Are you suffering from PTSD?

When people see the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), many associate this with the armed forces or war veterans. PTSD was indeed first recognised in soldiers returning from war, but today the condition can be diagnosed in anyone who has experienced trauma.

When someone experiences a traumatic event in their lives, such as a sudden death in the family, or while witnessing a serious accident, they will often feel numb or they may find disruption to their sleep patterns. These symptoms are usually referred to as ‘acute stress reaction’. Most people will find these symptoms disappear after several weeks. However, when symptoms last longer than a month, PTSD could be the problem.

GPs often categorise PTSD as mild, moderate or severe, depending on the symptoms and how they are impacting a person’s life. Regardless of the category of PTSD, it is important to recognise when someone is suffering from the condition, so that they can seek help.

It is really important to remember that any traumatic event can cause PTSD. Different people will react differently when faced with trauma in their lives. Some people have very high thresholds while others will experience symptoms soon after the event.

Typical events that trigger PTSD

Traumatic events in life are unfortunately all too common. The sudden death of a family member or a close friend can be extremely disturbing. However, so too can other events that come along. A car accident for example can sometimes bring on delayed reactions, called delayed-onset PTSD. Witnessing a serious accident or a crime can also be a trigger.

One of my recent clients worked for a construction company. He was at work one day, working at height with a colleague on a scaffold. His colleague reached over the handrail, which failed, and he fell 40ft to the ground. My client rushed down to help his chum, who had suffered serious head injuries. My client came to see me four months after the accident because he was experiencing flashbacks and nightmares. He definitely had PTSD.

Witnessing a crime can also be traumatic for many people. In fact, it doesn’t necessarily have to be witnessed to become a problem. Many people who have their property broken into and personal items stolen suffer PTSD symptoms. Fear of living in the property or, in very serious cases, fear of going outside are often experienced by victims of crime.

Common symptoms

One of the most common symptoms of PTSD is when someone relives aspects of the event. Flashbacks and the feeling that the event is happening again can be very disturbing. Nausea and trembling while recalling the event are important signs that something is wrong.

Feeling on edge is another symptom that should not be ignored, especially when there are feelings of panic when reminded of the event. Hypervigilence is common too, which is often described as a ‘constant state of alertness’. This is often accompanied by being jumpy or easily startled.

Another serious symptom that can follow traumatic events is the feeling of being unsafe. Many people think they can’t trust anyone anymore, while others feel that the world has become unsafe or unhealthy. Blaming themselves for what happened is another very common symptom, which, if left untreated, can be very harmful.

Complex PTSD

If someone experiences PTSD symptoms while also suffering from associated issues, such as anxiety, depression or self-harm, their condition may be classed as ‘complex’. Although not a definitive list, complex PTSD can be caused by; ongoing domestic violence or abuse, childhood abuse, being a prisoner of war, repeatedly witnessing trauma or violence, neglect or abandonment.

People who suffer trauma at an early age can sometimes experience complex PTSD in later life, particularly if the trauma lasted over a long period of time or if the child was harmed by someone close to them.

Complex PTSD needs careful and planned treatment and therapy, possibly for many months and even years.

Therapies for PTSD

Trauma-focussed cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT) is a very important treatment for PTSD. Adapted from CBT, this type of therapy was developed 25 years ago to help children recover from early trauma. Essentially, the technique aims to help those who have suffered from trauma to learn to recognise their symptoms and to learn coping strategies.

There are three distinct phases of treatment with TF-CBT. The first phase, known as stabilisation, involves teaching the client about trauma; what it is and how it affects us. Relaxation techniques is an important part of this phase too.

The second phase is to recreate the trauma, through a trauma narrative. This is done while allowing the client to explore their feelings and emotions during the recreation. Many think this is a negative thing but recalling the event while thinking about emotions can be extremely positive. Talking through the event is a really powerful way to help a person.

Finally, phase three consolidates the lessons learned from the first two phases, while continuing to build coping skills.

