Fatigue…why are you bothering me?

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These past two days I spent bushwalking at the Royal National Park. I took the famous and popular Coastal Track from Bundeena down to Otford. Prior to beginning on Sunday, I had a feeling that I really needed to do this walk and had been feeling pretty fatigued in the lead up to it. Now a day and a half later, having gotten up at 5:20am on Sunday to begin the 4 hour journey (cycle, train, ferry) to the walk’s start point, and having covered the better part of 30km on foot (over some tough terrain) and 20km on bike whilst spending last night sleeping uncomfortably in a tent, I now find myself feeling distinctly refreshed. I feel incredibly relaxed, my mind is not jumping from one task or decision to the next and I keep laughing at the most unlikely things.

Otford (the walk’s end point) found itself one of the main objects of my amusement. Having seen signposts to it from the beginning, starting at 26km and gradually getting whittled down by our relentless walking, it held this magical allure as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (the Coastal Walk, of course, being the rainbow in this tenuous analogy). I had rather hoped to find a pub when we reached it, or at the very least a cafe where I could grab the hot chocolate I had been daydreaming of when we set out on pouring rain and harsh winds that morning. To find that it contained little more than three roads, three houses (one was in construction), some signposts (mainly containing the names of Otford’s roads, in case you couldn’t find one of the other two) and a railway station stimulated feelings of disappointment outweighed by feelings of amusement. I found it all very funny, which made me rather happy.

However, this piece of writing is not dedicated to Otford’s charms or lack thereof. In fact, no piece of writing ever should be dedicated to Otford. If it was, I wouldn’t read it (I might out of curiosity when no one was looking).

It’s about Fatigue.

So.

Naturally upon acknowledging my feelings of refreshment upon finishing the walk, the next thought to enter my head was ‘why?’. Indeed. And then I asked myself why we ever feel tired. What causes this?

Our first instinct often is that we need more sleep. Or a holiday. Somehow we summse the lack of sleep and/or holiday is at the root of our feeling worn out. I don’t doubt this can be the case, but I would venture that the roots of fatigue can be complex, and often cumulative. I believe that doing one kind of activity for too long can wear us out, whether it be the same job, the same routine, the same lifestyle. If you don’t change it up, those areas of our brain being utilised by these activities don’t get a break in which to recover.

For instance at the end of my time travelling I was exhausted. It wasn’t a hard lifestyle; I was able to make up each day as I felt, never worried about somewhere to sleep or food to eat. But I felt so fatigued by that lifestyle. Travelling has great variety true, but although the places change and the people too, the conversations you have and the type of things you do in each place become quite repetitive. I was shattered, and yet raring to get in to my new work and new life in Sydney. On the face of it, that sounds more exhausting, but I had so much energy for this different challenge – much more than for travelling.

Reading is a great love of mine as a means of winding down, but in recent times that’s not always helped. If I’ve had a brain-bending day that challenges me to work through problems, then reading a non-fiction book that engages me in a similar way does not help – it just wears me out further. However, reading a novel does help.

The realisation that I think I’m coming to from this rather anecdotal blog, is that when we look at how much energy we are using, we should not look just at the activities we’re doing, but how they work our brains. My long walk refreshed me, because the parts of my brain usually utilised by the work I do were able to go on holiday. In fact, trying to access them actually required a lot of effort. Instead I had been thinking about my environment, watching for the terrain, taking in the sounds, picturing Otford…

In recent weeks I’ve not been bouncing out of bed in the usual energetic manner, ideas and connections weren’t flowing like I’m used to and physically I hadn’t been feeling too well. Yet, I had changed little in my lifestyle (if anything getting more sleep and downtime) and this presented physically. I find it fascinating that this can be so; that mental fatigue presents in a physical way. I feel that mental health and physical health are so intricately connected, and as society begins to accept and discuss mental health, the depth and extent of this connection will only increase in our consciousness.

