What are our convictions and how strong are they?

Our personal convictions are our strongly held beliefs. A quick definition cut from Quorum says “Personal convictions are a special set of our beliefs, that determine (for you) what you believe to be right and wrong. They drive your behaviours and actions in every decision involving right and wrong. They determine your response to other people’s actions, including both your actions and your emotional response.”

I was wondering how the subject of personal convictions may change from generation to generation – as some topics heat up and some cool down; and if younger people now hold their personal convictions in a less strong or more fluid way than previous generations.

Convictions may centre around topics like political parties, or wealth redistribution, human rights, abortion, gun control, trans rights, fox hunting, LGBTQ+ equality, capital punishment, republicanism, national service, welfare payments, climate change, mass immigration, Islamophobia etc etc.

I will look at the types of personal convictions held by people over the coming months. Yet for now I make three points:

Many of us crave certainty – so we may prefer leaders with clear and strong convictions – as we will know what they are going to get.

Yet there is research that shows that we are often blind to evidence or arguments that disprove or undermine our convictions. Especially where our personal conviction form part of our self-representation. Once something is a personal conviction it seem one loses objectivity and balance. So there is a good and a bad side to holding strong convictions.

Finally, I wonder about the impact of becoming more mindful – does that reduce the strength of one’s convictions – or perhaps it make one more accepting of the convictions of others?

The Impact of Meditation

Research shows that meditating for just ten to 15 minutes per day can boost the brain’s ability to concentrate on tasks. A recent study of brain scans of students who took up meditation at Binghamton University in New York state revealed marked changes in their ability to switch between states of consciousness.

Scans from before and after an eight week meditation course for novices demonstrated  an improved ability to switch between the two general states of consciousness: the “default mode network”, when the brain is awake but not focused, such as in daydreaming; and the “dorsal attention network”, where the brain engages for demanding tasks.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports. When George Weinschenk was asked the teach as mediation class his colleague Weiying Dai, an assistant professor, was a little sceptical – especially about whether such a short amount of time spent learning how to meditate  would make any difference. Dai suggested it would be able to quantify any impact with modern technology. Dai had previously used MRI scans to track Alzheimer’s disease and suggested using the scans to look for differences in the brains of the meditation students.

Weinschenk says: “Tibetans have a term for that ease of switching between states — they call it mental pliancy, an ability that allows you to shape and mould your mind. They also consider the goal of concentration one of the fundamental principles of self-growth.”

Mediation is about practicing to be able to focus – to avoid internal distractions and also internal distractions such as thoughts of the past or of the future – and so the become more objective in a non-judgemental way.  The ability to concentrate on the moment (… to “be here now”) allows the sitter to become more aware of when the mind wanders and to refocus their thoughts.  Besides making sitters more effective in their tasks,  they may even experience the joy of “Flow states”.  Practice also enables meditators to gain authority over their emotional responses so that they are able to remains objective and avoid knee jerk or negative reactions.  All for just 10 minuet per days five times per week.

A wandering mind is not a happy mind

That’s what Harvard researchers Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University wrote after their 2010 study found people spend nearly half of their waking hours thinking about something other than what is going on right in front of them.

See  https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/

There is good news, however: We are not doomed to a life of distraction. By practicing mindfulness we can strengthen our ability to focus on the task at hand.

Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment “without a making-up story about it or reacting to it,” said Amishi Jha, professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of the forthcoming “Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day.”

Jha says it’s very beneficial to embrace a still practice, which she describes to “resistance training for attention”.

The goal is not about controlling the breath but “observing the breath and keeping your attention on the breath and when the mind wanders away to guide it back to the breath,” she said.

“When we are still, it is much easier to take this kind of observational stance,” Jha added. “We don’t have to control our movement. We don’t have to monitor where we are in space.”