A short questionnaire to help diagnose PTSD

Proper diagnosis of PTSD can only be carried out by a trained and experienced therapist or doctor. However, there is a useful set of questions to help assess whether PTSD might be an issue.

Take the simple test to find out if you are suffering from the symptoms of PTSD.

I would love to hear if anyone has tried trauma-focussed CBT as a therapy.

 

 

 

Magicians, pick-pockets and successful people: the power of NLP

The magician snaps his fingers and the ball disappears right in front of your eyes. How is this possible, you ask? You know a little about physics and science and you know too well that it is impossible for a solid object to simply vanish. But it did, right in front of you.

Or, did it?

Magic and magicians allow you to experience the impossible. Derren Brown and the Dynamo are two illusionists that leave audiences gasping for breath. For centuries, other magicians have been doing it too. So, how does it work?

It is all about psychology

Human brains are complex, but they are simple at the same time. Our brains have limitations and it is these limitations that illusionists exploit. For example, let’s take one of our senses, vision. Most people will have come across the following image. To most people, one line looks longer than the other, but when we get the ruler out we see both lines are exactly the same length.

optical-illusion

We are amazed and surprised when we see the ‘real’ length of the line. So why do we get it so incredibly wrong? When we look at the diagram, complex neuronal processes within our conscious and unconscious minds get to work. The subconscious mind processes information coming in through our visual cortex, but it then does something incredibly strange. The subconscious mind starts to dredge up past experiences, it starts to rationalise, and it provides an ‘estimate’ of what it is seeing.

The subconscious mind uses past experiences and rationale to make estimations about what it is seeing. It then passes this information back to the conscious mind and it is this part of the brain that then thinks that one line is longer than the other. It is these errors that are exploited by illusionists.

Another important misconception about our visual experience relates to the amount of detail that we think we are aware of. Intuitively, we think that we are aware of most of our surroundings, but this turns out to be incorrect. Processing large amounts of information comes at a cost, brain size. Instead of evolving massive brains, which would mean massive heads to accommodate these big brains, humans have evolved with a compromise. Our brains have an interesting strategy that allows us to prioritize aspects of the environment around us, but at the same time, keeping the information we have to process to a minimum. This is another crucial thing that can be exploited by magicians.

Watch your wallet

Of course, it is not just magicians who use these deficiencies of the human mind. Pick-pockets have been distracting us for centuries. Imagine this scene. A stranger approaches you in the street. They are holding a map, looking a little lost. They ask you if they are near to Covent Garden tube station. Their right index finger makes swishing moves across the map, while they overload your brain with a deluge of verbal trash. Your conscious mind is taken up with the visual images of the map and the fast-moving fingers swishing all over the place, and with the auditory information that is coming in through your ears. Your conscious mind has forgotten all about the other hand. Too late, your wallet, your tube ticket and your hotel keys have all gone!

The human mind is clearly capable of getting things very wrong. But, it can be re-programmed so that it can get things incredibly right.

A professor of psychology once told me that when we decide whether or not we like someone, only 7% of that decision is made from their verbal communication. About 38% is made from their tonality and a whopping 55% is made from their physiology. Non-verbal communication carries much more weight than verbal.

The subconscious brain at work

Here is another scenario to think about. Imagine we meet someone new. We talk to them for a few minutes, exchanging general chit-chat before saying our goodbyes. Next day, we are walking down the high street and we notice the same person again. We recognise them and stop to speak. We spend a few minutes chatting away to them. Sometimes we will remember their names, and sometimes we will remember lots more about the person. However, sometimes we won’t remember very much from the previous encounter. Sometimes, we go out of our way to avoid speaking to the person again, perhaps crossing the street as soon as we see them coming. Isn’t all of this amazing, simply based on that first few minutes we spent with the person on the previous meeting. Once again, it is all to do with our subconscious mind.

When we meet a person for the first time, our subconscious mind uses information from the eyes and ears. We don’t consciously think about how the person moves, nor do we consciously think about their body gestures, their hands and arms or the tonality of their voice. We don’t consciously note the style of their clothing and we certainly don’t consciously analyse the type of words they are using or the inflection in their voice. However, our subconscious mind is very busy and it is doing all of those things. It is analysing, rationalizing, and estimating. Our subconscious mind is ‘linking’. It is taking in all the information around us and it is working out whether we should like this person or not. The subconscious mind is processing, estimating and deciding.

