What is radical psychology?

dehumanizing workpace

Do we need therapists or social change reform?

RADICAL …. PSYCHOLOGY … these two words popped into my head, seemingly at random recently, as I contemplated the direction of this blog for 2019. My subconscious gave rise to these words, like an involuntary brainstorm that reflected my interest in alternative and emerging psychology; the rebellious fringes of mental health recovery.

Unconventional ideas have always intrigued me but it wasn’t until I consulted my trusted expert and confidant Mr Google that I discovered “radical psychology” was actually “a thing.” …. an established movement complete with website, peer reviewed journal and academic authorship.

As I clicked the search results to find several official pages, I was curious to know what radical psychologists were all about! Did they promote bizarre unconventional therapies? Were they critics of mainstream treatments like CBT?…. or were they part of the psychoanalysis revival?

It turns out my very questions reveal a limited point of view that radical psychologists are trying to change: that we are so focused on the individual, or “person-blame” ideology, that we don’t adequately address the social structures that oppress (or enable) emotional wellbeing. Radical psychologists believe the field of psychology should be more involved in social reform to address dehumanising structures and institutions that cause widespread emotional disturbance.

Although I’m still wrapping my head around what this movement encompasses, it sounds like Macro psychology with a capital M: psychology at a societal scale or a hybrid of sociology, psychology and activism. According to the radical psychology network website, the movement aims to “change the status quo of psychology” and to “challenge psychology’s traditional focus on minor reform”, because, they say, improving human welfare requires fundamental social change. They also suggest psychology itself has too often oppressed people rather than liberated them.

The latter is a radical claim indeed but reminds me of an old Krishnamurti quote “it’s no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”  By focusing on individual adjustment, coping and “management” of symptoms are we in a round about way supporting a dehumanising societal trend? A trend which says we should find a way to endure 80 hour workweeks or thrive despite terrible conditions and continuous exploitation. Are we helping people cope, with an unacceptable status quo that really shouldn’t be tolerated in the first place?

By labelling people with various mental disorders like depression and anxiety, are we blaming individual pathology for problems that are actually symptoms of an oppressive dysfunctional system?

I’m a real believer in the power of psychological counselling but I can also see the need for broader social change. If psychologists can get behind social reform and make a difference to people on mass then why not? I’m all for it.

I think there’s certainly more scope for governments and companies to consult psychologists in the design of structures and systems that support, rather than hinder wellbeing. For example, customer service call centre systems. This is one of the most dehumanising trends I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, both for the workers and customers.

Just yesterday I called my phone provider to troubleshoot a mobile data issue. I got the typical “press 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5”; a tree of annoying options and sub options, that didn’t quite capture the reason for my call. Then I waited on hold for 10 minutes whilst condescending pre-recorded info bites played between fuzzy hold music. The recordings had the tone of a kindergarten teacher addressing a 3 year old.

tamh call centre

When I finally reached a real person the line was choppy with delays as the call centre was based overseas, (where people are exploited as cheap labour). The whole experience was frustrating and dehumanising and as such I experienced 15 minutes of unwanted tension. A better call centre design could make the whole experience much more pleasant for all involved.

Whilst 15 minutes of feeling annoyed might not seem like a big deal, we’re all facing a myriad of dehumanising systems throughout our day. For example, at the self serve supermarket checkout or when interacting with a sales assistant whose sales pitch is so heavily micromanaged it sounds robotic …. “two for the price of one…have a nice day…. would you like fries with that?” Surely all of this homogenised fakery has a negative impact on our psyche. Who knows what the accumulated toll is on our wellbeing. It’s no wonder people wind up exhausted and depressed.

I’m not entirely sure if radical psychologists are concerned about dehumanising company systems as described above or if their critiques focus more on political and economic structures. Perhaps they’re referring to the structural design bolstering the field of psychology itself. Either way I plan to dig deeper into their the literature to find out. I’ve only just touched on it today but I hope to interview a radical psychologist if I can find one willing.

So watch this space for a totally RAD article on RADical psychology! LOL.

