Reflecting on a Reflection

4 Nov

I’m baaaacck! Oh yes, it is time to dance the dance of my brain versus my fingers and see which one generates content first! After so long from posting, I wanted to break down a few experiences that I have had this year – namely what it has been like to be a trainee psychologist.As much as possible, I will try to prevent this post from being a self-soothing strategy, a means for me to extract a years worth of learning in a way that is only slated to satisfy me. Instead, I’m aiming high and trying to see if there isn’t a little nugget I can sh….pull out to share with the interwebs. As an early question, I would LOVE if people want to make some blog requests of things they would like to hear/know more about!

This year has been a tricky one – this is the first year of my clinical psychology program, which makes me almost nearly just about a third of the way through far too many years of university. What I thought might be interesting to some is to offer up a perspective that many may not have considered – that of a trainee psychologist.

The typical stereotype of the psychologist is one who is stoic, capable of feats of mind-reading and is generally capable of probing and pushing on all sorts of our minds buttons. The reality, as I have discovered, is that who I am as a psychologist finding their feet is very much who I am as a person finding their feet. I have flittered between being unsure/confident, nervous/determined, sick of it/completely engaged. Imagine what it is like to sit in a room for the first time, after 4 years of study and finally say to someone:

“Hi, my name is Matt. Can you tell me what bought you here today”

Such a basic question but it sets the stage for a relationship, which in the case of some of my clients, has lasted many, many months. It was, quite honestly, utterly terrifying. I didn’t know if I was ready, if I really wanted to do this. I didn’t know if I had the skill to be able to help this person. And with that fear came a decision point…

Do I have what it takes to be what this person needs?

And the answer, I discovered very quickly, is it doesn’t matter what I think at all. It matters what the person sitting across from me thinks. And at that point in their life, what they really need is someone who gives a damn, who will listen and not judge them, who wants to really understand what it must be like to go through whatever it is that is going on for them. It was at that point that I realised that with all the training, all the experience and all the education I would undertake, the most important thing I had to offer was my time and my concern. And with this realisation, I have startled to settle into my role, albeit sheepishly, and as a result, I have become a lot more of Matt and less the nervous therapist when I’m in the clinic. My experience of this is that people have really appreciated the authenticity so much more than this rigid, professional looking individual.

It is at this point that I quite literally, need to mentally reel myself back as I feel my dancing fingers waltzing me down a path of self-righteous reflection. Despite my lucky insight that I have what I need to at least do some good, it has been a terrifically difficult year. Very long hours in class, writing up paperwork, doing reports, assignments, exams, seeing clients, going to supervision and more recently, starting a thesis – all combine to make my brain rather…well, sore!

What I have continuously rediscovered this year are two things that go hand in hand, and which I’m hoping could be of some help to you:

1. I have to stick to the processes that work for me.

It is VERY easy in this course to get caught up in the hype and fluster that goes along with the stress and it is at these times, I have noticed that my sense of competence starts to quite rapidly depart and my sense of “HOLY CRAP” takes front and centre. I’ve spent enough time at uni to work out the best way for me to do my work and the more I have stuck to that, the better I have been. If you don’t have this sense that I would really suggest thinking about (and not just uni) how you go about your stuff. What are your work patterns like? Mine are rubbish. I can’t maintain concentration for very long (I’ve already gotten up twice to do something unrelated and I’ve only written 700 words) so I work WITH rather than AGAINST this. I break all my work into smaller chunks rather than trying to bash my head against a textbook wall and do something I just don’t like doing. Some questions to guide your thoughts then:

– What is your work ethic like? Are you an endurance or sprint worker?

– How do you handle stress? If not well, what can you do to manage that stress before it flares up?

– What is your preferred way to work? Me – I prefer to work on a computer, except for study when I prefer to use pencil and paper

– What do you need to set up in your external environment to support your work? Do you need to block out time and let people know? Or (like me) do you need to work during the day and catch up with people at night?

And finally, my last (I promise!) reflection!

2. Self care/time out/looking after yourself/relaxing/me time is THE most important thing that should exist in your regular work routine

I remember being at uni one day and just being in a foul mood – I was angry, tired, completely jaded with psychology and I realised how toxic I was. I went home. I cancelled my meetings and put my work to one side and went and read a book in the sun and experienced a delicious dissolving of that bad mood. I’ve done STACKS of presentations to people about this topic and they nod and agree and then promptly disregard everything I have said. But taking the time for yourself – doesn’t matter what it is, but something that is just for you to enjoy – is so important to your mood. In a profession like psychology where we need to be 100% there with our clients, I actually think I have an ethical responsibility to makes sure that I do take time off (seriously, how awesome is that reasoning that I can take time off because im morally obligated to do so!).

Having just written this, I can’t help but wonder whether any of this sinks in for anyone. I’d be curious to know if this gives anyone a moment’s pause and even if it doesn’t, I’d love to hear what your approach is to some of this stuff. And apologies if this has come across as too much of a post to cater to my own need to write something and less as something useful for your eyeballs to consume and your brain to digest!

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The Bad Day Vaccination

5 Jan

I think the tone of this post is best set by visiting this song. In case you were wondering, i’m not listening to that song – i’m too busy getting my latin hips on while i sway and sumba to Buena Vista Social Club! As it is the new year though, i thought it might be beneficial to jump-start the mind and take a hungy hungry hippo sized bite out of an event that will likely plague your existence for this, the Year of the Rabbit (2011). So today we tackle…Having a Bad Day

Everyone has them. Some have them more than others. You rarely want them. And when you get them you usually think yours are worse than anyone else. No, it is not an STI, it is a bad day! One thing that i have noticed is that people who have never really had much to do with mental health, often throw about words that have a clinical meaning (such as depressed) but apply them to very mild situations. Bad day’s are a great example of this. Lots of people i know (me) have a tendency to extrapolate a crappy day into some kind of cosmic conspiracy whereby your existence, as you know it, is about to be reduced to a quivering mess. And all that because you didnt get enough green lights? Or because that wily old grandma took your seat!

