Stress

The link between trauma, stress and physical illness

I have long been convinced of the link between traumatic experiences, especially in childhood, and physical ailments such as arthritis, eczema, digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome and a whole host of other illnesses. So I found Dr Gabor Maté’s book, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, to be intriguing.

Dr Maté (a physician working in palliative care and later with addiction in Canada) makes a strong, evidence-based case for the ways in which traumatic or stressful experiences in childhood and throughout our lives repeatedly trigger the stress response in our brain, which causes a cascade of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, as well as many other changes in the brain and body. This is meant to be an urgent, life-saving response to threats such as predatory animals or aggressive tribes, which were the life-or-death threats humans faced for much of our evolutionary history (which is when our brains were, to a large extent, formed).

But when, say, you have a highly critical parent, putting you down every day throughout your childhood; you suffer abuse or neglect; or are unlucky enough to be raised in a high-conflict family, where the parents are always at each other’s throats, your stress response is being triggered, repeatedly, which the body is not designed to cope with. Sadly, when combined with your particular genetic makeup, this can make you more vulnerable to a whole host of physical illnesses, including the big, scary ones like cancer, dementia or heart disease; and autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis (MS) or rheumatoid arthritis.

None of this is your fault

Of course, it’s really important to emphasise that this is not your fault in any way, or that – if you are ill now – you somehow brought this illness upon yourself. Dr Maté goes to great pains to explain that it’s the result of these repeated stressors impacting your growing brain and body, which may cause problems in later life. Nobody chooses to have a harsh, critical parent, or to suffer emotional neglect.

But what it does make crystal-clear to me is that, if you have had a highly stressful childhood, it is so important to get psychological help from someone like me (or any other well-trained therapist practising an effective, evidence-based form of therapy). Because none of this is fixed or irreversible – healing those wounds from childhood, learning to feel and healthily release your emotions, becoming less self-critical, more assertive and kinder/more compassionate to yourself… these are all the magic ingredients which form the medicine that combats the effects of your long-term stress.

If you would like to know more about how schema therapy can heal the wounds of a stressful childhood, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

Self-Care for the Highly Sensitive Person

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I recently wrote a post about Elaine Aron's wonderful book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. I also admitted that it was a particular eye-opener for me because I realised she is writing about me – I am a highly sensitive person and proud of it. And probably at least 50% of my clients are HSPs too, so this concept has helped me immensely, both personally and professionally.

As a follow-up, here are three of the things I have realised about how we highly sensitive folk need to take care of ourselves day to day:

  • We need time to process. Sometimes, in my downtime between seeing clients, writing up session notes, and all the many other things I do as part of my (wonderful) job as a therapist, I notice that I am compulsively surfing the Web. Having recently given up social media (here's another post about that), I realised that looking at The Guardian's website and depressing myself with the latest scary thing happening in the world, or just reading football-related nonsense, was my new digital addiction. I also realised that it made me feel, well, just bad. HSPs need time to process stuff, because we are so attuned to every detail of what is happening that it's easy to get flooded (what Aron calls being over-aroused). So more mindfulness for me, less scary news and screen time.

  • Slow is (generally) good. Linked to the first point, because being an HSP means that our central nervous system is unusually sensitive (which is neither good nor bad, just a largely genetic trait), we get easily overwhelmed by things. Bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, traffic, too much information, too many strong emotions, big crowds, strangers, public speaking, aggressive or loud people... the list is a long one but will be unique to you – some of these may be triggers for you, some not, but you will definitely have your triggers. Personally, I like to talk and think about things slowly. I am more into deep thinking and powerful, one-to-one conversations than social chit-chat. Slow is good for me, even if I don't always remember that.

  • Alone time helps us recharge. As Elaine Aron points out, not all HSPs are introverts. You can be a highly sensitive extrovert, but common sense says that most HSPs will prefer small groups, close friends or time alone. I am certainly one of those – although I love seeing clients all day, or even teaching large groups, I do find some alone time in the day invaluable. It helps me rest and recharge, as well as giving time for processing everything I have thought, seen and experienced that day (see point one). As with all of these points, it's important to remember that none of this is good or bad, it's just how I and probably most people reading this are wired. Learning to love and accept yourself as you are is a crucial component of schema therapy, so recognise your need to be alone sometimes and carve out that time for yourself.