If you have tried our Rezl app then you’ve probably noticed that the Rezl mediations, often ask you to “return to the breath” as a way to quieten the mind and focus on our breathing.  But why is it important to practice this three or four times a week? Well it’s really about having a single thing to focus on so that we notice when the mind wanders (…as that is what minds tend to do!).   Focusing on our breathing is in itself calming and prevents us from thinking about the past or worrying about the future.  Yet there’s a little more to it than this.

We’ve automated so much of how we react that we are often unaware of the thoughts and emotions arising within us.  The practice of focusing on the breath reduces our habit of allowing thoughts and reactions to be managed by our autopilot.

As we become aware of our reactions; we can start to identify those that do not serve us and which we would like to change.  Without being aware, how can we change?

So, the first step is to reduce the tendency of the mind to wander.  That is why we focus on the breath.

If you haven’t tried our  Rezl app then download it from the app store or  the google play store.

“Pupil catch-up” is not just about the curriculum

There has been much discussion as to how the government should help school pupils to catch-up from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic upon their education.

My initial reaction was that simply giving each child a few hours of extra “teacher time” (shared) would not address the specific and individual deficits of each pupil.  Some may be having problems with say chemistry while others may be struggling with trigonometry – how could twenty hours of “generic teacher time” address these individual deficits?

Further, before thinking about topping-up learning gaps, it seems that many pupils are still hampered by social and mental health issues.  The pandemic will have left many children with anxieties and feelings of uncertainty about the future.

On this topic, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), has released an interim report to say, that as a result of the pandemic, schools are experiencing an increase in pupils with mental health issues while social distancing is posing a variety of challenges to classroom teaching.

The NFER published a policy briefing, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, highlights the results of in-depth qualitative interviews with senior school leaders to understand the continuing implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for pupils’ education in mainstream schools.

The over-riding message from the senior school leaders, is that they need funding, support and the autonomy to make decisions in the best interests of their pupils; that the Government should provide clear guidance on future plans for assessment and accountability; and to take urgent action to free up capacity in critical health and social services for children and their families.

The NFER findings include:

  • Most pupils have been back in school full time since 8th March 2021, yet education is hardly back to normal. Schools are supporting children to recover both academically and in terms of their wellbeing, but this is a long-term undertaking made more challenging by measures to reduce Covid-19 infection.
  • Most senior leaders report that some of their pupils are suffering from Covid-related anxiety. Concerningly, a substantial minority report an increase in incidents of self-harm. Schools are putting measures in place to promote pupils’ emotional and mental health, and would like to do more. They cannot always get the support they need from specialist services, such as Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), speech and language and social services.
  • School leaders say that the pupils most affected by the pandemic were already vulnerable, including those with challenging home circumstances and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). However, wellbeing and mental health issues are affecting pupils not previously identified as vulnerable too.
  • Some senior leaders say that pupils’ behaviour is good or better than before, but some report an increase in incidents of poor behaviour and lack of self-control.
  • Most senior leaders say that social distancing is posing a variety of challenges to the quality of teaching and learning. For example, teachers are unable to circulate round their classes to provide feedback on pupils’ work and there is little interaction between pupils.
  • Many senior leaders report a reduction in enrichment activities (e.g. creative arts, sports and trips), largely due to infection control measures. They want to provide more variety and enjoyment for pupils, both within the school day and through extra-curricular activities.

The NFER says that “School leaders feel that the Government’s current approach to learning recovery is misconceived. They see the emphasis on academic ‘catch up’ as unhelpful and want an equal focus on emotional/wellbeing recovery and enrichment alongside academic catch up. They want the Government to provide adequate funding for recovery over a period of years and to allow schools to use it flexibly.”

This is a worrying picture. We are aware that CAMHS service is inundated and underfunded. It is worrying that the government’s focus is on “educational catch-up” rather than the emerging mental health problems that have been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic.

How can pupils focus and catch-up on their education when they are anxious and stressed?  The Government must rethink this programme.

