Sunday, 2 November 2014

Breaking Negative Thought Patterns

The university experience can be isolating, competitive and demoralising. That is why it is important to go in with a thick skin, good coping strategies and a positive, but realistic, outlook. This way you'll be able to thrive and attract like minded individuals to surround yourself with. This can make university a positive time in your life both academically and socially.

I am currently a postgraduate, working on a PhD and I recently found out that around 40-50 percent of all grad students experience emotional or stress-related problem that significantly affects their well-being or academic performance. Those are some scary statistics, especially considering those are only the ones that have gone through the effort of telling someone about their problems. Many people just sit and suffer in silence.

I personally went through my own meltdown between my second and third year of undergrad, and I know how easy it is to assume that there is no point talking about it because no-one could possibly understand what you are going through, and how uniquely difficult your situation is. I also know what a load of excuses those are. If half the student population is experiencing anxious or depressed episodes, then there is a good chance talking about it will do more good than harm, at the very least it will make you feel less isolated.

The unwillingness of most people to seek professional help is also a major problem. People seem to live under the conviction that psychologists and councilors are for the weak or in the worst case for the insane. This is completely untrue. Everyone has certain things that make them irrationally guilty, jealous, upset, anxious or angry and could benefit from minimalising the affects of those negative feelings on their lives.

I have been dealing with a number of friends who are suffering from mixes of anxiety, depression and eating disorders. All having to do with a negative thought process and unproductive coping mechanisms. These often lead to cynicism, bad self-images and distrust of others. The justification often used is that they are just being realistic that thinking positively would be to delude themselves. I disagree, I believe that those negative thoughts are more delusional than a healthy dose of optimism.

I know all to well that snapping out of these patterns is more difficult than it seams on paper. You really have to completely alter the way you think and it takes a lot of work, but it is not impossible, and ultimately you will be better for it. It takes a supportive group of friends and/or family, some who push you, some who are gentle but all of whom will be there to catch you when you fall. In my case my professional team, councilors, psychologist, doctor and dietician were an excellent help providing both moral and practical support.

The main thing I learned was that setting small achievable goals, each time pushing yourself a bit further is key to getting out of a mental crisis. Also allowing yourself to slip up sometimes is important. But these slip ups need to be used a learning experience. You can't get away with just making excuses for yourself and going back to square 1 each time. When the crisis gets really bad it is often best to avoid too many other commitments. Taking some time off to recover will often help more in the long run, rather than attempting to juggle recovery with jobs, essays or committees. It takes a lot of effort and a relaxing caring environment to really make a long term change.

I personally found CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy extremely helpful, but different people get over negative patterns in different ways: traveling, art, music, ... the options are endless.
As long as it helps you externalise and analyse your thought processes. Notice triggers, patterns and consider new ways of coping. I used to keep a diary of both physical and mental reactions to certain events, those two are often more intertwined then we think, and improving our well-being on both accounts is essential to leading a more positive life.

For more serious long term crises (anorexia, depression, etc.) there are often multiple phases of recovery. Initial denial of course: the negative patterns have become so commonplace that they seem rational and natural, they are not yet perceived as problems in need of fixing. Then comes realisation: the point when the patterns start being recognised as irrational. A word of warning to this phase, though highly important to recovery it is also very deceptive. Knowing something is wrong and acting on it are two very different things and it is easy to plateau in this phase. Often others will not understand why at this point you are not yet getting visibly better. This is because there is an internal war occurring in your head between the rational and irrational. Part of you wants to change but the other part realises how difficult this will be and would prefer to just stay the way it is. However difficult it may be, once you accept the fact that you are struggling to recover on your own it is very important you get help. Which is also phase three. Once you are able to accept help, you are finally on your way to active recovery. If all goes well you will start feeling more like you belong in your own skin and eventually you'll be able to look back and see the crisis as a moment of your life that taught you something about yourself and made you stronger.

Some patterns of negative thinking that could lead to such crises and you should probably nip in the bud now are:

- All-or-nothing thinking: 'anything less than perfection is failure'
- Black-and-white thinking: 'I can't be a contributing member of society unless I am a lawyer'
- Disqualifying the positives: 'life is just a series of disappointments'
- Negative self-labeling: 'if people knew what a failure I was they wouldn't like me'
- Catastrophising: 'everything will go horribly wrong'
- Mind reading: 'I am sure all my friends hate me because they didn't invite me for dinner'
- Shoulda-woulda-coulda: 'I should be acing every exam'
- Excessive need for approval: 'I need someone to love me to be happy'
- Disqualifying the present: 'I'll relax when I am done with university and have a job'
- Dwelling on pain: 'If I just keep thinking about what went wrong maybe I'll feel better'
- Guilt trip: 'Everything is always all my fault I am a terrible person'

These are all common pessimistic ways of seeing the world. All are equally irrational and all can be refuted. Realising that you control how you think, that you got into the negative cycle and you have the power to get out of it, is very important. No-one made you think this way, if you have surrounded yourself with negative people who are not supportive of your attempt to turn to a more positive outlook, maybe it is time to look for a new support group, your old friends will come around when they are ready.