And if you would like some help, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the Contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan 

 

How chronic pain and illness affect your mood

As I sit writing this, I am in a moderate amount of pain. Like millions of people around the world, I suffer from chronic musculoskeletal (back and hip) problems, so most days come with either a small or large dose of pain, depending on how well I am looking after myself, how stressed I am, how much sitting I do that day, and various other factors.

Having been in some degree of daily pain for almost two years now, I have learned a few things about the relationship between physical pain and mental suffering:

  • It's important to distinguish between 'primary' and 'secondary' pain. I learned this from Vidyamala Burch, founder of the excellent Breathworks. This organisation provides the Mindfulness-Based Pain Management programme, which has a strong research base behind it and helps many people in the UK and beyond deal with chronic pain and illness.

  • Burch also co-wrote Mindfulness for Health: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeing with Danny Penman. In this superb book the authors explain that primary pain is the actual raw data caused by, say, a gash in your leg. Intriguingly, the majority of the pain you end up experiencing is secondary – the pain created by your brain as it amplifies that raw data, depending on the way you think about and respond to your primary pain.

  • This only became clear to me recently when I visited my osteopath during a bad patch physically, feeling down and hopeless about resolving my problems. He reminded me that the pain was significantly better now than when I first came to see him; and that it was crucial to remain as positive as possible, because my negative thoughts ('I will never get over this'; 'Nothing will help'; 'I can't stand the pain any more') were undoubtedly making the pain worse (this is essentially what the Buddha taught – that human life inevitably involves pain, but we create suffering by our response to that pain. But that's a topic for another day).

Managing the pain

I think it's important to note here just how hard it is to maintain a positive, optimistic mood in the face of chronic pain or illness. As anyone with a long-term condition knows, it grinds you down, especially when it flares up or your symptoms get worse for whatever reason. Please don't think I underestimate the impact of physical ailments on your mood – it is a struggle and gets everyone down from time to time, as well as causing stress and worry/anxiety about the future.

I couldn't understand that vicious cycle any better. But once you understand the relationship between pain sensations in the body and the way that your brain either amplifies or minimises those sensations, it seems crucial to me that you do all you can to use your brain/mind to help your body.

 When I first hurt my back and was really struggling, Vidyamala Burch's guided meditations really helped pull me through. Here is a great one on being more compassionate to yourself, available for free, if you would like to try it. And if you are dealing with chronic pain or illness, my thoughts and well wishes go out to you – I hope you get the medical help you need and manage to overcome your problem soon.

If you would like some help with the psychological aspects of your condition, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use my Contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

How self-criticism affects your mental health

It's common sense that being overly harsh or self-critical in your thinking will have a negative impact on your mood, confidence and overall wellbeing. But I think it's important to understand exactly why this is the case. Because of the miracle of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, we now have an intimate knowledge of how the brain operates under stress. We can see which parts of the brain 'light up' when we are feeling stressed or attacked – this is known as the 'threat system', a powerful self-protective network in the brain that detects and responds to any kind of danger or threat.

When you engage in self-critical thinking, calling yourself an idiot, or saying you are stupid or useless – especially if your internal dialogue has an harsh or hostile tone – MRI scans show the same threat system lights up in your brain as if someone else was shouting at or scolding you. It's no surprise that this kind of thinking is closely linked with depression, problems with anger and anxiety, as well as a lack of confidence or low self-esteem.

When you speak to yourself harshly, it's as if there is a bully in your head judging everything you say or do and putting you down at every turn. Not helpful. If you do tend to engage in self-critical thinking, try the following exercise to start being kinder to yourself:

The best friend test

When you make a mistake, have a setback or feel like you have failed at something important to you, you might find yourself slipping into a well-worn groove of negative, self-critical thinking: 'I am such a loser – why do I always screw things up?', or 'God, that was pathetic, I really am a failure.'

Unsurprisingly, these words will hurt and you will find your mood dipping and confidence ebbing away.

Instead, try to start noticing when you talk to yourself like that and take a step back. Imagine your best friend had just made the same mistake, had a setback or failed at something they valued. What would you say to them? Would you be harsh, mocking or critical? Probably not. I'm guessing you would try to be supportive, encouraging and help them see that it wasn't the end of the world.

