Category Archives for Psychology

7 reasons why holidays are good for our minds

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As I sit here looking out at my chickens sheltering from the pouring rain, I can’t help reminiscing about my recent gloriously relaxing holiday in the sunshine. Sigh!

Since coming home a couple of weeks ago I feel much more calm, relaxed and focussed than before I went.  I can see things more clearly, am full of creative ideas and feel totally motivated to get cracking with them. It got me thinking about why holidays are so good for our minds…

Bring Me Sunshine

Of course not all holidays involve sunshine, but let’s talk about those that do. There is evidence that sunshine is great for our brains in a couple of ways:

  • Sun increases serotonin levels
    Serotonin is a chemical neurotransmitter that helps to transmit signals between nerve cells in the brain. Low serotonin levels are thought to be a factor in depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. You may have come across SSRIs, popular anti-depressant drugs such as Prozac, which increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. The intensity of light that sunshine brings has the same effect – it increases the production of serotonin in the brain and can boost our mood. It’s why high intensity light (SAD) lamps are recommended for people who have lower moods throughout the darker winter months.
  • Sunshine helps us make Vitamin D
    Also, there is emerging evidence that vitamin D is not only essential for healthy bones but for the production of serotonin – and of course the best source of Vitamin D is from exposing skin to the sunshine. And it’s a great reason for getting outside whether on holiday or not! The NHS suggest exposing your unprotected skin to sunshine for 10-15 minutes a day is enough for light-skinned people to make all the vitamin D they need – any more and it’s time to reach for the sunscreen.

What Do You Mean We Need a Break from the old routine?

Working, washing, cooking, shopping, cleaning, dog walking, gardening…the list goes on for those of us who work, look after a home, bring up children, try to look after ourselves and nurture our relationships with our family and friends. It can be pretty exhausting by itself, but throw in some of life’s curveballs and a bit of extra pressure and it can easily to head in the direction of dangerous levels of stress.

Being on holiday allows us – if we’re lucky – to take a break from all the day-to-day chores and responsibilities – someone else makes all the food, cleans up after everyone and your main task is to spend time with the people you love, relax and have fun – total bliss! Which brings me to…

An opportunity to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with their’s

The airline safety announcement analogy is so very true and on holiday we can get more of a chance to actually do it. Those of us who are mums are so used to putting others first, but good holidays really do allow us to focus on a bit of ‘me time’ and recharge our batteries.

Of course, this does depend on the age of any children you have, who you’re on holiday with and what type of holiday you’re having ; however even just the fact that you don’t have to do any of the usual chores frees up SO much time for you to spend on things you would actually like to do – whatever they may be. Whether it’s a morning yoga session, a swim in the pool, a read of a good book or scuba diving, there just is so much more time in the day on holidays, and the chances are you can get some very good quality me time in there somehow.

(As an aside, if you have small children and they are stuck to you like a limpet for the whole holiday, do not fear, they will be teenagers soon enough and then they’re quite glad for you to have ‘me time’!)

A chance to slow down and relax

Linked to this, is that holidays generally mean more relaxation – whatever that means to you personally. It may be lying on a sunbed for 2 weeks, or lots of activities every day, but relaxation is the order of the day and boy is it good for your mind – and body.

Holidays also remind us of the beauty of living life at a slow pace. Hours disappear messing about in the sand, sitting and chatting in a café or watching the sun go down is time well spent. We don’t hurry to get on with the next thing or worry about walking the dog, washing the dishes and finishing that presentation and what we’re not doing, we just enjoy the moment. Which of course is what mindfulness is all about and if the holiday forces align correctly, there are many beautiful mindful moments.

Seeing things more clearly

Such moments of course gives us the chance to clear the mind from daily ‘clutter’ and allow you to see things with a new perspective, perhaps reassessing aspects of your life, your values and your goals. Holidays give us time to reflect on who who we are and where we are going – and crucially whether this is the direction in which we’d like to keep travelling!

Coming up with creative solutions to niggling problems seems easier on holiday. This may be something to do with travelling to another land – Maddux and Galinsky’s studies found links between living abroad and increased creativity

Reconnecting

Everyday life can chip away at family connections and spending quality time with the ones you love helps to reconnect on a deep level. Lehto, Choi, Lin and MacDermid found in their studies of 265 travellers that going on holiday as a family contributes positively to family connection, bonding, communication and feelings of belonging. This is really important for us all – and especially our children – to feel.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside.

