Do you struggle with your boundaries and usually give too much to your partner without receiving back the love and respect you expect? Are you involved with an avoidant personality type and frustrated with the level of communication in the relationship. Do you see yourself as dedicated to the welfare of others? If these questions make you answer yes, then perhaps you might benefit from reading on.
Codependency is rooted in addiction. It is about over-functioning in someone else’s life but under-functioning in your own.To have a working understanding of codependency is to see a co-dependent as someone who cannot function from their innate self and whose thinking and behaviour is instead organised around another person, or even a process, or substance.
The term is located within a systemic framework. Codependency was originally a term used to describe a particular relationship dynamic where one partner had a substance abuse problem and the other didn’t. The individual who didn’t have the substance abuse issue became caught up in a cycle of excusing, tolerating, defending and even enabling the addiction of the other. In Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) the problem became known as an issue not solely with the addict, but also the family and friends who constitute a social network for the alcoholic. Al-Anon (the sister fellowship of AA) was formed in 1951, and holds the view that alcoholism is a family illness. Al-Anon is one of the earliest recognitions of codependency.
The term codependency is not universally accepted in the therapy world. For some clinicians codependence is over-diagnosed. For them, people could be helped with shorter-term treatments instead of potentially becoming dependent on long-term self-help programmes or therapy. Such treatment, they argue, can be theoretically misplaced as the direction of the treatment can follow the disease model of addiction. For others it is a healthy personality trait, albeit just taken to excess. The key in determining whether you have a problem yourself is to assess the extent of the under-functioning in your own life as a result of caring for another. Does your own life suffer as a consequence of your concentration on the needs of another.
Clients don’t often attend counselling and psychotherapy for codependency, or other addictions for that matter, but might present with problems associated with anxiety in their lives, for example, or relationship issues more generally. Once in the process of attending therapy sessions,however, they can become more conscious of their underlying codependency issues.
In order to understand codependency it is useful to gain insight into what kind of attachment style you operate from in relationships. We develop a style of attaching that affects our behaviour in close relationships throughout our adult life. One of our prime drives, after all, is to affiliate, just like our drive for survival. Our attachment style is largely dependent upon our mother’s behaviour, in addition to later experiences in childhood and other environmental and social factors. For more information on this see my article on attachment styles and recovery from codependency.
Recovery from codependency, like all addictions, involves the development of a healthy self and allowing for an expansion of consciousness. Healthy relationships are when each person can remain themselves and when the dynamic allows for change and flow. If you are in a codependent relationship a recovery path could be to detach with love, face illusions about your life and your relationship, set healthy boundaries and develop your spirituality.This can help build a healthy sense of self going forward when you learn to take care of your own needs and ultimately learn to be happy with your own company.
Yesterday I appeared on the Insight programme on TRT World discussing online safety, with particular reference to young people, as part of Safer Internet Day 2017. Click on the link below to see the discussion.
When discussing the impact of the massive social change that has been underway for the past 25 years with the advent of the internet, it is worth remembering the accelerated change that has occurred only relatively recently with the increased speeds associated with mobile telephony. The first generation iphone came out in 2007, even though it would seem to have been around forever, and it is only very recently that we have seen the introduction of fast 4g superfast smartphones. As consumers we have incredible search capacity on these powerful multi media devices and with exciting apps we have never had it so good in terms of personal entertainment on the move. However, there is always downsides to everything that is good and young people in particular need to be aware of the risks associated with sharing personal information and engaging with others online.
See the links below for some useful lists of resources and further information about staying safe online. There is also a resource pack for parents on how to engage with their children and the digital world.
Today I had fun chatting to the Doha team of Aljazeera TV (Arabic)about internet addiction and specifically problem behaviour with social media. I was on a live feed in the London studio (based in the Shard) and my views were sought through a translator about the universal problem of overusing smartphones and social media apps.
I am often asked what constitutes problem behaviour around the internet and mobile telephony. You might have a problem when you can’t stop checking social media updates in spite of negative consequences in other parts of your life. It is not the number of devices you own but rather the amount of time on the devices and the negative consequences on other parts of your life. So, you may have a mobile phone, tablet, laptop and main computer in your possession but your life may well be better for it if you are using social media apps to further your career and social life. However, if you start to experience anxiety and depression from seeking emotional satisfaction through social media engagement then you find have a problem. Try setting time boundaries about your use of mobile devices and also set phone and non phone time in your day. See what happens? Do you panic at the thought of restricting your access?
