Fear of Presentations and Meetings
M wanted to be able to deliver effective presentations and contribute confidently in significant meetings. He became very nervous before these events, and tended to stumble; he thought that people switched off when he spoke, that he had no charisma or authority, although he was very bright.
M’s style was very focused around his ‘thinking’ mind; he felt as if he was just a clever brain. His high intelligence had enabled him to progress in his career, but he now needed to harness his emotional range, his physical presence and his personal values, in order to be able to share with others the valuable knowledge and analysis that he had to offer.
We looked at M’s values around his knowledge and its importance, to provide a solid motivation to improve in his weaker area – rather than giving in to the temptation to avoid the meetings and presentations. We used examples from his non-work life to enable him to notice and harness the bodily sensations that accompany a confident delivery style. We explored his emotions of fear and anxiety, and the hormonal responses involved, to convert them into the more positive feeling of nervousness which drives good performance.
M was able to use this work to successfully deliver a presentation to 50 people, and to attend meetings without fear. He has had great feedback. This results from using a holistic approach to counter his original narrow view of his attributes.
D had become pregnant more quickly than she expected, and did not feel ready for her baby. As well as being tired from the physical changes taking place in her body, she was overwhelmed by the practical issues that needed to be addressed, and was worried about how she would balance her baby's needs with her own.
D's coaching gave her the space to confidentially explore her thoughts and feelings about pregnancy and motherhood. We were able to engage her 'thinking brain' to untangle her emotional overwhelm and to accept her physical tiredness. We also looked at the factors that would impact her baby's wellbeing and her own. This led to a clearer understanding of her priorities for herself and her baby, so that she was able to make plans for her delivery, her working life, her living arrangements and her family time.
S had worked for a large corporation for 25 years, and felt she needed a change. She was considering starting her own business, utilising the skills and knowledge she had accumulated in her career. But she was unsure about giving up the security of employment, and about whether her business would be successful.
We explored S's hopes and plans, and also her fears; S had a well developed 'critical voice'. We put together an action plan to enable her to get her business started, and to manage the risks involved. We used this to help S keep on track with the business launch - the coaching provided her with accountability to get things done, when they might otherwise drift or be sabotaged by her critical voice.
Recent Board Promotion
E was recently appointed to Board level and wanted to 'hit the ground running' in her new role. She knew she had the characteristics and experience to perform well, but wanted to have the best possible chance of a good start.
E had a good awareness of emotional intelligence. We leveraged this to explore E's understanding of her peers and her team - their personalities, drivers and concerns. With this understanding, E was able to plan how best to approach her new role, and how to form alliances that would help her succeed.
When a challenging situation arose with a colleague, we used specific techniques to understand the situation from the other person's point of view and to assess options for resolving the conflict. This involved looking also at E's communication style, which needed in some situations to be more structured and persuasive.
E made a success of her new role and, just as importantly, enjoyed it.
Anxiety and 'not fitting in'
L was plagued by anxiety and panic attacks. Interactions with others at work left her agonising over what they thought of her. Her boss had given her feedback that she needed to change her style, but L did not know how to go about this, and the feedback made her feel that she was a failure and could not be herself.
As we explored these worries it became clear that L's family background had left her feeling that she could never be 'good enough' and also that she was relatively introverted. She learned to be less hard on herself and to understand and value her characteristics as an introvert. She was changed by our work - not to fit the expectations of others, but to be her real, unique self. This resolved her anxiety and negative feelings about herself, and enabled her be much happier and effective at work.
Addicted to sweets
S came for help because she felt addicted to sweets and chocolate. She indulged several times a day in secret and the habit was seriously affecting her health and quality of life. We explored S's lifestyle, habits and emotional life, as well as her history with food. S came to understand the influences underlying her reliance on sweets and chocolate. She was able to change not only her habits but also her underlying feeling about these foods, so that she no longer craved them. She can now enjoy them from time to time in moderation, without this feeling like a restriction. She has lost weight, but more importantly is free from what felt like a compulsion.
