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‘Sit. Feast on your life.’
I remember well how hard it was at times to study… especially if the sun was blazing and I could see outside to it to place I much rather wished to be. I remember working all day on Saturdays to get study done so that I could go out that night and have some fun. It was always worth getting the work done and I enjoyed the sense of knowing I had made an effort. We each have a different relationship with academic work, and a different attitude to it. Such is life. We have different interests and talents, many of which are not covered or recognised in state exams and therefore, much of what is great about a young person is not given credit in the form of points or marks. No one gets graded on their level of kindness, their interpersonal skills, their level of emotional intelligence and yet all of these aspects of how a person is plays a big role in how ‘successful’ our lives will be. This of course depends on each person’s definition of what success means to them. However, the state exams offer not just the opportunity to get qualifications that can lead on to other qualifications, the exams process affords us all the opportunity to work out the relationship we have with effort. This, apart from anything else it may offer, is a very good thing indeed.
Whatever age you are, whatever stage you are at in life, all people have to make an effort in order for things to work out well. Take the person who does not care too much about making an effort to study for an exam…. is that same person 20 years later more likely to be in a relationship they are not making an effort in? Are they more or less likely to be happy than the person who worked out years before that it is always worth making an effort, even if the end result does not work out the way you want it? All sorts of things influence relationships and our happiness but making an effort is definitely one of the things that matters most. State exams provide an opportunity to develop a positive relationship with effort.
People sometimes say youth is wasted on the young. Maybe people say this because young people, because of the stage of development their brain is at, are not thinking long term necessarily and therefore don’t link their current life choices with their future. I don’t think youth is wasted on the young at all but I do believe that as adults, we have a responsibility to encourage young people to reflect on how their behaviour right now is impacting on who they may become and to encourage them to think, even for a minute or two, about the type of person they wish to be becoming. One way of doing this is to ask them what type of relationship they have with the idea of ‘effort’ and to offer praise and encouragement for effort, rather than having a focus on results. Effort is always the thing that counts most. It is always the thing that gives a sense of satisfaction, a sense of knowing you did as much as you could, whether that is to pass an exam and get the grade you want or whether it is to make a relationship with someone you really love work. Effort is what counts. And for me, this is as true today in all aspects of life as it ever was when I sat state exams. No-one ever regrets developing a positive relationship with the intangible yet very real thing that is ‘effort’. No one I ever met has told me they regretted making an effort. In the end, I reckon no one ever does.
‘ With neuroplasticity, extrordinary change is possible.’
Often I have wondered what it would be like to actually take my brain out of my head and have a look at what’s happening inside it. Brain’s fascinate me and I love how complex each of our brains are. We can’t take out our brain in order to try to understand it, but we can still come to know our brains by absorbing knowledge about how they work. Neuroplasticity is the potential of the brain to reorganise and change. We can train our brains to change so they work better for us. Here’s something useful to know……..
Everything that we experience, whether it is a thought, a sound, a sight or a feeling; it all requires underlying neural activity. Neural activity means activity in our brains, between the neurons that are there. The more our neurons fire together and join up in particular ways, the more patterns within or brain activity develop. These patterns become ‘the norm’ in terms of what our brains routinely do. Our brains take their shape and develop patterns from whatever perspective our brains routinely rest upon. If you wake in the morning and rest upon the idea that ‘I am alive, I am breathing, I have another precious day to live’, then this affects the structure your brain will take. If you wake in the morning and think ‘I really don’t want to face what I have to do today, it’s all just so mundane and monotonous,’ your brain structure will be affected. What your brain routinely rests upon can be down to choice, once you become aware of what is happening in your mind and this, in my opinion is good news. It means that once we are conscious of how we interpret our experiences, once we pay attention to what our brain is ‘resting upon’ on a regular basis, we learn that we have choice. Even if the experience is simply waking to a new day, we have choice about how we train our brains to interpret this experience.
The adolescent brain is at a stage of massive development. So much growth and change happens during adolescence which makes it a prime time to gain awareness of one’s ability to train ones brain. Treat the brain as you would any other muscle in your body. Approach it as you would any other muscle, knowing that you can’t control it completely but you can certainly train it to be strong. Step one in this process is to become conscious of how you are interpreting your experiences……….. of your one and only, very precious life.