It also demonstrates the value of building in to our lifestyles activities that work different parts of our brain. Activities that require such focus that you don’t reflect on work. Perhaps sport or creative hobbies.

I’m certainly going to take that lesson on board, and reflect a little more in this subject in the mean time.

And next time I feel tired, I might just take another long walk. To Otford.

P.S. One more thing. If there’s one takeaway action, it’s this: spend a day without turning on and using your phone or computer (or tablet). Acknowledge how uncomfortable feels, and how remarkable it is that this was probably the norm a few decades ago. What I found, is that it is also very relaxing. Your stress levels noticeably drop.

The most simple and powerful ‘cure’ for mental illness: Looking after ourselves

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Last week I was invited to speak at Vibewire’s FastBREAK event; a monthly breakfast event in which five speakers blitz five-minute presentations on a particular topic, this month’s topic being cure. My background over the last few years having been mental health, I had one or two thoughts on this one. The great thing about these sorts of opportunities, is they force you to consider your own views on the topic, and articulate those thoughts in to something coherent and with a message behind it.

I think modern society’s obsession with fixing things and finding a ‘cure’ is not an altogether healthy one, and in the mental health sector I’ve seen evidence of that. The medical model takes the view that mental illness is a physical malfunction of the brain that needs to be corrected. As a starting point for how we view mental illness, I think this is bullshit and can do more harm than good.

Sure, the evidence is solid that many psychological disorders (to varying extents) have a genetic component, and some people are more predisposed to them than others. I don’t dispute that. But it nonetheless needs a life trigger to happen, and that comes down to personal circumstances. This model in isolation does not explore the life circumstances that triggered the problem in the first place. It’s like giving someone who is obese weight-reduction pills, and ignoring the fact that they spend all day on the couch eating fast food. You’re treating symptoms, not the cause, and as long as that’s the case then the problem will repeat.

The other major gripe I have with this model, is that it waits until there is a problem before looking for a solution. What has become increasingly apparent to me over the years, is that the best solution is ‘prevention’. The smartest investment may not actually be in finding the best drug treatments, but in showing people how they can better look after themselves in the first place.

Now I’m not saying here that the medical model has no value, not at all. Research in to mental health increases our understanding, and helps us to see where the triggers lie and what aspects of our life might have caused the problem. And in some cases, the mental illness is so debilitating (and long-term), that drug treatment is the only way in which to give that person decent quality of life, or to get them to a stage where they can start looking at more holistic techniques to better understand what triggered the problem and the life changes they can make. But I want to use this blog to demonstrate why I think simply taking better of ourselves is the most obvious, and underused, ‘cure’ for mental illness out there. Heck, it’s probably the best ‘cure’ for physical illness too. You’ll see that mental health and physical health are so inexorably linked that when it comes to maintaining them, it’s little use to differentiate.

The positive effects on our bodies and minds of exercise are incredibly profound. Other basics such as our diet and getting enough sleep are also tremendously impactful on our wellbeing. Lack of sleep is correlated with all manner of psychological disorders, and I’m sure we’ve all experienced feeling crap when sleep deprived.

From a more psychological point of view, I think enormous value should be placed on our social relationships with others – family, friends, colleagues. The drive to be accepted, appreciated and part of a community is at the core of humans. We’re fundamentally social creatures. Also having purpose, feeling like we’re contributing something positive, learning are all deeply important to our mental health.

The New Economics Foundation put together a ‘Five Ways to Well-being’ project, which is nicely presented and based on the strength of research. It’s worth a look.

I’ll also jump back to a blog I wrote a while ago on acceptance, and why this is so important. As Seema Duggal explained in her talk, somehow we have developed a culture in which we expect to feel happy – it is deemed the ‘norm’. This is ridiculous and unrealistic. The whole premise behind the evolution of emotion is for the adaptive advantage it gives us. The ability to recognise whether something is good for us or not. Inevitably, there will be some of the latter. It’s healthy to feel sad when we experience loss or disappointment, and there are valuable lessons in the painful emotions too. Accepting our emotions, whatever they may be, is an important aspect of taking care of ourselves.