Mindfulness Benefits Decision-Making

I have previously mentioned how the special US special forces practice mindfulness so that they are not distracted high pressure situations and are able to make better decisions.  (Here.)

Yet even in the relative calm of the C-suite, business Leaders must also demonstrate  strong decision-making skills – focus, analysis and objectivity –  yet few have been trained in the subject.

I notice that INSTEAD, one of the world’s leading and largest graduate business schools, are now providing training for those seeking to enhance their decision-making abilities –  and the training includes a technique that can make a world of difference: mindfulness.

INSTEAD says that in terms of decision-making tools, the evidence is mounting to show that mindfulness can have a powerful, positive impact on the process, leading to both better decisions and faster implementation.  Remaining mindful means that you’re present – conscious of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. With mindfulness, the decision-making process becomes a thoughtful, cognitive exercise, rather than an impulsive reaction to immediate needs.

Natalia Karelaia, Associate Professor of Decision Sciences at INSEAD says “This once esoteric idea is now becoming more generally accepted in the mainstream. Meditation and other mindfulness practices are being introduced in corporations worldwide (for example at Apple, Google, Nike, General Mills, Proctor & Gamble and more), and the trend is only expected to continue. Leaders who want to remain at the forefront of progressive ideas are wise to consider the value of Mindfulness as a business tool.”

INSTEAD says that analysis of mindfulness research shows that such heightened awareness allows for early identification of decisions that need to be made.

  • More creative problem-solving
  • More thorough ethical evaluation
  • Improved ability to recognise the limits of knowledge
  • Improved ability to identify trade-offs and unintended consequences of potential decisions

These benefits are just the beginning. Ultimately, those who practice mindfulness in the workplace are more capable of aligning their intentions with their behaviours — a key trait for gaining respect as a leader.  See here: Why Mindful Individuals Make Better Decisions | INSEAD Knowledge

Randel S. Carlock, INSEAD Professor of Entrepreneurial Leadership says, “Meditation creates space in one’s mind to think. Research indicates its positive effects also include stress reduction, improved clarity and focus, and enhanced physical well-being. Doing meditation is easier than some people think. In fact, Carlock suggests to make it part of your life, and you can start by setting aside a simple five minutes of mindfulness before you start your day, and again before you go to sleep. Then cultivate the habit as you become comfortable with it.”

It seems that incorporating meditation into day-to-day worklife may also have a positive impact on the bottom line. From better decisions to greater emotional intelligence and higher morale, this simple tool can dramatically improve the overall work experience for every employee at all levels.

I have also written about making “high stakes decision” – and again the traits of mindfulness are key in any such situation: https://carinasciences.com/2019/09/04/high-stakes-decision-making/

There will be no time to inculcate mindfulness when the chips are down.

The ways of the Iceman.

A number of my friends are extoling the benefits from following the practices outlined by “Dutch Iceman”  Wim Hof – these include breathing exercises to increase the effectiveness of our breathing and building up a tolerance of exposure to cold water or freezing environments.

Hof explains that through breathing exercises and repeated exposure to the cold, his method will lead to real health benefits: more energy, lowered stress levels and an improved immune system. He says this enables him to undertake seemingly superhuman feats of endurance.  Hof says that if we breathe properly, then the oxygen levels in our tissues increase and adrenaline floods the body, granting strength that we didn’t know we had.

“If you oxygenize the body the way we do it, the oxygen gets into the tissue. Regular breathing doesn’t do that. What happens in the brain stem, the brain says, ‘There is no oxygen anymore’ and then it triggers adrenaline to shoot out throughout the body. Adrenaline is for survival, but this time it is completely controlled … the adrenaline shoots throughout the body and resets it to the best functionality.”

You can find out more about Wim Hof’s method at his website here. https://www.wimhofmethod.com.

