On the nature of “normal”…

Normal is only a cycle on the washing machine.

Normal is defined by whatever is the current “norming of behaviour” that is present in your society, family, group, culture…in fact it’s totally dependent upon who is observing (or not observing) the person behaving.

Yet anything remotely related to our mental health is still so stigmatised that it gets hard to seek help and when you do you might find that the help increases the symptoms if you are misunderstood.

I recently was alerted to an experiment that was conducted in the 1970’s by David L. Rosenhan from Stanford University.  In short he placed people with no mental health issues in psychiatric facilities and got them to simulate very vague symptoms that may or may not be consistent with schizophrenia.

The results were stunning and it was apparent that people  were judged more by a diagnosis regardless of whether or not it was actually consistent with their behaviour or not.  Please take a moment to watch the YouTube video linked to this…

It did garner a lot of criticism and today we hope that our diagnosis of mental health issues is better – but it still seems that sometimes the public perceptions of what is normal may not have caught up and are quite possibly 1970’s (or earlier) in layman thinking.

What do I mean?  It means that the professionals who deal with the issues understand the process of stigma and it’s impact on those with or without mental health issues and diagnosis is not a rapid process anymore.  But have the public caught up?

This link http://ideas.ted.com/2013/12/18/how-should-we-talk-about-mental-health/  has a great discussion of how we can all end the stigma.

From Sane the figures below speak to how prevalent mental health issues are…

What are the figures?

  • Nearly half (45%) of the population will experience a mental disorder at some stage in their lives.
  • Almost one in five Australians (20%) will experience a mental illness in a 12-month period.
  • During a one-year period, anxiety disorders will affect 14% of the population and depression will affect 6%.
  • Depression is one of the most common conditions in young people and increases during adolescence.
  • At least one third of young people have had an episode of mental illness by the time they are 25 years old.
  • Research indicates that people receiving treatment for a mental illness are no more violent or dangerous than the
    general population.
  • People living with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence, especially self-harm.
  • Mental illnesses are not purely ‘psychological’ and can have many physical features.
  • Anyone can develop a mental illness and no one is immune to mental health problems.
  • Most people with mental illness recover well and are able to lead fulfilling lives in the community when they receive appropriate ongoing treatment and support.
  • Women were more likely than men to use services for mental health problems. Approximately two-thirds of people with a mental illness do not receive treatment in a 12-month period.
  • It is estimated that up to 85% of homeless people have a mental illness.

I would argue that what we see as mental illness is totally dependent upon what we think is normal at any given time and that that normal changes, lots!  If most or many of us experience some mental health problem – perhaps it is a normal part of life to at one time or other have a mental health issue.

I think we need to stop talking about normal behaviour and start looking to what is “helpful” and/or “useful” and/or “constructive”.

Normal can also be used as an excuse not to deal with something or continue to stigmatise someone else rather than deal with someone’s your own discriminatory or damaging patterns of behaviour.

“It’s normal to be jealous” comes to mind.  Jealousy can be extremely harmful behaviour if acted upon and then justifying it away as normal is not really helpful.

Jealousy is a choice, depression is not.   How we choose to deal with either is also a choice.  Healing can be a conscious endeavour, a concerted choice.

“if you go out in the woods today” – let’s play more – R.I.P Robin Williams

Gosh we have some pithy statements I hear people bandy about play and love and health.

Go where the love is.  The family that plays together stays together.  Sounds easy doesn’t it?

We need to love ourselves first.  Part of that means embracing play (in all it’s forms) as well as work.  Play serves more than trivial purposes for human health and well being.  Yes, the links I have in here will take to you to more reading…

This seems like a simple concept and yet if we view the family as the source of that love we might be sadly mistaken.  And loving ourselves by leaving a dysfunction family environment? That seems even harder too.  What about loving ourselves by exploring the world, growing our spirit, finding peace in other cultures or by just being more open minded?

Nah! I hear the “workers” say.  “I am too busy working”, they say.  Working themselves to death? I ask quietly? Working ourselves to the point where we kill each other at home and on the roads daily?

I’m a worker.  I have worked all my life and studied and done some very hard yards in the name of work – but whatever happened to PLAY?