 

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How Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is repackaged stoicism

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If you were to book a session with a conventional psychologist today you may not realise that what you’re actually signing up for is applied ancient Greek and Roman philosophy …. just a modern revived version called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). 

As many of you know CBT is a therapeutic tool used widely by counsellors and psychologists across the globe. Developed in the 1950s & 60s it’s now one of the most researched methods for treating anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. 

What’s not as well known though is CBTs roots in ancient stoic philosophy. Albert Ellis, who created Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (the precursor to CBT) based his method on the ideas of ancient stoic philosophers such as Seneca, Epictetus and Aurelius. 

After working as a psychotherapist for several years he felt he had exhausted the standard psychology tools of the day, and so delved into ancient philosophy to see if he could find some age-old wisdom that might help his clients feel a deeper more profound sense of happiness. 

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The modern idea we have of someone who is “stoic” is different to the teachings of ancient stoicism. Whilst the contemporary meaning of the word implies someone who is strong and emotionless in the face of adversity, ancient stoics taught people to feel and examine their emotions, to delve into them in order to find the thoughts and beliefs that gave rise to them. 

Ancient stoics were pantheists who believed in following the laws of nature. They believed there was a divine spark and divine order in everyone and everything and that we should align ourselves to this naturalness rather than going against it. 

They promoted the idea of dividing life into what we can control and what we can’t, and believed the happiest people were those who put their energy and focus towards the former whilst accepting the latter. It was a waste of mental energy, they said to dwell on things that can’t be changed. 

They believed fundamental lasting happiness was a result of living a virtuous life and operating with the highest integrity no matter what your circumstances. Applying virtues and doing the right thing gives rise to the greatest fulfilment they said, rather than your societal status, material wealth or access to human pleasures. Stoics would happily enjoy material wealth or pleasures if they happened to be available but they would not be so attached to them that they would suffer terribly in their absence. 

They didn’t see material abundance as “wrong” but they didn’t believe it was the key determining factor of happiness. A person in poverty could still be happy if they lived the virtues and adopted stoic practices. 

So what were these stoic practices, and how are they echoed in CBT today? Here are a few I stumbled across that caught my curiosity: 

Negative visualisation: the contemplation of loosing something important to you.

Ancient stoics would contemplate or visualise loosing something important to them, such as their hand, loved one, property or house in order to feel a sense of gratitude for what might otherwise be taken for granted.

Contemplating your death and the impermanence of everything.

Stoics would contemplate death and the impermanence of life once again as a reminder to feel grateful for each new day. Everything will change and one day we won’t be here at all, best to enjoy it while it lasts they suggested.

Develop accurate perception to prevent painful emotions 

Stoics believed emotions were a natural part of life but that we cause ourselves a great deal of unnecessary emotional turmoil due to seeing things through the lens of distorted thinking. They encouraged people to see life as accurately as possible, to look at “the facts”, be real and logical. “Clear thinking” they said is also a product of living a virtuous life. Simply doing the right thing, and doing your best in any given situation prevents emotions like guilt, remorse and regret. They also said that regularly practicing contemplations on what can and can’t be controlled creates a mental habit towards what’s useful and purposeful rather than pointless and depressing.

There are other practices and the philosophy is much more involved than what I’ve touched on above but hopefully you’re getting a sense for what they were teaching. 

CBT promotes many of the same ideas. Of course contemplating your death might be considered taboo or dangerous for someone who’s depressed but the rest of the ideas are integral to CBT; cultivating gratitude, examining emotions to find irrational beliefs, learning to see things as they are, operating with integrity and in alignment with our true selves, these are all themes and ideas you would probably discuss with a contemporary therapist. 

Ironically many people criticise CBT for being too “stoic” in its approach and see it as overly rational at the expense of exploring human emotions. To be honest I felt this way about it too until I delved a bit deeper into the history of it to reclaim some necessary context. This was the stuff of sages! Not those who wanted to repress their emotions and promote a “stuff it down soldier on” type attitude but rather the legacy of incredibly deep thinkers who possessed a pragmatic yet reverent attitude towards life.