In the above example, when we meet the person a second time our subconscious mind has made a decision and it is this decision that is communicated to the conscious mind so that we can decide to cross the street to avoid the person or whether we should chat some more.

Using the subconscious mind for success

Have you ever wondered why some people have ‘charisma’ or ‘instant appeal’? Some people are naturally gifted in the way they can build rapport with others, but for many people building relationships is often hit or miss.

Imagine if you are a sales person, earning a living from selling products or services. The last thing you want is for potential customers to dislike you as soon as you meet them. What you need to do is to send out non-verbal signals that are picked up positively from your customer, signals that will show them you are a friendly soul and you are someone they can trust. Just like the magician or pick-pocket, you can use techniques to help you to ‘control’ the situation. These techniques are called Neuro Linguistic Programming, or NLP.

Imagine how amazing it would be if we could ‘make’ people like us.

Building rapport to build success

Can you think of all the situations in life where knowledge of ‘connecting with people’ would be immensely beneficial? Interviews, presentations, negotiating with colleagues, counselling are just a few.

Here is a little experiment for you to try. When you are talking to someone today, consciously think about the words they are using. Are they using words that describe a visual, for example, are they saying things such as “I see what you mean” or “yes, I can picture what you are saying”. Or, are they using different adjectives, such as “I can hear what you are saying” or “now, that rings a bell”. Perhaps the person is using expressions such as “I could really get a hold of that idea”.

What does all of this tell us? Well, people habitually use language that aligns with their preferred representational system. I won’t go into detail here, but representational systems are fascinating. Most people fall into one of three categories or representation: visual, auditory or kinaesthetic.

People who prefer visual representation will often use words such as look, see, picture, vision; words associated with visual things.

Those who prefer auditory representation will frequently use words associated with sound: hear, resonate, harmonious and pitch are some examples.

Kinaesthetic people will use adjectives associated with touch, such as grasp, hold, tacky and sticky.

The power of mirroring

Is there a point to all of this? Well, yes there is indeed an important point. A great way to build rapport with someone is to mirror their language. It is amazing how you can encourage a person to chat away to us if you reflect back the words they use. If we use the same language as the person we are talking with, their subconscious mind recognises this as a form of ‘association’ and ‘similarity’ and therefore instructs the conscious mind to approve of the person.

Building rapport is only one step in the NLP journey, but it is an important one. Whether they knew it or not, the great illusionists, and indeed the great pick-pocket people, have all taken advantage of the way the conscious and subconscious mind works. Successful people too have learned the benefits of NLP.

I hope you enjoyed this post on NLP.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to build mental health resilience in the workplace

Public awareness of mental health and wellbeing has never been greater. On television, in newspapers and online, there are daily references to mental health and its impact on people, employers and on society.

This is great news, because talking about mental health is an important step towards really helping people. The more we talk about the subject, the less taboo it will become. However, we still have an awful long way to go.

Business leaders are taking this seriously too. Almost weekly, I get a call from a company asking what they need to do to put in place a mental health and wellbeing strategy. This is really good news, because it shows that the message is getting through to employers.

In this post, I don’t want to reel off statistics and data, suffice to say mental ill-health is now at the top of the list when it comes to time lost at work. Instead, I would like to spend a little time discussing the main things a company should do to help their employees.

I believe there is a six-stage approach to building mental health resilience in the workplace. Put simply, the six stages are:

  • Identify the risk: the baseline
  • Pledge support: the commitment
  • Develop a plan: the journey
  • Champion the cause: the support
  • Coach leadership: the change
  • Providing support: the counsellor

Identifying the risk: the baseline

The first thing that employers need to do is to identify whether or not they have a problem. A company may have perfectly happy employees, who are all fulfilled at work and who thrive on their daily challenges.