Play to me is not drinking games either.  Or sitting at the football with a beer and a pie and eating and drinking ourselves to death.  I mean healthy play, not self-medication in the name of play.

By all means do these things – but don’t confuse them with play that gives us a rush, a smile and happiness without unwanted side effects.   And don’t get me wrong, everything has the potential to have a side effect.  Or kill us even.

Why is it so many Australians think that this is an excuse for sedentary lifestyles that they, on one hand, whinge about, and on the other – don’t actually act to do anything about?

Many of us who suffer from depression and anxiety have “family of origin” issues.  I would posit to say that a very large amount of modern people have had trauma of some kind in our early childhood years.  Never mind the fact that humanity has had recent periods of enormous human violence in the last 60 years or so – the scale of which, with modern warfare means we kill each in greater numbers than ever before in human history.  Perhaps we have lost the ability to play and help ourselves to heal in all of that trauma?

In Australia I regularly come across depressed and anxious people who just see life as drudgery for the sole purpose of providing themselves some level of “supposed” safety for themselves and their families.

We just need to take a brief look at the family violence statistics in Australia to get a “tip of the iceberg” perspective on the hidden traumas in a supposedly “civilised society”.  The most unsafe place for woman can be in her own home with a woman a week dying at the hands of her current or former partner…Not safe at home and men are not immune to domestic violence either.  The Australian Institute of Criminology reports that 82% of assaults in the previous year were not reported to police.  The reason for this is usually because of the fear that the violence will escalate (and many of the murders of victims of domestic violence are when they are leaving or have left).

Queue the song “If you go out in the woods today…”.

Fear mongering in our media is largely responsible for us staying in violent home situations and rarely going outside.  I will apply this same analogy to overseas travel later in this piece…

Yet if you want to know about our children’s safety in Australia you could google and be told that there has been 15 children murdered by strangers or outside of their home. One of those children Sian Kingi I knew and used to see her every Friday shopping with her beautiful Mum when I worked in the local supermarket as a 17 year old.  Before she was murdered by a married couple who were looking for a virgin to rape and murder.

In 2009 it was reported that on average 25 children a week die at home at the hands of their parents in Australia.

Yet we can turn on the TV and hear all about how unsafe the outside world is for our children.

A culture of fear surrounds letting our kids go outside to play.  Obviously it’s smart to make sure your children are safe and I’m not suggesting they should roam the streets.   But what ever happened to play? Whatever happened to us getting outside and camping with our kids and playing with them?

Are we so consumed with the next mortgage or shiny car that we have forgotten to play and love another?  So many conversations you will hear “we didn’t have much, but we had fun” in older people.

I constantly hear people discussing how unsafe it is for our kids to go outside and play.  If this is the case why are we not hearing on the news how many women and children are murdered in the supposed safety of their own homes?  How many of these murders are contributed to by monetary and work stress to keep up with the joneses?

Are we supposed to stay at home and be treated like objects or pieces of furniture?  Is this the cultural message that says we must honour the family has become?

Is this why it is often so hard to go where the love is? Or to love ourselves enough to challenge ourselves to play as adults – like go out and have an adventure in the world?

Go outside and play.   The world is not going to murder us and if you are with your children, your children will be safer too.

Or we could work too hard to have a home that surrounded by razor wire because we are too scared to go outside because of the fear mongering that goes on about the outside world?  Just watch the news or some current affairs shows and you will never go outside again.

When people talk to me about my adventure travels this is sometimes how the conversations go:

Q: “Why would you go there?”

A: “Amazing place, amazing culture.  I learned heaps and learned to stop fearing the world and other people.  F.E.A.R.  False expectations appearing real”

Fear response and justification for staying miserable: “But it’s not safe, look at the Bali bombings”

According to the fear mongering in our media travel will kill you; but staying at home living a life of driving to and from work everyday won’t kill you either I ask?  1000 Australians die overseas a year but largely from accidents or illness and 25% of that or more are preventable with vaccinations and or good research before they go.  1299 a year die in fatal road accidents.  As at June 2014, 574 people have died on our roads just doing what they do everyday – driving.