Addicts tend to be ‘do it yourselfers’, to coin an expression, so will tend to be reluctant to seek help and if they do attend therapy they can stay in a very defended position. Asking an addict why they did something might risk a very long answer as addicts tend to have massive self-justification and rationalisation for everything they do. If you think you or a member of your family has a problem click on the links below.
See the attached link for the interview (scroll to 23:30 in the timeline).
An addiction disorder can be very distressing for an individual as well as their partner and family. Active addiction involves loss of ability to choose freely whether to stop or continue the behaviour (loss of control) and leads to experience of behaviour-related adverse consequences (Schneider & Irons, 2001).
The disease model of addiction underpins the enormous rehab industry whereby addicts get treated at the hands of so-called ‘experts’ at very expensive units, and often within residential retreats. The treatment team at such places invariably consists of medical experts (including psychiatrists) but also the burgeoning band of treatment personnel who report to them (a lot of whom are low paid staff or trainees on placement). The most common interventions are group process dynamics as this represents the most cost effective treatment plan. The success rate for these places in effectively treating addiction is poor as the rate of relapse amongst patrons is quite high. So, you might ask what is the theoretical foundations of their addiction treatment?
Addiction treatment is largely based on three broad categories that underpin addiction recovery treatment programmes. They overlap to some degree, but each model has unique implications for research, funding, and care, from the level of government policy to that of treatment options for individual sufferers. The three categories are:
1. The Brain disease model
Advocates of the disease model maintain that there is ample scientific evidence from PET scans to believe that the brain changes as a result of substance abuse and that because it changes it must, therefore, be evidence of disease.
The disease model of addiction is essentially a biological explanation for the causes of addiction. Drinkers and drug users follow a pathological road to destruction and have lost control as a result of their using. Proponents of this outlook see addiction affecting the brain in similar ways that physical illnesses produce changes to vital organs. For example, diabetes changes the way the pancreas works and hepatitis changes the way the liver functions and this is the same for alcoholism, in that it changes the manner in which the brain functions.
Alcoholism was officially designated an illness by the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1967. Seeing addiction in this way, rather than as a weakness by self-indulgent moral degenerates, has brought benefits to the medical community for it has stimulated research as well inspiring the development of useful medications that have helped ease the symptoms of withdrawal.
The disease concept of addiction has formed the basis of the 12 steps of recovery from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Hazelden’s ‘Minnesota Model’ and contain key concepts of powerlessness around alcohol (and drugs) and personal unmanageability in life. These concepts form the bedrock for an abstinence based approach to treatment, for life, albeit one day at a time. AA’s 12 steps are a combination of cognitive and behavioural tools and techniques and have a concept of a mental and spiritual malady at its heart. AA’s founders Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith were heavily influenced by Carl Jungin embracing the idea of a higher power to stimulate personal and spiritual ‘recovery’. The 12 steps state that the chronic alcoholic must undergo an entire psychic change in order to recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind. People attending AA meetings see themselves in perpetual ‘recovery’ from an illness and observe total abstinence for life.
search for emotional satisfaction – for a sense of security, a sense of being loved, even a sense of control over life
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of mental Disorders (DSM), currently in its fifth iteration, is the psychiatric bible for clinicians and states the following: a “substance use disorder describes a problematic pattern of using alcohol or another substance that results in impairment in daily life or noticeable distress.” The present trend in psychiatry is to also classify gambling and even excessive internet use as disorders (as listed in DSM5), which others see as a vague term that overlaps with “disease”. Critics of the disease model ask where it will stop when defining symptoms of disease. They ask whether net surfing, hoarding, unrequited love and compulsive shopping might also be classed as diseases or disorders. Stanton Peele, a big critic of the 12 steps approach, argues in his book The Diseasing of America (1989) that addicts can recover without so called treatment, and that it is wrong to build into treatment the notion of character flaws (one of the steps in AA is to undertake a personal and moral inventory and to start with a form of confession in relation to the 7 deadly sins). Peele argues that numerous studies have demonstrated that people can drink socially again at a point in the future. He rejects the idea of personal powerlessness, opting instead for the concept of personal empowerment, as a more robust and positive approach to addiction treatment. For Peele addiction is the search for emotional satisfaction – for a sense of security, a sense of being loved, even a sense of control over life. Peele explains that addicts tend to display susceptibility to diverse addictions, in sequence or at the same time. However, the gratification turns out to be temporary and illusory and the addictive behaviour results in more and more self-disgust, reduced psychological security and a poorer ability to cope with stress. In the attached clip (below) Peele expands on his ideas about addiction with particular reference to the neuroscience of addiction.