You might say things like, 'Don't worry, it seems bad right now but you will feel better about it soon,' or 'Everybody makes mistakes sometimes – that doesn't make you stupid or a bad person, just human.'

Now try and start talking to yourself in the same way. If you notice that self-critical thinking kicking in, use the Best Friend Test to be a bit more kind and compassionate to yourself. Over time, it will help you feel calmer, stronger and more at peace. After all, life is hard enough, so why make it harder by being unkind to yourself?

If you would like to book a session, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

Schema therapy or CBT – which is right for you?

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If you are struggling with psychological problems, you may be thinking about having some therapy – but which kind of therapy should you choose? I am trained in both cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and schema therapy – two of the most effective forms of 'talking therapy' currently available – and provide schema therapy at my North London practice. Here is a guide to which therapy is the best fit for different kinds of problems...

CBT is widely recognised to be the most effective, evidence-based form of therapy ever created. Founded by Dr Aaron Beck in the 1960s (originally as just 'cognitive therapy' – the B was added later on), CBT has been proven to be effective at treating depression, anxiety disorders such as OCD or health anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia, eating disorders, anger management problems, addiction... the list goes on.

If your problem is relatively short-term (for example, one episode of depression rather than many); if you are functioning fairly well in most aspects of your life, but struggling with a specific problem like anxiety or depression; if you would prefer a short-term treatment; and if, perhaps, you have had CBT before and found it helpful, or have been recommended CBT by your GP or another medical professional, then CBT is probably the right choice for you. It is always possible to have CBT to reduce upsetting symptoms, such as panic attacks, and then move on to schema therapy afterwards to address more deep-rooted problems.

When schema therapy is the best option

In general, it's best to opt for schema therapy (ST) if your problems are longstanding – for example, if you have been struggling with recurrent episodes of depression for much of your life. Problems related to a difficult childhood, to extremely critical parents, say, or if you experienced abuse, neglect or traumatic incidents as a child, are best treated with schema therapy. CBT will be helpful up to a point, but schema therapy is designed to heal painful/unhelpful ways of thinking, feeling and behaving at a deep level – otherwise you may find problems coming back after therapy when you experience a period of stress, say, or a relationship breakup.

Schema therapy was developed by Dr Jeffrey Young in the 1990s to treat people with personality problems – especially Borderline Personality Disorder, which can have a profound effect on someone's life and was poorly treated before approaches like schema therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) came along. Because it's intended to help with deep-rooted problems, schema therapy is a slower, longer-term approach than CBT. Generally, I tell my clients that 20 sessions are the minimum – and therapy can last for a year or more for really hard-to-treat problems. It's important to note that schema therapy is not just for personality problems – it is now used to treat all of the difficulties people seek therapy for.

In terms of how it feels to have ST versus CBT,  I would say that schema therapy is a warmer, more compassionate, more nurturing approach than CBT. It's much more focused on the relationship between therapist and client, rather than specific techniques to change thinking or behaviour, which form the bulk of treatment in CBT. But of course because schema therapy is just a newer form of cognitive therapy, all of the CBT techniques are still available, if I think they will be helpful for you.

I hope that helps – but if you would like to know more about which form of therapy might be best for you, call me on 07766 704210 or email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan 

 

How to combat your inner critic

Many of us are self-critical, on a spectrum ranging from mild at one end to severe at the other. If we are mildly- self-critical, we might rebuke ourselves if something goes wrong, but not be too upset about it. If that criticism is harsh, we might be extremely sharp, even angry with ourselves – jumping on every mistake we make, however small, and beating ourselves up severely. Most, if not all, of my clients criticise themselves in this way.

One of the many things I love about schema therapy is that it's extremely effective at combatting this inner critic. We even have a name for this 'mode', or side of you – the Punitive Parent. This may simply be the internalised voice of one of your parents, especially if they were consistently harsh or judgemental with you when you were growing up.

Or it may be a way you learned to speak to yourself, perhaps if you felt unloved or flawed as a child, so assumed there must be something wrong with you that needed constant correction. For example, if you have a Defectiveness schema, you may have a frequent nagging sense that you're not good enough or a failure in some way. You might think that other people judge you harshly for these (supposed) defects, so you should judge yourself harshly too – either to make sure you don't repeat a mistake, or to try and pre-empt saying or doing things you will later regret and feel bad about. 

