By Melinda Szymanik, Illustrated by Vasanti Unka, 2021
This is a new release picture book for primary school aged children about “big heavy feelings”. Our hero wakes one day to find a blue elephant sitting on them. It’s uncomfortable, painful and hard to do stuff with an elephant sitting on you! The family is understandably concerned and set about finding ways to get rid of the elephant. My favourite moment comes when Mum visits the library and takes out all the books about elephants she can find, imagery I can well relate to. In time, our hero and their family work out that they can still do fun things, like a family picnic, and take the elephant along with them.
It is a lovely, gentle story full of the benefits of living a rich and meaningful life alongside our painful emotions. This approach is significantly different from what society tells us to do with painful emotions and both children and adults will benefit from reading and considering this alternative. So snuggle up on the couch with your littlies, start reading and get ready for an interesting discussion:
What colour is your elephant?
Are there things we do to try and get rid of your elephant?
Waikato-based Clinical Psychologist Carrie Cornsweet Barber has developed this app over the last few years to assist expecting and new parents. It uses concepts of Positive Psychology to assist parents to identify their strengths and values, helpful resources and strategies as the navigate one of the most significant transitions in human life – i.e. becoming a parent! It is available to download for free via the App Store and on Google Play.
Over the last 20 years or so there has been an increasing interest in the use of mindfulness meditation in mental health. Our psychology research community is still gathering data as to how effective it is in managing mental health difficulties. Evidence to date, however, looks promising. Headspace is one of the most popular meditation apps available, with over 65 million users worldwide, including me. Andy, the voice of Headspace, guides users through a huge variety of meditations designed to assist with difficulties such as sleep onset and a range of overwhelming emotions. Using the app, you can set reminders to meditate, choose how much time you spend meditating and track your progress. I sometimes use Headspace to assist clients to get into the habit of meditation to augment the work we do in session.
Headspace has recently teamed up with Netflix to produce a series of 8 20-minute episodes introducing the use of meditation through animation and the voice of Andy. Each episode looks at using meditation for different issues, such as stress and anger. Some of the research base supporting the use of meditation is explored in an easily accessible manner. Finally, each episode introduces a different meditation technique. If you have access to Netflix, this series feels like a simple introduction to meditation which you can enjoy along with a cuppa in the evenings. I suspect to get full value from the series you will need to watch each episode (and practice the exercise) several times. Fortunately, there is no reason why you can’t do this!
If you have been considering exploring mindfulness and meditation, please check out Headspace and the new series.
The Social Dilemma, a new documentary on NetFlix, is an invitation to a conversation about the impact of social media on us as individuals and as a society.
The documentary interviews several high-profile members of Silicon Valley tech companies including Facebook, Google and YouTube. Whilst acknowledging the very real benefits of social media, especially amongst the coronavirus pandemic, these professionals sound a warning about social media. They describe how it has been monetised and the impact of that monetisation on the people who use it. The documentary and its supporting website www.thesocialdelimma.com highlight three concerns about social media:
Its impact on the mental health of users,
The consequences for our political system, and
Its role in propagating extremist views.
The piece of this I see most often is the impact of social media on mental health. There are two conversations I often have with people about social media and mental health.
The first revolves around our tendency to compare ourselves to others and seek the approval of others. This tendency has been “hard wired” into us over millennia. As humans, we evolved in relatively small social groups and were inter-dependent on others for our survival. In this context, whether others approve of us or not was a matter of survival. If others didn’t like us, we risked being alienated from the group. In the current context, social media opens us up for comparisons and approval (or not) from potentially thousands of people, all at once and in a very “all or nothing” kind of way: Just how many “likes” did my last post get? This can lead to an overload of feedback and overwhelming emotions.
The second conversation centres on the amount of time people spend on social media and its role in procrastination. The documentary makes it very clear that the aim of social media companies is to keep you engaged on their site. These companies use psychological concepts and tools such as intermittent positive reinforcement. One of the most poignant moments in the documentary for me came when one of the interviewees described being “hooked into” his company’s site. Even while knowing all the techniques being used to keep him there. Even while his kids were present, wanting to spend time with their Dad.
In my clinical practice, these conversations usually lead to using mindfulness techniques to “unhook” from social media sites. You can do this by bringing a mindful awareness to where your attention is, connecting with what is important to you in that moment, and stepping back from the social media site and / or the thoughts that are triggered as necessary. We can also practice a compassionate response to the very understandable difficulties we have when using these sites.
The documentary is a call to begin talking about these issues and searching for solutions. The producers call for more regulation of these social media companies. The Social Dilemma website includes of “Code of Ethics” which they promise to follow. For my part, I believe we need to become much more “savvy” about how we interact with these sites. Yes, the tech companies have a responsibility to look at their decisions and the consequences thereof. There is also responsibility on behalf of the user to do likewise. The documentary ends with a series of tips on how to reduce or cease your use of these sites. We can also do this by bringing mindful awareness to our use of them.
Please watch the documentary, visit the website and join the conversation.
There is lots we can do help ourselves and those around us manage the big emotions that may be triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychology Tools is an excellent website which provides information and worksheets about a range of mental health issues. They have released a free guide for managing anxiety in the current situation. It provide a full explanation about the sort of worry which may be triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and then several useful strategies for managing that worry.
Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, has released a useful brief e-book called FACE COVID. It outlines some skills from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which we can use to manage our distress in this uncertain time. You can download FACE COVID here.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, it is utterly expected that we will feel a wide range of big emotions: anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, boredom, the full range. This is a challenge unlike any we’ve faced for several generations.
