More on creating a positive launching pad

A little more about the science of what I called in my last post ” creating a positive launching pad”. According to psychologists we all have an internalised narrative about how we became the person we are to-day, and where we are heading tomorrow, much like a movie we run in our head.This is known as our Narrative Identity.
Narrative psychologists such as Prof Dan Mc Adams study the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the effects of stories with different themes.
We are always constructing meaning out of the events that happen to us: “Selves create stories which in turn create selves”.The meaning that we take affects how we feel and our subsequent behaviour.
Research into the relation between life stories and adaptation shows that narrators who find redemptive meanings in suffering and adversity, and who construct life stories that feature themes of personal agency and exploration, tend to enjoy higher levels of mental health, well-being, and maturity.
So what will be the theme of your life in 2017? “Goals are part of the tapestry of the life story” and form our intention of who we want to become.
So, if you are setting goals, ask yourself how do they fit in with your overall life journey, what resources do you have already, and what others do you need to acquire to move the plot forward?
For the full article see Mc Adams, Dan, Mc Clean, Kate C Article (PDF Available) in Current Directions in Psychological Science 22(3):233-238 · June 2013


CREATE A POSITIVE LAUNCHING PAD FOR 2017

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Before you rush on to goals and resolutions for 2017, take some time over the next few days to remember and celebrate what was good for you in 2016. Research shows that our mind set does shape our experience, and that reminiscing about the past in a positive way greatly increases our happiness levels and sets us up to have more positive moments in the future. It turns that gratitude and appreciation are two of the foundation pillars of happiness .
As you look back on the year, what were the things you are most grateful for? What were the moments that took your breath away? What were the achievements you were most proud of? What did you learn? Who were the people that made the last year rich for you? What were the new places you saw or boundaries you broke through? What were the unexpected opportunities this last year presented ? What were the times you had the most fun? What were the occasions that you really made a difference to others? Who were the new friends you made or older relationships that you deepened? What pet projects did you complete or undertake? What were the deepest moments of spiritual connection for you?

So take the time today or tomorrow to write about or talk to friends/family about who and what you appreciated most in 2016 and create a positive launching pad to the future.

To encourage you, I am sharing some of my own highlights of the year:

When I look back on 2016, by a mile, what I am most grateful for, is the complete healing transformation and prognosis for my grand-nephew in the UK. Caleb was born last July, after a very difficult and prolonged birth, and was transported immediately to a specialised neonatal unit in Brighton. He was on life support, unable to breathe or feed himself, and with suspected brain damage due to anoxia. All of the family and some good friends united in praying and holding a picture of the perfect state of health for him. Within a week, he was breathing and feeding normally, and best of all, neurological tests revealed that there was no brain damage. The photos taken on the day after birth and a week later show a remarkable transformation, and he has just continued to thrive and fulfill all the developmental milestones.

2016 also stands out for me as a great year for travel. I began last January with a yoga course in Morocco, and finished up in December with a trip to Cuba. In between there were a couple of trips to France and a trip to the Bahamas, which just happened to include an overnight in New York, where I got to join my son, Dan, for his birthday celebration! So a magical year for fun and travel, and deepening friendships on the way! I should say, that my New Year resolution last January, was to say “yes” to more invitations and opportunities! My travels this year have also given me an even greater appreciation for this lovely country of ours, which gives us such great personal freedom, education and opportunities.

I am grateful that my work continues to prosper, and for the opportunities I had to work in a positive way with so many people individually, in my own courses,in the third level colleges in which I teach and counsel, and in so many different settings where I present. One highlight this year was participating in the Institute of Banking ‘s International Womens’ Day celebrations: great to present on Spirit and Meditation to so many positive and successful women! I also greatly enjoyed presenting to many different groups of teachers, my favourite probably being to the staff of St. Brigid’s Boys NS just across the road, which my own lads attended. Great to see so many Irish schools embracing Mindfulness and positive mental training.