Battling the Punitive Parent

When I see people beating themselves up in this way, it always makes me sad. Nobody deserves to feel this bad about themselves – and, in schema therapy terms, the part of you that feels bad is your Vulnerable Child, who feels attacked and victimised by the Punitive Parent's constant belittling and criticism. There is a famous quote attributed to the Buddha. These are not exactly his words (most of the Buddha's 'quotes' we see on Facebook or floating around the Web are modern interpretations of what he actually said) but they carry the gist of what he wrote – and I love the sentiment behind them:

You, as much as anyone in the universe, deserve your love and respect.
— Buddha

You are worthy of love, kindness, respect. Whatever your flaws, real or imagined. However many things you have done in your life that you regret, or wish had turned out differently. That scared, vulnerable child inside you craves love and affection, not shaming and harsh rebukes. And all of the research shows that talking to yourself in that way is one of the things that makes you vulnerable to depression, chronic stress, problems with anxiety and anger. So it's very important that you learn to battle the Punitive Parent, to get it to shut up and leave you alone.

For many people, this is a central component of our work in schema therapy. You can also explore other avenues to defeat that critical voice, such as compassion-focused therapy (like schema therapy, a proven approach to increasing self-compassion, wellbeing and contentment), learning mindfulness meditation, or exploring Buddhism, which for 2,500 years has been helping people be kinder and more compassionate to themselves. See my Resources page to find out more about these and other routes to better mental health.

And if you would like my help with becoming less self-critical, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Do you have trouble managing your anger?

Anger is a tricky emotion. In pure evolutionary terms, anger is our signal to fight a threat, as part of the fight, flight or freeze response (anxiety is the emotion that tells us to freeze or flee). This is all well and good if you are facing a hungry lion, but not so helpful if your boss has just criticised you, or another driver cuts you off in traffic. But this primitive, self-protective threat response explains why we can react so strongly, violently even, if we feel threatened – in a very crude way, that's what anger is for.

Most of my clients have some kind of problem with anger, roughly falling into two camps. The first group is scared of or uncomfortable with anger – theirs and other people's. If this describes you, it may be because one of your parents was given to angry outbursts, which as a child were very frightening. That vulnerable child inside you learns to be scared of anger, even when you are – on the outside at least – now an adult. It's also possible that your family were rather buttoned-up, viewing any expression of anger as rude and uncivilised (a very British way to deal with anger!), so you learned to keep your angry feelings stuffed deep down inside you. As an adult, it's now hard to access and express them, even when it's appropriate to do so.

The other problematic form of anger is expressing it too often and too volcanically. This is the cause of domestic violence, bar brawls, violent crime, road/air/trolley rage and aggressive bullying. It's just as harmful as repressed anger, both to those around you and ultimately yourself – you will probably end up in serious trouble, perhaps even prison, if you cannot contain your anger and explode at the smallest provocation. People with this 'anger style' may come from very angry, combustible families in which everyone was always shouting at/being aggressive to each other. They may also have been hurt, neglected or abused as children, so that child inside is absolutely furious at the world and can't help but express it, even when it's dangerous or destructive to do so.

The angry modes

In schema therapy, when people are expressing anger in a problematic way, we see this showing up as one of three angry modes. If you find yourself blowing up all the time, perhaps shouting or swearing at other people, being threatening or even physically violent, you are in Bully/Attack mode. This is the most problematic angry mode, so a major part of your therapy would involve learning how to respond to triggering situations in a calmer, more rational manner. Anger-management strategies can be helpful here, as well as longer-term healing of schemas such as Abandonment, Mistrust/Abuse or Vulnerability that can trigger this attack-is-the-best-form-of-defence style of responding to threats or challenges.

The second mode, Angry Protector, is less destructive but still problematic. This is when you express anger in more subtle ways, perhaps non-verbally by scowling or with a closed-off body posture; with sarcasm or cutting humour; angrily complaining about or being harshly critical of other people. This mode is all about keeping a distance between yourself and others, perhaps because deep down your vulnerable child is scared of attack or rejection. You may also be uncomfortable with any kind of criticism or challenge, so respond with subtle but unmistakeable shows of anger to shut that down.

