It’s been a Mental (Health Awareness) Week!

May is Mental Health Awareness month and this week, 10-17th May, is Mental Health Awareness week. I wonder if you know this, and I wonder if you care? Mental health is still a stigmatised subject to discuss; we’re getting better at talking about it, but we’re not getting better at dealing with it.

Antidepressant use has sky-rocketed since 1992- prescriptions for antidepressants have increased 100% since 2015, or 500% since 1992 and 1.1 million people are, unfortunately, on benefits because of their mental health difficulties. Mmmh. I wonder what this is telling us? I wonder what the trend is that is making antidepressant use increase, year upon year? Don’t get me wrong; I am not against medication for mental health difficulties; I know in some cases the medication taken can be life-changing for some people. I am more interested in the deeper causes than that. What is going on in our society, and why are we getting sadder and less fulfilled, as a nation?

I have been studying for my (final ever!!!) exam in Professional Issues in Counselling Psychology, and, given that this is Doctoral level, I did a LOT of reading for this. In fact, I ordered several books, too 🙂 But seriously, I was engrossed in what is a mix of theory, lived experience, political discussion and the psychology of the changes that we are being forced through. These changes are being pushed on to us from so many different areas; by the society around us, work, school, government, media, social media and peers- you name it, we’re getting pressure from every direction, so just how does it affect us?

I’m really not going to go into masses of theory, so don’t worry there; but hang in there, it’s worth it, I promise! Do you know we have a Minister for Loneliness in Parliament in the UK? Yes, yes we do. She’s called Tracey Crouch, and she is here to cure our loneliness. Or is she? How is she going to make us feel better and less isolated? Is it flinging money at more therapists in what is an already hugely overstretched NHS? Or is it at a more fundamental grassroots level?

Have you been into a GP surgery recently? A health centre or hospital? Have you ever noticed the signs on the walls? What are they telling you? Are they telling you to lose weight? Are they telling you to stop smoking? Join a gym? Practice some yoga or Mindfulness? Those are all great suggestions, sure, but what is at the root of all of this? Why are people unhappy?

Think about your life, what makes you unhappy? Is it your job? Your house? The fact that you are struggling to get from pay day to pay day- or even just through the first week of the month would be good! What do you see when you look in the paper, or on social media? Are these concepts/material goods/lifestyles attainable for us, in this economic climate? The answers you come up with are probably not very positive answers. Things need to change. People need to start getting involved in their lives, and the lives of the community around them- it’s the only way we can affect social change, and as I am about to show, no matter who you are, social interaction is massively significant for us all.

As a (terrible) beauty advert states- here comes the science bit! As homo sapiens, we live for groups. Really, quite literally live because of them, and for them. We’ve talked about the whole caveman thing already on this blog- we wouldn’t have survived alone- so what makes this any different now? We need to feel like we belong. We need to feel needed. Social connection is so vital for our mental health- I’ll start at the beginning and make it as quick and painless as possible, I promise!

Back in the late 1970’s a Polish Social Psychologist, Henri Tajfel, after experiments in the lab, proposed a new theory relating to the way we function as humans; Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). What Social Identity theory tells us, is that we favour the groups of people we are with and feel comfortable with- your rugby club? That’s what we would call your ‘ingroup’ and the opposing team, well, they would be… yes, you guessed it, the ‘outgroup’. So, whose side do we take in a situation like this? Well, the people we are in the same group as, of course. Why is that, I hear you ask? Well, how does being a part of that group make you feel? Accepted? Happy? Fulfilled? Yes, we all feel that way when we are accepted, welcomed, supported and helped in a group. We all feel the need for that acceptance. ALL of us. And when we have groups that we are happy with, it makes our lives better. We have something to look forward to and enjoy, and in turn, this increases our mental health and wellbeing.

Taking care of your mental well-being is just as important as taking care of your physical well-being and is something that you can take an active part in- taking an interest in your own life and community! Getting involved in your community will not only make you feel included, but it will give you a sense of purpose and happiness. Yes, I really do know, and understand, that it’s so hard to get out and about when you’re feeling unwell and low, but if you can get yourself out, you really will benefit from it.

Any group works- reading club, gardening club, pole dancing classes, swimming, boules, poker (no betting here!), cooking club, art, debating, ecological, photography, football, rugby, ballet, environmental, tap… the list goes on, but the more involved you get, the better you will feel. Don’t trust me, trust these fantastic psychologists who have performed research into this fascinating, and helpful area; a group of Psychologists who used Social Theory intervention to create social groups, Groups 4 Health, for people with mental health difficulties; the result was improved psychological health and well-being (Haslam, Haslam, & Cruwys, Groups 4 Health, 2016). One group of scientists worked out that even belonging to a group of people who feel stigmatised, such as a support group, your mental well-being increases (McNamara, Stevenson, & Muldoon, 2013). There are also some scientists who believe that social identity and feeling part of a group and being included is so important that they even wrote a book about it (Haslam, Jetten, Cruwys, Dingle, & Haslam, 2018). Connection is key!