As a mother, I was delighted this year to see the vision and dedication of my three children rewarded with success in their chosen fields: Julianne making not one,but two movies two movies with Tailored Films, Kevin having a brilliantly successful year and building a great team in Educogym Baggot Street. I was thrilled that my youngest son Dan, had the opportunity to do the Educo seminar in February. On the seminar, he had such a deep experience of connection with Life/God/Spirit and forged a vision for his music. All sorts of opportunities came his way this year: from working on stage productions in Dublin and New York with Bill Whelan, being artist in residence at a musical venue in LA, laying down tracks for his EP with some brilliant up and coming musicians, and now heading out on a US tour with Five Irish Tenors for whom he has arranged their large repertoire. His career as a full time musician is truly launched!

Most of all, I am grateful to my family and friends for your love,humour,support and inspiration. its great to have so many wonderful companions on life’s journey ………..

So back to you: what are your highlights of 2016? If some negative stuff comes up, just ignore it for the moment, and dwell more on “the good stuff”. Research shows that the happiest of people have just as many negative events in their lives as those who are less happy. What makes the difference is what you focus on, where you habitually”live”mentally. So take this opportunity to create “a happy home life” in your own brain!

May 2017 be full of joy, health, peace and prosperity for all of us.


Rewiring the brain

For the past 4o years or so, I have, like most people driven a car that requires me to put the key into the ignition to start. This time last year, I got a brand new mini, which started without inserting the key so I have been just one year driving this new technology.
At the weekend, I swopped cars with a friend. I took the keys, got behind the wheel,engaged the clutch etc and waited for it to start. Much to my dismay, nothing happened! Finally, it dawned on me, this is an older car, I actually have to put the key into the ignition.
Time and again, this week, I have been similarly caught out, tossing the key into the cup holder and waiting for the car to start.
So why am I bothering to post about this? Well, it strikes me as amazing, that one year’s driving the new way, has completely obliterated my 40 year old habit. In the beginning, it felt very unnatural NOT to put the key into the ignition, but the “unnatural” has quickly become the new natural. It shows, how malleable our subconscious mind is, how a new way of doing things and new thinking habits can completely replace the old.
Obviously, this is central to my Take the Steps courses and in positive psychology generally. Focussing on the good stuff, may seem unnatural at first, but can quickly become our “default”
mode. So we are not “stuck” with dysfunctional ways of thinking, we can rewire our brains to adapt a newer and better technology!


WOW – FIVE WAYS TO WELLBEING

Lotus

My “Take the Steps” courses in Mindfulness and Wellbeing are so named to draw attention to the fact that in order to increase wellbeing, happiness, flourishing, we actually have to take steps to BE and DO things differently. Its not enough to read ABOUT. This is why,although I do workshops for those at a distance or on shift work, and in corporate environments, I strongly recommend, where possible that you take the course over a number of weeks, as this allows the new way of “taking notice, the “happiness habits”, and the new ways of thinking, to become part of your lifestyle and who you are. The latest neuro-psychological research has made us aware how plastic the brain is, how much we can change, but it is well to remember that building a new neural pathway is essentially a matter of repeatedly doing something differently. The bonus is, that learning new skills turns out to be good for well being anyhow!
This action-oriented outlook is highlighted in the WOW -FIVE WAYS TO WELLBEING *guidelines, which was published after intensive study of the research evidence in what actually. The guidelines are easy to incorporate into your life, so why not get started?

CONNECT
With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.
BE ACTIVE
Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness.
TAKE NOTICE
Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.
KEEP LEARNING
Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.
GIVE
Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time.Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.
*New Economic Foundation (U.K.) 2008


Martin Seligman comes to Dublin.

2013-06-27 20.26.28Martin E. P.Seligman, (Marty to his friends)  one of the most influential psychologists of our times gave a talk   on “Positive Psychology-the cutting edge for psychology, in Trinity College last night.
Seligman first came to prominence in the early seventies for his discovery of “learned helplessness” and its connection with depression. This was an important breakthrough, which together with the work of his colleague, Aaron Beck on linking negative emotions with `’automatic” negative thoughts, led to a radically different and empirically successful method of treatment, known as cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT challenged the more deterministic medical and psychoanalytic viewpoint , and its success as a treatment demonstrated that anything that is learned can be unlearned-one of the greatest breakthroughs for psychology in the 20th century.  Seligman reasoned that if helplessness could be learned, so too could optimism and went on to write “Learned Optimism” and the ‘Optimistic Child”.