Finally, I am reminded about some of the cognitive benefits of being by the sea – covered more in my post on reasons from psychology that learning to surf rocked my world. Recent evidence suggests that being near large expanses of water is very good for the mind. So, even a trip to the seaside can be great for you if you can’t go on a full holiday.

So there you go, 8 reasons why holidays are good for your mind – which sound like 8 good reasons to book another holiday to me! And remember, holidays need not always be super luxurious to have all, or most of these benefits for your mind – it’s what works for you and your loved ones that’s important – and taking a well-earned break. Now, where did I put those travel guides…?

 

Managing Stress

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We all get a bit ‘stressed out’ at times. Juggling work and busy homes along with life’s inevitable ups and downs can make even the most chilled-out person feel under pressure. But our modern lives are becoming more stressed than ever. While occassional, acute stress can motivate us and improve performance, when we experience ongoing, chronic stress we can experience mental and physical health problems.

The impact of chronic stress on our health

Long-term exposure to stress has been shown to cause mental health problems like anxiety and depression and recent research sugests it can even lead to dementia. It can also cause physical health problems including high blood pressure and heart attacks, generally weaken the immune system so you are more susceptible to infections and exacerbate conditions like irritable bowl syndrome (IBS), insomnia and eczema.

What happens when we’re under stress

As discussed in this post on anxiety, when we feel threatened, the brain gives the ‘danger’ signal, we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode and the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol surge into our bodies. If the danger is fleeting, then the physical and mental symptoms of stress are short-lived. However, when our lives have too many stress factors in them and we move from one stressful situation to another, the constant exposure to stress hormones can cause problems. We can experience psychological symptoms such as feeling overwhelmed, finding it hard to switch off and becoming easily agitated and frustrated. We may also see physical symptoms such as stomach and skin problems or insomnia, and we may develop ongoing anxiety or depression. Some people may also turn to unhelpful coping mchanisms such as drinking which can cause further issues. So, how do you stop stress taking control?

Some tips to manage stress

It’s very difficult to erase stress from our busy lives, and indeed stress is an inevitable fact of life. However, you can make small changes that can make a big difference to how you feel and indeed, how you react to stressful events. The tips unsurprisingly are similar to those on how to deal with anxiety.

  1. Eat a healthy diet – see 5 good mood food tips
  2. Make time for at least 30 minutes of exercise every day.
  3. Try a little mindfulness.
    There is increasing evidence that mindfulness can help with stress. Yoga and meditation of any kind encourage mindfulness, which is really just paying attention to the present moment, or you could go on a Mindfulness course in person or online.  Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR) has been shown to have a significant impact on stress reduction.
  4. Try to get enough sleep – this can be tricky as it’s a vicious cycle when you feel stressed. There are some good sleep tips here.
  5. If work is the main cause of your stress, think about ways you could reduce the impact. It might be time to try to move roles, find a new job or just try to manage your time more effectively.
  6. Talk to someone you trust about how you feel. Just talking in itself may well help, or they might be able to help you come up with practical ways to reduce your stress factors. If you can’t talk to someone close to you and stress it taking its toll on your mental or physical health, talk to someone else – it could be your GP, someone at your local Mind or a counsellor or psychologist.

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5 Good Mood Food Tips

As anyone who’s been ‘hangry’ knows, food can really impact our mood. Numerous studies show that what we eat impacts directly our brain and our mood. The ‘Feeding Minds’ report from the Mental Health Foundation discusses mental health and nutrition in detail. It also highlights research showing the links between whole countries’ intake of certain foods and the population’s levels of depression and other mental health problems.

Good Mood Food Tips

So, what should you eat to help yourself to stay mentally healthy? This could be a very short post! Essentially, it’s all about fresh, natural, healthy whole foods & ditching the white processed stuff, but here are 5 top good mood food tips to keep your brain (and body) working well:

1. Make sure you eat regular meals featuring lean protein, healthy fats and fresh vegetables.

This will help to keep your blood sugar levels steady (and avoid energy peaks and troughs and hangry feelings) and release energy slowly. Fresh vegetables are full of nutrients, fibre and have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.

Get it out of your head that fat is bad. The brain needs healthy fats to work well. So, out with the 1970s low fat (high sugar) diets and in with good fats, including oily fish, nuts and seeds (especially walnuts, almonds, pumpkin and sunflower seeds), avocados, eggs and live yoghurt.

