• Getting Better at Wellbeing

    There is now a huge amount of research and articles about wellbeing - it can be easy to get lost, and it's difficult to know what to take on board. I found these two great videos on YouTube of Richard Davidson, one of the researchers most responsible for bringing mindfulness into the neuroscientific research field, which bring together what we know so far about what factors modulate wellbeing.

    In this clip Davidson describes wellbeing as a skill and that just like learning to play a musical instrument, we need to practise it to get better at it. He outlines 4 neuroscientifically validated constituents of wellbeing, all of which exhibit plasticity – the capacity of neural circuitry to be shaped by practise and experience i.e. by purposefully practising them our brains get better at them.

    1. Resilience. The rapidity with which we recover from adversity. We can’t stop life’s challenges from coming but we can bolster our capacity to manage them.

    2. Positive Outlook. The ability to see the positive and innate goodness in others and savour positive experiences. In depression, activation of this neural circuitry happens but it lasts only for a short time. Loving kindness meditation practise can modulate this circuitry relatively quickly – with as little as 7 hours of training - 30 mins of practise a day for 2 weeks. Changes predicted pro-social behaviour.

    3. Attention. Being able to be present with whatever we’re doing. Davidson quotes a study carried out by Harvard researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert (2010) which indicated that 47% of an adults waking life is spent not paying attention to what they’re doing and that they are substantially less happy when they were not focused on what they were doing. I wrote about this research in an earlier blog post which can be found here

    4. Generosity. Davidson states that there’s now a “plethora” of data suggesting that altruistic behaviour activates key wellbeing circuitry in the brain.

    Davidson concludes that we can take responsibility for our own minds, to intentionally shape our brains as a means to strengthen these 4 fundamental constituents of wellbeing, reiterating the skill aspect of wellbeing.

    In this video, at 26.10 mins Davidson takes over the discussion. Again he references the Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) research mentioned above. He describes 4 themes in modern science that are currently occurring and are providing a foundation for this valuable and insightful work to continue.

    1. Neuroplasticity. The idea that the brain can change in response to experience.

    2. Epigenetics. The equivalent of plasticity in genetics, that the genes we are born with are not expressed in a fixed way, rather they can be turned up and turned down (up-regulated or down-regulated) based on our experiences. So although we may be born with a disposition for certain characteristics or disorders, the genes can be modulated. Research has shown that a change in gene expression can occur over the course of 8 hours. Yep, 8 hours.

    3. Bi-directional communication between brain and body. Changes that occur in the brain affect the body and changes in the body impact our minds and brains. This is why body based therapies may have beneficial effects, modulating brain activity and vice versa

    4. That human beings are born with innate basic goodness. Research with 6 month old babies indicate that we have an innate preference for warm-hearted altruist encounters v’s selfish, aggressive interactions. Through meditation we have the opportunity to familiarise ourselves with the basic nature of our minds, the place where the innate goodness resides, which modern research suggests is indeed apparent.

    It’s not always the case that scientific research translates easily to real world application however this is not the case with research on mindfulness and kindness. Davidson goes on to discuss ways in which the lab work is being applied to real world settings such as learning and education, (social, emotional and attentional skills) and healthcare and outlines ways in which the work needs to be furthered e.g. looking at the links between regular meditation practises and decreases in prescription drug costs. Fascinating and important stuff!

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  • World Mental Health Day 2017

    Tuesday 10th October is World Mental Health Day which this year is focusing on mental health in the workplace. We spend a lot of time a work – a lot, so it’s really important that our work environment is a nurturing space that supports wellbeing. Sadly this is not always the case - I can speak from my own past experience of stressful and toxic work environments to attest to this and I see many patients and clients seeking help to manage work-related psychological difficulties. It’s no surprise that a negative work environment can lead to physical and mental health problems and unhelpful coping mechanisms like overworking, harmful use of substances or alcohol. Not only that, work problems don’t just stay at work, they have the potential to pervade every aspect of our lives, affecting our relationships and preventing us from having any downtime. Currently, globally more than 300 million people suffer from depression, the leading cause of disability and more than 260 million are living with anxiety disorders.

    A key focus of IAPT, the NHS Mental Health Service for anxiety and depression disorders, is supporting people to find and stay in work. We recognise that good work is important for maintaining good mental health and we know that employers and managers who put in place workplace initiatives to promote mental health and to support employees who have mental disorders see gains not only in the health of their employees but also in their productivity at work. So if you think there should be more of this in the world, tell someone about it, start a discussion, share a post on social media, do what you can to raise awareness of the importance of mental health in the workplace.

    You can read more about World Mental Health day here

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  • Depression: leading cause of ill health and disability

    In March 2017 the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. Sometimes it can feel like your battling depression alone, but here are some facts from the report that indicate that’s clearly not the case:

    - 300 million people are now living with depression

    - This is an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015

    Investment in provision for mental health treatments are falling short – way short – of what’s needed. WHO report that nearly 50% of people with depression are not receiving any treatment and on average just 3% of government health budgets are being invested in mental health. Not only does this lead to unjustifiable suffering, it’s incredibly short-sighted – the report states that every $1 invested in scaling up treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of $4 in better health and ability to work. It’s vital we continue to raise awareness of the consequences of insufficient investment and in the meantime, do our best to look after ourselves and each other.

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  • Whatever comes up – that’s the curriculum.

    During the summer I attended a day of “Mindfulness-Based Interventions from the Inside: Practise, Inquiry and Fine-Tuning” with Jon Kabat-Zinn. We spent some time discussing the nature of mindfulness based interventions, their purpose and the challenges and satisfactions of offering them in different contexts to different groups of people.

    As Jon began to speak, he explained that he had no firm plan for the day and that “whatever comes up – that’s the curriculum”. It wasn’t lost on us that this too is the essence of mindfulness – whatever comes up, well, that’s the practise. In my role as a mindfulness teacher and therapist, I come across many individuals that struggle with uncertainty about “doing mindfulness right”. The most common questions centre around “what am I supposed to be thinking”, “should there be no thoughts at all”, questions and struggles that I myself experienced when I embarked on this practise. Through continued effort, I learned that our minds have become so used to being engaged that it goes against everything to allow the mind to just step back and watch what’s there rather than be in it. That mindfulness isn’t about striving for a thought-free or wholly positive mind, that mindfulness is about whatever comes up – that is indeed the practise.

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  • Mind Trap at Chelsea Flower Show 2017

    This is a much delayed blog post but one not to be forgotten. In May I attended the Chelsea Flower Show to take part in the Mind Trap, a garden designed with the purpose of raising awareness of mental health difficulties. Mind Trap’s designer Ian Price wanted to create a garden which can immerse the visitor in an experience that gives insight into what it is like to suffer from and live with mental health issues and I believe he did just that.

    Based on Ian’s personal battle with mental ill health and depression, every element of Mind Trap was carefully structured to symbolise a facet of mental ill health. From the black-water pond which gently rippled so as not to allow you to see a true reflection of yourself, to the harsh metal walls that loomed in on you making you feel caged with only a few rays of light at certain angles, each stone, plant and shrub carefully chosen to align with his mission.

    My role was to incorporate a mindfulness element in the garden, and I’m honoured to have played a small part in Mind Trap. The Duchess of Cambridge spent some time talking with Ian as she viewed the garden, I believe Mind Trap has gone some way to raise awareness and end stigma around mental health, causes that are clearly of importance to her.

    You can see more of the gold medal winning Mind Trap here. Thanks to Jonathan at Ginger Horticulture for the images.

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