 

Roll on a few decades in which Seligman continued to research different treatment options for mental health problems. In 1997, a rather dramatic chance meeting with Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi in Hawaii ( Csiksentmihalyi was in difficulties in the water, and Seligman went to the rescue) revealed that the two shared a vision of creating a new type of psychology, more focused on creating happiness and investigating “what makes life worth living” for the vast majority of people.

Seligman had an encounter with his five year-old daughter, Nikki , who was interrupting him at his weeding in the garden, and he responded in a testy fashion. Nikki had been previously encouraged by her parents to ‘stop whining”. She managed to do this, but then turned the tables on her father ‘Well dad, if I can learn to stop whining, then you can learn to stop being a grouch! “.

This was a light bub moment for Seligman. He had just been elected ( by one of the largest majority’s in the association’s history) president of the American Psychological Association , and gave his inaugural speech on the theme that “psychology had lost its way’ and was focusing too much on how to fix problems rather than how to generate happiness and life satisfaction. He pointed out how all the research funding was going into treatment , with over 20,000 articles published on fixing problems, and only a handful on creating happiness. He set himself the task of forging a new direction in psychology.

He was well placed to do so: between himself, Csikszentmihalyi , and Ed Diener, happiness researcher with the Gallup Organisation, they were on the editorial boards of most of the major psychological publications. In addition, Seligman was a fantastic fundraiser, and secured major financial backing from , the U.S. Dept of Education , the National Institute of Mental Health, and private philanthropists such as John Templeton and Chuck Feeney.

In 1999, they invited a group of renowned researchers, (including Barbara Fredrickson and Sonya Lyubomirsky) to a conference in Akumal in Mexico to discuss furthering the new science of positive psychology. The conference, an “invitation only” event to promising researchers, became an annual event.

One of the most ambitious projects that Seligman together with Chris Peterson initiated, was to draw up a classification of positive human strengths and virtues, which involved much cross-cultural research to find out what strengths were universally valued. This was a reaction to the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual “ of the APA , then in its fifth or sixth edition, a vast tome classifying all the varieties of human misery!

In 2003 “Authentic Happiness” was published and became a best-seller, immediately bringing positive psychology to a much wider, non-academic audience. The success of the book was in a large part due to Seligman’s informal and anecdotal style of writing, while still getting across the basic scientific research and concepts.

I first met Seligman, in 2008 at the first world conference of the International Positive Psychology Association in Philadelphia. As a founder and director of the Irish Association of Holistic Medicine, I had been involved for decades in promoting positive mental health and self-fulfillment through relaxation , mindfulness, yoga, ki massage, holistic nutrition and holistic psychotherapy, areas that were not then popular in what Seligman has called “psychology as usual”.

For me, the conference was like no other psychology conference I had ever been to. I was among people who spoke my language, it felt like coming home. Most of the delegates were American, but there were also lots from Australia, Canada, Asia, UK and Europe- there were just two others from Ireland ( one of them being my best friend, then living in Washington, whom I dragged along!) besides myself. Unusually also, there were business, education and other social scientists there, a much wider group than the normal psychology conference.

There were close to 2000 attendees at the inaugural debate between Seligman, and Phillip Zimbardo (of the famous Stanford Prison Guards experiment) on whether human nature was fundamentally good or evil. Seligman’s accessibility and affability through the conference remained constant: he was available for chats to all throughout. I would never have known, until he told the “Nikki” story that he had ever been a “grouch”!

As time went on, there was criticism of positive psychology as being too “happy clappy” and a bit unreal, a bit too focused on generating positive emotion. This was a mis-reading of the situation, as Positive Psychology was evidence-based. Even a cursory reading of “Authentic Happiness” (subtitled “using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment”)reveals that much attention was given to other areas. This was all made much more explicit in Seligman’s next book , “Flourishing” another bestseller, published in 2011 where he presented the PERMA model for “flourishing” which spelled out the importance of several dimensions for our overall wellbeing and life satisfaction:

Positive Emotion-happy feelings, pleasurable events

Engagement-total absorption in what you are doing, Flow, often involving the exercise of your signature strengths

Relationships – relationships are one of the biggest factors in our overall wellbeing

Meaning -commitment to something larger than yourself, often involving your deepest values.