Marc Lewis agrees with Peele in rejecting the disease model by pointing out that whilst the brain does indeed change in response to addiction, so the brain changes in response to falling in love. The brain will change in response to learning activity and, therefore, brain change itself should not be used as evidence of disease. He points out that the hippocampus of London cab drivers expands by learning The Knowledge Test (see Maguire and Woolett). Indeed, Lewis argues that advocates of the disease model need to prove that brain change in addiction goes beyond what would occur in response to normal learning and development. Rather than the 12 steps of recovery Lewis prefers the notion of motivated self-directionfor treating addicts, when the addict finds greater meaning and purpose in their life to sustain a healthier lifestyle. For Lewis addiction is motivated repetition that gives rise to deep learning as he explains in great detail in his recent book The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is not a disease. Addiction can also be seen as recurrent desire towards a single goal. In the attached clip (below) Lewis expands on his ideas about addiction.
2. The Choice model
The choice model was the theoretical basis of the War on Drugs campaign and the popular slogan “Just Say No”. Users do not consider addiction a good choice, but they often consider it a rational choice, at least in the short term – as when the relief gained from the addiction outweighs other possible choices.
Gene Heyman, is his book Addiction – A disorder of Choice, argues against the conventional psychiatric view that addiction is a disease. For Heyman, addiction is entirely voluntary and he sets out to demonstrate that drug use, like all choices, is influenced by preferences and goals. In the attached clip (below) Heyman articulates his ideas on addiction.
The Choice Model explains why people suddenly stop being addicted in response to a change in environment. An example would be when Vietnam veterans suddenly stopped abusing heroin when they returned to their homes after the war. This idea builds on the Bruce Alexander “rat park” experiments which showed that rats did not consume drugs in controlled trials in response to an improved social environment. In the attached clip (below) Alexander expands on these ideas of the need for an improved social environment.
Proponents of this model point to economic and environmental factors beyond the addict’s control such as poverty and social isolation. However, when conditions change with time and circumstances, then so do choices. Users see a different outcome to their predicament and change their behaviour accordingly.
The choice model explains better than the disease model how addicts suddenly quit but advocates of this approach risk viewing addicts as selfish and self-indulgent moral degenerates.Rather than being victim of a biological condition they are personally responsible for bringing on their misfortune in life by bad choices.
Treatment in this model could involve reviewing one’s beliefs and changing one’s perspectives, using tools and techniques offered by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing. Treatment invariably proposes total abstinence.
3. Self-medication model
The self-medication model is not a coherent approach as it is grounded in developmental thinking and conflicts with the notion that addiction results from an allergy. As children and adolescents develop, emotional problems can erode their sense of well-being. Trauma, either social, psychological, or sexual, is a buzzword for early adversity and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often found to underlie anxiety and depression. Researchers have found that substance abuse among those with PTSD is as high as 60-80% and the rate of PTSD among substance abusers is 40-60% (K. T. Brady and R. Shina, 2005).
Taking drugs and alcohol make you feel better until they don’t. A nasty side effect of addictive drugs is that the addiction itself becomes a source of stress.
Treatment, according to this model, stresses the need to protect people who are vulnerable to psychosocial pressures and to diagnose and treat underlying developmental issues that have predisposed someone to addiction. Gabor Mate in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts skillfully made a case that addicts seek relief from drink and drugs in response to early bonding experiences that were difficult and painful. In the attached clip (below) Mate expands on these ideas on the power of addiction.
Treatment options cover a range of holistic tools and techniques including CBT, attachment theory, object relations theory, creative imagination and mindfulness for addiction can be viewed as a loss of connection, or meaning in life. It could also mean loss of soul in transpersonal terms. Counsellors and therapists in this theoretical model might advocate total abstinence but not necessarily so as working therapeutically on past trauma can potentially see a transformation that entails social drinking at some point in the future.
