Mind-Body Connection: The benefits of exercise

 

Exercise for body and mind:

       “ If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can,
it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.” (Tarnopolsky, 2016, cited in Oaklander, 2016)

Health professionals are increasingly recommending, based on scientific research, that we should all exercise because it is good to restore and maintain our health. Regular exercise has significant benefits for our body and mind: it lowers the risk of developing diseases such as heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure. It also helps to build and strengthen bones and muscles, as well as strengthens our immune system. Physical activity increases our aerobic capacity strengthening our lungs and helping to keep our bodies well oxygenated. In addition, it helps to boost our metabolism and maintain a stable weight (Ratey &Hagerman, 2010).

What counts as exercise?

We tend to assume that it refers to long and strenuous workouts in the gym. In fact, any activity that requires movement and that accelerates our heart rate moderately is beneficial. This can be going for a walk or jogging, as well as stretching and balancing exercises to increase our flexibility, posture and balance. The general recommendation is about 30 minutes a day, five times a week of moderate level of exercise including aerobic and muscle strengthening activities (White & Wojcicki, 2010).

To benefit from exercising it is important to have a regular routine and persevere with our efforts. It is recommended not to spend too much time sitting as our body needs to be active to continue to function optimally throughout our lives, and to be careful not to strain the body with too much exercise for long periods as it can be detrimental to our health (Hillman, et al, 2008).

How does exercise benefit our body and mind?
Aerobic exercises increase our lung capacity, and work harder to pump blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to reach our muscles providing the energy they need to function optimally. What matters is that the movement needs to increase our heart and breathing rate, and when we increase the pace of physical activity it stimulates the nervous system to prepare the body for action.

Strength exercises, using weights to provide resistance so our muscles need to work harder, help to strengthen bones to prevent falls and fractures in the future.  In addition, balance, flexibility and coordination exercises increase our body’s agility, flexibility and balance. Exercise helps us to keep alert, increases energy and improves sleep helping to reduce fatigue and as result we feel better, stronger and more confident (Ratey & Hagerman, 2010).

Exercise helps to increase our body’s capacity to support our endocrine system, keeping insulin stable helping to reduce the risk of Type II diabetes. It lowers blood pressure helping to prevent heart diseases, and it has the potential to prevent or delay neurodegenerative diseases. In addition, it strengthens our immune system supporting our long-term health.

We can notice the benefits of exercising after a period of regular activity that includes repeated exercises so that the body can adapt to the increasing demand building strength and resilience. The regular effort increases our fitness level: as the lungs are able to process more oxygen our body is increasingly more able to cope with challenges.

How does exercise help to manage stress?

The body’s stress response is triggered when our brain (amygdala) detects danger and our body’s resources are not sufficient to manage the demands of the situation. Prolonged periods of stress affects us negatively as it suppresses the immune system making us vulnerable to illnesses, increases feelings of tiredness as well as lowering our mood and reducing our ability to cope with challenges (Jackson, 2013).

We are organisms designed to move so regular exercise supports the brain’s ability to adapt and manage challenges more effectively. Exercise helps to restore energy as it increases the efficiency of our body’s ability to metabolises glucose to provide energy to respond to the challenge. The movement relaxes our muscles and builds our strength. It supports our physical health and stamina and as it strengthens our body it increases our capacity to tolerate and regulate the body reducing symptoms of stress (Medina, 2008).

Exercise improves and regulates mood, our breathing and reduces muscle tension. When feeling tense these symptoms can interact in a feedback loop between the body and the brain, it regulates the signals in the brainstem enabling the activation of the body’s calm response. In order to manage uncomfortable feelings when stressed you can interpret these as the body’s reaction to increase energy level to manage a challenge. When you notice that your heart rate and your breathing are a bit faster remind yourself that as your body needs more energy it needs to access energy quickly, breathing is faster to take in more oxygen and the heart needs to pump faster too to pump blood around your body to take the energy to the muscles. By reframing the interpretation of our body’s reactions we can reduce the tension and restore our balance, to cope with the situation.  By doing deep breathing exercises you can have a sense of control as the tension in your body eases. You can also do some mindfulness exercises.

How does exercise help us to learn better?
Exercise is the single most powerful tool we have to optimise our brain function (Ratey, 2008). Exercise supports and strengthens our cardiovascular system and is good for the heart is good for the mind. It clears the mind as the brain receives more blood bringing nutrients and stimulating the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) essential for the production of new neurones (Hopkins, et al. 2012). This process is called neurogenesis: the creation of new neutrons in the hippocampus, a key area in the brain for learning, memory and mood regulation (Kodall, M. Et al, 2016).

Exercise enhances our executive functions. By being physically active we are better able to pay attention and increase concentration, our mental processing speed is improved, it improves our ability to plan and it can protect our brains by helping to reduce or delay the risk of developing neurological diseases (White & Wojcicki, 2016).

When we are more active the brain releases endorphins, strengthening connections between neurons influencing our ability to concentrate, to evaluate information and make decisions. The activity also strengthens the hippocampus – the area of the brain that stores memories (Medina, 2008).

Exercise supports maintaining optimal physical and mental health. In addition, good nutrition contributes to supporting a healthy microbiota in our gut, and strengthening the immune system. A diet that contains mainly processed foods such as cakes, burgers,, fries, and sugary drinks leads to a gut with low biodiversity in the microbiota which can lead to experiencing tiredness, low mood and lack of motivation.  Health professionals recommend a Mediterranean diet that includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, protein such as fish and lean meats  and dairy products in moderation. Research indicates that there is a link between the gut microbiota and the brain having the potential to affect our cognitive functioning and our sense of wellbeing (Sonnenburg, J & Sonnenburg, E, 2015).