A Valentine Project to Develop Children’s Self-Esteem
It is often said that the greatest love you can ever possess is the ability to truly love yourself. As St Valentine’s Day approaches, let us look then at the opportunity it provides us with to reflect on the notion of love. A lot of adolescents are suffering because of low self-esteem. As adolescence begins, the psychological task faced begins to shift. No longer is the main unconscious process focussed on learning how to accomplish and how to complete various tasks. Rather the unconscious mind is concerned with identity formation, the adolescent mind becoming engaged in a process of coming to know who the self really is. With this stage of psychological development comes an understandable heightened sense of self-consciousness, particular in relation to how others perceive them to be. And hence the increased risk to self esteem, when so much attention regarding whether a person feels ‘of worth’ is on something that is external to the self. The key protective factor for adolescent mental health is to have instilled in them a solid sense of their own self worth. Valentine’s Day affords us with the opportunity to begin this process.
A simple way to begin to get children to focus on self-worth is to suggest that they make a Valentine’s card for themselves. By explaining the importance of the value of loving yourself, it becomes a fun, creative way for children from age of 6 to 11 to engage with the concept of self-worth. Children are more likely to engage with learning if it is taught in a fun, creative way and this simple exercise provides children with the opportunity to focus on what it is they love about being themselves.
It can be hard not to become somewhat cynical about the commercialisation of St Valentine ’s Day. But it is a day to celebrate love and it is one we should engage in with gusto. Let us seize the opportunity to teach our children that the most important relationship they will ever have is the one they have with themselves. They deserve the opportunity to develop skills to build self-worth. Mental health matters…. so too does love.
‘The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.’
Being fit, getting fit, feeling fit; there is a lot of talk about it at this time of year… with new year’s resolutions abounding and RTE’s Operation Transformation on many people’s TV screens. And there is no doubt about it, fitness is fantastic and has a multitude of health benefits. But think for a moment just about the word fit…. think what it would be like to then focus on the term ‘mental fitness’ in your mind, instead of always associating it with the physical. Physical fitness has almost become one word but what if we were to broaden the word out…
What would you imagine this country would be like if RTE dedicated an entire series of Operation Transformation to our mental fitness? Yes, physical fitness matters a great deal and it is important to pay attention to our diet, our level of physical activity and our BMI. But is it more important than our level of mental fitness? Does our daily diet of thoughts not impact on us just as much, colouring our experience of living this life, influencing how we each feel?
We indeed have a crisis in this country. As a nation we are physically less active than we ever have been before so attention to physical fitness, particularly for children, matters an awful lot. But mental fitness matters too as the levels of depression and anxiety being experienced are at a very high level, for our young people growing up as well as for many adults. It’s just not as obvious as how a person is doing mentally is not immediately obvious when we look at them, whereas a person’s physical appearance which can hint towards a level of physical fitness, unlike a person’s mind, is readily available for us to see.
The phrase ‘mental fitness’ is one I tweeted about this morning. I stated that a person’s mental fitness level mattered as much as a person’s physical fitness level and I got an immediate positive response from Operation Transformation. So maybe the idea is catching on. Maybe a new journey could be beginning where people in the future will spend 30 minutes every day doing a ‘mental fitness workout’.
What do you believe would happen if people in this country took their mental fitness as seriously as they take their physical fitness? What would happen if as much effort was going into selecting thoughts for the day as is going into the planning of healthy meals? Would the mental health of the nation start to rise? I believe it certainly would. Do you?
A Step Towards a ‘Happy’ New Year
‘You may think you stand alone because you chose to be true to you. But, by doing so, you actually attract people to you who truly respect who you are.’
If only there was a simple recipe for happiness but there is not one. Otherwise, everyone would likely follow it and there would be no aggression, no hostility, there would be no wars. So there is not a simple recipe but that doesn’t mean there are not things we can do, ways of living that can incrementally bring us one step closer to a happy and contented life. As the New Year begins, people take all sorts of steps to try to ‘improve’ their experience of life. Here is one idea on happiness and it’s one that works…
There is a theory, based on research , which suggests that to be clear about our values is a step towards happiness. Not only though should we work out what values matter most to us but we must then go on to choose to live in alignment with these values. This practice (which some people do quite naturally) will bring us closer to happiness. So what value or values matters most? For some, it could be honesty and if it is, to be dishonest is to be unhappy. For some it may be genuineness, for others, integrity. Others again could value generosity or kindness. We are all so different and we all have different needs and wants. Sometimes it can happen that values get forgotten about and this happens for a myriad of different reasons. Often being out of step with our true selves becomes a way of being in life. For example, people can feel they need to act a certain way for certain people or in certain relationships rather than really express their true feelings but if one of your core values is genuineness, are you really being fair or true to yourself if you are going around wearing a mask?
We always have choices and as the New Year begins, it is a chance to choose again. We can choose to tune in to the values that really matter. To check at the end of each day if to-day was a day that you were truly honest, a day that you really did tell yourself the whole truth or if to-day you had integrity in all that you endeavoured to do. There may not be any magical recipe to follow to end up with a happy life but living closely in alignment with your core values is one sure, solid step towards a happier life. As the New Year begins, it is a method of living that brings you closer to being true to your core self.
