Category Archives: training

Like face to face training – but online

It was refreshing to see this level of quality training

It took a bit of planning but I recently bit the bullet and transferred one of my popular training days online. Not the online training you masy be used to with a wealth of power point slides and me out of sight reciting the words on the screen as though the participants can’t actually read. Oh no. That would have been too easy – and far too boring.

Instead I took all the elements I used to include in the classroom or lecture hall and adapted them to an online format over Skype. We had quizzes, group exercises, group discussions, question and answer sessions, case studies and yes, even a little basic lecturing as well.

It went down so well I’m currently negotiating doing a similar thing overnight – not because the participants are vampires but because they’re in Australia. That’s right – lockdown has allowed me to take my training halfway around the world, and all from the comfort of my little home video studio.

Here’s what the lady who booked my first ever online training session had to say about it…

Despite providing training in an online format rather than face to face due to covid restrictions, Stuart was able to present and get across a personalised approach to training in an informative, approachable and thorough manner. There was plenty of time for breaks, questions and bespoke discussions about particular clients. Stuarts presentation manner was engaging, honest and thought provoking. We would highly recommend him for future training of all areas of mental health. It was refreshing to see this level of quality training within the private sector covering the areas which we required.

Holly Leach

Operations Director Invictus Complex care

Perhaps you’d like to pick up on training your staff where we all seem to have left off so long ago. Have a look at my training course list here and let me know if anything takes your fancy.

Online mental health and/or social care training

I’ve always thought of myself as a face to face, engage with a live cohort/audience sort of trainer/speaker until…

I asked yesterday for volunteers to do tutorials with as a form of content marketing. The very first contact I had was for group training over zoom. A little thought later I agreed. I’m about to start a whole new voyage of discovery into online training.

If you’ve been wondering how to get decent quality, interactive training on mental health and social care in these days of lockdown, look no further.

Go on, you know you want to.

A change of pace

I haven’t posted here for a while. I’ve been busy with other things but now I’m back and I’ll be making a few changes. It’s a new direction… a new road ahead.
I plan to focus more on short, punchy videos instead of the longer ones I’m used to. One or two minutes seems more social media friendly and perhaps easier to fit with peoples’ busy lifestyles.
I hope you enjoy the new style.

Stoicism: The eternal now

In a previous post (Irvine’s summary) I made the point that…

“People generally confuse the things they can control with the things they cannot. The result is frustration and wasted effort as we invest (waste) our emotional and practical energies in futile attempts to make changes that are beyond our ability.”

In therapy sessions with my patients and clients I often encourage people to distinguish between…

  1. The things that they can control,
  2. The things that they can influence but not control, and
  3. The things that interest them but that they can neither influence or control.

I describe these different categories as ‘spheres of influence’.

The basic idea is to help people to understand the difference between a problem and a fact…

Problems are things that can be solved.

Facts simply are – they cannot be changed.

One of the biggest sources of frustration and distress comes from the attempt to treat facts as though they were problems: from the attempt to ‘solve’ facts; from the attempt to do the impossible.

The past is always a fact – but so is the present and, very often, the immediate future. Some people lament the fact that the past cannot be solved, that it cannot be altered but that’s not really very helpful. If the goal is to be effective now there’s no benefit in obsessing about ‘water under the bridge’, no matter how difficult or unpleasant things might have been at the time. In the task of living we are always precisely where we are at this moment.

Accepting that, accepting the fact that the past is no longer ours to change means that we can also begin to see it as no longer our concern. It’s true that there may be issues arising from past events or mistakes that we need to deal with but any actions we need to take will be taken in the present or the future – not the past. We can learn from the past but we need never be concerned about it because it’s gone.

That brings us to the present – the only thing we ever really have to call our own. And it’s fleeting. In fact, by the time you notice the present moment it’s already gone into the past and is no longer your concern. Yes – I know that sounds a bit weird but please, give it some thought – it’s important, especially when dealing with long-term hardship. Understand the concept now and you’ll find it much easier to bear life’s misfortunes later. You’ll be much more effective as you work to change and overcome them too.

Life is a series of moments, most of which are actually pretty neutral. It’s anxiety and anticipation that spoils our days, not the enduring event because most events don’t actually endure all that long. People endure hours of misery when they don’t need to because they’re forever focussing upon either the past (which is no longer their affair) or the future (which may be theirs to plan for but is not yet theirs to experience).

Even at times of hardship the eternal now is relevant. How bad is your situation at this very instant? Why let your mind focus on experiencing hardship before it needs to? Why experience the thing you dread before it happens?

