Does intelligence protect you from mental health problems?

Couple Walking on Beach

It’s tempting to believe that smart people don’t get depressed. After all, the smarter you are, the better you are at solving problems. Whatever is bringing you down, you can just fix it, right?

Humans are great at problem-solving, thanks in part to our relatively large prefrontal cortices (an area of the brain situated just behind your forehead). This area of the brain, along with other neural networks, is responsible for an important group of processes called the executive functions. These functions allow us to have self-control, direct our attention where it is needed, process information, and, importantly, problem-solve. Compared to other animals, human brains perform exceptionally well at these functions.

If we can problem-solve in the outside world, can we use these same skills to solve our internal problems? For example, if we can’t sleep at night because we’re stressed about work the next day, surely the answer is to use our big powerful prefrontal cortices to solve tomorrow’s problems and send ourselves into a peaceful state of sleep? Or, if we’re feeling sad and can’t get out of bed, should we try and use our intelligence to motivate us to get up? How do we solve that kind of problem?

To be clear, I’m not going to argue that you should never try and problem-solve psychological issues. In fact, it could be argued that the first-line psychological treatment for several mental health problems, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), requires a form of problem solving. However, often, human being aren’t great at problem solving their internal struggles (irrespective of their IQ). Intelligent people often attempt to problem-solve their psychological issues in much the same way as less intelligent people. Maybe they try and convince themselves of something positive that they don’t really believe, or maybe they second guess their behaviour or think of every time they have ever embarrassed themselves in the past. In casting all of their attention on a problem, the problem rarely leaves their mind and, instead of solving it, they can just increase the weight of the burden.

Creative People and Mental Illness:

There is a centuries old notion that, not only are intelligent people not protected from mental illness, but that they are, in fact, more likely to experience mental health problems. The stereotype of the crazy scientist or artist come to mind. Great literary minds like David Foster Wallace and Earnest Hemingway, comedians like Stephen Fry and Robin Williams, and artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock all suffered from mental health problems. One of the greatest inventors of all time, Nikola Tesla, was obsessed with doing things that were divisible by three. He used 18 serviettes when he ate, walked around buildings three times before entering them, and only stayed in hotel rooms in which the room number was devisable by three.

In recent times, these ideas have been tested and, so far, the research indicates that intelligence appears to be associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems. One study found that Bipolar Affective Disorder may be four times as common among young adults who had received straight-A’s in school. The effect was more common among students receiving high grades for humanities subjects and, to a lesser extent, in science subjects.

As a practicing clinical psychologist, I’ve seen countless times that, unfortunately, intelligence does not preclude people from mental health problems. In fact, often times, intelligent people are more attached to this idea of problem solving their internal struggles and can, therefore, require more intensive therapy. The more intelligent you are, the more you’ve seen first-hand that problem solving works. It got you A’s in school, it helped you get a job, it helped you assemble your Ikea chest of draws, it must be able to solve your anxiety.

I guess, in some sense, it could be argued that problem solving is what is needed to get your mental health back on track. However, it’s not the kind of problem solving we’re used to. If your mental health problem was a maths problem, the longer you spent trying to “solve” it, the more complex and unsolvable it would become. That’s because, in trying to solve these problems, you’re giving them your attention. Often, that’s all they need to thrive.

Additionally, some mental illnesses have a strong biological basis. In these cases, asserting that intelligence can protect you from mental illness might make about as much sense as asserting that intelligence can protect you from multiple sclerosis. Indeed, one study found that the neuronal calcium sensor-1 protein was associated with spatial memory and curiosity as well as the presence of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Therefore, there may be some shared biological cause of aspects of intelligence and certain mental illnesses.

It would appear that the impact of intelligence on mental illness depends on the type of intelligence and the type of mental illness. Two constructs not typically measured in traditional IQ tests seem to have a significant impact on mental health; one protective, the other associated with an increased risk of mental illness.

The first construct, creativity, is not usually included in IQ tests because it is difficult to measure objectively. Attempts have been made in the past (e.g., write down as many uses for a brick as you can in 30 seconds), however, they never seemed to have the same reliability or validity as tests of verbal comprehension, working memory, processing speed, and perceptual reasoning. The best we can do when studying the relationship between creativity and mental illness is look at people who are in creative professions and see if they are more likely to have a mental illness. That’s exactly what one study did: Of 300,000 people enrolled in the study, people in creative professions were more likely to meet criteria for a diagnosis of Bipolar Affective Disorder. There’s an assumption here that people in creative professions would generally have greater creative intelligence than those who are not. Nevertheless, the results of the study are interesting.

