By Dr Stan Steindl & Prof Jason Connor
Australia Day is fast approaching as a day to celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australian.
For many, it’s also the day that marks the end of the festive season. Children return to school after their long summer holiday, and work returns in earnest for the rest of us. The strong sense of national pride, public holiday and ominous reality of the return to work culminate in a national party, with friends and family coming together for fun and frivolity.
The problem of alcohol in the mix
Australia Day celebrations often involve heavy drinking. Contrary to media publicity, Australia’s per capita alcohol consumption is similar to that in other high income countries. However, according to the The World Health Organisation, Australia’s alcohol consumption has slightly increased, while it has dropped in the US, UK and Europe.
Our culture promotes heavy sessional (“binge”) drinking which greatly increases the risk for alcohol-related harm. Recent research in Victoria found that on Australia Day, compared to an average day: ambulances receive more than double the calls to attend to intoxicated young people; three times the number of young people needed treatment for injuries from assaults; and there was a sharp increase in alcohol-related presentations to hospital emergency departments and hospital admissions.
Each year, articles (such as these in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane) appear in the media reporting on the problem of excessive drinking on Australia Day. These articles warn of the harms associated with excessive drinking are typically published just prior to Australia Day. Despite these warnings, statistics seem to be getting worse, not better according to WA Department of Health data from 2008 to 2012 (summarised here)..
One trap, long understood in alcohol treatment and prevention, that these articles offer unsolicited advice and issue dire warnings. Bottom line, people don’t like being told what to do and typically resist authority figures who try to do so.
The problem of poor prior planning
Drinking often occurs in response to situational and emotional triggers. Professor Allan Marlatt described the way people and their environments interact to cause heavy drinking. He identified elements of “high risk situations” that trigger drinking, including certain days, places, people, heightened emotional states or during certain activities. Australia Day is a great example of a number of these elements increasing risk.
Heavy drinking often occurs unconsciously in these situations. Urges take over, and in the absence of a plan, before long you are asking yourself:
“I just don’t know how I got so drunk!”
The next day the consequences hit home and the regrets kick in. We can be left reeling from our drinking on autopilot the day before.
Stepping out of autopilot can be enormously empowering and self-determining. Instead of being reactive to these events, you might pause to consider what really is the way you want to approach a day like Australia day.
Take the opportunity to reflect on personal motivations
The good news is that there is a whole field of study that focusses on how to enhance people’s motivations to better manage their drinking. The approach, first defined in Professors Bill Miller and Steve Rollnick’s 1991 book (and then two subsequent editions), is called motivational interviewing (MI). In reviewing the most effective treatments for Alcohol Use Disorders, one of the world’s leading medical journals, the Lancet, recently identified MI as having among the highest level of evidence. MI invites us to stop and consider our own personal motivations, more clearly understand our goals and values, and guide ourselves towards how we want to live our lives.
Practically, there are five key motivational considerations when planning for Australia Day. So, rather than others trying to tell you what to do about your drinking this coming long weekend, you might consider, just privately to yourself, the following:
(1) What would you LIKE to change about your drinking this Australia Day?
This is an important first step. And if the answer is that you would like to change nothing, then that is fine. On the other hand, you might find that managing your drinking feels like a good idea. Think carefully through your different options. What would feel right for you? Perhaps consider how you would like to remember this Australia Day.
(2) What are your personal REASONS for making these changes?
Managing the amount you drink needn’t be about why someone else thinks it’s a good idea, although heavy drinking often negatively impact on others. Think instead about what you see as the benefits for you and those around you. Consider the positive impact this can have on your health, safety, relationships or finances. There may also be other reasons for managing your drinking that are very personal and unique to you.
(3) What is it that makes managing your drinking this Australia Day IMPORTANT to you?
Next, start to drill down to the importance of managing your drinking. How does more moderate alcohol consumption fit better with your personal values? Think about the person you want to be, the relationships you want to have, and the contributions you want to make. Consider how managing your drinking this weekend could take you in a direction that is important to you.
(4) If you were to make these changes, HOW would you go about it?
People often want to manage their drinking, but sometimes lack the confidence to take action. Carefully define how you might achieve these changes. Consider developing an action plan, such as setting personal limits, keeping track of how much you drink, limit how much alcohol you have available, or garnering support from others.
