Day 1 Take Home Message from Workshop

My Day 1 Take Home Message from the Mindful Self-Compassion Workshop

Today was the first day of the 5-day Germer & Neff Mindful Self-Compassion workshop I am attending in Byron Bay. During the course of the workshop I made a pact with myself that I would keep a little diary of my key take home messages. I thought this would help enhance my experience. I have never done this kind of ‘formal reflection’ about a workshop before, I guess it is somewhat of an experiment, and I’ll see how it turns out after the final day of the workshop.

Today was a great day though, and the key focus was on mindfulness. We were introduced to theory that underpins mindfulness, empirical evidence, and we did a number of mindfulness meditations. After the meditations we had an opportunity to discuss our experience. There are a variety of people attending the workshop such as clinical psychologists, teachers, nurses, and just people interested in the mindful self-compassion concept, which helps (I think), to give a variety of opinions during these discussions. This has helped broaden my understanding of the diverse range of experiences people can have with meditation as well, which has been an unexpected bonus for me.

But now let’s get down to business, the biggest and most interesting take home message from Day 1 for me was when our facilitators asked the group:

“How did people respond to you when you told them you were attending a 5-day mindful self-compassion workshop?”

This was a really thought provoking question, and one I had not really processed prior to attending. My family and friends are all pretty aware that I love this area. However, when given the time to reflect on this question it led to some self-discovery.

There were certainly some people I just told that I was attending a mindfulness course, as I thought if I told them about the self-compassion side of it they would just think I was being self-indulgent. Indeed, when I told a family member of mine that I was attending a 5-day mindful self-compassion course he replied with “what a luxury”. At the time I really didn’t think anything of it, but now I am left wondering three things; (a) did he see it as me being ‘selfish’; (b) what about the course did he see as a luxury – was it the self-compassion part or the 5-day part, and (c) if he does think it is the self-compassion part – isn’t it interesting that people can hold the view that being self-compassionate is a luxury. It gives me the sense that self-compassion might be viewed as a ‘treat’ or ‘extravagance’ instead of being a very helpful skill.

I think maybe it is the ‘self’ part of self-compassion that can make people think it is a bit egocentric, or selfish, or self-indulgent. And that well might impact on people’s willingness to engage and participate in helping cultivate their own self-compassion, which is somewhat disappointing. I think others also see self-compassion as being a bit ‘wimpy’. Often you hear the phrases, “you just need to soldier on”, “toughen up”, or “build a bridge and get over it”. However, self-compassion couldn’t be further away from being wimpy. It actually means turning towards your suffering, and really becoming aware of your pain – and that does take some courage. This approach is quite different to the typical running away from pain and distracting ourselves with other things, whether it be TV, avoidance, or maybe alcohol – I have been guilty of all three, and continue to be so at times.

I also found it interesting that I felt comfortable telling people I was doing mindfulness. I thought that was a great sign of how far mindfulness has come over the last 10 years, and how it has been accepted and in many ways is being embraced in Western cultures. However, I think the field of self-compassion has a long way to go.

What I think is interesting is that many people, including me, have some misconceptions about what self-compassion actually is. Yet I find we are pretty quick to judge or criticise it, despite not really knowing what it is or what the evidence says about it. Research has found that self-compassion is linked with a number of benefits, including reducing anxiety, depression, and rumination. It has also been found to increase life satisfaction and happiness. All of that sounds pretty good to me. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, it has been found to be associated with many other benefits, check out the Centre for Mindful Self-Compassion for more of the research.

So yes, I think it is a both a bit funny and a little sad that I was slightly worried about how others would view my attendance at a mindful self-compassion workshop. I certainly hope that self-compassion will be accepted and embraced in the forthcoming years as well as mindfulness is today. I am really looking forward to Day 2.

Mindful Self-Compassion Workshop

I am about to begin a 5-day Mindful Self-Compassion workshop. It is the evidence-based Mindful Self-Compassion program developed by Kirstin Neff and Christopher Germer. The guys at CBT Training Australia are running the program, and our facilitators will be Dr James Bennet-Levy and Dr Kristy Arbon.

