I spoke about change at a talk in cafe church last Sunday and obviously that was mainly about spiritual changes, but it is also a good topic for this blog….Changes that are thrust upon us, such as job loss, bereavement and house moves are often the most difficult ones to cope with. Yet changes we choose can be tricky too, such as giving up smoking, losing weight and improving our mental health; a CBT therapist can help with the latter and a health psychologist with the former…However CBT is often like learning a new language – it takes time and practise for our brains to learn new ways of thinking, so no magic wand is available!
Physical health changes are difficult too; not all health psychologists are in the correct BMI range…During my training I learnt about many different theories and models of behaviour change, which I have lectured on for two hours when I was working at UWE…And one of the main predictors of future behaviour is past behaviour! One of my favourites was “implementation intentions” which is about putting specific action plans in place to achieve a goal once the intention is decided upon; a bit like SMART goals…However when I was working at the University of Bath we found that targeting people who are undergoing a life transition ( in this case leaving school) were ripe for behaviour change, as past behavior had less of a hold on them and new habits could be formed – ideally healthy ones; and the people in our study lost an inch off their waist in 2-3 months just by increasing their exercise and making one realistic change to their diet.
Personally I don’t plan to retire anytime soon, as I enjoy my work, I am in good health and I still have spare time to do other things I enjoy too…However at some point in the future I will have to….The funny thing is Google is only interested in telling you how to make financial plans for retirement, whereas plans for your wellbeing are just as important, if not more so. Hence the reason why The Psychologist has a leaflet about retirement in their magazine this month – with 10 points – five of which I will summarise here:
- Replace lost roles to enhance a sense of meaning or purpose, such as volunteering.
- Be creative: take part in activities such as painting or singing and engage with culture through museums and the theatre etc. Also if you can, learn a language or a musical instrument to help reduce the risk of getting dementia.
- Don’t stop exercising! Or start if you haven’t done so through your working life – it’s never too late…just walking outside or doing a Pilates class etc to keep cardiovascular health well and to keep muscles strong. Also good for mental health as well as physical.
- Be sociable: travelling and also finding local opportunities to connect with others e.g.through your church…and socialising through technology too.
- It’s a major life transition, so be kind to yourself by responding to difficulties with self-compassion and remembering that many others will be meeting similar challenges….Having psychological flexibility is very important – CBT / ACT therapists can help with this!
I used to be a bit of a head banger when I was an adolescent and apparently I still am! I don’t listen to heavy metal music anymore (except for the occasional Whitesnake track) but I did bang my head as a result of a fall the other day…So I am not talking about a little whack of the head when you hit it against a beam, but a heavy fall against a stone pillar, with – as the paramedics put it – a lot of claret (and I am not talking about falling because of booze!) This resulted in mild concussion which is also called a minor head injury and just because you don’t pass out and/or vomit or seem confused, it doesn’t mean you are not concussed…Often as a result of a minor head injury you can get post-concussion syndrome, which can last from a couple of weeks to 3 months… And as this is quite common, I thought it would be helpful to list some of the symptoms here:
- some mild cognitive impairments such as forgetfulness / slow processing speeds / problems concentrating
- tiredness / drowsiness / problems sleeping
- sensitivity to noise and/or light
- feeling tearful
- mild PTSD
- fear of going out
A psychologist would be able to help you cope with any of these symptoms, even if they are not a neuropsychologist, or you can go to the Headway website where there are helpful leaflets to download and/or a helpline to ring…Headway suggest that in the first few days afterwards you don’t drink alcohol or drive long distances or play contact sport, but if the symptoms get worse and the headaches don’t respond to painkillers, then you should get checked out by your GP or go to A&E.
So a slightly different blog this time about my present work as a psychologist and what it involves – without of course breaking confidentiality…I trained as a health psychologist and I am chartered with the British Psychological Society (also registered with the Health Care Professionals Council); both of which involve responsibilities i.e acting ethically and keeping up my professional development (see below). The reason I am writing about this is because quite often you hear people say to those who are living with difficulties-“why don’t you go and have a little chat with a psychologist?” Warning – never use the word “chat” when referring to talking therapies! One of my old colleagues said those chats can be expensive! Also because I am self-employed it seems to me that some other people – including the people at my church, think I just spend a few hours a week chatting to people and that is all my work entails!!
At present I work as a psychotherapist (not the same as a counsellor when a psychologist is doing it- see my previous blog!) I work with adults, adolescents and children. I mainly use CBT, but also other concepts/ideas/approaches too. And yes I do talk to my clients, but very little of that is chat – some of it is psychoeducation, some of it is Socratic dialogue and the rest is working collaboratively with people in getting them to change/accept their thoughts and behaviour. However the work I do is not just the time I spend with my clients….I have to continue with my professional development and this includes: reading, reflecting, attending workshops/conferences etc. I also see my supervisor once a month… I have to send out invoices, write reports, market myself, read through notes and prepare session content, as well as responding to emails and chasing up clients who don’t contact you when they should…On top of that it is a sedentary job and also one that takes an emotional toll, so I sometimes feel drained and can have impostor syndrome! Therefore I have to look after my own physical and mental health through exercise and finding time to relax etc. Despite all that I do enjoy my work; I don’t earn much, but I love being my own boss and I like working with my clients…
The researchers at CAR UWE (the centre for appearance research at the University of the West of England) recently published a podcast on body hair, but it was over 30 minutes long and most people don’t want to spend that long listening, so I’ll summarise it here and some. As well as making some hair-raising jokes, they made three main points (that they had found from looking at the literature) none of which are really surprising:
- Women are more likely to remove body hair than men.
- Gay men are more likely to remove body hair than straight men.
