Thoughts / mental health week 2016

The Mental Muscle Marathon - Challenge #7: CONNECT AND LISTEN

Challenge #7. Connect and listen.

Congratulations Marathoners! You have reached the final hurdle. To end our Mental Muscle Marathon we’re going to flex our brains just a little further today and participate in active listening.

I know that I’ve banged on about the beauty of listening before, but I do truly believe that there is so much about being human that is associated with being properly listened to. Empathy, connection, acceptance – some of the biggest things that us humans are striving for – all start with proper listening.

Effective listening is so much more than just hearing. Hearing (or passive listening) occurs when we simply react to what the other person has said and then try and get your own points across. Active listening is much more attentive and focused.  It requires concentration and the use of other senses, not just the ears. Active listening is about what is being said, and what is left unsaid or only partially said. It’s observing body language and noticing inconsistencies between verbal and non-verbal messages.

On the face of it, the act of listening should be simple. We hear sounds all the time. Continuously. So why then, is hearing easy, but listening less so?

The root of the problem could be described as a kind of cognitive conundrum. We all employ heuristics (mental shortcuts), in our everyday lives to help us navigate the avalanche of information that we need to process in the world around us. In our interactions with us, we employ types of listening short-cuts too. We assume intent or motivation. We formulate our responses and we respond with our own perspective. All before the other person has finished speaking.

“If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.” – Mark Twain.

Active listening is like playing an instrument. It’s a skill that requires practice to develop. But with practice the benefits are numerous:

  • We hear way more. We don’t just hear and react to the words someone says; we hear the meaning and intention behind what someone is saying. This lets us connect with the person on a deeper level.
  • We pay people the respect they deserve. When we actively listen, we show incredible respect for them and in return they might show respect for us.
  • We’ll develop deeper relationships. When we deeply listen to and respect the people we have conversations with, it is much easier to dive deeper into a relationship with them.
  • We work out our attention muscle. Active listening constantly brings our attention back to the conversation we’re having and can have the same effects as mindfulness or meditation.
  • We can avoid misunderstandings.
  • We become a better judge of people.

So with all that in mind, today is the day to share your flex your mental muscle and share the benefits with others.

The challenge is to intentionally listen in at least one conversation today. And because it’s not a simple task (I did entire courses on listening at Uni) here are some strategies to help you through:

  1. Prepare yourself. Try and relax. Focus on the speaker. Put other things out of mind. The human mind is so easily distracted by other thoughts – what’s for lunch, what time do I need to leave, is it going to rain – gently bring yourself back to the conversation and focus on the messages being communicated.
  2. Don’t talk. When somebody else is talking really listen to what they are saying. Don’t interrupt or talk over them or finish their sentences. Just be quiet. When they’ve finished clarify to ensure you have received the message accurately.
  3. Put the speaker at ease. Remember their needs and concerns. Nod or use other words or gestures to encourage them to continue.
  4. Remove distractions. Focus on what is being said. Don’t doodle or shuffle papers or look out the window or pick your fingernails. These behaviours can disrupt the listening process and send messages to the speaker that you are bored or distracted.
  5. Try and look at the issues from the speaker’s perspective. Let go of preconceived ideas. By having an open mindwe can fully empathise with the speaker.
  6. Be patient. A pause, even a long pause, does not necessarily mean that the speaker is finished. Try and get comfortable with silence.
  7. Listen for ideas. Not just words. This might be one of the most difficult aspects of listening – the ability to link together pieces of information to reveal the ideas of others. With proper concentration, letting go of distractions, and focus this becomes easier.
  8. Ask more questions. If you don’t understand, ask more questions. Open-ended ones are particularly helpful.

“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention." – Rachel Naomi Remen

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The Mental Muscle Marathon - Challenge #6: WORRY EFFECTIVELY.

Challenge #6. Worry effectively.

How are your mental muscles feeling? Hope you are beginning to notice some of the effects of all this flexing.

We’re nearing the final part of our marathon. It’s time to talk worries.

We all worry about things we can’t change. There’s heaps of ‘what ifs?’ For some of us, it is an infrequent nuisance that ultimately causes very little long term stress or impairment. For other, worry can be a constant burden that leads to physical, psychological, and social upheaval. For some of us, worries bounce from topic to topic without any clear cause. For others of us, they focus on one primary issue (e.g., money, relationships). Some of us believe it is uncontrollable and some of us believe it is important for motivation.

