The pursuit of happiness has occupied humans for millennia – whether creating ancient Greek schools of philosophy, inspiring the United States Declaration of Independence, or informing Bhutan's policy of prioritizing Gross National Happiness ahead of Gross National Product. Until recently, psychological science has had very little to say on happiness, instead preferring to study, understand and relieve illness and distress. As treatments for emotional distress have improved, practitioners have observed that an absence of distress and illness does not lead to greater happiness, or result in increased life satisfaction. Simply put, not being sad is not the same as being happy. With this realisation, the study of happy people and what makes them happy has become a serious pursuit. Happiness is described by researcher Lybomirsky as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile” and happiness researchers are increasingly confident in the evidence-based strategies that increase our happiness.
Happiness is serious business
Psychologists have observed that happier people appear more successful in many areas of life; they are more creative, are judged more favourably by peers and colleagues, have better social relationships, have healthier immune systems and also have longer life expectancy. Additionally, employees of happier managers are more productive, more innovative and have better problem solving skills than those of less happy counterparts. A study to explore this by Haase, Poulin and Heckhausen (2012) discovered that positive emotions act as an excellent predictor of the motivation and effort required to overcome obstacles to success. People in the study with fewer positive emotional experiences were less likely to persevere and succeed compared comparison to those who had a greater number of positive experiences, when faced with the same obstacles. Research by Lyubomirsky, King and Diener (2005) delved into the question of which comes first: success or happiness? This research identified that being happy is crucial to developing many of the desirable characteristics that lead to success.
Happiness nature and nurture
Studies of twins reveal that 50% of our capacity for happiness is accounted for by our genetics, and 10% is determined by our current circumstances, health, wealth and safety. The remaining 40% of our happiness is a result of our intentional activities and attitudes, i.e. how we spend our time, attention and energy. Studies of the happiest of people reveal that this cohort differs from their unhappy colleagues in three main areas of intentional activities (40% of our happiness). Firstly, they do things that cause them to experience pleasure and positive emotions. Secondly, they develop skills and talents and put them to use. Thirdly, they cultivate meaning in life and contribute to things bigger than themselves. While these three areas apply to all, every one of us has a slightly different appetite for each.
The unhappy truth about happiness
There are some caveats when pursuing happiness. With respect to seeking pleasure, too much pleasure-seeking behaviour makes us inflexible and leaves us feeling empty. Pleasure is designed to wear off. Once satisfied, we tend to return to our baseline mood over time. Endless feelings of satisfaction would act as a barrier to effort and progress, and drown out negative emotions, which in fact mobilise us to respond to harm and danger. Happiness, based on other’s misfortune or our own unearned achievement or social position, is corrosive to us, our relationships to others and the world. The pursuit of happiness for its own sake often sabotages happiness itself. Happiness is a result of the way we perceive our experience and how we act. Being happier is possible anywhere, only 10% of our happiness is circumstantial. If we are not happy in our current circumstance, a simple change of situation is unlikely to make much difference.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success?.
Haase, C. M., Poulin, M. J., & Heckhausen, J. (2012). Happiness as a motivator: Positive affect predicts primary control striving for career and educational goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(8), 1093-1104.
Exercises for building Happiness
To measure and build happiness in a systematic way researchers have broken down happiness into five areas under the acronym PERMA.
P stands for Positive emotion.
E stands for Engagement.
R stands for Relationships.
M stands for Meaning.
A stands for Accomplishments
Six exercises to build Positive Emotion
The experience of pleasure through positive emotions is highly related to happiness. Positive emotions to practice for increased happiness are Love, Joy, Gratitude, Contentment, Interest, Hope, Pride, Amusement, Inspiration, Awe.
These emotions are cultivated in the exercises below.
Exercise: Beauty Lists
Task: Find beauty in your environment. Take a few minutes to seek out and find beauty in 5 things in your environment. Turn your attention to your surroundings and senses, pleasant sights, sounds, smells, sensations or tastes. Do this occasionally or as often as you like.
Rationale: this exercise trains us experience joy, inspiration and contentment in things we generally overlook and take for granted.
Exercise: The Gratitude Journal.
Task: Take 15 to 30 minutes once a week. Identify three things you feel genuinely grateful for. Describe about them in detail, how they came to be in your life and the positive influence they have.
Rationale: purposefully experiencing gratitude cultivates an attitude of hope and optimism about the world. It shifts our perspective from fear of threat and deprivation to one of security and confidence.