So today, i present to you the Matt O’Connor Vaccination for Bad-Day-atitis*

First things first, what is a bad day? Well if you type “bad day” into google as i have just done, you will not be surprised to find that about 7 trillion pages come up, nearly all of which relate to the song i linked to earlier. It falls to me then to be the first person in the history of the written and spoken word to define a bad day. Ready? A bad day is NOT a good day. No wait, that’s not all! Not only is it NOT a good day, it is the ADDITION of something that is bad.

To recap –  NOT good day + Bad = Bad Day

The more wily blog readers out there will then ask the question, but how do you define bad? At which point i say ‘Ah ha!’ and reveal to you that i have just led you down a convoluted path of self discovery. For a bad day is simply of our own definition. What i mean is that a bad day is not an absolute thing – it exists because we label it as such. This is important! Because if it is not an absolute thing and that it exists because we give it a name and tell it it exists, then we must surely have some capacity to dig our fingers into it and massage it around to something more shapely and desirable. So what we have then, is a series of events that constitute a day and we assign to them what is often, an arbitrary label of good or bad. Of course some events are inherently bad – being in a car accident, losing your job etc – i’m talking more about events that are fairly ordinary e.g. dropping $1 down a drain, getting cut off driving, forgetting to bring a pen into a meeting. That means that a lot of the emotion that we experience in response to these events is a result of us experiencing an event and thinking “this thing has contributed something bad to my life” and then experiencing a sense of worry/anger/disappointment/frustration etc!

A bad day though, is more than just saying something is bad. Have you noticed that bad days tend to pick up momentum? Like sometimes a few annoying/frustrating things happen in the morning and then for the rest of the day, it seems like every little thing that happens to you is bad? What has happened though is that you have thought

‘oh crap, today is going to be a bad day’

and then for the rest of the day, you operate with this assumption so you look for information that confirms your belief that today is going to be a bad day. This is called confirmatory bias and it sure is a piece of work. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is a fantastic cognitive tool –  when you buy that new outfit and love it, all you can hear and see are the reactions from people that confirm you look slammin’ in it! But for a bad day, it means that you only notice bad day things.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, we then have a tendency to extrapolate our bad day using some of these thinking styles:

  1. Internal or External
  2. Global or Specific
  3. Permanent or Temporary

Using any one of the first of these options is usually a good way to make your bad day worse!

  1. Internal – this bad stuff always happens because i’m so stupid and forgetful (as opposed to blaming it on external factors like your boss not actually telling you they needed the report at 9am)
  2. Global – i cant believe that sales assistant was so rude to me, but i guess it shows  how crappy a person i must be (as opposed to thinking that because you were on your mobile phone while she was serving you, she was probably frustrated)
  3. Permanent – i can’t believe i forgot that paper for the meeting, this is going to ruin the entire project and i’ll probably get fired (as opposed to realising that it may only impact on the meeting and that it will in fact not ruin the project)

To recap (again! so much recapping!)

  • We label events as good and bad and that often a bad day exists because we named it as such
  • We get in our head that we are having a bad day and so look only for bad day events that confirm that
  • We engage in some crappy thinking strategies which make our bad day lost longer (or more severe) which include blaming ourselves, thinking that one bad event is generalisable across a heap of different things and that this bad day will likely last forever

So what is the vaccination? Just do the opposite of all that stuff. What! You thought it was going to be some magical cure? Of course not – as you’ve probably discovered, it rarely works like that! Ok fine, a few tips:

  • keep in mind that events are just events. The red lights aren’t ganging up on you. Don’t be so quick to label something as bad or negative – just let it be the event it is without having to give it names
  • if you feel like you are slipping into bad day mode, make a conscious effort to note GOOD things that are happening. Write them down. One thing we tend to do in a bad day is to TELL everyone we’re having a bad day so that can be a good place to start. Stop telling people! Or at the least, make sure you think of good things that are happening (there is ALWAYS something, no matter how small!) and tell people those too
  • Don’t be so quick to beat yourself up and worry over a bad day. Situations resolve themselves, problems that were there sometimes aren’t the next day – things are always in a state of motion. You will never experience a thing in the exact same way you did the day before so that means it might not be so bad the next day

Phew! that was a long one today! Enjoy!

*Note this vaccination works as it will. And by that i mean it should probably work ok. Hopefully better than ok. But if less than ok, then…well, sorry!

Ho Ho Ho…rrible gift

22 Dec

The big 2-5 looms its festive head and despite only being a few days away, i’m feeling terribly un-christmas like. To combat this, i played my all-time favourite christmas album (of course this is Mariah Carrey’s christmas hits) and bowed down to the pressure from a friend who insisted i wear reindeer antlers. Despite these otherwise fantastic improvements to my daily living, there was this niggling thing in my head, just itching away at my brain. Presents. I still had to do present shopping. I hate shopping for presents. I imagine it would be rather like shooting myself in the foot, knocking a tooth out or wrestling a bear. It is just that much fun.

Christmas is a time for giving, it is a time for family, for sharing and for celebrating the birth of christ, right? Wrong. Christmas is about presents! Don’t delude yourself, it is all about shopping and buying things. Ok, maybe that is a little bit too extreme – it is probably about all those other things as well. I find it really interesting though how much pressure we do place on ourselves to be able to buy something really cool for the people we care about (and then there is the other set of people we just feel obliged to buy for). I wonder if you have ever stopped to think about why it is that that is the case? I asked a few people recently and there answers were something like:

“Well they always get me something really nice”

“I like to buy things for people to show them i care and to do something nice for them”

You’ll note (read: will note) that those 2 answers just happen to be precisely the 2 ideas i wanted to break down (ok, so i made up those comments…but they sound real enough!). The first is something called reciprocity. This is a really powerful but rather simple social phenomenon. It goes something like – i do something nice for you and so you feel compelled to do something nice for me.

