Having more time on my hands has meant being able to do more reading, both fiction and non-fiction. And it’s meant that I can afford the luxury of disappearing down rabbit holes. Where one article references another, and that leads you off into a different direction, and you find out all kinds of wonderfully interesting things.
I’ve always known that social interaction is good for you. It creates feel-good hormones. They’re our reward for interacting with others, because our chances of survival are better if we’re in a group than if we’re lone individuals. Makes perfect sense.
Recently I’ve been reading more about the flip side. The negative effects of social isolation. It’s not just that we don’t get the feel-good hormones from connecting with others. That’s bad enough and can lead to depression. It turns out that people with few social connections are more likely to have higher levels of inflammation, and become sick. Pretty weird, but there’s a good evolutionary reason for it.
Inflammation is when chemicals from your white blood cells enter your blood or tissues to protect you from invaders. It’s fine when there are actual invaders, but sometimes inflammation continues long after the first trigger is gone. If it goes on, the inflammation eventually starts damaging healthy cells, tissues and organs. This affects the health of just about every system in the body. It can cause all kinds of diseases, including cancer.
So why are your inflammation levels higher if you’re lonely? Well, if you’re isolated you’re vulnerable. You’re more likely to be attacked by a predator or nasty tribesman from next door. So we evolved to turn up the body’s ability to fight off infection when we’re isolated - just in case. We did this by upping the levels of inflammation in anticipation of a possible attack.
A perfectly logical explanation and, in one of those weird moments of synchronicity, the day I read about that, the very same topic came up on BBC’s The Truth About Boosting Your Immune System. I always like it when information is corroborated like that.
In this day and age there are no predators, so the inflammation response to being isolated has no real outlet. Other than to attack our healthy cells and make us sick.
All the more reason to reach out to others. And if we can’t do it in person, then over t’internet is the next best thing.
Congratulations! We made it to the end of 2020. Yay!!!
As I prepared to write this post, I looked back at this time last year. This is how I finished my New Year post:
So, what’s in store for us in 2020? I am a big fan of Professor Richard Wiseman’s, and often quote his research about luck and opportunities: we make our own luck by being in a good head space, to be able to see opportunities when they present themselves.
As Richard Wiseman’s work shows, life is what we make it. And so much of that is down to how we respond to the events in our lives.
Well now, we were certainly challenged by the events of 2020! And of course, one of the main challenges was maintaining that good head space.
I and my colleagues are fortunate to have been trained in Solution Focused techniques that have helped us enormously throughout the year. That’s not to say we’ve been immune from anxiety, but as one of my best hypno buddies pointed out at the beginning of all this: ‘If your fight-flight system is not firing right now, there’s something wrong with it!’
We have been able to support one another online to keep our own mental wellbeing in a good place. That’s meant we can truly ‘be there’ for our clients.
Despite the challenges, here are some of the highlights on the Hypnotherapy front:
As planned, my colleague and I retired from lecturing in Guildford on behalf of CPHT (Clifton Practice Hypnotherapy Training) in August. The training switched to online for 4 months, which worked amazingly well, and our students adapted very quickly to seeing their volunteer clients via Zoom. CPHT Guildford has now become CPHT Surrey and is going from strength to strength with one of our former graduates at the helm. Although I am no longer running the main Diploma course, I am still delivering the marketing module to a few of the CPHT schools across the country.
Thanks to the fabulous guidance from our Professional Associations and Insurers, we were able to continue practising during lockdown by running sessions online or by telephone. We were luckier than ‘hands-on’ therapists, like massage therapists and reflexologists, and we’re mighty grateful for that. Online is still the safest way to deliver sessions, but again, thanks to the support of various organisations, we were able to devise Covid-related measures to keep face-to-face clients as safe as possible once lockdown ended.
The Lighthouse co-working space in Mill Street in Sidmouth continued to shine, despite lockdown, by switching their Masterclass events to online sessions. The courses were really useful, both from a business point of view, but also because it enabled us to connect with others during lockdown. It even opened up the sessions to people from far flung places across the globe. Awesome!
What with retiring from lecturing, and with a smaller number of clients during lockdown, there has been plenty of time for reading, attending online courses, watching TED talks and delving deeper into the world of Neuroscience. One of the surprises was discovering that the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism underpins much of the work we therapists do today. Fascinating stuff!
On the home front, we have been extremely fortunate that friends and family have stayed safe and well. The garden looks the best it’s ever been and t’office (spare bedroom) has benefitted from much decluttering. I even resurrected (and used) the sewing machine!
As we head in to 2021, let’s leave 2020 behind and look forward with optimism and a determination to deal with whatever life throws at us.
We know there are a few challenging months ahead, but we can be confident that we will adapt to the evolving situation. We always do.
We can also be reassured that, one day, life will settle down.
In the meantime, stay safe.
Here’s to a brighter 2021!
One of the surprising aspects of Solution Focused work is that we rarely talk with clients about the nature of their problem.
We obviously discuss why they’ve sought help at the initial consultation, but even then, we don’t encourage them to go into too much detail. We are much more interested in what they hope to gain by having hypnotherapy.
Clients seek help for a wide range of issues like lack of confidence, poor self-esteem, overthinking or lack of sleep.
They might even have anxiety related physical symptoms, such as irritable bowels, migraines, skin complaints or high blood pressure.
Some seek help because they have a behaviour they want to change, like skin picking or hair pulling.
Once clients understand how the brain works, they can see that these issues are not the cause of the problem. They are the symptoms of a brain that sees the world as a dangerous place. The original, primitive area of the brain then does what it does best. It protects us from the crisis by ramping up the fight-flight response. It floods our systems with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
It fires up systems that will get us away from the danger, so we get high blood pressure. It diverts energy away from systems not immediately needed for our survival, so we get irritable bowels. And we’re unlikely to sleep well.
