Running from Depression

20170117_151236It was very sudden this time.

Suddenly, like an eclipse, gloom descended and the birds stopped chirping.

I shouldn’t have been surprised I suppose.  The end of a long-awaited holiday, dark January days, lots of travel, the death of my Step Father.  I should have expected the black dog’s appearance.

But these days I know what I have to do.  I reach for my trainers, and run.

I’ve learned that I can outrun depression, especially if I get a head start.

running-from-black-dog

 

 

 

I am not sure why running works.

I guess there’s the obvious physical effects – endorphines and the like.  But it feels more than that.

Running feels like an assertion of my values over my emotions.  I never want to run, but I run.  If that sounds easy, it isn’t.  When I’m running the battle can feel quite elemental, like I’m in a fight for the direction of my soul.  But if I can hang in there running starts to reconnect me with a version of me that I like, or at least find harder to hate.

This experience exactly mimics the latest research, which shows that committing to valued actions reduces suffering, but not the other way round.

In his seminal book ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, Haruki Murakami says:

“Being active every day makes it easier to hear that inner voice.”

I think that’s true, even though my inner voice often says FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP AND EAT CAKE!

But to have a thought and not be pushed around by it….running helps me know where to draw the line.  Over time my sense of self becomes defined less by what I think, and more by what I do.

It’s not just thoughts though. I also experience emotions more strongly when I run.  Today I found myself choking up mid-run to Time to Say Goodbye.

I felt a bit stupid, but it occurred to me that running is the only time I allow myself to properly feel my emotions.

Maybe this is the difference?

When I started to get depressed in my 30s, I really would run from my feelings.  But not by running – more often it was alcohol.

Today I run, but running doesn’t feel like running away from anything.  It’s more like running towards my emotions.  And even when sadness shows up – big gulps of it – I keep running towards them, like old friends greeting each other at a train station.

In this context sadness almost begins to feel like joy.  A kind of reconnection with the best part of me.

The depression gains no traction.

It is just me, running in a forest, taking care of the person who sometimes hates himself.

 

Creating Nurturing Environments

I want to highly recommend this podcast to you.
Trent Codd talking with Anthony Biglan about creating nurturing environments.

Key points for me:
There are now many randomised controlled trials of family and community interventions that have been shown to make a significant difference to the development of children and adolescents. We now have the science to impact on problems that we used to think were intractable.
Helping parents let go of harsh, critical or coercive approaches and become more nurturing, supportive, loving and caring is important.

If we want to build well being then we need to create environments that:
– are richly reinforcing of pro-social behaviour
– limit opportunities and cues for damaging behaviour
– encourage psychological flexibility

Dr Biglan goes on to talk about a range of approaches that have been shown to help to create these environments.

His suggestions are highly relevant for organisations.

What would it be like if leaders decided they were going to create nurturing environments at work?

I suspect that problems with employee retention, absenteeism and engagement would significantly improve.

You can read more about Dr Biglan’s new book The Nurture Effect here.

Which 8 Practices Will Help You To Flourish?

We are experiencing a rapid increase in the incidence of ‘lifestyle’ disorders such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disorders, depression and anxiety.

Number (in Millions) of Civilian, Noninstitutionalized Persons with Diagnosed Diabetes, United States, 1980–2011
Number (in Millions) of Persons with Diagnosed Diabetes, United States, 1980–2011

Dr Kelly Wilson (who IMHO wrote one of the best books I have ever read on psychotherapy) is hoping that contextual behavioural science and evolutionary science can help us to work out what can be done to understand and reverse this trend.

At a recent workshop, Kelly reflected on the impact of the 24/7, hyper-connected yet socially isolated world many of us inhabit and he kept coming back to:
‘We aren’t that kind of a monkey’.

We aren’t the kind of monkey who does well in isolation. We aren’t the kind of monkey who can get away with less than 8hrs sleep a night.

Now Kelly knows we are hominids not monkeys, but ‘We aren’t that kind of hominid’ is a bit less catchy.

The hominid family includes humans and our close genetic relatives – gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orang-utans. Just sit with that for a moment – think about what our ‘cousins’ need to thrive…

A sense of belonging?….Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables?….Time to rest?

What if many of the problems that beset us are because we are ignoring our most basic ‘monkey’ needs?

Based on an extensive review of the literature, Kelly suggests that, in order to flourish, you probably need to:
Minimise your exposure to toxins (physical and social)
Eat real food
Move your body
Give yourself more sleep/rest opportunities
Engage in meaningful activity
Practice mindfulness
Cultivate your social network, and,
Cultivate self-compassion

You can learn more about his suggestions here.