And now, if you like, it’s time to commit!
You’ve thought about what you’d like to do about drinking on Australia Day, the reasons you’d like to do it, what makes managing your drinking important to you and how you would go about it. These are four important considerations in preparing for change. The fifth key consideration? It’s time to commit!
Commitment is a vital part of behaviour change. It’s beyond what you could, should or would do, and is about what you will do. Decide on your Australia Day drinking plan and then commit to it. Tell a family member or friend about your commitment.
Have a think about commitment: what will you do to manage your drinking this Australia Day?
For more information on Dr Stan Steindl and the team of Clinical Psychologists at Psychology Consultants, visit http://www.psychologyconsultants.com.au
It is that time of the year again when most of us have over-indulged. We have spent the Christmas season in the company of our loved ones and also in the company of some of our most loved foods. Now with the New Year looming, we step back onto the scales to see that we may have gained a few kilos over the festive season and we begin to make New Year resolutions about getting fitter and shedding those extra kilo’s. But many of us fail – and why is this so when we start out with good intentions?
Often the answer to this question is that our goals around health and weight loss are unrealistic or difficult to maintain. Imagine you are playing a sport and every time you attempted to kick a goal you continued to fall short. After a while, you begin to ask the question “What’s the point?” and then you come to the conclusion of giving up
Diet and exercise often fall into this category. So instead of aiming for the same goal, the idea is to move the goal posts closer. So in practical terms, if you haven’t been exercising at all, it’s not realistic to expect that you will do intensive one-hour exercise sessions 5 times a week. Rather it would be more practical to aim for a mild to moderate exercise session of 1 to 2 times a week. Once you are successful with maintaining this, then you can either increase the intensity, duration or frequency. It is also best to try and set your exercise sessions at the same time and day as let’s face it, we are creatures of habit!
Now what to do about eating?…
Eating is one of those essential activities we must do. It is very tempting to go on a popular diet but not always practical, and it often doesn’t teach us what we need to eat when we reach our goal weight. An easier way to begin controlling your diet and reducing your energy intake is to begin to be mindful of what you are eating, when, how, how much, how often and what are your thoughts about it.
Below are some simple tips on mindful eating habits that are likely to lead to weight loss and maintenance.
- Be sure to notice what food you are eating. Observe the textures, taste, smell and even sound. The more you observe, often the more satisfied you feel.
- Ask yourself “Am I hungry?” Often we eat simply out of habit rather than need.
- Make eating a purposeful activity. Attempt to avoid eating food on the run or whilst doing other activities as this often discounts the experience of ingesting and enjoying food.
- Be mindful of the energy content of food and drinks. If unsure, look it up, as often this information is quite enlightening and can clarify a source of previously discounted kilojoules. Don’t mistake fat free or gluten free for being kilojoule free!
- Monitor your weight weekly. Without this feedback, it is difficult to know if you are on the right track.
- Observe your inner experience. Research indicates that it takes on average 15-20 minutes for the stretch receptors in our stomach to send a message of satiety to our brain. So before you rush off for a second helping, maybe wait and see.
- Finally be mindful of your self talk. Take a self compassionate viewpoint. Gently encourage yourself as you would a friend if you make some poorer choices or do not have the expected weight loss. Avoid the “all or nothing approach” as many people will give up their new regime as soon as they have missed something.
Remember, to win the war, you may need to lose a few battles.
Each day is a new experience and presents a new opportunity.
Be kind and nurture yourself.
Happy New Year.
For more information on Kathryn and the team of Clinical Psychologists at Psychology Consultants visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au
A big chunk of the modern human brain functions in exactly the same way that it did thousands of years ago. Largely, this means our actions are still motivated by threat and drive systems. The evolutionary science and theories around the development of the human brain and these motivational systems are described in the work of Professor Paul Gilbert.
On the one hand, our threat system insists that it is “better to be safe than sorry”. In other words, our primitive brains much prefer to err on the side of mistakenly identifying a threat when it is not there, rather than miss the presence of a threat that is there. The result, of course, is heightened vigilance, anxiety and avoidance, and anger and aggression. Check out the great work on anxiety by Dr Dennis Tirch and anger by Dr Russell Kolts.
