What is the hype with Mindfulness (…& Meditation)?

Why are so many people talking about ‘Mindfulness’? To answer this question, I will start by explaining what Mindfulness is, before highlighting some of the benefits. Upon becoming aware of the benefits, I have no doubt you will want to start practicing it. Therefore, I have provided some direction for you to get your practice underway.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness involves practicing being present, through heightening your awareness of what is going on in the ‘here and now’. This stands in contrast to getting distracted and making judgments (i.e. making interpretations about what you are experiencing). Psychologists often introduce clients to Mindfulness strategies, as the effects can significantly improve mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.

Mindfulness meditation

What are the benefits of practicing Mindfulness?

A vast amount of research has been conducted on the effects of Mindfulness. A summary of some of the findings from this research is outlined below.

  • Reduces stress and anxiety: Research from 163 different research studies suggests it has a positive effect on our experience of stress and anxiety. It has been found to lead to a 36% reduction in stress levels, when practiced at work. Research in people with clinical levels of anxiety found 90% experienced a significant reduction after practicing Mindfulness.
  • Prevents episodes of depression: Research found that sufferers of depression, who engaged in regular Mindfulness practice, were three times more likely not to experience depression, the year after starting their practice. There have even been research findings that suggest Mindfulness-based meditation can be more effective than pharmaceutical interventions in treating depression.
  • Improves attention and memory: Benefits have been found after only 4 days of Mindfulness training, for 20 minutes each day (n.b. Just 12 minutes a day has also been found to make a significant positive difference).
  • Improves immune function.
  • Increases our sense of compassion for others (i.e. kindness and empathy): those who practiced Mindfulness-based meditation over 8 weeks, showed a 50% increase in compassionate behaviours, compared to those who did not practice.
  • Improves relationships: those who practice Mindfulness often report increased relationship satisfaction.
  • Increases our creativeness and problem solving abilities.
  • Allows us to manage emotional pain and physical pain more effectively
  • Enhances our ability to fall asleep quickly, and stay asleep for longer: Practicing Mindfulness over an 8-week period has been found to significantly reduce symptoms of insomnia and pre-sleep brain ‘chatter’.
  • Enhances our ability to change habits (e.g. quitting smoking): Neuroscientists have found that people who meditated a total of 11 hours had structural changes in the part of the brain that is involved in monitoring our focus and self-control.
  • Assists in recovering from eating disorders.
  • Can help improve our physical health: it improves our heart health and preliminary research suggests it can have a powerful effect on psoriasis (a skin disease).

How do we practice Mindfulness?

There are numerous exercises that we can use to practice Mindfulness. A psychologist can provide you with information on these. However, should you wish to engage in these without the assistance of a psychologist, I recommend the exercises in the book ‘The Happiness Trap’ (by Dr Russ Harris). Furthermore, I highly recommend the smartphone app ‘Headspace’. This app provides guided Mindfulness-based meditations. Performed effectively, a Mindfulness-based meditation is like a gym work-out for your brain. They can help you become familiar with the qualities of Mindfulness.

The changes that meditation brings about, occurs through the effects of neuroplasticity (i.e. ‘rewiring’ the brain). Research findings show that meditation weakens areas of the brain that are associated with unhelpful ways of being. More specifically, meditation has been found to reduce activity in the area of the brain that is associated with experiencing stress, anxiety, and mind-wandering (i.e. becoming distracted). Alongside meditation reducing activity in these areas of the brain, meditation creates/ strengthens areas of the brain that are associated with helpful ways of being. These include, staying focused, boosting activity in the areas of the brain that is associated with positive mood, learning and memory.

Get your sleep right, to improve your physical & psychological health

Most of us will spend around one third of our lives sleeping. Its occurrence is essential for our survival.

Sleeping problems | Insomnia

Research suggests sleep affects perceived pain, mood, attention and alertness during wake, risk-taking behaviour, appetite and food intake, healing of wounds, symptoms of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, the relationship between violence-induced traumatic stress and poorer health and functioning in children, general mental functioning, learning and memory, severity of post-traumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms, suicidal ideation, child behaviour problems, symptoms of schizophrenia, headaches, ADHD, the likelihood of experiencing postnatal depression, and mortality.