Achievements – our past successes and accomplishments

Research in positive psychology has revealed a variety of evidence based techniques and exercises that can enhance our capacity on all these dimensions . These , together with mindfulness training ( another proven intervention) form the backbone of my own “Take the Steps” courses and workshops.

 


WELL BEING AS A SKILL?

 

I recently viewed a talk on You Tube  by Richard Davidson, one of the “superheroes” of neuroscience, whose research has done so much to increase understanding of our emotional brain, and how much we can train our brain to react differently. I often use the phrase “rewire your brain” to describe the techniques I use in my own courses, because with the discovery of the extent of the brains’ neuroplasticity, that is literally something we all can do with the right type of training.

Davidson, has described himself as being a “closet meditator” from his undergraduate days, but was advised by his professors not to focus on it in his experimental work as it would be likely to hinder his career . Davidson heeded this advice until a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1992 who challenged him to turn the scientific spotlight on what he was passionately interested in. 

From his knowledge of neuorscience, Davidson now calls wellbeing a SKILL, something you can learn. While there is a large genetic component in happiness ie if you had depressed parents, you are more likely to be depressed yourself, I personally would not bother teaching courses in wellbeing and posititvity, if there was not a large influence from one’s attitudes and behavior, which, being learned, can also be be re-trained. In addition, the science of of epigenetics is teaching us that whether or not specific genetic tendencies exist, gene expression, is heavily influenced by our environment, and what we focus on.

In the you tube clip, Davidson identifies identifies four components that contribute to wellbeing,  ALL of which can be learned and ALL of which are validated by research. 


1) RESILIENCE

Our capacity to bounce back from difficult situations. Davidson points out here, that resilience is slow to develop from mindfulness, but other research from Barbara Fredrickson, has shown an increase in resilience from experiencing and savouring positive emotion.


2) POSITIVE MIND SET

Our capacity to see the good in ourselves, others and in our life experiences.  Davidson conducted a randomized controlled study, with brain scans before and after, where subjects were either assigned to a CBT group or a loving kindness meditation group.  The short ( 7 minutes) sessions of loving kindness meditation done daily for two weeks enhance a positive outlook. ( I have received similar feedback on the loving kindness track on my own CD  “Mindful Everyday” from people who use it daily, but have never been in a position to conduct brain scans, so delighted to see the “hard” evidence !)

3) GENEROSITY

While the debate rages on about whether goodness is innate in human beings (which I, along with Davidson believe) research conclusively shows that we are at our happiest when we are being kind and generous to others, going the extra mile above and beyond the call of duty.


4) ATTENTION

In a 2010 study, Harvard psychologists Killingsworth and Gilbert, published a paper subtitled “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”. The research, carried out on a large sample of adults, used time sampling, which  is one of the most reliable of research methodologies. Mind wandering predicted 17% of the variance in happiness levels between people, while the particular activity they were doing at the time, only accounted for 3%.

The study also showed  that 47% of the time, the average person’s mind is wandering, and that we are least happy when the mind is wandering. He asks what would be the benefits to wellbeing if we could decrease our distractability by 5%? Research of course has shown training in Mindfulness develops our capacity for sustained attention.

Bearing in mind that the brain is all the time being unwittingly influenced by everything around us, he then  asks what if we took responsibility for the shaping of our own brain?

This is of course what the “Take the Steps” courses are all about- taking the steps, validated by research, which put you in the driver’s seat.

If you want to take advantage of your brain’s neuroplasiticty, and start rewiring your brain for wellbeing and positivity, take action and book now on “Take the Steps” courses starting this coming Wed (city centre 6.30pm ) or Thursday (Clontarf/Raheny 7pm). Full details, booking on home page.