Now Kelly isn’t saying that, if we do this, there will be no more illness or distress. What he is suggesting is, if we look after ourselves in these ways. Then, when stressors visit us, as they will, we will have a little more resilience. We won’t be living at the limit of our resources. We will be less vulnerable to those ‘lifestyle’ disorders.

And during less challenging times, perhaps we will be more likely to flourish?

Read that list again:

Minimise your exposure to toxins (physical and social)
Eat real food
Move your body
Give yourself more sleep/rest opportunities
Engage in meaningful activity
Practice mindfulness
Cultivate your social network, and,
Cultivate self-compassion

and ask yourself:

What would happen if I were to care for myself in these simple ways?

What would be one small step towards self care that I could take in just one of those areas?

Kelly travels the world delivering workshops. He currently in Australia teaching counselors and psychologists how to support their clients in making these simple but challenging changes. You can get details at his website. Highly recommended.

Closing the intention-behaviour gap

Over Christmas I put on an additional 3kg. I have been getting rid of it ever since and I have realised that losing weight is a fantastic practice in psychological flexibility.  Just about every minute of the day there are opportunities to be mindful of bodily sensations associated with hunger or satiety, and each day there are dozens of opportunities to reconnect with why losing weight is important to me.

This experience also got me thinking about why weight is such an enormous problem. Obesity rates doubled globally between 1980 and 2008.  In 2008, the total annual cost of obesity in Australia, including health system costs, productivity declines and carers’ costs, was estimated at around $58 billion.  In Australia 68% of men and 55% of women were overweight or obese in 2008. Part of the problem here is diminishing physical activity. The World Health Organisation reports “Globally, around 31% of adults aged 15 and over were insufficiently active in 2008 (men 28% and women 34%). Approximately 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to insufficient physical activity.”  Nobody wants to be obese but people are getting fatter, and everybody knows that they should exercise more than they do.   Clearly there is a disconnect between intentions and actual behaviour. 

We don’t do what we say we will do

Many studies have examined the relationship between intentions and behaviour and, somewhat surprisingly, the correlation between the two is not all that high.  Have you ever had the experience of setting strong goals to exercise or eat well and then not followed through?  Timothy Wilson wrote a fascinating book called “Strangers to Ourselves” outlining all the evidence for unconscious, automatic influences upon our behaviour.  Meta-analyses have revealed:

“… intentions account for a weighted average of only 30% of the variance in social behavior (Armitage & Conner, 2001; Hagger et al., 2002), mainly because people with strong intentions fail to act on them (Orbell & Sheeran, 1998).”  (Chatzisarantis & Hagger, 2007).

Why might this be the case?  One reason people fail to act on strong intentions is because they simply forget to start the behaviour.  Have you ever said something like “This week I will exercise three times” and then before you know it, the week is over and you haven’t exercised at all?  This is why setting specific goals and thinking about contextual reminders is so important.  In the literature, this sort of planning is called “implementation intentions”.

But another reason why people fail to act on their intentions is because their responding has become habitual and automatic.  When we don’t reflect on our moment to moment behaviour we are very likely to do what we have always done in the past.

Mindfulness helps us act on our intentions

From one point of view, this might be a bit of a problem for the ACT model.  If our behaviour is relatively independent of our intentions, then what is the point on getting clear on our values when we might just act out of our habits and unreflected impulses anyway?  This is where mindfulness becomes really important.  Values clarification on its own is of little use unless we bring awareness to what we are doing and we have the self-regulatory skills to enact new behaviours.

But is there any evidence that mindfulness can help us do what we want to do?  Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007) explored how mindfulness affects the relationship between people’s intentions to engage in vigorous physical exercise and their actual behaviour.

First they confirmed that people’s intentions to exercise didn’t actually predict whether people exercised or not. But the really interesting finding was that more mindful people were more likely to act on their intentions than those who are less mindful, even controlling for the physical exercise was already a habit for the participant.  So mindful people, but not non-mindful people, were more likely to do what they said they would do!  Isn’t that just the coolest reason for learning to be mindful?  “Learn mindfulness and you will do what you say you will do!”

Why does mindfulness help us act on our intentions?

The authors then went on to explore reasons why mindfulness might strengthen the relationship between behaviours and intentions. Before we go any further, what do you think? Why might mindfulness increase the tendency to act on intentions?