As I type this blog and insert the quotes below to leave you with I marvel over the fact they’re still being shared all over the net thousands of years later. Perhaps simple truths last the test of time.

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The rebellious origins of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

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“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” Shakespeare

If you could capture the essence of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) in one quote, this might be it!  Although CBT was conceived centuries after the era of Shakespeare its creators shared a similar perspective on the human mind; it’s not what what happens to us that determines our emotional wellbeing but rather how we think about what happens. So what is CBT?

The Beck Institute defines CBT as “a time-sensitive, structured, present-oriented psychotherapy directed toward solving current problems and teaching clients skills to modify dysfunctional thinking and behaviour.” Unlike psychoanalysis, which focuses on the past, the unconscious mind and family history, CBT focuses more on the present; patterns of thinking, emotion and behaviour as they are unfolding in the client’s life.

CBT emerged in the 1950s and has since grown to become one of the most popular first line treatments for depression and anxiety today. It has an extensive body of evidence-based research behind it and you’d be hard pressed to find any therapist who isn’t familiar with it. In a nutshell it’s mainstream psychology 101. But does it work?

This question was the topic of much heated debate during CBT’s early years. The approach was slow to gain traction and was often met with hostility and skepticism by conventional psychologists and therapists of the day. It was an unwelcome rebellion against the trusted Freudian and Jungian approaches revered at the time.

One of the key catalysts in the development of CBT, was Dr Aaron Beck, a passionate psychiatrist who was initially quite loyal to psychoanalytic theory in his early career. After conducting research into psychoanalysis, expecting to find strong evidence to support it, he was shocked to discover quite the opposite; his approach wasn’t actually helping his patients feel better!  As such he was driven to innovate and create new processes that would make a greater impact.

Aaron Beck Quote

Another key player in the emergence of CBT was Albert Ellis who developed Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), a precursor to CBT which shared many common elements. A fundamental premise of REBT is that humans do not get emotionally disturbed by circumstances, but by how they construct their views of these circumstances through their language, beliefs, meanings and philosophies about the world, themselves and others. Sound familiar? Hint… Shakespeare… scroll up 🙂

Ellis challenged his patients to evaluate their thoughts and cultivate more rational ways of thinking about themselves and the world at large. He was by no means the first person to use “rational thinking” as a therapeutic tool. Stoics, for example, were doing this back in ancient Greece but Ellis developed a modern user-friendly framework that he was able explore and test through empirical studies.

When Ellis declared “Freud was full of horse shit,” at a psychology conference in 1960s a war between therapeutic approaches was born. One camp loyal to diving deep into the patient’s childhood and the other looking for a quicker solution grounded in the present. Tensions between these ideas continued over the decades, but CBT gradually gained favour appealing to a culture enthused by the idea of a quicker fix.

Albert Ellis2

It’s quite amusing to consider how mainstream CBT is today when it began with just a few rogue thinkers challenging the status quo. Regardless of whether or not they were right, Beck and Ellis shared a truth-seeking spirit and a willingness to admit their own shortcomings as therapists. They created something new because the old way didn’t seem to be working for them.

Now another wave of rebellion is emerging; this time against CBT and back to psychoanalysis! In this fascinating article Oliver Burkeman explores the new research that might see Freud and Jung making a comeback!

In one recent study researches from Norway concluded that CBT’s effect size (a technical measure of its usefulness) has fallen by half since 1977.  If that trend were to continue, CBT could be entirely useless in a few decades! How can this be?

Coinciding with that researches from London’s Tavistock clinic published results on the first rigorous NHS study of long-term psychoanalysis as a treatment for chronic depression. They concluded that 18 months of analysis worked far better, and with much longer-lasting effects, than CBT style “treatment as usual.”

These studies are not isolated, there are others beyond the scope of this blog but what I’ve touched on here raises a number of interesting questions about the nature of “evidence-based” medicine and the need for more long-term studies.