At the other end of the spectrum, a company may have a very negative culture, with high absenteeism, and with some of their employees on the brink of collapse.

The first step is to identify the risk. Is your company at one end of the spectrum or somewhere in the middle? You need to know where you are so that you can plan your journey for improvement.

There are many ways to identify the risk. The simple approach is to ask employees to complete a mental health and wellbeing questionnaire. There are some very good off-the-shelf questionnaires that will help categorise where the risk lies. However, I don’t think questionnaires on their own are effective. I much prefer a combination approach; completing questionnaires and one-to-one sampling of the workforce. A properly trained interviewer (usually a counsellor or psychotherapist) can glean a huge amount of information during a ten-minute one-to-one session with an employee.

The output from the questionnaire and from the sampling will provide an accurate picture of the level of risk within the company. More importantly, it will show which areas are weak.

Pledge support: the commitment

Next comes the pledge. Let’s hear it from the boss. It is incredibly important for top management to address mental health in a proactive manner. They need to pledge support and they need to commit to a policy. I find a one-page policy on wellbeing works nicely. It is something that can be published across the company for all employees to see. The pledge needs to be signed by the top dog.

A policy and pledge should clearly show that mental wellbeing is high on the company’s agenda. It should show commitment from the boss, and it should include something about early intervention and securing appropriate funds to finance wellbeing initiatives. The policy should challenge the stigma of mental ill-health by committing to raising awareness across the company.

Develop a plan: the journey

The third stage is to plan. Armed with information from the baseline survey, the journey for improvement needs to be planned and documented. The journey starts here.

It is a great idea to set up a consultation group to help develop the plan. The consultation group should consist of volunteers from across the company and should include representatives from senior management, from line supervision, representatives from each department and from trade unions too.

I have a few corporate clients where I chair their consultation group. We meet every quarter to discuss progress against the plan. It is a wonderfully positive meeting, full of enthusiasm and support. It always amazes me how innovative people can be. A few months ago, I sat and listened to a group discussing how to promote life-work balance. Suddenly, someone exclaimed: “We could use the WELL concept.” All eyes turned to the lady as she described her idea. She suggested putting together a company-wide initiative, using a themed approach, around the concept of Work, Engage, Learn, Live. Amazingly simple, but they have now embraced the WELL concept and everywhere you go across the company’s sites you can see posters that explain how to work, engage, learn and live.

Champion the cause: the support

The phrase ‘mental health first aid’ is doing the rounds at the moment. I think this is a wonderful thing. If an employee cuts their finger while at work, they would pop along to the first-aid station to get a plaster and a bit of TLC from the local first-aider. However, if an employee is close to emotional breaking point, who do they turn to?

Training mental health first aiders is an essential stage in building workplace resilience. Properly trained people, who can offer support to employees, can be invaluable.

Every company should have at least one Mental Health Champion. I advise the 1:50 ratio; there should be one properly trained champion for every 50 employees. Mental health and wellbeing champions are there to advise management and to offer emotional support to employees when needed.

I conduct a lot of training courses but my favourite course is the Mental Health Champion course. Delegates on the three-day course are enthusiastic and motivated, and it is a complete joy to be helping them to discover the huge rewards from being a mental health champion.

Most people don’t know what to do if a colleague is on the brink of emotional crisis. These courses teach how to recognise when a person is in need of support and how best to support them. Active listening is a key skill when dealing with emotional wellbeing and these courses teach this important skill that can be used in and out of work.

Coach leadership: the change

Who ‘controls’ the workplace? Is it the man or woman at the top of the tree?

Undoubtedly, the person who controls the company is the Managing Director or the Chief Operating Officer, but do they really influence attitudes and behaviours at the coal-face?

A few weeks ago, I was involved in carrying out a baseline mental health survey of a large international manufacturing company. I asked one of the shop floor workers, “when did she last talk with the COO?” To my surprise, she told me she had no idea who that person was, let alone having ever met them. I interviewed the COO a few days later and asked him why the majority of people in his company had no idea who he was. His reply was simple. He said: “I crunch numbers, I secure funding, and I make sure we have enough money in the bank to pay salaries at the end of each month. I employ supervisors to run the business and to manage people, so nobody needs to know me.” Interesting point, I said.