On the other hand, our drive system insists that we always “strive for something better”. This includes us seeking some of the fundamental resources necessary, such as food, shelter and sex. It also means wanting more, striving for success and dominance, as well as avoiding inferiority and shame, and generally focuses on gratification for ourselves and those close to us, potentially leading to selfishness or greed.
These threat and drive systems are extremely powerful motivators, even in modern humans. To our credit, there are many great examples of human progress. We have had the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, the golden rule of religions, the age of enlightenment and development of human rights, the scientific revolution and the advent of democracy. But, despite all this, we still often feel, think and behave just like our ancestors from tens of thousands of years ago, those earliest Homo sapiens.
There are now well over 7 billion people in the world. The mere fact that this number keeps climbing proves one thing: human beings aren’t generally inclined towards killing other human beings! In fact, while cruelty and violence is certainly part of our make up, it is not all or even most of who we are. Human beings have a basic orientation towards affiliation.
Our ancestors survived because of their ability to look after one another, support one another, and comfort and soothe one another. This included, of course, our vulnerable young, but we looked after everyone, young and old, strong and infirm, all members of the tribe. And this worked really well. Those tribes of early humans that looked after one another and cooperated were able to thrive.
As aspects of the human mind, culture and sensibilities have continued to develop, human beings now have an exquisite opportunity to reflect on ourselves and how we operate in the world. Do we still want our behaviours to be dominated by the threat and drive systems? Do we want to allow those systems to create a world of divisiveness and enmity?
Or do we want to find a way to organise our threat and drive systems so that they can still helps us survive and get along in the world, without fear and greed pervading our species and motivating us to do terrible things to each other?
The soothing system is our chance to do that. Each and every one of us has this system as an integral part of our brains. And it is a source of great compassion. We just need to bring it front of mind and deliberately cultivate it in ourselves, expanding our ability to care for others beyond ourselves and our immediate family, friends or community.
By activating this soothing system, and cultivating compassion as the primary motivator to help organise our other systems and ourselves, we can:
- Become more aware of others throughout the world,
- Understand each of them as a whole person, and
- Begin to see them as just like us, and a part of the same common humanity.
People, ourselves included, are made up of many facets and need not be defined by the labels and biases we may presume of them. We can cultivate a compassionate attitude towards all the peoples of the world. Let’s face it, with progress, technology, communication, travel and the like, the world now is on the verge of being one tribe, living in one village. We are all in this global village together and we have the opportunity to start looking after one another.
By the way, it’s ok to get scared sometimes. Of course we can worry, say, about people we love being hurt, injured or killed and therefore act in ways to keep them safe. And it’s ok to be aspirational. Much of the good in the world has come from the ideas and efforts of human beings striving for something better. We just want to have that third piece of the puzzle, the soothing system, that organises threat and drive in a way that means others don’t need to suffer.
So, I invite you to stop for a moment and carefully think: What might it be like to take a compassionate attitude into your life? How might you start to think and feel? What might you start to do? Perhaps you might commit to doing something today?
Have a look at this info-graphic from my friend and colleague Dr James Kirby…a great way to start the day being your compassionate best.
I will conclude by way of an example. In the context of current world events we might find ourselves thinking (or hear other people saying): This country’s going downhill! It’s unsafe. Those people are coming in here, taking our jobs. And most of them are criminals and murderers!
And then we might respond to ourselves from the perspective of the soothing system with: It’s ok. Thanks for the warning. It can be scary when things change. I’ll stay alert to the possible problems, but today I want compassion to be my guide. I want to see if there is something I can do to help.
For more information on Dr Steindl and the team of Clinical Psychologists at Psychology Consultants, visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au
By Clinical Psychologist, Cherie Dalton
Christmas is a time of special traditions, sharing of meals and relationships, and religious celebration. It can also be a poignant reminder of memories shared with loved ones who are no longer here potentially generating a mix of grief and sadness, warmth and gratitude. Grief is an understandably complex process and while everyone works through things in their own way, it is a commonly shared experience. Occasions such as Christmas bring particular opportunity to shine a light on what matters most to us – past and present. While people may be inclined to feel alone at Christmas, the very nature of the celebration emphasises the importance of community, friendship, gentleness, generosity, kindness and gratitude. Despite the experience of grief and sadness, we can consciously and deliberately choose to notice the underlying positive intent of the festive season.