Now to be clear, it seems that not only is Wim Hoff improving the effectiveness of the breathing, he is controlling oxygen within the body to trigger the release of adrenalin.  This is combined with exposures to cold environments or to cold water baths that will build up a tolerance.   NB: There is a lot of research that shows that exposure to such cold situations can have therapeutic effects, including boosting the immune system – and that these effects are long lasting.

It seems to me that the practice of the Wim Hof’s methods may also increase one’s mindfulness – and so deliver the associated benefits:  breath focus is a practice that quietens the mind… developing an ability to focus and to avoid distractions (external or internal); while authority over one’s emotional reaction to cold shock is about the mind recognising the reactions yet being able to quench the automatic impulses (fight or flight); is developing an authority over ones emotional responses.  Of course, Wim Off is seeking to develop other skills and attributes – yet I believe that these mindfulness skills will help to improve concentration – and even attain “flow states” – as well making one less impulsive and able to develop better executive function.

Wim Hof’s method is much more than mindfulness … but followers will reap the benefits of becoming more mindful

Subliminal Messages?

Is it possible to influence people or even to control them by sending subliminal messages – messages or images delivered in such a way that they bypass the consciousness so that the recipient remains unaware that they have received such messages?

I listed recently to Mathew Syed’s BBC radio 4 programme “Sidesways” focussing on a 1990s court case in Nevada where the families of two young men who had committed suicide accused the rock band Judas Priest of including subliminal messages in their 1975 album track “Better by you better than me”

It is a great listen.  Here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000xdqc

It turned out that the first amendment didn’t protect the right to send subliminal messages… so it was “game on” in court.

The plaintives presented a series of experts who sighted examples of alleged subliminal messaging in sound, images and graphics to trigger violent or sexual thoughts. Further, there was a whole industry in 1980s… and still today…    providing self-help help audios to enable folk to give-up cigarettes and break other auctions, improve your golf… boost your self-confidence etc, etc. Plus, it was a common belief in the USA that the Chinese had used subliminal messaging to brain wash us military prisoners.

The concept, it was thought, relied upon the idea of sending “hidden” or “obscured” messages to subjects, so that their conscious executive function did not register or consider such messages. These messages would then change beliefs and thoughts without subjects even being aware of such messages – brain washing or even controlling individuals… or mass populations.

However, the clear scientific research demonstrated that subliminal messaging does not work.   To persuade people one has to win trust and provide persuasive arguments.

Spoiler: The court ruled that the plaintives had not demonstrated that Judas priest had inserted any subliminal messages into the relevant album – and had not demonstrated that the two young men acted because of the music that they had listened to. The case was thrown out.

Yet the weird thing is that many people still believe in the power of subliminal messaging – positive and negative – being an effective way to control people. Perhaps they have received subliminal messages to that effect!

(NB: If it did work we would be deluged by such subliminal messages from politicians, religions and marketeers).

Just to bring this subject back home I would reflect that MBCT… a mix of mindfulness and CBT… carefully explains how our thoughts and emotions work so that we can become aware of these processes and can exert an authority to prevent ourselves becoming overwhelmed or distracted.  Nothing subliminal about it – it’s right there.

At key moments in sport – be exactly where your feet are.

Last month golfer Phil Mickelson “pulled off the impossible”, by winning the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. In doing so at 50 years of age, he became the oldest player to win a major championship, breaking Julis Boros’ record that stood for 53 years.

Explaining what lay behind his feat Mickelson highlighted his mindfulness practice -,  having previously been honest about his problems focusing. He would hit good shots and even piece together good rounds, but he’d have a hard time stacking good rounds on top of one another or re-focusing when something takes him out of the zone. Yet this scenario is totally normal.

“I’m making more and more progress just by trying to elongate my focus..… I might try to elongate the time that I end up meditating. I’m trying to use my mind like a muscle and just expand it…   because as I’ve gotten older, it’s been more difficult for me to maintain a sharp focus, a good visualization and see the shot.”