So, good meal examples would be a tuna or salmon with loads of veg, avocado, seed sprinkles and an extra virgin olive oil dressing, or meatballs in a tomato sauce with vegetable noodles (spirulizers are great, or you can buy ready-made ones now).

2. Eat Oily Fish

I’ve already mentioned fish above, but it’s worth mentioning oily fish separately. As well as being a source of lean protein and very good for your heart, oily fish contains omega 3 fatty acids which are essential for brain function but can’t be made by our bodies. Diets featuring oily fish are thought to reduce levels of depression. So, making sure salmon, sardines, mackerel or fresh tuna feature regularly in your diet is worthwhile.

Example easy meals would be tinned sardines or mackerel on wholegrain toast or a tuna niscoise salad. If you don’t eat fish, then walnuts, pumpkin, chia and flax seeds are your friends (they are even if you do eat fish!).

But what about the mercury?
NHS guidance is now that most people can eat four portions of oily fish a week without a problem, but pregnat women should eat a maxiumum of two.

3. Learn to Love Leafy Green Veg

I never thought I would be the kind of person who ‘massages kale’ but hey, it turns out I am! Kale, spinach, broccoli and other leafy green veg is full of nutritional benefits and scientists have found that it can slow cognitive decline.

Much to my surprise I’ve found I genuinely love(!) a kale salad with roasted veg, hummous and a sprinkling of nuts or seeds on top. Delicously Ella shows you how to give kale a massage in this video…

4. Replace Anything White and Processed With Wholegrains

Carbohydrates are not all bad, but we all know by now that simple, white carbs are no good for us. So forget about sugar, white rice and white bread and bring on the wholewheat, oats, brown rice, bulgar wheat, quinoa etc.

Easy swaps are brown rice in place of white and porridge or bircher muesli instead of sugar-filled breakfast cereals. Honey, maple syrup or medjool dates can be used instead of sugar to sweeten things if you have a sweet tooth (like me!).

5. Selenium

Increasing levels of the trace mineral selenium has been shown to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety, although interestingly this study found that if selenium levels were too high that also lead to issues. Brazil nuts are the richest source, so one or two a day will increase selenium levels safely. Tuna fish, oysters, wholegrains, sunflower seeds and pork, beef, lamb and chicken are all other good sources of selenium.

So, there you go – 5 ways you can eat well to help your mood and your health generally. There are lots more I could include, but these 5 are a good starting point. Happy eating…I’m off to massage some kale 😉

 

PS – This Mind video is informative if you’d like to find out more about managing your mood with food.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Deal with Anxiety

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This post discusses self-help strategies to help you deal with anxiety – strategies that work! As discussed in yesterday’s blog post, anxiety can be a debilitating condition. Sufferers may need to take medication to manage their anxiety, but there are many ways you can help yourself. Like many others, I’ve experienced anxiety at times in my life. This blog post gives practial, self-help ways you can deal with anxiety – all strategies I have used to manage my own anxiety. I hope it might be helpful for you or an adult or young person you know.

Practical ways to deal with anxiety

Belly Breathing
If you’re in the middle of feeling anxious, or indeed at any time you just want to feel a little calmer, belly breathing really helps to calm you down. Here’s what to do:

  • Sit or lie down and relax your body
  • Close your eyes
  • Start to focus on your breathing, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Gradually start to take deeper breaths, focussing on filling up your belly then chest as you breathe in and them fully deflating as you breathe out.
  • Try to breath in for count of five and out for a count of 7 (or 3 in and 5 out whichever works for you – make the out breath longer).
  • Carry on for as long as you want / need (3 – 5 minutes works well).

Meditation
I first discovered meditation when having a period of anxiety after a friend had died from suicide. It helped tremendously and numerous studies have shown it can help with anxiety. The Meditation I do is really just an extension of the big belly breathing. I get up 15 minutes earlier than I used to, put on the brilliant Headspace app and go through one of the guided meditations. Headspace ‘teaches’ you how to meditate through a series of guided meditations (the first 10 are free). Learning to stand back and observe thoughts and emotions is a powerful technique. It’s a great way to start the day and I usually feel focussed, calm and ready for anything afterwards. If I don’t ‘Wake up with Andy’ (Puddicome who talks you through the meditations) I feel a bit ‘off’. I’ll write more about meditation in the future, but if you haven’t already, I really recommend giving it a go.

