Painful solitude?


When was the last time you spent 15 minutes doing nothing? No TV, music, nothing to read, no smart phone.  If you can’t remember, you’re not alone.  It seems most people really struggle with solitude, and some would rather administer a small electric shock to themselves than tolerate it.  Mark Sainsbury and I talked about how hard it is to just be still and quiet with our own thoughts, and whether this is a modern problem, on the Radio Live Sunday morning show this week.  (Click here to listen to the interview)

Mindfulness is often touted as a psychological panacea, a cure for all our ills.  And there is little doubt it can be very helpful.  However it’s also true that for many it can be very, very difficult and indeed painful.  Researchers at the University of Virginia have come up with a number of studies that appear to show just how hard some people find it…

“They report on 11 experiments. In most, they asked participants to put away any distractions and entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes. Over the first six studies, 58 percent of participants rated the difficulty at or above the midpoint on a scale (“somewhat”), and 42 percent rated their enjoyment below the midpoint. In the seventh study, participants completed the task at home, and 32 percent admitted to cheating by using their phones, listening to music, or doing anything but just sitting there.” (Click here for the whole article)

So about half find it difficult and unpleasant.  But what is really, <ahem> shocking, is that in a further study participants were given the added option of voluntarily giving themselves a mild electric shock during the 15 minute period.  And surprisingly  two thirds of men and one quarter of women did so.  This is an electric shock that prior to being in solitude they would’ve paid money to avoid.  It seems some people find sitting in solitude so unpleasant that even causing themselves pain is preferable!

So what’s going on here?

Smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, instant gratification etc, etc…  That’s what I thought too, but no, wrong.  The experiment was carried out across a wide age range and they found essentially no difference between participants of different ages, with subjects ranging from 18 to 77.  The researchers conclude these modern devices are merely a symptom of our desire to continually distract ourselves.

The leading theory at this point is that we are all biologically inclined, for survival reasons, to scan our external environment.  To put it another way, we all tend to be externally biased.  Because of this it is unnatural to spend any extended period of time not focussing externally.

This makes sense to me, and moreover it is only as our external worlds have become relatively safer that the costs of this external bias becomes apparent in the form of anxiety, boredom, malaise and the modern desire for stimulation.

I think Mindfulness is an ancient solution, to an age old problem, that we’re only just noticing we have.  It’s not so much a fad as a modern necessity: a counter-balance to the high stimulation but existentially safe life most of us now live.


*If you are looking for an easy way to start meditating you can’t do much better than Andy Puddicombe’s (the TED talk presenter from my last blog) website, iOS and Android app “Headspace.”  The first ten days of meditation are free, and he does a good job of guiding you through the basics of how to practice bringing our attention to the present moment.



A Mindful Disposition


I’ve talked a lot about how mindfulness is good for your emotional health, good for anxiety and good for your well-being.  But it turns out it’s also good for your heart.  Mark and I talked about this, and what “dispositional mindfulness” is on Radio Live, Sunday Morning this week.  (Click here to listen to the interview…)

A recent study has found that those who have higher levels of dispositional mindfulness tend to rate higher on cardiac health measures.  But what is dispositional mindfulness?  It refers to the ability we all have, to varying degress, that enables us to monitor our emotional, mental and physical state, moment by moment.  As a skill it is variable amongst individuals, some people are good at it, and some aren’t.

 “In the study, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 382 participants first answered the 15 questions of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS)… …They then underwent tests measuring the American Heart Association’s seven indicators of cardiovascular health: cigarette smoking, physical activity, body mass index, fruit and vegetable consumption, cholesterol, blood pressure and fasting blood sugar levels… …Loucks and his team paired the self-reported mindfulness information with the cardiovascular test results and discovered that those with higher mindfulness scores had an “83 percent greater prevalence of good cardiovascular health.” They also found that those with lower mindfulness scores struggled with four of the seven cardiovascular health indicators: body mass index, physical activity, fasting glucose and cigarette smoking.” (Click here for the whole article)

Like most of these studies, the results are correlational, in that dispositional mindfulness and cardiac health co-occur in the same people, and as such we can’t say that mindfulness causes good physical health habits.  Nonetheless it is possible to theorise why these things might go together.

Firstly if we naturally pay attention to our physical and emotional states we notice ill health, how it feels to not exercise or eat unhealthy food, and likewise notice the positive effects of exercising, eating well and looking after ourselves.

