You don’t need to know the cause of the problem to solve it

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You have probably had the delightful experience of being stuck in a jam of slow-moving cars that suddenly disappears without revealing any obvious cause for the jam. No crashed cars, no roadworks – what was that about?

These ‘phantom jams’ have been shown to arise by accident. One car suddenly changes lane, causing those behind it to brake sharply. When you have fast-moving lanes of traffic with only short distances between vehicles, that kind of braking sends ripples down the road. Drivers brake harder and harder to prevent themselves from hitting the vehicle in front. Eventually, the traffic towards the back is at a standstill – even though that isn’t what any of the divers wanted to do.

We could trace the jam back to that original driver who changed lane sharply. That would be pointless though, because they are not affected by the braking going on behind them. We might publicly berate people who change lanes sharply. We might lecture drivers so they promise never to change lanes sharply ever again. Would that prevent it from happening again? With millions of drivers on the road, any of whom could do this, this is not possible. And anyway, they might actually need to in some cases, because of approaching junctions, hazards, or some other road user.

What would happen if, instead, we looked at what happens when jams don’t occur. This is when drivers have enough time and space to react to other road users – by braking or maneuvering without forcing the vehicle behind to take  evasive action, thus rippling the effect down the road and causing a jam.

This happens when roads are quiet, or when traffic is moving slower and drivers have more time to react. Hence the variable speed limits that are deployed around the world now. The solution is to bring in lower speed limits at busy times – which bizarrely allows more traffic along highways than do higher speed limits and the jams that come along with them.

Greater traffic flow, fewer jams and lower risk of accidents to boot. This solution doesn’t address the cause of the problem – abrupt actions – at all. It simply allows them to happen without undesirable consequences.

Where can you learn from what is working well for you in times of quiet and low speed which you can build in when you are feeling stressed and things are moving too fast? Perhaps slowing things down can actually increase both your productivity and your wellbeing.

Published in PLoS Currents Disasters – Coping with Disaster: General Practitioners’ Perspectives on the Impact of the Canterbury Earthquakes

Tired doctor

In our recently published research, we found that all GPs reported significant increases in workload raising questions about the need for coordination of locum support. GPs often found themselves working outside their area of accustomed expertise especially in relation to patients needing financial aid. GPs identified a number of coping behaviours though some only in hindsight. Greater awareness of self-care strategies would benefit GPs responding to disasters.

You can read much more about it here.

My BBC World News Interview: Uncertainty for families of those on Flight MH370

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As I got off the plane in Christchurch yesterday morning and switched my phone on, it buzzed. The email was a request from a BBC TV World News producer requesting a live interview on uncertainty for families on flight MH370. I was simultaneously excited and anxious. How did this email arrive with me of all people? Was I going to do it? If so – how? I was busy all day and then had a hotel room with limited internet bandwidth.

I thought about it as I drove to my first appointment, and pulled over to send my cellphone number to the producer in London to indicate my acceptance of the invitation to be interviewed, but to talk through what might come up. The producer was very professional and called me back at the suggested time. After talking through the possible lines of questions, I was happy to carry on. The interview would be via skype, and we would test the link 30 mins before going on air. The interview would be live, and would probably run for 3 minutes or so.

As they patched me into the link, I could see my bandwidth being chewed up at a pretty fast rate. I lost the feed at one point, as i had to enter a code to release another chunk of 200MB of data. I got the producer a message that I probably had another 5 minutes of data left at this rate, and they made the decision to move me up the interview chain in seconds – very professional.

The room was dark, and you can’t see my face very well, but here is the result. The background work included some calling back to the office to get a couple of key papers sent to me so I could recap a particular point I needed to make (thank, Tom Huggins), a call to a friend who has worked in comms in disasters who had a particularly good point to make about notifying the possibly bereaved by text message (thanks, Sara McBride), and a call to the Consular Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in NZ to get the absolute and up-to-date official line on what assistance was available to the NZ Citizens affected and their families and loved ones (thanks Team MFAT). I’m posting that in case you find yourself in a similar position – the support you get from your team and wider contacts is invaluable.

Here is the result:

To break a bad habit, replace it with a good one

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I’ll be holding seminar next week in Wellington (24/7/13) about making change., One of the things I will be talking about is habits. Here’s a brief taster of some of the content I will cover.

  • You keep bad habits for a reason
  • Most of our bad habits have two culprits at their root: stress and boredom
  • You don’t eliminate a bad habit. You replace it
  • If you don’t meet the need that your bad habit fulfilled, you won’t last very long with what you try to replace it with
  • Breaking bad habits takes time and effort, but mostly it’s about perseverance
  • You might fail multiple times. That doesn’t mean you won’t succeed

I’ll talk more about how to break bad habits and create good ones during the workshop, as well as the stages of change that you can expect to go through. You can pretty much apply this to all levels of your life and athletic performance – whether you are a novice or high achiever,

If you are interested in coming along and learning more, do sign up here. I think it will be a fun evening with interesting people to network with too.

What about a volunteer rewards card?

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I’ve been pondering over the challenge of incentivising a greater proportion and diversity of people volunteering in New Zealand and was reading a story about how the design agency IDEO came up with a tagging system to help Oxfam manage the donations they get into their stores in the UK. They asked regular donors to register and they gave them a bunch of tags which they then attached to their donated items when they dropped them off. Results: less hassle for donors, no waiting to drop things off, and Oxfam have a register of their donors and know what they donated.

What about a volunteer rewards card in New Zealand, more specifically, what about Canterbury? There are lots of people who are willing to help out, and there are lots of projects that could do with a hand. one of the challenges is matching these projects and people. another is encouraging those people who might want to help, by making it easier for them, and giving them the chance to earn a little reward back too.