In general, worry can be defined as a thought style that focuses on potential undesirable outcomes. Because it is often accompanied with the psychological and physiological symptoms of anxiety, worry can lead to fatigue, insomnia and other problematic outcomes.

Worry is usually an unproductive enterprise, though often we believe otherwise – thinking it is an important problem solving tool or a key factor in preventing problematic outcomes. This distorted belief is reinforced when the things we worry about rarely occur and then we might make the mistake of interpreting this fact as a sign that our worrying played a role in the outcome (I do this A LOT!) – ‘I worried, my feared outcome didn’t happen … looks like my worrying did the job.’ Reality is, the outcome would not have occurred even if we hadn’t worried but negative reinforcement is powerful.

If worrying about things you can’t change is something that you’d prefer to be less good at, today is the day to schedule it in your diary!

Scheduling your “worry time” to a single, 30-minute block each day can reduce your worries dramatically. Studies have shown that when patients with a mental illness are taught to catch themselves worrying throughout the day and then postpone their worries to the prearranged block of time, things seem less worrying. Even just realising that they were worrying can help people calm down, but stopping the worrying and saving it for later is the most effective technique.

Outside of this 30 minute window, if a topic prompts worry, acknowledge it, but try and delay thinking about it until the next scheduled worry time.  In this sense, we’re not ignoring the topic, but rather allotting a specific time for it during the day.  When the worry time window arrives, we can sit down and do nothing but worry for the entire span.  Sounds awful, right?

What makes this approach useful is what actually tends to happen is that once we embrace the approach and implement it into our daily routine.  First of all, we can learn that, even though worrying seemed uncontrollable, we are actually able stop worrying and delay the process until a later time.  As such, one distorted belief - that worry controls them rather than vice versa - is challenged.  Additionally, despite the belief that there is an infinite number of worries that could not possibly be covered in a mere 30 minutes, we can  find themselves bored no more than 10 minutes into the worry session.  At that point, we might realise that we are going over the same topic(s) repeatedly and that the worries are not as strong or anxiety provoking as they had seemed before.  In this way, we might find that we generally tend to worry about one small set of topics and that, when worrying is delayed, the urgency of those thoughts diminishes substantially.  

Worry time can help us take control of our own thoughts and to challenge any distorted beliefs about the importance of worry and their ability to control it.  If a topic truly requires concern, it will still be anxiety provoking when worry time comes around and we can work to enact a specific plan to adjust to those circumstances.  Most worries, however, will not have this impact and, as a result, we might find ourselves with a new sense of calm and a greater ability to handle ambiguity.

So today’s challenge is to set specific worry time. Need specific steps. Here they are:

This may feel strange and even silly to do, but try to not give in to those feelings and do it anyway.

  1. Schedule worry time each day for one week.  Put it in your calendar.  Start by setting aside 15-30 minutes during the morning or afternoon.  That will be your worry time.  It’s best not to schedule worry time right before you go to bed, for obvious reasons.
  2. During that 15-30 minute window, write down all of your worries that you can think of.  Don’t put pressure on yourself to solve them during that window, but if your mind naturally goes there, that’s fine. Writing the worrisome thoughts down can be therapeutic in and of itself, as it often lends perspective over what’s troubling, in a way that can be more powerful than internal reflection alone. Remind yourself of your intentions at the start and end of each time period.  For example, you might say to yourself: “This 15-30 minute block is for worry time, and I will do my best to not put attention on these worries outside of this time each day.”
  3. Between worry times: if you start to worry, tell yourself to let go of those thoughts until the next designated worry period.  This will feel hard at first, and may require a lot of reinforcing self-talk (e.g., telling yourself over and over to let go of thinking about your worries until it’s the appropriate time). Try not to worry about worrying outside of your worry time!  You won’t be perfect with this exercise, nobody is.  But, your intention and effort will make a difference.
  4. At the end of the week, take a few minutes to look at what you wrote down over the course of that week.  Do you notice any patterns? Any repeat worries?  Any changes in the content of your worries?  Reflect on this data.  It’s common to find a “top ten” list of worries that get played out over and over again.
  5. After doing this for one week, consider trying it for another.  As you practice this more, you’ll start to notice an increased ability to control when and where you worry; it’s akin to strengthening your muscle of thought control.

