Monthly Archives: January 2016

What’s your surprising hidden talent?

Think of someone you know well, and it probably won’t be hard to identify a particular talent with which you associate them.

Back in the UK, David the psychologist explains complicated subjects brilliantly by turning his teaching into funny stories.

My friend Jane cooks up a mean Sunday roast, seemingly effortlessly.

My brother Geoff balances objects on his chin, even hefty items like bar-stools.


Some, like David, get paid for their abilities.

Others such as Jane or Geoff demonstrate their skills to bring people together (for a roast beef dinner) or to entertain (no need to go to the circus when my brother hits town).

Fortunately, both Jane and Geoff have other great skills for which they are paid.

Very often, of course, it’s easier to see things in others than it is to recognise them in ourselves.

So stop to think for a minute.

What is it that you’re good at?

What skills do you have that your friends may admire?

It’s not always easy to identify them, so it might be interesting to ask others.

But once you’ve established what they are, the next question is how often you get a chance to put them into practice?

Maybe not as often as you could.

It generally feels great to do something you’re good at.

It can help you de-stress.

It boosts your self-esteem.

It helps remind you that you’re an individual, rather than someone who simply fills a role.

So what are you great at?

And when are we going to see it?

It’s your lucky day – I’m giving you time off

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the term ‘easy chair’ to describe a comfortable place to sit seems to have been in 1707.

Although it’s a form of words we may use without stopping to think too much, maybe you’d agree that it’s slightly odd?

Of course it harks back to the use of the word ‘easy’ to mean ‘comfortable’ – rather than the definition that might spring to mind more immediately: ‘not difficult’.

After all, we suggest that someone should ‘take it easy’ when we think they need to rest, and ‘easy listening’ music describes tunes which are relaxing.


You may guess that I mention this not to focus on furniture, but to encourage you to think about the importance of taking a break now and then.

Chance would be a fine thing, I hear you say.

Oh to have the time/money/freedom to be able to go away for a few days – weeks, even.

The thing is, though, there are ways of giving yourself a little time off that are less ambitious, and more immediate.

Changing your pace or getting a change of scene can do wonders for your emotional well-being.

So here are five ideas to get you going, all designed to be achievable today (there’s no present like the time):

1. Create a ‘half-time’ in the middle of completing a task: five minutes when you’ll sit somewhere different, thinking nice thoughts.

2. If you’re travelling somewhere, listen to a favourite piece of music. Read an escapist book (an audiobook, perhaps, if you’re driving). Or just clear your mind and slow down your breathing.

3. Go for a fifteen minute walk that starts and finishes from where you already are. But head off somewhere you wouldn’t normally visit.

4. Lie down and take a power nap. John F. Kennedy did it, as did Winston Churchill, so you’ll be in good company.

5. A bath before bedtime can work wonders. It’ll relax you, feels self-indulging, and should also help you get a better night’s sleep.

Maybe you think you’ve too much on your plate to be able to slow down, even for a few minutes, but if you’re frazzled, you won’t be operating at anything like full speed.

So slow down.

The world can wait.

How asking for help is actually a sign of great strength

Is it a sign of weakness if you need to ask for help when your car breaks down?

Is it a sign of weakness if you need to ask for help when you need to lift something heavy?

Is it a sign of weakness if you need to ask for help when there’s something you don’t know how to do (cook a soufflé, change a tap washer, thank someone in Japanese, de-flea a cat)?

I wouldn’t class any of these as signs of weakness.

Signs of sense, more like.


There are always going to be times when you need the support, strength and wisdom of others.

Times when it would be daft and possibly dangerous to fool yourself that you can struggle on alone.

There’s at least one area of life, however, where asking for help is much harder, and that’s when you need assistance with emotional issues.

For some reason, we may believe we’re ‘supposed’ to soldier on alone, carrying an unbearable burden.

I suspect that if you heard a friend was behaving in this manner, you’d regard them as rather foolish.

Why on earth didn’t they ask for help?

Yet when it comes to ourselves it can be all too easy to see things in an entirely different way.


Everyone gets tired or overwhelmed now and then.

We all struggle with how we feel, especially when things go wrong.

Your family and friends may be more than happy to help, but you’ll need to take that brave first step of admitting you’re having a hard time.

There are support groups, too.

And professional advisors, with whom your doctor may be able to connect you as a first port of call.

Be realistic when you ask for help.

The first person you approach may not have the answers or skills.

(I’d be zero help with your soufflé, for instance.)

But each individual to whom you open up can take you a step closer to someone who’ll help you get through things.

Asking for help isn’t always easy, but it is always sensible.

Why today’s the day to bring distant friends closer

‘Keep in touch.’

How often have you said it, and how often do you carry it out?

Friendships and relationships can be of immense help and support (and sometimes the source of stress, anger or hurt) but it’s easy to take them for granted.

To appreciate this, you need only think of people to whom you’ve felt great attachment and affection in the past, but with whom you now have little or no contact.