Like I said before it is difficult to get out of a negative thinking pattern, it takes time, effort and a bit of outside help, but in the end I believe it is most definitely worth your while.

Friday, 12 September 2014

On Faith and Values #NSLF2014

Over the weekend I attended a conference in Canberra called the National Student Leadership Forum. 

I was nominated by my college about a month prior to the forum, and initially writing my application I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Going in I was afraid it would just be a series of lectures, or even one of those kumbaya type sharing-round-a-campfire events I had been to as a kid (seriously though we made tie-dye shirts and talked about how vegetables were people too). It didn't help that the age category was 18-26 which meant I could be dealing with undergraduates, students who were 5 years younger than me. 

Needless to say I went in with quite a lot of scepticism and very little knowledge of what the program would be like. All I knew was I was going to attend the forum, take 4 days of my research and hopefully learn a little bit about leadership.

At 8 am, 3 hours after a painfully early wakeup call, my partner and I arrived in Canberra. We were to be staying at the Hyatt, a 5 star hotel near Capitol Hill. 5 star, as in bathrooms that are about the same size as my college dorm, as in Jacuzzi and sauna facilities in the pool house, as in you probably shouldn’t arrive in jeans, sneakers and a pink lap top bag if you want to be taken seriously.
Luckily (or perhaps not so luckily) we had 3 hours to kill before we could even register for the forum, so I had time to change, re-arrange my luggage, drat some e-mails, and walk around the hotel about 7 times. By the time the forum started I had started to seriously cultivate the idea that the entire event was a little too high brow for me. Most of the people I met were dressed in business attire and had a background in politics, commerce or law. Everyone seemed to have a sense of purpose, whereas I was starting to wonder why I had come. Later on in the weekend I would realise that most of the other students who had been nominated for the forum had been just as nervous and confused as me. However, that was not the way I perceived it at the time.

The first thing that we were required to do when registration opened was to pick up a schedule, and sign up for seminars. Looking at the program for the next three days ended up being less re-assuring than I had hoped. Almost every hour from 8 am to 10 pm was completely booked up, with talks mostly but also something noted down as small group time. The rest of the afternoon was to be spent at Parliament House, attending question time and listening to speeches by a bunch of politicians whose policies I categorically disapproved of. This seemed to reinforce my earlier scepticism and fear that the entire forum would turn into a series of lectures.

Suffice it to say that every single one of my assumptions was totally and completely wrong.

Small group sessions turned out to be time spent among an amalgamation of about 9-10 people of which most other students like yourself, discussing the themes brought up during the activities of the day and sharing your story and motivation. I was lucky to be in a group with 8 of the most inspirational, supportive and fun people I have ever had the chance to meet. The way the sessions were planned really forced you to open up and make yourself vulnerable, which, although extremely scary, also helped solidify the group’s sense of comradeship and made us form friendships a lot faster than had we just sat around and discussed leadership.

Similarly with regards to the lectures. I was afraid they would be boring and preachy, and I would end up getting angry and just rant about the immoral political/financial decisions of the various speakers. Surprisingly each and every one of the speakers had an interesting and engaging story to tell. I had always seen these people in their professional roles, treasurer of Australia, leader of the opposition, CEO of a multinational company. Listening to them talk about their motivations however, forced me to see them as individuals each with their own histories and motivations for taking on the positions that they had. Once you start seeing someone as an individual it becomes very difficult to disregard everything they do or say as terrible. You start trying to understand them, and think of ways of working with rather than against them (though that still doesn’t mean you have to go along with or even agree with any of their policies). In my case it also made me feel like quite a mean person for having judged them the way I did.

After an afternoon of serious soul searching, and a complete turnaround in my view of the forum, I finally retired to my room ready for a long night of sleep after having been awake since 5 in the morning. To my surprise, my roommate, though having arrived before me, had left me the ginormous double bed, herself taking the small single bed at the other end of the room. That act of kindness set the tone for the rest of my engagement with the forum.

The next few days besides having lectures and small group sessions, we also had a trip to the war memorial, an afternoon of team-building: playing volleyball and soccer, a community service outing in which my group helped paint furniture at a disabilities centre and helped with animation at a local fayre, and a barn dance. All further solidifying our ties with each other and our confidence in ourselves.