Secondly many forms of exercise are meditational in nature, running for instance, and regular exercise my increase dispositional mindfulness.

There is also a relevant causal relationship we do know about.  Active and regular practice of mindfulness decreases our levels of cortisol, or what is commonly referred to as the “stress hormone.”  And high levels of cortisol are associated with an increased risk for depression, mental illness and lower life expectancy.

Convinced yet?  Well you might want to try taking the test used in the research the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) (Click here to take the test).  If your results aren’t that great, don’t worry.  Mindfulness is a very learnable skill, and regular meditation can have quite an immediate effect on your levels of mindfulness.  Another good place to start is with the video below.  I’ve shared this before, but it’s still the best introduction to mindfulness that I’ve found.  Enjoy…

Green eyed monster

Jealousy.  The green eyed monster.  A negative emotion: or just poorly understood?  This week Wallace and I chatted about jealousy, what it is and what to do if you feel like you suffer from it.  (Click here for audio of the interview…)

Jealousy is what shows up when a relationship we value is at risk of being taken away from us.  It is different from envy in that envy “occurs when someone lacks another’s quality, achievement or possession and wishes that the other lacked it.” (Click here for the rest of the article).  Most of us have felt jealous at some point, and it ain’t fun.  The big problem with jealousy though is that it is distress pointed outwards, and in making us focus outwards we can tend to lose touch with what is going on for us.  (For more click here…)

It’s often described as one of the secondary emotions as it involves quite few different primary emotions (anger, fear) and is often due to some primary need not being met.  But it feels very primal.  For that reason evolutionary psychologists have tended to dine out on theories about jealousy, because it can be seen to be so closely connected with survival.  To be jealous of a partners fidelity is to protect our genetic investment; and it does seem true that largely men are more jealous about the idea of sexual infidelity and women more jealous about ideas of emotional fidelity.

But is it that simple?

The main critique of this simplified view is that actually, jealousy makes us do very dumb things and the behaviors of jealousy often damage and destroy relationships.  It is often the fuel behind relationship violence and jealous controlling partners often drive their partners away.

So feeling a little bit jealous may be helpful, it tells us the person matters.  But jealous behaviour almost never helps.

So what do you do if you feel jealous? Well the best place to start is to ask yourself is there actually a threat to the relationship, or are your feelings of jealousy just your distress turned outwards?  In other words whose problem is it?  And once you’ve decided that…

  • If there is a problem with the relationship, confront it in the knowledge that jealousy will not actually help.  Communication will.
  • If there isn’t a problem, the trick is to keep coming back to being able to identify what feelings drive the jealousy.  Challenge yourself to let go of controlling the other person and allow yourself to share what and who you have in your life.  (And never, ever, ever read their text messages.  This NEVER goes well.)

And remember the best protection against jealousy is a secure open, well functioning relationship.  In a way the only relationship advice to ever give anyone, is to talk to each other, kindly and openly.  And do that every day.

Sometimes, things suck

Positive thinking.  We’ve all heard of it, chances are some of you even try to do it.  I don’t.  Can’t stand it.  When people tell me to “think positively” my heart sinks.  Why?

Life isn’t all positive.  Sometimes it’s painful, hard, frustrating and downright annoying.  It can also be wonderful, inspiring, uplifting and joyous.  Sometimes it’s neither.  But too often to take a stance against mindless optimism is to be seen to be “negative” or pessimistic.  But neither optimism or pessimism captures reality, the glass is after all both half full and half empty.

This week Wallace Chapman and I talked about this and the history of positive thinking, as a self help movement.  We also talked about the pitfalls. (Click here for audio of the interview…)

For me, this sums it up…

 “Fortunately, the alternative to optimism is not pessimism, which can be equally delusional. What we need here is some realism, or the simple admission that, to paraphrase a bumper sticker, “stuff happens,” including sometimes very, very bad stuff. We don’t have to dwell incessantly on the worst-case scenarios — the metastasis, the market crash or global pandemic — but we do need to acknowledge that they could happen and prepare in the best way we can. Some will call this negative thinking, but the technical term is sobriety.”  (Click here for the whole article).

