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.

 

Using the ACT Matrix to Help You to Be The Person You Want to Be…More Often

I use the ACT matrix a lot in my workshops and with my coaching clients… and on myself! It is a tool that helps to build mindfulness, self-awareness and valued living. It is based on contextual behavioural science and is very easy to use.

I have made a video explaining how I use it:

 

You can download a pdf handout of the ACT Matrix here.

Kevin Polk (who is one of the people who developed the ACT matrix) has lots of free resources relating to the ACT matrix at his website.

How can Behaviour Analysis Help in Coaching? (part 1)

So many people in ACT are attracted to its focus on values and connecting to what matters that it can be a surprise to learn of its roots in behaviour analysis.  After all, isn’t that what  they do with rats?

After attending an excellent talk on this subject by David Gillanders, I wanted to write a short series on how behaviour analysis might help in coaching.

The Lingo:

In behaviour analysis, “A” refers to the antecedent, or the event or activity that immediately precedes a behavior. The “B” refers to the observed behavior, and “C” refers to the consequence, or the event that immediately follows a response.applied-behaviour-analysis-aba

Insight from Behaviour Analysis:

If an event (Antecedent) leads to a Behaviour whose immediate Consequence is less negative than alternatives, the chain is strengthened.

Useful for:

Clients who are really stuck.

Brief Example Completely Unrelated to Me:

OK so let’s imagine that someone feels anxious before going to a party.  This someone always fears being judged and found wanting by those around me them.

To be clear, this never actually happens to me, but let’s go ahead and imagine anyway.  And let’s get behavioural and call this the antecedent

*Pause to high-five my bad inner behaviour analyst self*

This person then decides to stay in and watch Netflix instead (House of Cards since you ask).  This is the behaviour.

The consequence is immediate feelings of relief – no more anxiety – and this therefore acts as a reinforcer of the behaviour, making the chain stronger.

Another example – Duncan – had been experiencing career paralysis for a few years. His work in finance brought acute feelings of meaninglessness. At the end of the week he consoled himself by going out and getting hammered. This was reinforcing because 1) he had a great time with his friends and 2) he forgot about his job.

Whilst there was plenty of good stuff going on (Duncan was popular) he was also anaesthetising himself from his feelings of meaninglessness.  As the chain got stronger he also started to drink during the week, especially if he’d had a bad day.

In the short term this meant he could solider on whilst ‘living for the weekend’.  But in the long term this pattern was reinforcing his stuckness, eroding his spirit, and draining his energy.

Helping to Unravel Clients who Feel Stuck

By viewing stuck patterns through the lens of behaviour analysis, clients can make more sense of their experience and see how avoidance behaviours provide immediate, short term reinforcement that easily become entrenched into habit.

Another client, Mia, has been stuck in her law career for over 5 years. She’s seen many coaches in her time with always the same pattern: initial hope and excitement, followed by lots of research and analysis, but then slowly tailing away.  This she puts down to ‘laziness’.

In this case we see that antecedents, behaviours and consequences can take some teasing apart – but that it can be revealing to do so:

Antecedent

Mia feels like a ‘cog in a machine’ at work. Her feelings are most acute when she reads articles about people working for themselves and when she meets her friend Katherine who seems to have loads of autonomy as a freelance graphic designer.

Behaviour

Mia’s behavioural pattern then is to research alternative careers – from yoga teacher, to charity worker and in-house lawyer.  This phase feels rich with possibility which is highly reinforcing.cross-rd

However, as she then moves further into analysis mode,  she begins to find problems with each option…. Yoga teacher? No proper pension. Charity sector? Badly paid and badly run. In-house lawyer? Same lack of autonomy.

Each option is analysed and rejected.

Consequence

The consequence is that she begins to experience acute disappointment and loss of hope. This acts as another antecedent, which cues a period of plunging herself back into her work, trying to forget how miserable she feels.

Conclusion

Teasing out the antecedent from the behaviour (and exploring the consequences in each case) helps clients make sense of seemingly ingrained or embedded patterns of behaviour that are keeping them stuck.

This approach can also help coaches make more accurate case conceptualisations, and to track interventions more accurately from moment to moment.