Therefore, to maintain our energy level, strengthen our cognitive abilities, and maintain a healthy body and mind it is essential to exercise regularly, have a healthy diet and to have social and cognitive stimulation to develop and maintain our strengths to feel well and be able to study effectively (Hillman, et al. (2008).

So at any time, and in particular during exams, take a break and go for a walk, the movement and fresh air will help to clear your head and restore your energy. In addition, being in nature will lift your mood and help to release tension. When you return to your studies you will be better able to focus and get on with your revision.

References:

Hillman, C.H. et al (2008) “Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects of brain and cognition”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Volume 9. pp.58-65.

Hopkins,, M.E. et al. (2012) Differential effects of acute and regular physical exercise on cognition and affect.” Neuroscience, Volume 215, July, pp 59-68.

Jackson, E. (2013) “Stress relief: the role of exercise in stress management.” Health and Fitness Journal. American College of Sports Medicine. May/June 2013, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp14-19.

Kodall,, M. Et al. (2016) “Voluntary running exercise – mediated enhance neurogenesis does not obliterate retrograde spatial memory.” Journal of Neuroscience, August, 36 (31). pp. 8112-8122.

Medina, J. (2008) Brain Rules: 12 Principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school. Seattle: Pear Press.

Oaklander, M. (2016) “The new science of exercise“, Time Health, 12 September

Ratey, J. & Hagerman, E. (2010) Spark. How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London: Quercus.

Sonnenburg,, J. & Sonneburgh, E. (2015) Gut Reactions. How Health insides can improve your weight, mood and well-being. London: Penguin Random House.

White, S.M, & Wojcicki, T.R. (2010) Staying mentally sharp through physical activity.” American College of Sports Medicine. September, p.4-5

Prevent procrastination: how to get things done. The Psychology of Action (Part 1)

Why do we do the opposite of what we want to do?
We tend to behave against our intended plans such as working on assignments because we may have worry thoughts anticipating the result will not be as good as we want it to be, or perhaps because we think what we are doing is wrong. Sometimes we think there is only one right way to do it, or believe that we shouldn’t make mistakes. When thinking like this we can feel discouraged and then we are likely to stop working on the task because we don’t feel confident we can do it well. It could also be due to having a feeling of aversion because we think it is too hard so we delay getting on with our work.

When we worry that we may not reach a high standard we may inadvertently create obstacles that prevent us from making progress. Although we may not be fully aware of it, we are likely to behave in what seems a paradoxical way (ie doing the opposite of what we want to do) to protect our self-image. We want to see ourselves in a good light, and when studying we want to see ourselves as being academically capable.

We are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept (Baumeister, 1996). If we do not achieve our goals, or if we assume that when a task is hard it means that we are not intelligent enough to do well, we may feel frustrated and worried anticipating negative consequences. If we have not done well because we started too late, or had a problem that prevented us from making progress we rationalise our behaviour by explaining to ourselves and others that there are reasons for not doing well. We would rather have some explanation for not working than taking the risk of putting in a lot of effort and then finding out that we didn’t do well. We have a tendency to prefer to deal with a negative outcome when it is as a result of not trying rather than finding out that we didn’t do well because we do not have the ability.

Why would we tend to do this? It could be because we don’t like having doubts about our capacity for academic work, and we worry that we are not capable of reaching the high standards we expect of ourselves. Another common tendency is to avoid the task because we anticipate it being difficult and hard work. As human beings we have the tendency to avoid difficulty and discomfort:  we much rather feel comfortable and not have to make efforts to achieve things. So avoiding getting started, or not persevering with assignments, may be due to not wanting to experience the discomfort of what we perceive to be too challenging for our ability. This is based on the assumption that if a task is difficult it reflects on our ability, however, by changing your perspective and view hard work as a sign that the task is a challenge and it requires more effort to learn it so that you can build your knowledge. Any task that is of value will require more effort and will challenge us, so if you view the task as something you want to learn it is more likely to be motivating and it will allow you to tolerate setbacks better as these are viewed as part of the learning process (Gollwitzer,, P.M. & Oettingen., G. (2015).

What can you do to persevere with your efforts?
You can encourage yourself to get on with the task by reframing the task as something that you choose to do because you want to increase your knowledge, and develop your skills. You can also reflect on how you are perceiving the task: what makes it so hard, do you need more information or guidance? Do you feel it is hard for you but not for others? It is important not to compare with others as we each have different skills and ways of doing things. Instead, look for what you can learn, and remind yourself that with practice and continued effort it will eventually become familiar.  Imagine the benefits of increasing your knowledge and honing your skills (report writing, researching, synthesising information, etc). These skills will be very useful as part of your personal and professional development.

Learning to motivate yourself and being able to persevere with tasks are also essential skills for your professional life. Practice reaching beyond your comfort zone, a little at a time, and you will notice you can do more than you think you can which in turn will strengthen your intrinsic motivation. This is when we are motivated by personal interests such as wanting to build knowledge, being curious about the subject, and enjoying the sense of achievement that comes from the effort we put into the task.  By reflecting on our progress we can derive positive feelings and this contributes to building our confidence and sense of self-worth. By focusing on our values and identifying what is meaningful it will stimulate making the decision to persevere with efforts to complete a task (Deci & Ryan, 2000).  