If you’d like some more tips and info you can find it here. Here’s to a (hopefully) less worrisome day Marathoners!

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The Mental Muscle Marathon - Challenge #5: GIVE BACK

Challenge #5. Give back.

We’re well over the hump now Mental Muscle Marathoners! Kudos to all of you. And there’s fun in store for you all today. Because today is about generosity!

Generosity — the quality of being kind and understanding, the willingness to give others things that have value — is often defined as an act of selflessness; however, research shows that generosity is actually (selfishly) in your best interest. Practicing generosity is a mental health principle, and it is one of the key factors in creating a joyful and healthy life.

There is so much research and statistics and smart things supporting the role of generosity in psychological and physical wellbeing that I have condensed it for you into bullet points for easy reading:

  • Generosity makes us happier. Researchers have discovered that there is a physiological basis for the warm glow that seems to often accompany altruistic giving. And this physiological basis is tied to the joy we also receive from eating, sex and social interactions.
  • Generosity makes you more healthy. When you do something good for another person, you encourage the release of endorphins (the “feel good” chemicals) in your body which brings about a ‘helper’s high’ and helps fight stress. Research has also shown that a generous attitude greatly improves our immune system, extends our lifespan and acts as an antidote to pain.
  • Generosity increases life satisfaction. There is robust evidence that volunteers are more satisfied with their life than non-volunteers.
  • Generosity leads to happiness which leads to generosity. They fuel each other in a circular fashion. Prosocial use of money/time results in feelings of happiness which are likely to lead to future similar choices. The cycle of good continues - Yaysies.
  • Generosity creates good relationships. Usually people will enjoy the company of a generous giver to the company of a selfish hoarder. Research also shows that generosity is one of the key factors for a happy marriage.

The Challenge today is all about Generosity. It’s time to engage in a selfless and meaningful act of giving. And it’s totally up to you what it is. Any kind of meaningful giving. Anything in which you give a part of yourself in a selfless way. I’m not going to offer specific examples. I’m going to let you all be creative. But I will offer these tips:

  1. Give something that is sensitive to the other person.

Generosity is most effective when the gift you offer is sensitive. Think about what the other person wants or needs. It’s not always about material things; it’s about being giving of yourself. Sometimes just being present and available to a loved one who is having a hard time is the greatest gift you could possibly give.

  1. Accept appreciation.

It is important to be open to the people who express appreciation toward you. Generosity is a two-way street, allowing someone to express their gratitude is an important aspect of generosity and part of what makes you feel closer to them. As researchers in the Department of Psychology at University of North Carolina have discovered, “The emotion of gratitude uniquely functions to build a high-quality relationship between a grateful person and the target of his or her gratitude, that is, the person who performed a kind action.” So it is important to not brush off a “thank you” with comments like “Oh, it was nothing.”

  1. Accept the generosity of others.

Some people have a much easier time being giving than receiving. However, it is important to let others do things for you. I call this the generosity of acceptance. Being pseudo-independent or self-denying robs your loved ones of the opportunity to feel the joy of giving. Accepting the generosity of others may make you uncomfortable if you felt unlovable or unworthy in your early life. Generosity is often an act of love, and, though it may seem counterintuitive, many people respond negatively to being loved.

  1. Show appreciation.

Remember that gratitude is an important part of the equation. Show your appreciation for the generosity that is directed toward you, even if you feel shy or uncomfortable. Resist the temptation to say things like “This is too much,” or “You shouldn’t have.” Instead just say “Thank you!” Or, better yet, let the person know what their generosity meant to you.

Generosity is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Each day life presents us with hundreds of opportunities to be generous; by making a lifestyle out of generosity, we can do ourselves and others a world of good.

Let’s go Marathoners! Let’s be generous.

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The Mental Muscle Marathon - Challenge #4: BE MINDFUL.

Challenge #4 – Be Mindful.

Hello Marathoners and welcome to Mindfulness day!

The concept of mindfulness has reached well beyond the world of psychology (and well beyond its roots of Buddhism) and now seems well planted into popular culture. But to be truly mindful, we do need to do a little more than just colour in.

Mindfulness is the art of paying attention. It may sound simple, yet it is one of the hardest skills to learn. Consider this – how well can you sit for one minute and completely quiet your mind? Can you do this without feeling like you’re coming out of your skin?