The second construct, emotional intelligence (sometimes called EQ), is a measure of an individual’s ability to distinguish accurately between various emotions, to identify emotions in themselves and in others, and to use their knowledge of emotions to guide their thoughts and behaviours. High emotional intelligence has been found to be associated with less rumination (i.e., compulsively thinking about your problems) and fewer thoughts that are symptomatic of depression and anxiety. Therefore, it would appear that certain less conventionally recognised forms of intelligence are protective of mental illness. It’s unfortunate that these types of intelligence are not fostered in schools or even seen as particularly important in our dominant culture today.

Wolves at Work: Do “Corporate Psychopaths” Exist?

Wolf copy

In the film Training Day, Denzel Washington’s character—a senior police officer—informs his new recruit that, in this world, you can either be a wolf or a sheep, “and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf”.

One of the leading experts in the study of psychopathy, Robert Hare, described psychopaths as “intra-species predators”. The most wolf-like sheep. The predators who use charm, manipulation, or violence against other human beings to meet their own needs. They’re often skilled at justifying their behaviour to others: For example, the criminal justice system doesn’t work when police follow procedure at the expense of catching the criminals. A sheep can’t catch a wolf. You have to “get a little dirt on you for people to trust you”.

Another defining characteristic is that they are often charismatic. Their carefree lifestyle can sometimes seem appealing. They can be highly skilled at telling people what they want to hear and even making them feel good about themselves. They could even be the kind of person you meet at a party and want to see more often. Of course, if you scratch even slightly below the surface, you’ll see beneath the sheep’s clothing and get a peek at the wolf beneath.

Pyschopathy may well be the personality disorder that is most well known (infamous?) among the general population, and yet least understood. Firstly, let’s cover some common misunderstandings:

Common Misunderstandings about Psychopathy

  1. Childhood bed-wetting is not a risk factor for becoming a psychopath
  2. The term “sociopath” is generally considered to be outdated and is not used by contemporary forensic psychologists or other professionals in the field
  3. Starting fires during childhood is not necessarily a risk factor for becoming a psychopath
  4. Not all mass-murderers are psychopaths
  5. The corporate world is not full of psychopaths

The Corporate Psychopath

Regarding that last point, it’s been proposed that this myth has probably been more pervasive in recent times as a result of an innate tendency in most of us to want to make sense of the unethical behaviour carried-out by some corporate workers preceding the global financial crisis. The popularity of this myth may also have something to do with the fact that the small number of psychopaths who can hold down corporate jobs are more likely to cause more than their fare share of destruction. Therefore, while they may be small in number, they may also be prolific in their impact.

So, why don’t we see more of them in high-powered corporate jobs? As you’ll see below, the “prototypical” psychopath experiences difficulty sticking to routine, resisting exciting stimulation, and often neglects commitments and responsibilities. These personality traits mean that psychopaths, in most cases, would not fare well within a corporate environment. Most jobs require you to have enough self-discipline to arrive consistently on-time, follow-through on promises, and meet expectations.

How Common Are Psychopaths in the Corporate World?

A recent study indicates that between 3% and 4% of corporate workers met criteria for a diagnosis of psychopathy. This is higher than the general accepted figure of 1% in the community, but still significantly lower than the figure of 13.8% – 26% (depending on where the research was conducted) we see among male offenders.

Help Me, My Boss is a Psychopath

So, what if you’re one of the unlucky ones? What if your co-worker or, worse, your boss is one of those 3% – 4%.

Firstly, this is something that is very difficult to determine. For a number of reasons—not least of which is the fact that people with these traits don’t often like to advertise them—even the best people in the field make mistakes, even under ideal circumstances, when diagnosing people with psychopathy.

The Psychopath in Us

Secondly, to some degree, many of the personality traits that constitute psychopathy show up in normal healthy people under certain circumstances. The famous Stanford prison experiment was conducted (along with a number of experiments around that time) in order to find answers to the question of why Nazi soldiers engaged in the kind of horrific behaviour common during World War II. Did only people without a sense of morality sign up for these roles? The experiment found similar results to other experiments in this area (see Milgram’s experiment): Normal people are capable of essentially ignoring their usual “moral compass” under certain circumstances (especially when instructed to do so by a person who appears to be of some authority).

Even under normal circumstances, people can demonstrate behaviour that, on the face of it, might seem to be an example of the below described personality traits of psychopathy. Have you ever felt “compassion fatigue” in relation to something (e.g., constant calls for charity) or someone for whom you knew you were “meant to” feel empathy? Have you ever bragged to somebody? Have you ever lied for personal gain? The difference is that these factors show up much less consistently and to a lesser degree in the general population. In other words, finding some examples of the below described behaviour is not evidence that somebody is a psychopath.