The far-reaching effects of sleep highlight the importance of scheduling an appropriate amount of time in our lives for it. We need to make necessary adjustments to our environment to enable ample quality of sleep (with regard given to noise, light, temperature etc.). Doing so can alleviate adverse physical and psychological symptoms, and thereby improve your quality of life.

Should you be unsuccessful in your attempts to obtain an appropriate amount/ quality of sleep, a psychologist can assist you. In doing so, they will discuss the factors that affect sleep. A psychologist will help you to understand how various factors in your life can impact on your sleep.

For optimal sleep, it is important to have a routine, engage in regular exercise (giving regard to the time of day you do this), avoid caffeine (especially after 4pm), and avoid mental stimulation before retiring. Mental stimulaton includes avoiding ‘blue light’ (emitted by televisions, computer screens, ipads and smart phones) which can make our brain think it is daytime and should be avoided in the latter half of the evening.

Should you have trouble sleeping even after working on the above factors, you may find specific non-pharmaceutical interventions beneficial (e.g. hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation). Your psychologist will also be able to assist you with these.

If, after implementing the above, you still struggle to get ample sleep, your may have a sleep disorder. Your psychologist can make refer you to a sleep specialist who can assess, diagnose and treat such.

SleepingOften clients ask about pharmaceutical interventions with regard to sleep (i.e. prescription medication/ ‘sleeping tablets’). Whilst ‘sleeping tablets’ are not universally discouraged, the lack of long-term efficacy of prescription sedatives in promoting sleep should be noted.

Disrupted sleep is also a symptom of depression. You should be made aware that some antidepressant medications can derange sleep patterns and reduce restorative sleep. A GP or psychologist can provide you with more information about this.

Massage can improve Psychological Wellbeing

An abundance of research suggests that receiving a massage promotes our psychological health; the benefits are reported to extend across areas of mental health (including cognitive, emotional and social/behavioural). More specifically, massage has been found effective in alleviating the symptoms of various psychological disorders, including autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, chronic fatigue, and depression. Research suggests it is beneficial across the lifespan, with benefits having been found in unborn babies, newborns/babies/infants, children, adolescents/young adults, adults, and the elderly.

Masssage Psychological HealthHow do researchers come to such a conclusion?
Studies have found that those who receive massage therapy are found to experience greater improvement in their psychological health, when compared to individuals with similar mental health problems who receive either no treatment or undergo holistic treatments that are not massage-based.

To what extent does receiving massage help one’s psychological health?
It has been found that psychological issues are reduced by between 60% and 77% more for the average person receiving a massage, compared to those with similar psychological symptoms who do not receive massage.

How much massage is required for benefits to be obtained?
A single massage can have a positive influence on psychological health – research findings show it can improve state anxiety, negative mood and experience of physical pain. Whereas, multiple massages can positively affect more enduring variables, including trait anxiety, depression and delayed assessment of pain.

In conclusion, massage therapy may be considered a viable option for individuals who wish to enhance their psychological wellbeing. It may be a useful adjunct to the more traditional treatment methods of psychotherapy and prescription medications. The decision of whether you may benefit from such should be considered with it in mind that some clients (e.g. victims of trauma, from particular cultures) might find it stressful to receive a massage.

Improving your Self-Esteem

This blog follows from the previous post, titled “What is Self-Esteem?”

As noted previously, your thoughts and feelings are inextricably connected. Therefore, to change how you feel, you must change what you think (remember, we can control what we think!). Self esteem confidence

Your thoughts about what you experience in life lead you to develop beliefs (i.e. beliefs are deep-rooted thoughts, as opposed to truths/facts). Beliefs related to your sense of self-worth affect how you interpret experiences (e.g. if Sam has low self-esteem, and his boss behaves in an aloof manner for several days, he may assume it is further evidence that she doesn’t value him, as opposed to the possibility that she has things going on in her personal life). This highlights the need for us to be aware of our thoughts and beliefs, to be able to challenge them and thereby improve how we feel.

