John’s Blogs

How are the new year resolutions?

There are three universal truths: death, taxes, and 99% of New Year resolutions are doomed to evaporate within hours or days of 1st January. The more common resolutions ¬̶ lose weight, stop smoking, be nicer to their partner, or get back into shape ¬̶ often recur with depressing annual déjà vu regularity. Much of this good intent remains just that … good intentions.

Why is this? Why are such worthwhile endeavours so difficult to become our new reality?

The answer is simple. We often delude ourselves with an illusion: that willpower alone will be sufficient for them to sustain the change. It won’t. The simple reality is that as the clock approaches 11:59pm on New Year’s Eve, our past was absolutely perfect for getting us to wherever we are now: overweight, under-tall, or whatever ¬̶ and the belief that a simple resolution is all that is needed to embody a new way of being ignores the reality of WHY we are what we are.

For one thing, the timing is poor. Yes, it’s a new year and that’s an ideal time for a new you. But if you’ve had trouble making changes in the past, what does that tell you? That because it’s a new year the change will be easy? Given that most of what we do is habit, established ways of behaving are not all that amenable to change. Think about the “big three”: stop smoking, drink less and eat more carefully. What have we just been doing for the past week to ward off the cold, dark, mid-winter gloom: eating, drinking and make merry! And not just eating – we’ve been feasting! And we’re now just going to just … stop?

What we often don’t realize is that our current behaviour ¬̶ whether that is overeating, drinking too much alcohol, or smoking reflects established deeply entrenched patterns of behaviour that are deeply rooted within us. After all, we are what we habitually do. And just how powerful is our rational mind?

We may well believe, on a logical level, that we need to lose weight. But if that rational aspiration conflicts with our unconscious belief that we need to be well-fed, and feel nourished and will really enjoy wolfing down the pizza with two or three glasses of a good red all on our own?

The unconscious entrenched ways of doing things are going to win out over reason every time. Even though may be very well educated and have high-powered minds, unless we know what’s happening at an unconscious level we stand absolutely no chance of changing the way we habitually behave using willpower alone. Is it any surprise that the diet industry is now worth billions? Show me someone who has been on a diet and I’ll show you someone who has yo-yoed on dozens of diets – often to the point of putting on weight, rather than losing it.

On its own willpower alone MAY be sufficient to sustain a change for a day or two. But sustained change needs more. Much more. And because we cannot maintain our desired life changes solely with willpower alone, we judge ourselves to be a failure. So we feel sad, disappointed and look for some healing comfort – a nibble, another drink, or we reach for a cigarette. We all know someone who resolved to give up smoking at midnight 31 December and had lit up within ten minutes.

We like familiar. We don’t like change. Indeed, we have very strong defence mechanisms that maintain and protect established needs and behaviour.

I think eating better can be a reality it we do something very simple that doesn’t challenge established behaviours in relation to food. Eat more slowly.

I believe much obesity can be resolved very easily by doing something very few people talk about in the rush to promote the benefits of this or that diet. Just eat more slowly.

Take much more time to eat. Have much longer meals. Which is certainly something that the French do well with their two hour lunches. I was recently watching Rick Stein on TV, currently in Mexico – he’s no sooner popped food into his mouth than words are coming out saying how delicious it tastes. How do you know Rick? You haven’t taken the time to savour the flavour?

By eating slowly we enjoy each and every mouthful.

As a lover of cooked breakfasts, even though I don’t consume white carbs any more, I realise I didn’t so much eat as shovel food in. I would often have a loaded forkful en route to a mouth still full. Until I realised what I was doing. So now I put the fork down, and enjoy each mouthful: chew the food and enjoy the taste, the textures, the combination of flavours. Not only does this ensure I enjoy each morsel of food, eating at a more leisurely pace means the “I’m full now” signal from the stomach to the brain kicks during the meal. Not 30 minutes later, which over-eaters take advantage of because their brain doesn’t think they’re full until they’ve gorged.

We all know that we overeat because we need to feel comfortable. Or comforted. So now we can enjoy the comfort of food by eating more slowly.  Why not try it and see if works for you?

I love Mondays….

Maybe I’m the only person in the world who (a) loves Monday, or (b) accepts that Mondays are capable of being loved. Why is Monday despised? What do we have against Mondays, except that they’re a reminder that the weekend is over, and it’s the start of the working week? And yes, some people dread going to work. But why loathe an entire day … that recurs each and every week…?

What do the ‘Monday Blues’ tell us? Is there a lesson here somewhere? Maybe it tells us something about habitual attitudes. And as we all know, happiness is transient: it’s ephemeral and we love it when it arrives. But it doesn’t stay with us permanently. It goes. But not for ever, though.

You don’t need me to tell you that life comprises ups and downs. That’s partly what makes the weekend great – it doesn’t last forever; so we appreciate it while we can.