I wouldn’t want to dismiss decades of research into CBT, surely there’s some element of truth in it, at the very least as a helpful tool for short-term relief. But my guess is that its strong evidence base is partly due to how quickly results can be seen when applying this method, and this fits in better with society’s 10-minute-medicine model.  Everyone loves a quick fix!

However, as many of us are learning some of the best medicine is slow and perhaps the truth takes longer to uncover. Did Beck lack patience in his earlier psychoanalysis approach? Should he have waited longer before giving up on Freud, or was it about time someone created a faster process, a handy modern tool to add to the therapy tool box? Certainly, looking back at the history of any therapeutic style does provide insight! (Yes irony noted!)

So answering my earlier question, does CBT work? Well my “rational emotive” brain is telling me yes but my unconscious mind is encouraging me to explore a deeper question… could both approaches have a valuable role to play in healing? Only if thinking makes it so!

 

 

 

 

 

How to like yourself

like yourself

Do me a favour. Grab a notepad and pen (or open your virtual notebook) and jot down 10 things about you that you’re grateful for. It can be anything from the basic fact that you’re alive and your heart continues to beat to some talent or skill that you possess. If you’re struggling to find things, go basic, and focus on simple fundamental aspects like the parts of your body that are healthy or your ability to be a kind friend to someone. This is my list for today:

I’m grateful for:

  1. the gift of my body and all of its function and capacity
  2. the fact that I can see, hear, walk, breath, taste, touch and think
  3. my ability to type fast
  4. a sense of caring for others
  5. a sense of caring for the earth
  6. my curiosity
  7. my desire to learn and expand
  8. my hopeful attitude
  9. my ability to sing and create
  10. how I don’t give up

Have you done your list? Do it now… go on!! …..

This is a really simple exercise but how often do you take a moment to really appreciate that gift your body? The gift of living? I find those basic truths like “I’m so glad my heart is beating and I get to live in this life,” really uplifting to reflect on. Often our brains jump to what is wrong with us and so we need to put some energy into what’s right from time to time. Otherwise we get the habit of distorted thinking and miss the opportunity to enjoy a balanced perspective.

Weirdly, as I’m writing this in a cafe I notice an infomercial segment the TV for a fat burning vibrational belt, lol… Wow! If I wear a special belt my abs can look perfect, tanned and toned like the women in the ad! And I don’t even have to eat sensibly or exercise. *facepalm.* Sadly these products sell because we are forever reaching for a beauty ideal is unattainable; we never achieve the unrealistic TV-induced cosmetic standards. We end up fundamentally rejecting ourselves as we are and so the urge to buy continues.

I find practicing basic self-gratitude provides a good foundation for other self-appreciating thoughts to live and thrive. It’s an excellent vaccination against the virus of unrealistic cultural beauty ideals.

 

The difference between medical minimalism and anti-medicine

Yesterday I read a smear piece on a holistic doctor who is “anti-medicine” according to the journalist because she is critical of conventional approaches to mental illness.  I’m not even going to share the piece as I think it’s a classic example of tabloid style click bait not even worthy of linking to in a blog post. In my opinion many holistic or integrative doctors are actually more like medical minimalists rather than anti-medicine practitioners, and I think there’s an important difference.

What is medical minimalism? It’s a cautious, critical and big picture approach to the use of pharmaceutical medicines. Medical minimalists use drugs only when they believe they are truly needed or helpful. When they do use medicines they use the lowest dose possible to get the desired result because they acknowledge the risks involved. They openly embrace lifestyle interventions as valid, and sometimes preferable to drugs and continuously apply a big picture cost benefit mentality to all their recommendations.

Medical minimalists are not against the use of drugs across the board but they use sparingly, or not at all depending on the illness or patient in question. They don’t believe drugs are necessarily bad but that the use of them can be destructive if better options are ignored. Just like minimalists believe less is more, medical minimalist believe less medicine can sometimes mean greater health. Since there isn’t research into the effects of prescribing a cocktail of different meds at once medical minimalists tend to avoid cocktail scenarios. They prescribe one thing at a time or give their patients a pep talk about lifestyle and diet.

