[Article] Keeping your brain active

During lockdown, I’ve been chatting to my Mum on the phone more regularly than usual. Being over 70, she’s even more restricted than me in her daily activities. We’ve discussed a lot of different topics in the last three months and there is one subject that keeps recurring:

How do you keep your brain active if you can’t go out and get some exercise? We know that physical exercise is one of the best ways to protect your cognitive health, but when it’s been pouring with rain for a week and you can’t even go and push a trolley round the supermarket, what can you do?

It’s a serious question for many people. Isolation is putting a strain on mental health, we don’t want to add cognitive decline due to inactivity to our list of woes. Doing the crossword or logic puzzles can help, but we know that what really stimulates the brain is new experience and movement.

Which took me back to some work I did with my friend Jane Battenberg (www.changewithin.com)…

If you’ve been reading my newsletters for a long time you may remember some years ago Jane ran a couple of workshops for me around the subject of neural plasticity and its uses in coaching. She devised some wonderful exercises, many involving activities done with the non-preferred hand.

So, discussing this with Mum, we came to the conclusion that simply doing normal everyday tasks with the non-preferred hand could be good exercise for the brain. Mum’s somewhat ambidextrous – she’s always been able to write legibly with either hand, so we assumed that some tasks would be more challenging than others.

The next day, she reported that she’d washed up with the ‘wrong’ hand without any damage to the china or glassware. She’d also attempted to brush her teeth with her left hand and found that much more difficult. However, she did say that it made her laugh so much that she had to stop even trying to brush her teeth for a few minutes and I figured that had to be a good thing.

Now, I’m left-handed and also somewhat ambidextrous, so I thought that brushing my teeth with my right hand wouldn’t be a big deal. But I had to have a go! It wasn’t really difficult and I thought I was doing quite well, until I noticed that my left hand wouldn’t keep still. Every movement I made with my right hand was being mirrored by my left. It was almost as if my left hand was saying ‘oh, give it to me!’

This reduced me to fits of giggles. Again, I figured that had to be a good thing. We can all do with something to laugh about just now.

I’m still practising brushing my teeth with my right hand AND keeping my left hand still at the same time. Not easy, but if it’s giving my brain a workout and making me laugh (not to mention sparkling teeth!) then it’s got to be a good thing.

Over to you – are you up for the challenge? Can you brush your teeth with your non-preferred hand? Does it make you laugh?

I’d love to hear how you get on.

[Article] Lessons from Lockdown

It’s not over yet, but the lockdown that has seen millions of people all over the world confined to their homes for weeks on end has been eased in the UK and I’m happy to see that our friends and colleagues in many other countries are gradually regaining the freedom to leave their homes and spend time together.

In the early stages, psychological models relating to change, grief and uncertainty were relevant.  People went through predictable, but no less painful, experiences of shock, denial, emotional outbursts, depression and anxiety as the threat of Covid-19 led to governments around the globe imposing social distancing measures and the ‘stay at home’ directives that we came to know as ‘lockdown’.

It seems impossible to me that anything will return entirely to what we think of as ‘normal’.  We have been changed by this experience, individually, collectively and indelibly.  The nature of these changes, however, is different for each person and for each community, each organisation and each nation.

As I write, emotions are running high in communities, countries and on-line as the world reacts to the news of the death of George Floyd in police custody.  When I stand back from the emotions and view the scenes as a psychologist, I can’t help thinking that the weeks of lockdown are contributing to the depth of feeling about Black Lives Matter.  Those weeks of lockdown have affected everyone.

I live alone.  I’m accustomed to days I spend alone, working in my home office.

I’m not accustomed to whole weeks, months where I am ‘home alone’ and can’t go out.

As I’ve made my way through weeks of enforced isolation and a long list of ‘lockdown projects’ my mind flits between the experience and the analysis of the experience.  In NLP terms, I’m switching between 1st and 3rd positions.  At times I’ve been fascinated by my own – and other people’s – reactions to the situation, and at times I’ve simply been reacting.

So what have I learned?

