38. Being nicer to donkeys by not talking their hind legs off.

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 Two people having lunch without smartphones.

Instead of  CBT sessions, the local mental health team are just playing Reasons to Be Cheerful: Part 3, over and over again. The cuts are beginning to bite.

Whenever I hear this song, the dark side of my mind sings an alternative version called Reasons to be Gloomy. (Earthquake in Turkey, Murder in Hackney, KFC…). Actually sad songs are much more uplifting, e.g. Girlfriend In a Coma. I know, I know, its serious.

A kind of Quantitative Easing has increased the supply of words, above and beyond demand for them. With QE, money goes into the economy, but where does it come out? I suspect the answer is HSBC, either that or Poundland in Mexborough.

Something similar is happening with words. Far more of them are being written or spoken, recorded and published. What will be the effect? In the words of John Major, they are probably coming out as ‘froth and bubble’. My argument is that the surplus words are emerging in the form of Chat. There are some obvious examples, like the Chat Show and reality television. Smartphone sales are through the roof. The new media has turned people who were already chatty into right-old-turbo-gobs.

Mostly the message from mental health experts – and BT – has been that it is good to talk. Communication, communication and communication, as Tony Blair didn’t say. But what about the quality? Is everyone, everywhere, just talking too much? Words are everywhere, spoken and written. Metro. Evening Standard. You can’t sell them and you can’t even give them away. People are carrying words round in wheelbarrows. Words are the new hyperinflation. Words are the new carbon footprint. Wordiness is the new Obesity. When word inflation occurs, language loses its meaning and no-one can really say anything properly.

Until finally Ronan Keating says it best when he says nothing at all.

Is verbiage damaging to psychotherapy? If either the client or the therapist seem to be making small talk, we are taught that something has gone wrong. What I look for when people speak is the signal to noise ratio. Certain groups of people use a lot of words where one or two choice words would be enough. I’m thinking priests and politicians. Or Alan Carr, the famous Chatty Man.

The practice nurse went a bit chatty at my recent annual health check. She had much worse health problems than I did. But that’s not the point, is it? That’s something for her and her own health-check-with-the-nurse. Chatty therapists tend to make the mistake of ‘early disclosure’. This is when the therapist gives away a few personal details to get things going. No doubt this is an attempt to break the ice and appear genuine and empathic. Unfortunately another person’s experiences are never that similar to your own, and even if they are, their take on them is different from yours. Even if they have the same take on them, you were there first. It’s a difficult trade off between Empathy and Genuineness, and no-one quite gets it right. In the worse case scenario the therapist will have disclosed his forthcoming trial for manslaughter before the patient has even got his coat off.

OK, the health check revealed that my back is not that bad, compared to yours. I found this out for certain at B and Q when I played my Sick Role Card to request one of the staff to carry some massive bags of compost to the car. As the very obliging man – an early discloser it turned out – struggled with them, he began to tell me about his own back problems, the account growing increasingly horrendous as he shouldered the bags from the giant pile. He’d had several operations and long courses of Physio, dallied with the alternative sector, TENS, hot yoga etc. Sometimes his legs went numb and tingly. In this case he should have disclosed even earlier, and I would have carried the bags myself and counted myself lucky to do so. I’d have taken over his shift if he’d let me. It looks as though B and Q have taken the rule book on disability and turned it inside-out.

Some people are deluded that  the new Iphone collects all our fingerprints and stores them somewhere. Come to think of it, that’s not a delusion, its probably true. It probably knows where you went shopping and what salad dressing you chose. So what?  Finding any serious information in a sea of chatter must be nearly impossible. I feel sorry for the intelligence services trying to look through all this flotsam. A paranoid person perhaps supposes that some kind of task force is working night and day on every aspect of his life, sifting the bins and joining the shredded documents together with hired jigsaw experts. Almost disappointingly, there is no-one out there doing jigsaws with your Santander statement.

No doubt there is an evolutionary advantage offered by garnering, manipulating and disseminating information. Supposedly Tesco made money using the market research that came implicit with their Clubcard scheme. That seems quite a way from spying on people.  They are searching for wood but can see only trees.