T wanted to lose weight. In addition to working on tools and information to help her lose weight, we explored her life history to find out what might be driving and perpetuating her over eating. It became clear that some distressing events in her life were still severely affecting her, and we took time to gently revisit these, in a way that she could cope with. Over time these events took on a less distressing shape and became manageable (though important) parts of her life story. T's started to develop hopes and dreams for a different future, and her weight reduced.
Southgate's England - a lesson in leadership
What did Gareth Southgate do to enable his relatively inexperienced team to get to a football World Cup semi final? No doubt there was attention to fitness, tactics, technique, nutrition and a thousand other factors. But there was also a focus on the psychology of performance, both at team and individual level.
We’ve all heard about the work that was done to break the twenty year spell of failure and fear of penalty shoot outs. There was work on: ‘how we do it’ and also ‘how we think about it’. To improve ‘how we do it’ Southgate commissioned research into how England players approached taking penalties. One lesson was that in the past they, and other unsuccessful penalty takers, tended to rush on hearing the referee’s whistle, so he got them to slow down and approach the penalty in a way and at a pace that suited them.
To improve ‘how we think about it’, psychologist Dr Pippa Grange was brought in to work with the mindset of the potential penalty takers. She got them to visualise successful shots. They learned how to ‘own the process’ – approaching the penalty in their own way, a key factor in slowing things down. And they were encouraged to voice their fears about penalties (and other aspects of their performance), and share their vulnerabilities with the team.
The psychological work with the team is also evident in their post match interviews: the players talk of “making our own history” – these men have been helped to set aside the limiting beliefs of the past. They always speak in terms of team success, and credit other team members – there is a team culture of support and trust. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford spoke after the Columbia game of his personal strengths in goal – someone had clearly been working with him to set aside the supposed disadvantage of being relatively short for a goalie, and to focus on his unique talents, build his self belief and bring his ‘best self’ to his game.
Off the pitch Southgate has encouraged a culture of fun and friendship alongside hard work. He himself exudes calm and professionalism, both during matches and in dealing with the media. He clearly respects and supports his players, and they him. He leads by example. The culture that Southgate has fostered - ‘how we do things around here’ - underpins their performance as a team.
It matters what leaders pay attention to. Southgate not only made intelligent use of information to drive change. He also turned his focus to a key area which perhaps had been neglected in the past: the psychological foundations of outstanding team and individual performance.
Southgate’s England is an inspiring example of what can be achieved when leaders pay genuine attention to their people and what they need to succeed.
How a conscientious objector helped us understand dieting
An American Pacifist
Henry Scholberg, known as Cedric, was the child of American missionaries in India. He was influenced by the pacifist philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and believed a non violent approach could achieve political goals. As a young man, he attended university in Illinois, and then became eligible for conscription when he graduated in 1943. As a pacifist, he registered as a conscientious objector and was ordered to join the Civilian Public Service (CPS).
This decision led him to cross paths with Ancel Keys, a physiologist at the University of Minnesota who also advised the US military on health and nutrition. In 1944 Keys embarked on a study into human starvation, the Minnesota Semi Starvation Experiment. At that time, Europe was ravaged by famine as a result of war and Nazi policy, and Keys wanted to understand the effects on human beings of starvation, and how starving people could best be helped – it was known that simply returning to a normal diet often resulted in death.
The study participants were to be drawn from the CPS, and Scholberg was one of hundreds to volunteer. After postings to a conservation camp in Indiana and then to a mental institution in Maryland, Scholberg wanted to do something that required sacrifice. He and 35 other men aged 22 to 33 years old were selected, based on their physical and mental health and predicted ability to get along in a group in difficult conditions. So it was that in the course of 24 weeks Cedric Scholberg lost 20% of his body weight.