Sleep
While anxiety can sometimes interfere with sleep, getting adequate, good quality sleep is helpful in managing the condition. Adults need around 8 hours per night and children at least 10 hours (there’s a great sleep table here). If that’s not happening, trying to find acceptance of the situation can help (see meditation above) alongside implementing good ‘sleep hygiene’. This ‘Ultimate Routine for Optimal Sleep‘ infographic from Huffington Post has some good recommendations.

Nutrition
There is some food and drink that can help with anxiety and some that can make it worse. I’ll be writing about what nutrition help the brain in another post, so I’ll focus on what to avoid here. I’m sorry to say but caffeine and alcohol are top of the list. While alcohol can often be used by people with anxiety to relieve the feelings, it can cause symptoms of anxiety to worsen and dangerous patterns can emerge which lead people further down the spiral.

Caffeine is another stimulant and the ‘wired’ state it gives can create problems for people who are anxious, exacerbating some symptoms. Best to go decaf or avoid if you suffer from anxiety. I’ve not really bothered with alcohol for some years now and drink one or two decaf coffees a day at the most. Peppermint tea is my tipple of choice these days – my 20-year-old self would find that terribly dull, but it’s how my 40-year-old self rolls (and I like it that way!).

Exercise
More messages you’ve heard before here, but yep, exercise has been shown to have a plethora of benefits for mental health, including anxiety. This leaflet from the Royal College of Psychiatrists is helpful. They recommend 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise on at least 5 days of every week – either in one session or broken up into shorter 10 or 15 minute sessions. That’s pretty do-able for most people. My dog walks are some of my favourite activities of the day – and the dogs quite like it too!

Avoid Avoidance
As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post on anxiety, sufferers may naturally want to avoid the source of their perceived danger and enter into avoidance strategies. This causes patterns to become ingrained and fears to loom larger in the mind. Helping someone to overcome and confront their fears in a supportive, kind, managed way is a great way to help. Depending on how bad the avoidance behaviours are, it may need professional intervention or just someone to be there in an understanding way. Which leads me to…

Relationships
One of the themes of Mental Health Awareness Week is nurturing good relationships. Good relationships are the cornerstone of good mental health. As I discussed in Monday’s post on Child Mental Health, having people to talk to can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety and other mental health issues before they become mental health disorders. I’m incredibly lucky to have a wonderful network of friends and family that I can talk to, and laugh with, about anything and support each other through life’s ups and downs. On the other hand, as many of us also know, having difficult relationships which bring added stress, can contribute greatly to feelings of anxiety. Having mutually supportive, kind people in your life is a great benefit for dealing with anxiety and mental health in general and Mental Health Awareness Week is encouraging us to pledge that we will nurture the good relationships we have. It’s sometimes a challenge with busy lives, but important that we do. This is a great free guide worth reading on relationships and mental wellbeing.

Herbal remedies
Some herbal remedies have been shown to help with anxiety, such as St. John’s Wort, Valerian and Passionflower. Others include Rhodiola and 5HTP. Each of them works differently and trials are often mixed, however they might be worth a go if you are struggling and want to avoid conventional medication.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Although not really a self-help strategy, as you would usually to a practioner to learn CBT techniques, there are some excellent books that will give you the ideas of the basics which really involves amending our ‘faulty thinking’ to help to see things in a more realistic way. If you would like to find out more I can recommend Change Your Thinking with CBT by Dr Sarah Edelman. There is also an online course used by the NHS called Beat the Blues which is based on CBT and offers 8 self-help sessions for £49.99 which is a pretty good investment as NHS waiting lists can be long for CBT.

Further Help for Anxiety
So, there are some self-help strategies that you can use to manage anxiety, or maybe pass on to someone who could use some help. There are plenty more and some of these may not work for all people, but they work for me. It’s important to find your own way. If you are trying to help someone else, one of the best things you can do is to find out more. There’s good advice available from Anxiety UK if anxiety affects you. Their advice for young people is particularly helpful for teachers or anyone working with children or adolescents. The Young Minds and Mind websites also have practical tips and helpsheets.

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What is Anxiety and what are the signs to look out for?

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Everyone experiences some anxiety in their life at some points in response to situations such as public speaking, interviews, exams, starting a new job or school, or another big life change. Mostly the feelings of unease, worry, fear or even panic will stop after either the event is over, or a short period of time. However, if the feelings can’t be calmed and continue over a longer period of time, then anxiety disorders can develop that may impact on living a full and healthy life.

As discussed in yesterday’s blog post about child mental health, many mental health problems including anxiety disorders start in childhood and adolescence, so it’s important that parents and teachers are aware of the signs and can help young people deal with their anxiety before it becomes a disorder.