One of the main principles of Solution Focused work is that the solution is not necessarily directly related to the problem.
So, rather than focus on why people are not sleeping, we instead help them cope better with the stresses in their lives. When they cope better, the level of their stress hormones reduces. With fewer stress hormones they sleep better, their blood pressure reduces, their tummy becomes more settled, they are more confident, they don’t pick their skin…
And the thought of not having to analyse the cause of their problems is one of the reasons some clients are attracted to the Solution Focused approach.
It’s counter-intuitive, but it works.
What’s your Preferred Future?
My primary role as a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist is to help people move towards their ‘preferred future’.
It’s a fabulous phrase and sums up the essence of the Solution Focused approach.
We’re taught specific questioning techniques to help people identify what their preferred future looks like.
And it’s often hard for clients to do that at first.
So many people become stuck in the past, simply because they rerun past hurts, mistakes or injustices. And it’s not unusual for people to want to replay those unhelpful scenes in the therapy room.
When I ask something like ‘if something in your life has shifted for the better, what would you notice that was different?’, clients often respond by telling me what’s wrong with their life now.
‘The trouble is, I am very anxious and I hate social situations’.
‘I wouldn’t be eating rubbish all evening’.
‘I’d be happy and calm <good answer>, rather than shouting at the kids and arguing with my husband <not so good>’.
The tendency to rehearse what’s wrong, rather than imagine what would be better is an automatic response. Part of my job is to help clients understand this style of negative thinking and help them retrain their brain to come up with positive answers.
Sometimes clients have strong beliefs that get in the way of opening up to change: ‘I have no will power’, ‘I have always been very stubborn and can’t back down’, ‘If I walk away from a problem, I am giving in.’
As a result they may find themselves stuck in a repeating cycle of behaviour that doesn’t serve them well. Their self-limiting beliefs are preventing them from enjoying life to the full.
When I hear these kinds of answers I remind clients of the phrase, ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’. And I help the client imagine a future where they are responding differently.
It’s not always easy to change ingrained habits of thought, it takes effort.
But the good news is, if you practise a new skill often and long enough, it becomes a subconscious response. Then you no longer have to apply any effort.
And if it means you achieve your preferred future, it’s surely worth it.
Have you ever noticed that you have a clearer perspective on things after a good night’s sleep? Or that you have more clarity and insight into issues at work after you’ve returned from a two week holiday?
Well, it’s no coincidence.
Cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios studies what goes on in our brains when we experience a moment of insight. He put it nicely: ‘Almost everyone has creative insights from time to time. But it is possible to cultivate these moments, too. People tend to have more creative insights when they are in a happy, relaxed mood.’
One way to solve a problem is to focus on the issue and use analytical thinking to come up with an answer. This can of course be very productive.
But what about those times when the answer just won’t come, no matter how hard we try?
This is when we need an Aha! moment, that flash of inspiration when a novel solution pops into our heads.
It turns out that these moments rarely arise through applying our conscious minds to the problem. They are much more likely to happen when we are out for a walk, or washing our hair or weeding the garden. When we are relaxed and not consciously thinking about the issue.
So, here are my top 3 tips for solving a difficult problem:
1. Build some downtime into your day.
There is a tendency in our culture to value hard work, even to glorify overwork. I see it in clients who are on the go from 6am to 10pm. They have no downtime.
If your brain is continually focused on the task at hand you are not accessing the background neural network that allows us to daydream and gain perspective. It can even impact on your ability to form memories.
When I was in my late twenties/early thirties I had a stupid work regime. I had a full-time job in IT and a parallel full-time commitment running a local charity. During this time I went on a narrow boat holiday with some friends and family. I have no recollection of that holiday. It’s only that there is photographic evidence that I know I was there at all.
For sure I was working hard, but there is no way that I could be in the slightest bit creative or come up with novel solutions.
Aha! moments don’t come from grinding work schedules, so cut yourself some slack and build some downtime into your life.
2. Get a good night’s sleep
Life is so much better when we get a good night’s sleep. If we sleep for 7 to 8 hours we go through several periods of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
REM sleep is really important for processing the events of the day and clearing your mind so you wake up with a clearer perspective. It’s when we have those really bizarre dreams when people and events from our past crop up in weird circumstances. They make no sense and are illogical when we think about them with our conscious minds.
But these illogical connections can serve a very useful purpose.
It seems that REM sleep helps us to make leaps of understanding that we couldn’t achieve with analytical cause-and-effect thinking. That mishmash of random thoughts can lead to incredible insights and there are plenty of examples of important scientific breakthroughs arising from dreams.
So, make sleep a priority. It is so important for our mental well-being.
3. Stop thinking about the problem
It sounds counter intuitive, but if you keep thinking about what’s wrong, how can you hope to find a solution?
It’s far better to take your mind off the problem and do something completely different. Your subconscious mind will continue to search for solutions, but you need to give it some space to be creative.
I remember years ago being in the garden with some friends and we were playing a ‘lateral thinking’ game. Each one of us read out a question from a pack of cards and the rest of us had to try and solve the riddle. You know the sort of thing: a horse is tied to a 5 foot long piece of rope, there is a pile of hay 8 feet away, how can the horse eat the hay? Jonathan Creek would solve it right away ,of course.
I’m not generally good at these things and, feeling a bit miffed at the thought of being shown up, I busied myself weeding the nearby border.
Weirdly, and for the first time in my life, I came up with correct answers to several of the conundrums.
Why? Because I wasn’t thinking about the problem that had been set. That allowed space for the Aha! moment to pop into my head.
So, if you’re struggling with a problem, distract yourself by doing something completely different.