The Art Of Dropping IN

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I took up yoga in the early 70s, when many people were talking of “dropping out”, of leaving their job and starting an alternative lifestyle. Tony, my yoga teacher, was fond of saying to those who asked his advice on whether they should “drop out”, would you not consider “dropping in”? What he meant was that most people were not actually in their job or even in their own life, but were spending most of their time in their head.

The concept of doing things for their own sake is of course a central concept in mindfulness and yoga. In yoga they call it “being one pointed” where you are whole heartedly engaged in what you are doing, rather than being divided, with one half of us doing the job, and the other half either looking on critically or off day-dreaming or worrying about something else. Yoga exercises were designed as a form of mental training, to keep your mind with what you were doing.

We all have times when we are naturally absorbed in what we do : it could be doing the garden, sport or other physical activity, listening to or playing music, climbing a mountain, solving a complicated situation, making sense of seeming unrelated data, etc. The psychologist Mihaly Csziksentmihalyi named this state of total absorbtion ‘flow’ and noted that it tended to occur in activities that were well matched to our strengths: too much challenge, and we get frustrated, too little and we get bored. He had buzzers that interrupted people several times a day to find out what they were doing at that time, and how they were feeling, and found that people were at their happiest when they were in flow, which for most people, surprisingly, tended to occur more when they were at ‘work,’ rather than at leisure. (I am putting “work” in inverted commas, because I firmly believe work can be play )

But what about if you’re there saying, well dancing or skiing does it for me, but you only dance once a week or ski once a year?

That’s where the real art of ‘dropping in ‘comes in. What about ‘dropping in’ on some of the mundane tasks that we do on a daily basis? How about in the middle of a busy day, when we are doing one task while mentally counting up what else we have to do, and getting annoyed because this present task is taking too long, just stopping the mental stuff, and totally focus on what we are doing at this instant? Maybe listening to that child who is “interrupting “ you?

Only last week, a friend of mine, a fellow yoga teacher, was telling me how in the middle of a very hectic week, he used doing the washing up as a way of switching in and recharging. He really focused on looking at the dishes as they came glistening from the water, listened to the light clinking as he placed them in the rack, felt the warmth and texture of the sudsy water and the circular movements of his own hands, the smell of the washing up liquid etc. When he finished the rather large wash up after the family dinner each evening, he felt calmed and recharged.

The surprising thing is that anytime we ‘drop in’, anytime we are 100% present, mind and body in the same place, we connect with our own natural energy, which has a re-vitalising effect. The activity itself doesn’t matter, it’s the actually doing what you are doing that is the key.

Over, the years, I have recommended to people to drop in, in all sorts of situations.

For instance, in dealing with people who had a lot of social anxiety, often to the point of social phobia, I discovered that most of them were so worried about what other people would think of them that it took up about 90% of their mental energy, with only a tiny proportion of them actually free to engage with the other person. Along with mindfulness training in neutral, non-emotional techniques, I also got them to practice “being there “ in the very situations that provoked the anxiety. Instead of focusing on the endless rumination going on in their head, I asked them to “drop in” , to pay attention to the other person and focus on making them feel more comfortable. Many turned around their social anxiety very quickly, and in fact found that they were rather enjoying social situations.

I often find it helpful to start with one or two things you do every day. For instance, last year a mother in one of my courses, who found that putting her child’s bedtime was one of the most fraught times of the day. She came in from a busy working day, rushed through getting a meal on the table, and the last straw was the evenings she had to put her little girl to bed. She decided instead of putting her energy into how this was all too much at the end of a busy day, to actually focus on really reading the bedtime story. After a few weeks of doing this, she found that bedtimes became one of her favourite times, and she really developed a new closeness with her daughter-not surprising really, as you can only connect with another person when you are actually there!

So what opportunities to drop in are you going to grasp today?

 

 

 


“Choose a job you are passionate about and you will never have to work a day in your life.”


I love this quote from Confucius. I am fortunate enough to be able to say that is how I feel about my own work, and I have also dedicated a good proportion of my own life in helping others to find work they love.