Signs of Anxiety for Parents & Teachers to Look Out for in Young People

  • Spending a lot of time worrying – this could be about school work or their appearance
  • Not wanting to go to school (beyond the usual!)
  • Showing or describing physical symptoms (e.g. headaches) to try to avoid going to school or trying to be sent home from school
  • Wanting constant reassurance from parents or teachers
  • Spending a lot of time on their own at lunch or break
  • Showing the physical and psychological signs described above

Physical signs of anxiety

There are some very physical signs of anxiety that sufferers may feel. Recent studies have shown that the Amygdala, the area of the brain associated with anxiety which alerts us to danger, may become overstimulated. Sufferers can become stuck in ‘fight or flight mode, feeling vulnerable and perceiving a ‘danger’ of some kind. The body meanwhile gets ready to fight that bear or tiger and as the adrenalin courses through our bodies. Some of the physical signs of anxiety include:

  • increased heart rate
  • shaking
  • shallow breathing
  • sweating
  • dizziness
  • stomach problems
  • loss of appetite
  • heart palpitations
  • dry mouth
  • ‘jumpiness’

Psychological Symptoms of Anxiety

The psychological symptoms of anxiety vary from person to person, though they can include:

  • unrealistic fears and worries
  • racing or blank mind
  • inability to concentrate or make decisions
  • insomnia
  • exhaustion
  • feeling on edge, irritable or angry

Anxiety Disorders

Clearly anxiety is pretty unpleasant to live with for any length of time. Anxiety becomes a disorder when the feelings are long-lasting, more severe than the norm and start to interfere with work, school and relationships.

Sufferers can understandably want to stay away from the perceived threat and therefore avoidance behaviours are common. Unfortunately avoidance can lead to greater issues  as the threat looms larger in the mind and the cycle continues. If anxiety continues for a prolonged period, anxiety disorders can develop.

There are a number of different anxiety disorders including generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Anxiety disorders are common with up to 5% of the UK population thought to suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, with women between the ages of 35 to 59 being the most common sufferers. The last UK wide survey on mental health reported in 2009 that 4.7 in every 100 people suffer from anxiety problems with 9.7 in 100 people suffering from anxiety mixed with depression.

If you are worried about someone suffering from anxiety, or indeed you recognise that you may be suffering from anxiety yourself, there is a lot of help available. Good websites include:

www.mind.org.uk
www.youngminds.org.uk – if you are worried about a child
CALM (for men aged 15-35)
Anxiety UK
No Panic

Coming up tomorrow…ways to treat anxiety

#mhaw16

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Why child mental health matters to us all & why schools are key

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I thought I’d mark mental health awareness week by writing a blog post a day on a mental health topic. First up, a blog about child mental health.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. Fredrick Douglass (1855)

The above quote illustrates perfectly why child mental health matters to us all. The first signs of mental illness are usually seen in childhood or adolescence, with nearly half of all lifetime cases of mental illness starting by the age of 14. Early intervention at this stage can prevent more serious adult mental health issues developing.

So, it was disappointing to hear last week that despite the government pledging £1.25 billion to improving child mental health, they’ve axed the recently appointed School’s Mental Health Champion Natasha Devon, due to her expressing her views that the over-reliance on assessment was damaging to children’s mental health.

At least Child mental health is being discussed with increasing frequency in the media; The Times has been running an influential campaign based around the recommendations made by Professor Tanya Bryon and National Mental Health Week is receiving high profile coverage. National projects like HeadStart, have the potential to improve our understanding, but just how bad is the situation around child mental health and does it matter?

The statistics are out of date, but it doesn’t stop the need to talk about child mental health.

As pointed out in this blog post, the existing statistics around child mental health are well out of date – the last National study was over 12 years ago. Indeed the top recommendation by Tanya Bryon’s report is that the government commission a new survey, which they consulted for earlier this year – it will make interesting reading.

The youth mental health charity Young Minds gives the following stats which are rather sobering:
child-mental-health-statistics-young-mindsSo, while the claim that “3 children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder” is misleading – is should at least say that the total figure equates to around 3 children in every classroom, the general message is clear – more children than we may realise have a mental health problem and this is confirmed by anecdotal evidence from child mental health professionals.

