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Mental Health Hacks with Miriam Wood

Miriam Wood is a New Zealand registered psychologist with specialized training in health psychology. She has a fascination with the interaction between our minds, our bodies, and how we can use psychology to improve both. Miriam has worked as a psychologist at the New Zealand District Health Boards for over a decade.

She's worked with people with a range of health problems, including burn injuries,  heart problems, respiratory conditions, pain, and cancer. She's also worked with people coping with life stresses and other problems, such as worry, anxiety, and depression. Miriam enjoys working with organizations on how to apply psychology principles to protect and boost staff wellbeing.

Here she offers a few tricks and mental hacks to improve our overall wellbeing.

Good Change:

I opened up your website when I was doing a little bit of research and I was greeted with the words ‘I try to bring kindness and humor to my work. I love psychology and what it can do for people. So, I try to share that with my clients too.’ Kindness and humor, they are seriously two of my favorite things. Everyone loves to be treated kindly and there's absolutely nothing better than a good old jolly belly laugh. So, tell us a little bit more about this.

Miriam Wood:

For a lot of people, seeing a psychologist or the idea of a psychologist is quite scary.  Seeing a psychologist should be something that is actually helpful and might not always feel great, but feels good for your long-term wellbeing and so I really want to create that comfort for people. I am an evidence and science based practitioner, and we know that kindness is really important for our wellbeing. I talk about kindness to other people because we know that's important, that boosts their wellbeing. It also boosts our own wellbeing when we are being kind. But I also talk about kindness to ourselves. How we can cultivate our inner kindness. That's how I treat myself and how I treat others.

On humor, I think often, psychology can be quite full on when people are coming to psychology sessions, they're normally coming to talk about some difficult things. When we look at psychological techniques, there's often this idea of diffusion techniques, which is how we get a little bit of distance from the situation that we are in. And one of the very best diffusion techniques is actually humor. So how we find that humor in the everyday can be really valuable for us in terms of our wellbeing, having a good laugh, but also getting that distance from some things that we might not need to be so close to and so hold very tightly.

Good Change:

Does it release a little bit of some sort of chemical into your brain when you laugh?

Miriam Wood:

There is a host of physiological changes that happen when we laugh. There’s that wellbeing boost. There's the dopamine, the serotonin that happens. When we laugh, there's also the connection that you get with someone else, cause often when we are having a laugh, we're sharing some humor, it's a shared experience, so we are connecting at the same time. The thing I'm always careful about is that you don't want humor to ever be at someone else's expense, so you don't want to be laughing at someone. It's always around joining together in a collective experience, not at anyone's expense.

Good Change:

So you talk on your website about the "answers". I personally would rather work on my own wellness NOW, and my children's, and create really resilient, strong, courageous humans than have to actually scrape up the pieces at the end. What are your thoughts on this?

Miriam Wood:

Wellness is something that we need to work on rather than it being something that we just get that ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. As a psychologist, I often become involved with individuals or with organizations when we are in that crisis mode because something's happened, people are burnt out and they need some support. We need to be thinking about that wellness a little bit more like we think about fitness. We need to keep exercising to maintain that fitness. So, it's the same with our wellness and our mental wellbeing. We need to keep working at that constantly, and it starts in our childhood.

Good Change:

I know my father always preaches to me from a fitness perspective  ‘You don't get fit. You stay fit’. I totally see where you're coming from and in thinking about my children it starts when you are young. Building that resilience from a really early age and just making sure that they can really push through the tough times. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Miriam Wood:

It's okay to worry, but let's do something with that worry. Or if that worry is carrying on, let's find a different way to manage it. When we tell ourselves, ‘don’t worry’ we kind of go,

‘Oh, that's something bad. Oh, maybe I shouldn't go there with my brain. Oh, but my brain's worried. Oh, now I'm tied up because I'm doing something I shouldn't be doing.’

We worry about our worry. That's often what I see, people who kind of are worried and then they worry that they're worried. Noticing how we educate our children about emotions and being okay with having emotions and then understanding them and knowing what to do with them can be a really good place to start. But there are certainly tips and tricks along the way, and I think we've come a long way even in the last couple of years with how that information is spread. Information is becoming a lot more accessible these days, which is fabulous.