The Four Facets of Psychopathy

 

Psychopathy Diagram

So, here’s what to look out for. Psychopaths generally exhibit a cluster of personality traits that fit under two main factors: Affective (meaning emotional traits) and Behavioural. There are two components, or facets, of the Affective factor: Interpersonal, which consists of traits related to their style of interaction with other people, and Affective, which consists of traits related to the different way that they experience emotions (or a lack there of) in comparison to non-psychopaths. The Behavioural factor also consists of two facets: the Lifestyle facet, which taps into impulsive behaviour and a tendency to neglect commitments, and the Antisocial facet, which taps into crime and behaviour generally considered unacceptable in the community.

 

The Two Factors and Four Facets of Psychopathy (Hare, 2005)

Affective (Factor 1)

Behavioural (Factor 2)

Interpersonal

Affective Lifestyle

Antisocial

Smooth interpersonal style Less impacted by emotional experiences Neglects commitments and responsibilities Antisocial behaviour, often distressing to others
Ability to manipulate others Their actions contradict any claims to care about those close to them Difficulty resisting exciting opportunities and stimulation Not necessarily associated with criminal behaviour

Deception

Difficulty sticking to routines

 

What Can I Do?

In most cases, treatment doesn’t “fix” people diagnosed with psychopathy. Depending on the kind of treatment, it can actually make them better at being psychopaths. In group treatment, psychopaths see the way normal people demonstrate normal emotions and become better at imitating them. However, their behaviour can be improved with newer treatments that focus on the benefit to them associated with living a “pro-social” lifestyle. Short of this kind of treatment, the only real advice is to avoid such people at all costs.

Am I Clinically Anxious, or Just Worried?

Anxious

Think back to your early life experiences for a moment. The earliest period of your life you can remember. Do you remember being extremely afraid of new people or events? One study found that about 20% of healthy children feel this way. It’s something that could be seen even when they were infants. If you were one of them, and then you also went on to experience certain detrimental life events before or during your teenage years (about a third of these children do), there’s a good chance you went on to develop serious social anxiety.

Children with these symptoms also tend to be perfectionistic, look for constant approval or reassurance from others, and worry about things in several areas of their life, such as friends, sports performance, and family issues.

Is anxiety normal?

Having said that, it’s important to be clear on something. Anxiety is normal. Everybody experiences it. Great athletes describe actually looking at anxiety as their body’s way of telling them they are ready to perform. One study found that the average person worries for a total of about one hour every day. So, if anxiety is normal and everyone experiences it, why is it so problematic for some people and not others?

One explanation is the different ways people view anxiety. Using the above example, the athlete has a healthy relationship with anxiety. They see it as a normal, and even helpful, part of life. Which brings me to the key message of this post:

Worrying about worrying

Worrying about your worry is a good way to turn it into clinical anxiety.

People with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (about one in seven people are diagnosed with this disorder right now) typically feel like their worrying is out of control. There’s often a sense that their anxiety is overwhelming and that they’re not able to manage it. Often, when normal worrying turns into clinical anxiety, people become fearful of their anxiety and want to “push it down” or fight with it. This is actually a reasonable reaction. When we have problems in the outside world, fighting against it is often an effective strategy. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work with mental health problems.

What’s the point of anxiety?

It’s important to remember that we evolved to feel anxiety for a reason. It serves as an effective response to a perceived threat or danger. This is why people who are prone to anxiety often tend to think that something terrible is going to happen in the near future (e.g., back pain might automatically be interpreted as a symptom of cancer). When human beings are in a situation in which something that threatens our survival (directly or indirectly) is at foot, anxiety motivates us to be aware of the threat and to take action if needed.

For example, when walking through an area of land where dangerous animals were known to live, our ancestors might have felt anxious. Anxiety allowed them to be alert, looking-out for threats, and ready to fight or run away at the first sign of a threat.

The problem is that, in the world we find ourselves today, the things we interpret as threats don’t often require immediate physical reactions like running or fighting. So we’re, instead, left with an excess of cortisol floating around our body with nothing to do. To protect your core body, blood flow to your arms and legs decreases and, to reserve energy for when it might be needed, your digestive system slows. This is why, when we experience anxiety, we often experience a tightness or queasiness in our stomachs or lack of appetite.

So, much of our contemporary anxiety is a normal reaction to abnormal situations that didn’t exist when we evolved to experience anxiety. If you feel anxious delivering a Powerpoint presentation at work, running away or fighting the audience is not going to help your situation. Whereas it may have helped if your anxiety was in relation to a more immediate threat to your survival, like a sabre-toothed tiger.

This too shall pass

When you recognise that any anxiety you’re feeling is a normal part of being human and will naturally pass on its own, you’ll still feel anxiety, but you won’t feel anxiety about anxiety. You won’t worry about your worrying. This is easier said than done, but, when you can have this relationship with your anxiety, it will remain manageable and not negatively interfere with your life.