Most people’s response to surveillance is that they don’t care. They are not bothered that Barack Obama knows which biscuits they bought. Preferably though he should not get to know that they bought The Ultimate Eighties Power Ballads CD. Barack, it was only £3, please don’t get all superior. Don’t forget you mixed George Osborne up with Jeff Osborne.

Instead of buying a car, I like to ‘build the car’ on the manufacturers websites. Usually the software is clunky, or there is something wrong with Quicktime or Flash, so the virtual car gets abandoned somewhere between the Milano Leather and Heated Support Tights options. Nevertheless, all the carmakers know, or think they know, what car I would specify if I had a better computer or attention span and some money. Is it realistic to think they care, or is such a notion mere grandiosity on my part? Do I expect them to ring any moment from Stuttgart – yes we now have the S class in purple, like you always wanted, should we send it round?

Is there some kind of representation of Me out there in cyberspace, based on my failed online build-a-car projects and grocery purchases? If so it’s hardly a finely sketched personality profile, unless Rorschach testing has moved on a long way. The truth is there is very little use in collecting masses of trivia, whether you are a therapist, a supermarket, or the NSA. Lots of noise, hardly any signal. Experts call it the Alan Carr effect.

In this cacophony of trivial information, there are islands of confidentiality, such as Confession and Psychotherapy. But do any of us really have much that is worth being confidential about? They have heard it all before. People have been plotting revolutions, visiting sex workers and buying Keane albums since history began.

Being a bit of an introvert, I’m wary of the Chatty Person. I know colleagues who never reveal they are psychiatrists to people they meet on a train or plane, to the extent of building an alter ego. It’s difficult for Psychiatrists to build a credible cover story, since they seldom have any experience of other careers. I knew someone who pretended to be a hospital manager, thinking they would know just enough to get by, only to be floored by a question about Lean Sigma or some such jargon, by a busybody from KPMG.

I try to avoid taxis and hairdressers, where the chat can be relentless and searching. Never make the mistake of thinking your hairdresser is not listening to your story, or won’t remember it in detail. Trivial information is hard currency in the world of Chat. Hairdressers are not bound by any rule of confidentiality and will not be struck off any register for talking out of turn. Quite the contrary. Why don’t the security services simply use hairdressers as spies? They’ll get the info one way or another – hot tongs if necessary.

Campaigning for greater secrecy seems ridiculous. Campaigning for Plain English has already been done. Campaigning for real psychotherapy is probably too late, now that Reasons to be Cheerful seems similarly effective. What we need is better editing. This piece, for instance, its much too long.

I once worked for a consultant who never allowed anything to go out that took up more than one side of A4.  And that was even before the invention of bullet points. Along these lines, instead of all the above nonsense, let me summarize as follows:

  • A high signal to noise ratio is vital in effective communication.
  • Barack Obama knows you like James Blunt.
  • Tesco use jigsaw experts to read your mind.
  • Beware the chatty therapist.
  • Wanted for B and Q: strong silent type.
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29. Growing cress heads for no particular reason.

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This morning, the council came to collect the 3 bins I leave outside on Tuesday mornings, and I think they have brought another new bin – to dump your Guilt into. So much better to have it safely disposed of rather than giving it to another person. Guilt just doesn’t compost down.

I’m hoping for more metaphorical bins in the future, now that local government has taken over public health. In hospitals we have sharps containers coloured yellow, which is a safe place to put barbed comments.

Today, just as The Times reported that health checks for the over 40s were a complete waste of money, I received a letter from my local surgery asking me to come in for a health check with the practice nurse.

Though I am a supporter of evidence-based medicine, it took me less than a minute to make myself an appointment. I am also a hypochondriac.

To be honest, evidence-based decision making can conflict with common sense. Everyone knows that a stitch in time saves nine. As far as I know, there is no equal and opposite proverb to cancel this one out. My strict adherence to the evidence based approach probably doesn’t go much deeper than the occasional casting of nasturtiums on the alternative sector.

So many decisions we have to make are based on intuition rather than double blind randomised control trials. For instance, choosing what we eat. I start with the null hypothesis as follows: nothing that you eat – within reason – makes any difference to you. There are occasional bits of conflicting evidence, but in general nothing to disprove the hypothesis, which is based on the sound principle that the human body is a chemical factory.