How about this: people pre-register, and are issued with a rewards card with number and barcode. They register their skills and what they can help with. Project leaders register their needs and the database can be designed to match the two. As an incentive, rewards can be offered per unit of time volunteered successfully on a project. This could be funded either through philanthropic organizations / private sector contribution / or NGO / govt – the right mix can be sorted out.

As a side benefit, students can give permission for their project volunteer record to be released to their school or university as a positive additions to their transcript, documenting their civic activities. Same for people of working age or above. Training they receive (or give) can be documented too. It may end up being a pretty good differentiator in a crowded jobs market (in certain sectors). Even better, this could be a demonstration project for the rest of NZ to roll out over the next 5 years.

Just a germ of an idea, but might be worth kicking around. What do you think?

Why do we make the same mistakes over and over again?

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“Again?!” we say to ourselves in despair, sometimes even out loud. We have all done it. We have caught ourselves making the same mistake yet again. Why, oh why do we find ourselves in the same position again? “Maybe I’m just attracted to the wrong sort”, we say to ourselves. “Maybe I’m just incapable or learning”, we chastise. “Maybe I’m just dumb”, we admonish. Of course, sometimes it isn’t mistakes that we repeat. For example, sometimes we find ourself listening to the same song over and over again, or maybe going through a phase where we like to watch the same movie a few times over a short period of time.

When we find ourselves doing the same thing over and over again in our lives, it can be hard to figure out why. Freud called our constant echoing the repetition compulsion, which he  defined as “the desire to return to an earlier state of things.” Frued was very much more interested in the negative things we repeat, which he thought may be linked to something deeply instinctual, which he called “the death drive”, or a drive to no longer exist.

But perhaps there is a different reason. Perhaps we are so used to do things in a certain way, so familiar with certain events, objects and experiences in our lives that we have a developed a pattern over a number of years. Straying from these pattern – no matter whether it is positive or negative – is actually deeply uncomfortable for us because they are so ingrained. These patterns are a little world that we have created for ourselves where events, or encounters with people or objects trigger expectations which we like to see met – even if they are negative because we are so used to them. We discover what works for us and tend to stick with it. In times of stress, anger worry, or other emotional peaks, we repeat what is familiar and what seems safe, in that it meets our expectations. However, this little set-up can trigger a whole host of negative patterns of behaviour, as well as ruminating on thoughts.

Here’s an example. Say you have a problem with insecurity in your relationships. When you don’t get a text or tweet back from your loved one, your mind can wander to negative thoughts like, “I wonder who they are with meaning that they can’t text me back?”, or “If they’re so busy, they don’t prioritise me enough in their life”. These thoughts can well-up and threaten to overwhelm the person and can lead to actions that harm the relationship. Even though the person doesn’t want to react in this way to the non-receipt of a text message or tweet, this pattern of reacting is so ingrained and familiar, that to react in a different, more positive way actually feels alien to them. It feels like it isn’t authentically them at all. When you have been doing something for years, you will continue to carry on doing so, even if you bring on negative consequences by your actions. To do anything else feels even more uncomfortable.

By working on different techniques, people can learn how to recognise when thoughts or actions are more harmful than beneficial, and how to stop them from occurring. Although it can take time, our cognitive processes can be  retrained to develop new patterns that are productive and more positive, which ultimately leads to more adaptive behaviors and choices.

It is worth remember that it takes years for people to develop unhelpful patterns, habits, and repetitive choices, and it may also take years to reshape them into something else that might be more positive.

What can you do?

  • Don’t give up. Start today.
  • Start small, stay mindful.
  • Note what you do, and how you feel about it.
  • The first step is starting to pay attention to the patterns you live your life by.

 

 

 

My thoughts on the Canterbury Well-being Index release, June 2013

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The latest release of the Canterbury Wellbeing Index provides a snapshot picture across the many dimensions affecting social recovery.

It has been said that there is no health without mental health. Indeed, we need to aim even higher than this. For us to flourish throughout our lives and to positively influence and support others we need to be able to thrive and flourish ourselves. Intervening early and in low-key ways can help to prevent more extensive and expensive interventions later in recovery trajectories. So far in the Canterbury Recovery, this seems to be working well at a population level, but the data suggests that a clear and significant minority continues to struggle with everyday life.

For a significant minority of residents, the higher levels of reported stress have permeated throughout everyday life. For many, this has meant an additional stressor in dealing with their frightened, upset of unsettled children. In an unhappy coincidence of conditions, children may also see their parents struggling to cope with their changed lives. This may change how they see their parent’s capacity to cope. Often, these subtle changes may add up over an extended time to produce changed life trajectories.

The range of supports for people experiencing social and psychological difficulties in adjusting to their changed circumstances appears to be going a long way towards meeting current identified needs. This includes, the 0800 helpline, counselling services, the Earthquake Support Coordination Service, extended GP consultations and Canterbury DHB services, as well as a range of supports available through non-government sources such as New Zealand Red Cross. However, there remains the possibility that there are a significant number of people who are struggling who we do not know about, or those who find it challenging to ask for help. As we move through the recovery we will need to keep a careful watch over people’s needs and the resources they may need to meet them. The CWI is a useful tool in helping us to do that.

From this CWI social recovery data release, it seems likely that we are in the midst of a critical period. While some people in the region are able to cope, and indeed are doing well, other require more support. It is important to stress that feeling like you need help is not a sign of weakness; coming forward for help often takes strength and courage.