The Semi Starvation Experiment
Cedric and the other volunteers did not go straight into food restriction. Keys had designed the experiment to provide baseline data of how the men functioned under normal nutrition conditions. So the first 12 weeks were a control period in which the men received a standard diet of about 3,200 calories each day. They underwent tests of their physical and psychological functioning, designed to provide a picture of each man’s characteristics under normal conditions.
For the next 24 weeks each subject’s nutrition was cut to about 1,560 calories per day. The exact amount was adjusted for each man to achieve a 20-25% loss of body weight. The volunteers were also required to complete work assignments, to keep a personal diary, and to walk 22 miles a week. During this phase the tests were repeated to see what effect the restricted food intake was having on each man.
The next phase was a 12 week managed rehabilitation period, where the men were re-fed in groups with different calorific content and different levels of protein and vitamins. This phase provided information on how best to rehabilitate people after famine.
Finally Cedric and his colleagues had an 8 week period of unrestricted rehabilitation – they were free to eat what they wanted, but their consumption was recorded in detail.
This 56 week period is the only controlled experiment ever conducted into the impact on human beings of food deprivation. Such an experiment probably wouldn’t gain approval today, for ethical reasons.
What can we learn about the effects of food restriction?
The study started in late 1944, and finished after the end of the war. The results were published in 1950, sadly too late to help inform the refeeding approach for Europe’s victims of starvation. Its findings were used, however in later humanitarian work.
But the study had significant findings that are still relevant today, in a very different context – our modern obsession with dieting. As intended, Cedric and his colleagues lost on average 25% of their body weight during the semi starvation period. But, ALL the men, whichever refeeding regime they were on, rapidly put the weight back on when they returned to normal eating. In fact, they ended up weighing up to 10% more than they had before they started the study. And the weight they gained was mostly stored in the form of fat – the men went from having muscly physiques to having more soft and rounded body shapes.
If you have ever wondered why it is so hard to keep off the weight you have lost on a diet, and beaten yourself up for failing to keep it off, you have the answer. And it’s not any failing on your part. The Keys study found that the human body is designed to return to its original weight or higher after food deprivation, and that metabolism changes such that fat storage is prioritised. In other words, dieting can turn your body into a fat creation machine. This is something that the diet industry does not want you to know.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the physiological tests uncovered some really alarming data. There was a massive impact on the volunteers’ hearts – the engine that drives everything our body does. The men experienced a 20% reduction in the size of the heart, and a 50% reduction in heart output. Alongside this there was a 40% reduction in basal metabolic rate – this is the rate at which the body is burning calories and functioning. There were declines in a number of key health markers, including rate of breathing and body temperature; Scholberg and the other volunteers experienced this as a sense of sluggishness and lack of energy.
What is the reason for these dramatic changes? The human body is designed for survival – and when there is not enough fuel to run normally, the body cuts down the work it needs to do. If you are a female dieter, you may have noticed that after a certain point your periods stop – this is your body cutting out non essential reproductive processes to save fuel and keep you alive. Whilst the body can survive in this mode, it is not functioning optimally, and of course, fewer calories are burned.
One of the scientists on the study team was a psychologist, Josef Brozek, and his responsibility was to measure the effects of semi starvation on the volunteers’ mental health. His findings were just as alarming as the physiological measures. The participants suffered severe emotional distress, with depression, hysteria and hypochondria. They lost their sense of self esteem and wellbeing, and became socially withdrawn and hostile.
They lost their sex drive – another example of the body cutting out non essential processes. And the men became obsessed with food – talking about it, planning what they would eat, imagining favourite meals. This obsession continued even after the end of the experiment – the men changed from seeing food as a pleasurable and straightforward aspect of life, to having a distressing fixation about food, almost as if addicted.
Some of the men were driven to actions of self harm, and some could not complete the experiment – two were excluded. Some became so obsessed with food that they broke the terms of the study – they obtained extra food, and binged on it. After binging there was a terrible sense of guilt, and some instances of vomiting to get rid of the sinful excess.