Got something?

Perhaps mindfulness increases awareness of goals in each moment and therefore reduces the tendency to forget what we said we would do. Or perhaps mindfulness improves our self-regulatory skills so that we are more likely to be able to manage the difficult emotions that arise when we do something new or challenging. Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007) tested a third possibility, that mindfulness helps us control counter-intentional behaviours, in this case binge drinking.   They reasoned that binge-drinking probably interferes with doing vigorous physical activity (is it just me or do you too have an image of lying on a couch with a pillow over your head?), and that mindfulness might reduce the extent to which habitual binge-drinking interferes with intentions to exercise.

And this is what they found:

C and H 07 Fig 2b 3

Let me step you through this diagram.  Start with the dotted line first. What this says is that people who are NOT mindful and who habitually engage in binge-drinking are LESS likely to engage in physical exercise. That is, habitual binge-drinking decreases the likelihood of engaging in physical activity. So far so good, this confirms the idea that binge-drinking ain’t great for getting up in the morning and going for a run!  But look at the solid line. For this group, even if they did engage in habitual binge-drinking they were still just as likely to engage in exercise as those who did not habitually binge drink. So some mindful folk still go out on the town, but they don’t let this interfere with their intentions to exercise.  In the words of Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007: 672):

“These results, therefore, corroborate the view that greater awareness of and attention to internal states and behavioral routines helps mindful individuals shield good intentions from unhealthy habits and thus can play a key role in fostering effective self-regulation. In contrast, diminished attention and awareness of counterintentional routines and habits is likely to prevent individuals acting less mindfully from engaging in effective self-regulation, as the negative relationship between habitual binge-drinking and physical exercise suggests (see Figures 2a and 2b).”

So maybe next Christmas I will be better at mindfully saying no to that Christmas pudding!

Why Is Taking A Break So Difficult?

I took a ‘sicky’ the other day (is that just an Australian word? In case it is – it means an ‘unplanned absence’). I wasn’t sick. I was just tired. Normally I am full of energy and enthusiasm for my life. I feel that each moment drips with meaning and purpose. From writing the speech I am giving next week on goal setting to attending my daughter’s commencement ceremony at school, it all matters so much. And this is wonderful, but now and again I get very, very tired.

A pot of green tea on my deck

So I made myself a pot of green tea, downloaded a Georgian Historical Romance onto my ipad and spent a few hours on the day bed on my deck, snoozing and reading.

Now I feel better.

You would think that taking a few hours off would be an easy thing to do… but not for me. My mind alternates between reminding me of all I have to do and busily problem solving (‘I need an activity to illustrate that point about goal setting, what would work? I must remember to ring the plumber. That balustrade needs painting…’). Of course, if I had decided to carry on working, my mind would have gone on and on about how tired I was (‘I am sooo tired. I need to rest. I can’t concentrate. I wonder if I am getting sick?’).

A few years ago, Russ Harris taught me, ‘Your mind is not your friend’. I find it is helpful to know this. Whatever I do, part of my mind will chatter away in an unhelpful fashion. This is part of being human. The trick is to do what is right in that moment – whether it is to rest or work or play – and take my chattery mind along with me.

How White Dog Poo Can Give Us Hope For 2012

Do you remember white dog poo? It seemed to be all over the place when I was growing up, but now I can’t remember the last time I saw any. What’s going on?

The answer is that humans have decided to pick up after their dogs.  In general, we carry around little black bags for the purpose and deposit them in special bins.

As Jerry Seinfeld said, if an alien ever landed they would undoubtedly conclude that it was the dogs who were in charge. But the real point is that our short term behaviour has changed, making the environment more pleasant for others, even though the immediate consequences for ourselves are unpleasant.

Why does this matter?

Because it tells us something important about human nature. Even behaviour which seems deeply ingrained and resistant to change can be changed.

Yet the thing about humans is that we forget this and give ourselves a hard time. As a species we criticise ourselves constantly, even though evidence suggests our behaviour has never been better or more peaceful.  And at an individual level, when we think about behaviour change we often to chide ourselves for not having changed already.  And any behaviourist will tell you that’s not a great reinforcer.

Steve Hayes once said the real question is not why are we so controlled by short term impulses, but rather how do we ever fail to be?

This puts me in mind of one of my favourite quotations of all, by Robert Ardrey but used  here by Ken Robinson.  I think it’s a nice reminder as we start 2012.

Happy New Year, everyone.