This support could to help them to cope with the impacts of secondary stressors such as housing quality and availability, insurance transactions, and rebuilding administration and practical arrangements. More broadly, systemic interventions to tackle some of the root causes of these secondary stressors would go a long way towards reducing the extent of their community impacts. There may also be room to extend or refine how support services are able to help those who have delayed coming forward for assistance until recently, or who are continuing to struggle on their own.

Choices exerted by individuals and the communities they are part of, and the degree to which they are expressed, heard and acted upon become even more crucial as the recovery progresses. This empowerment is a multidimensional social process by which individuals and groups gain better understanding and influence over their own lives. As a result, they are able to regain a sense of control over their own social environment to improve their wellbeing and life circumstances. A lack of agency and power could hinder this key component of recovery.

In situations like the Canterbury recovery, the temptation is to think of resilience as the degree to which communities and individuals can adapt and change. The reality is far more complex than this. As well as adaptive capacity, absorptive coping capacity seems important too. This is the degree to which individuals and households can employ strategies to help them keep going in the face of shocks on their livelihoods and basic needs. It is this persistence, and holding on to traditions and valued ways of life that perhaps underpins people’s marked pride in their ability to cope under difficult circumstances. It also perhaps suggests that challenges to changing from well-tried ways of doing things may well be fiercely resisted.

Mindfulness practice can alter your perception of time

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Recent research seems to suggest that mindfulness practice can alter your perception of time. The investigators were investigating the hypothesis that the moment-to-moment awareness that is encouraged by mindfulness meditation practice would have the subjective effect of slowing down time , such that short periods of time seemed longer. And that was exactly what they found.

The researchers used a temporal bisection task, which allows researchers to gauge where each individual subjectively splits a period of time in half. Participants’ responses to this task were collected twice, once before and then again after a listening task. By separating participants into two groups, respondents listened for ten minutes to either an audiobook or a meditation exercise designed to focus their attention on the movement of breath in the body. The results showed that the control group (audiobook) didn’t change in their responses after the listening task compared with before. However, mindfulness meditation led to a relative overestimation of durations i.e. time periods felt longer than they had before.

One interesting feature of this study was that the participants received very little training or experience of mindfulness meditation – just 10 minutes, as opposed to months or years of training. This suggests that the internal clock modulation found in this study is relatively sensitive to short meditative states, and does not require a large degree of training to access it. That seems pretty remarkable to me, and the effects could be leveraged into treatments for difficulties that may distort the effects of time, such as addictions, memory, and emotional regulation.

 

An experiment in non-quantified running

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Those of you who know me will confirm that I am a pretty techy kind of person, and this extends to my running activities. For a while now, I have trained using a heart rate monitor and have used that effectively more in my training runs than actual events. However, I normally wear the HR monitor watch during events as information.

Yesterday, was the Wellington marathon / half-marathon, 10k and 5k event. After a week of big storms and freezing rain in the region, we were lucky and were left with a cold morning, but it was dry and only a moderate wind was blowing. Even then you could only really feel it at the more exposed points of the course. I am still recovering from the concussion I sustained about 10 weeks ago, and I had only run a handful of times since then – the longest run being a 6km treadmill effort. So signing up for this half-marathon event two weeks ago as a real marker to myself to step up my efforts in my recovery plan. The other challenge was that we have had a lot of family health challenges this winter, and although the least affected by these I felt pretty lousy when I went to bed the night before the half-marathon.

When I signed up, I decided that I was not going to wear a watch. Partly, this was so that I didn’t fret about how fast I was going during the event. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t pushing myself too hard. But partly this was an experiment on how well I could judge my pace without looking at my watch. I hadn’t been too bad at this in the past, as I calibrated my movement pattern and learned what pace was appropriate at different times.

I knew I probably wasn’t sub-2 hours fit, but I was aiming for between 2 hours and 2 hours 10, and finished in 2 hours 2 mins and 57 seconds. So yes, a successful experiment. But the most interesting thing was where how I took my cues, from my internal and external environment. For the first 8kms or so, my mind was tempting me with the thought that I could run sub-2 hours if I really wanted to, and it was tricky to resist the pull to go faster. I was feeling comfortable, and sounding comfortable compared to people blowing out their breath in the cold air all around me. I hung back. By the time I got to the turnaround point at 10.5km, my mind had settled that actually, it was proving a little tougher than I thought and that I should perhaps just try to lock in what I had. Again, amazing what your mind says to you during different stages of an endurance event.

I also had external cues to orient from. I could see the 2 hour pace running group running towards me in the other lane at the turnaround point – so I knew I was behind them, but not by much. And on my way back, I saw the 2 hours 10 pace running group a wee way behind me so I knew I had a start on them. And of course, there is the to-ing and fro-ing with people running a similar pace to you as you get ahead of each other, and overtake each other as you go through water stops and toilet stops. The trick is to stick to your own race and not get drawn into other people’s or mini-duels (though sometimes that is fun for a while). Indeed, I have run events with nothing more in mind than to either talk to people as I go around, or to find people to duel with as I run. Whatever your goal is, stick with it. Of course, you can have sub-goals, but it gets more complicated. Switching goals can get you into trouble.

I liked running without the watch. There is a certain freedom in that  But it is amazing how the mind’s desire to constantly compare can find things to triangulate your performance. Beware if your inner voice is admonishing or tempts you to stray from your goal. Some prepared, kind, gentle self-talk can help keep you focused on the goals you set before the event began.