 

 

 

Image by Rima Xaros

Trying to Control Your Emotions Only Helps Them Control You

Control Your Emotions

When you try to control your emotions

Try to remember the last time you felt an uncomfortable emotion. It could be anything, from mild embarrassment to severe depression. Try to remember what your first instincts were in response to how to deal with the emotion. For many people, their first instinct is to try and make it stop. You might try to control your emotions in this way. There is pressure in our culture to not show our emotions, for fear of appearing “weak” or perhaps even just impolite. We may even forget that everyone experiences them, and feel like there’s something “wrong” with us for feeling however we feel. So we tell ourselves to “stop”, which is about as effective as someone telling you to “calm down” when you’re angry.

Basically, it boils down to this: Trying to avoid your thoughts or emotions only calls your attention to them. The more you struggle to avoid or control them, the more you feed into them, and the stronger they become.

When people are struggling with their emotions, they often get told the wrong advice. It intuitively makes sense to want to control something that is bothering us. But the recent school of thought (known, among psychologists, as the third wave of Cognitive Behavioural Therapies) proposes that the answer is completely counter intuitive. Instead of trying to control your emotions, you should be accepting them.

The bad friend:

Think of your uncomfortable emotions as a bad friend who is really argumentative and craves your attention. This friend sometimes helps you problem-solve things or even gives you compliments, but, most of the time, they criticise you. Maybe they tell you you’re worthless, or that people don’t like you, or that the world is a horrible or dangerous place. You’re first instinct might be to tell them to leave you alone. But, they just see this as an opportunity to try harder to convince you of what they’re saying. So then, maybe, you argue with them, in the same way that you might try to control your emotions. This is what they want you to do. You tell them, ‘People do like me. Just the other day Jane from work invited me to have drinks with her and her friends for her birthday”. Then your friend takes this as an opportunity to think of every other possible reason Jane may have invited you. “She felt forced to invite you because everyone else in your team is going”. Or, “She probably just felt sorry for you.” The more you interact with this friend, the worse it gets. Even when you tell them to stop or you avoid them altogether, they just come at you harder. They want a reaction from you. All you can do is ignore them. And the only way to ignore them is to accept them for what they are. Yes, they’re annoying and negative, but they’re not necessarily right. They just like arguing with you. It’s easy to forget that your thoughts are just words in your head.

When you’re afraid of your demons, they have all the power over you. On the other hand, when you try to control them, you only feed them. When you bravely face them head-on, and realise that you don’t have to feed them, it becomes apparent that they can’t really hurt you. Your friend may be annoying, but they’re weak. You are always much stronger than them. No matter how overwhelming your emotions feel, or how critical your thoughts can be, they are always just a part of you. You are always bigger than them and when you face them without fear, you realise the limits of their power. Your friend doesn’t want you to realise that. They want you to keep arguing with them or pushing them away. They want your attention and your energy.

The solution:

The next time you feel an uncomfortable emotion, try this. Instead of telling it to stop, trying to control your emotions, or struggling with them in any way, just allow them to be however they are, and know that you will be ok. Know that emotions are normal and only become a problem when we struggle with them. Instead of trying to control your emotions, try accepting them in that moment, knowing that they will eventually pass. Then, without pushing them away, just focus on whatever else you need to be focusing on. Let the emotions just be in the background while you’re focusing on what’s important to you. You’ll find that the demon loses most of it’s power.

Image by Pavel Arsenyev and Fedorova Olga

The Question of When to Leave Your Job

When to Leave Your Job

I received a request recently to write a post on how to make an informed decision about when to leave your job. At first, I thought this question was outside the scope of a psychology blog. While it’s a question that commonly comes up in therapy, the answer depends on individual factors. On the surface, it would appear to be a question better directed to a recruiting agency or HR professional than a psychologist. But, the more I considered the question, the more I realised the field of psychology has something to offer in this area.

The Pressure to Perform

Most of us, today, find ourselves in a culture that values continuous career progression and success. And why not? We spend a significant proportion of our lives at work. For many of us, it is our only outlet to develop a sense of achievement. This is a primal need in human beings. If we don’t think that we’re achieving or contributing to society in some way, we can develop a low sense of self-worth, which can sometimes lead to problems with depression and anxiety.

A sense of achievement can provide our lives with meaning. Because so many of us see our career as our only avenue for achievement, for many people it’s a mark of their overall worth as a person. As such, it can lead us to make decisions that might otherwise seem irrational. For example, working such long hours that we rarely get any time to enjoy the fruits of our labour. For some people, this is necessary just to make ends meet. But, some of us can become consumed by it. The word “rat race” comes to mind here.

So, the message of this post is simply to ask yourself what you want. I know it seems simple, but it is often something we forget to do. What do you want out of your job, and what do you want more broadly in your life? What function does work serve for you? What function would you like it to serve?

What Do You Want from Your Job?