Realism, or emotional “sobriety” as this article describes it means allowing feelings to happen and impact us.  To truly feel the emotional impact without clinging to it, or rejecting and avoiding it.  It is one of the philosophies at the heart of mindfulness practice, and involves a full and willing acceptance of all that is before us good, bad or otherwise.  It means a full engagement with reality, not just the bits we want or expect.  But how is positive thinking dangerous?

“People who view the world through rose-colored glasses are wonderfully optimistic and seem to harness the power of positive thinking. This often helps them; even spurs them on to great success. Unfortunately, their look-only-at-the-positive attitude sometimes sets them up for painful failure; especially when they meet up with very real limits to their abilities, resources, or opportunities. When this happens, they often feel crest-fallen and view themselves harshly.” (Click here for the whole article).

It’s a long way to fall back to Earth from the mindlessley optimistic view.  And sometimes seeing things positively is just a bit delusional.

No one says that better than Monty Python…


I have a confession to make.  Sometimes when I have a spare hour at work, I lie down on my couch and have a wee nap.  One of the benefits of being self employed I guess.  I know I could never do it “on the clock” when I was being paid a salary.  But why is napping so frowned upon, when the science is overwhelmingly clear: napping is like high octane fuel for your brain.

Wallace (also a big fan of naps) and I talked about the benefits of napping on Radio Live this week.  (Click here for a link to the audio of the Radio Live interview)

Research has shown napping improves performance, almost regardless of what task you are engaged in.  It shows particularly high improvements in memory, concentration and boosts memory performance.  It also seems to clear short term memory, almost like resetting your computer, and leaves your brain more laert and ready to engage is taxing tasks.  (For more on the research click here and here).

Part of the trick to it, to mastering the “power nap” is how long you sleep for:

“The length of your nap and the type of sleep you get help determine the brain-boosting benefits. The 20-minute power nap — sometimes called the stage 2 nap — is good for alertness and motor learning skills like typing and playing the piano.

What happens if you nap for more than 20 minutes? Research shows longer naps help boost memory and enhance creativity. Slow-wave sleep — napping for approximately 30 to 60 minutes — is good for decision-making skills, such as memorizing vocabulary or recalling directions. Getting rapid eye movement or REM sleep, usually 60 to 90 minutes of napping, plays a key role in making new connections in the brain and solving creative problems.”(Click here for the whole article)

I like to combine my napping with meditation, for what I call the “no pressure” nap.  I make the decision to lie down, set an alarm, and if I sleep all good, if not I just try and meditate and relax.  The worst thing to do with napping is to turn it into another have to.

So for the un-inititated here are some tips from the above article:

  • Be consistent. Keep a regular nap schedule. Prime napping time falls in the middle of the day, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
  • Make it quick. Set your cell phone alarm for 30 minutes or less if you don’t want to wake up groggy.
  • Go dark. Nap in a dark room or wear an eye mask. Blocking out light helps you fall asleep faster.
  • Stay warm. Stash a blanket nearby to put over you because your body temperature drops while you snooze.


You might also want to watch this little clip about the benefits of napping (or just email it to your boss!):

It’s people, people, people

In this weeks chat with Wallace, our last of the series on Resilience (see also: Resilience and Emotional Immune System) we talked about how one of the strongest predictors of peoples ability to cope with stress and trauma across life is the quality of our earliest relationship, that of the attachment to our mother.  (Yeah I know a therapist WOULD say that, but wait there’s science!)  (Click here for audio of the interview)

“Research has shown us again and again that healthy relationships can single-handedly confer resilience to human beings facing stressful and potentially traumatic circumstances. Secure attachments – those relationships where there is a consistent, warm, attuned, and responsive adult – confer the greatest resilience to the developing nervous systems of our kids. Of the children who grow up in the extremes of poverty, abuse, and neglect, the ones who bounce back the best and somehow beat the odds are the ones with at least one person in their life who cares for them and is available on a consistent basis. It seems we are built by design to thrive in attuned and responsive relationships. Love nourishes and buffers our hearts.”  (Click here for the whole article).


Roughly speaking if poeple have had problems in that early relationship then they will tend to either be:

  • Avoidant of attachment and closeness with people
  • Ambivalent about closeness and move between wanting closeness and intimacy, and struggling with it when they do have it
  • Disorganized if their early life was particularly traumatic or difficult, where there is very little ability to use relationships positively at all

And about two thirds of adults are:

  • Securely Attached meaning they’ve had a good enough experience of parenting in their early life that they can use relationships and maintain closeness.  For more about adult attachment styles click here.