I feel very lucky to be able to take a full 5-days to build my skills in these important areas of mindfulness and self-compassion. The program will involve a lot of experiential exercises that focus on meditations, as well as information describing the theory and research underpinning the program.

My two goals of attending the workshop are to become a more mindful and self-compassionate therapist, and person in day-to-day life. The more I practice mindfulness and self-compassion the more I realise it is just that – a practice. It is something that needs to be nourished, watered if you like. By doing so you are able to appreciate the benefits that mindful self-compassion can bring.

If you are interested to learn more about mindfulness check out this little video I developed describing it or you can check out this wonderful animation developed by the team at Headspace.

Over the course of the program I hope to be able to write a little bit about my experiences.

 

 

A Loving-Kindness Meditation Video

I recently made a new video, which I have placed in the video section called “A Loving-Kindness Meditation”. 

The Loving-Kindness Meditation is a fundamental exercise in mindful-compassion programs. The meditation typically lasts about 15 minutes and involve generating and directing caring feelings towards oneself and others.

The Loving-Kindness Meditation has been found in scientific reviews to have significant effects at helping alleviating depressive symptoms, social anxiety symptoms, and it also helps reduce anger. Other scientific reviews have also found that the Loving-Kindness Meditation helps improve mindfulness and helps build compassion and self-compasion in individuals.

I like doing Loving-Kindness Meditation when I notice I am struggling with a thought I can’t shake, or if I am feeling annoyed with somebody. The more you do it, the more it will help. I recommend giving it a try. Get in a comfortable a position, play the video, and see what you think.

Remember mindfulness and meditations are practices. That means we benefit from them if we do them regularly. They are not designed to be a simple ‘quick fix’. Making the mindfulness or meditation as part of our daily routines is a great way to enjoy the benefits. I like doing it before I go to work, or just when I return home from work. See what works for you.

 

Self-Compassion and Goal Setting

When the clock strikes midnight on New Years Eve we all celebrate and enjoy the moment. However, not long after, we get met with that dreaded question?

So what are your New Years Resolutions?

This can lead to all sorts of responses, such as: lose weight, exercise more, spend more time with my children, save more money, drink less, or even find a new hobby. Sound familiar? Our New Year Resolutions really can be quite diverse. However, one common element to all of these resolutions is that they require a lot of hard work. All the resolutions I listed are also quite vague and not that specific, yet we hear them all the time, indeed many of them are ones I have set myself.

I set lose weight and exercise more as my New Years Resolutions for 2015.

Three months has now passed since New Years Eve, and around this time many of us have most likely forgotten or failed with the resolutions we set ourselves. For those of you who have achieved yours, well done! However it would seem you would be in the minority, as some research estimates suggest that about 60% of New Years resolution gym memberships go unused, and that these gym memberships are rated as one of the biggest money wasters for our back pocket. Despite this knowledge, joining the gym is still one of the most common New Years resolutions.

One of the problems with New Years Resolutions is when we don’t meet them this can make us feel depressed, frustrated, and sometimes angry, as many of us see it as a sign of failure. Since New Years Eve I have exercised more, but losing weight, well that hasn’t happened yet. One of the problems with these New Years Resolutions is that often they aren’t specific, and research has shown that we are more likely to succeed or come close to success if we set short-term specific goals (Locke, Shaw, Saari. & Latham, 1981).

So instead of setting a resolution such as exercising more, what would be better is setting a setting a specific goal such as:

I will aim to exercise three afternoons a week for 30 minutes for the first month.

And then after that first month review how you have been going. If it hasn’t been going as planned you can try to work out how to overcome any obstacles, you might even need to modify the goal, and then try again for the next month. Alternatively if you have met that goal, make sure you congratulate yourself for the efforts you have made. Setting achievable and specific short-term goals are often better than vague, open-ended goals, because we can gauge how we are going. However, when we take a moment to review how we have been going it is important to have a little bit of self-compassion with these resolutions.

But what is self-compassion?

Self-compassion has been defined as involving three important components (Neff, 2003), and I will use exercise as an example of how to apply self-compassion to your resolutions.