As simple as it may seem, answering these questions honestly requires a huge amount of personal insight. At first, the answers may seem simple. I can imagine people saying, “I want what everyone wants: A big pay check and a small workload”. But, when you actually compare the satisfaction of employees from various organisations, the factors that contribute most to employee satisfaction are rarely either of those two things. More often, increased satisfaction is associated with organisations that allow their employees to work in a supportive but independent environment, improve on their skill-set, and focus on non-monetary incentives, such as career progression.

 Working in an area in which we feel highly competent or capable of achieving success is also important. Unfortunately, not all of us are able to obtain jobs like this. The world’s best photographer is probably working in some office and failing to meet KPIs. Which brings me to the other important consideration:

What Do You Want, More Generally, from Life?

If it’s not possible for you to gain a sense of achievement and meaning from your employment, what else can you do to gain that sense of achievement? To use the above example, perhaps entering photography competitions, documenting travel experiences, or attending workshops would serve a similar purpose.

If you find that you are unsatisfied with your job, the answer may well be to find employment better suited to your needs. But, the answer may also be to find something to compliment your current job. Find something to fill the unfulfilled need.

Are you unsatisfied because you had always dreamt of being wealthy? Despite what we have all heard in countless “motivational” speeches, the answer is not always to try harder. The answer might be to try something else all together. What purpose would being wealthy serve for you? Which of your values is it consistent with? For some, it is a status symbol, a message to others of their worth. In this case, it may be worth exploring other means of developing your perceived worth to others. Or perhaps being wealthier would allow you to go on more extravagant holidays or own a faster car. Again, what value is this meeting? A need for excitement? A need to feel pampered? Are there any other ways in which you could meet these needs?

In short, when asking yourself whether to leave your job, ask yourself what is missing in your current role. Then, ask yourself whether what’s missing can be found in a new role, or whether you need to look for it in other areas of your life. Try to gain insight into all of your values, and try not to get overly focused on one at the exclusion of others.

P.S. Understanding your values, and living consistently with them, is useful for all areas of your life, not just employment. It may seem obvious, but it is often difficult for people to list any more than a small number of their values. Additionally, people often confuse values with goals. Knowing your values is instrumental to knowing yourself. Every decision you make in your life is ill informed if you are not fully aware of your values. 

The below link can help you gain a more comprehensive understanding of your values:

http://www.thehappinesstrap.com/upimages/Values_Questionnaire.pdf

 

Image by Tom Ellefsen

Why Am I So Angry?

Why Am I So Angry?

While it may not seem like it when you’re looking at a hateful face screaming at you, anger is actually a functional and necessary emotion. It would not be so common if it were not so necessary. Anger motivates us to defend ourselves in the face of a threat. It is a necessary part of survival.

Now, I know a lot of people are going to read that last paragraph and think, “I knew it! There’s nothing wrong with getting angry with people. It’s unhealthy to hide your anger.” This is inaccurate. There seems to be a myth that, when you’re angry, you need to let it all out. However, research has found that feeling as though you should “let it all out” actually escalates aggressive behavior and does not help to resolve whatever is triggering the anger.

So what’s the answer then? If anger is inevitable and it’s unhealthy to “let it all out”, what do we do with it? Before I get to that, let’s have a look at the title question:

What Causes Some People to be Angry?

Some people find it more difficult than others to tolerate frustrating, annoying, or inconvenient circumstances. Most of us probably feel that we should not have to put up with circumstances like this. People who have a tendency toward feeling angry are just more sensitive to these types of frustrations or annoyances. It’s difficult for people with this type of sensitivity to be light-hearted when faced with these circumstances, or to just let things go. People prone to anger are often able to justify their anger easily. It is often rooted in something real. It’s not that these people are unlucky and happen to be the victims of more frustrating circumstances than people not prone to anger. It’s just that they find it more difficult to let these things go. A significant trigger can be when circumstances seem particularly unfair (e.g., someone failing to keep a promise or someone treating you with less respect than you treat them).

What causes people to be like this? Part of it is genetic. The research seems to indicate that that some children are born irritable or easily angered. They show angry temperaments from a young age and that anger tends to stay with them through adolescence and into adulthood. The other cause is people’s environment. Our culture has a tendency to view anger as a “bad” emotion. Expressing sadness or anxiety is ok, and we tend to feel sympathy toward people experiencing these types of emotions. Anger, on the other hand, is always seen as unacceptable. So, instead of learning how to deal with it, we just get told to “stop” it. In this way, many people struggle to deal with their anger and it can interfere with their lives and the lives of those close to them.

The Powerful Emotion

It’s not surprising that so many people use anger as their go-to emotion. Anger is a powerful emotion. Behaving aggressively can help us feel like we are more in control of a situation. We’re “taking charge” of the situation. Whereas, feelings of hurt or sadness can sometimes make us feel like a situation is out of our control. Also, when you’re angry with someone, the problem never appears to be you. When you’re angry, the problem more often than not seems to be something or someone other than yourself. Whereas, with hurt or sadness, we can often blame ourselves. Therefore, anger can be an appealing alternative for some people and has even been described as an addictive emotion.