Exercise: Mental Subtraction
Task: Take 15 to 30 minutes occasionally. Identify one positive life event. Write for 5 minutes about the influence of that positive event on your life in detail. For the second half of this exercise, consider your life without this positive event and the positive influence that stemmed from it.
Rationale: this exercise cultivates an attitude of contentment and gratitude about the world.
Exercise: Acts of Kindness
Task: For most effect, aim to do 5 acts of kindness in 1 day. Do this with the intention of showing kindness to those you come across in a day. Any act, no matter how large or small, counts!
Examples of acts of kindness include a smile, a positive comment, giving a small gift, holding a door open, writing a thank you note, or helping a neighbour or colleague.
Rationale: in this exercise we experience joy and gratitude by our positive impact on others.
Exercise: Make an Effective Apology
Task: To apologise.
The best apologies have 6 important elements:
1. Acknowledge the offense
2. Seek responsibility
3. Express remorse
4. Offer redress
5. Commit to not repeat the offending act
6. Have an empathic and genuine attitude
An Example of an effective apology: “I see how what happened affected you, I‘m sorry I caused that...I will try my best to ...or not do…in the future.”
Try this out on small issues and observe the impact on both parties.
Rationale: this exercise cultivates contentment and pride.
Exercise: Finding Silver Linings
Task: Recall an experience that didn't go well. Anything from burning your toast to not getting the mortgage you applied for. Without suppressing or denying how unpleasant the situation is, look hard for 3 possible benefits that could arise from the situation, no matter how small or unlikely they may seem.
Then take a few moments to identify what character strength or virtue the unpleasant situation is challenging you to develop.
Do this daily, occasionally or as often as you like.
Rationale: This exercise cultivates optimism, hope and gratitude.
Exercises to cultivate Engagement
If you have ever become fully engrossed in a book, game or activity, and lost a sense of time or sense of self then you've already experienced 'engagement'. When we perform challenging activities with a high level of skill which have clear goals, and provide immediate feedback, we have this experience. This state is most frequently reached during hobbies and sports, often in states of study and work, only occasionally during eating and shopping, rarely during housework and TV and very rarely when idle resting (i.e. facebook scrolling).
Task: Increase engagement by any of the following.
1. Replacing some resting time with a hobby
2. Take on a greater challenge that stretches your skill level,
3. Do bursts (5-20) minutes of study or housework to the absolute best of your ability occasionally.
Six exercises to build better Relationships
Cultivating good relationships is one of the most consistent predictors of happiness. Relationship researchers at the Gottman Institute have identified six areas that can elevate or extinguish relationship happiness. Aimed at couples, they work equally well in workplace and personal relationships.
1. Know your partners world.
Continue to learn about your partner after the initial chemistry has faded. Ask questions about likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, hobbies, shows, favourite foods, songs, important memories and areas of vulnerability.
Discover how they prefer to express their affection and how they prefer having it expressed to them i.e. through words or through acts or with gifts, quality time, or with physical closeness. These are the 5 love languages.
2. Show fondness and admiration for your partner.
Make efforts after the initial chemistry of your relationship passes to continue to see what you admire in your partner. Express your fondness and admiration for them in the love languages you've discovered they prefer in step 1. above.
3. Respond to bids for connection.
A bid for connection is any attempt to connect with the attention of a partner, often they are simple passing comments and questions about ordinary things. When a bid for connection is made such as through a comment like “the garden looks good” we can response in 3 ways; we can turn toward the bid with comments such as “yeah, the good weather has really helped”; we can turn away from the bid with “uh yeah...alright”; or we can turn against the bid for connection with comments such as “you're always on about the garden”. When we turn toward bids, it conveys to our partner that we are present and interested. This builds trust, connection and security. Research evidence shows that couples who divorce turn towards bids from their partner only 33% of the time. Conversely, couples happily married after 6 years turn toward bids 86% of the time.
4. Manage conflict constructively.
Relationship conflict has 5 problematic features:
4. Meaning behind conflict
To get past criticism remember that behind every complaint is a frustrated desire, so practice raising areas of criticism positively and constructively.
Step 1: Use phrases like “I really like it when you...” or “it means a lot to me when you…” instead of “why do you always...” and “you never...”
Step 2: To diffuse feeling defensive seek responsibility where you can find it and practice the art of apology, “I see how what I did affected you, I‘m sorry I caused that… How can I make it up to you? I will try my best to…in the future.”
