative information preferentially. No wonder that the stories of scandals involving celebrities attract more attention than anything good these people do! Our own neuroanatomy makes celebrity magazines filled with the stories of scandals, cheating, and divorces, much more popular that magazines about happy family life.

There also could be a difference between strategy learning gossip and reputation gossip. A distinction noted by Belgian psychologist, Charlotte de Backer.

When gossip is about a particular individual, we’re usually interested in it only if we know that person. However, some gossip is interesting no matter whom it’s about. This sort of gossip can involve stories about life-or-death situations or remarkable feats. We pay attention to them because we may be able to learn strategies that we can apply to our own lives.

Indeed, de Backer discovered that our interest in celebrities may feed off of this thirst for learning life strategies. For better or for worse, we look to celebrities in the same way that our ancestors looked to role models within their tribes for guidance.

The bottom line is that we may need to rethink the role of gossip in everyday life; there’s no need to shy away from it or to be ashamed of it. Gossiping might just be a reflection of the curiosity that all of us humans possess.

If we gossip successfully and without intending harm on another, gossiping can assist in us being a good team player and sharing key information with others in ways that won’t be perceived as self-serving. It’s about knowing when it’s appropriate to talk, and when it’s probably best to keep your mouth shut.

It’s a fact of life: Where there are groups, there will be gossip. It’s how we’re wired. But like all things – there’s some skill to it.  

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