How can you stimulate your motivation and take action?
Motivation is what moves us to do something. If we do not feel like starting with a task we can reflect on what are the obstacles that prevent us from doing so. It could be that we have a preconception about the task, for example, we may think it is not important, or we may feel we do not have control/do not have the necessary resources to do it well. It could be that we are too focused on what we perceive to be an inevitable negative outcome, so we delay getting started.

One solution is to see the obstacles/difficulties as challenges rather than threats, which in an academic setting tend to affect our confidence in our academic ability. To get started with the task check your perception of the task, break it down into small steps and reframe it as a challenge that you can do. Then, start by working on one step, then another, and another until the task is completed.   

                                          “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” (Mark Twain)

The key is to focus on the process rather than on the outcome. And while focusing on each step remind yourself that you are learning, and that each step you take builds your academic competence, and your sense of self efficacy – the belief that you can do the task well enough. To persevere with the task when it gets difficult, or you notice your motivation decreases, focus on increasing your tolerance of uncertainty and of making mistakes. 

                                           “Failure is success in progress.” (Albert Einstein)

Keep in mind that mistakes are part of the process of learning. If you notice that you are delaying getting started/continuing with the task ask yourself: “Am I doing this (what you are doing instead of getting on with your work) as a way of having an excuse in case of a negative outcome?” Once you notice what you are thinking, pause, and redirect your attention to what is meaningful to you: what you want to achieve, and then keep going.                                  

                                            “There’s no beginning too small.” (Thoreaux)

You can remind yourself that by persevering with small steps you can make progress through the difficult parts of the task. Once you notice a little progress this will become motivating. If your focus is on having it finished this will prevent you from what you can do right now. However, if the focus is on what you are learning as you make progress with each step, it will allow you to keep going. Noticing the progress will builds on your curiosity to see what you can find out – what you are learning. 

How can you maintain your motivation and make progress?
To implement our intention of doing something we need to regulate our behaviour, and to do this we have to manage our cognitive and emotional responses. As stated above, we have a tendency to want to think well of ourselves and to protect our sense of self-worth when we anticipate failure. To protect ourselves from possible negative evaluations we create some responses, for example we may view an event by rationalising it: eg. “I didn’t do too well because I did it last minute, if I had done it with more time it would have been better. Or, the essay is not very good, but it could have been much worse as I only spent a little time on it.” Another way of protecting ourselves is by inattention as when we prevent ourselves from noticing something (Baumeister, 1996). If we don’t know about it then we cannot act on it. For example, we may not notice the deadlines and without realising it we find that the deadline is approaching fast, leaving us with little time to work on the assignment, or revise for the test as we wanted to do. 

To maintain motivation for long-term goals it helps to create mental representations of the goal we want to achieve, or the behaviour we want to change to create a new healthy habit (Baumeister, 1996). For example, imagine researching for your essay, then seeing the words on the page as you tell your story of what you are learning. The more you focus on the process rather than on the result, and the more detailed the steps it is more likely that you will feel motivated to take action. In addition, notice your self-talk (the running commentary that we all have as we go by our day), when thoughts turn into negative evaluations of what we are doing it can be very discouraged, frustration and restlessness. We divert our attention to protect ourselves from feeling bad because we think we are not doing well, or think the end is too far away and we are likely to be distracted.

To increase your concentration notice what is happening…pause, and change your perspective of the task by reminding yourself that you can view it as a task that requires practice, time and effort and that you can persevere because the overall goal is important to you (Duckworth, 2016).

At times it may feel as if we are of two minds: one part of us wants to keep going with the work because we value doing well, and another wants to do something easier or less demanding. Notice this tension, acknowledge it and then remind yourself of what you want to achieve. Yes, you could stop your work and watch a youtube video (so easy as the internet is only a click away!), or you can remind yourself that you chose to work for 25 minutes and that in your break you will do something that you are looking forward to (maybe contact your friend or family, or check the youtube video). This will reduce resistance to doing the work, and allow your thoughts to flow so that you can express what you are thinking about the topic you are working on.

Instead, develop a perspective of a curious observer or that of a researcher (McGonigal, 2012). Focus on what you see just like a scientist observing an experiment. View what you notice as information to adjust your efforts. It takes time, and requires a lot of patience. The key is to remind yourself of your values, why you are doing the task. As you practice your ability to persevere and maintain your efforts will increase gradually (Duckworth, 2016).

References:

Baumeister, R. F. (1996) “Self-regulation and ego threats. Motivated cognition, self-deception, and destructive goal setting“. In The Psychology of Action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. Chapter 6. Gollwitzer, P.M, and Bargh, J.A. Eds. London: The Guildford Press. p.27-47.

Baumeister,, R.F., & Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower. Rediscovering our Greatest Strength. London: Penguin Books.

Deci, E. & Flaste, R. (1995) Why We Do What We Do. Understanding self-motivation.  New York: Penguin Books.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000) “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000) doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.

Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford. pp.887-893.

McGonigal,, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct. How self-control works. Why it matters, and what you can do about it. New York: Penguin Books.

Mischel, W. (1996) “From good intentions to willpower.” In The psychology of action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. Chapter 9. Gollwitzer, P.M, and Bargh, J.A. Eds. London: The Guildford Press. p.27-47.

Young, S. (2017). Stick with it. The science of lasting behaviour. London: Penguin Life.