‘Making change – meet the challenge’ – Workshop for the Health Fit Collective, 24 July 2013

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When you try to make a change, say stepping up your training to meet a big new challenge, or perhaps making some new diet choices, there are five stages that you will probably go through. If you’re thinking about coming to this workshop, you’re probably NOT in the precontemplation stage. You’ve already made the decision that something needs to change. But you’re also figuring out what to do – maybe how you might get some help to make that change. Sometimes that seems tough and you get trapped in the thinking rather than the doing. Or perhaps you started doing, and got derailed.You might now be a little ambivalent about making the change – “maybe I’ll just carry on as you are for a while – I can go for the next training cycle …”. You’re certainly not in denial, but maybe you need some help to figure some things out, to get a little boost.

If this sounds like you, this workshop may be just what you are looking for. We will talk about the five stages of change, but we will focus on Contemplation, ACTION, Maintenance, and how to get over lapses. The underlying theme here is support, and the type of support you might need differs as you progress through the stages of change. This workshop will help you to start to unlock the mysteries of what might be most helpful for you, and most crucially, when.

Health Fit Collective Challenge me workshop, 24 July, 7pm, Wellington.

Sleeping tablets may help to consolidate negative memories

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It seems that researchers have identified  a fundamental sleep mechanism that enables our brains to consolidate emotional memory. (Also, see here for the press release). During the course of the research, the investigators found that sleep spindles – bursts of activity that last for a second or less in specific stages of our sleep cycle – seem to be important for emotional memory. This is new: we already knew that sleep spindles were involved with information we recall about the world, things like people, places and events. However, the focus on emotional memory and sleep has previously been focused on the role of REM, or rapid eye movement sleep.

However, there is a cautionary note to this research. In the process of trying to partition the effects of sleep spindles and REM sleep on the recall of emotional memories, the researchers gave zolpidem, sodium oxybate and a placebo to 28 men and women who were normal sleepers. The study participants viewed images known to elicit positive and negative responses for one second before and after taking supervised naps. They recalled more images that had negative or highly arousing content after taking zolpidem. This suggests that the brain favoured the consolidation of negative memories. In fact, one of the researchers ventured that, “… sleep drugs might be improving memories for things they don’t want to remember.”

My concern for situations where people are anxious is that sleeping aids that may be prescribed may actually cause them to remember more negative memories than if they were not taking that medication. In circumstances where sleeping pill prescriptions have increased substantially, e.g. post-earthquake Christchurch, this doesn’t look like an outcome we should be aiming for. Granted, zolpidem isn’t quite the same as zopiclone – which I believe is the most widely prescribed sleeping pill in New Zealand - but this still raises alarm bells for me. I think I would agree with the investigators that it would be worthwhile investigating whether the administration of benzodiazapine-like drugs might increase the retention of arousing and negative memories. Many in Christchurch are taking this type of medication precisely to get relief from highly stressful life circumstances. It may be that they are unwittingly increasing the chances that they recall negative memories throughout their days as a result of taking this medication.

Do you do damage control?

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Often, when we are faced with a challenge like completing a project, we can tend to focus on what isn’t there to meet the challenge – deficits in the plan, shortcomings in the membership of the team, weaknesses in skill sets, or lack of cooperation with others. Spending time focusing on what isn’t there isn’t usually a very helpful way to start a task, complete a task or instigate change.

Minimising weakness isn’t development. It’s damage control. However, many organisations fall into the trap of taking their employee’s strengths for granted and focus on minimising their weaknesses. Indeed, many people apply this to their personal lives too. This risk management way of living is very common. People become expert in spotting the areas in which their employees struggle (or perhaps family members), and delicately rename them ‘areas of opportunity’, or ‘things you need to work on’. Of they are packed to training classes, so these weaknesses can be fixed. Of course, this is necessary sometimes – perhaps a communication course might be helpful for a team member who is clearly smart but has difficulty in articulating ideas. But as a general strategy for like and management, it doesn’t tend to work too well.

The challenge is to work with what we have. What we have is probably relevant. If we can stay with the attitude that everything is a useful gift, then perhaps we start to see ways of getting value from anything that circumstances have to offer.

Milton Erickson had some interesting things to say about what he called utilization – using whatever his clients brought. This included all aspects of that  person’s environment  resources, strengths, abilities or disabilities, relationships, attitudes, problems, symptoms, vocations, hobbies … the list is endless. But he concept remains simple: if it’s part of the patient’s life, it may be useful in reaching the therapeutic end goal. If the patient brings it in, it’s probably more potent than anything the therapist can introduce to the situation.

This utilization principle is probably something we can apply in other contexts too. Move away from a damage control mindset. Don’t just examine under a microscope when mistakes are made – learn when they aren’t made too – and seek to make that happy circumstance happen again.

Don’t be afraid to know nothing

 

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I was talking with a young lecturer colleague yesterday over a drink, and she was telling us about how rewarding she found it when a student asked her a question she didn’t know the answer to. She used it as an opportunity to go and find the answer, instead of getting defensive and avoidant.

“My students can smell bullshit a mile off, so I couldn’t give an avoiding answer, even if I wanted to.”

She is relatively new in her professional career, yet she had already sussed out one important lesson. If you don’t know, it’s probably best to front up and say so and explore the question. In fact, if you can use it as an opportunity to learn from a naive position, and perhaps reveal the intention behind the question (e.g. the student wants to know how to apply the knowledge in a particular context), everyone wins. You look like a tolerant and open person who is willing to be guided by your students or colleagues on your blind spots, and your students / colleagues feel valued and heard and may actually get some personalised learning out of it too. As Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the mind of the expert, there are few possibilities. In the mind of the beginner there are many.”