Here’s an example of a very honest psychiatrist I came across on youtube who discusses the limitations of his prescriptions. Whilst he still prescribes at times when he believes it’s needed (always at the lowest dose possible) his aim is to get people off medications eventually and offer talk therapy and other strategies that he believe are more effective at helping people thrive for the long haul rather than just “getting through.”

I’ve really enjoyed watching some of his other videos on mental health too which are very helpful and refreshing. Also check out The forgiveness diet and How to let go of victimhood. Enjoy!

 

 

Why allowance can work better than acceptance

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Dear brain, grant me the serenity to temporarily ALLOW the things I can’t change … because I wouldn’t want to ACCEPT them, since acceptance might be a self-limiting concept that blocks the potential for those very things to actually become changeable in the future.

Eh.. what the? If things aren’t changeable then how do they change? And why have I butchered and de-spiritualised, the serenity prayer?

Let me explain!

We all know there are some things that at this very moment in time, we might need to accept. Say it’s a cold and gloomy winters day and all you can do is rug up and deal with it. You might prefer the sunshine but for now you just accept that it’s winter.

But what if accepting things keeps them habitually locked in place?

Take for example my friend Lucy who always hated winter. Year after year she would complain about winters (which she said exasperated her depression), and found it hard to just “accept it.” So instead, she allowed it, for a time, until she had the resources to literally move to the desert! Sounds extreme, but now she owns a house that roasts in the heat all year round and says she couldn’t be happier.

I’m not saying we should all consider moving to desert just because we might not like winter, but for Lucy a sense of acceptance might have held her back from this adventurous choice and novel solution to her winter blues!

So why use the word “allow”? Doesn’t this word mean essentially they same thing as accept?

I think there’s a subtle but important difference. Accept has a certain futility attached to it; a sense of permanence. I accept this thing which is likely to hang around for good. Allowance on the other hand has a more temporary feel. I allow myself this chocolate indulgence but as of tomorrow I’m going to reduce sugar. To me allowance isn’t a prediction.. you’re not imprisoned by its fate.

There is a popular therapy used by many psychologists called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT for short. It can be very helpful for people experiencing mental health challenges and I love how it incorporates mindfulness. On the other hand I’ve noticed many people using ACT as an excuse to not actually push the boundaries of possibility. To get lazy and to devalue desire.

Mindfulness stems from Buddhist philosophy which sees desire as the root of all suffering. But I personally believe desires are the root of motivation and meaning. Of course sometimes they are destructive or we get addicted to certain insatiable thrills but generally speaking I believe a joyful existence is a dynamic dance between desire, action and allowance.

So how about Allowance Commitment Therapy? .. or should I just allow the the word accept? Perhaps I should accept the word “God” in the serenity prayer rather than replacing it with “brain” to keep the atheists happy. My wisdom says brain/God… what’s the difference… the brain is such as mysterious and commanding beast it may as well be worshiped.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m back and the blog title is the same (for now)

Hello lovely people. I’m back in wordpress land and I have kept the blog title the same (for now). Last month I went through a blogging slump where I felt a bit frustrated with the topic of mental health and I thought about morphing this site into something different. But in reality I think I just needed a break to do some personal contemplation, reading, walking, mediation and refocusing. Over the last few weeks I’ve spent less time on the internet and more time reading real books. There’s something refreshing about good old print… but I’m back now surfing the interwebs with renewed interest.

The frustration I felt in relation to the mental health arena will probably come up again no doubt. It extends to my frustration with the entire medical model, which I believe has been corrupted by a profit driven pharmaceutical industry, that ironically doesn’t always have people’s health as it’s top priority. Okay so maybe I sound like a conspiracy theorist or scientology driven anti-psychiatry campaigner but I promise you I’m neither.  No, I don’t belong to any obscure religious groups and there’s no cult agenda behind this blog.

What drives this blog is a quest for truth in the spirit of activism; to explore the inconvenient facts that your physician might not have told you such as:

  • There is a serious lack of research on the long-term outcomes of people taking psychiatric drugs. The few available studies suggest that all the major classes of psychiatric drugs add little additional long-term benefit, and for some patients they may lead to significantly worse long-term outcomes. EEEK!!!
  • The concept of a chemical imbalance in the brain is a theory not scientific fact… it’s never actually been proven… double EEK!!