Talking to children helps

While we all have mental health issues at times in our lives. It’s when they turn into mental health problems and disorders, that there is an issue. 75% of mental health problems in adult life (not including dementia) start by the age of 18. Early intervention when a mental health issue starts to show prevents the personal, social and economic issues that mental health problems in adults and as Prince Harry stated at the opening of the Invictus Games this week, many mental health issues get better simply by talking.
As a society, finally we are getting more aware of mental health issues in general and campaigns such as Time to Talk and The Heads Together campaign fronted by William, Kate and Harry show that we are willing to discuss mental health and working to end the stigma around it. It should be no different for children.

So we can argue about the current statistics, but it doesn’t really matter. If as adults we can help children and adolescents feel better about themselves and prevent their normal feelings turning into a more serious mental health problem, then we really should. And talking to them is a really good place to start.

Schools can play a key role in child mental health

A tale of two schools

The first (enlightened) school I worked at as a teacher and Head of Year had a very caring pastoral team in place who were given significant time to deal with the wide range of issues that arose. The vast majority of the issues were to do with how pupils felt about things that had happened to them and encouraging them to talk, really listening to them and helping them come up with some possible ways forward really did make a difference.
There was a clear system for escalating issues where further intervention was needed and a school counsellor was in place long before it became de-rigour. And yes, it was a happy school. Pupils knew that staff would take time to talk to them and help. I have no evidence, but equally have no doubt, that this made a difference to pupils’ mental health and well-being.

It came as a real shock to my system when I moved schools and the pastoral support, let alone pupils’ mental health, was far down the list of priorities. Pupils were definitely not encouraged to talk to staff (and many staff sadly liked it that way). It was like a totally different world and, despite the fact that it was a more affluent and ‘successful’ school, there was a lot more stress and unhappiness amongst pupils and staff. Funnily enough, I left teaching soon afterwards.

Good teacher / pupil relationships are key

The whole school culture makes a difference and while teachers cannot be expected to be ‘mental health experts’, I’ll reiterate that many of the issues that children have can be helped simply by having someone listen to and talk to them. This is why schools are key as teachers are often seen as trusted adults and they do not have the same emotional ties as parents.

Such relationships are often easier to form in primary schools, perhaps as teachers develop deeper relationships with their pupils as they tend to see them every day, but all teachers have a role to play in simply being aware, noticing and raising possible concerns with more experienced or specialist colleagues. This article gives some excellent advice about talking to children about their feelings if you think there may be an issue.

Signs for teachers to look out for which indicate there may be a mental health problem include:

  • Withdrawal from social activity
  • Apathy or loss of interest in activities pupils usually enjoy
  • An usual drop in school attainment or functioning.
  • Problems concentrating or thinking
  • Illogical thinking
  • Uncharacteristic nervousness
  • Unusual or odd behaviour
  • Decline in personal care or changes to sleep and eating
  • Rapid mood changes

It is important to note that most children will exhibit one or more of these symptoms at some point in their lives – it just means they may need someone to talk to rather than being too quick to label them as having a ‘mental health problem’. But having someone to refer them in school to is a good first step.

Giving teachers mental health training

Giving some willing teachers in schools training in mental health, can help them to be more aware of mental health issues from a child’s perspective but also, and really just as importantly, recognise issues with their own or colleagues’ mental health…but that is another blog post

Courses such as the Mental Health First Aid training gives staff an overview of Mental Health issues and recommends steps they can take to promote mental well-being in their school. Staff who’ve had this training are then in a stronger position to help colleagues support students or to make referrals to professional services where necessary.

Referrals to professional services

Sadly, in February the NAHT found that two thirds of primary schools could not deal with mental health issues in their pupils effectively, feeling they lacked the resources needed. It’s always been difficult to get CAHMS referrals or access to an educational psychologist and CAHMS services have lost out to austerity cuts, although some would argue that schools do now have greater freedom with how they spend their budget, so getting in an Ed Psych or a school counsellor more regularly can be done.

Organisations such as Place2Be provide counsellors in schools to help to deal with pupils needing professional intervention. The government has pledged that every school should have access to a counsellor and are running a pilot to improve school’s access to CAMHS.

Such services are vital to help those young people for whom talking and supportive relationships are not enough. There is of course an irony that the government has cut the funding for such services at the same time as it pledges support for child and adolescent mental health. This of course places more pressure elsewhere and sadly it’s children who have mental health problems that suffer most. However, making sure all children have someone to talk to about their worries and concerns can make a difference and prevent them from developing into more serious mental health problems. And that’s what the best schools do without even thinking.

#MHAW16

5 Reasons From Psychology that Surfing Rocked My World

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Six months ago I turned 40 and tried surfing for the first time. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I’ve been thinking about how psychology might explain why surfing had such an impact on me.