I have yet to see any convincing evidence for the five fruits a day policy, nor the arbitrary alcohol consumption limit of 21 or 28 units per week. Which leaves me with a bit of a dilemma over what to tell the practice nurse about my lifestyle. I don’t want to come across as a fanatic of any kind. Like an NHS Trust, or Everton FC, its safest to be half way up the league table rather than at the top or bottom. But there is no real ‘gold standard test’ for lifestyle to pass or fail, apart from a few aspects of what we consume.

Like everyone, I find it very difficult to explain the increasing numbers of people who suffer with obesity. I watched a recent documentary attributing this to the corn syrup industry, but was not entirely convinced. Maybe it is a virus or other infection we have yet to identify. The concept of ‘food addiction’ has gained some adherents, certain products turning out to be incredibly ‘more-ish’, such as chocolate, pizza and ice cream.

Since obesity has increased rapidly over the last 30 years, we could attribute it to any or all of the social trends of the last few decades, from computer ownership to the decline of progressive rock. Psychiatrists have made their own contribution, in the form of atypical antipsychotics, which have doubtless added to the lard mountain.

My own hypothesis – no, really my own intuition, is that obesity is inversely related to pottering.

Pottering has been defined as: ‘to busy oneself in a desultory though agreeable manner’. Pottering behaviour should be largely unplanned, enjoyable, unhurried and diverse. Crucially, pottering does not derive from a work ethic, but from a natural tendency to interact with one’s environment. It’s roots are probably in thousands of years of hunting and gathering.

The habit of pottering has been hard hit by lifestyle changes toward electronic media and industrialisation, and away from localism, arts, crafts, hobbies, games and sport. Home made food is fast going the way of home made clothes.

What is surprising is the lack of a response, either from mental health services or the pharmaceutical industry, to the obesity epidemic. Surprisingly, there is a lack of evidence about what treatment to offer.

As anyone knows who has been on one of those treadmills with a calorie counter, you have to run about a thousand miles to counteract the effects of one Mars Bar. So its hard to see how increased activity alone could be the answer.

CBT does embrace ‘behavioural activation’ and ‘activity scheduling’ and mental health services do employ a small number of occupational therapists. We could begin to rehabilitate a pottering based lifestyle, but we need badly to find a new word for ‘potter’. It’s just too old-bloke-in-a-shed-based. And we need new pottering clothes, instead of tracky-bottoms and cardigans.

So here’s my five point plan:

Pottering should be re-named Freestyle Active Behaviour – fabbing, for short.

Village Shows to be re-named ‘Fabathons’

Stella McCartney / Adidas to bring out a new fabbing range, using a tweed / kevlar fabric mix.

A new talent show, called Britain’s got Knitting.

A new ‘more modern’ penthalon event, consisting of: repairing a stuck window, making a cake, learning the saxophone, growing cress in old eggshells with a face drawn on them and visiting granny.

(Yours may be different).

So far, none of this is evidence based, but neither, it seems, is going to the health centre for a check-up.

8. The age of Sprocket Man.

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Is the modern world inherently toxic to our bodily systems? Niall Ferguson included Work Ethic as a killer app for society. It is certainly a killer, but in a more literal sense.

The body uses countless timing devices to regulate itself. Obvious examples are the night and day cycle, the heartbeat and brain waves.

Systems theory teaches us that everything has a point of equilibrium or natural balance. Most things have a natural frequency at which they like to vibrate. Some cars like to cruise at 50 mph, some like to cruise at 90 mph. Generally, the more German the car, the faster it likes to go.

Many systems have a feedback mechanism of some kind that puts them back to their default setting. On the road system, large potholes have been left like landmines to deter overenthusiastic driving.  Inspired by the ‘safety car’ concept in Formula 1, our government has paid an army of older gentlemen to drive at a constant 42mph all over the country, to keep speeds down. As a uniform, they wear trilby hats. These are only worn when actually driving at 42 and never outside the car.

Farmers have received grants from the EU to bring their otherwise redundant farm machinery out onto the major highways at peak times, similarly to check undue haste.

In our neighbourhood we have learned to beware a vehicle we call ‘the Stealth Renault’. Painted black, this innocuous 1980s model is driven by an extremely old person (or a person disguised that way), in second gear at a constant 30 mph. His trick is to give you the impression that he will stop or is stopping at your pedestrian crossing.