Now, whether you agree or disagree with that COO’s idea of running a business is clearly open to debate. But, he did make an interesting point. How can he possibly know 6,800 people? Supervisors and line managers know more about their teams than anyone else in the company. It is their job to look after the wellbeing of their teams. Ironically, these are the very people who can cause most damage to a person’s mental wellbeing. Poor management and poor leadership skills can wreak havoc with a person’s mental state of mind.

How many supervisors come up through the ranks, from shop floor to management positions? Most of them. But how many of them have been trained in the people-skills that are so important in today’s world? Not many.

I worked with a company last year where I got to know most of the supervisors quite well. One guy had been an electrician in the company for 20 years. He knew more about the electrical systems in that firm that anyone else. He was a very skilled tradesman. Then he was promoted to supervisor! Disaster.

That poor electrician quickly went from a position of expert to a position of incompetence. His management skills, or lack of, had a huge effect on his team. His staff were stressed out, absenteeism in his department was the highest across the company and the team’s reputation went spiralling out of control. Why? Because senior management had promoted someone on the merit of his skill and not on his management abilities. He was completely oblivious to the damage that he was causing. He became depressed and was prescribed medication from his GP.

All levels of supervision and management need to be trained in ‘managing people’. Getting the best from your staff, in a safe and healthy way, is a skill that cannot be achieved without proper training and coaching. That is why this stage in the wellbeing journey is so important.

Providing support: the counsellor

Sometimes, all the proactive stuff just isn’t enough. Sure, it is always better to fix the cage before the tiger escapes, but sometimes the lock on the cage door is just too rusty and it is a matter of time before escape is inevitable. When the tiger gets out, we need to have contingencies to find it and to return it safely to its enclosure (with a new lock on the door). Okay, enough of the tiger analogy. The important thing here is for employers to recognise that sometimes being reactive is okay.

Employees should be provided with the opportunity to get help when they need it. Every employer should set up an employee support system, so that employees can discuss their personal issues with a trained counsellor or psychotherapist. This is an absolutely essential aspect of building resilience in the workplace.

And so, that is it. The six-stage approach to building mental health resilience in the workplace. It is important for employers to start their journey by identifying the level of risk. They need to pledge support and they need to set out a detailed plan for improvement. Training mental health champions and first aiders is vitally important, and so too is the need for leadership training and coaching. Finally, access to a counselling service for staff needs to be in place. If a company were to put all of these things in place, they will be well on the way to keeping their workforce safe and healthy.

If anyone has experience of building mental health and wellbeing resilience in the workplace, I would love to hear from you. Let me know what worked, what didn’t work, and the challenges along the way.

For more information on the things discussed in this post, please visit our website.

 

 

 

 

 

Does the carrot and stick still work?

I deliver many Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) courses every year, mainly for my global corporate clients. These companies have a strong desire to train their leadership in how to get the best from their teams and employees.

One of the sessions I find most interesting is what I refer to as the ‘carrot and stick session’. I thought it might be nice to reflect on this concept in this week’s post.

To improve performance and productivity and to encourage people to perform at their best, we tend to reward good behaviour and punish bad. If this approach works for donkeys, surely it must work for humans too?

Give them a bonus

It is quite interesting to hear business leaders talking about ‘retention bonuses’ and ‘performance payouts’. Without fail, whenever I start talking about the carrot and stick approach to management, most people on the course prick up their ears and nod encouragingly at the idea of rewarding good workplace behaviour with money.

If a good employee threatens to leave the company, why not give him a bit of extra cash to remain? If a great employee is a team-player and consistency hits her performance targets, why not reward her with a cash payout? Happy days all round? Actually, no. It has been proven that the ‘financial reward for extra work’ approach doesn’t always work in todays modern workplace.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American engineer and efficiency guru, once said: “Work consists of simple, not particularly interesting, tasks. The only way to get people to do them is to incentivize them properly and monitor them carefully.” Taylor’s view of the world back in the early 20th century was possibly correct. But those days have long gone.

