Articles

On this page you will find a selection of articles and press releases regarding mental health awareness.

Stress - The good, the bad and the ugly

Everyone knows our immunity levels are affected by stress. What you may not know is that short-term stress actually stimulates part of our immune system, the part that prepares for injury or infection.   When we experience a brief period of anxiety, such as when preparing to give a presentation or when being confronted by a barking dog, our body rapidly produces all-purpose agents that can attack many different types of infections.   However, another part of our immune system, that which requires time and energy and is activated for a specific infection, is suppressed.

Unfortunately given the high levels of chronic stress in modern living, long-term stress doesn’t appear to have many positive affects on our immune system. The worst kind is chronic and long-term stress with no clear end point and which results in significant changes to a person’s life.   This kind of stress depletes our immune system and leaves us open to infections.

So what does this all mean for you? Learning to better manage stress is important not only for your mental health but also for your physical health. But how can you do it? Will it be too hard? Luckily, improving your ability to manage stress requires the development of only a few habits, practiced on a regular basis.

The first, one which we hear all the time, is engaging in regular physical activity.   Everyone who is reading this article would have heard of the benefits of exercise on many occasions – but have you actually developed a regular routine for engaging in it?   Does it seem to escape your mind as quickly as it entered?   In order to stop this from happening again, before you close this web page, decide on a specific time, type and frequency of physical activity, including how you will be able to fit it into your lifestyle.   Make sure that it is a form of exercise that you will enjoy and, if possible, think of a friend with whom you can exercise (it is often easier to stay motivated when exercising with another person).

The second involves regularly scheduling time to engage in activities that you find relaxing.   This may differ between people, but common ones include painting, reading, walking, knitting and listening to, or playing music.   Try to learn applied relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery, deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, or practice yoga or meditation.

Thirdly, develop time management skills and prioritise your commitments and responsibilities.   Learn to distinguish between those things that you must do and those that you do not, and learn to say “no” to the latter.   Minimising commitments that you have made out of guilt, to satisfy others, or to fulfill unrealistic expectations of yourself can also help reduce your stress levels.

The fourth habit can be subdivided into those things you may do when you notice yourself feeling stressed.   Different people tend to experience and respond to stress in different ways – what happens when you feel stressed?   Do you feel tension in your muscles or become irritable?   When feeling this way, view the stress as a signal to spend time identifying its cause and creating a plan to manage it.

If you are able to control the cause of your stress, engage in problem solving and determine a solution.

When it is not possible to control it, try changing your attitude towards the stressor.   Try to view mistakes as learning experiences, look for the positive in the situation, think of how likely it is that something awful will happen (as well as how you could cope if it did!), and also how likely it is that something good could happen.

By devoting time and effort to developing these habits you may improve not only how you feel emotionally, but also your physical health. If you would like assistance to decrease your stress levels, please do not hesitate to contact us on 1800 768 411.

Insomnia - Losing sleep about sleep?

We all know that we need sleep, but for one reason or another many of us go lacking. The amount of sleep people need varies, but most adults require between seven and eight hours a night.   If you feel drowsy during the day, even during boring activities, you may not be getting enough sleep.   Approximately 40% of adults experience trouble with sleeping in any given year.   For some the insomnia is short-lasting, lasting from just a few nights to a few weeks, and is due to stress, medications (such as those used for colds and allergies, high blood pressure, pain or depression), jetlag and other difficulties.   When it lasts for more than four weeks, it is termed chronic insomnia.   This type of insomnia may result from a combination of mental, physical or lifestyle factors.

Inadequate levels of sleep may affect a person’s judgement, reaction time, and emotional well-being.   However worrying about getting insufficient sleep often worsens it as the associated anxiety causes the release of hormones which increases muscle tension and mental alertness.   These changes make it even more difficult to fall asleep.   Want to know how to stop worrying about sleep?   We’ll get to that soon.   First a few other things you need to know.

Sleeping pills, which may be helpful for short-term insomnia, are not advised for chronic insomnia as their effectiveness decreases after several weeks of nightly use and long term use may interfere with good sleep.   The most effective treatment for insomnia not due to physical health problems (such as restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea) is called cognitive behaviour therapy, which involves learning new ways of thinking and behaving when it comes to sleep.

Learning to “clean up” our sleep techniques is termed sleep hygiene.   One of the important aspects of sleep hygiene involves developing regular sleep habits.

Try to follow a pre-planned bed routine every night, say an hour before you go to bed.   Do something relaxing in this time, such as having a hot bath or reading.

Also endeavour to make your bedtime environment conducive to sleep by making sure it is dark, quiet and comfortable.

Try getting out of bed at the same time each day, even if you only fell asleep a few hours earlier.

Avoid that desire to have a nap during the day if you slept poorly the night before as it will only make it more difficult to sleep the next night.

Don’t use your bed for anything other than sleep, such as reading, watching TV or chatting (an exception to this is sexual activity).   You need to learn to associate your bed with sleep.   If you are having difficulty falling asleep at night do not lie in bed trying to sleep for over 20 minutes.   Instead hop out of bed and do something relaxing or mundane until you feel tired. Repeat this procedure until you fall asleep.

The food and drink you consume can also affect your sleep. Try to avoid all stimulants, including coffee and caffeinated tea, for five hours before going to sleep and avoid heavy meals late at night.