Let’s add to that the highest causes of death in Australia – the top one being heart related disease with other 20 000 a year.  I don’t even want to mention the 2535 suicides in 2012.  But there you have it…

Some won’t travel because they think they will get blown up.  They won’t let the kids outside because they will be murdered and they are not playing or exercising because they are too “busy” working.  Yet our children die at home and we die at our own hands (by suicide and on the roads) and by diseases made worse by sedentary (not moving) lifestyles?

There once was a saying “the family that plays together stays together”.  It’s more than true.   Play holds more than families together.  It can hold people together and provide stress relief and relaxation that is vital to our health.

Play, silly singing, silly walks, laughter and exercise.  All as necessary as food and water.

Watch this awesome TED Talk on Play – We NEED to PLAY!!!

For me , the best quote from Stuart Brown is also the simplest “the opposite to a life without play is not work – it’s called depression”.

Sunday 12 kilometres and new shoes

Made a classic mistake yesterday. I have new runners that I won’t wear in Nepal (cause my trusty hiking boots will be on), but decided to do a longer walk.

We walked down the beach from Kewarra Beach to Palm Cove jetty and then back up the highway. Bare foot down the beach and running shoes down the road.

Should have taken the hiking boots as new runners and a bit of sand and 7.6 km of bitumen (out of a total of 12 km at a good 6km an hour) and I have a screamer of a heel blister. Ended up bare foot on the concrete path for about 2 km.

Never mind. Lesson learned. 🙂

But the good news is didn’t break a sweat was a good easy walk for me, blood pressure good and felt fantastic afterwards.

Beach walk only tonight and will push through some water in the surf part of the way for greater resistance to help my leg strength.

Altitude meets attitude – from the Andes to the Himalayas

45 days til we fly out til Kathmandu.

Excited! Hell yes.  However there is also the matter of training around my health concerns.  I have never found my reconstructed left knee,  pinned and plated fibula and ankle on my right leg or hypertension a barrier to becoming fit.  It just can slow things down a bit.  I have to monitor my pain and take action (as well as my blood pressure) accordingly.  It’s about self-care.

I started training for Nepal in February and it got thrown by severe bronchitis in April that I only am just over.  But throughout I still walked when I could at least 4 times a week.  A recent brush with high blood pressure had me go back on blood pressure medication – unforseen and I have to just accept that I can’t be medication free all the time with my medical history.  So back in earnest with less time to train than I would like…but determined to be fit enough.

I’m effectively a sprinter – I was built for speed and my sports training over the years has supported that view.  Lots of fast twitch muscles in this little low to the ground gal.   So this endurance thing meant I had to slow down lots anyway…so probably the last few months have been good for me in terms of reprogramming my thoughts on exercise.

When I did high altitude last in the Andes it was to 4700 m and trekked the Quarry trek from Ollantaytambo in Peru (36 km) and I was twenty kilograms overweight to what I am now and not as fit.  I also mountain biked down Death Road in Bolivia (64 km at 4850m highest) – I surprised myself I could do it easily being a bit overweight.

Me half way down Death Road - note the smile says it all!! Awesome fun.
Me half way down Death Road – note the smile says it all!! Awesome fun.

However I had been in South America for several weeks and climbing the stairs in my hotel in La Paz three flights every day (3640m altitude) and was getting used to altitude.

Trust me two flights of stairs at 3640m is a lot plus I walked everywhere!   🙂

It was all attitude and not a lot else (add some knowledge – I research everything).  But I have always been active all my life so I suppose I do have a good baseline fitness.

However the evidence about exercise and it’s positive effect on depression and anxiety is startling.  For me personally it was the difference between life and something far worse – believing that life was “as good as it was going to get”.

Don’t settle for “this is as good as it’s going to get” and a life of not caring about yourself enough to get up – and move and enjoy the world.  Even if it’s just in your own backyard.  Every location around the world has beauty and somewhere to explore…get out there…

The key is this…anxiety and depression trap us into cycles of not doing anything.  We can’t see the benefit because we feel so rubbish.  BUT if we just do that one thing for 20 mins a day at least we get the benefit over time and it becomes easier and easier.

Exercise makes me happy.  Full stop.

I found the exercise that I can do with injuries and I did it.  Trekking through the world was a bonus I added 🙂

The view from halfway through the Quarry Trail Trek – The Andes.

Let’s get a wiggle on now…

It’s 48 days til we fly out to Nepal. My fitness is pretty good but I have to take it up a notch now.  So we begin in earnest.