Little Things Lead to Sucess At Work

What if your greatest successes are more a reflection of your small, everyday choices than of the big decisions you make?

In his book, ‘How to Choose’, David Freemantle suggests that it is our micro-behaviours that make the difference between success and disappointment. By micro-behaviours, he means the ‘nuances and minutiae of our observed behaviours’. We tend to remember big choices we have made and think they have determined the course of our life. Whilst it is true that these larger choices are important. Freemantle suggests that it is actually our micro-behaviours that ultimately determine our success in these larger events.

For example, a ‘macro-behaviour’ might be to apply for a secondment to a project that interests you. Making this choice and taking this action certainly matters, but all sorts of micro-behaviours impact on how successful your application will be. When you apply for the secondment, do you go and see the person in charge of the project and engage with them in a way that makes them feel confident that you would be a pleasant and conscientious team member? Do you take the time to write a well thought out application? Have your tiny, repeated behaviours over the last 2 years, built you a reputation as someone who is helpful and effective? All of these frequent, small choices will impact on the outcome of your application.

Our natural tendency is to consciously choose the big things but to let our habitual style determine our micro-behaviours. For example, if my family and cultural background encouraged a blunt and straightforward style of communication, I will tend to do that. If my background has trained me to be compliant and avoid conflict. I will tend to do that.

In order to succeed in ways that are meaningful, we need to do something different. Instead of letting our history determine our micro-behaviours, we need to choose these behaviours consciously based on three key factors:

  • What is happening in this moment?
  • Which of my values are most important to express in this situation?
  • What do I want to achieve both in the short and in the long term?

This assessment of what each moment calls for involves the capacity to be really present. To really see what is going on.

It requires that we have a clear sense of who we want to be (our values) and a broad sense of what we want our life to stand for (our purpose).

And, finally, it requires the capacity to unhook from impulses to act in reactive or unskilful ways.

These are the skills of psychological flexibility.

Acceptance and Commitment Training has been shown to build psychological flexibility.

To get a sense of how to do that – you could explore this blog, read one of the many excellent ACT books or find an ACT coach.

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.

Learning to Touch Fear

Training Josie to TouchMy daughter, Ellie, is training her horse to touch an object. Ellie points at the object and says the word ‘touch’ and her horse, Josie, touches it with her nose. This seems like an odd skill to train. So I asked Ellie why she was doing this. She told me that if a horse sees something that is new, like a paper bag or a traffic cone, then their natural response is fear. Their focus narrows down to the thing that is frightening them, as if they were wearing blinders. Josie then becomes skittish and unpredictable and she ignores Ellie. But if she touches the threat, she realises that it is fine, settles down and opens up to Ellie’s instructions.

Of course horses aren’t the only ones that scare easily, and they aren’t the only ones that can learn to touch the fear. You and I can become skittish, unpredictable and cut off from what’s happening around us when we are afraid.

The big difference is, we aren’t usually spooked by paper bags and traffic cones, for most of us it’s our emotions that we’re afraid to touch.

When fear, anxiety, sadness or anger turn up, we can become both preoccupied by the feelings and also focussed on getting rid of them. We tend to treat internal discomfort as if it is the same as a real threat in the external world. In the grip of painful emotions, we find it difficult to focus on what is happening around us. We tend to ignore the suggestions of our wiser self and we make foolish or impulsive decisions.

What if we could learn how to respond differently to painful emotions? What if we could lightly touch the feelings that scare us? With time we might find that although they seem very threatening they can’t actually harm us.

Like all new skills, it is good to start small with less challenging emotions. Touch them gently and imagine yourself expanding to make room for them. If over and over again we practice the skill of turning towards emotional discomfort with curiosity, something important happens.

Eventually, when fear, anger or sadness turn up, instead of freaking out and being controlled by our emotions, we accept our feelings as signs that we are human and that we care. We are able to take actions based on both our values and what the situation affords and over time these wiser choices will help us to flourish.
So next time you feel yourself freaking out, take a breath and see if you could, just for a moment, touch your feelings with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. It might just change everything.