Easy example is someone shouts you a coffee. SWEET – FREE COFFEE! is what you might have thought at first but then, 1 week later when you are again out for coffee with this special someone and they place their order and the salesperson says “together or separate?”, you feel this weird impulse from deep within your nether-regions so you sigh a little to yourself and say “together” and shell over a few extra dollars. Despite having to pay back the ‘free’ coffee you had before, you have just managed to eliminate that guilty feeling we all get when inequality and imbalance occurs. I heard a wonderful story in uni about a religion i will  not name who were giving flowers out to people at airports (this was quite some time ago…before flowers were probably considered a national security threat). Anyway, they would give these flowers to people and wish them a good day or something equally as noble and would let them wander off. Unbeknownst to said flower-holders, not too further down the path was a person from the same group ready to pounce asking for donations. The psychological discomfort of holding the flower given to them and then not making a donation was too great for many and these guys reaped a heck of a lot of money (to the point where they were banned from doing this at the airport!). Reciprocity operates on the assumption that many of us want to do the right thing and that we will comply with social pressure because not to do so just makes you an ass!

And to the second, most convenient direct quote from my unnamed colleague, is the idea of altruism. Altruism is the idea of doing something for someone that does not have any direct benefit to you – e.g. helping someone change a tire on their car, leaving a happy note for a stranger, or in our christmas case, buying a gift. This definition doesn’t sit well with me though. Nothing is selfless. Sure the intention to do something nice for someone may appear to be without any thought of the cost to the giver but this overlooks one very important thing. Doing nice things for people feels good. And there is nothing wrong with that! I do quite a bit of volunteer work and i am more than happy to admit that a big motivation for doing so is that it feels really good doing stuff that helps others.

The really cool thing about altruism though is that, yeah it does make us feel good. And this effect can be extremely good for our mental health. One of the common tenants in positive psychology (and please note, positive psychology is actually the science of positive psychology, not some of the crappy self-help books you can buy!) is the practice of gratitude (a close cousin of altruism). So reflecting on things that are good in your life and sharing those things with others makes us feel good. Well doesn’t that just have a deliciously intuitive taste to it as it slides down your mental gullet! Random acts of kindness, taking time out to write a card to someone to thank them for their friendship or support, leaving a note for a co-worker to congratulate them on a good piece of work – despite making the receiver feel good, is actually good for your own health and wellbeing. Talk about a perfect scenario!

Whether you have realised this or not, this blog has painted the classic picture of good and evil. On one hand you can use the idea of reciprocity to get stuff out of friends by doing things for them (at minimal cost to you) so they feel obliged to do things for you (this, i declare as evil). And on the other, altruism and gratitude as ways to make other people – and yourself – feel all hot and hairy (or is that warm and fuzzy?) about themselves this festive season. I propose to you a compromise – give a gift that has genuine meaning. A hand-written card, on really nice paper will probably mean more to someone than a piece of jewellery or a hat (i think most things would mean more than a hat). Rather than digging deep into the pockets, dig and fuss around in that big well of ventricles and arteries you call a heart and give something that has real meaning.

What is a body clock?

13 Dec

I was having a discussion this morning with a work mate when i noted that people dislike not having a routine. Even when someone is on holidays for a couple of weeks – all the time in the world and taking it easy – they will (more than likely) find themselves settling into a routine. It might be rather simple – get up, make breakfast, go for a run, read the paper etc, yet the development of this routine seems somewhat inevitable.

But what’s the point? Why DO we have routine? Well for one thing, it gives us something to do! And don’t underestimate how important having stuff to do really is. I dare you to go for a WHOLE weekend (fri-sun) without doing anything of much substance. By the end of Sunday, i’m going to guess you’ll be feeling pretty ready to get into something of a bit more substance. Another way of explaining the benefit of having something to do is the reason why, when we go on holidays, many people like going with tour groups. Yes of course not having the stress of planning a holiday is rather positive but there is something inherently awesome about someone telling you that you have to be up at this time because they are going to drive your lazy ass all over Europe while you make absolutely no contribution at all except for the occasional snapping of a photo. Structure and routine gives us a sense of moving toward something rather than stagnating.

I think it’s worth though looking at what the mechanisms of routine are and how they come about. You have probably heard of something called circadian rhythms (not to be confused with cicada rhythms which is the annoying rise and fall over a cicada making it’s typical summer noise). Circadian rhythms refer to roughly a 24 hour cycle of physiological and behavioural actions that relate to our day-to-day living. Your body clock. This thing helps to control pretty much your entire life – timing the need to eat, sleep, go to the toilet, turn the TV on to discover who the winner of the biggest loser is…you know, important things!

What is really interesting about this process is that part of it is built into you (endogenous) which means you are hard-wired to want to do this 24hr wake and sleep thing but that this can be influenced by external factors (zeitgebers) such as daylight, time of eating, temperature (this is the classic nature Vs nurture issue). You are constantly in a state of combining your base-level physiological needs with information from the environment. Something kind of cool is that interrogation techniques in the military often focus on influencing these zeitgebers. Why? Because having your circadian rhythm messed up does some pretty bad stuff to you. If you’ve ever had jet-lag you’ll know what i’m talking about! Your brain is telling you “hey – you are tired/should be awake” and meanwhile everyone is just getting reading for lunch or it’s 2am!

Actually, sleep deprivation (which can be a result of confused circadian rhythms) is one of the more crappy lifestyle things we can do to our body. A classic example of the effects it is having on your body is that 12hrs sleep deprivation is equivalent to driving with a blood-alcohol reading of .05. So being out of your sleep cycle for more than half a day is a lot like getting rather drunk – your judgement and decision making is impaired, your reaction time is slowed, your energy levels are lowered and you just generally don’t look so great. Sleep hygiene – the process of actually having good quality sleep is something that we should all be taught and probably none of us do.

What then constitutes good sleep hygiene?