  1. Being mindful as opposed to over-identifying with the problem. For example, being mindful that you are struggling with exercise at this present time, as opposed to seeing yourself as a complete failure always with exercise.
  2. Connecting with others as opposed to isolating yourself. For example, realising that you are likely not the only one struggling with exercise, indeed many others struggle with exercise as well.
  3. Being kind and loving to yourself as opposed to being judgemental. For example you could say to yourself, “May I be forgiving of myself, and continue to try and exercise.”

We know when we are more self-compassionate as individuals; it helps with our own psychological health (Neff, 2003). We also know that individuals with greater self-compassion have been found to have less anxiety and depression (Neff & Dahm, 2014). People with higher levels of self-compassion also have been found to ruminate less (Neff, 2003), and tend to have fewer negative emotions such as irritability, hostility or distress (Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007).

So as you can see much can be gained by being a little more self-compassionate. I do a lot of research and clinical work with parents. And often parents will come to the clinic with the problem “I just don’t know if I am doing it right?” In these situations often parents are looking for a little bit of reassurance that they are actually doing a good job. To me it would seem parents would benefit greatly from some self-compassion. For example if you are a parent struggling in a particular situation with your child the following may be useful:

  • I am noticing this is a moment where I am struggling with parenting
  • I am not alone with my struggle, others also struggle with parenting
  • May I give myself the compassion that I need in this moment

Self-compassion is something I think we can all benefit from. It just involves those three important points: (1) being mindful, (2) connecting with others, and (3) be kind and loving towards yourself.

So have a look at your New Years Resolutions. Do you need to change them to specific goals and start again for February? And when reviewing them, be sure to do so with some self-compassion.

References

Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 125-152.

Neff, K.D., & Dahm, K.A. (2014). Self-compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it related to mindfulness. In M. Robinson, B. Meier & B. Ostafin (Eds.) Mindfulness and Self-Regulation. New York: Springer.

Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and its link to adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139–154.

Neff, K. D. (2003). Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223–250.

 

Music, tune in to your emotions

There will be days when I am driving home from work feeling pretty exhausted, tired, stressed, and also anxious about some of the work I still have not completed but was supposed to have done. Typically, when I am driving my car I have the radio playing in the background, but I often don’t give it that much attention. But yesterday a song was played that really got my attention, it was a song by Australian artist Dan Sultan called ‘The Same Man’. I don’t really remember the lyrics, but the beat and rhythm of the song really ‘picked me up’. Whilst listening to the song, I noticed it really improved my mood, for some reason I was nodding my head, it made me feel a lot more upbeat, positive, and less stressed. It is only a 4-minute song, but listening to that song was in many ways transformational for my mood.

This scenario is not uncommon, indeed, we can all relate to the power of a song to influence mood. Movies exploit the power of music constantly, the soundtracks of movies can really enhance the emotional tone the director is trying to convey in a scene. One of my favourite directors, Quentin Tarantino does it to glorious effect in the movie Pulp Fiction, and Stephen Spielberg was a master employing the music theme song to the movie Jaws. That music used when the shark is circling the boat in Jaws is simply chilling and builds suspense wonderfully. The question is, would the suspense in that scene in Jaws still be provoked to such a high level without the music? Try watching that scene from Jaws on mute, it just doesn’t have the same emotional impact.

What is encouraging for us is that we can use music to help regulate our emotions. What I mean is, at different times of the day, in different circumstances, we can use music to alter how we are feeling. This might mean you want to use music to fully explore the emotional state you are currently in, you might want to use music to get you out of a sad place, you might want to use music to bring on a sense of relaxation, or you can use music to give you the extra energy you need to get to the gym and do a work out.

Dr Genevieve Dingle from the University of Queensland is doing some cutting edge research examining how music can be used to help regulate our emotions with teenagers. The program is called, Tuned In Teens, and it was designed to help young people identify, name, tolerate and modify their emotions strategically, using music as the tool. When examining the Tuned In Teens program, it is more than just listening to a song to make you happy. Music is explored in terms of the effect it can have on our bodily sensations, the visual imagery it can bring, and how we make sense of the lyrics. The program is currently being evaluated with teenagers, however, the program was found to be helpful in a previous study by Dingle and her colleague Carly Fay with young adults aged 18-25 years. Music can be a very helpful way to help regulate mood, as some people find it hard verbalise how they are feeling and what they are thinking. Therefore, music can be a way to break through that verbal barrier. That is the hope of Dr Dingle and colleagues with helping teenagers regulate their moods in their current study at The University of Queensland.