Finally, learn strategies for controlling your worry, including relaxation techniques and challenging unhelpful thoughts about sleep.

Improving your sleep can have tremendous effects on your life.   Good sleep improves your ability to concentrate, take in, and effectively respond to what is happening around you.   The techniques described above will not provide an immediate benefit, but will have lasting effects after a couple of months if adopted as a lifestyle change (just like healthy eating and avoiding those delicious chocolate treats!)   If you would like assistance to improve your sleep, please do not hesitate to contact us on 1800 768 411.

Depression - Happiness versus sadness: the cycles that maintain our emotions

Given all the recent awful events that have happened in the world, as well as the everyday stresses people have to cope with, the question must be asked: why are some people so damn happy?!

Recent research has discovered why this is the case: human memory is biased toward happiness (Walker and colleagues, 2005). Our memory system treats pleasant emotions differently from their unpleasant counterparts.   Pleasant emotions seem to fade more slowly from our memory than unpleasant ones, perhaps because we tend to minimize the impact of negative events more than we do for positive events.

However, this fading effect does not happen for everyone.   Mild depression can disrupt this bias for good over bad, making unpleasant and pleasant emotions fade more evenly.

Depression, which may be experienced by up to one in four females and one in six males at some point in their lifetime, is not simply normal sadness, being moody or just feeling low.   It is a serious illness that causes changes in not only the emotions of a person, but also his or her behaviours, thoughts, and physical wellbeing.

When people feel depressed they tend to experience a decrease in their energy levels.   This often means decreased activity and withdrawal.   Also on this slippery slope is decreased satisfaction and pleasure in everyday things, which results in a tendency to focus more on the negative aspects of their life, minimizing the positive ones.   People who feel depressed frequently also have thoughts about being worthless and useless, and anticipate their future in a negative light.   Thinking this way tends to make people feel more depressed, thus creating a vicious cycle of depression that can seem to be difficult to escape.

What can you do if you feel depressed?    A common response that people give is to increase your energy levels – but how do you do that?   Increasing energy in isolation is not an easy task, but rather may be a consequence of gradually engaging in more activities.   Just as with starting at a gym, at first you may not feel like engaging in the activities, but the more you do them, the more you feel like doing them.   Set small goals for increasing your involvement in different areas of your life, including socialising, exercising, and engaging in pleasant activities, as well as those that give you a sense of achievement.

Given the role of your thinking style in maintaining depression, it is also worthwhile devoting effort to thinking in a more positive, or helpful, manner.   Perhaps try thinking of a couple of positive things whenever you find yourself thinking of something negative.     A clinical psychologist may also be able to help you change your thinking styles from unhelpful to helpful.

By devoting time and effort to developing these habits you may improve not only how you feel emotionally, but also your physical health.   If you would like assistance to improve your mood, please do not hesitate to contact us on 1800 768 411.

Perfectionism: Sick and tired of trying to be perfect?

Many myths exist about perfectionism, including the one that perfectionistic people are more successful than others.   However, it may be that perfectionists who are successful achieve this despite their perfectionism , not because of it.   Interestingly, there is some indication that given similar levels of talent and intelligence, perfectionists perform less well than others.   This may be due to the difficulties perfectionists may have with procrastination and lower output levels.   The latter may be due to the law of diminishing returns, that is the tendency for continuing application of effort towards a goal to decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved.   If you think back to your school days, achieving a mark of 95 required more than double the effort to achieve a mark of 50.

Perfectionism has more costs in addition to the major one of decreased performance. These include relationship and emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression.

So if perfectionism isn’t helpful, why do people persist with it?   Fears may often play a role in its maintenance, such as the fear of failing, of making mistakes, and of disapproval from others. Perfectionists often engage in black-and-white thinking, believing that if a task is not completed perfectly then it is a failure.   They may not allow for shades of grey, for outcomes to be excellent, very good, or good, rather than just perfect or failure.

Perfectionism is not the same as trying to achieve the best one can realistically achieve, the latter of which involves having difficult but achievable goals. Rather it involves a belief that one must never make mistakes and the highest standards of performance must always be achieved.

What can you do if you are a perfectionist?

Start by making a list of the advantages and disadvantages of trying to be perfect, in order to work out whether the benefits are worth the costs. Don’t forget to include relationship and other costs.

Next, increase your awareness of the critical nature of your thoughts and substitute more helpful thoughts for them.   When you find yourself criticising a less-than-perfect performance, try to look at and acknowledge the good parts of that performance. Then ask yourself questions such as: Is it really as bad as I think it is? How do other people see it? Is it a reasonably good performance given the circumstances involved?   Be fair to yourself, recognizing the factors that influenced your performance (such as minimal sleep the night before or other concerns on your mind).

Use feelings of anxiety and depression as opportunities to ask yourself, “Have I set up unrealistic expectations for myself?”   Set realistic and achievable goals based on what you want and what you have accomplished in the past.   Gradually increase your subsequent goals, such that each time they are only a smidgen higher than what you achieved the last time you attempted them.

Set strict time limits on each of your projects. When the time is up, move on to another activity.   Learn to distinguish high priority tasks from those tasks that are less important to you. On less important tasks, choose to put in less effort.   Experiment with your standards for success.   Choose an activity and instead of aiming for 100 percent, try to achieve 90 percent, 80 percent, or even 60 percent success. This will help you to realize that disaster does not strike when you are not perfect.