He never stops though. Like Sandra Bullock in Speed, he maybe believes a bomb will go off if he drops to 29.

He is a road safety bogey man. He never ratified the green cross code. He is there to teach children never completely to trust traffic lights. He may in fact be a dummy, the car actually being driven by remote control from a university psychology lab, as part of a learned helplessness experiment. Or maybe by the authorities, to keep us a little on our toes.

After all, we may be getting a bit complacent. Such close encounters with terrorists like Stealth Renault are relatively rare nowadays. It is surprising how routine most activities have become. The post office queue stands patiently, First Capital Connect arrives on time, the Sky box records your favourite programs. I appreciate that other societies and parts of the world are different, but the UK, with the possible exception of Doncaster, has adopted a ‘no drama’ policy.

Isaac Newton taught us that every action is met by an equal and opposite reaction. Every time I turn the heating control down another person will come and turn it up to a point slightly higher than it started originally. The body has a similar system in the hypothalamus, which can be used if thermal underwear is not available.

In larger systems, such as the NHS, an attempt to make a change will be resisted with significant force. Employees in large organisations tend to work like small cogs in a gearing system. If the small cog gets out of line the whole gearing system will crush it back into place, a few splines missing, but still turning.

A lot of ‘choice architecture’ is set up this way, large systems with high moment of inertia. Franchised models and low variance operating schedules ensure you will find the same shops and restaurants in every town.

Why not put the Hugo Chavez T shirt away and just coast along with things? People are living longer after all, and the television screens are getting bigger, sharper and cheaper all the time.

Why is it then that so many people seem to be unhappy? A recent survey by Unicef suggested that children in the UK are among the unhappiest people anywhere.

‘Pressured and commercially vulnerable, our kids are the most miserable in the industrialised world’ spoke the Guardian. People have blamed a mixture of possible causes, from inequality to the demise of the nuclear family.

Blur titled an album ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ and I find myself quoting that to people whenever there is a spectacular system failure, such as getting stuck in a 20 mile traffic queue, or trying to pay for parking using a mobile phone.

Another line I find myself saying is ‘everything is relative’. There are many compensations in modern life.
It is the best time ever for ease of communication. Even Captain Kirk did not have a smartphone.

Food is at once the best and the worst it has ever been, depending on whether and how you choose your ingredients. I went to the Turkish part of London yesterday and had an amazing breakfast for £5.

A car made in 2013 is undoubtedly, objectively and measurably superior to a car made in any earlier period. It is faster, stronger, safer and more economical than before, and it is never mustard or beige coloured.

This is probably not the best period for music composing, which peaked in the classical period. But it is the best time for listening to Beethoven or Mozart, or any other music, because we have fabulous sound quality in concert halls and from hi-fi systems.

The best novels ever were probably written in the nineteenth century. But we can read them all free now on a device that weighs half a pound.

The renaissance period gets the prizes for painting and sculpture. But they did not have antibiotics or dentistry.

Teaching was probably better 50 years ago than it is now. And, as we know, History ended in 1989.

Different systems peak at different times. It s hardly likely that all systems will peak at the same time. That’s having your cake and eating it; or finding the M25 is completely clear all the way round.

If you happen to be lucky your system suits your natural frequency, and you will run smoothly. Your system will mesh with other systems and you will spin freely on your bearings.

If you are unlucky, like most UK children apparently, you are not in tune with your system.

For instance we know that children function better if they start school at 10 or 11 am, but our local school makes them start at 8am. The problem for children is that their system runs subordinately to every other system, so that they are made to fit in with adults rather than the other way round. The more your system is subordinated to others the less chance you will be in your own element.

The advancement of the system devoted to economic productivity has marginalised children, along with the old and sick, to the bus replacement services of life.

Children cannot vote, after all. They are just lucky that they don’t have to sweep chimneys any more. Worse than chimneys though, we have breakfast club and afternoon club, not to mention the dreaded school bit in between the clubs.

David Cameron said today that he wanted to place himself on the side ‘of hard working people who want to get on in life’.

What about those people who yearn for a life of recreation and entertainment? Shouldn’t all those machines and mechanised systems have made it possible not to work so much?