The knowledge that music can influence our mood is of course not new, but it is surprising how little we use music strategically to help us with mood. In many ways, the benefits we can derive from music is under utilised and often can be left to chance. However, below are some simple ways you can use music to help regulate how you are feeling.

  1. When you notice a song playing that impacts your emotional state, try to identify what emotional state you were experiencing before the song and where the song took your emotional state. Also write down the song so you can use it later.
  2. Create multiple playlists to help regulate your mood for different emotional states. For example create a playlist to help improve your mood from being stressed to happy. Create a playlist to help you relax when you are feeling anxious. Create a playlist for when you feel like you have no energy but need to get up and move.
  3. When listening to a piece of music try and notice what body sensations you are experiencing, does it give you a sense of calmness, a ‘chill’ or does it make you want to move?
  4. When listening to music try and think about what visual images come to mind?

Music is a wonderful and powerful tool. However, in order to derive its benefits the key is to use it. Make that playlist on your smart phone, create a CD for your car, or put some songs on your computer. The more you make it easily accessible, the more likely it is you will use it. Right now I am feeling pretty happy that I have finished writing this blog, so to help fully explore and enjoy this feeling I am going to start listening to ‘In your light” by Gotye. It’s one song that always makes me feel happy.

I’m doing this for me, and I’m not going to feel guilty about it

How often do you find that you are in automatic pilot? I recently moved house, and yesterday when I drove back home from work, I found I was driving back to my old place rather than my new place. When reflecting on it now I find it comical, but when it happened I was so annoyed. I think I said something to myself like, “James you are an idiot”. As a result of this mistake I was stuck in more traffic, I arrived home late, still had to make dinner, and had no time to do what I really wanted to do and that was go for a run.

I’m sure most people can relate to this kind of experience. I find it happens more and more. I think it’s because I can get so easily caught up in what jobs I should be doing that I forget what I am actually doing. And that is exactly what happened on my drive home, I was thinking about what jobs I still had to do at work and I wasn’t paying attention to the present moment.

I often read or hear in the media how everyone is getting busier and busier, and one of the reasons for this is because we are all so much more accessible due to mobile phones and the Internet. It is like ‘we never turn off’. We all have so many responsibilities. Work obligations, family jobs, chores around the house, and social commitments. At times it can feel like we are just on automatic pilot going from job to job, event to event, with no time to ourselves. And in those rare instances when we do consider the thought, “I’m going to do this just for me” often a feeling of selfishness or guilt can be evoked. So rather than take care of our own needs, we keep trying to attend to all the jobs we should be doing.

But that is the very problem. If we don’t take care of our own needs we can start to become annoyed, frustrated, forgetful, irritable, and sad. All of a sudden we find that we start to lose patience with family, we put ourselves down for forgetting things, and we are constantly stressed. So to manage all the demands we withdraw from the things that we do for ourselves, because we don’t have time for them. And all of a sudden you get the sense that you have no control of your life, rather your responsibilities have control of your life.

This story I am telling is not uncommon. I find clients come to therapy for this exact reason quite often. It’s a case of I am becoming depressed because of just how much work I need to do or I am anxious because I fear I won’t be able to do all of the jobs I am supposed to do. Depression and anxiety are not enjoyable emotions.

So what is the answer?

There is no clear answer. But one small step you can make to improve how you are feeling is something we call, ‘pleasant activity scheduling’.

This might seem counterintuitive and I can already anticipate what you must be thinking, “hang on, I have just told you how busy I am, and now you are telling me to schedule something else in?”

I completely understand that point, it makes perfect sense. My response would be, “how many jobs do you do now that are just for you to enjoy?” Often the answer to that question is “nothing”.