When people repress, or push back, their anger and don’t allow themselves to communicate it in any form, it can lead to hypertension, stress, and even depression. Some research has even found a link between cancer and unexpressed anger. This may be where the myth that you need to “let loose” your anger came from. While it’s true that you do need to communicate your feelings, acting aggressively is not useful.

Three Ways of Expressing Your Anger

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 5.55.21 PM

  1. Passive. This is where you don’t express how you’re feeling at all. You allow others to act however they want toward you without doing anything to change it.
  1. Aggressive. This is the other extreme. You talk over people, you’re critical of others, sarcastic, and you often yell or act in a way that may intimidate people.
  1. Assertive. This is the “Goldilocks” zone. When you communicate assertively, you let other people know what you’re thinking without being disrespectful. You are firm and polite. Assertive communication is relaxed and open. You let people clearly know your needs and rights, without violating the needs and rights of others.

There’s also another style here. It is a combination of both extremes: Passive-Aggressive. You probably know someone with this kind of communication style. It usually comes from trying to repress your anger. Passive-Aggressive people tend to try and “get back” at people with whom they’re angry without telling them why. They don’t clearly communicate their anger, but they still want the other person to know about it, or to feel the way the other person made them feel.

As for what to do to help feel less angry, that will have to wait for another post. In the meantime, try being aware of your communication style when you’re feeling angry. Also, avoid using extreme black-and-white words (and even thoughts) such as “always” or “never” (e.g., “You always embarrass me” or “You never take my side”). Behaviour is rarely “always” or “never”. Using this type of language can make you feel like your anger is justified and like the problem cannot be resolved.

Image by Tarik Browne

Joy & Stress: Don’t Forget about Your Self-Care This Christmas

 

Joy & Stress

The feeling most typically associated with Christmas is joy. You may have noticed it, in your peripheral vision, written around every department store while you’re frantically hunting down the last Frozen backpack for your niece.

Certainly, there are parts of Christmas that are joyful. But, is joy really what is most often felt during Christmas time? If you randomly called up a thousand people around Christmas time and asked them what they were feeling at that moment, I dare say the most common response would be “stressed”.

If we were all being honest, there would be little golden trinkets hanging from Christmas trees that spell out the word “Stress” instead of “Joy”.

For anyone old enough that Santa has stopped buying them presents, Christmas is a stressful time of year. There seems to be more of everything around Christmas time: More socialising, more drinking alcohol, more eating poorly, more shopping, more pressure, and it’s all packed within a short period of a few weeks.

Things get even worse if you have other problems in your life. Seeing the “joyful” spirit all around you can make for a harsh contrast to highlight how unjoyful your life is. Particularly, the spot light is placed on family problems during Christmas time, when there is pressure for all the family to get together and have a very Brady Christmas (complete with a family rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful”).

For the one-in-five Australians experiencing mental health problems, the “Joyful” spirit can be even more difficult to deal with. Also, for people who have lost family members, Christmas can be a sad reminder of their absence. If you have clinical depression or ongoing anxiety problems, you should seek professional help. If you’re otherwise doing OK, here are some tips to keep the stress to a minimum this holiday season:

It’s OK to be a Grinch:

Christmas isn’t everyone’s thing. Placing pressure on yourself to act joyful, and feeling as though this is meant to be the happiest time of year, can be the worst thing you can do for your anxiety. If you’re not feeling it, it’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with you. Just take what you like from this time of year, and leave the rest behind.

Spend time with people who make you feel good:

This doesn’t always mean family. The holiday season is an opportunity to catch up with people we care about. Remember to balance the obligation catch-ups with social occasions that you enjoy and that help you unwind.

Make self-care a priority:

When was the last time you picked up that book you were reading? Have you been neglecting your physical health? Do you need to cancel a social event and take some time to relax? Christmas is a time when we’re constantly thinking about other people in our lives. So, of course, sometimes we can forget to think about ourselves. Check in with yourself every now and then and make sure you’re doing OK.

You don’t have to be the world’s best gift buyer:

It’s not a competition. You don’t have to be the Oprah Winfrey of gift buying. If you’re spending more time (or money) than you’d like shopping and it’s stressing you out, remind yourself that your relationships with your friends and family do not hang in the balance of this one gift. You do not have to buy your relationships. It actually is the thought that counts.

