7 Tips on How To Maintain Your Mental Health

You are the most important person in your life. It may sound selfish, but you need to take care of yourself first before you can take of other people. Self-care is a combination of looking after your body and looking after your mental health – the two work hand in hand. There are a number of ways to take care of your mental health to ensure that you are in a good space.

 

Talk about your feelings

Something as simple as talking about your feelings can benefit your mental health immensely. A lot of people don’t like talking about their feelings and so they bottle everything up and try to deal with it themselves. Doing this will make your mental health deteriorate until you get the point where you just can’t cope with your emotions.

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Perfectionism: Are you the perfect perfectionist?

And is it working for you? Perfectionists are invariably high achievers as they are usually single-minded in their determination to be the best at everything they undertake. Perfectionists are highly motivated and goal directed and usually do well at work as a result. For this reason, society and bosses, value perfectionists. So why can perfectionism become a problem? Perfectionists tend to see things in terms of black and white – only 100% (or even 110%) is seen as good enough. Small mistakes are often catastrophised as failure. Perfectionists tend to drive themselves ruthlessly, often resulting in burnout and health problems, such as high blood pressure and cardiac problems. Individuals prone to perfectionistic thinking also suffer from high levels of anxiety and depression. They tend to worry excessively about making mistakes – being five minutes late for work can be viewed as a major disaster! For this reason perfectionists often consider psychotherapy to help them to overcome and manage their symptoms and to make desired  changes to their lifestyle so they are able to feel less burned out and exhausted. Why is perfectionism such a hard nut to crack when there are such obvious benefits to moderating this behaviour pattern? Perfectionists try hard to achieve in everything they set out to do – however, trying hard to become less of a perfectionist creates a paradox – a bit like trying hard to sleep or to relax! I point out to my perfectionist clients that, if they are convinced that curbing their perfectionistic tendencies will lead to greater happiness that they will need to learn the cognitive skills that will allow them to revise their all-or-nothing thinking and to control and calm their minds. Useful approaches in this regard include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), relaxation and mindfulness training.

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Brains, minds and relationships: the good news is that our brains are wired for relationships!

Over the weekend I attended a wonderfully stimulating and informative workshop by the American expert in the field of interpersonal neurobiologyy, Dr Daniel Siegel. I had read a number of his books which I have found extremely relevant to my clinical work as a psychologist in the field of health and positive psychology. I was, however, quite bowled over by his one day presentation of his concept of "Mindsight".

Mindsight refers to our ability to become aware of our awareness and our ability to be present with ourselves and with one another in our relationships. Dr Siegel has developed a mindfulness technique called "The Wheel of Awareness" to help anyone who wishes to deepen and stengthen their ability to relate and connect with themselves and with others. This is a hugely worthwhile practice as it underpins both social and emotional intelligence and hence our success in relating to our nearest and dearest but also with people in a variety of social situations, including the workplace.

Dr Siegel defines the human mnd as "the emergent self-organising embodied and relational process that regulates the energy flow within and between us". This may seem to be pretty complex, and it is of course, however, what is interesting from a relationship point of view is that our brains are wired for relationships with other people, for being able to empathise and resonate with the emotions of others. We are therefore "built" for being in relationship with others and from an early age our attachment with significant others in our lives builds up neural circuits for interpersonal relationships.

How I see the implications of Dr Siegel's cocept of Mindsight for relationships and for couple counselling:

* We each have the potential to relate meaningfully with others as our minds are designed for relationships. However, if we as individuals are not self-aware and in a state of inner harmony, we will probably find it difficult to access the parts of our mind which allow us to empathise with our partner. This begs the question: Can we maintain good relationships if we as individuals are in a bad space and/or we are functioning largely on auto-pilot?

* Sometimes our early experiences as a child with our primary attachment figures are less than optimal and may negatively affect our ability to develop deep and meaningful relationships. If you think that this may be the case and you are finding that your relationships are suffering as a result, the optimistic message is that it is possible to make positive changes to your brain through mindfulness training, meditation and psychotherapy and by doing so, you could in all likelihood improve your ability to relate meaningfully in all areas of your life.

Reference: Mindsight; Transform your brain with the new science of kindness. Daniel Siegel.

 

 

 

 

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Why is it easier to be anxious and depressed rather than happy and relaxed?

It appears that we can blame it on evolution!