Anybody can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
— Aristotle

The third mode is the most helpful, even if it doesn't at first appear that way! This is the Angry Child mode, and is evident in the way a person expresses their anger – often disproportionately to the perceived insult or infraction. You may have a tantrum, smashing or throwing objects (not to hurt others, just to release your anger). You might also get very tearful or upset. And beneath the anger is always hurt, fear or sadness, so if we were working together I would help you express your anger in a non-attacking, non-destructive way, so we could contact and soothe the hurt, upset or fearful vulnerable child lying just beneath the angry surface. 

When we get people into Angry Child mode, teach them how to express their anger verbally or by doing something safe but physical, like twisting a towel or punching a cushion, they experience a tremendous sense of relief – all the anger literally drains out of their bodies. It can then be deeply healing and soothing to deal with the hurt that lies beneath – over time, your anger subsides as you feel happier, safer, stronger and calmer.

If you have a problem with anger and would like my help, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

 

Why exercise is key for good mental health

Most psychological problems – such as chronic stress, anxiety or depression – will require some kind of psychological treatment, especially if they persist over time. But it's easy to underestimate the impact of direct physical interventions on psychological problems.

Partly, of course, this is because the whole separation of mind and body is an artificial one – your mind is the product of your brain; hormones play a key role in regulating your moods; psychological problems such as stress and anxiety have a whole range of physiological symptoms... In reality, your mind and body are inextricably linked, with an exquisitely complex feedback system between the two.

So it should come as no surprise that regular physical exercise is key to good mental health. Think of exercise in two main areas: cardiovascular and relaxing. Cardio exercise such as cycling, dancing, racquet sports, football, brisk walking or swimming, weight training or martial arts burns off hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that are produced when we are anxious or stressed; just 20 minutes of moderate exercise gives you a shot of endorphins, which help you feel happy and calm; and regular cardio exercise is proven to be just as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression (and with no nasty side effects).

Stress-relieving exercise

Relaxing exercise includes yoga, tai chi, gentle swimming or slow walking and is an excellent stress-reliever, especially if you do it in a green space, such as your local park. This kind of exercise activates the relaxation response, which balances out the stress response and helps you feel calmer and more relaxed. If you are suffering from depression, you may lack the energy to do more vigorous exercise, but it's really important to do something even if it's just a walk round the block.

So if you're stressed out, struggling with an anxiety problem or depressed, remember that exercise will really help – and if the problem is short-term, it may be all you need to regain your equilibrium and feel better, so why not give it a try?

And if you would like to book a session, call me on 07766 704210 or email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Do you want to learn mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness meditation is very much in the news these days. Mindfulness is increasingly being taught in schools, corporations, to athletes, veterans, the police and even MPs in the Houses of Parliament! And for good reason – a regular meditation practice has been proven to help you feel calmer, less anxious and depressed, to respond better to stressful events, deal with chronic pain or illness with greater balance and equanimity, improve concentration, memory and overall wellbeing. 

As someone who teaches my clients to meditate, I have seen first-hand what a difference it can make for people struggling with mental health problems. And as a regular meditator for over six years, I know from personal experience what a profound difference it makes to one's life. I genuinely believe that life is so much happier and more positive as a direct result of my meditation practice and am deeply grateful that I made meditation a part of my daily life.

Learning to meditate

When I am teaching clients to meditate, I first direct them to Mark Williams and Danny Penman's excellent book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Mark Williams is a British psychologist who helped develop mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), an eight-week programme to help people deal with stress, anxiety and especially recurrent bouts of depression. 

This book is based on the MBCT course, but is also a wonderfully clear and simple guide to mindfulness meditation – it's the perfect place to start if you are interested in bringing the transformative power of mindfulness into your life. It also includes a CD of guided meditations by Mark Williams, which will really help when you're getting started.

If you would like to take an MBCT course, visit the Resources section of my site to find a reputable place to study. I also think that a blend of mindfulness and schema therapy is an excellent way to tackle a wide range of psychological problems. If you would like to know more, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Try loving-kindness meditation

Three of the core Buddhist meditation practices are the body scan, mindfulness of breathing and Metta Bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation. In Pali, the Buddha's language, metta means ‘love’ (in a non-romantic sense), friendliness, or kindness. Bhavana means development or cultivation. But you don't have to be a Buddhist, or have any interest in Buddhism, to benefit from this practice – mindfulness meditation is increasingly taught as a secular, or non-religious series of practices – loving-kindness is one of these.