Focus on the process of doing an activity not just on the end result.   Judge your success in terms of how much you enjoyed doing it, rather than solely what you accomplished.

And remember, recognize that many positive things can only be learned by making mistakes.   When you make a mistake ask: “What can I learn from this experience?” Try practising this right now by thinking of a recent mistake you have made and listing all the things you can learn from it.

Decreasing procrastination may cause a short-term increase in your level of anxiety.   Continue to remind yourself of the benefits of decreasing procrastination and be patient with yourself – avoid being a perfectionist about decreasing perfectionism.    If you would like assistance to decrease your level of perfectionism, please do not hesitate to contact us on 1800 768 411.

Seeing yourself clearly: 4 secrets to high self-esteem

Self-esteem refers to how a person judges or values him- or herself.   Does it depend upon a person’s belongings or achievements?   Or how other people perceive him or her? No.   People with true high self-esteem do not depend upon these things to determine their self-worth.   Instead, their self-esteem comes from within and they do not need to prove themself to other people.   Does this mean that they think they are better than others? No, it merely means that they believe they are as worthwhile as the next person.

Key differences between people with high and low self-esteem centre around how they respond to their perceived strengths and weaknesses.   People with high self-esteem will recognise, rather than ignore, their strengths, and do not ruminate about their weaknesses. Instead they will accept that everyone has weaknesses.   With this understanding they may (or may not!) decide to try to change or overcome the identified weakness.

Do you have high self-esteem? Would you like to improve your self-esteem?   Improving your self-esteem does not happen overnight, but requires consistent effort.
First, start to become more aware of your positive points (without using back-handed compliments!)   List as many of your strengths as you can think of and ask others for ideas. Think of any compliments you have been given or any achievements you have made (and what strengths you demonstrated to achieve them). Try to think of the times you have demonstrated these strengths and note them down. Be sure not to minimise any of the strengths by thinking of times when you have not demonstrated them (it is almost impossible to ALWAYS behave a particular way.   When labelling yourself with a weakness, do you ensure that you have never behaved otherwise?).

Next, watch out for any critical remarks you make towards yourself.   Challenge any labels, such as dumb or inconsiderate.   Limit yourself to the facts – describe specifically what it is you believe your weakness is.   For example, rather than calling yourself selfish, describe behaviourally what you did (for example, I didn’t remember to call a friend on the anniversary of a loved ones death).   Remove any generalisations, such as always or never.   Rather than saying “I never remember to call people at important times”, be specific: “I have forgotten to call 2 friends on important days in the last 6 months”. Look for exceptions to the rule. For example, remind yourself that you did call 5 other friends when they were upset and you took around some food just recently when a friend needed support. Finally, try to understand what factors resulted in your purportedly demonstrating the weakness (explored more below).

Learn from your mistakes, rather than be immobilised by them.   Rather than seeing a mistake as just another example of your weakness, actually explore why it happened.   For example, if you arrive unprepared for an important meeting, rather than seeing it as just another example of your being lazy, try to examine all the factors that led to the result.   Did you sleep in as you had insufficient sleep over the last few nights?   Did you spend too much time on a less important project?   Or did you spend extra time playing with your children or spending time with friends?   After looking at the factors that led to the result, try to problem-solve around them.   How could you ensure that you get adequate sleep in the future in the build-up to an important presentation? Could you re-prioritise your work tasks to ensure that time is spent according to importance? Consider your priorities with regards to how much time you spend with family or friends (after considering this you might decide it was worth being unprepared in order to spend more time with those you love or you may decide that you need to decline invitations to do things in the days preceeding important meetings).

Remember that doing is not the same as being.   Failing at one task does not make a person a failure.   Learn to distinguish between who you are and what you do.   It is easier to change a weakness if you believe it is something that, given the right circumstances, you occasionally demonstrate than if you believe that it is who you inherently are.

Everybody has the right to feel like a worthwhile person, from the homeless beggar to the Prime Minister.   Improving self-esteem requires persistence, but the effort is well worth the reward.    If you would like assistance to improve your self-esteem, please do not hesitate to contact us on 1800 768 411.

Panic Attacks - Panicking about panic?

Have you ever experienced an unexpected sudden feeling of apprehension or fear, accompanied by a series of physical changes, such as breathlessness or the sensation of choking, heart racing or heart palpitations, tingling in your extremities, dizziness, butterflies in your stomach, sweating and/or trembling?   At this time, did you think that you would have a heart attack, faint, lose control, or go crazy?   You may have been having a panic attack.   If so, you are not alone.   Each year around 1 in 10 people experience at least one unexpected panic attack.

So what happens during a panic attack?   Bodily sensations, which may be part of the human body’s healthy anxiety response, are perceived in a catastrophic way.    Do you think that the changes in your heart rate are indicative of your having a heart attack?   Or that the feelings of “unrealness” or racing thoughts mean you are going crazy?   The anxiety and fear that these thoughts cause may lead to the “ fight or flight response” being triggered.   This response is designed to assist you to fight or flight (that is run away) from dangerous situations (such as a person chasing you down a dark alley).   For example, your heart and breathing rates increase so that your body is able to pump extra oxygen to the muscles and adrenalin is released, allowing you to feel more energetic.