It’s far more constructive to plan for the future than to imagine it negatively and suffer all the emotional distress that such imaginings bring. Make it a habit never to allow yourself to experience misfortune in your mind before it actually happens but to plan to deal with potential future problems instead. And understand that if you expect pain – there’s no need to be distressed by it until you actually feel it. Even then stoicism advises us not to worry about pain but that’s for another post. We need to cover some more basic stuff first.

Remember ‘the eternal now’. Do you have physical comfort and freedom from abuse right now, at this precise moment? Then you have all that you could possibly need. This moment in life is a success. Use the current success to plan with a clear head how to solve the problems of the future. Don’t squander it trying to solve the past (which is a fact, not a problem). Be glad of your immediate situation. The only alternative is to cancel out all those moments of contentment and comfort with futile focus upon the past which you can never change or the future which you have not yet reached.

The life well-lived involves taking time to appreciate the good moments (which generally far outweigh the bad).

Is anxiety a choice?

Is anxiety a choice?

Is an anxiety disorder a choice?

Can a person choose not to be anxious?

Last night I had an interesting conversation with a stranger in the car park of my local supermarket. We’d exchanged a few pleasantries in the queue for the checkout – like me he refuses to use automated checkouts because, also like me, he’d much prefer that people keep their jobs.

We happened to have parked our cars next to each other on the way in and so the conversation continued in the car park, this time the subject was cars, driving and the rather nasty bump he’d had to the front of his vehicle. That conversation reminded me of today’s topic on anxiety.

Some time ago, one dark winter morning I found myself driving to work down unlit country roads in the rain. Visibility was poor and so I wasn’t going particularly fast which turned out to be a really good idea.

Also on the road on that dark, wet morning was a cyclist. A cyclist who was dressed in dark clothing with no lights and no helmet. To be honest I don’t even know how this guy might possibly have seen where he was going without lights – it really was that dark. However, presumably he could. I couldn’t see him though.

As I approached this invisible cyclist he pulled out into the middle of the road intending to turn right. You can guess what happened next. That’s why it’s such a good job I wasn’t going very fast. If I’d been driving at the legal speed limit instead of to the actual conditions I’d probably have killed him.

Fortunately, amazingly even he was OK apart from a few bruises. The ambulance came and took him to hospital where he was checked over. The police arrived and took my details, including my negative breath/alcohol test and I called in to work to explain that I wouldn’t be in that day. What happened next was revealing, especially about anxiety, phobias, avoidance and the ease with which normal freeze, flight or fight responses can become pathologies if we’re not careful.

My plan had been to return to work the following day. However within an hour or two of getting back to my accommodation I’d started to think. I actually believe that it would have been much easier to deal with the anxiety that followed if the accident had been my fault. If I’d done something wrong I could just decide to correct the flaw in my driving and make sure that nothing like this happened again. But that’s not what happened.

No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t think of any aspect of my driving that morning that I can change for the better. I hadn’t been drinking, I wasn’t going particularly fast, I was awake and alert, I was certainly concentrating due to the poor conditions, my car was in good condition and roadworthy and I was correctly positioned on the road. There was nothing I could think of to do that might prevent something like this happening again and if it does the next one might be fatal. That’s a really scary prospect.

It’s interesting that even though this is the first such accident I’ve had in over 30 years of driving all across UK, all that evidence of safe driving paled into insignificance against this one event. That’s because of a particular mental shortcut, an heuristic we know as the availability heuristic. I mentioned heuristics in an earlier video as part of my evolutionary psychology series. Click the link at the top of the screen for more information.

The availability heuristic is an evolved mental strategy that gives precedence to recent events. In a changing environment it’s useful – it allowed our ancestors to recall and give weight to the location of food, of predators and a whole host of other, changing environmental and behavioural artefacts. In the modern world it’s still extremely valuable but it has its drawbacks. One such drawback is the over-emphasis we give recent events. Here’s how it can turn useful anxiety into pathological disorders.

My emphasis on this single, recent memory caused me to work hard to find a way to avoid similar problems in the future. So far so good – we can all see the benefit of that. Unfortunately, the only thing I could come up with to avoid a repetition of this awful event is to stop driving. That’s rather less positive – especially in the light of the odds, bearing in mind my years, even decades of driving without hitting anyone, cyclist or not. But recent memories are the thing and that’s why I seriously considered not driving, giving up my job because I’d have no way to get to work without my car and I even spent time trying to rework my finances to allow me to retire early, all because I didn’t want to drive.