More broadly speaking, sometimes when we come to a situation of thinking that we know all there is to know, then we may already risking missing some vital elements of what might make this situation different. Although you might be an expert in a technical field or as a manager, when you aim to communicate or create change in a complex environment it is in your interests to adopt a ‘beginner mind’ and open up to additional possibilities. Sometimes, to see the most possibilities for change in a certain situation, it may actually help to know little or nothing about the field concerned. As John Ziman has observed, “It is well known that major scientific progress often comes from scientists who have crossed conventional disciplinary boundaries, and have no more authority than a layman in an unfamiliar field”.

Challenge yourself to build up your ideas from scratch for each assignment. Respond to this case, not last week’s. The solution this time if probably a bit different, and will stem from what you discover from starting afresh.

What I learned about myself during and after the Tarawera Ultramarathon

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It has been a while since I last posted, but I have been recovering and recuperating. I ran the 60km Tarawera Ultramarathon on 16 March. I completed my mission, but not without some trouble.

The 60km course was very hilly and pretty technical in places – lots of roots, rocks and clambering – so this kept my speed down. I also thought I had completely messed up my nutrition and hydration strategy and hit the wall at about 37km, and the dizziness and generally feeling rubbish lasted until about 48km – more on this later. I fell 3 times: (1) Smacked my head on an overhanging branch so hard it knocked me clean off my feet and I saw stars for a few seconds. We started the race in darkness so I had to have my cap on backwards for my running light. Once I turned my cap the other way around about 2 hours later, it obscured my vision, but I had quite noticed that yet. Until I smacked my head. Lesson learned; (2) a spectacular tumble which flying downhill which resulted in a lot of blood caked on the left side of my face which I wasn’t entirely aware of. Must have been disturbing for people; (3) As I was making my way along a narrow section of track with a steep drop off in the period she I was feeling pretty crap, I planted my foot and the ground gave way. As I fell down the side of the track, I managed to grab a rock and hold on. The drop was quite far. It probably wouldn’t have hurt too badly, but it would have hurt. Another runner was passing at the time, and helped haul me up. He looked kind of freaked out. That’s when I found out about the blood on my face.

I completed in 9.5 hours. About an hour and a half over what I wanted to do it in. But it looked like everyone had a hard time, so I’m ok with something of an adventure. Longest race I’ve ever done.

However, once I ‘d finished the race, I started noticing a few things over the following days. The day after the race, I noticed that I was having trouble remembering people’s names – even kind people who I spent quite a lot of time with - which is unlike me. Unfortunately, weather-related issues meant I had to stay an extra night in Rotorua, and I flew straight back to work about 48 hours after completing the race. When I started talking to people, I noticed a few things going on, the most disturbing of which was slurring. To cut a long-story short, it’s been a rough few weeks. I ended up at ED twice with investigations for a possible stroke and / or further subdural haematoma a few weeks later. I was then also under investigation for glandular fever. As it turns out, I probably had / have a concussion and am recovering from that as well as a simultaneous bacterial and viral infection – though it doesn’t appear to have been glandular fever.

So what have I learned?

  • That I can get through a 6okm ultramarathon even when feeling the acute early effects of a concussion.
  • That your balance gets really badly affected when you hit your head hard.
  • That I easily confused this concussed state with a poor nutrition strategy and execution.
  • That my immune system was probably compromised by running 3 marathons, a 75km+ walk, and an ultramarathon in 5 months.

And finally, that it is taking me a long time to recover. The headaches have reduced in frequency a little (though I actually have a humdinger now), but the fatigue persists. Please bear with me as I get back up to speed – but I also need to heed my advice.

Over-caffeinated? Eat a banana

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You know what happens, right? You have a coffee in the morning at home – maybe another when you get to work. If it’s another kind of day, maybe one on the way to work too. Before you know it, you’re heading into your first meeting and , sure, I’ll have a coffee. Then, you notice that you’re feeling a bit twitchy, perhaps your foot is tapping or you have this free-floating sense that all is not quite right. And your tummy isn’t feeling too great either. You might have taken in a bit too much caffeine a bit too quickly. It can happen.

So, if you ask a barista, what do they think you should do to bring you down from your over-caffeinated high? Well, water will help to flush some of that caffeine a bit quicker, and eating too seems to help, as well as going for a walk. But the interesting thing was that the recommendation to eat a banana also came up a few times. Coconut water was also suggested. Both bananas and coconut water are rich in potassium. Whether the diuretic effect of caffeine increases the need for potassium, or if it just messes up your electrolyte balance and firing across synapses is not really known. But it is interesting that helping your potassium levels back up through eating something as cheap and as readily available as a banana seems to help.

Give it a try – you’ve got very little to lose. Except that attractive twitch you’ve got going on.

The intertwining of diet and sleep

sleep

 

We know that 7-8 hours of sleep per night tends to lead to better health overall, at least at a population level. We also know that the way you sleep (and how much) is linked to overeating, but is it possible that healthy diets can keep you up at night? Does a causal link exist in both directions?

A recently published research study looking at the USA National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) in 2007-2008 involving 4,548 people looked at how much sleep the participants reported getting each night, as well as a very detailed report of their daily diet. For the purposes of this study, very short sleep patterns were defined as less than five hours a night, short sleep was five to six hours a night, standard sleep was 7 to 8 hours, and long sleep was nine or more hours a night. Their analyses revealed that people in the different sleep categories also had different diet patterns. Short sleepers (5-6 hours) seemed to take in the most calories, followed by normal sleepers (7-8 hours), and then very short sleepers (<5 hours). Long sleepers (9+ hours) tended to consume least calories of all. However, normal sleepers seemed to report the greatest variety in their diets, with very short sleepers reporting the least variation in what they ate. This is important because a varied diet tends to be a marker for good health since it includes multiple sources of nutrients.