Dr. Bhrett McCabe, who works with a number of PGA Tour pros says “As we age, it typically takes more effort to sustain focus. Golf is so hard because the mind is flooded constantly with processes and challenges that make it so hard to stay focused. You add in a major championship… it’s brutal.”

My own view about sports psychology is that it has two applications:– in training and in competition. I have previously looked at research that shows that mindfulness will help athletes to find “flow” in their training and to be more open to coaching… less harsh on themselves and to be more able to deal with setbacks.  Further, in teams sports,  there is research to show that mindful team members are more empathetic and supportive of each other… thereby building a better team spirit.

In this post I want to focus on performance… at key moments in sport. At competition time, mindfulness training can help in two ways – first in enabling athletes to focus so they make better decisions; and secondly to prevent athletes from being distracted by previous failures and or by the significance of the moment.

A few weeks ago, Peterborough United forward Johnson Clarke-Harris scored a penalty kick deep into extra time to secure promotion to the Championship – that was big moment… but, as Clarke-Harris stepped up to take the penalty, any thoughts or worries about the significance of his kick would not have been helpful to him.

I noticed, that in one research trial, volleyball players showed a greater performance improvement than soccer players when introduced to mindfulness (… though the soccer players did improve significantly).  This difference may reflect the case that soccer [mostly] is “continuous” (except for set pieces including penalty kicks) while volleyball is a series of serves and rallies – so perhaps it is more important for the whole volleyball team to settle and to focus as they prepare for each serve.

So – how can sports men and sports women best avoid distraction and focus on just doing their thing?

American sports psychologist Michael Gervais works with athletes in “high stakes, consequential environments.”  You can read a great interview with Michael from GQ magazine here. https://www.gq.com/story/michael-gervais-sports-psychology-interview

In his work Gervais’s helps athletes to be focussed in situations which may be very distracting (the significance of the moment or even the noise of the crowd).  The success of his clients demonstrates Gervais’s view that awareness might actually be a future pillar of elite sports performance (alongside nutrition, recovery, and strength and conditioning, which, Gervais, points out, were once viewed with cynicism, too).

I will just highlight a couple of topics from Gervais’s interview:

Re Confidence: “Confidence comes from one place and one place only: what you say to yourself. It’s not just built on past success. The good news is that ultimately, we are responsible for what we say to ourselves. It’s a trainable skill. So, by default, confidence is trainable, and it’s 100% under our control.”

Re choking (self-doubt that causes athletes to over focus on technique that they have automated): “Usually it’s about “The moment is big and I don’t feel like I have the skills, so I feel small. I don’t have the skills to manage the moment.” So is the moment big? There’s really no such thing as a big moment in my mind. You’ve heard it your whole life: the Super Bowl is a big game. And I can create a narrative where that’s true. But when I strip it down, it’s no different. More people are watching. But the rules are the same. The balls are the same. The consequences are the same. One team wins, one team loses.  The only person that changes the stakes is the person performing. The media need to make it big, because they need eyeballs. That’s their business. As an athlete, most of us, we have to make an informed decision early on. So  the Super Bowl is like every other game. A game is a game. So do you have the ability to be where your feet are? And are you going to change that because people are watching?”

On retaining focus at big moments: “Now there are real changes that can happen after winning…. but really what it comes down to is how you respond to now. So that’s the mission here: figure out how to train your inner world—your mind —so that you can be exactly where your feet are in any environment, in any situation, in any circumstance. If you can do that, the outcomes will take care of themselves.”

I like the way Gervais talks – he can acknowledges that moments may be significant – but an athlete must be able to set all that aside and “be where there feet are” and even tell them selves that they can do that… that they can shut it all out – so that their focus is on their preparation ritual and on their kick, shot, serve, stroke or jump.

Online mindfulness training early can reduce stress, anxiety and COVID-19 concern

We can all observe that  fear, anxiety and stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has had a big impact on mental health over the last 15months.  So it is good news that a new study suggests these symptoms may be alleviated through convenient online mindfulness practices.