Part of the program also consisted of delegates performing or presenting in front of their peers. One group did the haka, there were a number of people who sang (the music ranging from opera to indie), one guy recited Shakespeare, and another few people showed us Fijian dances. All amazing and great in their own right. However, the presentation that really caught my attention was the Maori prayer shared with us by Levi W. I liked it so much I asked him to send it to me afterwards and he immediately did along with a translation and inspiring commentary.

Whakarongo, whakarongo, whakarongo.
Whakarongo ki te tangi a te manu e karanga nei
Tui, tui tui tuia,
Tuia i runga, Tuia i raro,
Tuia i roto, Tuia i waho,
Tuia i te heretangata.
Ka rongo te po, ka rongo te ao.
Tuia i te kawai whakapapa i heke mai,
I Hawaiki-nui, I Hawaiki-roa, I Hawaiki-pamaomao,
Te hono ki te wairua, Ki te whaiao, Ki te ao marama,
Tihei mauri ora.

Listen, Listen, Listen.
Listen to the cry of the bird that calls
Unite, unite, unite and be one
Unite above, unite below,
Unite within, unite without,
Unite as a people.
Hear this in the dark/night, hear this in the light/night.
Unite in the descent lines from,
Great Hawaiki, Long Hawaiki, Far away Hawaiki,
Joined with the spirit, the glimmering dawn, the world of light,
There is life.

In his view, and I agree with this fully the poem engages with many of the themes of the forum. “It 
talks about the weaving together of people through meaningful relationships, creating something great with new possibilities and countless new realities, out of two ordinary objects: people. We are joined as people, with the spirit (life force), the glimmering dawn (possibilities and potential) and the world of light (that which is).”
He also shed some light on Maori culture for me. Apparently the Maori hold the understanding that there is life in the breath, so in the sharing of the breath we share our selves and our spirits with each other. That is why the final verse: Tihei Mauri Ora – there is life, is such a strong line. It is about the creation of life through the sharing of breath.

There were a number of other inspiring ideas that came up during the speeches. Jihad Dibb’s assertion that active communication and engagement with others as a way of becoming a better leader, Audette Exel’s belief that the best way to lead is to stay true to yourself and be honest with others, and Joseph Assaf’s description of harmony not as an absence of difference but as the coordination thereof, are all examples of this. But for me all of it came back to this one speech, this one idea of people joining together in meaningful relationships, sharing a spirit and through that creating life, creating a culture, and changing the world. That was the speech that defined my weekend; that was the speech that curbed my cynicism; and that is the message I wish to share.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Belgian born but not bred

I've always considered myself a bit of a wanderer.

I was born in Belgium, in a city called Aalst, and for the first year of my life I lived in the bucolic province of East Flanders. Since then I have moved 7 times, lived in 5 countries over 4 continents.
Over my 23 years of travelling the world I have never found a place where I truly belong, no one location where I feel rooted or at home. As a teenager this gave me a sense of pride. At an age where everyone desires to be unique, I had staked my claim to singularity through my travels.
However, as I entered university life and especially post-graduate studies I began to miss the sense of stability that a home could provide.

I often describe my PhD candidature as a kind of limbo. In a sense my thesis is my job. As I am on a scholarship and working within the limitations of a student visa, I am getting paid to research and write on a topic of academic interest. But, at the same time my graduate student experience is removed from much of the experience of those who have left academia and have full time jobs and families. I have yet to figure out what I'll be doing after thesis work, where I'll be doing it, whether I will be living independently, with family, a partner, or a friend. Add to that the common feeling graduate students have of being unworthy of their specialist status. I personally often feel like I am just an imposter, muddling my way through while others achieve greatness in their fields. I am constantly afraid of being found out. As if one day security would come into my office and escort me out, as the administration realised that my acceptance had been a fluke. These thoughts can leave you feeling unsettled and weak. For me this manifests in a kind of homesickness. Only I can't seem to pinpoint the location of the home I seem to be missing. My nostalgia seems to be focused on the experiences others describe to me, rather than any personal memories of a familiar home territory. This realisation often leaves me feeling lost, alone and quite hopeless.
Luckily these episodes never last too long and I always manage to get by with a caring word from a friend or relative. During one of my more recent bouts of sadness, a good friend sent me a link about being a 3rd Culture Kid. Now as I stated above, I always thought of my experiences as unique, separating me from the rest of the world. At the time it helped me justify my cynicism and general teenage angst. However, at the age of 21, hearing that my feelings of marginality and disassociation were a common occurrence was an immense relief. Turns out I wasn't doomed to wander alone, there was an entire host of people engages in parallel wanderings across the world.

So though I may not have a specific place to call home, I have loved ones and memories scattered all over the globe, and my home, along with my heart is scattered among them.