An attitude of contempt is the biggest emotional predictor of a relationship that will breakdown. Relationships psychologists regard contempt as a corrosive acid which dissolves affection.
Step 3: The best way to avoid contempt is to build a culture or appreciation and admiration. Contempt is expressed as hurtful comments and wounding behaviour such as mocking, eye rolling intended to diminish, punish and repel. Contempt is in the eye of the beholder, the responsibility is on the contemptuous person to catch themselves and change their perspective of their partner by finding things they are fond of and admire.
People don't argue about things, but rather argue what those things mean to them.
Step 4: Look at the topic of conflict. Find out and understand what the subject of disagreement means to each other. Discover what hopes and dreams the subject of disagreement might frustrate or what fear, danger or insecurity the subject of disagreement evokes.
Stonewalling is the biggest physiological predictor of relationships that fail. It happens when one partner abandons an argument and leaves. This serves as a protective behaviour when conflict and arguments get out of hand. When flooded with distress, our heart rate increases to over 100 beats per minute and blood oxygen is withheld from the non-essential functions of our bodies. As a result, we cannot hear what is being said to us clearly and we cannot think clearly.
Try to avoid distress getting to this stage with the steps above. When stonewalling occurs practice self-soothing, relaxation exercises and breathing exercises until the distress has reduced to a manageable level.
5. Make each other’s life dreams come true.
Discover and champion each other’s life dreams. Talk about why those dreams are important to each of you. Share your own dreams and allow them to be supported and championed by your partner. These dreams may take any form such as getting a promotion, writing a book, going on a specific trip, acquiring a particular possession or a certain achievement.
6. Create shared meaning.
This is an area of abstract but profound communication. Couples often find they have differing ideas about what family means, or what it means to be a good husband, wife, parent, mother or father. The meaning of holidays, how moments or celebration or commemoration are acknowledged are usually different in each partners family of origin. Relationships become deeply satisfying and conflict is prevented when each others assumptions about these roles, rituals and symbols are expressed, understood and shared.
Exercises to develop a deeper sense of Meaning
A sense of meaning in life often rests on a perspective that effort, hardship and challenge have value. This is like the spiritual equivalent of weightlifting. Challenges and obstacle strengthen and sculpt our moral character and can help bring meaning to our lives.
There are 6 core virtues:
These core virtues are most often called on in our service to others, in participation in groups, in family, in community, in altruistic social movements and in noble causes. They involve choosing to sacrifice some of our own comfort and energy for the improvement of someone else's life or circumstances.
Task: Reflect occasionally on the following:
- What noble cause or group are you making efforts for?
- What do you believe would make the world around you a better place?
- Which of the 6 core virtues are drawn on in your sacrificial efforts?
Exercise to cultivate a sense of Accomplishment
A sense of accomplishment cultivates a sense of self-effectiveness, which maintains healthy self-esteem, and a sense that we have influence over destiny. We fail to cultivate a sense of accomplishment because we tend to forget past efforts and achievements, looking ahead with unhelpful levels of trepidation and doubt, overlooking our capacity to influence our lives.
- Recall and record efforts and accomplishments from your past, no matter how small or big.
- Identify a number of important areas in your life such as relationships, health, career, social, emotional, financial, and hobbies.
- Focus on making efforts in just one or two areas each month.
- Set long term and short term goals for each.
- Make goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, based on outcomes, have deadlines, which are encouraging and rewarding.
- Record your effort and achievements as you go.
- Reflect on how this exercise increases your sense of mastery and influence in your life.
Do this weekly to monthly.
Relationships – the foundation of mental wellness
“Relationships and our ability to successfully navigate them are a key element of a successful life.” So says Carl Jung, giant in the world of psychology. Highly complex relationships permeate our lives, parent-child, worker-boss, boyfriend-girlfriend, teacher -student, wife-husband. It is through relationships we get wounded and wound others and it is through relationships that we heal and grow. So what causes us to have good ones, what makes them bad and can we do anything to improve them?