Following a panic attack, it is not uncommon for people to avoid situations which they associate with panicking or activities which cause physical changes similar to those experienced during the panic attack (such as exercising or drinking coffee).   What do you avoid?   Do you try to distract yourself when you start to notice bodily sensations?   These strategies may assist you to avoid panic attacks in the short-term, but they do not assist you to decrease your fear of bodily changes.   Thus, they do not decrease your risk of panic attacks in the long-run (in fact, they may increase your risk!)

The first part of improving your ability to manage panic attacks is to gain a greater understanding of what is happening in your body when you experience a panic attack.   Learning some relaxation strategies to assist you to feel more confident in your ability to manage your emotions may also be helpful.   Next, try to focus on altering your thinking when bodily changes occur.   After consulting your doctor and being reassured that you do not have heart disease, remind yourself that the changes, rather than being dangerous, are just your body’s way of keeping you safe.   Rather than trying to avoid these sensations, allow yourself to experience them.

Learning to manage panic attacks can be challenging.   If you are having difficulty doing this, we can help – contact us on 1800 768 411.

Anxiety: does it help or hinder us?

Although anxiety, which may vary in intensity from mild concern to panic, may be an unpleasant emotion to experience, it is a normal human emotion.   We all experience it!   When we feel anxious changes may occur in our

•  physiological arousal (such as racing heart, rapid breathing, muscle tension, and sweaty palms),

•  thoughts (such as overestimating the likelihood of future difficulties and underestimating our ability to cope),

•  behaviours (such as avoiding anxiety provoking situations) and

•  related moods (such as irritability).

Anxiety generally occurs in response to concerns about future uncertainty or danger (including danger to one’s self-esteem).   Moderate levels can actually be useful as anxiety may improve your performance (if you don’t really care about the outcome of an activity in which you are engaging you are unlikely to put much effort into it).   Even high levels of anxiety can be helpful given the right circumstances.   An example of this is when you are in physical danger.   Imagine you are walking down a dark street and someone approaches you from behind.   Your body would initiate a number of changes designed to protect you, to assist you to fight the threat or run away from it (commonly known as the “fight or flight response”).   For example, your heart and breathing rates would increase so that your body is able to pump extra oxygen to the muscles.   These physiological changes improve your ability to survive such dangerous situations.

Although everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life, around 1 in 12 people experience it to the degree that it causes significant disruption to their life.   Common causes of such high levels of anxiety include fears of having a heart attack or going crazy, of embarrassing oneself or being judged negatively by others, of harm befalling oneself or one’s loved ones, and of unwanted memories of past traumatic experiences.

What can you do if anxiety is causing disruption to your life?   Rest assured, there are a number of things that you can do to gain control over it.

Firstly, it is important to remind yourself that anxiety is a normal emotion, that everyone experiences it and that it exists to assist you.

Next, regularly engage in physical exercise and schedule time to involve yourself in activities that you find relaxing.   Such activities differ between people, but common ones include reading, listening to music, or going for a walk.   Try to learn applied relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, or practice meditation.   Remember to be patient – relaxation is like any other skill, it takes practice.

Learn effective problem-solving techniques, including clearly defining the problem, brainstorming possible solutions, examining each of the possible solutions for their pros and cons, choosing a solution, developing an action plan, and evaluating the outcome after implemention.

In addition, become skilled at challenging any unrealistic or unhelpful thoughts you may be having.   Try to look at situations in different ways, for example by thinking about the best possible outcome in a situation, rather than just the worst one.   Look at the evidence for a particular thought, rather than just believing it straight away.   Thoughts are just ideas that we have, they are not always correct.

Try to gradually confront your fears.   Although avoiding anxiety-provoking situations may relieve your anxiety in the short-term, it tends to maintain anxiety in the long-term.   Imagine a man being afraid of water.   If he avoids the water he will never learn that he can be in or near it and not be in danger.   In order to overcome his anxiety he may stand close to the water at first, and remain there until his anxiety has significantly decreased.   Following this, he may put just his ankles in the water, and stay at that point until his anxiety has decreased.   Following on from this he could gradually increase the amount of his body that is under water until he is able to put his head under the water and not feel anxious.   You could do something similar with your fears.

The above techniques are proven to be helpful in assisting people to overcome anxiety.   However, at times they can be difficult to implement without assistance.   If this is the case, or i f your anxiety is severe, it may be worthwhile speaking to your doctor or contacting us on 1800 768 411.

Social Anxiety: When social situations provoke anxiety

Most people feel anxious in some specific social situations, such as when giving an unfamiliar speech in front of a group of esteemed peers.   However, for around 1 in 10 people, the level of anxiety they experience in social situations or when performing for others is so high that their lives have been significantly affected.   Is this the case for you?   Your anxiety may be fairly circumscribed, occurring in only one or couple of areas of your life (eg when giving speeches in front of strangers) or it may cut across most or all areas of your life.

Generally, social anxiety is driven by a fear of being judged negatively by others.   This fear often leads people to either feel extremely distressed in social situations or to try and avoid them.   The result of this is that there is a lack of positive social experiences (and thus, the anxiety continues).   So what can be done?   How can you learn to feel more relaxed socially?

Firstly, it is important to understand why the anxiety is occurring. Remember, anxiety is an emotion that has survived the process of evolution as it has been found to be helpful. How is it helpful? As mentioned above in the article titled Anxiety: Helping or hindering?, anxiety is experienced to protect you and to assist you in challenging situations.   It generally occurs when you perceive yourself to be in danger.   But how is a social situation dangerous?   If you suffer from low self-esteem you may worry about other people judging you negatively.