Prevent procrastination: How to get things done. The Psychology of Action (Part 2)

What is willpower and how can we develop it?
Willpower is having a sense of personal agency. It refers to our ability to delay gratification and focus on the task because we want to achieve a long-term goal. However, if we are tired it will be difficult to maintain our efforts. Also, it may be more difficult to focus on the task when there are a number of immediate distractions. To make progress we need to maintain our energy level and manage or remove the distractions (Baumeister, 2011).

We can create a mental representation of the goal we want to achieve (think about each step leading to your goal) and create our own self-instructions (Mischel, 1996). For example describing the process – a series of steps to get the task done – so that we know in detail what we need to do from step to step. By having a visual representation of the process it allows us to persevere with our efforts while keeping the goal in mind. It is important to have the expectation that we will complete the process, and that we will eventually get the reward that is important to us.

A practical approach to build confidence in our ability to persevere is to take a moment to reflect on past experiences related to the task: Did you have a challenging time in school/college? Did you find it difficult to get on with assignments? Perhaps you got feedback that said you needed to make more effort or would not achieve your potential. To manage these thoughts and feelings you can remind yourself that the past does not determine the future, and also keep in mind that others did not have the full picture of your experience of doing academic work. Perhaps back then there were difficulties not easy to express to others, or it was not clear how studying would become important to you. Now you are in a different situation where you can focus on how you want to see yourself acting: are you someone who wants to complete tasks and achieve goals?  You can create a new perspective that will help you move forward. Decide that you are a person who can persevere with efforts, can tolerate uncertainty, and can acknowledge that self-doubt is part of the learning process.              

What can you do to maintain your efforts and make progress?
When you become aware of a distraction, and feel the impulse to do something else, notice your feeling and pause. Take a moment to remind yourself of what is your priority. To increase your ability to focus and concentrate on the task remind yourself of the reasons why you’re doing the task, bring your attention back to the page and keep going. As you practise this technique you will gradually strengthen your capacity to manage distractions.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power
to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
                                                                             (Viktor Frankl)

To make progress in changing our behaviour we need to pay attention to our thoughts and actions. If we know we get easily distracted, or find it difficult to delay gratification (doing easier and more pleasant things) create plans of what you will do when the distractions happen. Do this before you start working on a task (Baumeister, 2011).

By pre-planning how you will structure your time you will know when you can have your break/reward. This will help to sustain your concentration while you are working. If you get distracted because you are finding the task too hard, remind yourself that it is part of the learning process. To restore energy take a 5 minute break, go outdoors, stretch and move. Have some water to keep hydrated. Then return to the task for another 25 minutes. As you increase your capacity to concentrate you can increase the time of your study periods, although always taking breaks to move and stretch as this is essential to maintain your energy level.

We need motivation to maintain our concentration. To be intrinsically motivated to take action we need to believe that we are capable, and that we can make choices. We can do this by focusing on what is important to us, and engaging in a task that we consider meaningful. This is having an internal locus of control: we do something because we feel we have chosen to do it and believe we can persevere with our efforts. When we make mistakes these are tolerated and understood as part of the process – as opportunities for learning. Nurturing this internal drive increases our ability to sustain our efforts and allows us to create habits that support our goals. This is the key to self-determination and  resilience (Deci, 1995).

We like to be autonomous and feel that we make choices to do things that we are motivated by, but when revising for exams, writing an essay or dissertation it may feel like an obligation. To stimulate your motivation to do your work reframe this task as a choice, and keep what you want to achieve in mind. If you find you get distracted and do not work consistently on your revision/dissertation identify what other things that are distracting you, notice them, pause, then identify whether these are new priorities you need to pay attention to, or are they things that you can let go so that you can get on with your work. Make a list of the benefits that persevering with the task will bring you. As you make gradual and consistent progress your confidence in your ability to get things done will increase.

Strategies to get started and get things done:

  1. Set goals: these need to be very specific so that it is clear what you want to achieve in the short-term (this could be within an hour, a day, a week). Describe exactly what you need to do, or what you would like to achieve realistically within the specified time. Draw up a plan of your goals, from  larger ones to very small ones. For example: the larger goal may be to revise for an exam, then the smaller goals can be the different topics in the module, and then small steps for each topic within the module.
  2. Commit to taking action: make the choice to start with a specific goal, and decide that you will follow through. Start with the small steps and work your way through each one. Keep in mind a mental representation of the goal: visualise what you are working towards, including each step in detail of how you will go about doing the task.
  3. Manage your expectations: sometimes we have self-doubt, or worry whether we can achieve the task when we have so much to do, and so many different modules/courses to revise.
    Give yourself the benefit of the doubt, that even if the material is difficult this is expected as it is new material. To increase the strength of your decision to get on with the task by viewing yourself as someone who follows through with tasks.
    Persevering with your efforts to understand the material will gradually build your academic confidence. Remind yourself that you have prepared for exams before now, and although difficult you got through them. If you think your work is not good enough, rather than evaluate yourself negatively/lose hope that you can do it, focus on identifying what you can do different: identify one thing that you can do to improve/change to make progress in this moment. Then move on to the next step.
  4. Create meaningful rewards: We are more able to sustain our efforts if we develop an abstract representation of the reward to keep us going while working. For example imagining the good feeling of having persevered with your efforts and completing the first step. Decide what you will do when you complete it, maybe speak with a friend, go out doors for a walk, or watch a episode of your favourite series. Make sure you create a limited period of time for your break so that the reward does not take time away from starting your next step. 
  5. Create pre-plans: IF (distractor) happens I will (action you will take). We increasingly have difficulties in maintaining focus as digital technology makes distractions easily available. For example, if you feel tempted to check the notification on your phone, and you know that it is difficult to leave it, plan beforehand what you will do so that it does not interrupt your concentration (maybe turn your phone off for half an hour, or leave it in a drawer out of view). We can also become distracted by the discomfort of the moment, such as feeling tired, frustrated, or hungry. You can prepare for these situations by having healthy routines and eating well so that you have the energy to manage what may seem attractive distractions. This in turn, will increase your confidence in your ability to focus, and reduce the worry about future negative scenarios.
  6. Use the Pomodoro technique: it consists of creating study periods of 25 minutes with a 5 minute break by using a clock/stop watch. It is sufficient time to make progress and allows to restore energy at regular intervals. We are more likely to get started on a task and maintain our concentration when we know that the break will come soon. During your break move, stretch, and drink some water. You can repeat this two or three times and then have a longer break.
    Notice how this practise can promote having a sense of achievement when you can see you are making progress.
  7. Suspend your evaluation of your work: The key is not to evaluate your work while you are focused on the task. We can be very self-critical when we make a small mistake, or think it should be done differently, or if we start to compare with how others seem to be doing it better. When you notice critical thoughts, pause, take a deep breath and remind yourself that the priority is to make progress. View the task as a draft, for now. The priority is to make progress to complete a first draft. Then, leave the task for a while so that you can have some distance from it to be able to evaluate it more objectively when you read it again to proof-read, and edit where necessary.
  8. Make the task important: Give the work you will do high significance. This will allow you to prioritise it when distractions that may be easier or more pleasant appear.
  9. Repeat behaviours: Create a routine, and persevere with your efforts. Repetition creates familiarity, and it strengthens motivation to complete the task/achieve goal.
  10. Develop your support network: Find a study buddy or buddies, other students who also want to make progress with their work. Maintain contact with those who know you and encouraged you. Let them know about your plans to study so they can support your decisions to prioritise your work as it is important to you.
  11. Reflect on your progress: Notice and acknowledge the work you have done: with each step you move forward. As you see the progress you are making, and reflect on how you are maintaining your efforts, you can update your self-image to that of someone who perseveres and is committed to achieving goals. As you see your progress it will support your motivation to continue with the task. The more steps you do, without pressurising yourself, it will increase your ability to concentrate and stick to the task until you eventually complete it (Young, 2017).

References:

Baumeister, R. F. (1996) “Self-regulation and ego threats. Motivated cognition, self-deception, and destructive goal setting“. In The Psychology of Action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. Chapter 6. Gollwitzer, P.M, and Bargh, J.A. Eds. London: The Guildford Press. p.27-47.

Baumeister,, R.F., & Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower. Rediscovering our Greatest Strength. London: Penguin Books.

Deci, E. & Flaste, R. (1995) Why We Do What We Do. Understanding self-motivation.  New York: Penguin Books.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000) “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000) doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.

Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford. pp.887-893.

McGonigal,, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct. How self-control works. Why it matters, and what you can do about it. New York: Penguin Books.

Mischel, W. (1996) “From good intentions to willpower.” In The psychology of action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. Chapter 9. Gollwitzer, P.M, and Bargh, J.A. Eds. London: The Guildford Press. p.27-47.

Young, S. (2017). Stick with it. The science of lasting behaviour. London: Penguin Life.

How to manage worry thoughts (Part 1)

What are Worry Thoughts?

We all have worry thoughts from time to time, and these tend to interrupt our thinking without us wanting them to. Every day worry is part of life, and it does not interfere with our activities. It is the type of thinking that helps us to focus our attention on those things that we need to get done in the day, or that we want to keep in mind to remember them. Sometimes they are thoughts about things that we anticipate in the future, and it could be that they are a way of reminding us that we need to do something. Usually we can write these thoughts down as a to-do-list. This will give the brain the message that it does not need to remember these thoughts repeatedly as we have made a note to remember them. Then the thoughts can dissipate gradually.

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” – Michel de Montaigne

However, when we talk about worry thoughts we are more likely referring to the persistent intrusive thoughts that prevent us from concentrating on our work in the current moment.

These tend to start with “WHAT IF + a negative scenario/consequence.”

These thoughts can also interrupt our being present in a conversation when we are with others. These thoughts are unwanted, and the content tends to be about potential problems – usually exaggerated – that we might have in the future. As human beings we have a hard time tolerating doubt, we tend not to like uncertainty and experience restlessness and uncomfortable feelings when thinking about the possible negative consequences. We can learn to manage these feelings, and learn to tolerate uncertainty which is essential to manage changes in circumstances.

Worry thoughts trick our brains in thinking the they bring useful information, but instead, they are repetitions of what we fear could happen. They are not an accurate representation of what could happen, but more of a reflection of what we are afraid of. That is, we associate worry thoughts with danger – anticipating negative events. (For example, in academic life, not getting a passing mark, or thinking that a lower grade than expected means we are not intelligent enough). We tend to believe these thoughts and fuse the thought with a consequence – that is, we interpret the feeling of discomfort/restlessness as evidence that the thoughts are highly likely to happen. And yet, as strong as the feeling might be, these thoughts are not based on accurate facts. The thoughts are related to an imagined future situation that we fear (eg. Not passing the module/degree).

We tend to want to stop the worry thoughts, or try not to think about them, but what happens instead is that the more we try to stop thinking about them the more the thoughts interrupt our thinking, and more intensely. This can cause immense distress.
What happens if we try to not think about them?
Trying to stop ourselves from thinking about the worry thoughts we are afraid of produces the opposite effect – we end up having more worry thoughts, not less. So, if you have tried to stop them and felt these increased it is an expected phenomenon, and therefore, not an indication that you are doing something wrong.