Now think about this. If I’d actually stopped driving that day what would my most recent driving memory be? Obviously it would be the traumatic memory of hitting, and initially thinking I’d seriously injured or even killed a cyclist. If that’s the result of the availability heuristic, the result of my most recent memory then my anxiety about driving will never dissipate. Not only that, the sense of fear I’d feel when contemplating driving, coupled with the relief I feel when deciding not to constantly reinforces the heuristic every time I think about getting back into the car.

Even though I know all this it took me three more days to pluck up the courage to drive my car again. I chose a quiet, sunny afternoon in broad daylight and drove around quiet country roads and literally had to force myself to turn the key and start the engine. That gave me a new memory but not enough to overcome the power of the traumatic heuristic. Powerful, traumatic memories take a lot of subsequent memories to take away the fear they generate. And the longer we avoid the issue the harder the trauma is to overcome. And that’s the point of this little video.

If you have an anxiety state that doesn’t seem rational, regardless of the emotion you feel, it’s important to ignore the emotion. Do this as soon as you can to build up new memories that can take advantage of the availability heuristic. That’s what people mean when they tell people to get back on the horse. Don’t let anxiety overcome rationality or you might find that your life choices become governed by fear to such an extent that avoidance shrinks your world, your opportunities and your options over time until there’s almost nothing left.

And it all begins when we give in to traumatic memories because of the availability heuristic.

Hard-wired 14: Why Freud was almost right

Although not a fan of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection (he was more influenced by the earlier, Lamarckian evolutionary theory), Sigmund Freud was very nearly right with his hypotheses around the unconscious mind. It’s hard to describe Freud’s ideas as theories because, unfalsifiable as they were, they cannot be tested and so can never become more than speculative hypotheses.

This is a shame. Even if incorrect, a testable hypothesis has the advantage of teaching us something by virtue of its ‘wrongness’. Unfalsifiable hypotheses like Freud’s can’t even make it to those, dizzyingly modest’ heights. Freud wasn’t just wrong – he wasn’t EVEN wrong.

And yet he was so close to being right.

It’s easy for me to snigger behind the great man’s back, especially so long after the poor pioneer’s death. But the fact is that, mistaken and unscientific though he was, without Freud we’d be nowhere near as advanced as we are today.

So despite all his problems, I say…

“Three cheers for Freud – the man who was almost right about our deepest psychological drives a century before anyone else had any clue at all.”

 

Challenging behaviour: Validating opinions and beliefs

When dealing with people whose behaviours are challenging it’s important to acknowledge that those behaviours may well be based upon some very deep-seated beliefs. Whilst we don’t need to agree with or even support beliefs that cause problems it is vital that we acknowledge the person’s right to hold them – even if we deny their assumed right to act upon them. It’s one thing to object to behaviours – it’s quite another to dismiss the person who holds those beliefs.

Challenging behaviour: Motivation and pleasure

Most people are surprised to learn that they maintain (and often actually create) the problems they face. Often people will work hard to resist this idea and that can be difficult to overcome but it’s worth the effort. Until people understand their own role in maintaining their difficulties they cannot really take responsibility for solving them. After all – if you don’t think you’re a part of the problem you won’t think that you need to change your behaviour to change it.

 

 

After the mental capacity assessment

Assessing mental capacity is one thing but what happens next? What must we do once we know that a person lacks the mental capacity to make this particular decision at this particular time?

 

 

Hard wired 10: Evolution, human culture and the big brain

Evolutionary psychology as we shall see, is tightly bound up with culture. To understand the evolution of culture we need first to explain how we developed our big brain. Without increased brain power it’s unlikely that human culture would ever have developed beyond the level of modern chimpanzees.

Whilst there is good evidence that our species (& its forebears) evolved ever larger brains the question of why they did so is much harder to answer. We do know that it must have resulted from selection pressures and that the process involved pre-existing traits but that’s about all. So far as I can tell there is no definitive evidence to explain the exact process. However there are a number of possibilities.

The following is a ‘just so’ story. It’s not even the only such story that has been proposed. It is, however the one that seems most plausible to me. It’s a speculative explanation for the currently known facts. Those facts undoubtedly will be added to as time goes on. As our understanding increases our explanations will improve. That’s the scientific process. We haven’t reached the end of our journey of discovery. After all, it is only 2019.

What is culture?

In this context ‘culture’ means shared beliefs, rituals, understandings and explanations. That’s not rocket science. It would be hard to imagine any sizeable human group that didn’t have at least some cultural traits. The real question isn’t why humans developed culture but why (and how) our ancestors evolved the ability to do so in the first place. It seems that many changes were necessary to make human culture possible:

Selection pressures and adaptations

  • Habitat changed (our ancestors became increasingly well adapted for life in the open and less well adapted for life among the trees;
  • Brain volume increased significantly;
  • Technology developed and changed (from basic ‘processed’ tools such as flint spear points and arrowheads to axes, jewellery and even boats);
  • Hunting changed (there is evidence of much larger game animals being butchered as the species evolved).

