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Mental Health

Why do negative thoughts stick in our heads?

Have you ever had a really good day, when everything seems to go right?  Maybe you gave a presentation at work and got lots of great feedback.  But what if among the great feedback you got one bad comment?  Do you focus on the overwhelmingly positive feedback?  Or do you dwell on that one negative comment?  If it’s the latter, you’re not alone.  Most people do.

The brain sees negative information as three times more interesting than positive information.  This means we spend more time thinking about negative experiences and the memories of them last longer and are more detailed than positive ones.

From an evolutionary perspective, this helped our ancestors to survive the daily physical dangers that they lived with.  If you remember the noise of a wild animal, you know what to do next time you hear it.

But focussing too much on negative thoughts is not great for our mental health.

What can we do about negative thoughts?

The brain is designed for survival and naturally focuses on the negative so it takes effort to give equal attention to the positive.  But the more time we spend thinking positively the less we dwell on negative thoughts.

Recognise and reframe negative thoughts. If after an event, you catch yourself automatically thinking negatively (“everything went wrong, I shouldn’t have done…”), stop, and think about some of the things that went right.  Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help with this.

Celebrate the good things, no matter how small.  Share them with friends, write them down, spend time thinking about them, savour them.  It’s easy to have a moan about a bad day, but don’t forget the good bits.

Practice mindfulness.  Bringing your awareness to the present moment can help to break a negative thought cycle.  Regular practice can help to change the way you respond to your thoughts.  Watching your breath is a simple practice that can be done anytime. 

Practice gratitude. Keeping a gratitude journal or just thinking of three or four things you’re grateful for at the end the day can promote positive thinking and balance out any negatives.

Distract yourself.  Sometimes the best way to reduce the power of nagging thoughts is to distract yourself.  Do something you enjoy – listen to music, read a book, go for a walk, laugh.

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Mental Health

Racism and Mental Health

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed annually on the day the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960.

Racism has had a huge impact on my life, from the age of 7 to 17 I suffered direct racial abuse from people in the streets and systemic racism from school, the police, and also the mental health system.

Even  though I struggled with poor mental health, and racism was a clear factor in this, it was never brought up by social workers or medical professionals. It seemed that my reaction to racism was the problem rather than the racism itself. And when I questioned it, I was deemed a troublemaker or I “had a chip on my shoulder”. I remember one psychotherapist who was keen to know about my experiences growing up as a mixed ethnicity child adopted into a white family. He was convinced this was the cause of my problems but was unconcerned when I told him “my family are great, they weren’t the ones abusing me”. He had no interest in hearing about me being regularly attacked by skinheads and squaddies (I grew up in a barrack town) or about being held back in schools, in sports or later in my career.

After the death of George Floyd, and because of the blatant racism I have experienced over the years and the racism I was now seeing online from the yoga and wellness communities, I was inspired to create my own anti-racism training. I am on the faculty teaching this for the leading yoga training provider in the UK, Yogacampus, and other large yoga training providers.

So what do we know about racism and mental health?

Your Race and Ethnicity have a clear link to mental health from exposure to more risk factors, access to services, how you are referred, diagnosis given and treatment outcomes.

Harassment, discrimination, bullying, social isolation, poverty, migration, trauma, unemployment, poor housing, homelessness, family history, stress and in particular social stressors and inner city life are all risk factors for mental ill health ill. And if you’re from a Black or minority ethnic background, guess what? You’re more likely to be affected by them.

What does the science say?

Leading researcher in this field, Dr Robert Carter, showed that many individuals who have suffered racial discrimination experienced it as a form of trauma similar to post traumatic stress disorder (Carter et al. 2009).

A more recent study examined this further and showed a relationship between racial discrimination and dissociation, which is disconnection from thoughts, feelings, memories, identity, surroundings and time.

Thankfully there is now a growing body of high quality research studying the effects of racism on mental health and even though there were clear links shown in previous research for some reason this was ignored.

What do the stats say?

  • People from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds felt the possible financial costs of therapeutic interventions were too expensive since the majority of Black and minority ethnic people were from poor socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Historically, ethnic minorities have been more likely to be prescribed antidepressants and other forms of medication rather than psychological and cognitive behavioural interventions which eliminate the need for dependency on drugs.
  • Out of 16 specific ethnic groups, Black Caribbean people had the highest rates of detention under the mental health act 2020.

I could go on with shocking statistics but let’s look at the impact of these three. 

The cost of counselling and talking therapies are seen to be out of reach for minority ethnic people and so the private route is seen as inaccessible.

Due to systemic racism suffered by Black and minority ethnic populations there may be a deep distrust of authority which causes fear of accessing free NHS medical services.

We know that early intervention is vital when treating mental health conditions.