Surfing gave me a sense of joy I haven’t experienced for a long time. The rush was unbelievable, especially for those few sweet moments when I stood and rode a wave. I finished feeling completely invigorated yet totally calm in a way that I haven’t experienced before. Here’s 5 reasons from psychology why that might be:

1. Experiencing Flow

When surfing I was totally immersed in the moment, concentrating fully on my goal of standing up and riding a wave. No multi-tasking, no ego, no sense of time. Although my mind was extremely busy concentrating it was also incredibly tranquil. In other words, I was experiencing the heightened focus and absorption in an activity positive psychologists call ‘flow’.

Csikszentmihalyi is the granddaddy of flow and he suggests that to experience it an activity should have a balance between challenge and enjoyment, with challenge being the most important factor; what at you’re doing should be challenging, but not so hard that you think it’s impossible – it’s one of the reasons computer games are so addictive. For me, surfing fits that bill perfectly – I found it pretty tricky, but the sense of exhilaration when I manged to ride a wave was worth every dunking, donk on the head from my board and mouthful of Pacific ocean!

Studies suggest flow can lead to greater happiness, increased well-being and a positive sense of self. And while one study of big-wave surfers suggests that the flow experienced in surfing can have a dangerously addictive quality, I think I’ll be ok!

2. Cognitive Benefits of Exercising in the Ocean

There is an undeniable connection between the body, mind and nature that takes place when you’re surfing. Psychology backs this up…

Cognitive Benefits of Exercise
There is much evidence for the benefits of exercise on the mind – this study found that even a single session of moderate exercise impacted participants’ cognitive performance, and this 2013 review of other studies concluded that physical activity was a valuable tool in preventing depression. So surfing is good for your mental and physical health and using up all that energy meant amazing big breakfasts in Woody’s!

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A typically incredibly PB sunset.

Cognitive Benefits of Exercising in Nature
Combining exercise with nature may have particular benefits for the brain; this 2015 study found participants who walked in nature for 90 minutes had reduced brain activity in their subgenual prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with mental health issues. This didn’t happen in the group who walked in an urban environment. So, this probably contributed to my post-surf grin!

Cognitive Benefits of Being in the Pacific Ocean.
It’s been known for centuries that being by expanses of water has many benefits for well-being. In his book ‘Blue Mind’, Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist explores how being by or in water increases calmness, decreases anxiety and increases performance. Most of us would be hard pressed to disagree and we spent much of our holiday by the ocean – the Pacific Beach sunsets were incredible!

3. Parallels with Mindfulness Meditation & Yoga

Surfing has many things in common with other activities shown to have highly positive impact on well-being, such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga. Certainly the instructions to ‘take a breath, relax and wait for the wave’ felt very similar to yoga and meditation.

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to alter the structure of the brain, particularly the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) associated with anxiety and increase athletes’ sense of flow. And this 2015 study found that those who practiced yoga regularly did not display the age-related decline in grey matter of the control group. So, the parallels between surfing and yoga – you position yourself into a cobra pose before popping up onto the board (and adopting a version of warrior) – may bring additional brain and mind benefits, as does being a total beginner…

4. Playtime with a Beginner’s Mind

I was first introduced to the concept of a beginners’ mind by the brilliant meditation app ‘headspace’ (if you haven’t tried it – you should). The concept of Beginner’s Mind , or ‘shosin’ as Buddhists call it, is all about having the ‘attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconception’ that beginners usually possess.

Being a beginner surfer gave me permission to be rubbish without any need for explanation. I left my ego on the beach – there is no way you can care what people think when you are being dunked unceremoniously by a large wave wearing a wetsuit. There is a real sense of freedom – and fun – in that.

Tiny things felt huge; when I progressed from getting one knee up before tipping off to getting half way up, it felt great. When I stood up, it felt absolutely incredible. When I stayed up – for about 2 seconds before I squealed with glee and fell into the Pacific – it was the most exhilarating feeling ever! The enormous fun that goes with that is something as adults we quite often forget. There are well-documented cognitive benefits of play for children though few studies focus on adults, the success of last year’s adult ball pit Jump In! and this telegraph article examining the trend behind ‘play for adults’, suggests it’s an area of increasing interest and I’d definitely volunteer for a study!

5. Going Out of My Comfort Zone

As an adult I’ve always enjoyed pushing myself out of my comfort zone. While being a mum put a stop to activities like bungee jumping, learning to surf with my son was pretty cool, even though I was pretty nervous before-hand.