The key to pleasant activity scheduling is looking at what activities you really like and then making sure you do them. When you start to do this, you will find that when your own needs are being met, you are better able to meet the needs of those around you.

An activity doesn’t have to be a 4-week vacation, although that wouldn’t hurt. Pleasant activities can be very small, for example, having a coffee in peace and quiet, enjoying a view of a landscape, seeing a movie, listening to a piece of music that you really like, or maybe reading for 15 minutes or going for a walk. These little activities are what makes life so enjoyable, they are the icing on the cake.

There will be barriers that will get in the way, such as unexpected jobs, work phone calls, and guilt. But the key about pleasant activity scheduling is the scheduling. Here are a few ways you can help improve the chances you will engage in pleasant activity scheduling:

  1. Generate a full list of all the different things that you like. They can be small or big things. For example, a trip away to the coast, looking at old photos, thinking about your next holiday. If you are stuck for ideas do a search on google for a list of pleasant activities.
  2. Write down in your diary a time when you can next do that activity. So you might schedule in a 20 minute walk for 4:30pm on Wednesday.
  3. Think of what barriers might get in the way. For example, another job at work that needs to be completed.
  4. Think of ways you might be able to overcome those barriers. For example, asking if you can attend to the job tomorrow, as you already have a prior appointment.

That is the key to pleasant activity scheduling. Is to view them as appointments that you must keep. By the implementation of simple, but pleasurable activities, we cannot only improve our own quality of life, but we can also prevent depressive and anxious symptoms from taking control of our life. So enjoy your icing on the cake, and go and schedule a pleasant activity.

Resilience, how can it help me?

We all face challenging events from time to time.  For example, it could be something like not getting the grade we wanted on a project at school or university, losing at a team sport, or receiving some kind of bad news. When moments like these happen it can make some people feel annoyed, frustrated, sad, or even angry. As a result, it can be difficult for some people to continue doing the things that are important to them. In these situations what can be useful is resilience.

But what is resilience?

Resilience is how we adapt and cope to life’s challenges. Resilience can help you ‘bounce back’ when dealing with difficult situations and stress. If we are resilient it means that we can lessen the impact of a bad event and improve our chances of recovery. Importantly, resilience is not about avoiding bad things, or being lucky, or not letting things get to you. Rather resilience is about you taking actions to help adapt to the difficulty you are facing. And the difficulties could range from school things, to work problems, to problems with friends, and health issues.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Charles Darwin

Step 1: Early Warning Signs

The first thing to do in an attempt to build your resilience is to notice when you are feeling low in energy and that you are not coping. We sometimes refer to this as your ‘early warning signs’.  Everyone will have different types of early warning signs, some people notice that they aren’t sleeping very well, others will notice physical symptoms such as having a sore throat, or feeling tired, or having a few aches and pains. Others will notice psychological signs, such as they are starting to get cranky with others or get frustrated with themselves. For some people the first time they notice their early warning signs is when someone asks them, “Are you OK, you don’t seem yourself?”. When you have low levels of resilience try to see how it impacts your thoughts, feelings, actions, and relationships with others. The important step here is to try and notice what your early warning signs are, because once you are aware of them you can start to do something to boost up and improve your levels of resilience.

Step 2: Meaningful Action

Once you have noticed your early warning signs, the second step is to do something about it. This requires action, and not just any sort of action, meaningful action. Meaningful action is part of a meaningful life, and a meaningful life increases resilience. Meaningful actions are ones that are consistent with our values as a person. Values are a standard or a principle that we find important, they are what we believe in. Values are the ways we want to live our lives. So your values might be, being a good friend, or being healthy, or being a good brother or sister. We can have values in all different kinds of domains such as with family, social relationships, career, home environment, health, spirituality, community service, and leisure. Values are different to goals, as goals have end points, but values are forever ongoing. For example, you might find the value of being healthy very important to you, so a goal might be to exercise 15-20 minutes each day. When we have low levels of resilience we tend to stop living in the direction of our values, so it is important to take stock of what aspects of your life you value, and what meaningful actions you can take so that you are living your life in accordance with them.