As a therapist, I help many people who are harshly self-critical or full of self-dislike. Sadly, this internal self-attack often leads to psychological problems like depression, low self-esteem, chronic stress, anger or anxiety. Increasing your sense of kindness and compassion – towards yourself and others – is a proven way to generate positive mental states such as joy, love, calmness, equanimity and strength.

The practice

The full Metta Bhavana practice is traditionally in five stages, so here are the first two – I will go through the full practice in a later post:

1. This practice will take 10 minutes, so switch your phone to silent (if it has a timer, set it to repeat after 5 minutes) and make sure you will not be disturbed. As with all meditation, it's important to attend to your posture, making yourself comfortable on a cushion on the floor or a straight-backed chair, sitting with your spine, neck and head in alignment. Your posture should be upright and alert but relaxed.

2. Bring your awareness into your body, starting in your feet and travelling slowly all the way up to your scalp. If you notice any tension or discomfort, allow that part of the body to soften and relax. Then bring your awareness to the heart region – it can help to place your hand over your heart and feel the warmth this generates. Allow this warmth to permeate into your practice.

3. In stage one, you direct metta towards yourself. You can visualise your face, perhaps seeing the metta as a golden light shining from your heart and enveloping your whole being. Or remember a time when you felt happy, or proud of yourself – there is no set rule, so whatever helps you get in touch with positive feelings towards yourself is fine. (If you don't feel anything, that's not a problem – feelings will come in time, so don't try to force them). Repeat these phrases in your mind: 'May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.' Say them slowly and deliberately – this a great gift you are offering yourself, so don't rush it.

4. If you become distracted by thoughts, sounds or body sensations, that's not a problem. Simply notice that your attention has wandered and gently bring it back to the phrases.

5. In part two, we direct metta towards a friend – this should be someone you feel positive about, not a person with whom you have conflict or difficulty. Repeat: 'May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.' If you feel like varying the phrases to suit this person, that's fine – so it could be 'May you be free from stress. May you be confident. May you be free from anxiety.' Again, don't force this, but if it happens naturally that's fine.

6. After 10 minutes, allow yourself to sit quietly, noticing if you feel any different than when you started. If not, that's fine, but you may notice a greater sense of softness, an uplift in your mood, or feelings of warmth and friendliness. Just allow whatever's happening right now to be there, then slowly open your eyes and start moving your body; and take this new attitude into the rest of your day.

I very much hope this practice proves helpful for you. If you would like to know more about cultivating greater kindness and compassion for yourself, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan 

Thoughts racing? This meditation will help

When you are feeling stressed or anxious your thoughts might race, making it hard to slow down or focus on what you're doing. Although this is completely normal, it can feel really unsettling, as the content of those thoughts is likely to be negative or frightening, so it's a bit like watching a scary movie stuck on fast-forward... If this is a problem for you, here is a simple mindfulness meditation technique that can really help:

Mindfulness of breathing

1. First, make some quiet time for yourself – take 10 minutes out of your busy day, that to-do list can wait! Switch your phone to silent and make sure you won't be disturbed. Find a comfortable position, either cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, or sitting on a straight-backed chair. Make sure your spine, neck and head are in alignment – erect but not tense, so you are sitting with a sense of calm alertness.

2. Set a repeat timer on your phone to 5 minutes, then close your eyes and settle into your body. Do a quick scan of your whole body, from the tip of your toes to the top of your head, noticing any areas of tension and allowing those parts of the body to soften and relax. You can imagine breathing into the tense area, then releasing any tension on the out-breath.

3. Bring your attention to your breath, following the entire breath cycle as it travels into the nostrils, down the back of your throat, into the lungs, then back along the throat and out of your nose. Notice the way your chest and belly rise with each in-breath, then fall on the out-breath. Don't try to change or control the breath in any way, just let your body breathe itself – which it does every second of your life, whether you notice or not.

4. Start counting after each breath cycle, beginning with 1 – so breathe in, out and mentally count 1; in, out, 2; in, out, 3 and so on until you reach 10. If you find yourself carried off by thoughts, that's fine – be kind and gentle with yourself, direct your attention back to the breath, then go back to 1.