We tend to believe that the feeling of discomfort we get when having doubt means that we are in danger. Instead, it is the feeling of discomfort about the unknown. The problem is that we anticipate negative events, and in academic life it could be having a feeling of not being able to achieve high standards (eg. Will fail the presentation/exam, will not get an A in the assignment ).

Worry thoughts interfere with problem-solving as our attention is focused on unlikely hypothetical scenarios in the future, rather than focusing on the current situation to find a solution.
They are preventing us from solving situations as the repetition of unlikely outcomes keeps our attention away from the present moment.
Worrying does not solve the problem. It is just repetition.

Feeling vs Thoughts
We may say for example “I feel I will never get the 2:1 that I want, or I will not graduate”. These are not a feeling, these are thoughts. What is the feeling underneath this thought? Possibly, feeling sad, uncertain, a sense of discomfort at the doubt of what is going to happen.
The worry thoughts are a reaction to the content, that is, we fear the likelihood of failing as in the example.

Worry is a way of thinking. We spend so much time thinking in our day-to-day that we believe all our thoughts are intentional. We have the belief that we should be in control of our thoughts. However, our brains produce random thoughts without us wanting them.
Have you had the experience of listening a song that then you find that you have the song stuck in your head for a while despite not wanting to think about it?
You can try this thought experiment: do not think about your favourite toy as a child. What happened? If you are like most people you found yourself thinking about your toy, something you probably had not thought about in a while.

Sometimes having had negative experiences in the past we notice that there are some similar features with a current situation. We then assume that the same thing will happen again. For example, remembering that A Level exams were highly stressful and as a result of the stress you obtained lower marks than expected. Therefore, now you find yourself anticipating a similar experience in end of year exams. Having had a difficult time in the past, does not mean that there will be a repeat of the same situation. You can respond to the situation in a different manner. You can learn to manage the discomfort, the worry thoughts and focus on your goals. Focus on the learning process instead. To manage the repeated thoughts, and the tension they produce, you can experiment with doing a body scan.

Worry thoughts are fuelled by errors in our thinking process. By learning to identify these you can respond differently.

Errors of thinking

  1. Overgeneralisation: Thinking that one situation does not go as expected means that everything is wrong (eg. Not getting the grade hoped for =  failure of course).
  2. Mind Reading: Thinking that we know what others are thinking about us/our actions.
  3. Maximising negative consequences: anticipating an exaggerated/catastrophic outcome
    (eg. Not passing assignment = failing degree = others disappointed).
  4. Minimising personal capability of managing situation: anticipating not being able to tolerate
    distress. Thinking that it is to difficult to tolerate feelings, not recognising ability to adapt to situations (eg. Forgetting that when going through school had to adapt to change of
    class, adapting from primary school to secondary school, dealing with GCSEs then A Levels).
  5. Fortunetelling: anticipating failure in the future, or negative situations.
  6. Black and white thinking: thinking in extreme terms (eg. Feeling revising for exams is too difficult, therefore believing will fail year/degree).

References:

Carbonell, D.A. (2016) The Worry Trick. How your brain tricks you into expecting the worst and what you can do about it. California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Leahy, R.L. (2006) The Worry Cure. Stop worrying and start living. New York: Piatkus.

Rossman, M. (2010) The Worry Solution. New York: Crown Archetype, Random House, Inc.

How to manage worry thoughts (Part 2)

How to deal with worry thoughts

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” ( Marie Curie)

“Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.” ( Norman Vincent Peale)

  1. Tolerate the feeling of discomfort produced by the feeling of doubt.
  2. Practice learning to trust yourself that you will respond to events with the information you have at the time.
  3. Do not compare with others: this is distracting and gives inaccurate information. We compare what we see in others, with how we feel. However, we do not have the full picture of how others are feeling, and we need to focus on the current moment to find a solution to
    the task at hand.
  4. Reframe, change perspective: instead, focus on the task at hand and think what one thing you can do to make progress.
    Write down some of the worry thoughts that you have had recently. Then ask yourself: “Is this a specific problem you are dealing with now? If so, what can you do to change something now?”
  5. Tolerate the uncertainty: Imagine you are going into a swimming pool, you do this slowly, at first yo may feel discomfort as the water is colder than you expected. You don’t want to feel uncomfortable, but you do want to swim for a while. If you go in slowly your body adjusts
    to the temperature, and the discomfort disappears. Think of your worry thoughts in the same way, at first they are uncomfortable, as you let them be without trying to stop them, and without taking the content literally. Eventually, you will gradually get used to them and
    the sense of danger will dissipate even if you still feel uncomfortable.
  6. Focus on taking action: consider what one small step you can take to have a sense of achievement (despite feeling uncomfortable with the worry thoughts). For example, you notice that the worry thoughts are about failing to complete the essay by the deadline, or imagining failing all exams. Notice the thoughts, then remind yourself: this is imagination, not fact. Then, ask yourself: what one step you can take to
    make progress with your essay/revision. The key is to focus on small tasks so that they are manageable.
  7. Focus on making progress, not the result: a lot of the worry thoughts in relation to academic work tend to be about the future, about failing, about not getting things done, or fear of negative feedback. Instead, focus on what you are learning, what you are doing each day.
  8. Remind yourself of your values: you can relate to these even if feeling frustrated, tired, or worried. See yourself as someone who perseveres with efforts, is responsible, wants to make progress, and is interested in moving forward. You can add more to this list so that you can use this list as a reminder. It is more effective when the list reflects what you
    knowto be true about you.
  9. Maintain your energy level: worry thoughts increase when we are tired. This is because we need energy to focus our attention on the task at hand, and when tired it is more difficult to maintain our focus and control our emotions.
  10. Practice mindfulness: focus your attention on your breathing, notice the thoughts and let them go.