Good Change:

From a depression perspective, John Kirwan’s whole campaign made it a whole lot more public and overt with talking about our feelings.

Miriam Wood:

It's wonderful when people have role models and then resources and then can come and ask for help.

Good Change:

There seems to be a worldwide shift and a drive towards wellness, health, and wellbeing. Why do you think that this has happened in the last few years? I know that obviously Covid is a big reason, but it seems like it’s almost become a business for a lot of people.

Miriam Wood:

There's probably many reasons and the environment that we live in at the moment probably is promoting it. We are in a world where there's climate change, there's crises all around us, and so people are looking for an antidote to that and it is a big industry. When I Googled it, it’s a $4.5 trillion industry. We are being sold wellness and wellbeing in many domains of our lives, and what I would say is that wellbeing isn't necessarily something that you can buy. If you go to a yoga class that can be really great for wellbeing. There's certainly wellbeing things that we can pay for that are great.

Good Change:

In my research. I found the six areas of psychological wellbeing are:

  • Autonomy
  • Environmental Mastery
  • Personal growth
  • Positive relations with others
  • Purpose in life and
  • Self acceptance.

We're obviously not all perfect.  Which of these do you identify as the most pressing one In terms of an area that many of us need to improve on?

Miriam Wood:

There's so many different models to wellbeing. So that model, I feel is quite complicated with big words. Most of our models when we look at wellbeing is that sense of meaning or purpose in life is so important for our psychological wellbeing and for our overall happiness, and I think most of your readers will probably relate to that, that we need to have some reason to get up in the morning, whether it's our role as a parent or a mother or whether it's around a spiritual connection. We need a sense of purpose to drive us, to keep us going. And we know that psychologically that's really important.

Good Change:

I know that in terms of work for me, getting up in the morning and knowing that I've got something really purposeful to do is key because one day the kids are going to leave home. all of us are mothers, but if you've got kids that's sort of the center of your world and knowing that one day they'll leave home, we do need to have something more with purpose  to hold onto to.

Miriam Wood:

I'm really lucky that I've got a career that gives me a sense of purpose. I feel like that's why I became a psychologist, because I wanted to have that sense of making a meaningful difference. But we can make that meaningful difference in so many ways, whether it's through our garden, getting outside and doing sustainable changes. There's so many different purposes that we can connect to. 

Good Change:

Tell us a little bit about a practical strategy that you can offer us for overall psychological wellbeing.

Miriam Wood:

One of the things that I do with a lot of my clients is what I call a wellness plan. This is something that's really useful to do when we are in a good head space. I often do it towards the end of seeing a client if I've seen them for a few sessions and we've kind of got plans and what works for them.

But what you do when you make a wellness plan is write down what are the signs for you that things are maybe about to go South? People that we live with often notice these things almost before we do. When we get insight into what are the signs that things are starting to slip for me, we can then do something about it. Because so often if we are in it, we don't notice. So

  • Write down what are your early warning signs.
  • And then what are your positive coping strategies? What are the things that you have inside of your control to help you cope when things are maybe going a bit South or you're getting a bit more stressed? Because often when we are in that space, when we are tired and stressed and almost can't be bothered, we forget the things that actually help us. So, we either need someone else to say, get out and go for a run. We know you'll feel better. Or if we've written it down in a plan, this wellness plan, then we can look it up and go, ‘that's right. I always feel better when I go for a run’, even though I don't feel like it. The ones that are kind of fake strategies. They're the coping ones that make us think we are coping, but actually are undermining. If we can think about what our good ones are, we can write them down so we don't get tripped up when we're in a bad space or when we are starting to go south.
  • The other thing I'd say to put in a wellness plan is what's something helpful I can say to myself when the pressure's coming on? Just be positive. I often say we don't need to have a mantra that's super positive. For me, the kind of thing that I say is, ‘you've coped with this before. You've got the resources to cope with this’.
  • And then the last thing in a wellness plan is who can you go to for help? You know, write down the names of where you can go for help. Is it your family? Is it a special friend? Is it your gp? Is it a website, Is it a helpline?
  • Have it somewhere that's accessible. Put it on your phone or put it on the fridge. Put it somewhere and make one for everyone in the family.