Worrying about how other people see you may lead to your being on the lookout for any behaviour by them that may possibly indicate that they are evaluating negatively.     It may also lead to you paying attention to your own behaviour and how it may come across.   Am I making enough eye contact?   Is my voice quivering? Am I sweating or looking red?   Am I mumbling?   Is this gap in the conversation too long?   Are any of these questions familiar to you?

We all only have a limited attentional capacity. By focusing on what others think about you and on how you may come across to them there is less attention available to be focused on the task at hand (i.e. socially appropriate behaviours, such as listening to the conversation – this may sound familiar if you have a tendency to ‘go blank’ during social interactions?).   Also, you make it much more likely that any negative events, even minor ones, are perceived and interpreted in an anxiety-provoking way.   It is also possible that neutral or even positive behaviours by others are interpreted as indicating something negative about you! For example, if you notice someone yawn during your presentation you may think “my presentation is so boring, everyone must think I’m incompetent!” (when really, the unfortunate chap may have been up all night with a screaming baby for all you know!).

Do you conduct a “post-mortem” after social situations, where you review any undesirable behaviours in which you may have engaged or any possible negative feedback that you received by others.   This all keeps the anxiety in social situations going.

So how can you decrease your anxiety in social situations?   Learning some relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation or slow breathing techniques, may be helpful.   Relaxation exercises can decrease your muscle tension, blood pressure, heart rate, rate of respiration, and overall nervous system arousal.

Try to not overprepare for social situations and worry about how you will perform (often easier said than done, I know.   If you need assistance with this please phone me on 1800 768 411).  Remind yourself that you cannot predict the future (I would love to borrow that crystal ball if it works!) and that worrying about what will happen only serves to make you more anxious.

When in social situations, focus the content of the conversation or topic and try to minimise the time you spend focusing on yourself or other people’s responses to you.

Try to challenge your thinking.   Remind yourself that you cannot read minds and that you do not know what other people are thinking about you and that other people are probably thinking more about themselves and what they are saying than on you.   Also, consider the consequences of someone thinking negatively about you.   Is it the end of the world if someone thinks you look silly?   It may be unpleasant, knowing that one person thinks poorly of you, but could worse things occur?   Remind yourself that just because one person thinks something, does not make it true.   Do beauty pageants have only one judge?

Try to improve your self-esteem (see the article above titled Seeing yourself clearly: 4 secrets to high self-esteem   for more information on this .

Rather than avoid social situations, gradually start to confront those in which you feel anxious.   Think about the advice that you would offer a person who was afraid of water.   Perhaps you would suggest they stand close to the water at first, until they feel calm.   Then, you might advise them to put their ankles in the water and remain there until they feel calm.   Following this, they could stand in the water with it up to their knees, and so on. Try using this approach to decrease your anxiety in social situations, starting with those situations in which you feel the least anxious and progressing up to those in which you feel most anxious.

If you feel your social skills are lacking somewhat, seek assistance in developing them. Like many things, good social skills can be learnt through coaching and practice.

Many of the techniques above can be difficult to implement on your own.   If you need assistance, please do not hesitate to call us on 1800 768 411.

Overcoming Grief - Growing from loss

If there is one thing we can all be sure of, it is that each of us will experience loss in our life. These losses may be material, such as the death of a loved one, or of a more symbolic nature, such as loss of self-esteem or loss of expectations for oneself.

Although there is no one generic way to respond to loss, common emotions that you may experience include shock, anxiety, anger, guilt and loneliness.    You may find it hard to accept that it has happened and worry about falling apart or being unable to cope.   Physiological changes may occur, resulting in insomnia or oversleeping, an upset stomach, lack of energy, and/or decrease in appetite.   You may find yourself withdrawing from other people or becoming clingy, avoiding reminders of what you have lost, or having difficulty separating from reminders.

So how can you cope with losses?   Perhaps the first thing to do is review how you have coped with past losses and remind yourself that you can learn to cope again.   Denying your loss or pretending it never happened is not helpful at this point.   Try to not minimize the loss or how you feel about it.   Instead, allow yourself to recognize and accept the loss.   Try talking to someone about what the loss means to you or write about it.   Whilst doing this, allow yourself to experience all the emotions that surface.   If you find the emotions overwhelming, consider speaking to your GP or contacting us on 1800 768 411.

Once you have recognized and accepted the loss, start to focus on improving your everyday life.   Arrange to engage in activities that you have enjoyed in the past, especially social ones.   Make sure that you are living healthily, eating appropriately and exercising.

Start to focus on your future.   Although it may not be possible to replace that which you have lost, particularly if it is a loved one, try to add new experiences or relationships to your life to fill the void.   Once you have come to terms with the loss, use it as an opportunity to reevaluate your life, to reconsider your life goals and the direction in which you are heading.

Losses can teach us a lot about ourselves and allow for personal growth.

Postnatal depression - Baby = Happiness, or does it?

Have you heard a woman say that her life won’t change much once she’s had a child? That the child will fit into her lifestyle? Although I’ve heard this from childless women, I’ve never heard someone with a child say it! The reason? The birth of a child leads to many changes in a woman’s life, from the change in the relationship with the father of the child to the way in which her days are spent. Even when a child is very much loved and wanted, these changes can cause much distress and be difficult to cope with.