Sometimes by being true to ourselves, we lose but maybe it’s better that way as you get to hold on to the essence of who you really are…….. Look in. How can you be true to you? Happy New Year.
Mindfulness at Christmas….
‘Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too…. Whatever you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.’
Some people find it hard to begin mindfulness practice and some find it hard to continue with it once they have begun. While mindfulness is a great practice which helps us deal more effectively with difficult times and help us appreciate more the good times, while it has been found to change for the better how people experience their lives, it is still sometimes, a difficult practice to incorporate into daily life. Part of the reason for this is that people find it hard to do. But all you really need to do is commit. Commit to the decision to do it.
We all know how to be mindful and live in the present moment but sometimes it is hard to believe this. Try and remember back to what Christmas was like when you were a child. If you were lucky enough to live in a society like this one, where a certain special visitor brought gifts from the North Pole for all the children who tried their very best to be good all year, you will probably remember the feeling of excitement and anticipation that that special time brought. Now try to remember what it like when you went downstairs to open gifts that were left for you under the tree. Remember the moment you saw the gifts, the moment you got to see what was inside. Try to remember back to what it was like to open those gifts and maybe take them out for that first play…. were you living ‘in the moment’ then? We are each born with an innate ability to live in the present moment. We forget that though and do it less and less as we grow (generally speaking) as we have more and more on our minds and our minds are all clogged up. But don’t ever think you can’t do mindfulness. Don’t think you can’t sit still and look up at the stars, or look at the Christmas lights and nothing else….just being in that moment for a moment.
Adults (generally speaking) don’t bounce on trampolines. Adults don’t usually sit down with a packet of twistables and colour in a Christmas tree but that doesn’t mean gmailwe couldn’t do it. We could if it was what we choose to do. So neither should we say we can’t be mindful just because we’re not in the habit of it, but habits are down to choice and once we commit to making it part of our day, it becomes automatic again, just as it was in childhood. If we as adults have lost the ability to just be, then all we need to do to be mindful is to make a commitment to it. Notice your in breath. Pay attention to the beauty of the lights…… watch and learn from those lovely little people all around. They are doing it automatically an awful lot of the time….kids at Christmas, living in the moments.
Minding Mental Health
‘If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.’
E. Joseph Cossman
We all know how it goes…. Someone tells you not to worry about something and while it may help marginally, the worrying does not just automatically stop. Someone else telling you not to worry about something can be good because it gives you the idea that for others the thing you are worrying about is not necessarily that worthy of worry, you may even feel that things won’t turn out so bad. But to take control of your mind, to actually train your mind to not get stuck in loops of worried thought, that can be a harder thing to achieve.
Research has emerged that is suggesting a possible link between chronic worrying and the likelihood of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the Epidemiology Department of Michigan State University, researchers have found while studying participants over a long number of years, that those who as children were prone to worrying a lot over everyday occurrences were much more likely to develop symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after a traumatic event. The statistics indicated clearly that chronic worrying is an indicator of vulnerability to developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder rather than the chronic worrying being a feature that develops as a result of the trauma.
So how can this research help us to better mind our children’s mental health? Are there things we can do to try to steer our children away from developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder later in life if a traumatic event occurs for them? We can’t necessarily avoid the trauma that happens on the journey we all make through life but can we better prepare the next generation to meet trauma with resiliency? Tuning in to how much worrying children do is the first good step in helping them take control of minding their mental health. If the child has a natural propensity towards worrying, you can guide them to an alternative way of thinking, not by saying not to worry but by increasing their own awareness about what thinking is behind the worried feeling. To explore with them what the thoughts are that are causing the worry and then to look at the evidence to suggest that that particular thought is not essential. For example, a child who is worried about what may happen in the schoolyard may be feeling worried because something difficult happened in the yard the week before. By exploring the child’s thoughts around this, they may be able to come up with a strategy to deal with the particular situation and then will begin to develop a belief that is along the lines of ‘I am able to problem solve.’ If this belief becomes strong over time, by strategising when worried feelings arise, even a child who has a natural tendency to worry can gain control of their thoughts and learn to manage their mind. This is not only then a route to better mental health but as the researchers in Michigan have found, it may also be a part of the resiliency a person develops to the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sometimes life is really tough and there are traumas that happen that knock us right over. Sometimes developing Post Traumatic Stress disorder is unavoidable but we can try to build up the resources of the next generation to better deal with trauma just as we can build up our own resources too. Minding mental health. There are things we can do….. and it matters.