Harnessing a healthy level of anxiety has long been acknowledged as important in living life to the full. The Yerkes-Dodson U-shaped curve developed in 1908 explained why we perform better when we are experiencing some anxiety. However, there is a fine line – too much anxiety and arousal and performance drops.

Yerkes-Dodson-Anxiety-Curve

Yerkes-Dodson-Anxiety-Curve

So, surfing for me was anxiety-inducing to a point, but not enough to make me so anxious my knees knocked and I froze (that was bungee jumping!). And sharing this experience with my son I hope will encourage him to go outside his comfort zone in the future and understand why that’s a good thing.

So there you go, 5 ideas from psychology that may explain my love for learning to surf. I can personally account for the fact that there are so many benefits to surfing; it’s definitely worth a try! While California is not quite accessible every weekend, I’ll definitely be seeking out the best surfing spots in the UK and Europe. Thurso anyone?

 

Update: New research from Michigan State University suggests looking out over the ocean or sea makes you happier!

Psychology and Education

I started the final year of my MSc in Psychology last Wednesday and the focus on behaviourism in my cognitive psychology learning module got me thinking (again) about the place of psychology in education.

My teacher friends who completed PGCEs recently told me that they had not studied any psychology on their course – they had not come across Piaget, Bruner, Vygotsky, Skinner et al in any way.

That’s such a shame as I found that to be one of the most interesting areas of my course and certainly influenced my own teaching. Many of the teaching techniques we use as teachers have origins in psychology – collaborative learning, scaffolding, discovery learning, spaced learning anyone? All come from psychology and the subject’s scientific sister, neuroscience. The Royal Society’s ‘Brain Waves’ report in 2011 specifically recommended that teacher training should include a component on neuroscience and it’s relevance to learning.

A quick question to my very helpful twitter network revealed that there is widespread variance. For example, Scottish teacher education (not teacher training as Derek Robertson told me) deems studying psychology to be an important part of the course, and many teachers who had completed their training a long time ago, had also covered psychology comprehensively. Steve Wheeler of Plymouth University is helpfully detailing learning theorists in his superb blog. However, others who completed PGCE training in England said it was covered very briefly, or not at all.

So why should teachers learn about psychology and neuroscience?

Well, for starters, understanding how children of all ages learn, is pretty fundamental to being able to teach them effectively.

How people learn, retain information and the ways in which this changes as a child develops can help to give teachers greater knowledge and understanding about their pupils and their learning. It can help you plan and teach better lessons, identifying different approaches to learning that may be most effective for your pupils and can give a teacher an understanding of why pupils behave in a certain way sometimes.

Psychology can teach us how we learn and assimilate information, how we use our memory, acquire language and skills. It can also teach us about social groups, child development, behaviour and learning difficulties. All of which are key aspects of education.

So, while there are people, such as the author of this article in the Guardian who advise caution when applying psychology theories in the classroom, or indeed those who say it’s of little consequence, I would suggest that researching and thinking about how pupils learn and trying out different ideas based on psychological research is better than not thinking about it, or trying anything new at all.

More evidence needed?

Yes, further robust evidence is needed, as actually advocated by the previous article and Tom Bennett in this New Scientist article, but dismissing it all as neurobollocks’ (yes, gentlemen on twitter), is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, surely?  The wider world seems to agree that with more research, psychology and neuroscience may have much to offer education.

The Welcome Trust’s announcement this week that together with the Education Endowment foundation they will be funding 6 neuroscience (a branch of psychology) research projects, shows that there is an appetite for further research in this area. Their January 2014 report on educational interventions and approaches informed by neuroscience makes an interesting read for anyone interested in finding out more. The work conducted by Sarah Jane Blakemore and her team is also of great interest to anyone who teaches (or has) adolescents. Sarah is speaking at TLAB15 (so am I!) and I’ll certainly be looking forward to hearing her.

The psychology research community is determined to improve their reputation since Stapel and other high profile cases of false positives and inaccurately reported research. Indeed, the British Psychology Society’s research digest is often quick to point out issues with studies; in this case with a study claiming to show the detrimental effects of digital devices on children.

So, it’ll be interesting to see how psychology and neuroscience develop in education in coming years. Meanwhile, I’m getting my head down back to my studies!

Update: this recent podcast from Mark Healy gives a wonderfully insightful, funny and balanced view of cognitive neuroscience.