Maybe you were friends because you were at school together?

Perhaps you got to know one another by working in the same place?

Or it could have been that you met when you were geographically close, but then one of you moved away?

Through no fault of either of you, changing circumstances can lead to weakened ties, and eventually to the complete loss of that relationship, particularly if you have no idea where someone is.

Perhaps you’re like me.

I often think of friends from my past, who are now no more than memories.

I wonder if they still think of me?

I wonder if they wistfully recall the friendship that was?

I wonder what they’re doing now.

I’m sure that forever maintaining all of life’s friendships is an impractical aim.

Sometimes you may have to let go and move on.

But perhaps there are one or two relationships which really shouldn’t fall into this category.

One or two people with whom you’d like to be in more contact than you are.

I expect you know who they are.

A valued old friendship is a little like a beautiful vintage car.

Both need careful maintenance.

Both have the capacity to lift your spirits and give you joy.

But both will fall apart if neglected.

Is there someone you really should reach out to?

Please don’t put it off.

In fact today’s a perfect one to let them know you think of them – more than they think.

The TV series that never was

OK, here’s an idea for a TV series and accompanying book, which I’d love someone to make and write, please.

Nearly everyone suffers from low mood at some stage, and we all know that what we eat can have a big effect on how we feel.

But when we feel low, how often do we remember to eat the foods that could boost our well-being?


Just as important, how do we motivate ourselves to eat properly when we’ve scarcely the energy to get out of bed?

Isn’t there a genuine need to know how to cook simple, delicious dishes designed to lift the spirits?

The recipes in the programme and book must be tantalisingly mouth-watering with not a hint of hand-knitted muesli.

They must require no more than a handful of ingredients, preferably making use of supplies that may already be in the fridge or larder.

They need, please, to be presented in a light-hearted way, and should be (yes) fun to make and eat.

It’s not rocket science.

A diet for good mental health would include lots of fruit and vegetables (different types); wholegrain cereals or bread; nuts and seeds; dairy products, and oily fish.

However, a list like this sounds a bit, well, dreary.

So take these basic ingredients and help me rustle up something tasty.

Please don’t bog me down with nutritional theory.

I want to feel better, not better-educated.

Don’t give me methods that take forever to prepare.

If I want to eat, I want to eat soon.

Give me interesting tastes and aromas to pep me up: I’m feeling sad, not sick.

Last but by no means least, please let the whole thing be presented and written by someone who loves food.

Not a white-coated expert.

Nor a scientist or doctor.

Just someone who tells it like it is, and makes us think, ‘You know, I might just cook that tonight’.

So the next time you’re talking to a commissioning editor or publisher (you do all the time, right?), please feel free to pass on this little idea.

But get a move on if you can.

I’m actually feeling a bit peckish.

Why there’s a huge difference between thinking and feeling

Although I should and do know otherwise, I still tend to think in cartoon stereotype terms when anyone talks about psychiatrists.

In my mind’s eye, he (for it is always a he) looks like Sigmund Freud, and talks like him too.

He sits with a notepad on his knee, his patient recumbent on a brown leather couch, uttering the words in a thick Austrian accent, ‘How does it make you feel?’

Now it’s easy to view that question as a cliché, but stop to think about it for a while and you may agree with me that it can actually be pretty rare to talk about your feelings.


Even at my relatively advanced age, I still struggle sometimes to put my feelings into words.

I find it pretty easy to talk about how I think: but when it comes to feelings, well, it can be more challenging – for me at least.

So here’s something to try.

In the next day or so, you’ll probably find yourself in a situation in which you have an opportunity to tell someone what’s on your mind.

Perhaps it will be at the end of a day when someone asks you how it went.

Or it could be in a telephone call.

Maybe it’ll be when you sit down to eat with someone.

As you ‘download’, ask yourself if you’re talking about events and thoughts, or whether you’re actually articulating your feelings.

Are you explaining situations rather than relating how they make you feel?

Most of us do, to some extent, sometimes because we haven’t taken the time to work out what we do feel.

Yet talking about your feelings can be an excellent way to help you process them and, indeed, to understand them better yourself.

To make things easier, imagine there are just four basic emotions: Happy, Sad, Angry or Scared (they’re pretty good for starters).

As you tell your story, why not make a conscious effort to build in an element of ‘and that made me feel…’?

Even better, add in a ‘because…’ explanation.

Opening up to someone can often make you feel better.

Letting another person in can be good for them too.

Even if their name’s not Sigmund.

To learn is to know, to teach is to understand

A 1999 book listed 85 ways to knot a tie.

A website called Endless Simmer pictures 100 ways to cook an egg.

And according to Paul Simon there were fifty ways to leave your lover.


We live in a world rich with things to learn, and a computer with an internet connection makes it easier than ever to uncover whatever may tickle your intellectual fancy.

New learning lubricates your grey matter, not literally of course, but it helps to keep your cognitive functions firing on all cylinders in much the same way that regular physical activity boosts your body.