There is lots we can do help ourselves and those around us “Keep Calm”. Here’s one:
Headspace provides guided mindfulness meditations. It offers a free beginnings course and then a massive range of other courses (e.g. for depression, anxiety, insomnia) to subscribers. I’ve been using this app personally and with clients for a couple of years. Headspace have announced additional free resources in the wake of COVID-19 designed to help you “Weather the storm”. Make some time each day for mindfulness meditation, it does not need to be long. This is one thing you can do help manage whatever big emotions you are experiencing at this time.
Both depression and anxiety affect people’s relationships with friends. In addition to a deep and prolonged sadness, depression includes a loss of interest or pleasure in activities the person usually enjoys, as well as feelings of fatigue and a loss of motivation. This cluster of symptoms can mean that a person experiencing depression withdraws from their usual activities and friendships which usually bring them joy.
People experiencing anxiety can find being in public or around groups of people triggers anxious thinking and the physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g. heart racing, shaking, difficulty breathing). This is a frightening experience which, understandably, the person wants to avoid.
In both cases, depression and anxiety causes people to withdraw from relationships with family and friends. Unfortunately, these symptoms can set up a cycle for people. Friends may initially try to stay in contact with the person, but will understandably stop contacting them, particularly if they are not aware the person is experiencing mental health difficulties. It then becomes harder for the person to re-establish the friendships and activities which would be so beneficial.
Here are some ideas for helping friends who are struggling with mental health.
What you would do if your friend had some sort of physical illness or injury?
As a starting point, think about what you would do if your friend had a broken leg. Would you send a card to tell them you were thinking about them? Offer to help walk the dog? Or pick the kids up from school? Show up at their place with a home-cooked meal? In many ways mental illness is similar to other health conditions and people benefit and appreciate the same sorts of support.
Encourage your friend to remain connected to activities and relationships.
Encouraging your friend to remain connected to activities and relationships can be key, although it will feel really, really, hard for them. Think about the things you usually do with your friend, things that the two of you typically enjoy. Get in touch and suggest you do those things together. Your friend may not be able to do all the things they are usually able to do and so you may need to adjust everyone’s expectations. So, for example, if together you have loved tramping through a spectacular bit of the country, suggest a short walk somewhere close by. If you usually go to a gig or some other performance together, dial it back by suggesting listening or watching something at home.
Try to avoid alcohol and other substance use.
If what you do together usually involves the consumption of alcohol and other substances, try a suggestion which doesn’t encourage this. Alcohol and drugs can play a significant role in maintaining depression, anxiety and other mental health problems and so is best avoided when people are unwell.
Exercise and having contact with the outdoors has a range of benefits for both mental and physical health.
The benefits of exercise for both mental and physical health are well known. So, if you can incorporate some gentle exercise with your friend, you’ll be helping in a couple of different ways. Likewise, we are beginning to understand the benefits of being outdoors and having contact with nature for mood and anxiety. This offers another option for spending time with your friend.
Not all conversations need to be “deep and meaningfuls”.
Not all conversations with your friend need to be “deep and meaningfuls”. Some people with depression and anxiety can experience massive amounts of over-thinking, worry and rumination, where painful thoughts turn over and over in the person’s mind, leaving them feeling stuck, overwhelmed and out of control. Sometimes people with depression and anxiety will start voicing these painful thoughts aloud and it possible that friends and family get drawn into “co-ruminating” with them. You will know when this happens because you will begin to feel hopeless, sad or fearful as well. As much as possible, try not to get drawn into these cyclical conversations. Instead, try to focus your friend on some shared interest or activity. Sometimes, an analysis of last weekend’s Super Rugby game or your latest Netflix obsession is just the ticket to interrupt the painful thoughts in your friend’s head and get them focused on something else.
Show that you are listening to your friend by paraphrasing or summarising what you friend is saying. Demonstrate empathy and try to validate your friend’s difficulties and emotions.
There are some key communication skills you can use when talking to friends about mental health difficulties. Make sure you are really listening to what your friend has to say, as well as saying your piece. Show that you are listening by paraphrasing or summarising what they have said back to them. Paraphrasing also leads you naturally into demonstrating empathy for your friend and validating their feelings and difficulties. It could look something like this:
It sounds like you are having rough time at work, the project is not going well, and you don’t think your manager is listening to you. I can see how that would be very frustrating.
It sounds like you are spending lots of time in your head worrying about what’s going to happen next. It makes sense that you feel overwhelmed and out of control.
Showing empathy and validating your friends situation and feelings are powerful tools in helping them to open-up about what is happening for them. Your friend will feel that they have been listened to, perhaps the first time, and may be encouraged to say more. Empathy and validation are also necessary steps before you can begin a conversation about seeking help and beginning to make changes.
Good self-care is very important when supporting others.
If you are supporting someone with mental illness, your self-care becomes very important. It is very difficult to be empathic, patient and persistent if you yourself are stressed. Take care of yourself by eating well, getting sufficient sleep and exercise and having time for fun and relaxing activities. Make sure that you share the load of supporting someone with mental illness. See if you can recruit other friends or family members to help.
A family doctor of GP is a good place to start in accessing professional help.
Remember that there are professionals available to assist. A family doctor or GP is always a good place to start when seeking professional help.
I originally wrote this piece in response to a request from Stuff. If you’d like to read the resulting article here is the link.