Building Psychological Flexibility by Turning Rules into Ribbons

This post was co-authored with Marie-France Bolduc . Marie-France is an incredibly warm and compassionate ACT therapist and trainer based in Quebec. In a recent training session, her partner, Benjamin Schoendorff, described a lovely metaphor Marie-France has developed and I wanted to share it with you:

Our mind is a rule-making factory. It constantly tries to make sense of the world. It does this by developing rules that tell us what to do next; what something means; how we should feel; what we should think…

These rules can be helpful. They can save us time and energy.

For example, I have recently made a rule that I will walk 10,000 steps every day. It is a good rule that will help me to stay healthy. But what if I become overly rigid about that rule? What if I insist on walking 10,000 steps, even when I am sick? Then the rule becomes like a ruler – rigid and inflexible. I will also tend to beat myself up when I don’t follow it (like those teachers from my childhood, who used their rulers to wallop disobedient pupils!).

Ribbon and RulerA more helpful approach to these internalized rules is to treat them more like flexible ribbons. They can be applied when it is helpful and not when it isn’t.

To give you another example of how this works in practice. I have a rule that, before I raise a concern, I need to have worked out how I contributed to the problem. This is another ‘good’ rule. It stops me from blaming people unfairly. But if I apply it rigidly, it can hold me back from being authentic. What if, try as I might, I can’t work out my part? Or, if actually no one caused the problem – it just happened? If I follow the rule rigidly, I am paralysed, unable to raise my concerns and sometimes as a result; my silence actually damages the relationship.

You might want to start to notice where rulers and ribbons turn up in your life.

English: tape measure Français : Metre de cout...
If you combine a ruler with a ribbon you get… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What does it feel like when you turn a rule into a ruler? What is it like when you apply it more flexibly and gently like a ribbon?

The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.

George Bernard Shaw

Growing Compassion in Organisations

Hello!

I am so excited to be joining “Working with ACT” exactly two years to the day since Rob and Rachel started this wonderful blog. Working with mindfulness and values is a big part of my professional and personal life. My aim is to bring you interesting perspectives on ACT research.

By way of introduction, I thought I might briefly review one of my own papers written with Sharon Parker.  I promise I will focus on papers by other people in the future 🙂  Here is the citation from which you can link to the paper if you would like to read more.

Atkins, P. W. B., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Understanding individual compassion in organizations: the role of appraisals and psychological flexibility. Academy of Management Review, 37(3).

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“I don’t do emotions!”  This was a comment made by one of my students in reaction to an exercise exploring values and stressors at work. But in reality, we all “do emotions”. A growing body of evidence clearly shows that emotions are a major determinant of performance in all workplaces, including public sector organisations.  Emotions alert us to what matters, they allow us to communicate and make decisions that are effective.  Emotions are at the heart of thinking about how we wish to live and what we wish to create in society?

Becoming skilful at recognising and influencing emotions at work is a key facet of effective leadership and management. Such skill rests upon the quality of our awareness and perspective taking ability. We need to be able to take the perspective of others to act effectively. We need to be compassionate if we are to respond skilfully to our own and others emotions.

Compassion towards oneself and others is a critical part of building effective relationships and making good decisions at work. Think for example of how you handle situations where you or someone in your team fails to achieve important goals. What would it be like if people were more compassionate towards themselves and others at these times?

Compassion is not just a feeling.  It involves four stages:

  1. Noticing another is suffering,
  2. Making judgments about what is going on,
  3. Feeling empathy, and
  4. Taking action.

There are three judgments that can get in the way of compassion towards self or others.

First, we can fail to be compassionate because we judge that the person who is suffering is not deserving of our compassion. For example, we might judge that the person brought their suffering on themselves.

Second, we might judge that the person’s suffering is not relevant to us. Research shows we are much less likely to extend suffering to others who have different goals, or belong to groups with which we do not identify. If we make this judgment, we are more likely to feel disconnection rather than compassion.  One can easily see how this judgment is involved in the debate over immigration in this country.

Third, we make a judgment about our personal resources. If we don’t feel as though we can cope with being in the presence of another who is suffering in some way, we are more likely to feel distress rather than compassion.  The manager who cannot bear to be in the presence of a person crying is making this sort of judgment.  This judgment appears to be involved in the experience of burnout many people feel when they work in jobs that involve caring for others.