It’s been a tough few weeks.  I have not had a good time of it and my BP has become a problem again.  And prior to that I had a chest infection and then a cough that lasted weeks.  I know these are physical health manifestations of emotional stress that I need to deal with – and I am actively dealing with it now.  My health is returning and my BP is coming back down and I can hit training again.   Making some pretty big life changes again about self-care, I want to not only be able to enjoy this trek but not have it kill me! I have a habit of being there for everyone else and not myself, and I have really needed to change that.

I have to say I am a little nervous about being fit enough but there is a plan emerging, so I will be fit enough.  My best friend will be by my side too, he’s my rock and for the first time in my life I feel there is someone beside me who believes in me 100%.  I have also felt alone in the world in some respects, but not anymore.

Sometimes positive change is scary and we stay with what is familiar to us, even if what is familiar to us is negative or not particularly useful to us.

Being happy all the time is not possible and if we think that it is we won’t be happy.  Being positive through dark times is the way to happy, but sometimes you have to accept that all emotion is temporary and passes too.

Our world has become obsessed with the myth of perfection, when nothing is perfect.  Loving ourselves in our own wonderful imperfection is more useful, in my humble opinion.  🙂



5 Measures of Happiness

Jacci Pillar

I have 5 ways I measure my level of happiness.  First, you might be wondering, why it is I measure my happiness? Because a few years ago I realised I didn’t know what made me happy and what didn’t.  Now I do.  What makes me happy is that I choose to be happy.  I do things that make me smile.  I play and have fun daily.  I laugh daily.  The realisation was simple – I could choose to be happy and make simple changes in my life to achieve that.  Part of them was knowing what I do when I am happy and then checking that these things were happening on a daily basis.   If I have most of these measures in my life – I am doing well or have things to improve on.  My five measures of happiness measured on a daily basis are:

1. How often I…

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I tend to be really hard on myself and when I am hard on myself I lose the ability to laugh. 

At the moment I am grappling with some pretty major life stuff and have stopped laughing.  My blood pressure has been stroke level for a while and is coming down now – but I have had to go back on medication – which I wanted to avoid.  It hasn’t made me very happy and I want to be able to go Nepal – so I have to make changes to keep me happy and on track. 

So  my challenge is to laugh more at the moment. 



On a happy team at work….People-ism vs. Professionalism

I have been in some pretty fantastic workplaces and sadly, a lot of really sad ones.  The Dalai Lama talks at length about the art of happiness at work…

But I want to talk about the word that is often used to crush any shred of happiness in the workplace.

Queue the “da daaaa” music: PROFESSIONALISM or rather something I call “Uber-professionalism”.

This is what professionalism means to some organisations:

1. Don’t be real.  Make sure you dress and look corporate and powerful, but don’t be human.

2. Don’t raise issues unless you do it in a dry monotone.  Your not allowed to experience emotions here, and yes, expressing too much emotion may not be good – but none at all will be more destructive.  I dub thee “uber-professional” communication.  Dry, unfeeling and to the point, which ironically, nothing in the rest of life is.   If your business has anything to do with people and their lives this is a clear double standard.  You are not allowed to be human and we will respond with robotic automaton.

3. Put up with aggression and bullying.  Basically a professional in these kinds of workplaces just sits back and allows themselves to be abused in the name of supposed productivity.  What happens in reality is the workplace becomes less productive, unhealthy.  Walk outs are common and people proudly talk about how competitive the environment is.  That’s not competitive; to mean competitive it had better be Olympic standard and that involves fair play (even if lately the Olympics has had a lot of cheats they are actively screened for).

4. Follow chain of command (always).  With almost military like precision (or so they think). Yes…we all know those people who think a conversation in a corridor with someone outside of your team is dangerous.  In reality it opens up ways to share ideas, but to the uber-professional it is scary.  Anyone who actually has been in military service will tell you an illegal or unlawful order is an illegal or unlawful order and you definitely don’t follow it when lives are at stake.  Rather than try and understand this, these are the people who smack their staff with the code of conduct then don’t realise they are breaking the code of conduct by using it as weapon rather than a way of assisting people understand the parameters of behaviour.  One slip in this world-view and your gone (unless of course you are the person wielding the code of conduct and then you are allowed to do whatever you like).