Early relationships - a guide for life
When a therapist and client sit together to solve a current difficulty they attempt to uncover the family history and early life experiences of the client. Crucially here in these early years each of us learns through overt training and subtle family and social cues how to relate to ourselves, to other people, to the world at large and to experiences of fear, love, joy, pride, success, failure, friendship, anxiety, sadness, intimacy, trust and security. These lessons are the guide for the rest of our life, prompting our decisions, actions and choice of future relationships. Often the guide is accurate and helpful, perfect for the task, in many circumstances we find it to be good enough and occasionally we discover the guide formed early in life to be unsuitable, unhelpful and even harmful in current circumstances. With each new experience we have the chance to integrate new information and experiences, to update our guide to be more helpful and suitable.
Costs of bad relationships
While happily married people enjoy better health than singles, relationship research shows that marital conflict can lead to depression and decreased life satisfaction (Choi and Marks 2008). Researchers at Ohio State identified that hostile words and body language caused physical stress, negatively impacting the immune system. Public health scientists at John Hopkins university, Hughes and Waite (2009) have reported that distressed romantic partners experience increased coronary problems, vulnerability to flu, poorer and slower recovery from injury and illness and at a higher risk of cancer. The mental toll is also punishing (Whisman and Uebelacker (2003) identified distressed couples are three times more likely to experience depression or anxiety and twice as likely to develop substance use problems.
Work, school and parent-child relationships can be just as testing. Prof. Stephen Stansfeld's workplace stress research shows poor work environments are associated with 18% of workplace absenteeism are a moderate cause of depression, anxiety, self esteem problems and substance use, due to lack of autonomy and poor working relationships. Poor relationships in school settings contribute to anxiety, depression and damaged self esteem due to overwhelmed and hostile teachers as well as competitive, comparative peer relationships.
Parent-child relationships can strengthen or erode mental and physical health. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study indicates children's vulnerability to anxiety, depression, conduct problems and lifespan physical illness is affected by parents ability to manage their own negative emotions; how parents regard and describe their child, overly strict discipline and discord between the parents.
Hallmarks of distressed relationships
Relationships of all types, romantic, family, friends, workplace or parent-child go wrong in similar ways for similar reasons. World renowned relationships therapists John and Julie Gottman have spent 45 years researching the masters and disasters of relationships to identify the differences in knowledge, skills, qualities and attitudes that lead relationships too succeed or fail. The Gottmans call the warning signs the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are, Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. Criticism includes complaints about a partners actions and behaviour such as “you're never there when I want you” or “can't you ever tidy up after yourself”. We use criticism in the belief that it helpfully communicates to others how would we like things to be and guides them on how to act.
Contempt consists of any verbal or non-verbal behaviour aimed to show disrespect, dismiss or belittle people and their character such as eye-rolling, hostile sarcasm, mimicking, and global statements such as “typical, I should never have expected anything more from you” or “you're such a slob”. Contempt shows disgust towards others and is the biggest single predictor of relationships heading for failure. When criticism fails to achieve the desired result and peoples view of eachother becomes increasingly negative, contempt develops as a way to increase the punishment of others forcing them to change.
Defensiveness is defined by efforts to justify our own behaviour by referring to others actions and behaviour. We become defensive when we perceive a threat or blame. Defensive statements such as “I only did that because you...“ act as a barrier to understanding, responsibility and connection. Defensiveness communicates “it's nothing to do with me, its all your fault”.
The fourth is Stonewalling. Two types of stonewalling exist, the first is intentionally giving someone the cold shoulder or cutting them out as a way to hurt them, because they have hurt us. This type belongs in the 'contempt' category. The second type occurs when someone is flooded emotionally and physically by distress and stops communicating. While there is no intent to hurt here, it can leave their relationships partner feeling cut off and abandoned.
Masters of Relationships
Disasters can become masters with some knowledge, skills and the right attitude. Masters learn to replace criticism; they practise expressing their wishes and feelings constructively with phrases such as “it really means a lot to me when...” and “I like it when you...”. To prevent contempt, masters develop a positive perspective, they seek out what they admire and show their admiration for eachother. They build trust, commitment and security by responding positively in little ways to eachothers bids for connection. In arguments masters calm themselves and avoid becoming flooded with distress. They remain open to the influence of their partner and seek responsibility. Masters accept that up to 69% of problems are not resolvable as they are rooted in differences in upbringing or temperament. They seek to understand the meaning behind eachothers point of view in areas of disagreement and points of connection. Masters also make efforts to know and help make eachothers life dreams come true. Forty five years of systematic research have made it possible for anyone to have happier healthier relationships by acquiring some knowledge and practicing some skills.