Being mindful means switching from ‘doing’ mode to ‘being’ mode and having the courage to monotask rather than struggling to complete multiple jobs. It means being aware of each stage of the journey rather than racing at full pelt towards the finish line. It means adopting a beginners mind and appreciating each moment as it comes. Being mindful means accepting and observing any thoughts or emotions that arise, rather than labelling them as good or bad. It means living in the present rather than dwelling on the past, or ruminating on the future.

Mindfulness is nothing new. The technique comes from traditional Buddhist teachings and Eastern philosophies and came to the field of psychology in the 1970s. Since then extensive research has been carried out between the mind and body and if we can learn to pay attention to the present moment with intention, whilst letting go of judgment, as if our life depends on it, then our life can reap the rewards. Rewards like:

  • Increasing telomerase, the ‘caps’ at the end of our genes, which, in tern can reduce cell damage and lengthen our lives
  • Bolstering our immune system making us better able to fight off diseases, from the flu to cancer
  • Helping to relieve stress and reduce chronic pain
  • Improving sleep
  • Reducing ruminative thinking that can contribute to stress, depression and anxiety
  • Helping us understand, tolerate and cope with our emotions
  • Increasing our capacity to savour the pleasures in life as they occur, help us become fully engaged in activities and create a greater capacity to deal with adverse effects.

Mindfulness meditation is an important element in the treatment of a number of mental illnesses as well including depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety disorders and OCD. It is believed that mindfulness works by assisting people to accept their experiences – including painful emotions – rather than react to them with aversion and avoidance.

There are numerous ways that you can practice mindfulness, but the goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert and focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment. All mindfulness techniques are a form of meditation.

The challenge today my friends is to cultivate mindfulness. To pay attention and observe and focus your attention on the here and now. You may choose to do this on your own, or by following the instructions from a book or an app. Or you may choose to utilise either of the two exercise I’ve listed below.

Remember though that above all, mindfulness practice involves accepting whatever arises in your awareness at each moment. It involves being kind and forgiving toward yourself. If you mind wanders into planning, daydream, or criticism, notice where it has gone and gently redirect it to sensations in the present.

Have an intentionally mindful day Mental Marathoners!

Basic Mindfulness Meditation.

  1. Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross legged on the floor.
  2. Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensations of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling as you inhale and exhale.
  3. Once you’ve narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, smells and your thoughts.
  4. Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.

Learning to Stay in the Present.

A less formal approach to mindfulness can also help you to stay in the present and fully participate in your life. For this exercise you can choose any task or moment to practice informal mindfulness whether you’re eating, showering, walking, washing the dishes, making a cup of tea. I like to practice mindful brushing of my teeth. Attending to these points will help:

  1. Start by bringing your attention to the sensations in your body
  2. Breathe in through our nose, allowing the air downward into your lower belly. Let your abdomen expand fully
  3. Now breathe out through your mouth
  4. Notice the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation
  5. Proceed with the task at hand slowly and with full deliberation
  6. Engage your senses fully. Notice each sight, touch and sound so that you savour every sensation.
  7. When you notice that your mind has wandered from the task at hand, gently bring your attention back to the sensations at the moment.
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The Mental Muscle Marathon - Challenge #3: WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE

It’s Day 3 Mental Marathoners! And today it’s time to get really mental. With our minds! We’re going to try and watch our thoughts. Our unhelpful ones.

But before we do that – let’s do a quick recap of the basic ABCs of CBT.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) involves the challenging and changing of our thoughts and behaviours in an attempt to feel differently. The ABC Model of CBT is how situations, thoughts and emotions interact.

Often we think we can go from A to C with nothing in between, but CBT would argue that there is ALWAYS a B or an automatic thought in between!

This is in a ways a very simplified explanation of our thought-process. This is how we think and how we respond to circumstances. When we choose to think in optimal ways, we can often get the best out of our abilities. However, when we think in limiting ways we often end up making the situation far worse than it should be. You therefore have both helpful and unhelpful thoughts that direct your behaviors, decisions and actions throughout the day.

Us humans are forever describing our world to ourselves, giving each experience a label or evaluating each experience with a judgment. We automatically make interpretations of everything we see, hear, touch and feel. These are the automatic thoughts that we perceive as if by reflex – without any prior reflection or reasoning and they impress upon us as plausible and valid.