As you acquire new knowledge, share it with others.

Teaching somebody is a fine way to consolidate your own learning, plus you get to make a social connection, as well as doing something for someone else: a triple whammy as a matter of fact, as long as they’re either a fan of the same things as you, or are prepared to humour you.

Keep learning new things.

Today and every day.

How to make proper use of all five senses today

You can go about your day, head down, noticing nothing.

You can go about your day oblivious to all around you.

Or you can go about your day drinking in all that your surroundings have to offer.

So which seems like the better way to go about your day?


It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that noticing the world around you just means keeping your eyes open, but don’t you have five senses?

Breathe deep and savour the day’s smells, as a bloodhound might.

Take note of every aroma, whether stinking or perfumed.

Perhaps someone’s cooking.

What does a particular shop smell of?

What do you sniff as you walk past trees or plants?

Touch whatever’s around you.

Run your fingertips over the table top, noticing its texture and temperature.

Touch your own skin.

Touch someone else’s (if they’re not already a friend, best to ask first).

Touch the water puddled on top of a wall after rain.

Explore the taste of everything you eat and drink today.

Does that glass of water really taste of nothing?

Notice the saltiness, or lack of it, in food.

How does sweetness taste?

Do all sweet foods taste the same?

When is sour nice, when is it not?

Listen out for every little sound.

Clue: there’s nearly always more than one at any given moment.

Is a clock ticking somewhere?

Is there a distant voice?

Perhaps there’s music, or a lawn-mower, or traffic, or an aircraft?

Maybe all of these and more.

Finally, yes, open your eyes.

Look where you normally might not.

Up, down and behind rather than simply in front.

Look through squinting eye lids.

Focus up close while looking long distance (don’t try this while driving though).

Look at the familiar as if for the first time.

It’s a richer world when you take notice of it.

Doctors and psychotherapists: who comes between them?

Some time ago my friend Jeff (not his real name) started seeing a therapist once a week, after finding himself struggling with anxiety and depression.

Things had got off to a positive start, Jeff said.

He felt as if he and his therapist were going to get along.

That seems to be one of the main keys to getting the most from therapy – if you and your counsellor have a good rapport, it’s an indication that the process could be rewarding.


The therapist began by getting Jeff to talk about his background, and his life at the moment, as well as some of the more memorable things that had brought him to where he was.

I suspect this is fairly normal, and seems a pretty sensible procedure.

Jeff had mentioned a physical health problem that had cropped up a few years back, but as he and I chatted, it occurred to us that there had been little or no talk about the extent to which he’d been taking care of himself.

No discussion about his diet (although Jeff’s therapist did ask him about smoking, drinking, and other types of pharmaceutical use – mainstream or ‘self prescribed’).

No conversation about the amount of exercise he took (or in Jeff’s case, didn’t).

No questions about his weight, or his aches and pains.

I don’t think this is in any sense a criticism of Jeff’s therapist – psychotherapy tends to do as its name suggests: it focuses on the psyche, leaving physiological matters to the family doctor who, in turn, may not ask too many questions about what’s going on in a patient’s mind (often because a physician simply doesn’t have the time – or even, on occasion, the skill – to delve into psychological matters).

Who, then, has responsibility for the meeting point of Jeff’s mind and body?

Just one person, we decided, and that’s Jeff himself.

Perhaps we need to learn from this?

At the end of the day, who’s going to take care of your body, and look after your mind?

You know, I think that mainly has to be your job.

Hug your way to happiness

Now I may be wrong, but I don’t have you down as someone who rubs noses socially.

Certain of the world’s people say hello by performing a docking manoeuvre between their proboscis and that of another.

(Not especially pleasant during the cold and flu season, I should imagine, but certainly a way to get upfront and personal with another human being.)

Most are more likely to greet others with their own kind of physical contact, depending on how well they know one another.

They may hug, kiss, shake hands or high-five: perhaps even all of the above, although that could be in danger of making you feel as though you’re part of some kind of Lady Gaga routine.

The point is, we tend to enjoy touching the people we like or respect, and also draw comfort from being touched ourselves.

I’m sure it’s a throwback to primitive behaviour when our ancestors may have reached out to one another to reassure that no threat was meant – or perhaps to indicate affection, comfort or respect.

This type of physical contact can amplify the meaning of a connection with someone: hopefully both parties feel good as a result.

What happens, however, when you connect with others and it’s definitely not appropriate to do the touching thing?

Most passengers tend not to hug their bus driver, for instance.

Sorry bus drivers, but that’s just the way it is.

Fortunately we do have all sorts of ways to compensate.

We can smile, make eye contact, properly listen, and use ‘warm’ body language.

It’s even possible to carry some of these ideas through to our electronic communications.

For example when I first met Alex she used curly brackets in her emails to represent a hug.

Connecting with people is a great way to feel better about yourself, and doing it with warmth makes it ten times better.

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