Step 3: Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about being in the present moment. To appreciate the richness and fullness of life, you have to be in the NOW while it is happening. Each moment is here to be lived. Being caught up with the past or the future means that you may not see opportunities that are in the present moment. Being in the present moment may mean that you become aware of unpleasant or unwanted experiences (e.g., thoughts, feelings). Being open to any experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant, is an important component of resilience as it provides perspective and a connection with reality that allows you to take effective action.  One way of trying use mindfulness is to do mindfulness of sound. This involves the following 5-minute exercise:

  • Find a comfortable position. If you are sitting, be sure you have your feet flat on the floor, back straight, shoulders loose. Make your legs are uncrossed.
  • Make it your intention for the next few minutes to purely and simply be present, here and now – and to notice what is happening.
  • Focus on what you can hear. You may like to close your eyes or fix them on a non-distracting spot. Notice a sound. Notice the quality of the sound, the pitch, volume, and fluctuations. Is it continuous or does it come and go?
  • You might notice yourself being distracted whilst doing this exercise. Your attention can wander, and you may start thinking about other things. As soon as you realise this has happened, notice what distracted you, and gently bring your attention back to the sounds.

The idea of mindfulness of the sound is to bring us to present moment awareness. When we are in the present moment we are more open to experience, which then allows you to be able to decide how you would like to respond rather than responding automatically. Mindfulness also allows you the opportunity to notice your early warning signs. You could do the same mindfulness exercise for sight. An easy way to check in with your mindfulness each day is to try the strategy Five Senses.

  • Pause for a moment.
    • Notice one thing you can see.
    • Notice one thing you can hear.
    • Notice one thing you can physically feel.
    • Notice one thing you can smell.
    • Notice one thing you can taste.

Step 4: Thoughts

Another way in which you can build your resilience is to notice your thoughts. Often when we have thoughts we do not want, we try not to think about it. So we distract ourselves, or tell ourselves not to think about it. Although this can feel like it is helpful it sometimes does not work as well as what we would like. For example if I said, “Try not to think of a banana. Can you do it?” While you are trying not to think of it, you might have saw a banana in mind, or maybe even thought of a banana split, or maybe the colour yellow. When we try to control our thoughts like this it can sometimes make it worse. The important point here is having thoughts is OK, our minds are thought producing machines. The key is not whether we have the thought, but it is how we react to that thought. Often people can fall into traps where they see their thought as being true and very important. As a result the thoughts can be taken literally and we buy into the thought and we believe in it 100%. When we do this we tend to become inflexible and our thoughts become rigid and fixed. When this happens we can start to lose our ability to be resilient, as being resilient is about being adaptive and responsive.

An alternative to trying to control our thoughts is to just notice that we have all different kinds of thoughts. And we can choose how we would like to respond to them. Remember thoughts are just words. Thoughts are what you have, not what you are. That means you can stand back from a thought, and see the thought, and then choose how you would like to respond to it. One way to help give you space or distance from your thoughts is to say to yourself, “I notice I am having the thought…..” When we put this label before our thought it can help provide distance between the thought being who you are, and rather it is just something you are having. As a result you can choose what you do next.

Take Home Messages

We have just scratched the surface in this blog on ways to help build your resilience, and below is some simple take home messages you can use to help build your resilience.

  1. Notice your early warning signs, they could be physical or psychological.
  2. Take time to consider what values are important to you.
  3. Consider some meaningful actions you could make that allow you to work towards your values.
  4. Try mindfulness, either mindfulness of sound or try the same exercise but try it with your sight.
  5. Try using the technique, “I notice I am having the thought…..” to help build space between you and your thoughts.

Further Information

If you would like further information about how to build your resilience you can consider seeking professional help through contacting a professional, such as a psychologist or talk to your doctor about what you can do.

InPsyc publication

Just had a piece co-authored with Prof Matt Sanders published in InPsyc, which is the national magazine for the Australian Psychological Society. The article outlines effective interventions to treat childhood disorders.

Final lecture for PSYC3082

Just completed my final lecture for the PSYC3082: Psychotherapies and Counselling. Very sad to have finished the course for the year, although will enjoy having my Monday nights back.