The quest for mental health is broad, epic, complex and controversial. Brains live in bodies and bodies inhabit the planet. Environmental scientists tell us our planet is sick, and our behaviour unsustainable. It’s not surprising then that much of this is reflected in our individual pathology. But conventional practice keeps selling the dream of a simplistic problem (broken brains) and magic pill solution. And I keep bumping up against people who have this view… and sometimes I get OVER IT!!

But I’m going to keep my chin up and keep asking questions because that’s me. I’m a curious soul with a sensitive BS meter. So what else is possible? How do we go beyond the corporate slogans and cultivate real, authentic, genuine and lasting mental health? How do we thrive in an insane world?

Anxiety is excitement with no place to go

anxiety is excitment

The late Psychologist Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt therapy, often said “anxiety is excitement with no place to go”. Whilst I don’t believe this quote explains anxiety in its entirety I do believe it points to a type of anxiety that is the result of suppressed or misidentified excitement. I can certainly relate to the feeling of not knowing how to realise my excitement for certain goals and projects and therefore feeling a sense of pent up frustration, which at times can bubble up into an intensity.

I know for myself I need to take action on what excites me. This is key.  Lately I haven’t been doing this nearly enough! I have my reasons, health issues have arisen or life gets in the way but I believe it’s important to keep coming back to what is exciting and either FIND A PLACE TO GO with it, make a plan, or map out a path that’s going to get you there. Easier said than done but still important to remember when navigating through those difficult times.

When I was in my 20s I explored the idea of becoming a Dance Movement Therapist which is a type of body-centred psychotherapy that often incorporates Gestalt type ideas. I did some volunteering for a dance therapy association and took some classes which I really enjoyed. I wasn’t much of a dancer in the traditional sense but enjoyed the creative and improvisational process. I remember in one of the group workshops the facilitator kept singling me out to say “you are a real sensation seeker” … “look people she’s a real sensation seeker.”

At the time I didn’t know what she was on about but later I read that “sensation seeking” from a psych point of view is “the tendency to pursue sensory pleasure and excitement. It’s the trait of people who go after novelty, complexity, and intense sensations… and who are often “easily bored without high levels of stimulation” (Psychology today). Right on the money teach but I have no idea how she could have known this about me based on my movements dancing around like a freestyle idiot. LOL.

I went off the idea of becoming a dance movement therapist because I decided to pursue the music path instead. This is where I felt I had I had more skills/ ability but dance therapy has always been one of those careers that I’ve thought is very much underutilised and under the radar. It’s often an excellent choice for people who find talking therapies limited in their effectiveness. It’s used a lot with dementia patients, people with eating disorders and in drug and alcohol recovery. Perhaps it’s also ideal for real “sensation seekers.”

Sometimes you can talk about “anxiety” until the cows come home but really what you might require is to move, find direction or take action… to let your body talk and to remember your excitements. Below is a wonderful clip from a dance therapist on the topic where she explores the idea of anxiety as excitement in relation to her work with a client. It’s a wonderful clip and I hope you enjoy it!

 

Calm body clear mind: free online course!

I just noticed Dr Kelly Brogan is offering a free online mental health course where you can learn to how to treat anxiety and depression and leverage your mindset for transformation. Register here.

Dr Brogan is a New York Times bestselling author and psychiatrist who treats mental health with the greater whole body context in mind. She’s known for myth busting and spreading awareness about mental illness.

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Is too much screen time making us miserable?

An interesting TED talk presented by Psychologist Adam Alter who has studied the rise of screen time and its effect on our wellbeing. Interestingly health related screen time reading makes us feel happier than social media. A win for this blog! ha ha.

But seriously we may need to do some honest self-reflection about how much time we spend hooked on apps that don’t actually contribute to us positively. It could be time to hit the second hand bookshop and stock up for some some old school “print on paper” time.