“The How of Happier Relationships”
Wed Jun 28th 7pm Carmelite Community Centre, Aungier St Dublin 2
Sat July 1st 12pm Donnybrook Centre, 51 Donnybrook Rd Dublin 4
Tickets on Eventbrite
How to train your dragon
Fury, hurt, confused, afraid, sad, anxious, guilty, ashamed, resentful, agitated, annoyed, fatigued, inadequate, scared, helpless, disgusted, frustrated, nervous, worthless, abandoned, overwhelmed, lonely, insecure: these are just some of the hundreds of distinct unpleasant emotions identified by research psychologists. All of us feel a few of them from time to time, many of us feel one or two of them a lot of the time. And mostly we don't like it. Sometimes though such negative feelings are transformed and overcome by an attitude, an experience or a point of view, revealing a silver lining and a deeper value to an otherwise painful experience.
Emotions, what did they ever do for us
According to evolutionary psychology, all emotions act as programs to help us adapt and solve problems (Cosmides and Tooby 2000). Emotions serve us well insofar as they give us a good indication of how we are judging whats going on in the present, what happened in the past and what we imagine will happen in the future. Positive and pleasant emotions are rewarding, shaping our behaviour in ways that keep us coming back for more. Unpleasant emotions signal punishment or threatening loss whether that be of food, security, connection or prestige. How we judge a situation determines whether it will provoke feelings of joy or despair, but either way they tend pass as the experience recedes and we become open to a new experiences and emotions.
Emotions mobilise us
Barbara Fredrickson Professor of Psychology and positive psychology researcher at Chapel Hill University asserts that positive emotions mobilise us to act in positive ways, joy provokes play, hope provokes inventive effort, inspiration provokes excellence, gratitude provokes generosity, awe provokes new perspectives. Fredrickson and her team have even suggested – not without controversy - that there is an optimal ratio for positive feelings of 3:1, that is we require three positive feelings for each negative one if we are to keep feeling good about ourselves and our place in the world. Its worth noting that she neither recommends nor thinks it possible to eliminate negative feelings altogether. Unpleasant emotions also serve to mobilise us. When responded to automatically, unpleasant feelings switch on our most habitual, well practised and simple coping responses to fight, flight, freeze or collapse. They jump start our nervous system giving all the resources to react in lightning time physically and mentally, to destroy a perceived threat, escape to safety, or submit and avoid attack. Left to themselves these simple and automatic reactions don't always work in our favour in our complex social and imaginative lives. They can backfire, be misdirected, overwhelm us and leave us wanting to escape or attack the unpleasant emotion itself.
Consider the example of a client of mine receiving some feedback at work, pointers of where something could be improved. This lead to judgements such as “they must think i'm stupid”, feeling embarrassed, judged and deflated. His response was, to punish himself further in the belief that would motivate him to improve his performance with thoughts such as “I never do anything right, I'm useless” which in turn intensified the discomfort and urge to mobilise his familiar coping skills of dismissing the feedback, squashing the emotions of hurt and insecurity with anger, venting about the incompetence of the boss and chasing away the unpleasant emotions with a shopping blitz, a few extra glasses of wine, some comfort food, or determining to never make a mistake again and really show them. Some of us try all of these, without being much better off in the end. Strong negative emotions are a good indicator that we have a desire for things to be different. Those same emotions can be so distracting that we find it hard to visualise what exactly we want to be different, in what way and how to make those changes. So what is to be done?
Nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so
When it comes to emotions, judgement and perception are what determine whether we take something well or badly, whether it stings or soothes, whether we surrender or press on. We know this. When we eat healthy we judge it to be good for us, we stick with it despite the feelings of denial and cravings. When we exercise we perceive the pain of 'the burn' but see that as a sign of our progress towards a valuable goal. We judge what we are doing to be valuable and the pain worth it. We see that the discomfort has meaning and so is tolerable. With self reflection negative emotions can act as a guide, reminding us to review our judgements, to reexamine how we see situations, giving us greater perspective and less heated reactions. In the most testing of situations and the most unpleasant of emotions, is the opportunity to grow, to see something valuable to be learned or practised, to give up an old painful pattern and put new qualities to work.
The steps to recruit your negative emotion as an ally and feel less bad less often.
1. Know that judgments evoke emotions, and emotions mobilise us to act to address the problem or get rid of the emotion.
2. Determine to suspend reacting automatically for a moment.
In that moment of space.