Sadly, there are other elements that we need to keep us happy- enough money, safe and affordable housing, jobs, jobs that are well paid, jobs that are not zero contract and what about social spaces that we can all use safely? A psychological theory doesn’t cover these, I am afraid, but Politics does. And it’s up to us to influence and create change in these things, if we want to feel better. The tragic school shooting’s in the USA have awoken the frustration and anger in school children across America (even across the world), who can see precisely how unfair their lives are; subject to the rules and regulations of people who do not understand the complexities of their lived experiences- as a parent, I cannot even imagine how scary it is to send your children to school every day, unsure if that is the day that a tragedy may happen at your school.

Politics aside, don’t we want to take a little bit more interest in our lives? Improve our situations- for those we love, those around us, our (future) children and families, and even just for the health and well-being of all? What do you think?


References:

Haslam, C., Haslam, S., & Cruwys, T. (2016). Groups 4 Health. Journal of Affective Disorders, 188 – 195.

Haslam, C., Jetten, J., Cruwys, T., Dingle, G., & Haslam, S. A. (2018). In The New Psychology of Health: Unlocking the Social Cure.Abingdon: Routledge.

McNamara, N., Stevenson, C., & Muldoon, O. T. (2013). Community Identity as Resource and Context. European Journal of Social Psychology, 393 – 403.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin, & S. Worchel, The social psychology of intergroup relations(pp. 33 -47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

 

 

Social Media; Friend or Foe?

So, hello everyone! I have been out of the loop on social media lately- work, family, study and other commitments have kind of got in the way; and for that, I apologise.

Hang on, why am I apologising? Surely it is up to me what I post, when I post, how often I post, what I am exposed to and how it affects me? Right? Well, maybe that’s not necessarily the case- particularly if you have a large ‘friend’ base on social media!

I thought this might be quite a relevant topic with which to re-enter my social ‘sphere’. The thing about Facebook, Instagram and other forms of social media, is the control (or lack of it) that we perceive we have.

A recent study by Sarah Buglass from the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent university, in the UK, suggests that ‘as our network size increases, the ability to remember who, or in the case of misclassified profiles, what you are connecting to, becomes increasingly more difficult, and the management of these networks more complex’ (Buglass et al., 2016).

The researchers studied 177 UK based Facebook users, of these 89% had their settings set to ‘friends only’, but just 22% used additional filtering option to improve their online safety. People who had smaller networks (less than 150 friends) were found to be more able to manage the information that they were posting and who they were posting to, as they were more aware of whom they share their posts with.

People with large networks (150+ friends) were more likely to be exposed to unsuitable material, which could cause them Psychological harm. These people are leaving themselves vulnerable to who is able to see their information, which can lead to a risk of damage to their own reputations and that of others, harassment from disgruntled parties, but also the fact that these people were more likely to fall victim to potential data misuse.

Personally, due to the nature of my work, I do keep my private social media accounts, private, but I still do see posts from ‘friends’ that I don’t want to see- be that because I don’t agree with their content or that it is just not that relevant to me.

I know how to change my privacy settings to stop seeing these images and posts, but do you? Have you stopped to think about just who is seeing your personal data? Have you thought about how those ‘shocking’ posts are affecting you?

Having more Facebook friends doesn’t mean you are popular, it means that you collecting people on a list, some of whom will share your ideologies, some of whom will be remarkably different from your own.

Perhaps a friend has let you down? Perhaps you have become distant from your close friend, for whatever reason? Well, seeing them on a daily basis, on your Facebook feed could actually be damaging your psychological welfare- do you really want to be reminded that someone has hurt you deeply, or that you are no longer seeing your friends, whilst they are off having fun with new friends?

Whatever the reason, we need to take care of ourselves on social media- not only for data reasons, but our own psychological reasons. Everyone’s life is different; we don’t need to be measuring ourselves on the virtual achievements of others!

In the mean time, I am going back to my privacy settings and just checking for sure, that you can’t see how old I am!


 

Buglass, S., Binder, J.F., Betts, L.R. and Underwood, J.D.M. (2016) ‘When ‘friends’ collide: Social heterogeneity and user vulnerability on social network sites’, Computers in Human Behaviour, vol. 54, January, pp. 62-72.