Create a new tradition:

In Seinfeld, when George Costanza’s father is overwhelmed by Christmas stress, he creates “Festivus”. You may not need to substitute your tree for a pole like he did, but creating a new tradition with friends or family can be a great way to ensure this Christmas, and all future Christmases, include something meaningful. This can be particularly helpful for people whose usual Christmas tradition included someone who has passed away. If you used to spend Christmas eve with someone you’ve lost, staying home with your thoughts, while tempting, may not be the best option. Surround yourself with people with whom you feel comfortable, who are aware of why this is a difficult time for you, and engage in some kind of activity (even if it’s something as simple as playing a board game or ordering-in dinner).

The typical holiday message we’re told around this time of year is to take the time to think about what we’ve done this year, and what we hope to do next year. This may not be the best advice. You would be far better off taking this opportunity to stop thinking about your life, your job, and everything you want to change, and for one time this year, just be present in the moment, surrounded by people you care about. That’s the best thing you could do for your mental health.

 

Why Thinking is Overrated: What’s the Deal with Mindfulness?

Mindfulness

Think about the last time you felt stressed or low in mood. Did thinking about it help? It’s natural to feel like you can think your way out of feeling something. Thinking about things can solve our problems in the outside world, so it makes sense we get the impression that thinking about our internal problems can fix them.

The problem is, the brain doesn’t take kindly to orders. If I told you not to think about a blue basket ball right now, I can almost guarantee that’s exactly what you’ll think about. Trying to avoid a feeling or a thought only brings your attention to it. So, the more you try to tell yourself to stop feeling something, the more that feeling is going to hang around.

So what’s the solution?

Lately, mindfulness has been receiving a lot of attention, appearing in business conferences, self-help books, and cafés around the country. In August, the burger chain “Grill’d” ran a promotion called “Mindfulness Matters”.

What is mindfulness? I’m reminded of that scene from the Matrix: Nobody can be told exactly what mindfulness is. They have to experience it for themselves. That’s the idea anyway. It’s called an “experiential exercise”, meaning you have to experience it. Talking about mindfulness doesn’t help you understand what it’s really about.

Essentially, mindfulness is the mental state you get in when you focus your attention on the present moment. But it’s also more than that. It’s about not getting caught up in your thoughts and feelings. It’s about accepting whatever is happening with you in this moment, without judgement.

There are a number of reasons it’s been receiving so much attention. Firstly, I should say, mindfulness is not a new concept. In fact, it’s ancient. It dates back to at least the sixth century BC. It has been a part of Eastern philosophy for some time. So why are we all noticing it now? Well, the main reason is that the field of science has started paying attention to it. There are now a number of studies that have found strong evidence in support of mindfulness as a mental health treatment. People have also been using it as a means of engaging with their life more fully and in a way that allows them to get more from it.

Have you ever been driving when, after some time, you realise that you haven’t been paying attention? You might not even have any memory of the last few minutes driving. This is referred to as “automatic pilot” mode. It might seem like a miracle you didn’t crash. Often, you’ve been thinking about something, and you’ve completely missed out on everything that is happening around you.

As you can probably imagine, living your life in autopilot mode means you will miss out on potentially rich experiences. Our brains are designed to think about and plan for the future. The problem is that, sometimes, we can miss out on the present. In the words of John Lennon, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

The problem with thinking:

Human beings have huge prefrontal cortices. This is the area of the brain that, among other things, allows us to have abstract thoughts (for example, thoughts about anything beyond what is happening here and now). When you’re thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner tonight, or whether you can afford that new car, that’s your prefrontal cortex at work. This ability has been, arguably, our greatest strength as a species. It allows us to plan for things ahead of time and helps us to work together to achieve things that would not be possible without abstract thinking. But, it could also be argued to be one of our greatest weaknesses. When you’re preparing for a speech and you keep imagining the crowd falling dead silent on a joke or judging you in some way, that’s also part of the same process.

Imagine you had to make a huge journey. You’re driving interstate. There’s a part of your brain that is like the kid in the back seat asking “are we there yet” constantly throughout the trip. In order to answer that question, you have to use your prefrontal cortex to think about your goal (arriving at your destination) and how far you are from achieving that goal (how many hours until you arrive). This is great, because it helps us complete the task better. We know how much food to bring with us in the car, how much petrol we’ll need, and when we need to start looking-out for somewhere to sleep. Our brains work great for this kind of task.

The problem is, we use this same process in unhealthy ways. Think about a long-term goal you have. Maybe you want to have a family, or to become the general manager at your workplace, or just to have a lot of money. Your brain is going to constantly compare where you are with where you want to be. Instead of being focused on what you have achieved, you will be focused on how far you are from achieving whatever else you want. In the case of the road trip, it’s telling you “you have five hours before you get there”. In the case of becoming GM at your workplace, it’s telling you “you have at least three promotions before you can get to that point and you haven’t even received one promotion yet. Plus, there are other people at your work who are better workers than you etc.”.  This is a guaranteed way to make yourself feel down or anxious.