In more detailed analyses looking and both macro and micro nutrients, very short sleepers reported drinking less tap water and consumed fewer total carbohydrates and lycopene than people with other sleep patterns. Lycopene is found in red and orange-colored fruits and vegetables and is high in cancer-fighting antioxidants. Short sleepers tended to take in less vitamin C, tap water and had lower selenium consumption, but more lutein or zeaxanthin, (which are found in green, leafy vegetables). Long sleep was associated with consuming less theobromine, which is found in chocolate and tea, the saturated fat dodecanoic acid, choline found in eggs and fatty meats and total carbohydrates. Long sleepers also drank more booze.

What do all the correlations mean? The first thing to note is that they are not proof of a causal link. In fact, the study probably raises more questions than it answers – which is a good thing, in my view. Previous research has suggested that sleep deprivation interferes with hunger and satiety hormones crucial to regulating appetite. But the study authors raise the possibility that the relationship works both ways, and that diet can alter possibly sleep as well. Some of the interactions are well-known already, such as how drinking too much water and interrupt sleep by waking you up to use the bathroom, or how consuming heavy and spicy foods can keep you up, but there may be less apparent effects as well. Slightly odd that more alcohol is associated with longer sleep though. I wonder what the quality of that sleep was like?

 

Love what you do

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but today seems like a good day for a number of reasons. Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 is a short speech. But it is an inspiring speech. He tells just three stories, as he reads from his papers:

  • Sometimes, we don’t know how our current experiences will serve us in the future. Sometimes our current circumstances may seem totally at odds with what we think we are supposed to be doing. Embrace that. Trust that the dots will join up and lead somewhere. Sometimes, we can’t make sense of what will happen as we move into the future. It only makes sense when we look back. Trust that it will make sense. Trust that it will work out.
  • Love what you do. Don’t settle for anything else. Find what you love, and do it.
  • Life is too short to waste on doing things you don’t love. Remember, you’ll be dead soon. Do the stuff that means something to you. Do the stuff that means everything to you.

Some of this may sound contradictory. I mean, trust that the thing that seems meaningless now will work out in the future? How is that finding what I love and doing it? My answer would be that it is part of the process, part of the search of finding what you love. Never stop believing that your love is out there.

We are not rational creatures, part II

whathappy

 

When we try to make choices, the way we make those decisions is determined by the number of options and the number of variables we need to consider. Our conscious mind is best when there are few choices and few variables. But increasingly often, we are faced with choices where we have many options to choose from and a lot of variables to make sense of. When things aren’t clear, where we have many pieces of incoming information – that’s when our nonconscious brain makes better decisions.

When we have too much information for our rational brain to make sense of, it usually draws upon a subset of information to base its decision on. Unfortunately, we aren’t always aware that this is going on. Say, you are choosing a car. If you weren’t very experienced at this, and you didn’t have an experience pattern to draw upon from your nonconscious brain, your rational conscious brain might base its decision on a variable that isn’t very important, like the colour of the seats. Research seems to indicate that our conscious brain can only process fewer than ten variables, and in some cases only about four. This is far fewer than the number of variables we have to consider in most situations. People often do better after looking at a choice and making an immediate decision (when their more emotionally-based non conscious brain processes the current information and integrates it with past experience and decides), rather than studying the problem over days, weeks and months, hoping that their rational conscious brain will decide.

Of course, there is a counterview that it is ‘better to think than blink’ (or make a snap judgement). But my sense is that a gut feeling is there for a reason. We have neuronal pathways from our guts that go way back into our evolutionary history, when the thing that made us feel bad was most likely something we ate – and the way to stop feeling bad was to purge the offending material out. Our gut reacting badly is a signal that we are feeling upset, even if rationally we can’t see what the threat is – our wiring, or nonconscious nervous system is telling us something different.

 

We are not rational creatures

planet rational

Even though we have spent the past few hundred years pulling things and ourselves apart trying to figure out how they (and we) work, we are not much closer to understanding how complex systems work.

The basic premise that underlies much of our collective investigation is that we are rational, logical beings and we can figure out complex systems by locating and identifying all their components. Like other complex systems where we can see the components but not all the relationship, societies, and our brain are emergent systems. If we want to understand how we make decisions, and how people influence each other, we have to focus on the relationship between the specific components rather than the components themselves.

We don’t really use our rational brain that much at all. Instead, we rely on our emotional brains for most decisions  When we weigh up between multiple choices, we don’t carefully weigh up the options and then come to a conclusions, no matter how appealing that sounds as an explanation. Instead, we tend to use mental shortcuts – many of which are inaccurate and can mislead us. For any given decision (of which we make many on a moment-to-moment basis), or nonconscious brain does a staggering amount of invisible analysis which then generates a feeling to our conscious brain. Our poor, overloaded conscious brain meanwhile is struggling with all the information it has to process, and gratefully receives this coded feeling information from the emotional brain to make a decision. So, no matter how coldly rational we think we are, decisions are to a large extent dependent upon emotion – how we feel about a particular situation.

Once we begin to understand this, it starts to alter how we think about changing behaviour. What we used to think of as a rational decision-making process of following a series of if / then processes simply isn’t how people make choices. We tend to overestimate the power and importance of the conscious brain. This also explains why we are sometimes bewildered by the behaviour of other people, and sometimes our own actions. We assume that we can predict their behaviour (and even our own) by applying logical rules. However, most behaviour is driven by nonconscious processes in the brain that we cannot access.