  • have a routine for getting off to sleep – this should NOT include watching tv as the last thing you do, playing video games (see my previous blog about what it did to me!) or having really bright lights on
  • try and be consistent with the time you go to bed and wake up. Obviously this is about as feasible as being able to lay down every afternoon for a nap like we did at Kindergarten, but as much as possible you should try and keep to a regular time
  • make sure you are not too hot (or cold) – i know this sounds like a weird one but if you get too hot, your brain wakes you up and tells you to do something about it
  • Insert other things, which really are common sense

There is no absolute with this kind of stuff. Just like there is no required time for how long you should sleep. But as with most of the things i write about it, what you have to do is be disciplined. Yeah yeah yeah, the classic “I should do that always kicks in” but when you have to pay the consequences, you’ll wish you had been more diligent in looking after your health. Having a good circadian rhythm – eating and sleeping at the right time – does a LOT to help your physical health but it also is a major factor in looking after your mental health. Think about times when you are stressed at work/school – you probably stop eating well and at the right times, your sleep get messed up and you end up being really stressed. So what caused it? Being stressed in the first place or the changes to your healthy rhythms? I’m not sure – but i can bet you that those changes sure made it drag on longer.

Start getting yourself into good habits NOW! Have a good sleep routine and make sure that you are trying to keep your general routine pretty consistent – especially in times of stress!

Eustress, Distress, We All Stress!

26 Nov

It is been eerily quiet on the blog-front lately! But i think today’s topic is quite apt given the state of complete dishevelment I have been in lately. As a small and rather obvious self-plug, I am very excited to announce that i will be doing my masters in Clinical Psychology next year: “Hey Ma, I’M GONNA BE A PSYCHOLOGIST!”. Anyway, enough of that dribble. Today i thought we’d look at stress and specifically, what it is and what it does to you.

As always, it is a joyous and wonderful idea to define the term (usually in as vague a way as possible so i don’t get too heavily criticised). In a biological sense, stress is an inappropriate physical response to any demand. And what do you know, in a psychological sense, stress is an inappropriate psychological response to any demand. It is somewhat useful to dinstiguish between stress (as a condition) and stressor (as the thing causing it). I’ll not go into all the symptoms of stress because if you don’t know them, you are obviously 2yrs old or high as a kite!

People often talk about being ‘burned out’ or ‘run down’ but i think, while we can (usually) identify when those feelings exist, the concept of what is actually happening within us is fairly unknown. A stress response is very much like an anxious response in that your body is activating its ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. This means that your autonomic nervous system is activating a range of other things in your body which produce stuff like increased heart rate, increase blood flow, increased rate of breathing, changes in your tummy and a host of other things. You also have a range of psychological responses – your brain is able to process stimulus more rapidly and recall is better. Most people think this to be a rather overwhelming and intrusive reaction. But consider that there are actually a number of situations where a stress response like this could be useful. Your boss asks you to do a presentation and gives you 5min notice, you have to sit an exam, you are in a car accident. All these things benefit from a short burst of energy that the stress response can bring about.

But herein lies the problem. Can you remember what it feels like AFTER you have had a stress response? Coming home from a full on day at work or sitting that exam or doing that presentation? You are exhausted! Your body has gone all superhuman and now is asking you for a chance to recover. But what if your stress is an ongoing, chronic thing? Say because your workload is too much or you have a range of things going on in your life? Then this is when people start to get ‘burned out’ – both physically and psychologically. Chronic stress has been shown to reduce your immune system, impair your cognitive abilities and to generally make you feel like crap. And that makes sense right, because your body is in a constant state of powering up and is not getting the time it needs to repair and recover. Your brain and body juices are all sucked up and dry and they ain’t getting an juicier!

Tips and tricks for managing stress?

  1. STOP STUFFING AROUND – TAKE TIME OFF! You might think proudly of how hard you work and how amazing your work ethic is but if you don’t have built into that some sense of when you need to step back and recover then you are destined for burn out. Maybe not next week or next month but eventually, you will feel the effects of constant stress. Negotiate with your boss the capacity to take time off on a regular basis. Plan it as part of your workload. There is nothing weak about it – in fact it is very clever.
  2. Be clear about what things you have control over and what things you need to wish away into the ethers. Think over the last week and things that have caused you stress. How many of those things, at that exact moment in time, were you able to influence? Saving things for later, choosing to act when appropriate and deciding what you have the ability to influence is really important for managing stress
  3. Never, ever, ever, ever spend your whole day in your office/chair/desk/workspace. If you have time to eat lunch, you have time to eat it somewhere else. Take time away from the space where you are working to re-energise your brain. There is some pretty compelling research that says that getting outdoors for a stroll has a really wonderful effect in relaxing your brain and body.
  4. Set goals. Yeah i know, you’ve tried and failed. Well try again. And fail some more and then keep trying. If you know what you need to do, you spend less time worrying about what needs to be done. Clear plan of attack = more time to do things that relax you. Also makes you feel good when you achieve things as you planned to do

Clearly not an exhaustive list but i thought perhaps some of the ideas that people might not have considered/have considered and dismissed. To be fair though to stress, i should also acknowledge that stress isn’t inherently bad. In fact there is a distinction between DIstress (bad stress) and EUstress (good stress). There is good stress? You bet your sweet pippy there is! I am the type of person that likes to have a bit of a deadline, a bit of a time pressure – i find that it drives me and keeps me going. As someone said to me once, it is easier to increase your speed on a treadmill then it is to start still and then jump on full speed.

What then is the ideal level of stress? Well you can decide that. What research has shown is that there is an inverted (upside) down U – where a moderate amount of stress is good and too little or too much is bad. Unfortunately that is a sliding scale for you to define so sorry, no quick answer there! In all seriousness though, stress is a major cause of psychological and phsyiological problems and it is because people don’t have a good ‘stress routine’ that they stick to with the same discipline they use to meet deadlines at work. We’ll all go through states of stress and sometimes they will last longer than we like but work out how you manage stress and then make sure you use it when you need it!

The myth of natural therapy

1 Nov

It has officially begun again. As i sat down to nibble on my delicious smelling toast and have a power-sip of my muscle generating milk and sustagen, i was – as has happened nearly once a year since i was long enough to be frustrated by it – slapped in the face by an article of the benefits of natural therapies. Ooo has that created tension in the minds of some readers already? But i haven’t even told you that acupuncture doesn’t work yet!