Ok, we had a great weekend! Well, here’s the good news: we get another one in a few days. That’s five days in which to look back on great times AND anticipate, or maybe even plan, the upcoming weekend-when-you-can-do-it-all-again! Or maybe last weekend wasn’t all that great. Well, Monday marks the start of a period of five days in which you can reflect on what wasn’t enjoyable, and plan what you can do to make the next weekend especially enjoyable.

That’s the weekend sorted. Now, what about Mondays? Cue Boomtown Rats. Well, they didn’t ‘hate’ Mondays, they just didn’t like Mondays. Ask 1000 people why they don’t like Mondays, and most will say ‘it’s the start of the working week.’

If we have been harbouring a hatred of Mondays for most of our adult life, what is it about the odious nature of Mondays? Is there something particularly loathsome about Mondayness? Why do we abhor Mondays? Think back to the worst experiences of your life; did they always occur on a Monday? Can you remember a particularly detestable Monday? Were your previous Mondays always devoid of delight, gleeful mirth and merriment? Might it just be that how we think of Mondays it’s just … a habit? A habit that has become hard-wired in our thinking, and enshrined in our psyche? Now THAT is a thought to consider.

We tend to fall into one of two groups. We are either (a) the generally content and mostly happy, or (b) the downcast, dejected and disconsolate. What separates us is our perspective. If our Monday mindset has always been a negative one, it represents a super opportunity to challenge our thinking.

Why not rethink miserable Monday? Maybe Monday is not so bad after all, but in our habitual haste to put on the same pair of gloomy perspective specs we may simply overlook things to be grateful for. For example: knowing we’re being remunerated for what we do; being with colleagues we enjoy working with; getting to grips with a challenging problem that may be hard work, but which we know will generate a sense of achievement when it’s completed.

Of course, not everyone enjoys their job.

But that’s still a great opportunity to think what we DO want, rather than descend into our recurrent melancholic malaise. We don’t HAVE to remain stuck knowing what we don’t want; Mondays are a great incentive to think more deeply about what is missing in our lives, and what would be worth working toward.

We can choose to have our mood plummet at the start of every week, or we instead we can choose to embrace this weekly opportunity to see Mondays differently to everyone else. If others prefer to adopt a low mood – and it is a personal choice – maybe they have also chosen not to look for things for which they can be grateful.  Maybe they just got into a gloomy habit.

But why not use Mondays as a great opportunity to look for the things we previously overlooked in the murky gloom of despondency? Why not get into the habit at this point in the week to regard it as an occasion to look more closely for opportunities to relish and cherish? After all, isn’t personal growth really all about learning to make the best of everything? Every day and in every way!

Even on Mondays?  Especially on Mondays!

 

Which came first?

Have you ever wondered which came first, the depression/anxiety or the negative thinking?

If pressed, most mental health professionals will admit they really have no idea what causes depression. And many admit to increasing suspicions that neither medication or therapy seem very effective in dealing with depression, long term.

But there is increasing evidence that depression is a consequence, not a cause, of negative thinking. More and more credence is being given to the idea that the body can only deal with so much negative thinking. Just as we can only cope with a limited amount of stress. So a prolonged period of negative thinking — often, but not always, following a traumatic event — leads us to feel increasingly numb. 

To absolutely everything.

It’s now being seen as a body defence mechanism against stress and things we find it hard to handle. Research now shows that negative thinking can occur hundreds of times a day, often subconsciously. So, faced with too much stress, the body pulls down protective shutters down, literally to diminish the senses.

So if we recognise that depression is a protective defence mechanism that desensitises us, we have now identified the cause. But we cannot  expect anything to change without addressing the negative thinking that brought about the “shut-down” in the first place.

A break is needed. If we stop trusting our depleted way of thinking — and just stop thinking so much, we can reverse the process. So as a first step, perhaps don’t even think about anything. Just get out and about, doing nothing more than taking a walk. You WILL feel lighter and low mood will lift. In fact your mind and perspectives will probably feel just a but different.

Why not give it a try? It really does work. Then the process of re-training the mind to process information properly can begin.

 

Winter Blues Anyone?

Ask anyone if the winter months make people feel depressed. You won’t be surprised if they answer, “massively!” It got me thinking. Here I was in the icy grip of a Balkan winter, sitting by a roaring log fire in a cozy, snug room, while outside in sub-zero temperatures, deep grey clouds tinged with ominous black edges promising more snow. Do low clouds bring about low mood?
I wondered: does the winter, or a cold, grey, wet day, actively contribute to depression? And isn’t there an actual medical ‘condition‘: “seasonal affective disorder?” None of us would be amazed that so many peoples’  mood was lowered in poor weather.  I remember Billy Connolly wisely observing that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes‘. And as I was sitting by a warm fire, smug and snug, in shorts and T-shirt s befits a cozy temperature in the mid-20s, while outside deep snow blanketed gardens and made them all look the same, I could well understand.  Some people get miserable when sunny skies give way to gloom — outside and within. We all know doctors expect to see patients needing help with low mood in the winter. So it’s easy to understand the temptation to formally to label this as a medical condition. Just like when they put “Taloia” on sick notes — which UK doctors allegedly did when they couldn’t be bothered to precisely ascertain the nature of widespread sniffles (TALOIA=’There’s a lot of it about!’).