3. Acknowledge and name the emotion you are feeling.
4. Identifying the judgement you are making.
5. Identify what action you feel mobilised to take (fight, flight, freeze, collapse).
6. Evaluate if that will be helpful, hopeful or constructive.
7. Choose a response. (clinical tip – often the most positive response will be to act in the opposite way you feel mobilised to.)
Practise this enough times and it will become your new habitual, well practised and simple coping response. You will be less vulnerable to your own negative judgements, feel the sting of negative emotions less keenly and for shorter periods of time and have a richer more constructive repertoire of responses to choose from.
*Relating in new ways to unpleasant emotions is module 5 of most Mindfulness programmes.
Visit our Mindfulness Introduction on May 24 to find out more
Our lifestyles are busier, more competitive and more demanding of productivity then ever before. Anxiety, stress and depression are at a 100 year high and rising (1). Our past coping systems are gone or inadequate resulting in decreased quality of life, higher worry and stress, relationship difficulties, workplace problems, depressed immune system and physical illness (2). In a frantic rush to achieve, to perform, to deliver, be good enough, and stay ahead, we are living on our fight / flight response, on autopilot, unable to let go, unwind and switch off our racing minds.
Book a Mindfulness Course
5 Features of Mindfulness
Mindfulness, the practice of paying attention to our direct experience in the present moment has emerged as an effective remedy for our age of autopilot. Pioneered by Jon Kabatt-Zinn, and developed Williams, Teasdale and Segal it consists of 5 simple but deceptively powerful components. 1. Paying attention. 2. In a particular way. 3. On purpose. 4. In the present moment 5. Non-judgmentally. Learn to do these each day and expect to see the benefits in your life. Numerous studies have found Mindfulness has positive effects on thinking, mood, stress levels, self esteem, relationships, creativity, immune system, cardiovascular health, the brain (3) and DNA (4).
Do you suffer from Automatic Pilot?
Do you experience a racing mind at the end of the day rather than a peaceful wind down. Are you prone to reacting with anger or frustration rather than responding calmly with wisdom. Do you replay past arguments and rehearse future potential conflicts rather than feel at peace in the present moment. Do you find your attention pulled away constantly by worries and preoccupations rather than being at rest in the present. Are you experiencing regular aches, pains and tension with no physical injury or explanation. If these describe you Mindfulness could make you calmer, healthier and more effective
Measure Your Mindfulness
5 Exercises to change your brain
Getting better at “paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose in the present, moment non-judmentally” requires skills and attitudes. These can be developed through daily exercises which build on each other.
Exercise 1 - Noticing breath.
Invest 3 to 30 minutes of your day in yourself. Bring your attention to your breathing. You may find it helpful to count the length of your breaths in an out. Allow thoughts to come and go, they are simply looking for your attention, presenting things for your consideration. Gently return your attention back to your breathing.
Exercise 2 - Noticing sensations.
Give yourself 7 to 45 minutes out of your day. Choose something to eat or drink. Bring your attention to the direct experience of each of your senses in sequence, touch, taste, smell, sound, sight. Allow thoughts to come and go, they are simply looking for your attention, presenting things for your consideration. Gently return your attention back to one of your senses.
Exercise 3 – Noticing the body.
Take 5 to 50 minutes out of your day. Sit or lie in a position that supports your body. Bring your attention for a few moments to each part of your body, one at a time. Tune in to what you are experiencing there, is it warm or cold, relaxed or stiff. Moved from your toes to the top of your head, tuning into the direct experiences of each part of your body. Thoughts will look for your attention, allow them to come and go, each time, gently retuning your attention to your physical sensations.
When you have become a bit skilled in exercises 1 to 3, less emotionally reactive, and more skilled at managing your attention you'll be ready and able to make use of the final two Mindfulness exercises.
Exercise 4 - Noticing thoughts.
Give yourself 10 to 45 minutes. Begin by tuning into your breath. This time, unlike previous exercises as thoughts arise, bring your attention to the thought. If thoughts bring with them intense feelings or emotions, pleasant or unpleasant, note their ‘emotional charge’ and intensity. Hold that thought in your attention. Tune in to the physical sensations you feel associated with that thought. When you are ready, or the sensations fade, bring another thought into the focus of your attention, noting its emotional charge and tuning into the physical sensations. Finally to end this exercise return your attention to your breath.
Exercise 5 - Noticing judgements.