Implementing the following practical points may assist you to improve your self-esteem.

  • Remind yourself that your self-worth is not related to your achievements/ performance. I.e. your self-worth is not related to what job you have, your academic achievements, any awards you have won, how clean your house is, how much money you have, what car you drive, or your physical appearance. With this in mind, notice your thoughts and try not to engage thoughts that suggest your self-worth is dependent upon achievements.
  • Schedule activities you enjoy a few times each week (e.g. read a book, have a bath, go to the cinema) – these will help you to communicate to yourself that you are worthy of loving yourself.
  • Each day notice three positive personal qualities/ strengths.
  • Try to modify your environment, including the people you spend time with, to be in line with the message that you matter and are deserving of unconditional love.
  • Try to ensure you interpret criticisms as being about your performance (i.e. behavior based), which is different to what your self-worth is based upon.
  • Recognise that your shortcomings make you human, and not any less worthy of love.

You probably won’t find the above easy to implement (especially initially), but keep practising!!! Think how many years you have been using a style of thinking that is unhelpful for your sense of self-worth – it is now about learning a more useful way, which will become easier (and seemingly more automatic) with time.

A psychologist can further assist with improving your sense of self-worth. In particular, they can help you understand how any unhelpful belief systems related to your self-esteem may have formed, and assist you in tailoring the above to your personal life circumstances.

What is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem refers to your sense of self-worth, or self-respect. It is often confused with self-confidence, which is completely different. Self-confidence refers to your certainty about being able to achieve in a task.

Oftentimes people base their sense of self-esteem, or self-worth, on their achievements or the recognition of others. This is extremely unhelpful. Healthy self-esteem involves accepting yourself, without conditions or reservations. It should be based upon a sense of being worthy without achieving or contributing. Healthy self-esteem comes with recognizing your limitations alongside your strengths, whilst not basing your worth on either. If you have low self-esteem you may seek external positive experiences, or even just distractions, in an attempt to lessen your experience of negative feelings.

How does self-esteem develop?
Our self-esteem tends to develop and change throughout our lifespan, as we integrate information about ourselves through our experience of our environment (including how other people have responded to us). If you are spoken to and listened to with respect, given positive attention and had boundaries enforced appropriately, you are more likely to have developed healthy self-worth, compared to if you were neglected, abused, criticized, and rejected.

Do you engage in certain behaviours to avoid experiencing emotions associated with low self-esteem? The behaviours I am referring are often pleasure-inducing (for example, drug and alcohol use, binge eating, excessive exercise, gambling). Nonetheless, individuals with low self-esteem can also engage in self-punishing behaviours (e.g. constantly criticizing yourself) and surround themselves with people who treat them poorly.

Do you try to achieve certain things in an attempt to prove your worth to yourself or others? For example, striving to show your worth through obtaining a certain qualification or position at work, being predominantly motivated by earning a lot of money, having certain material possessions, or striving to look a certain way.

The next blog post will introduce what you can do to improve your self-esteem. A psychologist can also assist you with acquiring such strategies.

Emotion Management Strategies

Oftentimes when clients attend a psychologist or counsellor, one of their therapeutic goals is to better manage uncomfortable emotions. Following on from the last blog post, there are various ways of managing emotions. Some are not useful, yet are often used to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions. So, what are some more effective ways of dealing with uncomfortable emotions? As a psychologist, I find that my clients tend to benefit from the following guidance. The strategies outlined below are based on key psychological principles.

Experience emotions like a wave
When we experience an emotion, the intensity with which we feel it will increase until it reaches a peak. After peaking, it will start to decrease. Oftentimes, the idea of distracting yourself from an uncomfortable emotion can seem an attractive option. However, not letting yourself experience emotions can cause problems. Therefore, instead of trying to block the emotion or distract yourself, I recommend that you let yourself experience it. When I say ‘experience’ I mean notice the emotion in your body – Where do you feel it? What sensations is it comprised of?