5. If you find yourself counting 20, you have got distracted! Again, just go back to 1 and start again.

6. When you hear the first timer signalling 5 minutes, you can choose to continue counting, at the beginning of each breath cycle – so count 1, in, out; 2, in, out; 3, in, out and so on. Or, if your thoughts have settled and quietened down you can drop the counting and just focus on your breath.

7. When you hear the second timer, that's 10 minutes. Slowly open your eyes and gently move your body. Resume your day, carrying this calm, mindful attention into your next activity.

I really hope that helps. And if you would like to know more about mindfulness meditation, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Feeling stressed or depressed? Go easy on the news

The media has always portrayed the world through a distorted lens, focusing on and exaggerating bad news, while ignoring or discounting the good. But before 24/7 rolling news and the rise of digital media, it used to be much easier to filter out all the scary, upsetting things happening around the world. Now, they are very hard to avoid – look at any news website, watch TV or check your Facebook feed and you are bombarded with stories that can make the world feel like a scary, dangerous place. It's easy to feel that we are under threat too, which is not helpful if you are prone to anxiety, as you probably over-perceive threats to your safety or wellbeing already.

Although we do face some really unpleasant and frightening threats right now, it's important to remember a few things:

1. We are living through the safest, least violent period in human history. Despite what the media might tell you, crime rates in the West have plummeted over the last 50 years. If we are lucky enough to live in a stable, Western democracy, we are actually extremely safe.

2. Although there have been a spate of truly awful terror attacks throughout Europe, this is not a new phenomenon. I grew up in London, which faced constant threats of attack and regular bombings by the IRA; other terror groups were active throughout Europe, so without downplaying how shocking and horrible the recent attacks have been, we have lived through similar problems before. And the probability of you being involved in a terror attack now is still extremely low.

3. Fear sells. The media have long known this and, sadly, some sections of the media – especially tabloid newspapers – have lost any semblance of caring about their readers' wellbeing, printing lies, mistruths and highly distorted versions of reality that make everything seem frightening and bleak. Just take their treatment of the refugee crisis as an example, or the blatant lies and fearmongering that persuaded so many people to vote for Brexit. 'Never let facts get in the way of a good story,' as the old journalists' joke goes. 

4. If you are struggling with any kind of mental health problem – like stress, anxiety or depression – it might be good to take a news break for a couple of weeks. Reading upsetting stories, or watching violent movies/programmes is not good for your brain, as it will ramp up your feelings of insecurity, fearfulness and being under threat. Be kind to yourself and take a break – remember that just a couple of hundred years ago humans would mostly only get news about their extended family and local community, by word of mouth; no lurid headlines or minute-by-minute coverage of shocking events across the globe. Our brains are not designed for this media bombardment, and countless studies show the negative impact it has on our psychological health.  

So, if you are having a hard time right now, treat yourself with care and either limit or give up your news intake completely for a while. And if you would like help with any kind of psychological problem, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

5 myths about mindfulness meditation

It's wonderful that mindfulness has gained so much popularity in recent years – it's hard to read a newspaper or Sunday supplement without finding a story extolling the benefits of meditation. Unfortunately some of these stories are not entirely accurate, and many people have misconceptions about what meditation is and how it can help. Here are five of the most common myths and misunderstandings I hear about meditation, to help you gain a clearer insight into this potentially life-changing technique:

1. Meditation is just for Buddhists

Not so. Although mindfulness meditation is a 2,500-year-old Buddhist technique, it is increasingly used in Western psychological, medical, educational and business settings. If you learn meditation from me, or another therapist, you are essentially learning a technique, like using thought records to challenge unhelpful thinking. Although I do have a strong interest in Buddhist psychology and philosophy, I only talk about that to my clients as far as they are interested in it. So you don't have to believe in any form of religion to benefit from mindfulness, all you have to do is sit quietly for a short period every day and watch your breath. That alone is proven to have a raft of benefits, from reducing stress and anxiety to lowering blood pressure. Simple.

2. You have to clear your mind of all thoughts

Again, no. If your mind is empty of all thoughts, you have a very unusual mind indeed. We are always thinking – even when we sleep – so the idea that we should somehow magically stop thinking when we meditate is neither helpful nor realistic. Instead, if we are trying to focus on our breath, say, when we find our mind carrying us off into thinking about lunch, we notice that and gently bring our attention back to the breath. Again, again, again – it might happen 100 times during a 20-minute meditation, but that's not a problem at all. In fact, this is the practice, because each time you notice and bring your attention back, you are strengthening your ability to focus, which is the whole point of meditation.