 We all agree we feel better when the sun is shining brightly on a warm summer’s day. But isn’t that like saying we feel more energised when we are awake, than when asleep?
So if there a solid foundation for the belief that Seasonal Affective Disorder really does exist? Or is it just a bit of a myth? After all, one person can look downcast at a gloomy day and feel fed up, but another standing alongside sees the same view and feels fine. No doubt they both FEEL differently, but is that due to a medical “disorder”?
Many people seem to believe their lives are largely affected by external events; that they are inevitably at the mercy of other peoples’ influences. And, like a leaf being blown about by the winds of autumn, they often feel resigned and helpless, and just accept they are on the receiving end of what life throws at them.
If you believe you are going to have a dire day because of the weather, is it really a debilitating illness, or is it due to the way we process information in our heads? If you read a horoscope and it says, “Don’t travel today!” we know  some people who would stay indoors. They have taken a cue from what they read — an external influence — and they have aligned their behaviour accordingly.
But when it rains and it’s time to take the dog for a walk, it might be initially tempting to stay by the cozy fire, but once togged up and outside, the rain doesn’t dissolve me. It even energises me with its refreshing coolness. I had a choice; and although the burning logs were warm and cozy, the fire would still be burning when I got back. And the dog would never refuse to go out for a walk.
Ten year ago, I used to think I suffered from SAD. I went to my GP and was given medication. I bought a natural light box. I even promised myself I would leave the UK so I never ever had to experience another wet, foggy, dark, grey, damp, miserable November. I really believed with every fibre of my being that I was suffering from an illness.
I wasn’t.
I now know what I was thinking.  I was delegating responsibility for living my life to external influences; and I implicitly accepted this perspective without question. I felt low, so I went to the GP for a pharmacological “fix”. I thought my ‘cure’ was in my GP’s hands.
It seems so natural to blame the weather for how we feel. I did. Then.
And if that’s the choice we make, then that’s OK too. We have that option.
However, it IS possible to recognise that we can question what we believe, and we can — if we chose to — learn how to process how we see
the outside world and our place in it  — and realise we don’t HAVE to look at material possessions and status symbols, and money, or horoscopes, or the weather, for our inner happiness  — and that we can be happier inside simply because we decide that is how it will be. And we CAN set out to have a great day, even though it’s dull, raining and misty and cold. Like it was yesterday where I live. I togged up and enjoyed a great walk with the dogs. Because I chose to.
There was a time when I would take one look at the dawn of a grey day and dive under the duvet. Not any more. I decided I would do what it took to have a great day, no matter what the weather was like.
But what does that mean for doctors and their declaration that winter blues is the medical condition “Seasonal Affective Disorder?”
Am I daring to challenge the medical establishment? Yes, of course.
I think we need to be more suspicious of accepted medical models of problematic mental issues. The British Psychological Society has criticised the “medical label” of depression and associated disorders: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/may/12/psychiatrists-under-fire-mental-health:  “it was unhelpful to see mental health issues as illnesses with biological causes…. On the contrary, there is now overwhelming evidence that people break down as a result of a complex mix of social and psychological circumstances — bereavement and loss, poverty and discrimination, trauma and abuse.”
An article in the  British Medical Journal suggested that,“only one in seven people actually benefits” from antidepressants,” and claimed that, “three-quarters of the experts who wrote the definitions of mental illness had links to drug companies.” 
A diagnosis is fundamental to medical treatment: doctors need to be able to agree on what is wrong with us in order to prescribe treatment and cure us. That, at least, is how physical health care works. But what if the experts frequently fail to come up with the same diagnosis for the same sets of symptoms in the same person? What if there are two completely different understandings of the disease, its risk factors and causes and how it should be treated? What if there is little objective scientific and physical evidence underpinning the diagnosis? What if the validity of the diagnostic system itself is questionable, precisely because there is weak scientific evidence to back it up?” – See more at: http://www.therapytoday.net/article/show/2990/diagnostic-disarray/#sthash.Yd6m5Q3T.dpuf
I suspect not everyone will agree with me on this;  and some may even disagree vehemently. But sometimes our beliefs and thought patterns are so ingrained we don’t even question them. However, if we start to think about how we think about things, we can gradually chip away at deeply held cherished beliefs — and shift away from letting a horoscope determine our behaviour. Or let a gloomy day lower our mood. If we choose to.
Of course we can continue to hang onto what seems a convenient label. And the really interesting thing is that you don’t really need to actually believe anything, or take one side or the other. You can, instead, just set out to make today a great day whether the sun is shining or not —  and see for yourself what happens. If you chose to…