All of this will seem very familiar to those of us who have been on and off diets for years and have been driven to binge. The sense of failure when we break the diet rules, and the compulsion to eat more than we know we need, are overwhelming. People suffering with bulimia will recognise the drive to rid themselves of the food they have eaten.
In the Minnesota study, the men knew this was an experiment into abnormal food restriction - they expected to find it difficult and to have reactions to the deprivation. Sadly, today we blame ourselves when we have these entirely predictable responses to food restriction.
So, when we embark on severe diets, we can expect
to lose weight but put it back on as fat,
over time and multiple diets, to become a fat creation machine, making it increasingly difficult to achieve diet goals
to become obsessed with food, be driven to break the diet and maybe to binge
to blame ourselves for our failure.
What is the alternative?
Some of us do need to lose weight, for health and wellbeing. So, what is the best approach, that can avoid the outcomes identified in the Minnesota experiment? The first thing is that it is important to lose weight slowly – no more than 1 kilo per week – this enables the body to adapt better to the restriction.
To counter the natural human tendency to develop a food obsession, don’t ban any foods - adopt an 80/20 approach. To help with this, focus your planning and recording of food around a period of a week, not each day – then what happens in one single day is not critical.
Exercise is important, but it needs to be the right kind. The ideal is to find something that you enjoy, as this will help you to stick with it, and it will release the feel good endorphins to lift your mood. Avoid the trap of trying to burn ‘extra calories’ through excessive cardio vascular work – this will force your body into fat creation mode. It helps if you can protect and build muscle by doing weight bearing exercise – like squats and lunges, with or without weights.
Most importantly, you need to turn your body into a fat burning machine. For this, your body needs fuel – in the form of regular meals and snacks. You need to eat plenty of protein (fish, meat, pulses, eggs, nuts, cheese) and complex carbohydrates (brown rice, wholemeal bread and pasta, vegetables). These not only fuel your metabolism and keep you feeling satisfied, but also keep your blood sugar levels steady, which counteracts the urge to binge.
There is help if you need it
Sometimes it can be helpful to have support when trying to lose weight and keep it off. I help people who are fed up with yo-yo dieting, binge eating and a feeling of shame and failure. Call me to arrange a free no-obligation call about how I can help you.
Understanding Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are two of the commonest issues for counselling and coaching clients. Both can be extremely distressing and difficult to cope with. People who feel depressed may feel that life is grey and pointless, and may be unable to enjoy their normal activities, sometimes may struggle even to get out of bed. Those suffering with anxiety may find that each day is filled with events that cause cycles of worry and even physical responses like tight chest and rapid breathing.
Clients often feel a deep need to understand the root cause of their suffering. There are many perspectives on this, from ideas around events that may have happened in childhood, to the impact of unhelpful thinking styles, to the chemical balance in the brain.
One approach is to understand that there is rarely one single cause of anxiety or depression. It can be more helpful to look at things in terms of precipitating factors (things that may have contributed to the depression or anxiety starting) and perpetuating factors (things that may be contributing to it continuing). Exploring these factors can be eye-opening, leading to deeper insight into ourselves and our experiences, and to shifts in mood and functioning.
Another simple perspective is the idea of ‘real self’ and ‘mask self’. As we grow up, we develop ways of managing life. We may learn from parents, teachers and other influences that some aspects of us are ‘OK’ and some other aspects ‘not OK’. In response to this, some our ways of managing may involve creating a mask that adjusts or even completely hides our true nature. This ability to present a certain face to the outside world can be very useful – at work for example, we may feel we need to emphasise the part of us that seems competent, professional, maybe even ‘tough’.
The problem comes if the mask self has become our only way of functioning, and is no longer serving us. For example, we may find that we cannot sustain close relationships because the toughness and lack of vulnerability that can be useful at work is also our only way of being in personal life. Often we are not even aware that any kind of mask is there, it may feel like that is who we are. But the discomfort of maintaining a mask self and hiding the true self is felt as anxiety, depression, reliance on drink, food or other substances, or a general sense that things are not OK.