Often dubbed the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’, Fixed Odds Betting Terminals(FOBTs) are electromechanical devices most commonly found in UK betting shops and allow players to bet on the outcome of various games, of which the most common are roulette and blackjack, and events with fixed odds.They have been in betting shops since 2002.
The Government recently announced a review into the legislation governing gambling adverts and FOBTs, and,more broadly, the functioning of the Gambling Act 2005. Tracey Crouch, the sports minister, said the review would consider the maximum stakes and prizes for gaming machines and, in particular, FOBTs because of concerns that they can be addictive. The Gambling Act had allowed betting shops to increase the number of FOBT machines allowed in betting shops, up to four, depending on size of shop. The review will also investigate the impact of advertising of betting websites on daytime television.
FOBTs are also known as ‘electronic morphine’, because of their highly addictive nature. It is true that journalists often seek to sensationalise the story with such descriptions but the words are probably a fair portrayal because repeat players will become addicted to this form electronic gambling more rapidly than other forms of gambling such as sports betting and card games (reference: Dow Schull, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas 2014 Princeton University Press). The devices allow punters to bet £100 every 20 seconds. There are proposals that could see the minimum stake reduced to £2, as in the case of Australia. They are banned from betting shops in Ireland.
The extent of problem gambling
The British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010 was the last bespoke gambling prevalence survey commissioned by the Gambling Commission. From 2013 the body has pursued a decoupled approach to the collection of adult gambling prevalence data (i.e. the separate collection of participation and problem gambling data) through the Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey. The rate of problem gambling in the adult population for England is estimated to be 0.5% or 0.4%, depending on how it is measured. The latest combined data shows the overall problem gambling rate to be 0.7% but this would appear to be consistent with combined data from 2012 (0.6%). However, it should be noted that these are indicative figures and the new Health Survey data is due to be published in early 2017.
According to the Gambling Commission the problem gambling rate has increased from 0.4% in the year to June 2013 to 1.5% in year to June 2016 amongst the 16-24 age group (these are, however, indicative figures taken from quarterly short-form PGSI data, whereas the full health survey results will be released in 2017).
Views of the industry on FOBTs
The Association of British Bookmakers Ltd (ABB) dispute the view that FOBTs cause gambling problems. They are also against cutting stakes on FOBTS as such a decision to potentially solve problem gambling would be akin, in their minds, to cutting the alcohol level in whisky in the hope that this might stop individuals from becoming alcoholics. The ABB disputes that there is any evidence to demonstrate that FOBTs create problem gambling. They claim that independent research clearly shows that most people who develop a problem with gambling use different types of products. They also claim that the level of problem gambling in the UK have remained unchanged over the past 15 years.
I checked the ABB claims with the Gambling Commission who told me the following:
“We do not have data collected to a consistent methodology covering the last 15 years. Our most robust estimates of problem gambling, based on the largest sample sizes and comparable to the BGPS 2007 and 2010, will be published next year (2017) in our combined report on gambling behaviour, where the data will be taken from the Health Survey for England 2015, the Scottish Health Survey 2015 and our own Welsh Problem Gambling Survey 2015”.
The industry might claim that they should not be held responsible for problem behaviour in the same way as licenced vintners should not have to restrict selling whisky in case a person becomes alcoholic. However, the Gambling Act 2005 places social responsibility requirements on UK based gambling operators who are also required to contribute to research, education and treatment of problem gamblers (the Act essentially enshrined the principle of ‘polluter pays’ regarding gambling treatment).
There appears to be stand-off between the industry and legislators, however, since the ABB failed to show up for the latest APPG meeting in November 2016 stating that it’s ‘nothing but a kangaroo court.’
Newham Council in London, has, along with many other local authorities, proposed a £2 maximum stake under the terms of the Sustainable Communities Act.