Give yourself 10 to 45 minutes. Begin by tuning into your breath. As thoughts arise bring to your attention one of them that has an unpleasant emotional charge. Hold that thought in your attention. Notice the physical sensations associated with that thought. Bringing your attention back to the thought, explore what judgements brought on those unpleasant feelings. Were you expecting the worst? Were you jumping to conclusions? Were you mind-reading? Were you holding someone else or yourself to a standard? Were you labeling yourself or others as all good, all bad or winners and failures? Now you have succeeded at this, return your attention to your breath and body in the present moment, to end this exercise.
Practicing the skills and attitudes of Mindfulness in this way will enable you to be calmer, less reactive and more effective in your day to day life.
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1. Twenge, J. M., Gentile, B., DeWall, C. N., Ma, D., Lacefield, K., & Schurtz, D. R. (2010). Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938–2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI. Clinical psychology review, 30(2), 145-154.
2. Kessler, R. C., Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Alonso, J., Chatterji, S., Lee, S., Ormel, J., … Wang, P. S. (2009). The global burden of mental disorders: An update from the WHO World Mental Health (WMH) Surveys. Epidemiologia E Psichiatria Sociale, 18(1), 23–33
3 Creswell, J. D., Taren, A. A., Lindsay, E. K., Greco, C. M., Gianaros, P. J., Fairgrieve, A., ... & Ferris, J. L. (2016). Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation With Reduced Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Biological psychiatry.
4 Black, D. S., & Slavich, G. M. (2016). Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
I spent a year taking calls on a national mental health phoneline serving people experiencing mental health problems and their family members. The callers experiencing mental and emotional distress phoned looking for they knew they needed for themselves, conversation, support, advice, information or to connect with someone who was not afraid of their experience and had some appreciation of the impact of their illness and wouldn't judge them.
The callers who were worried about friends or family members rang in often looking for advice on how to deal with their loved one. Some shared feeling powerless to change the person they could see in distress. Some expressed guilt and doubt at the forceful strategies they had tried to make their loved one change, to seek help, to respond, to open up or stop feeling bad.
All expressed worry and fear at what might happen if they did the 'wrong' thing or if they did nothing at all.
There are typically a few areas of concern when a loved one is in mental or emotional ill health. Here are a series of approaches that address each area of challenge. If you relate to the challenges described below, you and your loved one might benefit from these 12 tips.
Whether your loved one is in a very poor mental health or is feeling down, your concern for their safety is understandable. While is isn't possible to know someone is absolutely safe there are things that you can do and say that can be helpful.
Some helpful approaches
No 1. If you are concerned for their safety tell them so. Ask if they have had thoughts or plans about suicide. When we are in deep distress thoughts about suicide can be common. If they have made plans, this is more of a concern requires action.
No 2. Contact a GP to share your concerns and ask for and accept their advice and help.
No 3. If you believe someone is at imminent risk of harm contact your A&E or emergency services, try to keep the person safe until help is at hand, do not leave them alone and remove anything they could do themselves harm with, or substances that could lead to impulsive behaviour.
When a loved one is unwell and has a problem we don't quite understand it is frustrating and scary and can lead to us feeling confused angry and guilty. Often our response to these situations is not very coherent, we argue, threaten, get angry, pressure, cajole, plead, make promises, give up, praise, name-call and then get exasperated that nothing we have tried has worked. It is reasonable that when we don't know quite what to do, we try doing everything.
Some helpful approaches
No 4. It is often helpful when people feel really down, distressed or anxious to have some space to themselves. However try clearly sharing that the lines of communication are open without conditions on them doing any in particular and that you welcome being in touch. Perhaps you could even share that you will check in with them regularly, by text, by phone or in person.
No 5. Try to be open, seek to listen and understand the experience of your loved one from their perspective, without questioning or taking it personally, without giving advice or instructions.
No 6. Acknowledge to yourself how distressing their experience is to you.
No 7. If your loved one has a diagnosis read up and understand how that particular illness might account for the mood, motivation, thoughts, emotions and behaviours you are seeing. This will help you see they aren't to blame for their symptoms.
No 8. Communicate your own feelings and thoughts constructively.
Communicating in constructive and positive ways creates a vision for growth, and a relationship of openness and appreciation. Instead of phrases where your loved one is the focus such as “whats wrong with you”, “I wish you wouldn't be like that”, “ “you always....”, “why do you have to be this way” try reframing the sentences to be about your positive emotion and positive outcomes.