Some women are unprepared for these losses and for the work involved in caring for a baby. This may lead to feelings of resentment towards the baby or of shame about not living up to the image of the perfect mother. For around 15% of mothers these feelings may lead to the development of Postpartum Depression (also commonly known as Postnatal Depression).

Postnatal Depression is different from the baby blues, which tends to occur in the first week or two following the birth and lasts only a few days.   Although Postnatal Depression may be shortlived for some women, it may persist for years for others when untreated.   Women with Postnatal Depression may experience low mood, anxiety, guilt and irritability, and feel worthless, hopeless and inadequate.   Their energy levels may be low and they may have difficulty sleeping, confused thinking and/or thoughts about death or suicide.

Most women who develop Postnatal Depression do so in the first 3 months after the birth, although for some it may not appear until 6 to 8 months postpartum.   The following are risk factors for developing Postnatal Depression:

•  a previous history of depression or other emotional difficulties

•  life stress during pregnancy or a difficult birth

•  difficulty caring for the baby

•  a lack of sufficient support from others

•  financial problems

•  relationship problems

•  high achievers and a history of feeling in control

So what can you do if you believe you are suffering from Postnatal Depression?

Try to engage in more pleasant and self-nurturing activities.   Some of these you may be able to do with your baby or partner, such as having a warm bath or going for a walk.   However, try to organise for childcare, friends or family to look after your child occasionally so you can have some time by yourself.   If you start to feel guilty spending time away from your child, remind yourself of the instructions you hear when you board an aeroplane – if the airbags come down, first place the mask on your own face before looking after your child.   You will be better able to look after your child if you look after yourself.

Try to do some exercise and eat balanced healthy meals.

Develop a support system of friends, family and/or health professionals and accept offers of help.   Remind yourself that you don’t always have to manage alone.   Tell people, especially your partner, how you feel.

Allow yourself to cry if you feel like it.   Try to not bottle up your feelings.

Learn relaxation skills, such as progressive muscle relaxation and slow breathing.   Visualise relaxing scenes, such as a beach or favourite holiday destination, imagining what you would see, hear, feel, smell and touch.

Become skilled at challenging any unrealistic or unhelpful thoughts you may be having and try to look at situations in different ways.   For example, rather than focusing on the times in which you have been unable to settle your child easily, focus on the times that you have been successful.   This may assist you in not only remembering techniques that have helped in the past but also allow you to feel more competent as a mother and more content.

And finally, one of the most important activities in which you can engage, is to challenge any unhelpful beliefs you hold regarding motherhood and to establish a more realistic and helpful set of beliefs. For example, some of the more commonly held (but not necessarily correct) beliefs are (1) motherhood comes naturally, with new mothers instinctively knowing what to do, (2) a mother instantly feels love for her baby, and (3) a mother is selfish if she expresses her own needs. The skills of being a good mother, like any other skill, needs to be learnt and can take some time to develop. Also, children differ, with some being much easier to care for than others. They also change over time – at some ages children are easier to look after than others.

If you continue to suffer, please do not hesitate to contact us on 1800 768 411.
If you have any thoughts of suicide, seek help immediately.

Management of Chronic Pain - Making pain not equal to loss

As if experiencing pain isn’t enough, for some people with severe persisting pain many parts of their life seem to be turned upside down.   In addition to the physical pain, there is the emotional pain, the anxiety, stress, depression, and anger (amongst other emotions) that they experience following occurrence of the pain on their life.   There is also the loss of activities that were previously found to be enjoyable and perhaps gave life a sense of purpose and meaning.   Relationships may have degraded as a result of all of the above difficulties.   And, most frustrating of all, what leads to feelings of helplessness, is that current medical science may not have a cure.   Just as a cure has not yet been found for diabetes, neither has a cure been found for many of the causes of persisting pain.   But hope is not lost.   For although it may not be possible to remove the pain, it may be possible to minimize the effects it has on your life.

How can this be done, you may ask?   The first thing to do is to learn more about chronic pain.   Growing up, when experiencing acute (or short-lasting) pain, we learnt that pain = damage.   For example, when we cut the skin on our hand, we experienced pain.   However, this may not be the case with chronic pain.   Increases in pain may not indicate that more damage is being done.   Instead the increase in pain may be due to muscle weakness or an over-sensitive central nervous system.   Speak to your medical practitioner about what increases in pain indicate for you.   If they do indicate new damage, seek further medical advice about appropriate strategies.   If increases in pain do not indicate that additional damage is being done, then consider following the suggestions below.

Learn to change how you think about your pain.   Rather than focusing on what you have lost since developing your pain condition, focus on what you can still do.   For example, can you still hug your loved ones?   Can you still walk to the bathroom and do some household chores?   Be aware of any “catastrophising” you may be doing – do you find yourself worrying about ending up in a wheelchair?   How likely is this really? Perhaps ask your GP about the likelihood.

Set clear goals for what you would like to achieve, focusing on activities rather than reductions in pain.   For example, would you like to be able to garden for a couple of hours each week, be able to walk to the shops and back, remain in a seated position for a few hours, and so on.   Focus on imagining how much better your life will be when you have achieved these goals.   Use this focus to keep yourself motivated to continue on with the strategies below when you are experiencing difficult times.