The treatment of gambling addiction
The three most common models of addiction are disease, choice, and self-medication and the most effective recovery programmes are dependent on how addiction is viewed. The disease model is advocated by Gamblers Anonymous (an off shoot of Alcoholics Anonymous) and holds that ‘recovery’ must entail abstinence for good, albeit one day at a time. Dr David Sack, a leading advocate of the disease model, argues that addiction is a disease and needs to be treated as such. A big critic of the disease model for treating addictions is Marc Lewis and he argues that treatments based on this model are ineffective. The choice model takes the view that addiction is free choice and that treatment should address different choices. Vietnam vets stopped taking heroin when they returned to their families and to their safe environment, for example. Trauma is the root cause of the self-medication model. PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders all hinge on an overactive amygdala but drugs, booze, gambling and so forth take you out of yourself and calm the amygdala down.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists there is no medication that is licensed for the treatment of problem gambling in the UK. However, antidepressants can be prescribed to help with low mood. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been cited by the College as showing some effectiveness in helping gamblers reduce the amount of time and money they spend gambling and once stopped to stay stopped. In therapy, the therapist can be the detoxifying agent for the gambler’s toxic mentations.
When Donald Winnicott said there was no such thing as an infant (a baby is his environment), perhaps there is no such thing as just a drug user. It could be fruitful to ask what is happening in the user’s world? Bion described drug addiction as a ‘hatred of reality‘ and I wonder if a similar description could be applied to gambling addiction. There is certainly a loss of connection when gamblers recount stories of feeling empty and lonely.
‘The zone’ has been described by Natasha Dow Schull, in her book Addiction by Design, which showed how an electronic slot machine random number generator provides a reinforcement schedule that keeps the user in a trance-like state. She describes this state of mind in greater detail in the attached presentation below. The ‘zone’ is akin to nothingness where the user relies on the comfort that the machine is forever present. Once in the zone, problem gamblers use the machines not necessarily to win but rather to keep playing, for as long as possible. They continue to stay in this state in spite of physical and financial exhaustion. In this state, users have described even forgetting the names of their children, such is the hypnotic-like environment in which they exist. The machine and person enter a form of emotional intimacy where fear and worries appear to fade away.
Betting shop machines have been designed with the maths in mind and digital machines now offer multiple-line betting, unlike the traditional analogue gaming machines which did not offer such opportunities. An FOBT random number generator provides a reinforcement schedule that keeps the user in ‘the zone’ as machine designers have worked out how to harness gaming productivity to the optimum.
It seems to me that an abstinence based approach should form part of a robust treatment plan for problem gambling regardless of one’s addiction model. Reconnecting to one’s creative and vibrant self could form the basis of one’s therapeutic journey.
The evidence to claim that FOBTs create problem gambling might not be conclusive. What is fair to say, in my opinion, is that there was no proper impact assessment carried out when the decisions were taken to allow the expansion of FOBTs in betting shops in 2005 (and for pre-watershed gambling television advertising). That is perhaps the core of the issue that the Government’s review will need to contend with. It will be interesting to see what the review comes up with.
The sixth annual Deloitte report There’s No Place like Phone, which analyses the mobile usage habits of more than 4,000 UK consumers, was released today.
The report was covered widely across the national media. Channel 5 News covered the story on their main news and spoke to consumers, journalists and myself about the issue. See below for the embedded link to the news item (I spoke briefly at 1:03).
The UK public has never been more ‘addicted’ to smartphones, according to the survey. The report uses June 2016 as a foundation to claim that four out of five UK adults (81%) have a smartphone. This percentage rises to 90% when the 18-24 year olds cohort is reviewed.
The key findings of the report are:
Nearly 50% of the age group 18-24 check their device in the middle of the night.
The adoption rate of 4G usage has more than doubled in the past 12 months (up from from 25% to 54%).
31% of those smartphone users surveyed did not make any traditional voice calls in a given week. (This contrasts with 25% in 2015, and just 4% in 2012).
The majority of those who participated have downloaded 20 or fewer apps.
The word ‘addiction’ is difficult for many clinicians in the medical world. Strictly speaking it is a misnomer to call even heavy smartphone usage an addiction. Psychiatrists recognise Gambling Disorder as the only behavioural (non-substance related) addiction. Their bible is the Diagnostic Statistical Manual(DSM), the American Psychiatric Association (APA) diagnostic tool, currently in its 5th iteration, and does not include smartphone usage as a problem. Internet Gaming Disorderis, though, listed in section 3 of DSM-5 as “conditions for further study”. However, in common with other behavioural problems like sex addiction, counsellors and therapists have lots of anecdotal evidence that alludes to a growing problem of preoccupation and obsession.