Money is still, of course, a big factor. We all want to earn enough to see us through, with a little extra for holidays and other luxury items. But does throwing money at employees really produce better output? There have been many social experiments and studies that show money alone is not enough to keep us motivated at work. We need much more than money.

What replaces the carrot?

The carrot, and stick, can be hidden away, providing we have three key elements in our jobs: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Far more powerful than money is autonomy. Human beings need, and strive, for control in all aspects of their lives. The need to control elements of our job is a major factor with most people. If a manager takes away our control, they take away our motivation.

I often ask managers a simple question: “When do you allow your employees to leave at the end of the day?” The response is mostly the same, such as “after they have done their eight hours” or “not before 5pm is the company policy”. Sure, the donkey will move when you beat it, but it will move grudgingly!

Another factor with the modern human psyche is ‘mastery’. It is a human condition that we want to be better and better at something. Our psychological programming is such that we are happier when we feel our skills are advancing. Take sport as an example. Dedicated sports people strive to be better and better. Their whole existence revolves around taking a second off their time, or consistently hitting a backhand to the baseline.

Of course, not every employee will be driven to success in the same way as top sports people. However, allowing a person to achieve mastery in something will go a long way to keeping them motivated and high-performing.

‘Purpose’ is the final ingredient. Doing something that makes a difference can be incredibly rewarding. Doing something that is perceived as having no value whatsoever can be incredibly de-motivating.

Kids teach us all we need to know

I am a firm believer in the idea that we instinctively know what we want. We are born with a sense of personal motivation, but it is sucked out of us by work and by working relationships.

A classic study in behavioural science was carried out by two psychologists, Greene and Lepper. They watched a classroom of children for several days and identified some of the kids who liked to draw during their free time. The researchers divided the kids into three groups. They told the kids in the first group that they would be rewarded with a nice certificate if they drew nice pictures. The second group was not told about the reward but the best pictures received a surprise gift. The third group didn’t receive any reward and were not told about the certificates. The reward structure continued for two weeks.

Two weeks later, the researchers returned to the classroom and observed the children. An amazing discovery was made. The kids who had been rewarded for their drawings now showed less enthusiasm for drawing. However, the kids from groups two and three continued to draw with the same excitement as before.

The conclusion from the above experiment was: “Knowing that you will get a reward can turn enjoyment into work.” Rewarding a person requires them to give up some of their autonomy, with the result that motivation reduces. It becomes a chore.

A nice working environment

A motivated team is one where: people are allowed to do things their own way, with some degree of flexibility and some self-discovery (autonomy); where people are given the opportunity to become the expert at something (mastery); and where team members can clearly see how their efforts will make a difference (purpose). Get these things right, and you will have a motivated and high-performing team.

Of course, a few extra pounds in the bank each month does help too!

I would love to hear your thoughts on what motivates you at work, or how you motivate your team. Perhaps you still use a big stick?

NLP is a wonderful course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meditation at the Samye Ling international centre

I was in the Scottish borders last week and popped into the Samye Ling monastery, which is located near the village of Eskdalemuir. I had an absolutely wonderful visit, so I thought it would be good to share my experience with you.

Samye Ling is more than a monastery, it is an international centre for Buddhist training, known for its teachings and traditions of Buddhist philosophy. Founded in 1967 by two spiritual masters, Samye Ling was the first Tibetan Buddhist centre in the west. The name ‘Samye’ came from the very first monastery in Tibet.

The centre in Scotland, which is home to a community of more than 50 monks, nuns and volunteers, uphold the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, living their lives in accordance with their basic principles: doing no harm, performing wholesome actions, and training the mind through meditation.

The temple is stunning

samye1

I talked with Ani Lhamo, a fully ordained Buddhist nun, about life at the centre and about meditation. Ani explained about the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, which were formed over 2,500 years ago. Although there are many different versions of Buddhism, they are all based on Prince Siddhartha and his teachings. Through concentrated meditation, he experienced a deep realisation of true nature and what causes unhappiness.