The good news is that even if you didn’t have that great a start in life, the human brain is “plastic” that is, it can learn and change based on experience.  And positive, nurturing and compassionate adult relationships can change your attachment style for the better.  Therapy can do that, but so can close friendships or a loving marriage.

The other good news is it doesn’t take a lot of people.  Just one or two close committed and ongoing friendships can make a substantial difference to your ongoing emotional and physical health:

“Studies have shown that middle-aged people who have at least one friend they can turn to when they are upset have better overall health than people without such a friend. Similarly, single people are at a greater risk for depression than married people, and people who withdraw from social contact when they become ill tend to become sicker. Seen in this light, having a supportive group of friends and family is a major asset for maintaining good physical health. If you want to maximize your opportunity to stay in good health, find time for close friendships and work hard to maintain them.” (Click here for the whole article).

So look after your friends.  Especially the good ones.  The ones that listen and take time to hear how you are and support you when you need it.  Make sure you return the favor.  It might just save your life, in the long run.


Emotional immune system

Off the Couch

One of the best ways to think about resilience is it’s like looking after our emotional immune system.  Just like our physical immunity, we all need to actively make sure we are looking after our emotional health as best we can.  And as Wallace and I talked about last time, their are some clear and empirically supported things we can do to facilitate this.  (Click here for this weeks interview about the emotional immune system).

Mindfulness, and generally increasing our emotional awareness is important.  It’s also showing results for the emotional health and resilience of children as you can see here (click here for link), specifically increasing resilience to depression and stress.

Some people are also really good at re framing negative events, so as to find meaning in them.  Like when a few months after a break up we think to ourselves, “that was the best thing that could’ve happened” or thinking about how we can learn something from a negative or painful situation.  And this is a skill we can learn, with practice.

There is also a massive body of literature about the positive effects of exercise on resilience.  Not only does aerobic exercise decrease the risk for depression and anxiety, it also improves our attention, planning, decision making and memory.  Recent studies also seem to suggest that aerobic exercise also release specific chemicals that promote growth and repair of neurons in the brain, reversing the effects of stress and the “stress hormone” cortisol.

Another clear factor is what is known as “stress inoculation.”  Essentially this recognizes that it is possible to avoid a lot of stress in our lives, but actually we need some stress to build our resilience.  Just like getting vaccinated, tackling realistic and manageable challenges builds our capacity to cope with stress and our emotional resilience.  This great little video from the Scientific American “Instant Egghead series says it best:

Next interview, in two weeks Wallace and I will talk about the last factor that is vital to resilience.  People.  In the meantime, get a little bit stressed.  It’s good for you.


Over the next few weeks Wallace and I are going to be talking about resilience, what is it and how can we all develop more of it.  Much of the resilience research grew out of the known fact that some people respond to stress and trauma better than others and set about finding out what were the factors that meant some people fell apart and some people were able to move on?  (Click here for audio of the interview)

Surprisingly to some the research in the area has also found that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary.  The psychiatric focus on PTSD and other responses to extreme stress has conditioned us to think of this as normal, but the reality is resilience is more common than previously thought.

The American Psychological Society defines resilience as:

“Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”  (Click here for the full article)

The factors most widely accepted as being key to developing resilience have been identified in the research of Steven M. Southwick of Yale Medical School and are:

  • Regulating emotions
  • Adopting a positive, but realistic outlook
  • Becoming physically fit
  • Accepting challenges
  • Maintaining a close and supportive social network
  • Observing and imitating resilient role models

Not surprisingly, to regular readers of this blog, mindfulness has a big role to play especially when it comes to better regulating emotions and adopting a more positive outlook.  Regular practice of mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase our ability to observe and regulate emotions, and most recently reduce anxiety.

A recent study measured brain activity via brain scans before and after a group of 15 people completed four twenty minute meditation classes.  The scans  found that activity in the area of the brain known to be active in thinking and emotions (anterior cingulate cortex) went up and activity in the area known to be active in worrying (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) went down.  Further more study participants reported an average of a 39{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} decrease in their levels of anxiety.  (Click here for the article)

In short, regular practice of mindful meditation seems to inoculate our mind and emotional systems against stress and negative emotions by increasing our ability to tolerate and experience them and decreasing our capacity to get “stuck” on distressing thoughts and feelings.

Think of it as vitamin “C” for the mind.