A big category of mental health diagnoses is the so called Adjustment Disorders. These come in various forms, including depression and anxiety. They are usually mild and transitory and reflect what many people loosely refer to as stress.

They can be seen as a wrench caused by a change of system, much like ‘frozen points at Guildford’ delayed Reggie Perrin by 11 minutes each morning. If frozen points cause a complete derailment, then the Adjustment Disorder is upgraded to a more serious diagnosis like Depressive Episode. A lot of depressive episodes also seem to follow adverse, or even positive, life events, which have caused a crunching in the gears.

The concept of mental health problems being stress related is attractive and easy to understand. But it only tells a part of the story. Most people are robust when it comes to negotiating changes.

Perhaps they have a wider tolerance to a range of operating conditions, so they are more often in their comfort zone.

A comfort zone is supposed to be a behavioural state where we are happy and confident and working reasonably well.

Some people work on their comfort zone more actively than others. Attributed to golfer Gary Player is the phrase: ‘the harder I practice the luckier I get’. Specifically referring to shots played out of sand, Player mastered the shot to the extent that he was equally comfortable in the bunker as on the grass.

Round about the time Player made that quote, in the sixties, psychologists developed the theory of Learned Helplessness.

Psychology nowadays keeps a bit quiet about these sorts of experiments -suffice it to mention the words electric shocks and dogs.

Later on, with the move from behaviourism to ‘cognitivism’, the negative effects of helplessness turned out to be more to do with a person’s pessimistic explanatory style than the actual experience of not being in control. This led to the idea of hopelessness, and the relationship of that state to suicidal thinking.

The issue is not so much whether we really have control over what happens to us, but more whether we think we do.

Studies in Ireland have shown that patients with Depression like their therapist to take an upbeat and optimistic stance with regard to whether and how much recovery will take place.

I remember a moment when, as junior doctors, we observed the arrival of a very senior colleague, in a severely dilapidated Ford Escort. It was trendy at the time for the psychotherapy – orientated type of psychiatrist to drive ‘crap cars’, such as this one or the Austin Maxi (mustard colour). As we watched, another SHO colleague put this scenario to me:

‘Imagine you’re in the depths of despair. You have been tried on every type of antidepressant. You’ve tried counselling and psychotherapy. You’ve had herbal medicines and homeopathy and transcendental meditation. The GP finally arranges a visit from the leading specialist at the teaching hospital. You watch through the window, and you see in the distance the Professor arrive in his Escort, which has large furry dice dangling from the mirror. Is that not the moment when suicide seems inevitable?’

Harsh perhaps. Equally, people might like to see someone eminent arrive in a non pompous vehicle like a 2CV covered in stickers or an original Beetle with vase. I can’t remember any specific training on what vehicle to drive, although an older colleague insisted that consultants should only ever have Michelin tyres, ‘never Goodyear my boy’.

To return to the point, the feeling of having a choice matters a lot, even if in the wider scheme of things, the biggest choice we really get is between Diet Pepsi and Pepsi.

The comfort zone is largely a place where we choose what happens to us. A lot of people want to move us out of our comfort zone.

It’s true that we will be more productive if we are challenged just a little. Coaches know that a mixture of support and challenge can bring about superior achievement. The same approach can work well in therapy, for instance treating a phobia. If the comfort zone has got too narrow then it needs to be carefully increased.

Unfortunately, in most organisations, the challenge is greater than the support. The pressure is always on to squeeze a little more out of the system. Supermarkets want to get the milk off the farmer for a few pennies less. The farmer turns the cows up to 11, giving them more food, or playing them some Led Zeppelin at milking time.

The effect of the larger and more dominant system on your system is felt as disharmony, or being slightly behind the beat, or as a little ping in the ears. Your system might be different.

Interestingly, this is exactly the kind of disorientated feeling that makes us purchase something – retail therapy – or consume some alcohol – drug therapy. The work ethic is all about ‘must’ ‘should’ and ‘ought to’.

It all depends whether we want to make superior achievements or just be happy with what we have. It’s not a choice we seem to get very often. Even the illusion of choice is worth a lot though. Turkish breakfast. Mozart. Thomas Hardy. And, today I think, Diet Pepsi.

The comfort zone is equivalent to driving at 50mph.

It’s better than 42. It might even be better than 52.

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PS: It looks a bit like this one.