Mihaly Csziksentmihalyi was one of the first psychologists to investigate whenpeople were at their happiest. He had buzzers that interrupted people several times a day and asked them to note to what they were doing at that time, and how they were feeling. Surprisingly, he found that people were at their happiest when they were at work, rather than at leisure. It was at work that people had their most frequent experiences of flow, that state of being completely absorbed in what you do, that for many turned ‘work’ into ‘play’.

I am well aware however from my background in Career Guidance, that this isn’t the case for everyone. Consequently, I have always been delighted to be involved with the Irish Association of Holistic Medicine, which for 30 years has been training people for highly rewarding and meaningful careers.

Holistic medicine puts the person of the practitioner and the client centre stage. Unlike traditional medicine, where diagnosis is king, and the “magic bullet” theory reigns supreme, holistic medicine is more concerned with what sort of person has the problem.
The central concept in holistic medicine is that of ki, chi, life force, prana, vital force, that runs through all living things. Disease is seen as an interruption in this flow. Disease is seen as an interruption in this flow. Just as when a branch is cut from a tree, the sap will cease to flow, when we, either through stress, the wrong type of food, wrong type of thinking or not using our body properly get cut off from our source of life inside, the flow of vital force is weakened and problems of one type or another arise. A lot of the most recent research in psycho neuro immunolgy is backing up this ancient view – we are even less susceptible when exposed to the common cold virus when we are feeling more positive!

So if the job is to put the person back in touch with their underlying energy, the person and the presence of the practitioner is most important. The best results will come from someone who has a connection with that life and can help draw it out in others, very much a case of ‘physician, heal thyself‘.

The holistic philosophy, self development of the practitioner, their connection with life itself, their capacity to be fully present, is the foundation module of all the holistic medicine courses, and the one that I personally teach. Of course, technique and knowledge come into it. So if you are studying ki massage, massage technique comes into it as well as learning to flow energy. If studying to be a yoga teacher, of course practice of the exercises and class presentation skills come into it as well as meditation and philosophy. If studying nutrition, of course learning all about the different nutritional essentials, and observing the client and taking careful case histories are essential. All the courses include an Anatomy and Physiology module, essential for all practitoners.

INVITATION

If you would like to learn more about any of these areas, I am inviting you to a holistic evening on Thursday 10th September from 6.30 to 8.30 where you can meet our teachers and sample some of our therapies in action. Please RSVP by email if you would like to come, and also if there is any particular course that interests you.

Margaret

Holistic Evening
** Free **

66 Eccles St., Dublin 7

Thursday 10th September, 6.30 to 8.30 pm.

Please RSVP to ihcaoffice@gmail.com if you would like to come
Further details on these professional training courses on www.holisticmedicine.ie

 


Courses in Yoga and Mindfulness.

 My  Courses Take The Steps : Mindfulness and Well being six week courses

A combination of Mindfulness, CBT and Positive Psychology Techniques. No physical exercise.

CITY CENTRE: Wed from 6.30 to 8 pm in Ely Place, D2

RAHENY: Thurs from 7pm to 8.30pm at Clontarf/ Raheny, D5

Fee: €150 booking through this website.

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Mindfulness Practice Group  Thursdays, 8.30 to 9.30 pm Raheny

The is open to all who have completed a course with me. It’s a way for you to continue deepening your practice and to continue with the techniques for wellbeing and positivity that you started in your course.

 

Fee: €70 for six week session or €15 per session drop in.

Intermediate Yoga course  8.15-9.30pm in Raheny. It has a focus on doing yoga mindfully, and on meditation. It is a small group, at varying levels with the exercises, so it is not a strenuous, competitive class. Fee €80 for six wek course

Yoga for Pregnancy and Birth Class  on Mondays,7pm to 8.15 pm in Raheny also.

This has a combination of yoga , mindfulness and deep relaxation practice to facilitate a more mindful and joyful birth process. Fee €100 includes my CD Relaxation for Birth. www.yogaforpregnancyandbirth.com

Please email directly at fordemargaret@gmail.com if you would like to reserve a place in Mindfulness Practice or Yoga courses.