Try describing your emotional state and your desire, such as “I really feel good when...”, “I really appreciate when...”, “I'm encouraged when...”,“I really like it when...” “I feel scared when...but it helps when....” It worries me when...and I would love if....”.
Get past emotions
When someone isn't well it is easy to slip into talking only about how bad they feel. This is helpful insofar as it acknowledges they feel bad but doesn't create a path to lifting mood and feeling better.
We tend to get trapped in talking about negative emotions because of a bias where we think the solution is somewhere in the symptom of the problem. It rarely is.
Some helpful approaches
No 9 Talk about what the person is doing in particular. For people in low mood, talking about doing small achievable things like diet, exercise sleep, socialising, doing previously enjoyable things, small goals of pleasure and achievement can lead to hope, effort and action and then the mood follows.
It can be tempting to allow your loved ones emotional or mental state to dominate all your thinking about them.
Some helpful approaches
No 10. Try to remember that your loved ones mood or illness doesn't define them or necessarily determine their lives. Continue to talk about and share the things you would share with them if they felt better.
Your Own Health
It can be tempting to allow your loved ones emotional or mental state to dominate your life when you care so much about them and are so worried for them.
Some helpful approaches
No 11. Try to be open to how the situation makes you feel and what thoughts it provokes for. It can be very helpful to deal with how the situation is affecting you, separately to dealing with your loved one.
No 12. Keep doing the things that keep you healthy mentally, physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. This is important when you are worried and stressed. You will have to judge for yourself just how much you need, and how much you can afford to sacrifice while staying vibrant enough to help someone else. You may even find that you can share or invite the person you are concerned about to join you in some of the things that keep you vibrant and healthy.
There can be little as worrying and concerning to a parent as the health of their child. One in 3 Irish children experiences a mental health problem by age 13 (1). yet children and teens have the poorest access to suitable treatments. Pesky gNATs computer therapy game aims to address that.
One in 15 Youth Self Harming in Ireland
Research conducted by the Royal College of Surgeons of Irish youth aged 11 to 24 revealed that one in three had experienced a mental health disorder by age 13 (1). Additionally the research showed that 1 in 15 used self harm to cope (1). Early experiences of mental health problems indicate insufficient coping skills and are indicators of later mental health, relationship, employment and substance use problems (2).
This age group has the lowest engagement with adequate mental health care, due to the adult orientation of many treatment options. (3) While CBT is an effective treatment of choice for many mental and emotional difficulties faced by adults, its style of delivery is generally not child friendly.
Children and Teens learn mental health skills through Therapy Game
The Pesky gNATs therapy game helps to address this challenge. It is a computer game designed for use with young people aged 9-17 built by Dr Gary O Reilly UCD and Dr David Coyle UCD. Children and teens will play the game over the course of 6 to 8 sessions, together with a suitably qualified adult therapist. Sitting together at the computer the child and therapist explore the game environment completing challenges and learning skills that they can use in their day to day experiences.
Contact WellSpring Therapy for CBT using Pesky gNATs
Pesky gNATSs Award Winning Child Therapy Game
In Pesky gNATs players visit a tropical island and meet a team of wild life explorers. This team introduces mental health concepts using spoken conversation, embedded animations, videos and questions regarding the player’s own situation. CBT concepts are introduced using concrete metaphors. Negative automatic thoughts are presented as little creatures called gNATs that can sting people, causing negative thinking. Each type of gNAT is introduced with a cartoon, voiceover and story describing its effects. For example being stung by a Black and White gNAT can cause people to think in extremes. Through conversations with game characters players are introduced to strategies for identifying and challenging negative thoughts. Metaphors such as catching, trapping and swatting gNATs are used to describe this process. Similar approaches are used with other important CBT concepts, such as Core Beliefs.
Contact WellSpring Therapy for CBT using Pesky gNATs
1 Cannon, M., Coughlan, H., Clarke, M., Harley, M., & Kelleher, I. (2013). The Mental Health of Young People in Ireland: A report of the Psychiatric Epidemology Research across the Lifespan (PERL) Group.
PLEASE NOTE: Information provided on this site is for general information and should not be treated as substitute advice in seeking mental health support. We highly advise that you should always consult a GP if you are concerned about your mental health. WellSpring Therapy is not responsible or liable for any mental health diagnosis a user may arrive at based on the information from this site.
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