- Younger women tend to remove more body hair than older women.
- There are cultural variables.
In fact it seems that many young women remove body hair from the neck downwards, including pubic hair – not just the bikini line, but the whole lot (and yet there are a minority of women, including a couple of celebrities who are”embracing” their body hair). And this seems to be because modern day porn shows women with no pubic hair and so young men are coming to expect that…..!!!! I remember when I grew up in the 70s and 80s that any man who wanted a woman to remove all her pubic hair was considered to be a pervert….after all pubic hair is a sign of sexual maturity…
One area that they didn’t discuss was the relevance to oral sex – they didn’t go there, so….Nobody likes that feeling of having a hair stuck at the back of the throat, so maybe this is another reason why some men prefer women to go bald….however they are not going to do that themselves – no doubt they would argue that the penis sticks out further than the clitoris and therefore it isn’t necessary for men to do that! LOL… But what is sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose and I would also argue that if women are going to shave their armpits then men could do so too!
I have had quite a few clients where drink has been a problem and I am not talking about alcoholism…rather the sort of dependency on drink which shows itself when someone can go all day without a drink, but once they open that bottle of wine they are unable to stop; and because they are drinking pretty much every day, they are having way over the recommended average weekly limit of 14 units… Often it can also make anxiety worse the next day too and/or exacerbate depression… Some of my clients work on this with me (as a health psychologist) successfully, but others can’t manage it and then drop out of therapy.
My closest family members would laugh if they read this blog, as they know I like a drink, but I probably have 3-4 dry days a week and the weeks I drink 20 units are balanced by the weeks I drink only 8. Also I find it more difficult when someone else is pouring/buying, so I have now devised this system when on an evening out I will wear a set number of bracelets and whenever I have a drink I take one off – once my arm is bare I have to stop – simple! This helps, because we all have a limited amount of willpower and sometimes that “muscle” is worn out by the evening, so action planning helps. This is related to the research literature on implementation intentions and devising if-then plans e.g. if there is no alcohol in the house then you will be less likely to drink! etc. etc. For the Psychologists out there, there are a few good articles on alcohol in our monthly magazine, including the low-down on digital interventions which can help some people.
So if you can practice controlled drinking, your mental health and physical health will benefit… Also you are less likely to get to that place where the alcohol controls your life and the only answer would be then to give it all up for good! And I don’t know about you, but on a Friday night in the Summer I am looking forward to that first glass of cold white wine!
In the Psychologist this month Christian Jarrett tells us 10 things about the placebo effect, which I will summarise here:
- It works even when you know it’s a placebo!
- Colours and branding help e.g. blue placebo pills make better sedatives than pink ones…
- Some people are more prone to it e.g.optimists (especially with analgesics).
- Some doctors are better at inducing it than others e.g. ones who are warm and friendly.
- It’s not just about pills and pain relief e.g. certain smells can make people feel and be more creative if they are told it does that…
- If you are told you have slept well you will be more alert the next day even if you have not slept so well….
- If you are told that you exercise more than your peers, you have better health outcomes even if you haven’t…
- The opposite of course is the nocebo effect – so be careful about reading the side effects on your medications!
- Expressive writing improves mental health even when the trauma is a made-up one….
- The effect appears to be getting better i.e. more of an effect can be contributed to placebos in trials and this has changed between the 90s and 2013…
When I was about 7 years old my mother tested me, by asking me what I would like to do with the last piece of chocolate cake and I surprised her by saying I would chop it in half and we would have half each. She was touched by this answer, so she let me have the whole slice. I then broke it in half and ate the dry bit first and the creamy bit second, which is what I usually did…So maybe I was quite good at delaying gratification? Obviously it would be more complicated now, as I would have to choose between the slice of chocolate cake or getting into my jeans! Researchers think this is partly to do with our genes i.e. how much self-control we have….
For the past four decades, the “marshmallow test” has served as a classic experimental measure of children’s self-control: will a child eat one of the fluffy white confections now or hold out for two later? This behavioural experiment was first carried out in the 60s at Stanford Uni, in the USA, by the psychologist Mischel and colleagues. Over a period of time following the children into adulthood, they found that the ones who delayed gratification were often more successful in their lives – better at passing exams etc and the men were probably better lovers! They have repeated the tests recently and found that it is not just down to the children’s personality traits, but also down to the environment i.e. the children who were in the group with reliable researchers who kept their promises were able to hold out for 9 mins longer than the ones who had been let down….therefore as parents we should be consistent with our children.
The funniest part of the experiments, I found, were the activities the children did while waiting: dancing, singing, napping, drawing and even sitting on the marshmallow. so that it was out of sight! Which is why I don’t keep chocolate cake in the house, unless it’s my birthday!
In The Psychologist this month Christian Jarrett summarises some of the recent research on the best way to use exercise to boost mood and combat stress/anxiety. Here are some of the salient points:
- Moderate intensity exercise is best, perhaps because low intensity is dull and high intensity is too unpleasant! You need to get out of breath enough where you can’t sing, but could still hold something of a conversation.
- However mindfulness based exercises such as Yoga and Pilates can also improve mood, as even though you may not get much of an aerobic workout, you are still concentrating your mind on your body in a positive way.
- 10-30 minutes duration is ample (but no less than 10). Therefore a brisk walk round the block will do when you can’t make it to the gym…
- Allow for your own fitness level and preferences, so that you find that sweet spot where exercise is enough of a challenge without being unpleasant.
- Include weight training as well, as that enables you to see your progress in a visible way.
So I shall continue with Zumba,Spin, Pilates and BodyPump, knowing that I am exercising my mind as well as my body.