Learn relaxation and distraction strategies.   They will assist you to reduce muscle tension, to cope with anxiety and anger, and to remain calm when experiencing exacerbations of pain by decreasing the intensity of the pain,

Be aware of how you currently approach tasks.   Do you tend to do as much as you possibly can, resulting in an increase in pain?   Do you then need to rest for a long time to recover?   This cycle, of overdoing then underdoing, is unhelpful, resulting in more frequent exacerbations of pain, lowered mood and higher anxiety, as well as diminished ability to complete tasks over time.   So how else can you complete tasks?   Helpful strategies to use include breaking large tasks into smaller components (eg vacuum half a room rather than the whole house) and taking regular short breaks.   Setting yourself goals for increasing your ‘tolerance” for tasks is also advisable.   However, first you need to determine your tolerance.   Over the next week or two measure how long you can do specific activities without too much extra pain.   Average that amount and then start 20% below that average.

Coping with chronic pain can be challenging. If you need additional assistance learning to cope with chronic pain, seek assistance from your local medical practitioner or contact us on 1800 768 411.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder - A normal response to an abnormal situation

Many of us will experience traumatic events in our lifetime, from being involved in a motor vehicle accident to being a victim of crime or of natural disaster.   It is important to remember that what traumatises one person may not do so for another, with personality, beliefs about oneself and the world, and previous experiences all affecting what experiences are perceived to be traumatic for any given person.

In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event common experiences include:

•  feelings of shock, fear, anger, sadness and shame,

•  physical effects of disturbed sleep, being easily startled, palpitations and headaches,

•  thinking changes, such as memories of the event and distressing dreams,

•  changed behaviours, such as withdrawing from social contact, loss of interest in normal activities, poor motivation, and increased use of alcohol or other drugs.

If you have experienced trauma and are finding it difficult to cope, it is important that you seek professional assistance.    If you need assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us on 1800 768 411.

So why may these changes occur?   Traumatic events may shatter our beliefs about the world and about ourselves, such as our own safety and our ability to control our lives.   After experiencing such events our brain may try to make sense of the experience, due to our basic human need to understand what is happening around us.   One way in which our brain may do this is through unwanted thoughts, images or “videos” popping into our mind.   Have you had nightmares, unwanted thoughts, images or “videos” pop into your mind, or have you experienced flashbacks of the event?   This is your mind’s way of trying to process the trauma, to make sense of the experience.

However, this reliving of the trauma often causes fear and distress and so is frequently pushed away.   You may find yourself trying to avoid thinking about what happened and avoid reminders. What do you avoid? You may find yourself (perhaps unconsciously) avoiding emotions, feeling emotionally numb. This is a way for your mind to take some “time-out” so that you only deal with a particular amount of stress at any given time.   Avoidance and numbing are understandable attempts to push away thoughts or feelings of what happened. However, this avoidance tends to keep the intrusive experiences mentioned above occurring, as the brain has not met its goal of understanding and making sense of what happened.

Another common aspect of post-trauma responses is hyperarousal, which is experienced due to your brain’s desire to keep you safe.   Your body stays on guard for anything that may trigger the unpleasant memories or be dangerous.   This can result in your having concentration difficulties and feeling irritable and keyed up or on edge much of time.

So what can you do if you notice some of these changes following a traumatic event.   Firstly, try to not block out thoughts of the incident or reminders of it.   Engage in regular exercise and relaxing activities, and ensure you get plenty of rest and eat healthy meals. Try to resume your normal routine, and contact us on 1800 768 411 or your GP if the changes are particularly distressing or last longer than 6 weeks.

Anger management: Pacifying the fury

Anger is a normal human emotion which everyone experiences.   Does it cause problems for you?   Anger tends to be problematic when it lasts for too long, is too frequent, too intense, or leads to aggression.   Aren’t anger and aggression the same thing, you may wonder. Although people commonly think of them as being the same, they aren’t.   Anger is an emotional reaction to an experience, whilst aggression is one of the (less helpful) ways a person may respond to anger.   It is possible to be angry, but to behave in an assertive way (more on this later).   Anger, in and of itself, can be a helpful emotion.   It can give us the energy and resolve to make positive changes, overcome obstacles and/or communicate to or influence other people.

So, if anger is a helpful emotion, why might we want to learn to manage it?   First of all, it is important to understand that anger management does not mean suppressing anger.   Rather it is about regulating levels of it so that it helps, rather than hinders, you.   Consider how anger affects you and the prices you pay for it.    Try to spend some time thinking about, and preferably writing down, the costs and benefits of dealing with anger as you currently do.   Is there any way to still obtain the benefits of anger without the costs?   Learning to better manage anger can assist you to do this.

Firstly, in learning to manage anger, you need recognise the triggers for your anger.   A common trigger for experiencing anger is when something happens that we believe shouldn’t have.   It can also occur when we feel hurt or lose something important to us (including status or respect), are criticised, insulted or threatened, or do not have things turn out how we wanted.   Try to keep a record of those situations in which you become angry and what it was about each of those situations that most affected you.