Natural therapies are a group of therapies which are not widely accepted in traditional medicine and science. Yeah ok, i know that is a sweeping definition of it. But for examples of natural therapies check this out (though i have considerable distrust of some of these listings – for example there are few people who would consider psychotherapy as delivered by a trained professional, a natural therapy). Some of the more common therapies people will be familiar with are acupuncture, homoeopathy, naturopathy, reiki and massage. Many of these therapies aim to treat people in a more holistic way, which is that they treat a combination of the body and the mind or they consider a range of factors that traditional medicine might ignore.

So why do these alternate forms of medicine seem to upset me so? Thanks for asking. To explain it, it is probably worthwhile briefly explaining the placebo effect. The placebo effect is the provision of a fake treatment or substance that produces positive health effects in the individual. Most commonly in research studies, the placebo is a sugar-pill (note: if you eat M&M’s, you will not be curing yourself!) or fake operation where a small incision might be made but no procedure conducted. This effect can be tremendously powerful with some studies reporting up to 50% improvement when using the placebo alone. This can often be comparable to the therapy being delivered. And it is this, my fellow jelly-beings, that is the crux of the natural therapies debate.

Natural therapies DO work. Well they kind of work. Ok only some of them kind of work. I recently read a book called “Trick or Treatment” which was a review of the research on a few major natural therapies and their evidence base (I recommend skimming this book if you are interested in this stuff – it is a bit of a rambling read at times). I was actually quite surprised to see that acupuncture had a very limited evidence base. But when i thought about why this surprised me, i realised i’d fallen into into a classic thinking trap. I thought it worked because i knew so many people who had had it done and seemed to get some relief out of it (see this post on availability heuristic). But when i looked at the principles of acupuncture, it is actually based in chinese-medicine and the idea of meridians and chi and energy-flow in the body. Quite an ethereal concept indeed! The research has shown that there is a very strong placebo effect involved in this process (as shown by creating fake needles that do not penetrate the skin properly but feel very much like proper acupuncture). Yet there is certainly evidence that for some conditions, acupuncture can be effective ABOVE AND BEYOND the placebo effect. They just don’t know the mechanism by which it works.

Let’s go back to the start though, with the article in the newspaper that got me all hot and bothered about natural therapies. Immunisations. No, immunisations are not natural therapies! But nearly once a year the papers start running with the debate of whether to vaccinate your child. You should. You really, really should. The fear of vaccination is that it can CAUSE health problems – an argument which has been particularly strong for autism. The problem with this though is that it shows an absolute lack of understanding of cause and effect. For example, the age that many children get vaccinated is also around the same age that autistic symptoms begin to be identified. So vaccination isn’t actually causing autism, but rather just happening at a similar time (the classic example is that does the rooster’s crow cause the sun to rise?). Vaccination has been shown through stacks of research (like that from the World Health Organisation) to be a safe means to protect your child from disease and, to be frank, death. But what has vaccination got to do with all this?

Because of the scaremongering created around vaccinations, people turn to alternative therapies. Like homoeopathy. Homoeopathy works on the principle that like cures like so they take an ingredient believed to help cure something and water it down to the point that (as Dr Karl described it), it’s like taking a thimble-full of something that might actually work and tipping it into the biggest lake in the world and then drinking the water and expecting something to happen. There is no evidence that this therapy works. And the scary thing is that rather than vaccinating children, people are using this instead.

“It works! My child recovered/never got (insert a preventable disease)”

Flawed point. It works because everyone else is protected agains the disease and so it is not around to catch it. Herd immunisation is the idea that out of 99 people who are protected from something, there is a buffering effect for the 1 that doesnt. What happens though is that when enough people don’t get vaccinated, herd immunity doesn’t work as well. As i heard someone report it on the radio – we are re-introducing diseases that we have effectively cured, diseases which 50-100 years ago wiped out millions and millions of people.

This has been a rambling and disjointed attempt at creating an argument. I apologise for that – i got excited! This idea though is probably one of the most unpopular points of view that i have. People always come back with “so what if it placebo, it works.” And that is an excellent point. I  don’t argue with or judge anyone who wants to try a treatment to improve their health. What i object to is when practitioners of these therapies make claims that a) they cannot support with research, b) charge excessive amounts of money/encourage a large number of sessions and c) provide advice that can potentially be harmful or life-threatening (for example ‘Trick or Treatment’ reported a number of acupuncturists recommending people alter the dosage of the medicine provided to them by a doct0r). Western medicine doesn’t know it all. But it sure knows a lot. People who claim to be able to cure all sorts of things without any proof that they can do so should not be your first port of call for illness. Definitely something to consider i think but i dont think they should be your priority.

Think differently about anything i’ve said? Let me know – i’m happy to have my arguments challenged!

It is a queer affair

15 Oct

Today is Wear It Purple day – supporting young gay people at risk. At risk of what some of you might wonder? How about one of the scariest facts that your sexuality – that your desire to share a relationship with a human being – can expose you to. Gay youth are THREE times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual people of a similar age. Consider that in the context that for young people, suicide is the biggest cause of death. Or what about that 38% of gay people have experienced discrimination; 50% have experienced verbal abuse & sadly, 74% of this abuse happens at school.

To me, the argument of whether you are gay or not is completely moot (see my previous post “Are gay parents good enough?”). Let us strip it down to it’s barest components before i talk about the basis for this insane and extremely damaging prejudice. It is the human body’s natural desire to seek companionship. From an evolutionary perspective, we survived if we were able to form groups with other people in order to share resources, knowledge and skills. From this we also know that sexual desire is something we are biologically set to experience – it means that we are able to pass our genes on for the next generation. Given these ideas though, some may argue that same-sex attraction is a perversion of the natural order – that because you can’t procreate that there is something inherently wrong with you. Consider this then if you are pondering over what traits would be desirable within a future community.

Same sex attracted who have all the capacity to be important, contributing individuals or,

Heterosexual individuals who possess a dangerous combination of ignorance and intolerance?