5. Make sure you are busy when you are just really busy being busy as a matter of survival.  Busy in this sense doesn’t necessarily  achieve anything.  Martyrdom seems to come with this uber-professional approach, they take on jobs that are not theirs and question expertise that is not theirs, work super long hours and then complain about everyone else.  They are busy dammit! Busy fixing things that don’t need to be fixed usually and not focussing on the content of the work.

6. Hard work is the driving force, but no one works particularly smart.  I’m not sure where all of this ridiculous comes from, but my guess would it be from the perceptions of the glory days of the Trumps, Murdoch’s and Fairfax’s.  Strangely enough they are perceptions only, the reality is something completely different.  Efficiency is something altogether different.  “Haste means waste”.  Ask any successful professional athlete that relies on speed – it requires focus, calm and practice, not rushing, pushing and forcing.

This kind of professionalism encourages a “dog eat dog” type thinking that ever since it’s rise in the 1980’s has created a lot of depressed and injured workers and lower productivity.  This is the kind of professionalism I believe in, something I will coin “People-ism”:

1. People are allowed to be themselves. In all their realness.  If they have “inappropriate” behaviours from time to time because of the nature of the work or life generally – the assessment of this is determined by the team, not by a regulator or standard of behaviour that focuses on appearances rather than skills, abilities and perspectives.  Everyone that appears “different” has a different perspective to offer, they are not to be treated as a threat.  If the team votes Mr X or Ms X is too loud – they say so, collectively in peer feedback sessions.  They support that person to tone it down with care and compassion and these are facilitated by the group and it’s natural leaders, not an imposed “nanny” manager.  The team is prepared to accept each other and work with each other, not against each other.  No one is perfect and nor would we want them to be in this model.

2. Issues are raised.  Not only is issue raising allowed, it is encouraged.  Daily.  BUT it is facilitated so that it is about issues, not people. There is a big difference and the parameters are easy to work out in a healthy workplace.

3.  Encouragement is the norm.  Bullying, stand over and intimidation is not tolerated.  There will always be times when the workload is high and the pressure as well.  “Your lack of planning shouldn’t constitute an emergency on my part”.  Bullies can’t seem to understand that their own fear, anxiety and lack of planning (usually) isn’t everyone else’s issue.  If you can’t do something for whatever reason – raise it in the issues raising at #2 and ask people for help and surprisingly, you will get it.

4. Planning replaces power plays.  Chain of command is replaced with “protocols”.  Simple “what to do when” instructions.  If an issue is sensitive people actually talk to each other.  This is different to back to back pointless meetings, lead by a dictator.   This is different to “here is your task list and go and do it by this time”.  This planning is based upon a genuine engagement with peoples skills, preferences and abilities – not an assumption of them.  Let’s face it, we have all heard the education metaphor about fish being asked to climb trees.  Why on earth would you just randomly give out tasks to whoever based upon an arbitrary measurement of workload?

5.  People are active as opposed to frazzled.  Calm is the approach here.  When workloads are high planning increases – not planning grinding to a halt and everyone flat spinning and flailing about.  Planning is collective, not driven by one individual with a controlling mindset.  If you are at work more than 8 hours a day, something is wrong.  Your work life balance is shattered.  You will not be productive, you will just be frazzled.  If you are actively engaged in your work you will be able to have time to plan and workload crises will be a thing of the past.

6.  Work smarter, not harder.  See all of the above.  The above requires hard work too – it’s just a different more cerebral kind of hard work. It’s more about commitment than hard work and it’s more about wanting to do a good job, not just any job.

7. Finally and the most important “Conversations, laughter and communication are promoted not prevented“.  Of course, I hear the old school managers say, “not all day”.  We all know the destructiveness of working in competitive silos by now, surely?  In that environment conversations are about relationship hassles, mortgages and car troubles.  In the right working space conversations take on the right kind of buzz, fuelled by the work and environment.  Some of the best conversations are those held informally not in the board room.  They should inform the generation of ideas that end up in the board room.   These conversations become agendas, plans, maps and solutions.  If people are genuinely engaged and active in their work, happy and focussed these conversations won’t be distractions, they will be productivity tools.