Buddhist meditation

Buddhist methods of meditation are aimed at calming the mind and achieving insight into how the mind works. Ani explained, through regular meditative practice, the mind gradually settles into a peaceful state. It is when we enter into a blissful state that we experience insight into our being.

“Meditation can help bring about a natural sense of peace and well-being that can extend to every aspect of our lives,” Ani said. “People who meditate regularly tend to sleep better, have better digestion of food and can handle the ups and downs of life with more clarity and ease, and they relate to others with more compassion and warmth.

“Meditation is the patient process of settling our mind in the present moment so that we are fully engaged with whatever we are doing at that time.

“In modern life, we are often left feeling like there is never enough time. Busy and over-worked, as soon as we get around to doing one thing, our mind is already thinking about something else. We collapse in front of the television to chill out. But, this is not real peace.

“When the mind is constantly agitated, it is almost impossible to be happy. However, as we become practiced at meditation, our minds become more peaceful. This is ‘natural’ happiness rather than perceived happiness.

“As our practice deepens, we become increasingly in the present. This equilibrium brings stability to our minds and it brings insight into how our minds function. This is true peace and unconditional happiness.”

Samye Ling centre

Samye Ling is open all year round to visitors. It is a beautiful place to visit; the gardens and temple are stunning. They have a shop and cafe too.

The monks and nuns at Samye Ling offer short courses on meditation and mindfulness, and they offer longer retreats for people who want to explore the benefits of living a traditional way of life.

I would like to thank Ani and her colleagues for their wonderful welcome and for talking with me about the Tibetan Buddhist centre. They made my visit enjoyable and memorable.

You can hear Ani talking on my podcast.

Visit the Samye Ling website for more information.

 

 

 

Can you beat stress with a wellbeing device?

I must admit, I am a gadget junkie. I love smartphones, ipads, fitbits and anything else I can get my hands on. But I had never really thought much about stress-relieving gadgets, until one of my clients started to wax lyrical about her ‘stress balancing bracelet’. I couldn’t resist, so I bought one to try out.

We all know that stress can affect our quality of life. But sometimes, it can be difficult to see exactly where stress is coming from. Does it peak during our daily commute to work, is it something to do with an irritating work colleague, or perhaps it is something related to home life? More often than not, it is a combination of many factors.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could track our stress levels as the day, weeks and months go by? Maybe that way we could see what, where and when our stress levels peak. Well, this is all possible with one of the many stress monitors that are on the market.

But first, a word of caution. I am a psychotherapist and, as such, would never advocate substituting professionals counselling for a device that is worn on the wrist, or on any other part of the body. Having said that, I do think these devices have their place.

Stress monitor

The Wellbe Stress Balancing Bracelet is a Bluetooth-enabled unit that integrates with a smartphone app. Basically, it uses a proprietary algorithm based on your heart rate and variable heart rate to identify stress levels, and calmness, throughout the day.

The bracelet comes in various colours; cork effect, silver and black. It is lightweight to wear and the strap comes in small, medium or large. The unit charges via a USB cable, which is provided in the kit.

Setup through the Wellbe app was fairly straightforward. Downloading the app and device pairing went smoothly. Their website is quite informative and provides a couple of good videos to get you started. The videos aren’t really necessary but they provide interesting background to the device.

Finally, after setting up the  basics, you will need to take baseline measurements, but the app and the device provide step-by-step instructions.

The smartphone app

When wearing the bracelet, measurements are taken automatically every hour, and the app updates the data quickly. Based on your heart rate and variable heart rate your stress level is measured on a 100-point scale, from ‘calm’ to ‘high’ stress.

wellbe2

You can see real-time information on the app. The really nice thing about this device is the correlation between stress levels and time/location. For example, if your stress level peaks at, say 10.30 in the morning, you will be able to see where you were at that time. Over a period of several days and weeks, and even months, you will be able to analyse when and where you are experiencing the most stress.