Ever since I was an undergraduate, I have maintained that most of what we do to explain our behaviour is a post-hoc rationalisation. Most of us cannot explain why we do what we do, why we decide what we decide, or how we will behave in the future. We explain what we do to maintain (or change) story of our selves, and in order to maintain a coherent self in our eyes, and in the eyes and minds of others.

As we travel through life, we use our unique experiences to build up a pattern of how the world works, and how we work in that world – of objects and other selves. We store these patterns as neural networks, and because all our experiences are unique – even if we are twins – our patterns are different. These patterns have a massive influence over our behaviour, and what we attend to when making decisions. Our brain have evolved to scan our environments for threat. Because of this, new or unexpected things – things that don’t fit into our patterns of expectation of how the world should be – capture our attention very effectively. In fact, not only do our brains scan for the unexpected, they positively thirst for it. The reason for this constant search for patterns, and our attention being grabbed by things that did fit our patterns is that our brains find it difficult to deal with random occurrences  When we see clouds, we see objects in them – a dolphin, a monkey, etc. When we see a set of lights blinking (randomly) when music is playing, we think they are beating in time to that music. Our brains look for patterns and check to see if we can find a match with patterns that we already hold in memory. When we don’t find a match, the brain re-calibrates and stores new patterns. Or it tries to integrate the new observation into already existing patterns. That way, it takes less work, and we can easily accommodate new information without the threat of disrupting old patterns and ways of seeing the world.

I’ll continue this in the next post in a few days to talk more about the how most of our behaviour is driven by the non-conscious parts of our brains.

New Year’s resolution? Keep it private

self-deception-new-years-resolutions

A new year is here. Have you made a resolution to change your behaviour? Are you trying to be more of who you see yourself as – becoming more ‘you’? Or perhaps you have resolved to do something different – a distinct change away from what you have been, to take a step towards becoming something else, someone else. Either way, it seems as though a public declaration of your intentions may end up short-circuiting or sabotaging your very best efforts to change.

Resolutions aren’t for everyone - not at all. But for those that make them, many do not manage to stick to them, despite making public affirmation of their intentions. Why does this happen?

Part of the answer seems to lie in the phenomenon that the act of announcing what you aim to do to friends and family–and hearing their approval–provides similar satisfaction to achieving the goal, giving you a “premature sense of completeness.” If someone else take’s notice of identity-related behavioural intentions we announce publicly, we seem to translate these intentions into actions less effectively than if our public announcements had been ignored. The mere act of having our intentions noticed seems to change how we act. Moreover, when other people take notice of our identity-related behavioral intention, this seems to give us a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity. And if our self-satisfaction gauge is already half-full before we start, the motivation to work hard is depleted. You’re already reaping the benefits of the change just by announcing it, so you’ve less motivation to actually go ahead and enact it.

So, if you’ve made a resolution and haven’t yet talked about it to others, you might want to continue keeping it under your hat. But, if you have already told others, all is not lost. Have a think about how you’re doing with your new resolution. Has your motivation to complete been drained away because you’re feeling satisfied with having told lots of people what you are going to do? Perhaps sharing the steps you are going to take to reach your goal might act as a spur to moving along the path towards attaining the change you want to achieve.

If you’re still chewing the whole resolution thing over, here’s a few quick tips:

  • Just pick one resolution. More than that is too hard.
  • Break the goal into steps. Have a plan.
  • Reward yourself for progress. But only when you make progress. Define what progress looks like before you start.
  • Understand that you may screw up. Keep at it.

Cultivating optimism

Not Crazy

 

The good news is that there is a lot of evidence that optimism isn’t fixed. It isn’t a commodity that you either have or you don’t. Optimism can be learned. And we know that the way we explain what happens in our worlds can have a big impact on our physical well-being, as well as our mental health.

Many people roll their eyes when they hear the word, ‘optimism’. For them, it equates with ‘positive thinking’ – in an unrelenting, indiscriminate, everything-will-be-ok-if-you-can-just-think-positively kind of way, and -if-it-doesn’t-work-out-then-you-are-doing-it-wrong. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The path to optimism is actually strewn with pessimistic rocks waiting to trip us up. This is summed up by a great quote from Martin Seligman: “Building optimism is not a matter of thinking more optimistically, it’s a matter of thinking less pessimistically.”

As Polly Campbell says, “Pessimistic thoughts tend to cluster in sweeping generalizations that imply long-term troubles as opposed to temporary circumstances. The car stalling is downright annoying, and probably cuss-worthy, but it doesn’t mean you’ll end up living alone on a school bus with thirty-two cats.”

Pay attention to your thoughts and the words you use to talk to yourself. Do they tend to be pessimistic? Sweeping negative generalizations? Harsh self-judgments? Mostly doom and gloom? The way you might generalise from specific events matters.

Once you can identify these thoughts, examine them. Thoroughly check them out them. Then yourself these questions:

  • What is the problem or setback that’s got me worried?
  • What do I believe about that situation?
  • Are those reactions, thoughts and beliefs true? Really true?

And when things don’t go your way or you make mistakes, forget the absolutes and sweeping generalizations. Avoid using words like “always” and “never.” Difficult incidents don’t mean an inevitable spiral that limits your life to mean that you will end up as a bag-lady or hobo.

Try to practice looking at situations from all angles and perspectives. As Campbell says, while a divorce can be devastating and trigger feelings of regret and guilt, it also can trigger “feelings of relief and excitement around your newfound independence and opportunity.” There is never just one side. Left to our own devices we can tend to focus upon how to fix what is wrong with our worlds, or doubting the motives of those who perhaps think differently from the way we do. Countering this tendency is a major goal in the process of learning to be more optimistic. Here is an exercise to try to set you on the path.