If you think you have a behavioural problem with your smartphone take a look at whether you identify with some of the points to consider in the need for digital detox and how to set boundaries around your engagement with technology.
Hetrosexual men use the search term ‘penis’ as often as ‘vagina’ when looking for porn online. That might not be too surprising given that men might be keen to check out their competition. However, it becomes more interesting when the results of eye tracking studies are known. Straight men will look at the crotch area of other men more often than women will do. It gets more intriguing for the category of ‘shemale’ porn, sometimes known as futanari (see picture, opposite). This is primarily the interest of hetrosexual men, since women and gay men show little interest in it. (The authors are quick, quite rightly, to point out that the ‘shemale’ term is a derogatory term in the trans community, as it almost exclusively a term used in the adult porn world).
So, why would hetrosexual (not bisexual) men search for ‘shemale’ porn? Well, the authors explain the phenomenon of this category of porn as combining the penis with the other main anatomical cues for desire amongst straight men (the other main cues being breasts, feet and backsides). Ogas and Gaddam believe that this represents an erotical illusion for straight men, thus creating a single gestalt. There is, for the most part, no obvious hidden gay or bisexual tendencies as such, but the fantasy finds expression in this form as it comprises biological cues for desire. The fantasy essentially tricks the male sexual brain (male erotical illusions are mostly visual, since the male sexual brain consists primarily of visual cues). Gay men are also as interested in the same anatomical cues as straight men, namely chests, feet, backsides and penis, obviously.
Intriguingly, the most common erotical illusion for women, by search terms, turned out to be vampires and the whole paranormal genre of romance. Perhaps the datasets comprised overwhelming numbers of American residents. Female erotical illusions are mostly psychological, since, generally speaking, the female sexual brain consists primarily of psychological cues.
Ogas and Gaddam have been heavily criticised by academics for their research methodology and for their generalisations (for example, of course, women can also separate their physical desire cues from their psychological cues and can also enjoy fetish) and for their interpretations based upon the datasets, which, for some, amounted to sexist and stereotypical attitudes. However, whilst some of the criticisms have been valid, their book is still a good read and a useful insight into the whole area of human sexuality.
Ogas and Gaddam explain the findings of their datasets more fully in the following clips:
The Men’s Health Forum men’s health week takes place this week and when one considers the mental health risks for men the statistics are alarming.Take, for example, the male suicide rate. The latest official figures for male suicide in the UK show 16.8 deaths per 100,000 of the population in 2014 (social researchers compare populations per 100,000 in order to offer a like for like comparison across countries of different demographic sizes). The rate for men is more alarming when you realise that the suicide rate for women was 5.2 deaths per 100,000 of the population.
The reasons for the disparity in rates of suicide between the sexes can be complex and multifaceted. However, I wonder how the psychotherapy profession can better target the specific mental health needs of men since two thirds of those seeking counselling in the UK are women (source NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies). I feel it is a worthy question to ask what more can be done to better attract men. As an aside, I was always intrigued during my psychotherapy training why so many trainees excluded men in their recruitment of participants for their workshops (workshops were part of the route to qualification in the final year of the study programme). Time and time again one would see workshop facilitators advertise for participants, invariably seeking to hold yet another workshop on contacting the inner goddess, and excluding men from participating in their experiential workshops. It is worth speculating if this ingrained bias against the inclusion of men might be a reflection of a greater bias in the provision of support services in counselling and psychotherapy.
I am reminded of this when considering the critical issues affecting men and ask myself whether men really feel heard. Take, for example, depression, which in men can be difficult to spot since it can often be signalled by displays of angry behaviour in social situations. Can their anger be contained in therapy sessions or are men seen as a threat and better referred on to ‘anger specialists’ for their therapy?
Men are so often taught to believe that any problem must be solved by them, alone. In spite of the acute mental health needs of men, they are often reluctant to engage with the process of therapy. When they finally find themselves actually seeking therapy it is usually when things have reached crisis levels in their lives, when their jobs, relationships and homelife are at risk. They might also be coming as they are being pushed in the door by an insistent partner, often offering an ultimatum. Addressing the acute mental health needs of men must be a priority for us all.
The Samaritans also offers a crisis listening service. Their telephone number is 116 123, which thankfully is now free, having previously been an 0845 number. Men’s Health Forum offer a range of health promotion support materials for men.