One of the benefits of therapy and coaching is that it helps us to get back in touch with our true selves and to understand what masks may be in place. We then have the choice of giving voice to parts of ourselves that may not have been in evidence for a long time. This process of getting back in touch with who we truly are can overcome the depression or anxiety and help us to live a more fulfilling life.
It can be so hard to know how best to respond when a friend or loved one comes to you in distress. We are empathic, social creatures, and another person's pain can cause the person listening to also feel distressed. This can be so uncomfortable that we become anxious to 'fix' the situation, and we start to offer our advice, or to argue that things aren't so bad. Unfortunately, this is usually not what the person suffering needs.
It is more helpful to really focus on listening to what they want to say, and on showing that you have heard them. It can also be helpful to ask the person what they need from you.
It might be helpful for the person to see a Counsellor, who is skilled in listening and in helping people to work through the issues they are struggling with. Counselling can help with a range of issues including anxiety, low mood, anger, depression and life changes.
The humanistic school of therapy has at its core the idea and belief that each human being is driven toward psychological growth - to be the best version of themselves they can be. Each person has within themselves the capacities and resources to overcome difficulties and move forward. That doesn't mean, of course, that it is easy, and many of us benefit from support to tap into this aspect of ourselves.
The practical implications of this for my work are that I don't see myself as an 'expert' and my clients as less knowledgeable people who must be guided by me. Instead, I see each client as the expert in their own life, whilst I am a person who has experience of supporting people in their work of self development.
Person Centred Approach
Carl Rogers was an American Psychologist of the humanistic school. In the 1950s he did research into which types of therapy were most effective in helping people who needed psychological support and from that research he developed the person centred approach. One of his findings (which has also been found in later research into what works) was that the personal qualities of the therapist, including being non-judgemental and empathic, and the quality of the relationship between therapist and client, are the most important factors in successful therapy.
A key idea in person centred theory is that we all tend to develop 'ways of being' that help us to cope with our lives. These ways of being feel safe and familiar, and become part of 'who we are'. Sometimes, though, we get to a point when we do not feel OK - we may feel anxious, low, depressed, or may be reliant on substances or habits that we sense are not right for us. It's as if some aspect of our way of being, that may have worked well for us, is not serving us any more - although we may not be aware of that, just that we are not OK.
As therapy progresses, we develop new insights into all of this, and start to have more flexibility in how we think, feel and behave. For example, a depressed person whose way of being was to automatically 'do anything for anybody' and to avoid all conflict, may find that they are now more discerning about what they will do, and are able to bring more energy to those things. They feel that they are being more true to themselves. Rogers saw this process as a movement towards the authentic self.
These ideas sit in the back of my mind as I work with a client. At the beginning I cannot know which aspects of the person's way of being might be causing them problems, and I would avoid labelling or commenting. As I explore with the client what is going on for them, and how their life has been, we will notice things and start to wonder what underlies the sense of 'not feeling OK'. We will work together to understand more and to develop more choices around how to respond in different situations and relationships.
Whilst my core model is person centred, I have also trained in other approaches and techniques and bring these into my work when it will be helpful. For example, it is often useful for us to explore your earlier life experiences, as these do impact your current life and relationships. For each of us we often see our earlier life as just 'how it was' and 'normal to me' - but looking at them more deeply often results in new insights which can reduce their power to cause problems in the present day.
Another example is psycho-education - I might explain current thinking and concepts in neuro-science or psychology; sometimes having this understanding of what might be going on can be valuable in promoting self acceptance and wellbeing.
Food, Weight and Eating
I work extensively with people who are struggling with eating disorders, disordered eating and weight problems. Evidence suggests that people with these problems do best with an approach which draws upon a very wide range of techniques. That is why I have trained with the National Centre for Eating Disorders (NCfED), and qualified as a Master Practitioner. The NCfED approach emphasises not only therapeutic counselling but also attention to habits, lifestyle and food history, using cognitive behavioural and NLP techniques.