To be same sex attracted is to be different sex attracted. It is a pure, human desire to both sexually and psychologically desire to yearn for the intimate contact of someone you are attracted to. How dare heterosexual couples think that they have the monopoly on what it means to have a meaningful relationship that is based on love, companionship, trust and shared experience. It is not for me – or for any other straight individual – to be able to say that because our experience is the majority one, that it is more right or more appropriate than that of a gay couples. Still don’t think i’m right? Let’s extrapolate that reasoning then…

A dislike of homosexual couples comes from a number of sources. Let us start with the easiest. We tend not to like things which we ourselves do not believe in. That is a perfectly valid point of view – i would doubt that many of us show any support to terrorism. But i have heard the muttered-comment of many a straight (often men) about a gay person in their presence as:

“Well i don’t kiss dudes, so i sure as hell don’t know why he would want to. It’s  so wrong”

Sure that is almost a valid point. I for one would not be a big fan of kissing another guy. But where the validity of the above point falls down is when you apply it to situations like:

“Well i don’t base jump, so i sure as hell don’t know why he would want to. It’s so wrong”

Unfortunately these prejudiced individuals don’t actually apply their reasoning consistently do they? No. Their argument doesn’t ever really extend to many other things they themselves don’t approve of. This example exposes that kind of reasoning for the lie it is. Nothing more than an attempt to disguise prejudice in a way that seeks social approval by disguising it in a form that other people may also relate to. I agreed with that above statement because i don’t want to kiss another guy, but if someone else does then knock yourself out! I also would never base jump, but if you want to then please DON’T knock yourself out!

I want you to consider then that we live in a world where gay people are accepted. Just think about what that might mean to the teenage boy or girl who is repeatedly attacked – both physically and psychologically – because of whose hand they would most like to hold. Imagine yourself in a situation where something you care a lot about becomes the bane of the worlds existence and then imagine people finding what ever way they could to ridicule and hurt you for that. Every day of your life, you are made to feel inadequate as a human being for something you have no control over and have in fact, just been born with.

Now what if i were to tell you that a world where gay’s are accepted already exists? Don’t believe me? What do you think of lesbians? I would guess that you, like most of western world are either positively deposed (particularly if you are a guy) or neutral towards 2 girls holding hands or more likely, kissing. The vast majority of my female friends have kissed other girls – often to the excited delight of onlookers. This happened a lot at school, with no repercussions for the females (except for perhaps more guys asking them out). I can’t even imagine what would  have happened had 2 guys kissed and what would have happened to them. Again the situation is one of inconsistent attitudes. And when inconsistent attitudes exist we can know that the belief is not an intrinsic one but rather something that is formed and shaped and something that is mindlessly clung to despite all the reasons to stop.

Take home message? Young, gay people are killing themselves. A lot. And those that are not are suffering through more pain than probably many of us can imagine. It is unnecessary, it is devastating and it is horrendous what they have to suffer. Stop caring so much about who someone wants to go on dates with and care a bit more about the billion of other things in this world your attention could be better used for. If you are gay and have read this then know that the “it gets better” campaign is wrong. It is already getting better.

Insights Instep

3 Oct

I’m aching. I mean there are parts of me that are aching that i previously was not aware of. I feel like NASA charting new territories where apparently muscle once (or may still) live. My body is like the Pluto of our universe – first it was ok, now it’s not but no one is really sure why. I have bruises, scratches and cuts, my head is pounding and i’m not at all sure that i won’t die in my sleep. Yet. I FEEL GREAT!

I’ve just gotten back from a 36hr retreat camping trip with a group of very awesome people. Settle in as i paint the picture of our trip:

Me – completely unprepared, carrying unnecessary bulk and blissfully unaware of the difficulty of the trek

Everyone else – in various states of laughing at me plonking along. Carrying what are probably items made BY nasa.

So the hike was all up, about 30km including walking from our car to the basecamp (3km) and then the hike up the mountain (13km) which was 1,300m high. It rained a good part of the way, was slippery and it was not like hiking a normal path – there was some dense foliage to plough through and some climbing-esque rock faces.  But this blog is not about my camping trip as such but more the things that i pondered on during what was effectively 10hrs of continuous walking.

The first thing is pain. It is a fascinating thing pain. For the most part we hate it but have you ever considered what it would be like if it didn’t exist? There is in fact a fairly rare set of people who, through either birth or head-injuries, are incapable of feeling pain. I know what you’re thinking, these people are the next generation of superheros! Right? Wrong. In fact it can be an extremely invasive problem, including (extremely) regular body checks to see if they have hurt themselves as the lack of pain makes them incapable of detecting things that would otherwise leave most of us flawed. Think about how they would know about appendicitis without the pain to tell you?

So as I swore and cursed my way up this stupid mountain in varying states of pain, i considered that despite, at this point in time wanting to remove my pain, there might be something in it i should be thankful for. For starters, i can’t recall many things i have done in my life that i am proud of that did not require some kind of (emotional/intellectual/physical) pain. Surely there is nothing i have achieved which was done so through mediocrity that i would consider a genuine achievement. So the pain of each step was just driving in the fact that i was doing something that would later become a story to tell. There is also something very primal about the mastery and coordination of your body to some kind of competent, mountain-goat climbing state. It felt good to really push my body and watch it perform the things i asked of it with minimal fuss (until now!).

The second thing i thought about was a mix of mindfulness, cognitive restructuring and the slightly more ethereal idea of ascending the body. There was a distinct point on that bloody big mountain where i was thinking “this is enough, I’m done. I am miserable, I will achieve nothing more by pushing beyond my limit.” This lasted for a good 20min until i realised the choice i faced was reminiscent of the choice we really regularly face.

Act or stop reacting

Thankfully in this instance, I had my very determined friends pushing through and so my decision to act was quickly removed. So i had to stop reacting. Like most decisions we make, the act of making the decision was enough to give me a mental second-wind and so i sent out a cognitive search party to locate something i had learned, experienced or acquired that would allow me to re-imagine this situation. And then i realised i was most of the way up a mountain. A big, beautiful mountain. When i looked – and i mean really looked – i could see an intensity of colour and a captivating sight of pure nature. I could hear nothing but the ocassional bird (and loud random-chatter of our group!). Rather than seeing inside my head, I used my head to see what was outside of it and all of a sudden my experience became a physical – rather than mental – one. Imagine what energy we save when we give ourselves over to a deicion we have made and rather than rile against it, do our best to seek out it’s goodness and wholly consume that.