More often than not we are creatures of habitual thinking with our brains on auto-pilot. We typically reach for our old habits unconsciously, relaxing into the ease of our familiar and safe routine. The idea with CBT is not to try and expel the old behavioural habits away, but instead develop new thinking habits that we can deliberately ingrain into our minds. This can create corresponding pathways in the brain bypassing the old ones. Isn’t this amazeballs?

Our automatic thoughts are learned. Since childhood, people and the world around us tell us what to think. We become conditioned by family, friends and the media to interpret events in certain ways. Over the years, we have learned and practiced habitual patterns of automatic thoughts that are really difficult to detect, let alone change. But, we were not born with automatic thoughts already wired in our brains, we learned them somewhere. And whatever is learned can be unlearned.

So, for Day 3 Marathoners, we’re going to attempt a CBT challenge! We’re going to become aware of one of the most common of the automatic thought processes that people often use which can often be unhelpful – the “shoulds”.

Should statements are a common type of unhelpful thought.

It’s quite common in everyday language to hear people use “I should” and “I must” statements. It is not necessarily unhelpful to think, “I should get my work in on time” or “I should keep to the sleep limit”, but it can become unhelpful when we use “should” and “must” statements to put unreasonable demands or pressure on ourselves.

When we believe ironclad should, ought or must automatic thoughts we can really torture ourselves. Thoughts such as “I should be happy, I should be more energetic, I should get things right or I must never get upset with my partner”. Each of these ‘shoulds’ usually brings about the consequence of guilt. Or disappointment. Or a loss of self-esteem. And they come so automatically that we don’t have time to evaluate them and they’re so rigid we can’t modify them.

Sometimes we use should statements when we talk about or to other people. “She should know better than that”. “People should always keep their promises”. “You should finish what you started.” Often the emotional consequence here is anger, frustration, and resentment.

In short, should statements are generally unhelpful.

The challenge today is to try and notice if you are an unhelpful should-er. Try and become aware of any unhelpful thoughts involving the word “should” or “must” and stop and reflect on the statement.

If you notice some shoulding, the next step is to evaluate and challenge the helpfulness.

Try and ask yourself these questions about the should statement:

  • What evidence do I have for thinking this way?
  • Is this always true? Has this always been true in the past?
  • What would I tell a friend in this situation?
  • What choice do I have in this situation?

Good luck Marathoners!

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The Mental Muscle Marathon - Challenge #1: CHALLENGE YOURSELF

Challenge #1. Challenge Yourself.

We’re not going to ease into this. Today is the day to learn something new or take on a challenge to meet a goal (that’s right – I have set you a challenge to set yourself a challenge. Insert wicked laughter).

Regardless of age, culture, gender or if you are studying, working or retired, using our minds in a way that it is not used to is a great strategy for taking care of your mental wellbeing. Doing something new can boost self-confidence and self-esteem, help build a sense of purpose, and help us connect with others. Research shows that learning throughout life is associated with greater satisfaction and optimism, and improved ability to get the most from life. People who carry on learning after childhood report higher wellbeing and a greater ability to cope with stress. They also report more feelings of self-esteem, hope and purpose. Also, it has been found to be possibly the best thing we can do to protect ourselves from certain types of dementia.

So today is the day to flex our mental muscles, break up the monotony and try and do something we haven’t done before.

Stuck for ideas?

Here’s a list I prepared earlier.

  • Learn to cook a favourite dish that you’ve never eaten at home.
  • Visit a gallery or museum and learn about a person or period in history that interests you.
  • Take on a new responsibility at work, such as learning to use an IT system or understanding the monthly reports.
  • Fix that broken bike or garden gate. Once you’ve done that, how about setting yourself a bigger DIY project? There are lots of free video tutorials online.
  • Sign up for a course you’ve been meaning to do at a local night school. You might learn a new language, or try something practical, such as plumbing.
  • Rediscover an old hobby that challenges you, whether it's making model aeroplanes, writing stories, sewing or knitting.
  • Watch a doco on Netflix.

It is up to you Hope Street Marathoners! Give your mind a flex today by learning something new.

We'd love to see what you learn or how you find the exercise. Share the love on instagram or comment on FB - #mentalmusclemarathon

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