Why is it so difficult to stop our minds drifting to unpleasant and anxiety-provoking topics? Often this happens in the middle of the night, especially to insomniacs who often find that their thoughts prevent them from getting back to sleep. Well, evolutionary psychologists put it down to the way in which our brains are wired, says Ronald Siegel in his article entitled “West meets East” in the September/October edition of Psychotherapy Networker (in which he discussed the link between psychotherapy and Eastern spiritual practices, such as mindfulness). The arguement goes that the human beings of today have survived through natural selection only because, through thousands of years, they are the ones who were constantly on the lookout for danger and needed to be extremely adept at anticipating possible risks and life-threatening situations. So anxiety and fear kept you alive whilst happiness and complacency got you killed. So, although the world has changed a great deal since the days of our cavemen ancestors, our physiology and the wiring of our brains have remained more or less the same, causing us to react to (usually) benign life events, such as traffic snarl-ups and work pressure, asif they were of the magnitude of a tiger hiding in the shadows, waiting to pounce. So if we are wired for anxiety and stress, what can be done about it? First it is necessary to develop an awareness of the problem. Then with the help of cognitive-behavioural techniques (CBT), relaxation training and mindfulness techniques it is possible to gain control of one’s thoughts and to calm down the mind. It is important to take on board that one’s thoughts are merely a product of one’s mind and are not necessarily accurate. It is quite possible to substitute more balanced thoughts for thoughts that lead to anxiety, stress and depression. This will help to calm the mind, paving the way for a more measured, focused and appreciative approach to life, including one’s relationships. And this can only lead to an inhanced feeling of happiness and contentment!

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If you are a student are you starting to feel stressed about the upcoming exams? Stress management is actually pretty straightforward!

Yesterday I conducted a stress management workshop for a group of Grade 11 and 12 learners. They were saying that they are feeling a great deal of stress and pressure at this stage because of their work-load and the thought of the upcoming exams. I wish I could talk to all other learners and students out there about the importance of keeping their thoughts focused and not to dwell on the possibility that they might not do well! I use the analogy of the trapeze artist on the high-wire. If he/she allows him/herself to think that they might fall, this will probably happen (it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy). It is therefore crucial for students to monitor their thinking and alter their thoughts if they notice themselves becoming negative.  A pattern of “what-if ” thinking, for example “What if I can’t answer the questions in the paper and I fail” should therefore be banished and replaced by thoughts such as “I will do the best I can”. These ideas come from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). “What-if””thinking, if not controlled, can lead to runaway feelings of anxiety and stress. I also spoke to the students about the importance of practicing relaxation and mindfulness exercises to help with focus and to calm the mind. It is also essential to pay attention to one’s body and health at times of pressure and stress – to eat well, exercise and to get sufficient sleep. By keeping your stress levels in a zone that is optimal for you by doing the above, you will be well prepared, physically and psychologically, for the road ahead. All you will need to add to this recipe for success is a great deal of focused study! Please contact me if you have any questions about the above or any other aspect of stress management.

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Mindfulness, psychology, psychotherapy and neuroscience is proving that you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks!

It goes without saying that, in the 21st Century, the majority of psychologists and psychotherapists believe that individuals are all capable of making positive changes to their lives, no matter how old they (or we) may be, that change is possible right up to the moment that we take our last breath.

(This was not always the case. Freud, for example, believed that human development was complete after adolescence).

The great news is that increasingly detailed knowledge of the structure and workings of the brain from the exciting and rapidly developing field of neuroscience seem to back up this view. Neuroscientists speak

about “neuroplasticity” of the brain, meaning that our brains are

“a work in progress”, no matter what how old we are and that we are capable of  by doing and thinking in different ways, people are able to change old, counterproductive patterns of behaviour and ways of relating to partners, children and the world in general.

How can this be achieved?

First, old, dysfunctional patterns need to be interrupted and changed. This invariably happens in all forms of successful psychotherapy.

Second, the person needs to be trained to focus their attention in a conscious, purposeful way

Third,  a psychotherapist will help the client identify and then start to practise, new , more positive and healthy habits and patterns of behaviour, forming new neural networks in the brain. (see Pat Ogden, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Susan Aposhyan:Body-Mind Psychotherapy).