The third thing (well 8 hours of walking does give you a lot of time to think):

Was how damned proud of myself i was. Had it been my choice or my group to lead – i would have called a stop about an hour from the summit. But i pushed on (under duress) and i did what i planned to do. But i wondered whether the rest of the group also felt this sense of personal achievement that i did? One of the members of our camper-hiker-friendly-family recently completed a marathon and i pondered whether this achievement was not as big?

It’s an interesting thought – achievement and what we ourselves, define our achievements as. I think we set our benchmark too high. Well i certainly do. I have always been of a way to jump from one task to another with little time to stop and reflect on whether what i have done is actually something to be proud of. Just because we’ve done something once, done something similar, had someone expect that we could do, thought that we should have been able to do it, decided it’s no big deal – all these things are justification for why the completion of something is not cause for a personal celebration. So what is the point of setting this high standard? The devils advocate says that it pushes us and allows us to achieve greater things. I have my own personal devils advocate, and i can say with some degree of expertise, that he is not always right! Imagine if you dropped your standards a little. Which is not to say that you dont want to achieve great things but that the threshold for where you step back and look upon your task and think “I’ve done a good job” was lower. Imagine being more proud, more impressed with what you have done. Surely that is a good thing?

I guess this was a slight stray from the usual psyc-driven content but who knows, maybe my ponderings will help along one of your ponderings? Regardless, i recommend everyone go and get out into nature – even if it is just for a stroll for an afternoon. It has a remarkable effect on your brain!

The Paradox of Choice

16 Sep

Being alive at this time, at this point in the history of the world is hard. Looming threats of war, lifestyle illness on the increase and the earth steaming up like a (not so awesome) sweedish sauna. And then there is the mother of all problems. The real deal-breaker. The kind of problem that, as you lay in bed trying  desperately to sleep, you become overwhelmed with uncertainty. Oh yes, that’s right. Choice. Choice is the worst problem society, as we know it today, is facing.

Dramatic enough? I was writing that thinking it might be performed as a voice-over for some kind of new genre of film. Was kind of hoping it might suck people in a little so if you’ve gotten this far, thanks for indulging me! But actually it is a pretty big deal – and especially for young people I think, where the concept of choice and the variety of choices is more easily consumed then say that of the older generations. Let me start slow, build it up, maybe return to the start again and then deftly weave a reference from earlier back into the present so that we arrive at the future. Got it? Good. Let’s do it!

Choice Paralysis is this thing that up until about a year ago, I was blissfully unaware of. The premise of this is that an abundance of choice, rather than providing us with this freedom to make a decision, actually results in a possum-like response to making a choice. You freeze. But this almost seems counter-intuitive (well, almost). For the most part, people think an abundance of choice is a good thing. I mean you get to make a decision out of a range of alternatives that have potentially high appeal. Surely that’s a good thing! Let’s illustrate with a before and after example (and if you don’t believe me, ask your parents about what they think!).

Old Person:

Choice back then was which job they would likely spend the rest of their lives in. Would they get married at 23 or 24. Would they have 3 or 5 kids?

Person below the age of 30 or who feels below the age of 30

Choice now is about what degree to undertake, how many you should do, whether you should specialise in this area or that. What job should you work at? Should you quit that job and take another job that offers more perks? Do you even WANT to get married? Should you adopt instead of having a child. What is more important – money or contentment. Do you need a job that fulfils your personal needs?

But choice paralysis need not be about all these big, important life things. I have a superannuation account. Ok i actually have 3. And i KNOW that i’m losing money by not putting it into 1 but there are too many choices and so i find it easier to just not choose at all. Or what about if you think you might like to try a new cereal because you have been having toast for breakfast – but there are SO many types of cereal that you walk away with a loaf of bread instead because bread is the safe and easy option!

How does this work and why does it keep happening? There are 2 parts to it. The first is that to actually MAKE the decision you need aLOT of information. Say you have 5 shampoo’s to choose from and they all look equally appealing. You need to try and find out about all 5 of them before you can work out whether one is a a better choice than the others. Which means maybe reading the label and consuming the information. Then you have to think about what it is you are actually looking for in your shampoo so you have to create some kind of (fairly arbitrary) set of conditions the shampoos need to meet. And then there is the second part to it – don’t. make. the wrong. choice! We HATE making the wrong choice for things (think about how you feel when you are out to dinner with friends and your meals come out and you look at someone else’s dish and think “oh damn that looks yummy” and so you secretly despise that person a little for the entire night because their dish was superior). By making a choice from a series of appealing alternatives, you run the risk of making the WRONG CHOICE! So as you lather up your hair every few days weeks, you think to yourself:

“If only i had bought the shampoo made from the wafted essence of the ju ju fruit from the Himalayan Glaciers. But no, i don’ have that. Now i have to put up with my stupid inferior shampoo made from the typical collection of honky-tonk palm leaf, traces of the vanilla mango bean and the flavour of cut grass in the morning! OH THE PAIN!”

I remember reading a study a while ago looking at superannuation in the US when organisations started offering a wide range of alternatives. Instead of staff choosing one and reaping the benefits of the organisations contribution, people weren’t choosing ANY. So some orgs decided to just offer them a few. Hey presto people chose one and started earning their $$$s.

So what then is the solution? My guess is to be more liberal with your ability to eliminate choices. When you are looking to buy that new big TV, ask yourself “do i really care if it has a brand name?” Nope? BAM, you now have about 1/10 of the options! A good old fashioned  culling of decisions can sure make your life easier and also make you feel better about whatever thing you decide. Or you can try and choose with a degree of randomness – that way you can’t fault your reasoning and so can feel infinitely better if you make a wrong choice.

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My star sign = me?