  1. I’ve learned… that although we have all, in theory, been subjected to the same rules each person has had a different experience of ‘lockdown’.  If you have been at home with your family your experience will have been very different from mine.  Stressful for different reasons, enjoyable for different reasons.  People who are working at home have a different experience from those on furlough, which is different again from the ‘key workers’ who have been going to work as usual but dealing with unusual events. Lockdown means something different to each person.
  2. I’ve learned… that the experience and how we feel about it changes on an almost daily basis. The routine that felt satisfying and productive one day can feel constraining and pointless on another.  For no apparent reason, the whole situation can suddenly feel intolerable.  On another day it feels like a gift – a time to rest and re-think.  All of these reactions are valid.
  3. I’ve learned… that human beings are social animals and it’s not good for us to be isolated. There is a reason why solitary confinement is regarded as the most severe form of punishment.  It’s important we take care of our mental health as well as our physical well-being.  Pretending everything is ok and I’m coping isn’t a good strategy on days when I’m not.
  4. I’ve learned… that hugs are an important and necessary part of life. (I thought I knew that, but I know it in a new way now)
  5. I’ve learned… that the telephone is a wonderful invention and hearing the sound of your loved ones’ voices is precious.
  6. I’ve learned… that video conferencing is a great tool for all kinds of virtual social interaction – in the absence of REAL social interaction.
  7. I’ve learned… that some businesses have reported quicker, more focused and more productive meetings via video conference. Some workers are finding it easier to focus on individual tasks when working from home.  Some companies say that working from home has increased trust – in both directions – between workers and management.
  8. I’ve learned… that you cannot make eye contact on a video conference. That moment in a face-to-face meeting when you catch the eye of a colleague and affirm that your thinking is aligned on this issue?  It’s impossible via video conference.  You are alone.  No-one knows who’s looking at whom and you can’t create a private glance of complicity.
  9. I’ve learned… (the hard way) that days of back-to-back video meetings are even more exhausting than days of back-to-back meetings in person. Experts suggest that the extra concentration required to pick up non-verbal signals and the stress of constantly seeing yourself on screen contribute to this.
  10. I’ve learned… that I’m a reasonably good cook but my repertoire is in need of enhancement. I’m really looking forward to being able to visit a restaurant and enjoy a meal I didn’t have to cook myself. Even more, I’m looking forward to eating meals with friends and family.
  11. I’ve learned… (almost) that when the situation in my ‘locus of concern’ is hard to understand, fraught with uncertainty and full of emotion, my best strategy is to focus on my ‘locus of control’. When the going gets tough, I work on my projects.  I wrote my list of ‘lockdown projects’ in the early weeks, when it became clear that normal life was on hold for the duration.  I considered taking a rest.  The idea of metaphorically putting my feet up and resting for three months had a certain appeal (especially when I was still recovering from what was probably The Virus) but when I thought about the future I realised I wanted to be able to look back on this time and remember it with some fondness or pride in what I had achieved.  I knew I didn’t want to see it as a wasted opportunity.  So I’ve been working on all the ‘one day’ projects.
  12. I’ve relearned… that human beings are adaptable. Already, the ideas of going out to a bar or coffee shop, or inviting your friends over for a party seem almost unthinkable.  The return to some form of normality in terms of going out of the house and interacting with other people may be as disruptive for some as the original lockdown.  But after everything we’ve experienced over the past few months, I think we’re up to the challenge!

What have you learned, or re-learned, during lockdown?  I’d love to hear what insights you’ve been having.

[Video] Secrets of successful group training

I recently read a piece of research that suggested that group training programmes just don’t work – that they are ineffective and fail to deliver on the objectives that they were designed to fulfil. Now you can imagine, for me, that was quite disappointing research to read. Because my experience is that group training is actually a great experience for people and usually does deliver on exactly what it was designed to achieve.

So it got me thinking about why some training programmes might not work, when others do. And to be honest, most of what I came up with is nothing to do with what the trainers are doing, and very little to do with the content of the workshop. It’s actually all to do with the way it’s set up…