These things must have resulted from selection pressures favouring individuals best suited to cope with change. Collectively they represented significant advantages to those individuals who possessed even some, if not all of the necessary adaptations. The gene pool was changing.

It seems to me (at least at this early stage of my studies) that the most important selection pressures were:

  • Group size;
  • Communication and language needs;
  • Need for larger amounts of food;
  • Need for cooperation to sustain large groups;
  • Need for co-operation to ensure the survival of larger groups;
  • Need to develop shared ‘memes’ to facilitate cooperation;
  • Need to develop explanations to foster group cohesion (and ‘out-group’ alienation).

Many of the ‘mental modules’ we’ll discuss later in the series are refined versions of adaptations resulting from these very pressures.

Existing traits available for natural selection via directional and sexual adaptative pressures seem likely to have included…

Rudimentary communication via mating ‘songs’ & dance

Studies of our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos show a tendency to communicate via a range of sounds and gestures – especially during courtship. Gibbons which pair for life advertise their relationships to others via song and studies have shown that they also have different calls (rudimentary language) representing different kinds of threat.

All these things represent viable precursors of language. Assuming, as seems likely, that similair abilities were present in our early hominim ancestors, we have the raw material for natural selection to work with.

But there’s a problem. For sophisticated language to develop the animal would need a big brain. However to build a big brain the animal needs plentiful protein. Obtaining plentiful protein requires effective, co-operative hunting of big game. Co-operative hunting of big game requires communication which requires a big brain. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Catch 22!

This was a major quandary for evolutionists for many years. It seemed as though big brain development was impossible and yet it happened. We have the fossils to prove it. What we didn’t have was an explanation. But now we have….

Theory of mind

Cooperation requires ‘Theory of mind’. That means an awareness of self and of others. It also requires an understanding that others may see things differently from ourselves. Without these two insights teamwork (and effective, cooperative big game hunting) would’ve been impossible for humans. And yet for years it was believed that no other primate species exhibited even rudimentary theory of mind. Until…………..…..

Co-operation and empathy

Another set of primate studies revealed not only significant theory of mind but also remarkable co-operation, especially related to aggression, dominant coalition and access to ‘mating rights’. Not only that, studies involving bonobos demonstrate significant empathy – another major requirement for the development of culture as we humans would recognise it. Once again we see the rudiments of another of the elements needed for big brain and cultural development. We can assume that our pre-human ancestors possessed the same rudimentary characteristics before the big brain developed.

So how might these elements come together? The process isn’t quite so complicated as it first appears.

As our ancestors left the forests and ventured out into the grasslands the need for effective warning systems became pressing. Natural selection (predation) favoured the best communicators creating a directional pressure toward more and more sophisticated language.

Improved language facilitates cooperation (largely based upon shared ‘memes’ or ‘explanations of the world’) which in turn facilitates more effective hunting.

More effective hunting meant more protein which allowed better brain development leading to even better communication.

Dependency and parental investment

The mechanics of childbirth provided a new problem for the evolving apes. Bipedalism (walking upright) was necessary for survival out of the woodlands but it meant a narrow birth canal. That means that bipedal hominims need to be born before their brains are fully developed. Otherwise their heads will be too large for the birthing process. This results in extended periods of helplessness for newborns (a characteristic that exists in humans to this day). This creates a serious selection pressure. Only those babies that are well looked after survive.

This explains why, compared with most other primates, human males invest far more of their time, energy and resources in providing for and nurturing their young. Chimpanzee males, our closest relatives typically don’t even know which offspring are theirs. Human males generally do – and they participate. We are a ‘High Male Parental Investment’ (MPI) species.

The extended helplessness of human infants created a significant selection pressure. Empathic and co-operative males provided the best nutrition and protection. Females that selected effective providers and nurturers as mates were most likely to see their young make it to maturity and produce offspring of their own. Their genes will survive.

Consequently males and females are subject to directional and sexual selective pressure favouring empathy, high parental investment and cooperation. This selection pressure (over many generations) imbued our ancestors with the ingredients for social culture and the means to fuel a big brain. The big brain in turn built upon these qualities to facilitate even greater technologies, communication and social interaction. This remarkable combination of selection pressures and adaptations allowed our species to develop, step by step from small bands of hunter gatherers into the large societies with sophisticated cultures that we know today