If Black people are more likely to be given drugs than talking therapies this means that the symptoms are being treated rather than the root of the problem, which talking therapies seek to do. So the problem is still there and all that happens is the person becomes dependent on drugs.

And so if that early intervention and follow up treatment is not there, then it’s more likely that intervention will come at crisis level and the stats back this up as White people are more likely to be sectioned/referred by their GP or CMHT (community mental health team) and Black people by the police.

What can we do about it?

Real change is happening within mental health services but a deep distrust of authority is a very real thing and will take time to heal. If you haven’t experienced racism yourself this may be a hard, or even impossible, thing to understand.

To make active change now, we as individuals must not only become actively anti-racist we must empower ourselves and each other to learn about mental health and how we can support each other.

There are specialist mental health services available specifically for Black & minority ethnic people like Black Minds Matter who connect Black individuals and their families to free mental health services and Nafsiyat the intercultural therapy centre  which offers talking therapies in over 20 languages.

Mental Health First Aid England has an excellent downloadable PDF on supporting the wellbeing and mental health of People of Colour and Black people in the workplace.

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Mental Health

Sleep and Mental Health

Good sleep is vital to good mental and physical health

Sleep is essential for maintaining good health.  The odd sleepless night may affect your whole day, but consistently not getting enough sleep can have a serious impact on your mental health.  It can affect your ability to concentrate and make good decisions.  It can make you irritable and impatient.  It can cause anxiety and depression and increase your chances of other mental health conditions.  Conversely, having poor mental health can lead to problems with sleep.  It can become a never ending cycle.

In my work as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, one of the main ways I’ve been able to help people is by helping them to sleep and to sleep properly.

What do I mean by sleep properly?

It’s not just how much sleep we get, but the quality of that sleep.  Some of us need more sleep than others but generally most people need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per day.  It’s normal to wake in the night, maybe to go to the loo, but if you can’t get back to sleep quickly, then you may not get enough rest.  The golden rule is that you should awake feeling refreshed and ready for the day.

Many people, however, fall asleep exhausted and wake up feeling tired.  This means that they’re not nourished from their sleep and they may rely on coffee or other stimulants to get through the day.  Others may find it hard to get to sleep in the first place because of worry.  Then if they do sleep it may only be for a couple of hours and they wake unable to fall asleep again.  Some complain of grinding teeth, dental problems, headaches and pain in their jaw when they wake.

So how can you improve the quality of your sleep?

With my clients, I often use movement synchronised with the breath, most likely in a supine position.  I might combine this with long held (gentle) stretches.  After this I may use relaxation techniques such PMR (progressive muscle relaxation), conscious breathing (pranayama) and restorative yoga postures, followed by a long savasana (yoga relaxation pose) where I will give a guided relaxation technique called yoga nidra (sleep of the yogis).

Many people have never experienced such deep relaxation and when they do they want more of it.  It’s like they finally have permission to relax.

Try my yoga nidra for sleep. Do it for five consecutive days and see what difference it makes to your happiness, health and wellbeing.

Categories
Mental Health

What is Self Harm?

The image that often comes to mind is of someone cutting themselves. But self harm can be any action that causes injury or pain to yourself. Over-eating, over-exercising, participating in unsafe activities, drinking too much are all just harmful to yourself as causing immediate physical injuries.

Many people think those that self harm are just attention seeking. If they were serious, they would attempt suicide, right? But in reality they will often do their best to keep their behaviour a secret. It is a coping strategy, a way of dealing with extremely difficult emotions and feeling some control over unmanageable emotions.

MHFA plenary speaker and self harm awareness trainer Satveer Nijjar discusses and explains more in this video.

According to a report published in the British Medical Journal, non-suicidal self harm has tripled in the UK in the last 10 years though people aren’t accessing services.

The co-author of the report Louis Appleby, from the University of Manchester, commented: “An increase in the prevalence of using self harm to cope with emotional stress could have serious long term implications. There is a risk that self harm will become normalised for young people, and individuals who start to self harm when young might adopt the behaviour as a long term coping strategy.”

Appleby warned, “Non-suicidal self harm may be associated with later suicide. As young people get older, reaching age groups that already have higher suicide rates, the self harm they have learned may become more serious and more likely to have a fatal outcome.”

Where to go for help

Self harm can be successfully treated when caught early and it’s important to get help as soon as possible.

Self Harm UK have launched a free online support group for 14-19 year olds called Alumina.

Young Minds are always an excellent resource for all mental health matters for younger people and they have some great pages around self harm. They also support parents of young people too.

The mental health charity Mind have useful contacts if self harm affects you or someone you know.If you’re in crisis contact The Samaritans on 116 123. In 2019, people discussed self-harm in calls with Samaritans once every two minutes.

In the Adult MHFA courses we learn about crisis first aid for self harm and positive coping strategies to help reduce stress.