Here is a neat trail involving 233 participants from across the world. The trail comprised a pre-session survey, a single 15-minute online mindfulness meditation session and a post-session survey. The surveys evaluated momentary stress, anxiety and COVID-19 concern. (Here)

The results were very positive:

  • 89% of participants said the session was helpful
  • 76% of participants reported decreased anxiety
  • 80% reported decreased stress,
  • and 55% had decreased COVID-19 concern

It is worth noting that a fifth participants were retired; suggesting that age did not prevent accessibility or effectiveness.

Online (or app based) self-help is “on demand” and so it is accessible to subjects wherever and whenever they prefer to use it.  We have received many similar such comments for users of our own Rezl app.  If you are someone you know is anxious about the impact of the pandemic  or are worrying about the future then please contact us.

 

Resilience for Covid-19  mental wellbeing problems

The Covid-19  pandemic has caused fear and worry over the possible  impact on our friends, family and ourselves.  It has revealed the world as an uncertain place.  Further… lockdowns, social distancing and media coverage may have added to the impact of the pandemic on our  mental wellbeing.  So it is important that we understand such relationships and how they may be reduced.

In June 2020 researchers from Columbia, Spain and Chile carried out research to understand these mechanisms: the paper “The impact of the Covid-19  pandemic on subjective mental well-being: The interplay of perceived threat, future anxiety and resilience” by Paredes et al and published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences ,Feb 2021.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7552984/pdf/main.pdf

The researchers questioned 711 people to measure their “subjective mental  wellbeing”, their level of “perceived threat” from Covid-19, their  “future anxiety” (i.e. how they felt about future uncertainty or threats) and their resilience – a personality trait representing their capacity to deal with stressful events..

The research demonstrated that there was strong link between the level of threat perceived and the subjective mental wellbeing of the subjects.  It also demonstrated a significant link between the perceived levels of threat on the future anxiety of the subjects; and that this future anxiety added to the subjective mental wellbeing of the subjects.

The research showed that “resilience” significantly reduced the “future anxiety” within subjects and this in turn significantly improved the mental wellbeing of the subjects.

The researchers commented: “This finding implies that resilience, as a personality trait, prepares individuals to cope with the pandemic’s adverse effects. Individuals with higher levels of resilience reported lower levels of future anxiety and, in turn, lower effects on subjective mental wellbeing, experiencing greater success in coping with the emotional distress provoked by the pandemic.

Interestingly, the research demonstrated that resilience significantly raised the mental wellbeing of both those who experienced a low threat from the Covid-19 pandemic and well as those perceiving a high threat.  So even those who were not so stressed by the pandemic experienced a boost to their mental wellbeing from their resilience.

The researchers went on the highlight “Mindfulness Interventions” as a proven way to boost resilience.  Further, they suggested that, because social media consumption and news outlets may provide confusing information which  increases fear and anxiety, then Governments should implement clear communication strategies. Communication campaigns should promote messages encouraging preventive actions to avoid the spread of the virus. Messages should be concise and focused on practical ways to reduce risk and create tranquillity in the population; and that during, and in the aftermath of, the pandemic it is essential to open communication channels through digital media to provide mental health services.

The researchers concluded that the perceived threats from the pandemic had a detrimental impact on mental health and this impact is reduced by resilience.

“Individuals with higher resilience are less susceptible to the pandemic’s negative psychological consequences because they experience a lower increase in future anxiety, compared to individuals with lower levels of resilience. Our findings imply that mental health intervention strategies aimed at strengthening resilience and preventing future anxiety have a significant potential to mitigate the adverse impact on mental well-being of the Covid-19 pandemic itself and the social measures adopted to curb the pandemic.”

So, to be clear, it is not too late to increase your reliance and so reduced your “anxiety about the future” – the Rezl smartphone app uses Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy to increase resilience.  Please get itn contact if you would like to try it.