We all have mental health so let’s take proper care of it; doing so has a huge impact on every day of our lives. I learned this lesson the hard way when I went through depression, however my life has been so much richer since then because of the care I’ve given to acknowledging and building my own mental health. It’s been tough, and I have to be proactive with my mental health. I take time out every day for activities such as meditation, walking, cooking/eating good food, cycling, time with friends and view these as essential parts of my day.

My final thought is on how we might teach people the importance of and techniques that assist us to look after our mental health? Should this be part of public education as we grow up? It has such enormous consequences, and if we could learn these things early…

So a final question. What will you start doing every day to look after your own mental health better? You can’t use the excuse of being short of ideas – there are about ten in this blog alone! Good luck with it, and enjoy the rewards.

Making the most of each day and why less really is more

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There’s been an inescapable realisation creeping up on me this past week. That there’s more. Yes, you know exactly what I mean right!? An explanation then.

I know there are times when I feel extra tuned in and sensitive to life. I notice things I ordinarily wouldn’t; the body language of someone I’m speaking to, connections between people and activities, a conversation off in the corner, the flavours of something I’m eating, previous situations that are similar. It’s being in the moment. Almost an animal-like extrasensory state of being. It’s incredible, but I have no idea what triggers it, and eventually it seems to wear off. When I’m in it, I’m creative, incisive and inspired. I get more out of every little experience taking place around me. It’s as though there’s this extra level, an extra 5% that I get access to.

Where the more lies, is not outside in the world – this is where I think is where so many go wrong. We have no shortage of access now to incredible people, inspiring literature, art, magnificent places. Our days and lives are more varied than ever before, and there is no shortage of sensory input. Yet, somehow on the journey that sensory input takes to reach our consciousness, much of it is filtered out. Neurologically, that makes sense, as our brain receives an incomprehensible amount of information and has to filter out what we are aware of. Can you imagine if we noticed every single time a bird shouts, or the precise actions of our fingers as they type, the pressure on our feet as we stand? It would be incredibly distracting. From an evolutionary perspective, I do wonder if this sensory overload is the reason why we can’t be more tuned in to what we’re experiencing. The brain has had to adapt to this incredible amount of input, and with only so much energy available, that means that there is less to be given to feeling in the moment. Every now and then though there’s a glimpse of it, and it’s phenomenal.

Sometimes I’ll listen to a piece of music and it will trigger off a strong emotional reaction, in turn giving me this heightened sense and with it greater creativity and inspiration. Or I’ll see other people go through an unexpected and emotional experience, which will provide them with greater insight. What is it exactly, about these experiences, that triggers our access to this extra layer?

Many people I meet seem so lacking in self-awareness. They don’t understand why they feel as they do, and can’t connect the dots. When they feel miserable or disillusioned they can’t figure it out. I see people repeat the same behaviours and choices time and time again, and then end up surprised when it leads to the same feeling they were hoping to avoid. It’s utterly bizarre. I see it in work decisions, relationships and even simple daily habits such as sleep. I wonder if this and the sensory overload/lack of consciousness are interconnected.

I see people rush through their lives. Dashing from one task to the next, one person to the next, one place to the next. They soak up the sensory input that’s out there, and in the process completely miss out on a whole level of sensation, experience and awareness that would come from paying more attention to how they feel inside. Often when people slow down that’s when they have these great realisations and epiphanies. A vacation, a break between jobs, a long walk. So many times I hear people come back from a holiday and express excitedly all these new realisations about themselves and their lives that they have discovered, just because they took the time to slow down. Imagine if you could do that every week…?

And if you slow down and allow those realisations to sink in, then with less stress comes greater creativity. I’ve heard it said that the first thing that goes when people cut down on sleep is creativity. Stress makes you productive yes, but how often do our greatest insights surprise us by appearing in the middle of a peaceful moment – a walk, when we get in to bed, cooking dinner? Compared to say… a busy period when we’re drawing up some document or ploughing through emails.