It’s largely accepted today that our emotions are closely linked to our thoughts. Whether we are aware of it or not, the thoughts we have lead to the emotions we feel. This is where mindfulness comes in. Being mindful allows you to let your thoughts be in the background while you focus on the present moment. It is a difficult skill to master and, like physical skills, you need to practice in order to get better at it. But, once you’re able to be mindful in your daily life, you’ll find that you’re less bothered by things and better able to get the most out of life.

Image from Ian Iott

How Happiness is Making You Sad

HappinessI know this may seem like a question with an obvious answer, but is happiness really worth pursuing?

We’re reminded about the importance of happiness everyday. We hear songs about it, we watch movies about it, and we see our happy friends on social media.

Everyone seems to have it, why shouldn’t I?

We seem to have learnt that happiness is a basic human right. The pursuit of happiness is even in the US Charter of Independence, along with “life” and “liberty”, as an “inalienable human right”.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Happiness is a good thing. Some of our most valued memories in life are probably of a time when we were happy. But, is happiness a worthy pursuit?

As an extreme example to make the point, imagine you could be happy your whole life, sitting alone in a room with a smile on your face. Would you look back on such a life as one that was well lived? Hopefully it’s obvious, then, that there are more important things in life than happiness. It would appear that a happy life without meaning or rich experiences is not something most people would want.

Happiness is fleeting. It has to be. If we were happy all of the time, it would stop motivating our behaviour. It would no longer serve its function.

Happiness can be a reward you get for achieving a goal, but should not be a goal in itself. It is a rewarding emotion that is associated with neural structures in the brain meant to encourage certain behaviour. It’s meant to motivate us.

That means that, if you felt happy all of the time, those certain behaviours would not be encouraged and your motivation to do anything other than sit around and breath would probably be non-existent. Happiness is a reward that’s meant to encourage functional behaviour. For example, you might feel happy when you get a promotion at work, so this reward encourages you to keep working hard and feel that rewarding emotion again.

Sometimes, this fact can be hard to remember. We often meet people who seem happy all the time. If someone asked them whether they were happy in their life, they may reply “yes”, and they may even mean it. But, generally speaking, they’re answering a different question (bear with me):

When considering whether we’re happy in our lives, most people answer by considering how close their life is to the way they want it to be. If we’re living the way we want to live, we’re more likely to say we’re happy. If our life is nothing like we want it to be, we’re less likely to say we’re happy. But, strangely enough, these answers actually have little to do with the emotion of happiness. Research suggests that, if someone asked you how happy you’ve been over the last year, you’d probably give an entirely different answer than if, over the last year, you were asked to rate how happy you felt at a given moment at random times over the day. In other words, you might feel stressed and overwhelmed moment-to-moment, but still report that, overall, you’re happy with your life because you’ve got the job / intimate partner / house you’ve always wanted. Even if you’re not actively feeling the emotion of happiness.

So what’s going on here? Nobody’s achieving ongoing happiness, but everyone feels like everyone but themselves is consistently happy. We see everyone else and we feel like happiness is something achievable. Just have a look at all the smiling faces and happy status updates on Facebook. But then, take a moment to look over your own Facebook activity and think about what people might think about you. Are there any photos of that moment you were sitting alone one night feeling like life could not possibly get any worse? Are there even any photos of your “bad side”?

So we’re all in the same boat. When people make this realisation, it can often be a relief. But then, one night, an episode of Entourage is playing in the background while you’re analysing your ex-partner’s latest holiday photos online and it’s easy to believe that life is meant to be one big party that lasts forever without any bad times. In that moment, you probably don’t feel great. This is what I mean when I say the pursuit of happiness is making you sad.

So what does all this mean?

We can never achieve an ongoing state of happiness? And is that a bad thing? Well, not if you look at the alternative. The truth is, we don’t really want to just be happy. We want to live a rich, full, and meaningful life, moment-to-moment.

Chasing things that create temporary happiness for us, or avoiding things that take away from our happiness, doesn’t make life any richer, fuller, or more meaningful. In fact, sometimes, making tough decisions or sacrifices can lead to some of our most valued experiences in life. For example, helping others can be one of the most meaningful things you can do, even if it makes you sad being exposed to a depressing aspect of our world. It will enrich your life whether or not it makes you feel happy.

The trick is to understand what your values are, and act in a way that is consistent with them. For example, if you value being a fit or active person, then eating well, exercising, or playing sports are all great goals that can help you live a rich, full, and meaningful life, without worrying about attaining that elusive happiness. It may come as a pleasant side effect, but even if it doesn’t, you probably won’t care.

I know this may seem controversial, and I’m not saying happiness is undesirable or even unattainable. It is just better thought of as an incidental part of life, rather than something we should all be chasing.

Image from Ian Iott