Remind yourself that all emotions are time-limited; they will pass. You are not your emotion, and cannot become your emotion (e.g. you are not sad, you are feeling sad). You merely feel emotions, both comfortable and uncomfortable, and doing so makes you human.

Monitor and challenge your thoughts
The thoughts we have are central to the emotions we experience. If we engage in an unhelpful style of thinking, the intensity of our emotions can become overwhelming. Thoughts can seem automatic. However, unlike emotions, we have control over our thoughts. Heightening your awareness of your thoughts allows you to 1) avoid unhelpful ones, and 2) challenge those that are unhelpful.

A key strategy in avoiding unhelpful thoughts involves encouraging yourself to notice your environment without interpreting/ judging it. When you find yourself interpreting/concluding about something, look for evidence to support your conclusions – what sometimes seems factual is merely a belief/opinion or interpretation.

A psychologist can assist you in developing a better understanding of any potential problematic thought patterns you may tend to engage in. Sometimes we are so familiar with our particular style of thinking, we need someone to highlight where we are going wrong. A psychologist is trained to do this.

Emotion Management

Before you can understand effective ways to deal with emotions, you need to understand how you experience emotions. Emotions are experienced as sensations within the body. Our mind and body are intimately connected and are designed to communicate information to each other. Often we are not aware of the messages each is relaying to the other. For example, when someone asks you “how are you feeling?”, and your response is “angry”, you do not necessarily note the physical sensations within your body (for example, tense muscles, flushed face, racing heart). Enhancing your awareness of such will assist the level of understanding you have of yourself. You can use this insight to help you identify 1) triggers for unpleasant emotions, and 2) times when you can use particular strategies to prevent unpleasant emotions becoming overwhelming.

Experiencing emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, makes us human. Oftentimes clients say they want to experience the pleasant emotions, but not the unpleasant emotions. Unfortunately our body and mind are not designed to accommodate this. Dealing with experiencing unpleasant emotions in a way that prevents you feeling them, will lead you to not be able to feel the full effects of pleasant emotions, and can lead to other problems that you may not recognize as being associated with repressing these.

In now understanding the above, you may be able to appreciate that a more realistic goal associated with emotion management is to develop techniques that reduce the frequency and intensity with which you experience unpleasant emotions, without having a range of side effects from repressing them. There are various strategies that can be used to assist with this. The next blog entry will introduce these. A psychologist can assist you to further develop your emotion management strategies.

Depression – What is it? What are the main treatment options?

Depression is recognized as a mental health disorder. It is not merely sadness. Sadness is an emotion that everyone can experience at times, whereas depression involves experiencing hopelessness in relation to oneself, the world and the future. Oftentimes those who suffer with depression describe feeling unrelenting melancholia and/or a sense of emptiness. Depression is often accompanied by low self-esteem, low levels of motivation to engage in activities, and deriving little enjoyment from activities that would usually be pleasurable. Oftentimes depression leads to changes in sleeping; those who develop depression often find they sleep more, less, or experience disrupted sleep.

Life events can precipitate depression, including the loss of a loved one, loss of a job or financial security, childbirth, and menopause. Furthermore, certain medications have been linked to the onset of depression. Depression can be a component of other mental health disorders (for example, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, seasonal affective disorder, PTSD). For this reason it is important to see a professional (for example, a psychologist) who can provide a diagnosis, and determine the severity, so as relevant treatment can be provided.

It is estimated that approximately 10% of those who attend a psychologist have depression solely caused by faulty biological mechanisms in the brain. The majority of depressions develop from a combination of biological, social, psychological and environmental factors. These factors affect the balance of various chemicals within our brain. It is for that reason that medication can alleviate the experience of depression. However, it should be noted that prescription medication for depression does not necessarily provide long-term alleviation. Antidepressants will only alleviate the symptoms of the depression for as long as the individual takes them, unless other changes are made. This is why seeing a counsellor or psychologist can be beneficial for those wishing to receive treatment for depression. A counsellor or psychologist provides psychological treatment, which encourages changes to the chemical balance within the brain, in a way that can lead to alleviation of depression in the longer term.