  11. Ask yourself: 
“Is this thought helpful?” Probably not, then let it go. Instead, connect with your environment. Look outside of the window, or go for a walk.

 

Notice the sky, the open space, nature, feel the breeze, breathe in and out slowly to restore your balance.

Ask yourself: “What is this thought preventing you from doing right now that is important to you?”
Instead of focusing on the content of the thoughts, focus on what you want to make progress on.

  1. Breathe.Stretch.Move: it is essential to move and stretch your muscles. When studying for prolonged periods of time our bodies become tired and muscles can ache with the tension of sitting down for too long. Instead, plan study periods of no more than half hour, then stand up for five minutes stretch, walk, look outside or go outside and get some natural light. This helps the blood to circulate through your body, and take nutrients to your brain so it can function optimally. This will also alert you and you will notice you will be able to concentrate better.

References:

Carbonell, D.A. (2016) The Worry Trick. How your brain tricks you into expecting the worst and what you can do about it. California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Leahy, R.L. (2006) The Worry Cure. Stop worrying and start living. New York: Piatkus.

Rossman, M. (2010) The Worry Solution. New York: Crown Archetype, Random House, Inc.

Introduction to Mindfulness

By Vivienne Hill

 

Over the past few years the idea of living mindfully and mindfulness practice has gained in popularity, particularly in relation to learning how the mind and body work together in situations of stress and anxiety.

 
Mindfulness means “Paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose and non-judgementally”.

Mindfulness is something you learn about a lot better by practicing rather than by reading about although there are of course many books and research papers you can look at if you want to. We all know that having regular physical exercise improves physical health. In the same way having regular mental exercise can improve your mental health.

The benefits of a regular Mindfulness practice, which could take as little as 10 minutes a day, are numerous including:

  • Reduction in anxiety, depression and exhaustion
  • Improvement to working memory, creativity and attention span
  • Enhanced brain function and ability to focus
  • Improved self awareness in relation to others and the environment

For more information please see the following links:

One way of reducing tension is to do a body scan. Here is a videoclip that you may find useful.

www.mindfulnessforstudents.co.uk

www.franticworld.com

www.bemindful.co.uk

Would you like to participate in a research about sleep?

By Dr Claire Gregor
Do you find yourself lying awake for hours on end trying to fall asleep whilst desperately trying to clear your mind of work or worries?  Are you constantly yawning and giving in to daytime naps at the expense of restorative night-time sleep?  If so, it may be that you need a bit of help in recalibrating your sleep routines!
Whilst many people are familiar with the notion that a nutritious diet and regular exercise are essential components of a balanced and healthy lifestyle, in recent times, focus has started to be directed onto the importance of sleep as well.    A good night’s sleep helps with memory consolidation, tissue repair, and mood regulation, which in turn can lead to more harmonious relationships.  Research also suggests that improving your ability to drop off to sleep, stay asleep, and avoid early awakening can contribute to increased cognitive ability, and, crucially for a university population, improvement of grades (Trockel et al, 2010).  Yet many people are unaware as to how to improve poor quality sleep.  Before reaching for sleeping pills, an awareness of the architecture of sleep can be really useful in debunking some of the myths that surround sleep, and taking a cognitive approach to poor sleep can be hugely beneficial.
This part of the Mind-Body Conditioning talks aims to provide you with the knowledge and confidence to address poor sleep quality through exploring aspects of good sleep hygiene, cognitive beliefs, and practical techniques that will hopefully lead to you getting a better night’s sleep!  There is also an opportunity for you to participate in a research project looking at  knowledge of good sleep practices and how that links to sleep quality if you are interested.  For more information about this, please go to: https://tinyurl.com/ybscnuon

What can you do to increase concentration?

It is the time of year when you are likely to have a number of assignments to work on and deadlines are approaching. So you decide to start with an assignment, but it is difficult to choose which question to answer. Finally, you decide on a question and get ready to start. After a short while you notice that your attention goes to your phone or tablet. Once distracted it feels quite hard to get back to the essay (could be a report or dissertation, depending on the module/course you are doing). You may then notice that you are hungry and it is close to lunch so you decide to prepare lunch instead, as there only about twenty minutes to go. You may feel that there is sufficient time to continue working in the afternoon.

But somehow it gets to the end of the day and you realise you didn’t make as much as progress as you had hoped. Then you may notice some thoughts such as  “I should have started earlier, now I won’t finish by the deadline”, “it is no good enough“, and other self-critical thoughts that just bring your mood down and a  create a sense of self-doubt.  This is a frequent experience in academic life, and can happen to most of us who care about doing things well. However, despite our intentions we find that we delay getting started, and when we do it is difficult to maintain our focus on the task.

When there are a variety of things demanding our attention, such as wanting to check social media to keep updated, or you would rather talk with your friends it is hard to make progress with work. We are social beings and we like to be in contact with others. Studying requires us to be alone for a while so that we can concentrate on a task. This may be hard to do especially when tired and when the task does not appear to be motivating.

So what can you do?