3. You have to meditate somewhere quiet

In some ways, this is true – it's helpful to meditate in quiet places, for example at home in the early morning. But mindfulness is a skill we are trying to cultivate for when we need it – on the Tube, in a meeting, in a shopping centre. So the more you practice in everyday situations, the more that skill is available to you when you most need it – like your toddler having a meltdown in the supermarket. I often meditate on the Tube, because it can be an unpleasant place – noisy, packed with people, hot, glaring lights... Far better to close your eyes and focus on sounds, say, than ride along grimly trying to ignore it all.

4. Meditation should always make you feel relaxed

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There's a saying in Zen meditation: 'Just sit'. This means just meditate, every day: hard/easy, enjoyable/frustrating, relaxing/no change. It doesn't matter, because we meditate for the long-term benefits of daily practice. If you do it most days for a period of time, you will probably feel calmer, more grounded, less stressed, happier, more able to deal with stressors without reacting impulsively or unhelpfully. That's why we do it (and why I have, most days, for six years now – and will for the rest of my life).

5. Meditation is New Age hocus-pocus

It's true that meditation conjures up images of bearded, be-sandalled folk, incense and crystals. But mindfulness meditation, as well as having that 2,500-year history behind it, has been rigorously studied and researched in prestigious medical establishments since the 1970s. There is a huge body of research proving its effectiveness for a wide range of psychological problems, such as stress, anxiety and depression; and for medical problems like chronic pain and high blood pressure.

If you would like to find out more about mindfulness meditation, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Bibliotherapy for stress

What is bibliotherapy? Well, health professionals increasingly see the benefit of reading for people suffering from a wide range of physical and psychological problems. In fact, a Government-backed scheme – Reading Well Books on Prescription – 'prescribes' specific books for people struggling with, say, depression or worry through their GP. I have always recommended books to my clients, so this post is part of my ongoing bibliotherapy series (here are my posts on the best books for anxiety, mindfulness, compassion, anger issues and depression).

If you are suffering from stress, you will find these books helpful in managing your stress levels:

1. The SuperStress Solution: 4-week Diet and Lifestyle Programme, Roberta Lee, MD. Dr Lee is an integrative physician, which means she combines the best of evidence-based Western medicine with strategies and techniques from alternative approaches, focusing on meditation and relaxation techniques, sleep, exercise, work/life balance, diet and nutrition. Her argument is that the kind of stress those of us living a 21st-century urban life now suffer is far worse than our parents faced, so it has evolved into SuperStress; a type of chronic stress that is insidious and creeps up on us, given the constant drip, drip of stressors such as 24/7 digital media never letting us relax; the pressure to be perfect parents, partners, family members and employees; the endemic lack of job security; too much sugar, caffeine and alcohol; insufficient sleep and rest; and rolling news bombarding us with scary and upsetting stories. Her argument is very persuasive and it's an excellent book, so highly recommended.

2. How to Deal With Stress, Stephen Palmer & Cary Cooper. This is a sensible, practical guide to reducing your stress by two world-leading experts in stress management. Having trained with Stephen Palmer at the Centre for Stress Management, I can personally vouch for his expertise in this area (he is also an excellent CBT therapist). The authors explain how to identify the cause of your stress, then offer a plan to help manage it. They offer practical guidance on time-management (hardly a scintillating topic, but important if you have a never-ending to-do list and not enough time to do everything on it), exercise and relaxation techniques, as well as nutrition. It's also the shortest of the three books listed here, so is helpful for the time-poor.

3. Overcoming Stress: A Self-help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques, Leonora Brosan and Gillian Todd. When I start working with someone using CBT, I always recommend a book from this Overcoming... series, as they are all written by leading CBT experts in their particular field. Not only will this give you an excellent introduction to stress and its physical, psychological and behavioural impact on you, but it will also explain CBT and how it works; with a particular emphasis on the role of unhelpful thinking in driving your problems with stress.

I hope these books prove helpful. If you would like any more help in dealing with your stress, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan