Sunday, 25 August 2019

How Shame Can Make A Mockery Of Us All

A tutor at my counselling course told me early on in the course that many of the problems clients present with “stem from shame”.

That surprised me. Surely, shame is transitory, I thought. We all suffer from occasional embarrassment but we all get over it quite quickly, don’t we? It’s not like it has to power to influence us for long periods, does it? 

The thought came and went and didn’t resurface for quite a while – a bit like my concept of shame – but, when it did, I began to realise my tutor of many years’ experience was a great deal more knowledgeable than I’d given her credit for. 

I was learning from my own work with clients that shame played a very large part in the reason for their visit to a therapist. They might say they were looking at exploring one issue but, hidden way, sometimes way back in an early part of their journey through life, some sense of shame was making their present difficult to manage.

My continued interest in and exploration of the subject meant I needed to understand the difference between shame and guilt. I understood there was a difference but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Following a fair bit of online research, it seems right for me to go with the suggestion that shame is the feeling we have about our “whole” selves and something involving our “whole” selves, whereas experiences of guilt are connected with something we might have done to another.  

Looking at it from an early-sign perspective, I can see how there is a link with shame and embarrassment perhaps more at the lower end of the scale which, if we can pick up and reflect on in time, can be dealt with and then we can move on. We may feel a little awkward, maybe even blush as the blood rushes to our cheeks and reflects our feelings in a somatic way, for all to see. If we’re naturally resilient, we can learn that we feel uncomfortable with what we have either felt or revealed and we can learn from that experience. It can, indeed, be transitory.  

But real shame or shame that has become a part of us is something else. Shame, according to Carl Jung, is a “soul-eating emotion”. It can envelop your soul. Your “whole” being and become all consuming. And that is what may bring someone to therapy.

Children do not feel shame. Watch the variety of toddler who has a secure start to life go for something they want. They don't feel awkward about their determination to achieve whatever goal it is they want at that particular moment. They are unaware of Machiavelli’s The Prince and the end justifying the means. They are only interested in achieving their aim at that particular moment in time. They don’t know why they want it, they just do. And if they are thwarted in their desire, they tend to be upset and/or angry. But not ashamed of their desire. Children acquire a sense of shame through the teachings of others.

Shame is acquired, not inherent
It’s fairly clear from such an example that shame, in an ordinary sense, is an important part of learning. It’s connected with empathy. 

For instance, I remember being told the Japanese ask their children: “How would you feel if…?” The adults put the child in the position of the “other” so that they can understand how someone else would feel. For a society to work well, we need to factor the “other” into our way of being. 

Shame becomes a problem when it overrides everything else and stops us from moving on, from continuing to develop our whole selves. What if you took to heart something someone said to you as a child in a throwaway line that you, a highly sensitive little person, took to heart. The chances are the person who said it will not even remember the conversation or be mortified if reminded of their words, appreciating that those same words had done such damage. It happens all the time. I hear it from confidences my adults are generous enough to share with me.  

Taking another example.  What about the adult person who is stopped from doing something different because of the fear of failing or the sense of being observed failing? It’s easier to imagine in our world of social media because many of us tend to publicise our efforts through a social media page. In the past, if we tried something and it didn’t work, it was no big deal – a bit of transitory embarrassment, maybe, but not the sense of public humiliation we might fear now. Ah, there’s another word. Humiliation, a public shaming. That is something we all fear.

So what’s to be done? Well, there is no instant answer. What may have taken a lifetime to develop cannot be “cured” abruptly. I’d suggest we need to be aware of our thoughts, our feelings, our bodily reaction to a twinge of awkwardness, embarrassment, shame so that we catch it before it catches us.

A twinge of such emotions can be useful, as a way of learning and understanding about ourselves and trying to help us be a better, more fully formed person, someone who generally – remember, we all muck up, don’t expect perfection – adds to the greater good. 

A little bit of shame may have its uses. But don’t let it eat your soul.



Photo by Gage Walker on Unsplash








Sunday, 11 August 2019

Time For Some Positive Thinking


Someone asked me recently: “When did everyone in this country become so angry?”

It’s an interesting question and one that’s given me quite a lot to think about.

Obviously, the run-up to Brexit in 2016 comes to mind and then there’d be a good reason for 48% of the voting population to feel aggrieved. Or, for that matter, the 52% who voted out. So that accounts for 100% of the voting public. Quite a number.

But, reflecting further, I wonder if the anger was there before then, otherwise the question of a referendum would probably not have come up. Happy people are less likely to question the status quo.

So, I suppose we’re talking about the financial crash of 2008 and the effect it has had on all of us. The banks – who were at the centre of the storm – seem to have recovered and are doing very well. But what about we, the people, what about us? Have we recovered?

I’d suggest not. There’s an anxiety in the air that doesn’t show any sign of dissipating any time soon. We’re living in uncertain times.

There are terrible conflicts going on in the Middle East over which we seem powerless but which are brought to our attention through 24-hour news; our leaders seem to have lost it (I’m not talking about our latest PM here, it’s too early to judge) and, economically, it all seems a bit worrying. Prices are going up, the pound is going down.

And the people don’t like it, we feel unsettled. And, with our perception of increasing crime and terrorism acts, we don't feel safe. And we need to feel safe. If, individually, we function better when we feel reasonably secure, it’s even more imperative when we’re working as a collective within society.

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes offered his ideal social contract as one in which the individual offered everything to the monarch in exchange for being kept safe. He lived during the terrifying time which was the English Civil War and I always thought that seemed a bit extreme (I preferred John Locke’s idea of “enough for your needs, plus a little bit more” as a good way towards contentment) but now I'm beginning to get Hobbes. It’s hard to feel secure when all around seems to be chaotic. David Cameron’s survey about happiness no longer seems as odd as it once did.

So, what can we do about it?

Collectively, I’m lost. But I’d suggest that, individually, there are a number of ways in which we can help ourselves.

For instance, take time to reflect on what you as a human being actually have. Your health, your family, your work, your friends, a pet, food, exercise – anything and everything that gives you a feeling of contentment at least. Experience and recognise what you’re feeling and “bank” it so you can draw on the pleasurable side of your life when and as you need.

Living in the moment

I recently saw a toddler discovering wind (not that sort) for the first time. What I experienced as potentially frightening – fences being knocked down, people hit by falling trees, trains not working, etc. etc. – she experienced as astonishing and wonderful. The expression of delight on her face as she lifted it towards the sky and gave a really gutsy laugh reminded me that there is always another way of considering something of concern.

In the old days, the phrase for it would be: “Count your blessings.” Now, it’s incorporated into a style of mindfulness that keeps us centred in the moment; we can’t stress about our worries when we’re actively living in the now.

On a personal note, I believe mindfulness as a form of meditation is great but wouldn’t be able to manage it permanently. I remember another expression: “Live each day as if it were your last.” I understood the sentiment but not the reality. It would be exhausting and I’d clock up the most enormous debts for which, if it weren’t my last day, I’d be liable.

And that takes me to another thought.

If you want to, listen to what others have to say but remember not to “go with the flow” unless it’s what you really want to do. Choose for yourself what suits you. It’s easy to be uncomfortable if we’re living a life that doesn’t suit us.

As well as reflecting on your feelings and your internal world to bring out happiness and/or contentment, take time to enjoy the good offerings of life. Immerse yourself in a good book or film, take some exercise (it doesn’t have to be hard, walks are good too) or listen to music that lifts your mood.

The key is in awareness and discovering what suits you. Listen to your inner voice and be aware of what your body is telling you. We can’t do much about the world about us, but we can take charge of how we make the most of ourselves within it.

As the song goes – it’s a worthwhile message:

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

(Lyrics: Johnny Mercer/Composer: Harold Arlen)

By Lulu Sinclair

Sunflower picture:  Elijah Hail on Unsplash 
Laughing child:  S&B Vonlanthen on Unsplash

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Will the Real Boris Johnson Please Stand Up



In case you’ve missed the news recently, the Conservatives have a new leader and the nation a new Prime Minister. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Boris - to us, but not his family and friends - for short.

He’s been a long time coming and, according to reports, has wanted to be “World King” since the age of seven. Now may be a good time to see if we can work out a little bit more about our new leader.

Boris is the oldest of four “full” siblings including Rachel, Leo and Jo. We’re told the family is intensely competitive and we know a reasonable amount about all of them, except for Leo, who seems to keep a less public profile. The family ties with patriarch Stanley, himself once an aspiring politician, remain strong. Stanley, talking immediately after his son’s election, made a laughing remark about the leadership skipping a generation. One wonders how much of a familial trait is being expressed here …

Until just a few days ago, we knew of Boris as a very clever man – a scholarship to Eton and then to Balliol College, Oxford – twice mayor of London, sometime Latin-speaker and MP for Uxbridge. He’s clearly charming and well-liked by those who know him (although he’s by no means popular with everyone) and is self-deprecating with his humour, which is also a good way of disguising his intellect.

However, nobody who’s got where he has – even with connections – can have arrived there by chance. He has worked for it, no matter how effortless he may have made it seem.

And this where the contentious bit comes in; I’d suggest somewhere in his early years, after moving from a happy home life to boarding school, the boy who started out Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson developed a “false self” persona - the one he's shown us up until now.

The false self theory is connected with early life experiences and secure attachment. Put simply, the idea is that, if you have a good-enough start in life and a secure primary care giver, then you can generally deal with what life throws you. And, when life becomes difficult (as it inevitably will), you have someone alongside you to help you work out how to manage and develop in a healthy and beneficial way.

At last - the keys to Downing Street
The Johnson family moved around often in his early years, including spells outside the UK but, when mother Charlotte became ill (his parents subsequently divorced), Boris and his siblings were sent away to boarding school, first at a prep school and then on to Eton.

I’d suggest life might have been a little hard for Boris as a scholar at Eton.

He came from a very close and intellectually driven family, was well travelled – he had been at school in Brussels and spoke fluent French – and was probably a great deal more sophisticated than his schoolmates. And, even if he was a great sportsman (those rugby shoulders), upper-crust English families at that time (we’re talking 1970s remember) tended to appreciate sporting prowess above academic genius. I doubt there is any other country in the world that describes someone as: “Too clever by half.” England did.

Also, the British upper-class system is not really designed for those who aren’t immediately part of the group, as Boris wasn’t. His ancestry would have been pretty different from most of his fellow schoolmates (a Turkish great-grandfather as well a host of other foreign connections from both sides) as would his cleverness. We’re all excited by diversity nowadays but we were a much more secular society then.  

So, I would argue, Boris had to contend with his removal from a very close and supportive family environment to a much less sophisticated world, coping with the complications of his mother’s illness and his parents’ subsequent divorce. He had to put on a brave face and he did and that is the Boris that we feel we have come to know.

The false self persona comes about in part because of the need to fit in and also with that often comes a desire to be liked. That, too, fits Boris’ profile. When he heard he was being interviewed by one journalist for nine of the 10 hustings, he was horrified, saying: “But he doesn’t like me!”

So how did a man who appears to need to be liked make the momentous decision to fall out with many of his friends – including fellow old Etonian David Cameron – and join the Vote Leave Brexit campaign? That seems to go entirely against the grain.

Critics argue it was a cynical ploy and Boris saw it as his one chance to gain the highest office in the land. However, his supporters argue that his decision could have cost him his political career. They say his decision was based on deeply held beliefs, not just cynical opportunism.

We know Boris Johnson wrote two articles, one in favour of remaining in the EU and one against. He told journalists (charmingly, of course) it was a way of focusing his own mind on what he believed to be best for Britain. The one he published was the one in favour of Brexit.

Certainly, the new PM is now showing us a different side to the one to which we’re used. His “take no prisoners” change of ministers within a day of coming to power indicates a determined will lurking within that jovial exterior. And, making his first speech as PM outside No 10 Downing Street, I didn’t hear him use one Latin phrase. He spoke clearly, sharply and fluently and finished his sentences without the awkward hesitation we often hear. This was a different man from the playful Boris to whom we’re used.

Could it be that this fun-packed, devil-may-care, witty, erudite Briton who makes us smile when we hear his name, is not all there is to Boris. Could it be that what began as a disguise and a reaction to a traumatic change in his early life is indeed a cover?

For what or for whom I don’t know. But we will find out.



Top pic: Mayor Boris Johnson in 2012 at the opening of the London Olympics 

NB: This is my entirely personal view, written wearing the analytical hat of a journalist. I’m aware that, as a qualified counsellor, I have no business writing about somebody of whom I have no personal experience. However – and that’s an interesting point for me – I feel I know him, as many of us do, so I’ve decided to take a punt and write about what I see. In my defence, I’d argue Mr Johnson is a politician and we have a right to consider what makes him tick.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Obesity Epidemic


Every week, we are told we are getting progressively fatter as a nation and that the illnesses and physical disabilities that can be directly attributed to excess weight are placing a catastrophic drain on the resources of the NHS. 

Two-thirds of adults in the UK are now overweight and 27% are classified as obese. Resultant illnesses include Type 2 diabetes, cancer, strokes, heart attacks and sometimes irreversible damage to muscles, joints and tissues.   

And, every week, we are bombarded with information on new “wonder” diets, new fitness programmes, new exercise plans and nutritional guidelines. 

Old-school slimming organisations such as Weight Watchers continue to thrive while we are increasingly offered slimming pills and medical interventions ranging from gastric bands to body modifications of one sort or another.

So, we have all the information, we know all the risks, and we have access to all the possible support systems and “cures” . . . and yet we continue to get fatter and fatter - why???

Perhaps the answer lies in the question.

It is often said that the reason diets and slimming programmes don't work is because they are not sustainable. It is important to recognise that the reason that they are not sustainable is not because the slimmer is not getting enough food to sustain them - as no ethical diet or programme would promote that - but because they are seen as restrictive and boring.  

So it seems the real problem can then be identified as connected with the lack of "feeding" the pleasure response, rather than the actual hunger itself.

I believe, therefore, it is more productive to approach this problem from the perspective of the feelings which cause us to eat, rather than the food we then consume. 

People often bemoan their lack of will-power in not sticking to a diet, whereas I suggest it is precisely their will that is persuading them to reach out for more food despite their better judgement, and the power given to the food is often to make us feel better rather than to satisfy an actual hunger. 

We eat the “wrong” foods, not only because we like the taste, but because we absorb them more swiftly into our systems and therefore experience a quicker response.   

Food has emotional connections
Just as we would not consider it helpful to take an alcoholic into a pub and discuss with him/her the various ingredients and comparative merits of each bottle of alcohol I feel that, until we take the focus off the food and place it on the reasons for eating, we are not attacking this crisis at source. 

Food has always had - and will always have - strong, emotional, cultural and religious associations and it has traditionally been used both to celebrate and to punish.  

These feelings remain embedded in us and we then easily learn to attribute the feelings to the food itself.  

This is demonstrated by the fast food chains who make their food very attractive to young children as those connected happy feelings will often remain with adults throughout their lives.   

How often do we eat for social, celebratory or habitual reasons, or out of loneliness, boredom or unhappiness?   

Just over 40 years ago, Susie Orbach in her book Fat Is A Feminist Issue explored how women can use gaining weight as a psychological defence. Little has changed. 

A recent six-page supplement on obesity in The Guardian which contained articles by doctors, nutritionists, surgeons, physiotherapists and other health care professionals, included just one sentence on the possible need for psychological help.

Obesity is an illness that we wear; the symptoms are not hidden or random. 

While we focus on the food, we are on a constant roller-coaster of deprivation and compensation where food is both our gratification and our punishment and comes with a heavy coating of guilt.

Yet the medical profession is often fearful of addressing this crisis out of concern for shaming the patient.  

I would argue that we are at risk of allowing more and more people to die of obesity and its related illnesses if we cannot lift the stigma that is attached to fatness.

Instead, we need to look and see it as an emotional and psychological defence that can be managed and overcome with sympathetic and insightful care.      
         
Integrative Counsellor and Psychotherapist


Photo by Christopher Flowers on Unsplash  
Photo by Alexander Mills on Unsplash  

Sunday, 30 June 2019

An A-List To Fight Off Disease



As a psychotherapist, working with cancer sufferers and their families, I have seen how a cancer diagnosis turns lives upside down. Both my parents were also the victims of cancer and this has led me to try to understand the disease from my own personal point of view. In other words: Is cancer my destiny or can I somehow “dodge the bullet”? 

Clearly, genes come into it too and, while you may be genetically predisposed to certain cancers, I am convinced your lifestyle and environment can also make a big difference as to what your future may hold.     

Canadian researchers have recently categorised five leading risk factors which account for a minimum of 40% of cancer cases. These are: 
  • Smoking – passive and active 
  • Being overweight – a BMI of over 25
  • Lack of physical activity 
  • Diet – not enough fruit, vegetables and fibre and too much saturated fat, processed carbohydrates and salt
  • Alcohol
My personal interest led me to a training course through Cornell University in the US, a university that has spent decades looking into heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Its findings, too, come out against hyper-processed foods and it particularly concerned about foods that come in two obvious forms – either in boxes with labels that sit on shelves for weeks or as animal products  – meat, dairy, eggs and fish.

Cornell’s evidence-based protocol  – effectively a whole food plant-based regime with no oil or added salt – is now being prescribed to patients all over the world and the results are impressive.  

I have spent a good deal of time talking to people who have made similar changes to their eating habits – some of whom experienced real difficulty before achieving any success and reaping the health benefits but others seems very reluctant to make a change, despite the evidence that such a change will do them good.

As a result of this, I’ve compiled what I call an Alternative A-list, summarising why I believe some people may not be eating for their health. I’ve given a reason why and a “takeaway” message which I hope will help.

Appropriate Awareness/Advice

GPs are not trained to advise their patients, nor do they necessarily have an ideal diet themselves so they may feel reluctant to give specific advice to their patients.

Hospital patients may find their rooms turned into veritable tuck shops as friends and family seek to bring comfort.

Take-away message:  In my view, healthy, whole, living foods lead to healthy bodies: processed and dead foods lead to sickness.

Apathy

Some people may feel apathetic when faced with the information.   

As a therapist, it is not our role to force, cajole, guilt or frighten people into changing their behaviours but one way I offer guidance to my clients is to give them the opportunity to imagine their lives in a healthy body with a clear mind. Picturing themselves in three years’ time, what they will look like, how healthy they will be, the clothes they will wear, the energy they will feel, the jobs they could do, may help bring about a willingness to make even small changes in the present that could lead to that outcome.

Take-away message: It’s easier to get excited about change when you can picture know the benefits.

Avoidance

Avoidance of pain and discomfort is a primeval instinct and the temptation to think: “I’ll change my lifestyle when I feel a bit stronger” calls to a core belief that change will be hard and at least psychologically painful.  Undoubtedly, they will miss comforting food so may be put off making changes, in the short-term at least.  

As with any avoidant behaviour, even a baby-step in the right direction can kick-start better habits. Adding a green smoothie to breakfast or gradually increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables in the diet will subtly push the calorie-rich and processed (CRAP) foods from the plate. For the brave few who decide to go “cold-tofu”, the boost to energy levels, return of mental clarity, improvement in mood and loss in weight, are among the most rewarding effects – often experienced in as little as a week.  

Take away message:  Baby steps, but the bigger the change, the bigger the impact.

Addiction

The word “addiction” is increasingly being used in relation to food.  When you understand that much of our food is little more than a “food-like substance” made hyper-palatable by food scientists in laboratories, the term addiction seems entirely appropriate.  In general, people aren’t suffering with addiction to apples, carrots or spinach but they are struggling with cheese, chocolate, baked goods and meat.

Cutting out such foods may be challenging, and withdrawal symptoms often feature as the body learns to live without chemicals on which it has learned to rely.  

Helping clients to focus on the future, on a life beyond addiction when they will regain the ability to taste whole food and experience its full flavour without the taste-dulling effects of highly processed sugar, salt and oil, may help provide motivation.  When illness is present, it can be truly empowering to offer a client a pathway to health over which they have direct control and this hope may help them to successfully tackle their addiction.

Takeaway thought:  Food-like substances aren’t food and can be addictive; time to go “cold-tofu”.

Adherence

So assuming awareness, apathy, avoidance, and addiction have been addressed and the individual is beginning to feel the benefits of a nutrient dense diet, there may still be trouble ahead.  

Advertising is worth a mention here. Food manufacturers and restaurants know that people sitting at home, with no food plans, an under-stocked fridge or freezer and at the end of a busy day, are ready to break their best resolutions.

Junk food comforts but is not healthy
  

Another serious barrier to change, is that people do not live in a vacuum.  Clients have partners and families who may have a different perspective or their own addictions to battle. Admonishment, peer pressure or just being plain teased can be really unpleasant, particularly when a person is trying so hard to do the right thing.

Bearing the discomfort of disapproval can be so hard that it can sometimes feel easier just to give up.  However, when the prize on offer is recovery from illness, longevity and an ability to be a healthier spouse, friend or parent, it actually becomes harder to go back to old habits.  In my experience, when people see you looking slimmer and healthier, they begin to ask genuine questions and perhaps in their own time, they begin to make changes.  

Take away message:  Row your own boat – those that want to, will follow in their own time but they are not your responsibility.

Availability

Availability of good healthy food seems to be improving for many people, particularly those in big towns and cities. But in some areas of the country, not only are restaurants still behind the times, there is also a distinct lack of fresh fruit and vegetables on offer, which makes it very difficult to make the necessary changes.  Frozen vegetables are a good option; they are often reasonable priced (with less waste) and, interestingly, the nutrient density of frozen food can often be greater than apparently fresh food that has been sitting around for days.  

Buying dried beans and peas is also another cost-effective option – again, taking a little effort to soak them overnight will save money and can be even better than the canned alternatives.

Research links poor-quality food to poor mental and physical health so, if every penny counts, it’s worth remembering that fresh and frozen food, as well as dried beans and peas, can work out far cheaper than their processed alternatives. 
  
Takeaway message:  We eat what’s available – make good stuff available.

Achievement

One of my favourite past-times is checking in on the many healthy-eating support groups on social media to read the wonderful stories of restored health.  The vast majority of these stories talk of better mental health, weight loss (100 lbs is not unusual), reduced blood pressure (110/70 is not unusual) and normalised blood work including blood sugar, cholesterol and inflammation markers often resulting in a reduction in medications. These stories are inspiring and serve to reinforce the science.

The important thing is to celebrate every single step/mouthful in the right direction.  Just one portion of mushrooms a week has been proven to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women, just one portion of green vegetables per day is linked to reduced colon cancer risk … I could go on and on.

Rest assured, falling off the wagon from time to time is only natural and that’s OK.  The odd transgression in the midst of a generally nutrient packed diet will not undo the good work the body has done in terms of gut bacteria, cell repair and fat loss (the preferred home of many toxins).  

Take-away message:  Success is achievable one mouthful at a time and support is available.

Summary

This article has attempted to explore some of the reasons why making the right choices for health can be at best, tricky and at worst, downright impossible. 

Sadly, there is a genetic component and some people will develop cancer whatever they do.  In the modern world, it is also fairly impossible to avoid all of the toxins (air pollution, clothing, carpets) that are currently known to be carcinogenic. However, eating an optimal diet including plenty of greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries and seeds is demonstrating that, on a daily basis and in large numbers, good food does lead to good health.  

Integrative Counsellor

Main picture by Mariana Montes de Ocarina's, Unsplash
2nd photo by Robin Stickel, Unsplash








Sunday, 16 June 2019

Hyper-Vigilance - Time To Burst The 'Safety' Bubble

A recent study suggests pregnant women become “hyper-vigilant” towards the end of their pregnancy in order to keep their unborn baby as safe as can be.

The research from Anglia Ruskin University looked at peripersonal space – the individual sense space around a person – and tested how a woman reacts during her pregnancy. 

Scientists used audio-tactile testing to investigate how the part of the brain that is aware of personal space was affected as the pregnancy developed. They found that, while it was unchanged during the first two trimesters, the boundaries were expanded during the third trimester as the woman’s body stretched to accommodate her growing baby.

It is a fascinating revelation and it’s easy to understand why this would be the case; it makes absolute sense. The woman is on the watch for any danger to her developing baby; all her senses are on high alert; she is careful, wary and on the lookout for any threat. She has reverted to her animal instinct, using the part of her primitive brain – the amygdala – that deals with emotions and is responsible for alerting her to danger. 

So, for an expectant mother, being hyper-vigilant makes sense. There is a very clear point to it. 

But what about hyper-vigilance in other circumstances, when the need may not be there?

Hyper-vigilance was good for our ancestors who had to be ever-aware of their surroundings and what was going on that might be a threat to their survival. The amygdala was crucial to their survival skills. It gave them the instant fight, flight or freeze reaction that could mean the difference between life and death. 

It is useful still, as 96 Harley Psychotherapy’s founder Dr Robin Lawrence explained: “You're walking down the road reading your smart phone and in a world of your own. You’re not thinking about what’s going on around you and are about to cross the road, when, for some explicable reason you stop. And just as you come to a sudden halt at the edge of the kerb, a big red bus goes by. 

“If you’d stepped out, you’d have been badly hurt at the very least. As it is, you’re standing still with shock, your mouth’s dry, your heart’s racing and you’re not sure what’s happened. 

“But you’re all right. You’re alive. And that’s because of some deep-down warning system within – your amygdala – was was doing its job well and looking after your survival.”

So far so good, but now we come to the more difficult part. 

We no longer operate within the same world as our ancestors and, all being well, our survival skills should have expanded to incorporate a greater need for reasoning and understanding that we need to use in our modern world.

For this, we need the pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain that works out the best reasoned and calm way to respond to a present situation.  

The pre-frontal cortex gets messages through the hippocampus – another key part of the brain connected with our emotions – the part of our brain that stores past memories and information and guides us towards our response. 

Interestingly, studies suggest people with anxiety problems – of which hyper-vigilance is one – have a smaller pre-frontal cortex than those living within a “normal” range of anxiety levels. 

The good news is that it develops with use so the more a person uses their reasoning and “in the present” thought process, the easier the process will become and the less reliance the individual will have on the amygdala and its impulsive response. 

Hyper-vigilance is believed to be connected with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a reaction to something that was perceived to have been terrifying, out of control and perhaps even threatening to a person’s life. For example,  imagine a soldier who’s been under fire in battle and remains forever stuck in that heightened sense of awareness, unable to move from that terrified state into a place of reasonable normality. 

It may indeed have been the case at a particular time for an individual or it may have been a childhood recall – accurate or not – when one’s very survival did literally depend on another person. 

So, if a person is hyper-vigilant as almost a “default” position, their response to life may in fact be detrimental to them, the opposite of what they are trying to achieve. If they are permanently on the lookout for trouble, they will be forever reacting emotionally, impulsively or inappropriately because they have not worked out what is the right way to react for the situation that is happening in the present, at this moment.

Hyper-vigilance carried into adult life is not a good idea. It has the potential for reverting us to a child-like state where we are a being full of emotion but have lost the reasoning skills that help us develop into fully-fledged thoughtful and capable adults. 

So, while we admire nature’s ability to allow an expectant mother to use the temporary hyper-vigilance qualities she is gifted to protect her baby, we need to remember that, on a permanent basis, it is no way to live. 

By Lulu Sinclair


Image of pregnant woman by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay
Image of a highly alert meerkat by Manfred Richter from Pixabay  

Thursday, 30 May 2019

In Defence of the Millennials

I’ve been reading a number of articles over the past few months about the “snowflake” generation, the original term for the millennials.

The name was cleverly created by advertising folk to target people in the age range of 22 and 37 and, from that comparatively loose term, comes Generation Snowflake and the later-born Generation Z. 


From what I read - rows over university debates, "safe" spaces, climate change, veganism, you name it, they had a strong view on it - the "snowflakes" appeared to be young people who were very careful to want recognition of their own feelings and needs but would truck no argument about anything or anyone who disagreed with them. 

Put like that, what’s not to find irritating?  

Most of the articles* I’d seen were critical of the group as a whole and that for a start seemed odd. How can you generalise about a generation of young men and women and treat them as if they were all the same? Isn’t that disrespectful? Maybe it was time to look at issues from their point of view and to consider the views of the “other” and reflect on them in a different, non-judgmental way. 

So, considering for myself, I’ve been wondering what’s wrong with being a snowflake? Don’t we love the original snowflake, with each one that falls having an original unique design that will never be replicated? Isn’t that a wonderful analogy of a person? And if a new generation is aspiring to living a life that allows the “uniqueness of the individual”, why are we not applauding and backing them? Why are some of us sighing, pulling faces and trying to absorb them into our way of life, rather than thinking about their desires instead?

It seems to me that we in Britain have been forced into the “one-size fits all” box of industrialisation and we have forgotten what it’s like to be individuals. Our society requires parents to go out to work to pay huge mortgages, bills, holidays and whatever else is required for us in a capitalist society, and that means many children are being institutionalised at a very early age. There are nurseries taking babies from the age of three months. In some society, the idea of removing an infant of that age from the care of its mother would be seen as cruel. 

I'm beginning to believe it’s hard being a millennial. There’s little job stability - that gigging economy causes more stress than you know - and, if they’ve been to university, a lot of debt to pay back. Rent is hugely expensive and mortgages prohibitive so how you they get on the first rung of any ladder without outside help? Maybe the “bleating” that we older adults hear, has a point. Maybe it would be better for us as a society if we were more emotionally attuned to the individual and his or her needs, than we are at present. 

And perhaps, if we disagree with some of their views – I’m in favour of arguing a case, rather than banning my opponent for example – we should try to convince them that there is sometimes a case for reason over emotion or a way to incorporate the two. They, in turn, could teach us about being a little more compassionate.

It would be good if cross-generation conversation could be encouraged so that we gain from the wisdom of all; currently, my readings leave me feeling there’s a desire to create hostility between the age ranges, perhaps to stop us blaming our leaders for the mess in which society seems to be right now.

One of the first millennials I came across described himself as a teenager as a “post-modernist child”. I asked for the definition and he said: “I’ve seen my parents work very, very hard and not get the rewards they deserved and I’m not going to do the same. That makes me post-modernist.” 

The young man rowed back on that a little as he “matured”, but I still admire the original thought. 

I’m going to end this piece with a story about another then 22-year-old millennial working as a journalist who was offered a full-time job – they are very hard to come by – with a top media organisation. He turned it down. I asked him why and he said: “Because I didn’t like the way they treated their older workforce.”

How kind was that? A young man at the start of his career choosing to put his core beliefs ahead of his own personal ambition. 

Put like that, what’s not to like.

By Lulu Sinclair

* A point to be aware of is that newspaper feature articles are often put out there to be controversial and to bring a response from their readership which will vary depending on their audience. So, for example, a left-leaning newspaper  may be more sympathetic to the “snowflake” point of view, whereas the editor with a more right-wing stance may feel his readership would want him to take a more robust approach. 

Photo by Rob Sarmiento on Unsplash