Of course, these judgments are sometimes justified.  Modern evolutionary theory suggests that such judgments are an important aspect of self-protection and effective group function.  Sometimes it is best not to feel compassion, or at least not to act upon it. Our argument is not that we should always feel more compassion. Our argument is that it is helpful to become more aware of the automatic reactions that drive our behaviour. To the extent that we can catch our reactions in motion, we can choose our responses more deliberately and improve our effectiveness.

So how might we learn to catch our automatic reactions, and act more in line with what really matters?

If you have been following this blog you will know that there are two aspects of effective training in emotional skills. First, we need to increase mindfulness. Being mindful means being aware of what is happening in each moment both within ourselves and in the world and bringing an attitude of openness to that experience. Second, we need to be clear about our values and the values of the organisation in which we work. There is no point developing awareness if we don’t know how we want to act in the world. Values act as a compass to guide our behaviour.

What has been your experience of compassion at work? Is it encouraged? Does it have a positive impact?

What To Do With Feelings of Shame

SHAME
SHAME (Photo credit: BlueRobot)

Do you think it is bad to feel ashamed?

In this interview, Maarten Aalberse suggests that we have a tendency to feel ashamed about feeling shame and that this causes us problems. He suggests responding to those feelings with empathy and compassion instead of trying to reject these painful emotions. What does that look like?

Shame comes up quite often for me. The other day, a participant in a session I was facilitating said, ‘Well I think this sort of thing is a waste of time. Nothing ever changes as a result.‘ and pop there it was… shame. Gnawing away at my gut. Making me want to crawl into a corner and hide.

My mind went into overdrive: I am a waste of space. All those years of training were a waste of time. I have been deluding myself. It was all pointless. ( I actually feel a bit ashamed letting you know the crazy thoughts my mind can come up with!)

And then, I remembered Maarten’s suggestions and I breathed and asked myself , ‘Can I turn towards this pain with kindness? Can I hold these feelings with compassion? Can I use all of those years of training to choose my next words? Even though the urge to react is so strong?’

This sounded like a good plan, so instead of getting defensive I responded with curiosity, ‘What would have to happen for today to be worthwhile? What would we each need to do?

The conversation moved forward and we made a plan.

I think that Maarten may be right. That allowing those feelings to be there and treating them with kindness may lead to more effective responses.

What about you…are you ashamed of shame? What happens when you treat those feelings with compassion instead? Does that work better for you?

Why I Am Not As Empathic As I Want to Be

Last year, my daughter Ellie, had her wisdom teeth out. It was horrible. It is a painful and unpleasant procedure and, to make matters worse, Ellie has a needle phobia. Ellie felt terrified but she hid it well and looked completely calm. This meant that I looked like a crazy, over-anxious mother insisting that my daughter wasn’t coping whilst Ellie appeared to be fine.

My worry for Ellie, combined with the difficulty in getting her the help she needed, was just horrible.

After the operation Ellie had a lot of pain and vomiting. I felt so bad for her. It was so distressing to see her in such discomfort.

Even now, when we talk about the operation, I have a tendency to get upset and hijack the conversation – suddenly I am going on about how I found the whole thing awful.

When my loved ones are in pain, I feel it so acutely that I struggle to be present and helpful. This is because I lack some key empathy skills.

Louise McHugh recently taught me that there are three aspects to empathy:

1. Perspective taking – Imagining how I would feel if I were you. Or, even better, if I was you, with your history and temperament and circumstances, how would I feel?

2. Being open to feel the painful emotions provoked by taking the other person’s perspective.

3. Handling those painful emotions effectively so as not to get so swamped and distressed that you can’t focus on supporting the other person. Strategies for handling painful emotions include mindfulness (getting present with your five senses; holding your pain with compassionate awareness) and connection to that still part of yourself that observes what is happening without being caught up in it.

If I am to become more empathic I need to work on the third aspect of empathy. When the feelings swamp me, I need to remember to breathe and get present. I need to connect to the part of me that can observe and transcend pain and difficulty. When a precious human being needs my help and support; I want to become better at giving them what they need.

How empathic are you? What gets in the way of empathy for you?