Another great thing about the device is the ‘alert’ function. It will notify you if you are getting close to ‘high’ levels of stress. It will even suggest relaxation exercises. I tried the ‘ambient music’ exercise and it worked really well. According to the bracelet, I lowered my stress level from high to calm in just under ten minutes while listening to the music. Ambient music is only one of many different exercises the app will suggest for you.

In addition to the exercise suggestions, there are many podcasts to download and listen to. The bracelet will prompt you when it ‘thinks’ you need a podcast! According to the Wellbe website, there are over 30 hours of content available via their app. There is the option to subscribe to a larger collection but it is not really necessary. Thankfully, the app doesn’t bombard you with prompts to pay for a subscription and there are no in-app purchases, which is good.

Disadvantage

One of the annoying things about the bracelet, which I also find with my fitbit, is the intermittent readings. I like to wear the strap quite loose around my wrist and often the data link gets lost.  If the strap is not positioned correctly it is easy to lose data.

As always, battery technology hasn’t quite kept up. The device will only last two days before needing a charge. It is not really a problem because I put it on charge everyday when in the shower in the morning.

In conclusion, I thought the bracelet was wonderful. It is more than a toy, it can give you a really good indication about stress levels and how they vary over time. The app, in my opinion, is excellent and the vast variety of content to help alleviate stress is very good too.

The main disadvantage for me was the short battery life and the data loss. However, I think the latter is more to do with how I like to wear watches and bracelets.

Overall, a nice piece of kit. Not too expensive either; it retails in the UK for about £115. Well worth the money and I would certainly recommend it.

Take a look at the Wellbe website or Amazon for availability.

Let me know if anyone has tried a stress balancing bracelet.

 

Breathe your way to greater health

When stressed or irritated by someone or something, everyone knows to take a deep breath and count to ten. That would seem to suggest that a deep breath is somehow good at calming the brain. Well, latest research has found exactly that.

For over 2,000 years, Buddhists and yoga gurus have promoted the benefits of breath-focused meditation. Modern meditation practice usually starts with focusing on inhalation and exhalation. But it was generally considered that ‘clearing the mind’ of all thoughts was the aim of meditation and that focusing on breathing was a way to help us to clear the mind. However, latest research, carried out at Trinity College Dublin, has found an interesting connection between focused breathing and brain health.

Firstly, lets deal with the science bit. Noradrenaline is an important brain chemical, which is released when we are challenged and emotionally aroused. This chemical is the brain fertilizer because it helps to promote growth of neurons and it helps our brains to form new neuro-networks.

Although noradrenaline is an essential chemical, an incorrect balance in the brain can cause us some harm. For example, too little can result in lethargy, lack of concentration and even depression.

Now comes the interesting bit. The research carried out in Dublin found a connection between the amount of noradrenaline produced, our concentration levels and our breathing.

The team at Trinity College measured breathing, reaction time and brain activity in the brainstem (the area where noradrenaline is produced). They found that levels of noradrenaline increase slightly when the subjects focused on their breathing. In turn, concentration levels and reaction times improved when noradrenaline levels increased.

It would appear that focusing on our breath can stimulate the brainstem to produce exactly the right levels of noradrenaline, which improves our attention and concentration.

By focusing on our breathing for a few minutes each day, levels of brain chemicals can get regulated and optimised, leading to an overall improvement in concentration and the ability to focus longer and deeper on tasks.

Meditation has long-term benefits too

Our brains usually lose mass as we age. However, brain mass in long-term meditators doesn’t lose as much mass when compared to brains of non-meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains are less likely to suffer from dementia and memory loss, possibly because neuro-networks stay strong and healthy.

Meditation or mindfulness is often taught to people who have suffered brain injury and the results can be very encouraging. Neurons can be stimulated to form new connections and thus achieve partial repair.

So, there really is a connection between meditation and brain health. Yogis have been advocating this for many many years and the latest research would suggest they are correct. The team at Trinity have provided a deeper understanding of the neurophysiological benefits of this ancient concept.

Perhaps the secret to a healthy brain is indeed to practice regular breath-focused meditation.

For more on meditation, take a look at my podcasts.