29 Aug

“That is SUCH a Taurus thing to say”

I have certainly heard plenty of claims that mine or others behaviour is related to their star signs. In fact, many people i know utterly swear by star signs being a useful way to predict people’s behaviour, interests, passions, abilities and skills. So before i get into it, and because i’m sure you’d all be interested, i have a brief description of all the star signs below (taken from here). Have a read – i think mine is pretty spot on! (I’m a Gemini)…

Pisces gets things started and then pursues them with gusto (but maybe not much practical common sense). Life is like a battle to be entered into and won. Your will must prevail. All is possible. If impossible it just takes a little longer (or so you believe).

Aries enjoys the sensual world for it’s own sake (compare Virgo which has to do something with it). Down to earth, pragmatic, will stubbornly pursue a task to completion without deviation once it has the impetus to get going (which may take a while).

Taurus takes an interest in anything initially but gets easily bored. A seeker after information, passing it on to others whether or not it’s worth the trouble. A winner if clear thinking is what is needed in a crisis.

Gemini is the home and family lover of the zodiac. The break-up of families and the use of houses as just somewhere to live rather than places to create real homes is painful, and leads to the forging of alternative families in other settings so that the feeling of being at home can be enjoyed.

Cancer radiates warmth, light and goodwill – and likes it if you notice it doing so! Cancer at its best is confident and decisive, has an overall perspective on life and can bring out the best in others.

Leo’s great gift is the ability to discriminate between what is useful and what isn’t. It is at home with the details that others find boring. When Leo relates to you an important occasion you may boil with frustration waiting for the relevant conclusions to emerge from the carefully ordered account of events leading to them – Leo knows what is useful but bores you with the details anyway.

Virgo, the desire for relationship is strong, but like some other signs, Virgo has a problem with the emotional complexities therein. Despite this, Virgo is incredibly passionate and engages with all tasks with strong commitment.

Libra needs to delve beneath appearances to reality. Nothing superficial will do. Try small-talk and Libra will move away to look for more fertile pastures where its emotional intensity can be engaged.

Scorpio strives for what is beyond day to day human experience, whether it travel to distant lands, broadening knowledge by education or by exploring the spiritual dimension of life.

Sagittarius is content to work within the social order in which it finds itself and seeks success therein. A great sense of responsibility and a determination to complete any project once started. Seeks tangible results.

Capricorn has ideas to take humanity out of its restriction to the social order into a wider sense of community. Values freedom and equality, encouraging others to claim what it considers is their due.

Aquarius has an instinctive connection with life beyond space and time such that ordinary daily life can seem a burden. As an actor on the stage can lift an audience out of itself so can Aquarius give life by infusing this world with intimations of another.

Back to me now! I’m down here! The blog keeps going so you don’t have to read the star signs anymore!

How did yours read? Sound like you, or you mum or brother or friend? I hope so!

Ever read my blog before? Starting to wonder why i would all of a sudden go for the notion of star signs as a predictor of personality and behaviour where previously i have done nothing but mumble and mutter about the craziness of pseudo-scientific, hinky endeavours? Well the reason for my hope that you agreed with your star sign is because…

I set you up.

Yeah i did. Sorry. How? All i did was swap around the order of the descriptions. So if you want your real description then just read the one above you! (if you are pisces, then read aquarius). So in fact, you have just read the WRONG description of you and hopefully (for the sake of me trying to make a point!), you have agreed that that sounds a lot like you!

Astrology is a big load of…um….Well it’s not very scientific. Which is not to say that i only like things that are scientific. I like rock music. And my fish – i mean he doesn’t say much so i assume he isn’t scientific. My relative coolness aside, what is going on here and why do so many people seem to agree with their star sign?

It is something called the confirmatory bias. If reason and common sense were pirates, then the confirmatory bias would be a ninja, constantly battling for popularity and dominance. And like the pirate Vs ninja debate, the ninja kicks ass. So what is this thing? It is a tendency for people to look for, recognise and remember information that is consistent with an attitude or belief they already have. In the case of our wonderful star signs, when you read a paragraph riffing off a list of personality traits and characteristics, do you just notice the ones that are like you and kind of ignore the other ones? No? Stop lying. You know you do! Unfortunately this little phenomenon, like your typical ninja, operates with a high degree of stealth, is able to slice through even the most hardened of individual (and their thinking) and deliver a killing blow to your mind-set (i don’t know if ninjas can do that, but they can do most everything else so i thought, why not!).

Think about all the situations where you tend to focus on information that confirms something you already believe. My list includes:

  • (to stereotype excessively) – I can give females i know a lot of great compliments about how they look, but as soon as i drop one (slightly) negative comment, they hone in on it and focus on that to the exclusion of any positive i have provided (suggesting that perhaps they may be insecure with their appearance)
  • you think that a particular organisation is superior to another organisation, so you focus on all the positive things about your organisation and gloss over the negatives (also ignoring the positives of the other organisation. Why do you give money to World Vision instead of Oxfam or Oaktree or any of the others?)
  • you think all indigenous/young/ethnic people are drunks/drug-addicts/thieves so whenever you see one of these people engaging in that behaviour, you turn to your friend and say “see, i told you so!”, regardless of how many times you might have seen one of those people NOT engaging in that behaviour

But this can also have some really serious implications for mental health. If you believe you are worthless, you are likely to focus on all information that suggests that is so. If you have issues with shyness or socialising, you are likely to notice all the times when you have been rejected or felt uncomfortable. Or if you believe people are generally mean, again, that is what you will see.

However, all things need balance. If you focus on the negatives, then you can sure as sh…heck focus on the positives. Imagine spending a whole week with beliefs like ‘the people i work with really like me‘, ‘i make people smile‘, ‘i am really competent at what i do‘ and ‘nature is such a beautiful thing‘ and spending the rest of the week noticing all the things that confirm this view. Wow. I want that week. I really, really, want that week!

Maybe then, before you jump to conclusions and over-exaggerate how BAD something is, you should think about what evidence there really is for it. And if you have a positive view and think something is great? Well don’t analyse that! Just love and savour it! We all need a bit more positivity in our world!

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