“Human beings were born of risen apes, not fallen angels.
And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles?
Or our treaties, our symphonies, our peaceful acres, our dreams?
The miracle of humankind is not how far we have sunk but how magnificently we have risen.
We will be known among the stars not by our corpses, but by our poems.”

The Smallest Step

Like many people, the need to take more exercise is a recurring theme for me. I have repeatedly set goals to do the ‘right’ thing – exercise for 30 minutes at least 5 times a week. And not once have I achieved this. Yes that is right ladies and gentlemen, not one single week. So now, when I resolve to take more exercise, my mind has a field day: ‘Yeh right. You won’t do that. It will be just like all the other times’. 

Russ Harris helped me with this at his Happiness Trap workshop. When he spoke about goal setting, he said:

  1. How does this issue relate to what is important to you? For me it is about wanting to do my best to continue to be a healthy partner, mother, friend, hopefully even a sprightly grandmother.
  2. This issue will likely keep turning up in your life. You will get older and wiser and sometime in the next 5 years you will notice that you have fallen back into your old self-defeating patterns … and again in 10 years…. and again in 15 years. Can you feel compassion for that future you? I found acknowledging that this issue keeps on turning up oddly reassuring. I do hope that in the future I will treat myself with compassion – beating myself up certainly hasn’t helped.
  3. Decide on a very small action you could take that would move you towards your value. I decided I would run up and down the stairs in my house twice a week.
  4. What thoughts, feelings, memories and urges are likely to turn up as you take that action?  Are you willing to experience them in the service of that value? Well if you put it like that…

And here I am not only running up my stairs but also standing at my laptop and meeting friends for a walk rather than a coffee.

In terms of behavioural change, Russ did some important things here. He:

  • Linked the behaviour change to values. This builds motivation.
  • Suggested that lapses are to be expected – and that the best way to deal with them is with self-compassion.
  • Encouraged some acceptance of the unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations that are likely to arise. Acceptance of unpleasant internal experiences (thoughts, feelings etc.) is associated with a tendency to persist in the face of difficulty.
  • Encouraged focussing on taking one small step forwards. Taking even a small action towards achieving a goal, builds motivation for more action.

When you are next working towards changing your own behaviour or perhaps coaching a member of your team to improve some aspect of their work – remember to work out how the action links to values, make the first step very small and respond to lapses with compassion.


The Benefits of Everyday Mindfulness

Everyday mindfulness is about maintaining an ‘open, accepting, present focus of attention during day-to-day life.’  There is increasing research suggesting that this stance is good for us:
This paper finds something interesting – being ‘good’ at formal mindfulness meditation doesn’t correlate with being mindful in everyday life.
I think this is very freeing. Although I know that mindfulness meditation is very good for me, I find it hard to find time for sitting meditation in my busy life. Everyday mindfulness means that each moment I can make a decision to be open and present. And it looks like that has some serious benefits.

What is Psychological Flexibility?

The main focus of ACT is to increase something called psychological flexibility.  But what is psychological flexibility and why is it important?

Of all the psychological phenomena that we have studied, this is the one that is of by far the most help to the people we work with in organisations.  Becoming more psychologically flexible helps people not just cope with stress but to do more of what it is they really value.  So what exactly is it?

Psychological flexibility has been defined as “the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being and to change, or persist in, behavior when doing so serves valued ends” (Biglan, Hayes, & Pistorello, 2008).

‘Contacting the present more fully’ means willing to be present with difficult thoughts and emotions and to accept ourselves as we are, not as we think we should be.  This is a critical difference, because research shows that trying to get rid of our difficult thoughts and emotions increases their frequency, strength and duration (Wegner, 1994).

It also helps to understand psychological flexibility’s opposite orientation—experiential avoidance (EA).  EA is the tendency to avoid or control unpleasant thoughts and feelings, even when doing so creates problems for a person.  For example, someone who has the thought that they “are stupid” may avoid situations (e.g., a classroom) that might embarrass them.  However, this strategy has the effect of systematically narrowing one’s options in life.

It’s easy to see how EA can be a problem in career change, but empirical evidence also associates EA with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, poor work performance and chronic stress.  Conversely, becoming more psychologically flexible allows people to cope with life more effectively and to derive wellbeing as a consequence of valued living.

Being psychologically flexible doesn’t make life easier or more pleasant.  But it makes it more vital and  values-directed.  And that, incidentally, is what most of our clients want from their career change; a life worth living.