When cynicism or pessimism is overwhelming you, focus on what you can control: What you think, what you say, and what you do.Ask yourself: what thoughts can I think to help me change this bad situation for the better? What can I say that can change this bad situation for the better? What actions can I take that will change this bad situation for the better? When you work through this exercise, you may find yourself going from the realm of paralysed pessimism, or even cynicism, to actively becoming a part of the solution to the problem. Remember that you are a very important and active participant in this world—and that is cause for optimism.

Focus on what you can control, rather than what you can’t. Grounded optimism is about recognising the difficulties – rather than positively constructing them away – believing things can get better, and then making them happen.

More benefits of self-compassion

Work harder.

Do more.

Be the Best.

Win.

Be perfect.

We are swamped with messages like this every day. A lot of the time the source of these messages is ourselves. There is nothing wrong with having dreams and goals. But often, we don’t take the time to stop and consider whether this self-critical and competitive attitude actually helps us towards reaching these goals or realising our dreams, or actually might be getting in our way.

Self-critical attitudes and talk can be self-defeating. When our self-worth depends on others – where we want to out-compete others to feel good about ourselves – we can actually become more anxious and insecure. If we fail, we become even more self-critical, leading to a negative cycle and more unhappiness. When we are criticised, we feel defensive and got-at. Added to this, competition can provide the perfect circumstances for disconnection. Rather than building social connections, we see others as obstacles to overcome – and we end up feeling more removed from others – which doesn’t help our wellbeing.

Self-compassion however helps us to value ourselves not in comparison to others – either positively or negatively. Rather we value ourselves just because we are intrinsically deserving of care and compassion – just like everyone else. We treat ourselves as we would our best friend. Instead of berating, judging or otherwise adding to their despair, we listen with empathy and understanding and encourage them to see that mistakes are normal. And it’s not just self-critical over-achievers that lack self-compassion – some of the kindest people you know do too. There is little correlation between the trait of self-compassion and feelings of compassion towards others. We need to practice being kind to ourselves, even if we are habitually kind to others.

Self-compassion can lead to increased strength and resilience, better productivity, and decreased stress. We can also learn how to do it better. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Write down your self talk. If you end up berating yourself for saying the wrong thing in a situation, write down the self-critical words that you say to yourself, and ask yourself if you would ever say them to a friend? What would a friend say instead?
  2. Write yourself a letter. When you find yourself saying harsh things to yourself, take the perspective of a compassionate friend. What would a kind friend say to you now? What would their words be? Write them down, as if it were a letter to you. Come back to the letter later, and receive it from yourself. Keep it for weeks and months down the track and read it regularly.
  3. Develop a self-compassion phrase. When something tricky happens and you end up being self-critical, have a go-to phrase that you can use as a reminder to be kinder to yourself: “This is a moment of pain, and pain and suffering is a part of life. I want to be kind to myself now, and to give myself the compassion that I need at this moment”.
  4. Focus on your breath. You can find out more about this here.

 

Ditch the car, get off the bus – walk some more

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) in the UK have issued advice that they believe active transport – or walking and cycling - for short journeys should become far more common-place in the UK. They now think that the harm caused by a national epidemic of inactivity could cause as much population-level harm as smoking.

They have called for workplaces, schools, local authorities and health bodies to band together to promote and assist people in active transport as far as possible. Their most recent report notes that almost two-thirds of men and nearly three-quarters of women in England are not sufficiently active to maintain their health, with the results little better for children. The most worrying thing is that people don’t seem to be aware of the scale of the invisible burden that this lack of activity places upon them.

The Nice report urges local authorities to devise a coherent, long-term plan for boosting active travel to be at the centre of every policy. Schools are being advised to provide secure bike parking and introduce “walking buses” where pupils walk to and from school in a supervised group, with employers similarly guided on helping staff ditch their cars.

The report’s authors say they are aware of the ambition of their plan, with the average Briton now walking or cycling 80 miles a year less now than they did a decade ago and the percentage of journeys made by bike remaining at about 2%, against 26% for the Netherlands and 19% in Denmark. They liken the efforts to the 50 year-plus battle to curb smoking rates. They also urged people not to overestimate the dangers associate with cycling, despite recent high-profile accidents.

This is an interesting quote from the press release, from the lead author – Harry Rutter: “What we don’t notice is that if you were to spend an hour a day riding a bike rather than being sedentary and driving a car there’s a cost to that sedentary time. It’s silent, it doesn’t get noticed. What we’re talking about here is shifting the balance from that invisible danger of sitting still towards the positive health benefits of cycling.”

Do you walk as much as you could? Or cycle? The extra activity adds up across the week. You’ll feel better, look better, and be healthier into the bargain. You’ll probably sleep better and eat better too.

What will you regret?

Research by the British Heart Foundation gives us a sobering insight into the things that people regret not doing in their lives. Do any of these ring true for you?

  1. Not travelling more
  2. Losing touch with friends
  3. Not exercising enough
  4. Not saving more money
  5. Taking up smoking
  6. Being lazy at school
  7. Choice of career
  8. Wasting years with the wrong partner
  9. Eating unhealthily
  10. Not asking more about our grandparents’ lives before they died

If you’re anything like me, at least a couple of those ring a bell. But, it’s not too late. Ask yourself, what’s stopping you from taking action today to change those aspects of your life that you’re not happy with? Or do you want to be in the position of regretting what you didn’t do to change how you live your life?

 

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