 

 

 

 


IT’S OFFICIAL : Research shows overthinking causes depression and that Mindfulness lessens overthinking

by Margaret Forde

In the counselling work I do with third-level students, I have yet to meet a student with serious depression or high anxiety levels , who does not consistently overthink almost everything going on in their lives. They all complete a questionnaire which measures the way they feel and think in the past week. The questionaire is scored and measured against what is “normal” and they are assigned a percentile score. Invariably if their levels of depression and anxiety are in the top 10% , so too will their scores on overanalysis.
At this stage, I often don’t wait for the profile to be returned , but make a bet with them, that they probably overthink everything. As soon as I mention the word, there is usually a sheepish grin, or they wonder if I’m psychic! Their answer is usually “ I never stop, my friends, my parents all say the same thing, its been going on for years!”

Mostly, people regard their overthinking as a personal quirk, a harmless mental pursuit, with no consequences. When I point out that there is in fact a causal relationship with this “response style” as it is technically called, and their depression or high anxiety, there is usually a “ light bulb “ moment. Its not just something they are doing in their heads, but something that has “real life” consequences!

To hammer it home even more, I often point out, that Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema , the Yale professor who spent a lifetime studying overthinking ( also called rumination) called it the “secret to unhappiness” . In other words, if you want to be as unhappy or anxious as you can, then overthink as much as you possibly can for as long as you can!

I am not being unfeeling here, and I am very aware that life events eg exam stress, relationship breakdown or biological factors such as low serotonin levels can be factors. Nevertheless, one of the largest studies (nearly 40,000 people from 172 countries took part) carried out at the University of Liverpool corroborrated the causal link established by Nolen-Hoeksema “We found that people who didn’t ruminate or blame themselves had much lower levels of depression and anxiety, even if they had experienced many negative events in their lives” (Peter Kinderman, Prof of Clinical Psychology, study leader).

So, I believe, that pointing out that your habitual thinking habits can cause depression is a positive message because the way you think and deal with things can be changed, unlike genetics or unfortunate real life events which are outside your control. People who habitually overthink, however, take some convincing that their thoughts ARE within their control .

OUTSIDE THE SUN COULD BE SHINING

So I tend to put it this way:people who overthink are in a prison of their own making. They are like people locked inside a darkened room watching re-runs of movies that highlight tales of failure and hopelessness. Outside, the sun could be shining and all sorts of good stuff going on, but they are locked up, “watching a play within a play”, never realising that it is just a play, and that their thoughts are “just thoughts” as Mindfulness would put it. Nowhere is this more obvious than with those who are highly distressed, who may literally be torturing themselves in the theatre of their mind. In other words, the more distressed somebody is, the more likely they are to be locked into over-analysis and rumination, an observation borne out by Nolen-Hoeksema’s research which showed that an overthinking response style also contributed to other conditions such as eating disorders, self harm and OCD.

Most importantly, she pointed out that an overthinking response style actually hinders a person from looking for solutions. Her research also showed that women are almost twice as likely to “overthink” as men (who are more likely to do something) and hypothesized that this is perhaps the reason why twice as many women suffer from depression.

I worked as an individual psychotherapist for many years, honing ways of helping people to stop showing showing themselves those wretched movies in the “home cinema” inside their head. I switched to providing courses and workshops as I felt I could get the psycho-educational material across to people at much lower cost than in individual therapy, and that the group dynamic would aid the process.

I centred the course around Mindfulness because it has such a long tradition of helping people to control their own mind, backed up by the latest research in neuroscience. Short bursts of mindfulness can give a break from the constant churning, and escape into the real world for a change.

In the “Take the Steps” courses, I present a very structured approach to Mindfulness as I feel people really need a step by step mind-training to interrupt the well-worn pathways in their brain. Fortunately, it turns out that the adult brainis much more plastic than was believed by neuroscientists even ten years ago.
The course combines Mindfulness with techniques such as “the three good things” which force the person to look outside their well-worn thought patterns, and other techniques which encourage filling the mind with more resourceful movies as a back up.
The catchphrase I sometimes use “Re-wire your brain, re-boot your life” is a 21st century take on the words of the Buddha: What we are today forms from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of to-morrow. Our life is the creation of our mind”