In her reflection of grief and sadness, Yoko Ono observed “Experiencing sadness and anger can make you feel more creative, and by being creative, you can get beyond your pain or negativity.” While the pain may continue, we can practice openness and curiosity to find ways of honouring a loved one this Christmas. Festive rituals and routines often represent both memories from the past and the creation of a new present, (Collins,T., 2014) simultaneously allowing us to feel reassured by the familiar, while facing change. Moving toward this ‘new’ present, while not easy, may extend personal flexibility, creativity, social relationships and new experiences, by, for example, spending Christmas on a holiday with a friend to deliberately create new experiences while also allowing memories of past Christmases to be gently present.
Christmas can signal change by creating an opportunity to deliberately reflect, actively remember those we’ve lost and find time to talk about them to trusted family, friends, or members of the community, helping in small ways to process the sense of loss. Christmas serves as a social resource as family, friends and communities are brought together routinely as an opportunity to reinforce ties (Allan, 1996; Allan, Hawker and Crow, 2008). The coming together of people in a variety of ways at Christmas can offer increased social support and activities compared with other times of the year. Get togethers organised with the ‘excuse’ of Christmas can offer ready-made, easier opportunities for social support and a common purpose. The intergenerational links of children and grandchildren (even if not related) are symbols of joy and continuity and can ease family tensions and negative feelings during celebrations (Searle-Chatterjee, 2001). Pleasant traditions such as the exchange of gifts, carol singing and contact with young children can add to a meaningful and shared experience as an antidote to loneliness and emptiness.
At times of vulnerability, people often discover the gift of predictability. Christmas is rich in the value of tradition and familiarity. If we tune into the reassurance and comfort in these traditions, perhaps we can soften our journey. The tunes and lyrics of carols, community concerts, the sending and receiving of Christmas cards, favourite Christmas ‘comfort’ foods, church services, social get- togethers and once-a-year catch-ups and Christmas decorations can all serve a reassuring purpose. In particular, Christmas cards present an opportunity to maintain social relations with work colleagues, neighbours, friends or family. Receiving cards has a positive effect on self-esteem and happiness (Medical News Today, 2003) and the custom ensures retention of scattered links with the past, helping to preserve a sense of continuity in life in the face of change (Searle-Chatterjee, 2001). A ritual that’s worth continuing for our benefit and others!
Charities, churches, councils and schools all use the festive season to engage and welcome the community. There are emotional rewards for us all in both receiving and offering kindness. With the many ‘ready-made’ opportunities at this time of year, offering energy, time or a donation may be easier than you think. Offering your help to a soup kitchen, donating food or gifts, sending Christmas cards expressing gratitude for others in your life, baking for a community event, helping with Meals on Wheels, dropping off flowers to a nursing home or taking left-over ham to a neighbour who lives alone may prove to be a gift to both you and others. It’s a perfect season for a ‘considered (rather than random) act of kindness’!
Most importantly, seize the moment and reflect with gratitude on the warm relationships shared with others, both in the past AND the present this Christmas.
For more information on Cherie and the team of Clinical Psychologists at Psychology Consultants visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au
If you feel you need help the following support lines are available:
Lifeline 13 11 14 (24 hours), GriefLine 1300 845 745 (noon-3am, daily), or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 (24 hours) and Beyond Blue Online Chat http://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/get-immediate-support>
By Dr Jillian Millar, Clinical Psychologist
It is National Psychology Week and this year’s theme is: ‘think well, be well’. Often when we discuss mental health issues there is a tendency towards viewing it from a negative or unwell perspective. Statements like “He’s gone crazy,” or “She has a mental health problem,” demonstrate how many of us do not take an active role in maintaining our mental health, at least not until it reaches breaking point. This year’s theme attempts to get people talking about and reflecting on mental health and the need for our focus to shift towards wellbeing.
I have often described seeing a Clinical Psychologist as similar to going to a Personal Trainer. People visit PTs for a variety of reasons ranging from trying to lose weight and get into shape, through to rigorous training for accomplished athletes. So why wouldn’t we visit a CP to help us examine our thinking patterns and help get our minds into good shape? Psychotherapy isn’t just for when we are experiencing problems; it’s also about reaching your full potential, improving your relationships with others and with yourself; it’s also about self-discovery, insight and awareness of oneself. In the end you are the one individual you have to spend the rest of your life with – so why not gain a greater understanding of yourself.