 

 

Reality Check for Experts!

In our therapeutic work, we are trained to ensure that we understand and respect the fact that we are ‘not the expert’- the client (you!) is! It’s your life and your emotions and expectations; how can I possibly be an expert in your life? You, your thoughts and how you make sense of them lead me. Yes, we can offer suggestions, challenge unhelpful thought patterns, offer another way of looking at things, but, ultimately, this is your life, your choice. I can never be the expert in that!

So, I was rather tickled to find a study this week that suggested the more ‘expert’ we are in our field, the more likely we are to fall for made up facts! The study, from Cornell University in the USA (Atir, Rosenzweig and Dunning, 2015), took 100 subjects, who were asked to rate their knowledge of personal finances, with 15 specific finance terms; however, 3 of the 15 terms were actually made up! What they found was that the more the subjects knew about personal finance, the more they were likely to over claim their knowledge of financial terms, and in this particular case, fictitious terms!

What was really interesting was that the same pattern of over claiming emerged for other areas, namely biology, philosophy, geography and literature. Even if the subjects were pre-warned that there would be fake terms in the questions, they still made the same patterns of over claiming. To cement these findings, they further split the subjects in to 3 groups; one group took an easy geography tests (thus boosting their confidence in geography), one group took a difficult test (thus convincing them that they were not experts in geography) and the third group took no test.

When the hypothesis was then tested, the group who took the easy quiz were more likely to claim that they had specific knowledge of non-existent towns in the US.

What the researchers actually want us to take away from this study is the fact that many of us may actually stop learning about a subject when we start to consider ourselves experts. Hmm. So, where does that leave us?

Well, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, is that we are experts in ourselves, but we often decide to stop learning. We decide to stop learning about ourselves and how we work and what we want from life, but the thing is, although we are experts, life changes. It changes in ways that we are not expecting, and sometimes, it changes in ways that we did not want.

Just because we are an expert in ourselves, doesn’t mean that we should ever stop learning about ourselves. If you were feeling low or demoralised, wouldn’t it be great to explore those feelings and learn why we are feeling like this? How it has affected us and how we can learn and grow from this?

Quite often, we are too scared to learn any more- after all, if things have gone so badly wrong for us at this point in our lives, what is the point? Life is a journey, it is not a destination (I am sure you will have heard that in a lecture somewhere, or even on a Christmas cracker!), and we are free to choose how we complete our journey and what we do along the way. By learning how to make ourselves feel fulfilled, we are not ‘faking it’. We are not professing to know the meaning of life! As a Counselling Psychologist, I do not know everything about life. I still make mistakes, I am no expert, but one thing I do want to do, is I want to carry on learning and growing. Each client I have teaches me something about life, psychology, my practice and the world. I wouldn’t want to stop learning for anything- would you?


 

Atir, S., Rosenzweig, E. and Dunning, D. (2015) ‘When Knowledge Knows No Bounds Self-Perceived Expertise Predicts Claims of Impossible Knowledge’, Psychological Science, July.

 

 

Why didn’t you like my Selfie?

Social media is really on my mind this week- I have several online presences; both personally and professionally. I find it hard to maintain them, but in this day and age, when most of our interactions with our friends seem to come from social media, what choice do we have? If you have your own business, then you will know as well as I, that it is essential to have a presence in the online world. But, how is this impacting us in our lives, and what impact is it having for our children?

Bare with me on this, and you will see where I am coming from- there is a psychological platform that is commonly used to study the psychological implications of social interaction called the Ultimatum game. The Ultimatum game relies on two people, one of which is in charge of dividing ‘resources’ between themselves and the other person who is the recipient (these resources can be anything- sweets, money, pencils, but it is usually money).

The person, who is dividing the money, is free to divide the resources in any manner they wish; the recipient can then accept or reject the first person’s offer. If the offer is accepted, say for example a 50/50 split, and then each party gets 50% of the resources. If there is a 70/30 spilt, and it is agreed, then the split is 70% to the divider and 30% to the recipient. If the recipient rejects the offer, then both parties get nothing.

The brain processes involved in the Ultimatum game were analysed (the most cited study of this is (Wout et al., 2006) ) and the results found that ‘unfair’ offers (offers 30% or less), when made by a human partner were rejected at a significantly higher rate than offers made by a computer. Thus suggesting that the participants involved had a much stronger emotional reaction to unfair offers from humans, than they did to the same offers from a computer.

So, what does that actually mean, and what does it have to do with Social media, I hear you ask! Well, this study shows that interacting with humans takes much more emotional involvement, and by default, more cognitive effort (the effort involved in making our brains work) than interacting with a computer.

So, again, I hear you ask, what does this have to do with Social media? Well, this generally means that interaction with a computer is easier for us, as it requires less emotional involvement and cognitive energy than talking to a human- when we talk to humans, 55% of our communication is through body language, 38% through tone and speed of your voice, and only 7% is actually through what we say (Aron, 1997). So when we interact with people, we are constantly paying attention to what is being said, but also the body movements, gestures, the tone of voice, the words that are being said and eye contact that is, or is not, being made.

This enables us to see and hear how people are feeling when they are speaking to us- that is not available to us when we are ‘talking’ from behind our keyboards! This means, to speak online, we need to use a lot less effort than we do when we are face to face- it is easier to hide our emotions online than it is to hide them in a face to face conversation.

By utilising Social media, the user is able to project a personality, expression, opinion, and a persona if you will, that may not be the same as the person that they ‘actually’ are. We all say things out of anger, or hurt, sometimes, but when we say it to the person themselves, we see the effect and reaction we get from being cruel- you do not get that when you are behind a screen.

When we are talking to someone who is in a particular emotional state, we are primed to enter that state ourselves (Dimberg, Thunberg and Elmehed, 2000)- meaning that when we are talking to each other, if our friend is sad, we are likely to become sad ourselves. This is sadly lost when interacting via a computer. Social media is a virtual form of interaction- meaning that the interaction takes on some of the qualities of being real, but is not in fact ‘real’. Therefore, how do we know what we are being presented with is in actual fact, real?

What’s so bad about that, then? Well, for most people, using social media is a form of remaining in contact, whether because there is a distance involved or you just want to let people know how you are doing- ever noticed how most people only really post when good things happen? As adults, we can generally regulate our use of Social media much easier than young teenagers or pre-teens can. Most children have access to the Internet now, and in particular Social Media apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Oovoo and other messaging platforms. Whilst they are happily posting away about how good there day was, how much they love their Bae, the ‘banter’ at school, or the fact that Zayn Malik has left One Direction (see, I really am ‘down’ with the kids!), these young people are posting their hearts and lives and loves out in the open, for all to see. It is amazing to me, how many young people’s online accounts are open access; enabling anyone to read them. Or the fact that parents do not seem to be checking what their children are posting to these platforms.

So, here in lies the problem- if a young person is posting on Social media that they are depressed, sad, excited or happy, how do we know that this is really happening? Haven’t you ever just sent a text saying ‘I’m good’ when in actual fact, you have a headache, feel poorly or tired, or are feeling a little depressed, stressed or anxious?

Social media can be a disingenuous way of communicating- the persona we are projecting may not be the persona we actually have, and so who is regulating this? As adults, we would like to the think that we would think twice before we posted something that could be, potentially, offensive. But, young people live in the moment, they speak from their heart and not necessarily their heads- if they are posting offensive comments, perhaps it is down to peer group pressure, and not the actual person they are; who actually does have a very different set of beliefs.

So, where do we go from here? Should parents check their childrens Social Media accounts? Do we need to teach, or remind, our children about self-regulation? We assume that schools are doing the job, but isn’t it also the caregivers responsibility? As shown by the Ultimatum game, we don’t respond to computers in the same way that we respond to people- although there is a person at the end of the Social media platform, perhaps it is easier to say things we don’t necessarily mean on a computer, and then have regrets after?

And what about us as adults? Who regulates us, when we are incapable of regulating ourselves? What we need to remember is that what we put out there on Social Media is there forever, even if we do delete it. Recipients or viewers can take screenshots and keep the information. Whatever you are preparing to say, be it to your audience, a friend or possible romantic interest, ask yourself these questions- would I say it to their faces, if I were stood in front of them? And if you would, how would it make them feel?

 


Aron, A. (1997) ‘The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings’, Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 23, no. 4, April, pp. 363-377.

Dimberg, U., Thunberg, M. and Elmehed, K. (2000) ‘Unconcious Facial Reactions To Emotional Facial Expressions’, Psychological Science, vol. 11, no. 1, January, pp. 86 – 89.

Wout, M.v.’., Kahn, R.́.S., Sanfey, A.G. and Aleman, A.́. (2006) ‘Affective state and decision-making in the Ultimatum Game’, Experimental Brain Research, vol. 169, Jan, pp. 564-568.

 

 

Anger- Where are you when it comes to Communicating?