So when I talk about there being more, I don’t mean that there’s more out there in the world, I mean that there’s more inside of us. More awareness, possibilities, potential. Every now and then I meet someone who seems to have found a way to access this, and they give off an incredible energy.

I don’t think we’ll access it through being busier or having/doing more. That distracts us and negates our self-awareness. I think it may come from taking time to slow down, allowing for spontaneity, and through spiritual practice such as meditation. From living a more minimalist life, and cutting down on distractions. Keeping things simple, and demanding less of our energy for processing all this stimuli, so it can instead be redirected to conscious awareness. Buddhist monks are some of the most self-aware, wise people you’ll ever find, and yet they live remarkably simple lives.

We ought to pay more attention to what’s inside, rather than outside.

The marvelous powers of intuition

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I recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. After receiving a surprisingly hostile automated email from the UNSW library informing me that I had to return it by Monday, I quickly finished it off over the weekend. Writing a review seemed like an appropriate and logical action to take afterwards, but as I began to shape that review in my head I noticed a strong theme imbued within that review; intuition against logic. And so appropriately, I’m taking the intuitive route, and constructing this piece of writing around that theme.

To set the tone, have a read of the following quote from Jobs I’ve picked out about his return to America after a year-long trip to India:

“Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India. The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.”

The way that Jobs used and trusted his intuition throughout his life completely gripped me. It seems entirely incongruous that you could shape a huge commercial enterprise, based initially around computers of all things, largely on one man’s intuition and instincts, rather than the power of analysis. Many of Jobs’ most incredible breakthrough products came about because he sensed the need for them before others – or saw the opportunity to do them as they should be done. iTunes, iPod, iPhone, the early Macintosh….to name a few.

The process of delivering these products was not based on spreadsheets, financial forecasts or market trends. It was instinctive. He infamously declared market research to be useless, stating that you couldn’t research what people wanted, because you hadn’t shown them it yet. Many of Apple’s marketing techniques were counter to what people expected from the industry. But they really, really worked.

Jobs often had such a precise vision of how things ought to look and feel, and would force people to redesign over and over again until it was just perfect. Often he would struggle to explain it, or give reason to the need for those changes. But as soon as it was right he knew.

There are similarities with Branson, who again explains that many of his best decisions were instinctive. Whenever Virgin was struggling, they would make a bold and risky move based as much on intuition than reason, and it got them out of some enormous holes.

I’ve grown up – as have, I believe, most around me – with the view that reason and logic can conquer all. The notion that you could instead (and dare I say it, would be better off doing so) rely on those things called feelings in order to make decisions and solve problems took me some time to get my head around. Certainly I’ve come to trust my intuition a lot more, and it’s served me very well. Even when it leads to in to a mess, I know that I’m learning and it will get better for it.

Recently, I wrote about mentally healthy living, and the importance of starting with acceptance and awareness of our feelings – as well as how deficiency in these areas can lead to mental illness. This is a kind-of-follow-up to that blog. I hope to illustrate in later blogs that on the other end of the spectrum there are those who are very finely tuned in to their instincts and that their trust in their intuition is so strong that it can lead them to make the right decision when the tide of ‘rational’ opinion is against them. That’s not to say that they don’t ever make mistakes, but doing so actually improves their instincts, rather than puts them off using them.

When I was studying Neuroscience, we had a module on decision-making. A fascinating theme emerged from the research; that even when people make impulsive decisions they do not recognize that this is so. They dress them up in logic and reason, when their actual motive was instinctive. Sometimes the logic was amusingly flawed, and yet they were convinced of it.

Intuition and instinct do have a big part to play in the modern world – bigger, perhaps, than society currently acknowledges. I think forms of meditation, such as mindfulness, can really facilitate these attributes. It’s a huge subject and I’ve barely even scraped the surface of it here, but I hope it’s piqued a little interest. Plus, if Einstein digs intuition (what a man), then it’s got to have some value.