It is recommended that anyone who suspects they are experiencing depression consults a professional about treatment options. In some circumstances medication is more appropriate, with counselling/ psychological treatment used as an adjunct. Your GP and/or psychologist can assist by assessing for depression information about treatment options.

“Why have I become addicted to/ dependent on drugs (or alcohol)?” Considering physical dependence.

In the last post, I discussed the psychological aspect of drug and alcohol addiction. In this post I discuss the physical component of drug and alcohol addiction.

With continued use, the body becomes physically dependent upon particular drugs/ alcohol in order to function at what feels like a ‘normal’ level. This occurs because the body becomes used to the drug/alcohol being provided. This leads the body to expect the drug (or alcohol) will continue to be provided. The body then modifies its internal physical processes to account for it. When the body does not receive the drug (or alcohol), it is required to readjust its internal processes, to function without it. It is during this readjustment that someone with an addiction experiences a physical withdrawal. The only thing that can prevent the body going through a physical withdrawal is further use of the particular drug.

The timing of onset of physical withdrawal symptoms varies between drugs. The intensity of the physical withdrawal symptoms one will experience depends on the extent to which the body has become dependent on the drug (or alcohol); in short, the intensity of the withdrawal depends on the type of drug used and the amount/ frequency it was being used. You can expect the physical symptoms experienced during a withdrawal to be the opposite to what is experienced whilst using the drug.

N.B. physical withdrawals from some drugs (including alcohol and benzodiazepines) should only occur under medical supervision, as serious medical complications can arise during the process (e.g. seizures).



“Why have I become addicted to/ dependent on drugs (or alcohol)?” Considering psychological dependence.

There are two components of drug/ alcohol dependency; 1) the physical, and 2) the psychological. In this post I will consider the psychological aspect. In the next blog post, I will discuss the physical aspect of drug and alcohol dependency.

In counselling, these questions are often pondered by clients who have an addiction (or ‘problematic’ drug/ alcohol use). Oftentimes, in being able to answer them, they feel empowered. They use the answers to reduce their chance of lapsing/ relapsing into drug or alcohol use. Knowing what underlies one’s drug or alcohol use assists in the identification of triggers/ situations in which one will be at high-risk of using drugs or alcohol again. Counselling can help clients to determine what underlies their drug/ alcohol use (i.e. develop insight). Moving forward, counselling can then assist clients to resolve issues associated with their drug/ alcohol use, and develop alternative coping strategies for life stressors (which they previously used drugs/ alcohol to cope with). Through these three components counselling can reduce the likelihood of the individual relapsing into substance use.

An individual may come to encounter drugs under various circumstances. One of the most commonly reported by those who develop an addiction is that drugs/ alcohol were made available to them within a social setting. Within this setting, the decision to use the drugs can be influenced by a number of factors, including, wanting to ‘fit in’/ use them to socially bond, wanting to ‘have fun’ (whilst believing that drugs/ alcohol will assist with this), wanting to ‘party longer without getting tired’, or curiosity. Other times, an individual’s first experience of using drugs or alcohol occurs outside of a social setting. This can include prescription medication.

Regardless of what circumstances drugs or alcohol were first used in, individuals come to learn (sometimes outside of their awareness) of the psychological effects. This includes what drugs/ alcohol can provide on an emotional level. Sometimes the draw to use is attributed to the potential for drugs/ alcohol to generate or enhance pleasant feelings/ emotions. Other times the decision to use drugs/ alcohol is influenced by the desire to escape unpleasant feelings/ emotions. Either way, the brain adjusts to having its chemical balance altered, by trying to counteract the effects. As a result of these chemical adjustments made by the brain, the individual is prone to experiencing a psychological withdrawal when the drug is not available. During a psychological withdrawal, the individual can expect to experience the opposite feelings/ emotions to when affected by the substance; this then leads them to use again, to avoid experiencing these emotions.

This should not be considered a complete account of factors underlying drug and alcohol addiction; a complete overview is beyond the scope of this blog post.