So, it is nearly mid week, and I have been busy at work- Counselling and Therapy is a job I love and have great passion for, so I am very lucky when I am busy! Somebody absolutely exploded in frustration at me today- it wasn’t my fault, but sometimes it is to be expected! However, after the explosion, the person said “I am sorry, I never lose my temper, ever. But, when I do, it is really explosive! It’s really wrong to be so angry”.

This got me thinking- is it really wrong to be so angry? And if it is, who told us it is? For me, anger is a way of expressing how I feel/felt at a situation- if I don’t express my anger, how is anyone to know that something is wrong? Maybe this comes from the fact that this is what my parents taught me to do, and as is well documented, what our parents teach us really does affect what we do in life!

A lot of the time we don’t express our anger- because we are afraid of the ramifications of doing so. But, this person expressed their anger towards me, when it really wasn’t my fault. So, who has been helped in this situation? Was it the person who was angry, or was no-one really helped? I mean, sure, getting the anger out of themselves was a great thing to do- sometimes, we are like a bottle of fizzy drink that has been shaken up. All that shaking up creates pressure, just as anger, bottled up, can create pressure, and at some point, as sure as the bottle will explode when opened, so will we when our anger gets too much to bottle up!

So, in some ways, anger is a good thing, right? Yes, but what could have made that situation easier? Perhaps talking to the person who angered you in the first place? Dealing with the main reason that you are angry, in a rational way? After all, none of us are mind readers, so how do we know that by discussing the issue, we won’t resolve it in a peaceful way; thus negating the need to bottle up and explode?

Counselling and Therapy can be really helpful when dealing with stressful emotions- the therapy room is a safe space to talk about what has upset you and made you angry. There are ways we can look at anger and how to deal with it. For example, relaxation and time for yourself can be really helpful when you are feeling stressed and angry. Did that ever occur to you? Perhaps taking some time out to have a long bath, a yoga lesson, a run, walk the dog or read a book can help calm you down. Maybe then, you could be in the right frame of mind to address the issue that has got you so angry in the first place?

Communication is SO important to everything in our lives- Dr Albert Mehrabian (Mehrabian, 1981)  pioneered language communication in the States and discovered that;

  • 7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken
  • 38% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said)
  • 55% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression

So, if that is the case, even when our words are unspoken and our anger is bottled up, perhaps we are displaying our anger in other ways and maybe that is why people react to us in a negative fashion. Is this something you have experienced? I wonder?

Communication is so important in life- we are communicating all the time, all day long. Some of it is subconscious, some of it is very conscious. Some of it is controlled, and, as in the case of anger, not so controlled! Therefore, how do we communicate with people when we feel the need to vent our frustrations?

Are you a passive communicator? Do you put others needs before your own, only to find that, eventually, the frustration of it all gets too much? Sometimes, being passive is a wonderful asset, for example if you really do not mind which take-away you have tonight. But sometimes, it can get in the way- feeling that other people should come first, when you really wanted a Chinese tonight, but your partner has ordered Pizza. You sit and seethe silently, displaying all those non-verbal communicative, anger emotions towards your partner! Do you recognise this pattern?

Are you an Aggressive communicator? Are your needs greater than everyone else’s? Is that a really fair way to be? Does it get you far, or are you finding yourself angry all the time when other people challenge you? Perhaps it is time to try and be a bit more co-operative and see the other side of the story?

Are you Passive-Aggressive? Finding ways to ‘get your own back’ on people who have upset you, without letting them know they have actually upset you? Did your neighbours make a lot of noise until late last night, so this morning, you got up at 6am and revved your car engine knowing it would annoy them? Perhaps, with communication, you could discuss a resolution to the problem, instead of frustrating yourself even more?

And finally, are you an Assertive person? If something is troubling you, do you talk about it and work with your colleagues/friends/partner to resolve your issues? Do you consider the other persons side of the story?

I am sure, most of the time, we are a mixture of all of these, but perhaps thinking about what we want to achieve from the situation could help us- do we want to stay angry? Is it helping us to be angry? What would we really like to do? We all behave in these manners at some point, so, just to show that we are all human, and we all do theses behaviours, I have included an anonymous poll to fill in- just for fun!

Perhaps therapy will be a helpful way for you to work out what is going on for you, perhaps not. If you are unhappy with your anger issues, perhaps it is time to look at whats causing it, and change what you are not happy with? Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be really helpful with looking at current anger related issues, but if the anger stems from an earlier time in your life, perhaps a longer term form of therapy and counselling would be more appropriate? Only you know what is going on for you and how you want to deal with it!


 

So, what type of Communicator are you?


Mehrabian, A. (1981) Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth (currently distributed by Albert Mehrabian, email: am@kaaj.com)