So go and be more instinctive! Put that pesky voice of reason aside and see what happens.

Meditation: Why bother?

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Following on from my writing about the importance of psychological awareness; acknowledging our feelings, understanding what triggered them and ultimately using that to drive our decisions, I realized I had to tie in the role an activity that facilitates this entire process. Meditation.

Although I had been doing guided meditation for a few months before leaving the UK, it was only when I got to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand that I really understand the benefits of it. I had generally understood the objective of meditation to simply be calmness – very useful in itself for those caught up in the fast-paced western world.

The retreat I stayed at practiced a technique called Vipassana meditation, also understood as ‘insight meditation’. The aim is much greater awareness and understanding of all sensations that your body perceives; especially touch, sound and sight. You develop the ability to observe each of these sensations, and in time, even to observe your thoughts in the same way – observing all these different sensations at once you are practiced enough.

The whole experience was so tremendously….well, insightful, but I’m going to keep the focus on emotional awareness. As you improve and develop (which does happen when you’re practicing 8 hours a day), you notice the way that your attention is immediately drawn to any new sensation. It could be a bird singing, or an ant crawling up your leg (we were in the middle of forest, so this happen almost constantly). And as this new stimulus arrives, there’s an almost immediate emotional reaction in your body. If it’s a sound you find soothing, you feel a calmness in your body. If it’s a sound that could be dangerous, you feel an edginess. I couldn’t help tying this back to my studies and the neurological underpinnings of the flight or flight response.

This in itself isn’t especially surprising. It’s fascinating to be able to experience this with such focus, but it’s the next stage of learning where the insight starts to come. As I said, in time you can observe your thoughts in a similar way to sounds or sights. And much the same, thoughts can be quite random. I was amazed at how disconnected and jumpy they would be. At one moment a memory a conversation would jump in, ten seconds later I’d think of family, and then it would be breakfast. You wonder just how much processing is going on without your being consciously aware at any one time, and how the brain chooses what to make you aware of and what not.

By adding thoughts to the mix, you can observe their emotional effect on the body in much the same way. So as the thought of my parents came along, I would feel strong warmth. A memory of a break up, and I’d feel tense. Food…well that would be terribly exciting. The response is instantaneous and completely natural. There’s no time for logic or analysis to interfere.

The few examples I’ve just listed seem obvious, but when you’re unsure of a decision, then this process becomes very valuable. At this point in my travels I had grown pretty weary, and wanted something less superficial than brief friendships with other travelers and spending no more than a week in each place. I had no idea what an alternative might be though. When the thoughts of more travel came along, my body instantly felt heavy. Instead, when I thought of settling in one place for a few weeks, of trying to look at a place through the eyes of a local and not a tourist, I immediately experienced excitement. This was counter to my own logic and the advice I was getting from nearly everyone I spoke to about. Logic told me I should be seeing as many countries as possible, and sticking to my original well-thought out plan. I followed my instincts, spent a few weeks working in Singapore almost entirely in the company of locals and it stands out as one of the highlights of my trip.

I began paying attention to all sorts. What I felt when I thought of certain people, places, activities and came away with a very clear vision of how I would like my life to look once I settled down in Sydney. I was able to project in to the future, and predict very accurately how these different features would make me feel.

A lot of people I speak seem to be very disconnected from how they’re feeling; unable to understand what causes them to feel sad or happy. They keep repeating the same actions that produce a negative response in them, and then producing logic to justify it. Often their body language will be in contradiction to what they’re saying, but we’ve learned to pay more attention to words and reasoning than to these signs. We’ve forced experiential wisdom in to the backseat.

I don’t dispute the value of reason and logic, but I don’t doubt that we’ve come to lean on it too much at the expense of our intuition. For me, this certainly contributes to the high levels of mental illness we see in western cultures, and the staggering number of people who admit to feeling dissatisfied with their lives.

The rise of eastern philosophy and spirituality suggests that I’m not alone in feeling that perhaps it’s time to redress this imbalance.