There are a few fundamental actions we can all take when striving to improve our mental wellbeing. Firstly, make sure you are getting some exercise. This is crucial to regulating our moods, improving the quality of our sleep, helping us become physically healthy as well as mentally healthy. Getting a good amount of sleep is also important. There is a Goldielocks aspect to sleep, not getting enough rest can cause difficulties, but oversleeping can also be problematic and make us lethargic. Then there is ‘just the right amount’ of sleep, which allows us to function at our best. This does vary from individual to individual and generally falls somewhere between 6-8 hours a night for an adult. Under or over sleeping wreaks havoc on our moods and tends to heighten most emotions and stress, while reducing our concentration and tolerance levels.
Next on the list of ensuring mental wellness is good nutrition, eating a relatively healthy balanced diet with occasional treats is the aim. We’ve all heard about being ‘Hangry’ (hungry angry) and an unhealthy diet can make us feel rather unmotivated. Another very important step for maintaining mental health is to get involved in life and activities: be an active participant in your family, friendship circles, local community, and socialise! Yes that’s right, feeling like you are a part of something helps us experience a sense of belongingness and contribution, which are great mood lifters. Plus it allows us to create positive memories and build support networks that then help us through the tough times. Lastly, try to approach life with openness and curiosity. Perhaps if we shift our focus from judging and critiquing things towards experiencing and understanding them we might feel a lot healthier and happier.
It’s time we all started prioritising our mental health just as much as our physical health. You don’t need to be sick to benefit from psychotherapy. Visiting a Clinical Psychologist gives us a chance to reflect on how our lives are going and the choices we are faced with, the decisions we make and the patterns that eventually emerge in our functioning. Psychotherapy provides a space for us to examine and explore our internal experience of the world and develop our self-knowledge.
Here is a link to a brief 3 minute YouTube clip elaborating on the benefits of psychotherapy for everyone in achieving good mental health. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxuZiqY5ypU
Take the time to value your mental health!
For more information on Dr Millar and our team of Clinical Psychologists, visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au
By Dr Stan Steindl, Clinical Psychologist
Finding ways to cultivate compassion in society remains an important priority. Over recent years, spirituality, science and the arts have converged to discover just what might work. Guitarist, Dr Anthony Garcia, and myself have begun a collaboration to explore this convergence, drawing on ancient meditative practices and the emotional potency of music to enhance the cultivation of compassion and self-compassion.
The findings of an early pilot study of CONVERGENCE were presented at the recent UQ Compassion Symposium. The study included 28 participants, mainly tertiary-educated females, who took part in a 2-hour workshop of compassion meditation to live musical accompaniment. I provided the spoken word meditations and Anthony performed the musical accompaniment. The three meditations were Affectionate Breathing, Loving-Kindness to Others, and Loving-Kindness to Self. The participants were assessed in terms of motivation and commitment towards compassion and self-compassion using a brief questionnaire developed specifically for the workshop.
Interestingly, while all participants were highly motivated towards both compassion and self-compassion prior to the workshop beginning, it was found that participants’ sense of their ability or confidence regarding both compassion and self-compassion were lower than other aspects of motivation. It was also found that motivation towards self-compassion generally, and ability or confidence specifically, significantly increased from pre- to post-workshop. This suggested that the CONVERGENCE workshop may help to increase ability and confidence towards self-compassion.
These were very encouraging results, although a few limitations of the study are acknowledged. It was a pilot study with a fairly homogeneous sample. Also, the measure used to assess motivation and commitment towards compassion and self-compassion was not psychometrically developed. In fact, there is a need in the area of compassion research to develop reliable and valid tools for assessing motivation and commitment towards compassionate and compassionate action. Nevertheless, CONVERGENCE did seem to offer many possibilities as a novel combination of meditation and live music to help cultivate compassion and self-compassion, especially confidence, and is well-worth further exploration.
If you are interested at all, you can find the slides for the little presentation I did with Dr Anthony Garcia at the UQ Compassion Symposium on Convergence here:
For more information on Dr Steindl visit our site http://www.psychologyconsultants.com.au