I recall a lecturer from my psychotherapy training saying during a lecture that experiencing anxiety when about to give a presentation was due to incompetence and a failure to prepare. I remember thinking at the time that this view seemed a bit harsh. What about people suffering the symptoms of GAD, I thought, when physical symptoms of anxiety could pervade for no apparent reason, no matter what level of competence one had, or how well one prepared? However, I see now that there can be times when we focus on what can go wrong rather than on what can go right and that this can contribute to our anxious state of mind. That’s when we allow our thinking to induce a meltdown. It is perfectly normal to feel nervous when facing challenges such as delivering an important presentation or completing an extensive set of important tasks at work. However, the real problem comes when we focus on the things that might go wrong.
Dave Alred‘s new book The Pressure Principledeals with how to boost performance and how to avoid meltdown. Alred calls himself an elite performance coach (he was previously the personal coach to Jonny Wilkinson) and maintains that we can use pressure (his term for stress) to perform as a vitalising energy to improve performance. For footballers about to take a penalty kick, according to Alred, the key in achieving optimum performance is not to think about the fans reaction or the hostile press coverage in the event of missing, but to keep the focus on the one crucial moment which will help to stay in the moment and deliver. In that instance the focus needs to be on making connection between boot to ball, and nothing else.
Sports psychologists are not really saying anything new. Their attraction is in repackaging certain concepts in a digestible manner appropriate for the setting. For example, in psychology, there is the concept of the conscious competence learning model, or sometimes referred to as the four stages of competence. When learning a new skill this model helps inform us of the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence. The theory is that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, so are unconscious of their incompetence. However, as they become aware of their incompetence, they acquire a skill on a conscious level, and consciously use that skill. Following more practice, the skill can be used without having to think it through. This is when someone has acquired “unconscious competence”; when they direct their focus on one tiny process it frees their unconscious mind to concentrate on the delivery. Think of when you are driving a car, you are in that mode. You are not consciously thinking of foot to pedal and co-ordination with the steering wheel, you do it seamlessly.
It is this concept of ‘unconscious competence’ that sports psychologists maintain is crucial in order to perform as champions. This is why sports teams try not to think too much about the preparation but rather to switch off mentally before the event. It is also when individuals go and do what they are best at doing, without thinking too much about it. They are in the zone. Sian Beilock has recently contributed to this field with her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have to which explains the neuroscience of performance.
One example of choking can be seen here when World number 1 Rory McIlroy imploded and suffered a meltdown by missing simple shots in a major tournament.
Choking can also apply to performances in the arts and in business, or in any sector requiring peak performance. So, when giving a presentation you can avoid a meltdown by learning to cope with the physical symptoms of anxiety and avoid choking. For example, your focus should be on projecting your voice to the person in the back row (so that the whole room can hear you) rather than worrying about what could go wrong in your presentation.
Our ability to engage with imagination is what distinguishes us from all other species. But it is something we have rarely been taught how to work with. Our ability to compute and to analyse (the typical left side of the brain functions) have been well developed in our education systems, but not our capacity for imagination.
If we think of this in terms of the elements, then air, and perhaps fire, have traditionally been the dominant elements in our socialisation. Air encompasses intellect, computing and analysis whilst fire brings confidence and risk-taking. These are all great qualities and have served us well in creating everything that surrounds us. The trouble may come when we are not balanced as individuals. The ability to have grounding experiences (earth) and to process our feelings and emotions (water) have largely been left to extra curricular activities. Meditation and yoga practice are now everywhere, admittedly, even in primary schools, but there is still a long way to go before we can begin to see a more holistic approach to teaching and learning in the education sector.
Here is an exercise on trying to engage with the active imagination. A preamble for working this way would involve taking some mindful steps in becoming receptive by undertaking some deep breathing exercises. The following questions could act as a guide:
1. What are your current main stressors?
2. How does this affect your body?
3. It is like ……?
4. Is there a memory where you felt like this before?
5. If this symptom was a friend what might it say about your life?
(This exercise might not, however, be suitable for people who might be experiencing psychotic symptoms).
Seeking to engage with an exercise like this can help to produce images and symbols which can help bypass mental defences, when the thinking function is dominant. So often we can feel stuck in our minds, whether it is worrying about things that haven’t happened, or tiring ourselves out by searching online for more and more explanations to questions that are hard to answer.