Good Change:

So you teach other people these practical strategies. Do you follow these yourself? And when you find that you're coming off the wagon, how do you personally pick yourself up? You've kind of covered that off really, but do you have a personal secret

Miriam Wood:

I do not have a personal secret. I am very much a human being. And the wheels fall off from time to time and like everyone else probably reading to this I have a busy life. Knowing the strategies and doing the strategies are two different things and so I think it's around

  • fitness,
  • always being vigilant, always keeping watch and making sure that you're doing what's good for you?
  • prioritize our sleep (7-8 hours in bed or whatever your body needs)

Good Change:

It's interesting because in indigenous communities the wellness is about balance and harmony, and they always tend to sort of focus on the strengths, not the weakness. I find that we live in this world where we are just constantly surrounded by bad news and there's all kinds of badness surrounding us in all directions. How do we sift and sort this absolute explosion of negativity? Nobody really celebrates the good news. It's always the bad.

Miriam Wood:

Often we think of our most important commodity as being our time. We often say ‘Oh, we don't have enough time’. And I think what we need to think about our most important commodity is our attention. So, we have to be really discerning in where we put our attention, feeling like we are taking control of where our attention is going.

Good Change:

How can we teach or what can we teach our children here and now? You've covered off some great tips and hacks, but is their anything what can we be teaching them? The top word on the top of my brain is resilience, but what can we do? What's a practical tip or two that we can teach?

Miriam Wood:

One of the big things is understanding emotions and what they mean. Emotions tell us about our values.

For example, if we didn't care about our health. Then if something happened and we had a symptom for something, we might not feel any anxiety about that because we don't care about our health. But, if we do care about our health, we start to feel worried, ‘oh, what does that stomachache mean? Why is it happening?’ It tells us about what's important. Same with anger. We're feeling angry because something happened that violated some of our values. Maybe we value friendship, and someone has done something that feels like it's not aligned with our values, so we have an emotion of anger. Because of that, I often think about emotions as intel. Intel as to what's important and when. Ask yourself ‘What's our value underpinning that?’ Then we can do something with it. I think teaching our children about emotions can be really powerful for their lives because emotions are really important at teaching us about what's important.

Other thing I'd say about emotions is one of my favorite phrases is name it to tame it. If we give it a name, our brain can make sense of it and then get it under control.

Good Change:

Where do you see the world in 10 years time in terms of psychological wellbeing?

Miriam Wood:

One of the things that I teach my clients is that we are not clairvoyants. Psychologists can't see into the future and I often talk about ‘thinking errors’ which is when we try and predict the future. But normally that's done on a smaller scale. I think that psychologists have been really good at working with individuals, but not always involved in working in the system.  We can have psychological strategies, but actually things start from babies in the womb. Literacy rates will all influence our wellbeing.

Good Change:

What would you suggest are the three things that people can take away to help them improve their overall psychological wellbeing?

Miriam Wood:

Three clear practical steps:

  1. Be kind to yourself - talk to yourself like you would someone that you really cherish, because so often the way that we talk to ourselves in our own head. Is not very nice. Stop if you notice that and say, ‘Would I say this to my friend?’ And if you wouldn't, try and talk to yourself like you would a friend.
  2. Look at your trick coping strategies. (The ones where we reach for the glass of wine, or we get sucked into Netflix for hours or start surfing on our phones. )Ask yourself a question, ‘is this helping or harming my wellbeing?’ Then you can give yourself that opportunity to decide whether your strategy is a trick strategy or whether it's a real one.
  3. Breathe - one of the greatest things that we can control in our physiology is our breath to control anxiety and worry. When we have strong emotions, often we have a physical response. Take the time, where ever you are to breathe, 10 long deep breaths whether you’re sitting on the couch or at the traffic lights.

 

 

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