Next, start to recognise the early warning signs that you are becoming annoyed or irritated.   What changes do you notice in yourself?   Common physical changes that people notice when include increases in perspiration, heart and breathing rates, aches in the head, stomach, back or other muscles.   Common behavioural responses to anger include speaking rapidly or loudly, swearing, arguing, being violent or becoming silent and withdrawing.   Try to recognise that anger is not an all-or-nothing experience – you might feel just slightly irritated at times rather than full of rage.   Consider creating an “anger thermometer”, writing down how you can tell you are at each point between 0 and 10 (0 = totally calm and 10 = most anger you could ever imagine experiencing).   It is easier to manage less intense levels of anger than those that are more intense, and the strategies that are most helpful will differ depending upon your level of anger.   For example, if your anger is at 4, a helpful response might be to take a few deep breaths and respond assertively to the situation.   However, when you are at 9 on your anger thermometer, the most helpful response is likely to be your taking some time-out, leaving the situation until you feel more calm.   When doing the latter, it is important that you try to arrange an alternative time to discuss the problem.   Ignoring the problem may not be helpful.

Try to learn to manage the physical components of anger.   The physical changes mentioned above, such as increased perspiration, muscle tension and heart and breathing rates, may sound familiar to those of you who have read some of the previous articles on anxiety management.   This is because they are all part of the fight or flight response, which is a healthy and normal physiological response to perceptions of danger. We as humans are designed to fight or flee from dangerous situations and the physical changes that occur are designed to assist you to do that.   For example, the increased perspiration is designed to assist you to remain cool whilst running away or fighting someone.   Another change that occurs as part of the fight or flight response is attention becoming very focused.   This occurs as, if you are fighting for your life, other considerations, such as what you’ll have for dinner, are not very important.   Although the fight or flight response is very helpful when we are in physical danger, often it can be unhelpful when it is our self-esteem that is in danger or hurt.   Perspiring doesn’t help you feel better about yourself, and focused attention can make it more difficult to see the other person’s point of view or possible solutions.   Thus, it can be helpful either to try to reverse the fight or flight response by practising slow breathing or using other relaxation strategies, or try to expend the energy in a productive fashion (ie, do some exercise!).

Another important part of learning to manage anger is becoming more aware of your thoughts and evaluating their validity and helpfulness.   Firstly, ask yourself whether getting angry at this time is helpful or unhelpful.   If it is unhelpful, remind yourself of the costs.   Next, if you are still feeling angry, consider whether your anger, and the level of it, is justified.   Check for any unhelpful thinking styles, such as catastrophising, mindreading, fortune-telling, making mountains out of molehills, or “should” statements.   Regarding the latter, we often tell ourselves (and others!) that things “should” be a particular way.   However, who says they “should”?   Has it been written into the law?   Also, does insisting it be a particular way actually make it that way?   Or does it just make you miserable?   Try to let go of your “shoulds”, instead thinking in terms of preferences.   For example, we may think “people should be nice to each other”.   In an ideal world they would.   However, this is not an ideal world, and our wishing it is that way will not make it so.   We cannot always control the behaviour of other people.   A more helpful way of thinking may be “I would like it if people were always nice to each other, however I can’t force others to behave how I want them to.   Demanding that they be nice will not make it happen, so the most helpful thing for me to do is let it go and think about something else.”

As mentioned above, we don’t have to respond to anger with aggression.   A more helpful way of harnessing the energy and motivation that anger provides for us is to be assertive.   This involves expressing your view calmly to the other person and respecting (and empathising with) his or her point of view. Being assertive can be particularly helpful when you consider your anger to be justified and it is possible for the situation to be changed.

Finally, make sure that you reward yourself when you manage to control your anger.   Learning to do this can be difficult and challenging, but is worth the effort.

Happiness / Coaching So, what is happiness?

So what does make people happy? Different things make different people happy, although some common themes have been noted by Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology.   He claims that there are three components to happiness: experiencing positive emotion and pleasure (termed “the pleasant life”), being engaged or absorbed in what you do (termed “the engaged life”), and living a life for some greater purpose (“the meaningful life”).   So are each of these aspects of our lives equally important when it comes to being happier?   Although the happiest people appear to have elements of each, research suggests that the engaged life and meaningful life are the biggest contributors to people feeling fulfilled.

Central to developing an engaged and meaningful life is focusing on your strengths.   You may believe that it is important to focus on removing or minimizing your weaknesses before focusing on strengths.   However, the removal of something negative does not make something positive.   For example, removing sadness does not make you happy.   People who focus on their strengths can be more successful and happier than those whose main focus is overcoming weaknesses.

Below are some specific strategies in which you can engage to better identify and make use of your personal strengths.

•  Writing about a time when you were “at your best” and reflecting on the personal strengths that you displayed at that time.   Try to regularly review this story and consider the strengths you identified.

•  Remember compliments other people have given you or qualities in yourself in which you have felt proud in the past

•  Ask other people what they believe your strengths are.

•  complete the VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire at www.authentichappiness.org .

•  Try to use one of your identified strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.

Although we like to believe that happiness just comes “naturally”, at times nature can use a helping hand.   It is possible to become happier!

Please note: The content on this website is not intended to be, nor should it be relied on as, a substitute to the obtaining of professional advice.   No warranties or representations regarding the quality, accuracy or fitness for purpose of any content on this site are made. Any person accessing this site shall have no right to seek any compensation for any loss or damage from any party associated with the site howsoever occasioned.

Improve your mental health & well-being by making an appointment with our experienced clinical psychologists.

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This website and the services that we provide are not a crisis service.   Although we aim to see people within a week of their first contact, if you need immediate urgent assistance please call Lifeline (ph. 131 114) or contact your local hospital or community mental health centre