Practices to increase concentration and get things done:

Become aware

First, we need to be aware of something for us to pay attention to it, and once we have noticed it we then evaluate it to decide what to do about it. This takes time, in fact we can only focus on one thing at a time. Some people may be skilled at moving quickly from one task to the other and so they may have the feeling that they can multitask. However, every time we switch from one task to the other we need to refocus. This requires time and energy to control our impulse to do something different, and refocus again. Although this is demanding for the brain, with practice we can improve our ability to focus and maintain our attention on one task for a period of time. The more we are able to pay attention the better we can understand and remember the information.

Have a break from your phone and PC or tablet

It is hard to focus when we see notifications appearing on our phones, they trigger the urge to check what it is. The phone reminds us that others are elsewhere and we may feel we are missing out. It can therefore reduce our motivation to continue with our task (Alter, 2017). In addition, you may know that the screens of digital devices can prevent us from sleeping as the light interferes with the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us to get to sleep.

Be curious

Our concentration improves when we are curious, open to new ideas and when we are willing to consider other perspectives and possibilities. Experiment with playing with ideas as this stimulates our curiosity: identify what you can learn from the text you are reading, and imagine how you might apply it.

View mistakes as part of the learning process

Fear of failure prevents us from learning and from trying things out, which then can trigger a lot of worry thoughts about our ability to cope with tasks and can reduce confidence. Sometimes we find ourselves remembering some past experience back in school for example, when we may have experienced similar feelings triggered by something related to the present situation (eg. having to make a presentation and remembering reading out loud in front of the class). We may then feel unsure and have doubt about our ability to do the task. In academic work it is normal to have doubts because we are learning new things, we are testing out ideas, and in many cases there isn’t one right answer. Doubt makes us stop and reflect to consider the information objectively, and evaluate the facts from different perspectives to understand the topic. By reviewing and considering the feedback we receive we can learn, correct and improve our work.

Use feedback as a learning tool

When writing your assignments or taking exams, focus on communicating what you have learned rather than thinking about the grades you are expecting as this causes tension and distract you from the task you are working on. The main objective is to submit what you have done by the deadline. Consider the feedback you receive as information that is intended to help you learn from the assignments, and then use it to correct and improve your work.

Use positive self-talk

If you are finding it difficult to make progress, instead of thinking “I can’t do this” practise thinking “How can I do this?” Language is very powerful and it can help us to stimulate our motivation by directing our energy to problem-solving, and taking action.

Tips to get things done:

    1. Notice when you get distracted and your attention wanders to other things.
    2. Bring your attention back to the task, without self-criticism. The inner critic depletes our energy and erodes our capacity to persevere. Instead, ask yourself “Are these thoughts helpful?” Probably not. Instead, they are just using your valuable time. Bring your attention back to the task… gently… and focus on the task again, without self-criticism
    3. Be kind to yourself when you notice that you are distracted: identify the triggers, it could be that your tired, or that you remembered something important that needed to be done soon.
    4. Make a list of things before you focus on your assignment, and plan when you will do those tasks.
    5. Tolerate frustration: learning something new takes time. If the task is difficult it’s not an indication of intellectual limitation (or that you cannot do it). The brain requires time to understand and assimilate new material. If you are feeling tired it is more difficult to manage these feelings, so if you notice you are experiencing frustration or disappointment progress is slow, take a short break – pause, stretch and move. This will help to regulate your breathing and reduce tension allowing you to regulate your mood.
    6. Maintain your energy level: our brain requires energy and nutrients to function optimally. If you find that you cannot concentrate because you are feeling tired get up, stretch your muscles and move. This will help to stimulate your blood to circulate and reach your brain bringing oxygen and nutrients so that it can function well. This action will restore your ability to focus as you become more alert, and feel energised. Exercise will help to release the tension in your muscles. Why not go for a short walk to have some fresh air and enjoy viewing nature? These activities are known to improve our mood and restore energy (Ratey & Hagerman, 2009).
    7. Be creative: If you’re feeling stuck do something creative for a few minutes to stimulate your brain, and your imagination.
    8. Use the IF-THEN technique: Pre-plan what you will do when you get distracted (Steel, 2012). For example, if you know you tend to check the notifications you receive on your phone then decide to put your phone on silent, in a drawer (when in view it will be distracting and difficult to not pick it up). Or if you get interrupted by others decide in advance what you will say. For example, you may say you will join them in half an hour (or any specific time afterwards), or explain that you need to prioritise your assignment/revision. The hope is that your friends will understand that this is important t you, and agree to meet/go out at another time.
    9. Practice mindfulness techniques: these help to train our ability to concentrate by focusing on our breathing. This allows us to be in the present moment and letting thoughts go by.
    10. Persevere with your efforts, keep in mind that our brains are malleable and it is shaped by our experiences. This means that when you learn new things you are in effect strengthening your cognitive capacity (Arden, 2010).
      “It always seems impossible until it is done.” (Nelson Mandela)
      Even if the task seems endless, practise the strategies above and maintain your efforts. Although you may not be sure that progress is happening keep going, and eventually you will get it done.

References:

Alter, A. (2017) Irresistible. Why you are addicted to technology and how to set yourself free. London: Vintage.

Arden, J. (2010). Rewire Your Brain. Think your way to a better life. New Jersey: John Wyley & Sons, Inc.

Ratey,J.J. & Hagerman, E. (2008) Spark. How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London: Quercus.

Steel, P. (2012) The Procrastination Equation. How to stop putting things off and star getting things done. London: Pearson.