 

I see it as most encouraging that the new findings coming fromthe field of  neuroscience  provide scientific support to our work as psychologists and psychotherapists, and that psychologists utilising many different approaches, from Positive Psychology to Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), all have the above, central elements in common!

 

Reference: Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2011

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Assertiveness and psychology: What do you need to be able to practise strategic assertiveness?

What do I mean by strategic assertiveness?

I will explain it with an example.

An eighteen year old client arrived at my practice in an extremely distressed state. She told me that she had spoken up in class against unfair treatment on the part of the teacher.She said that she had worked till late the night before completing a homework assignment only to find that some of her class-mates had failed to complete their assignment but had not been punished in any way.

When she spoke up, her classmates who had not completed their work turned on her and said some hurtful things, whilst those who had done their work failed to support her. My client lamented that this was one of the few times she had managed to be assertive and it had turned into a disaster. She vowed to never speak up again!

I commiserated with her experience but suggested that it she might have predicted this outcome as it was to be expected that her outburst would not have been popular with the girls who were at fault. (Of course she was angry and frustrated at the time and was therefore not not thinking rationally). If she had managed to be more in control she would have probably realised that her outburst would have negative consequences in terms of her popularity with her peers!

The take home message from this example is:

Being assertive, and yet not antagonising or alienating others in the process, is a complex skill and is not easy to achieve. It requires a clear, rational mind, good anger-management and high frustration tolerance – all these are aspects of emotional intellengence (EQ).

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Relationships and Couple Counselling: How do you deal with a “difficult” partner?

In my psychology practice I often have clients who tell me that they are in relationships with “difficult” people and they tell me that they want to develop the skills to cope with their highly problematic other half! (This request usually only happens once they accept that it is unlikely that their partner will change to any significant degree!).

One client I have paints a picture of her partner as irrational, jealous and passive aggressive. When he succeeds in pushing her buttons (which he manages to do pretty often), she in turns becomes frustrated and angry, leading to a major blow-up which throws the family into turmoil for days.

She asks me what can she do to contain these types of situations.

My approach is to suggest that she look at her expectations of her partner. Her high frustration levels are a sign that she is comparing his behaviour with some idealised image of how she considers he should be and she is angry and disappointed when he falls short. I often say to clients that we should base our expectations on how the person has behaved in the past en though we may hope that they might surprise us in a positive way!

I also believe that it is important for each of us to gain control of our emotions, in particular our anger. Mindfulness is an extremely effective means of gaining the necessary self-awareness and focus to track one’s thoughts and emotions in the present (as they are occuring), in order to stay calm and in an adult mode. If one partner succeeds in doing this, the “relationship dance” is altered and negative patterns such as repetitive arguements can be eliminated.

I tell my individual clients and the couples who come to see me that, even when you strongly disagree with our partner, it is important to try to maintain empathy for their point of view (this is often a very difficult thing to do, especially when emotions are running high). You can then acknowledge how they feel and then give your point of view, using the word “and” rather than “but” to contrast your own point of view. In this way your partner will feel heard and acknowledged.

So when you are about to have a disagreement with someone, always ask yourself what is your goal is in every case and also how realistic your goal is.  (Often people merely want to let off steam and although this may relieve frustration in the short term it may seriously damage your relationship!).

It is also a good idea afterwards to evaluate whether or not you think you managed to achieve this goal!

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The bonus of successful ageing: Why we get happier as we get older.

Research has consistently indicated that people, on average, feel happier and more emotionally stable as they move into middle and old age. This seems surprising as this period of one’s life is when we become acutely aware that our bodies and minds are not as efficient as they were in our youth, and when we experience health-related problems and physical and psychological losses and crises.

However, it appears that in the midst of all our ageing-related challenges and problems we are nontheless more happy and emotionally stable according to an article in the journal Psychology and Aging (October 2010), as cited in New Therapist Magazine (January/February 2011)

Why is this?


Perhaps because:

As we get older we become more aware of our mortality and that time is running out. We therefore live in a more mindful and balanced way, enjoying the joys and pleasures of the everyday life, taking nothing for granted.

We become more and more aware that our time on this earth is limited and this leads to our becoming a lot more selective in what we choose to do with our time.


In my view, the take-home message from this research is : we could all live happier lives, irrespective of our age, if we make a point of living every day in a mindful, balanced way!




And that Positive Psychology and Mindfulness training should be considered integral to psychotherapy!

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