Selective Abstraction in Action

There was a lovely example of the thinking error “selective abstraction” on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. They were discussing criticisms of the BBC’s coverage of the Royal Jubilee Flotilla, in particular with regard to the inclusion of an item about sick bags illustrated with images of the royal family. The person defending the BBC said that it was not fair to focus on one item and use this to condemn the whole show.

Incidentally, while on the subject of the Today programme, I think that John Humphrys is an exemplary exponent of Socratic questioning – he has an endearing curiosity that encourages his interviewees to examine and explain their thinking about the topic under discussion, cutting through attempts at glibness and obfuscation.

Ruminations on respiration

Further to my ruminations about dentistry, I can report that this week I was provided with a new excuse for cancelling an appointment with me. My client left a message to say that our appointment clashed with a hospital appointment regarding her breathing.

I have to concede that breathing is probably a more important function than thinking. It is also something that we try to help our clients understand better so they can control the hyperventilation that is part of a panic attack, and we use breathing exercises – such as diaphragmatic breathing– to help clients reduce their levels of anxiety and arousal.

Emotional plumbing

It is sometimes difficult to help clients understand that the first priority is to tackle the day to day episodes of emotional distress they experience before trying to work on aspects of their early life that might be underlying their current difficulties.

It is like dealing with a plumbing emergency. The first task is to stop the water gushing out of the pipe. This is the equivalent of using mood management stategies in the heat of the moment to control the emotional flow. Only then can we begin to look at the system as a whole to understand what is causing the pressure to build up – the equivalent of identifying the factors that contribute to a person’s emotional vulnerability.

You should see me in action with my cognitive wrench!

Ruminations on dentistry

An unusual title maybe, but there is a link. Ruminating is both a psychological and oral activity. My (psychological) ruminations were triggered by a message I received from a client who had decided to visit his dentist instead of his psychologist. How bad must it be to prefer visiting your dentist rather than your psychologist?!

I am guilty of a classic thinking error – personalisation. I am sure that my client’s dental pain far outweighed his mental pain on this occasion. As a psychologist, I try to promote mental hygiene and recommend regular mental flossing to remove the detritus of the day.


One of my clients described how in a moment of anger she threw the decorative solitaire set across the room. She said she had to spend a long time the following day searching for all the marbles. Luckily she appreciated my observation that she brought a new meaning to the phrase “losing your marbles”.

Twigs and Fishes

It seems that many people with mental health problems have either lost the sense of having control over important aspects of their lives or never learnt how to achieve this in the first place.

I remember playing “Pooh sticks” as a young child, although at the time I did  not know that was the name of the game – even though I spent long periods of my early years in and around Ashdown Forest, home of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. My sister and I would drop our sticks from one side of the bridge and then race to the other side to see whose stick came through first, carried by the current of the stream.

It was this image that came to me in a recent session with a client. For the game to work, you have to drop the sticks on the upstream side of the bridge. For some people, their tragic start in life means they will never effectively be in the game, being dropped from the wrong side of the bridge.

Twigs have no agency, they are carried by the currents and their progress is impeded by rocks, other twgs and bigger branches. There are times when we all feel like twigs, especially in relation to current affairs (!) such as the global economic crisis. It is a matter of degree – for some people, it seems that they are more often twigs than not.

Fish do have agency, they can swim against the currents when they wish or they can literally go with the flow.  Fish wishes?!

It is important to recognise when we are in twig mode and when we are in fish mode. It is also important to know that we can change from a twig to a fish –  by some kind of strange metamorphis – when the situation demands. In psychological terms, it may be that the twig mode is the default setting for depression, where there is often a strong sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Alcohol Free Days

Some useful advice from a scientific Parliamentary committee. It has always been the case  that the guidelines for safer drinking recommended having alcohol-free days during the week and Scotland already have this as part of their official guidelines.

The two alcohol-free days gives the liver a rest from having to metabolise alcohol and is a protection against developing physical dependence on alcohol. The peak effects of withdrawal symptoms from alcohol in a dependent drinker occur about 48 hours after the last drink, and these can be life-threatening in some cases.  If you set this as a target but are unable to keep to it, then this in itself might be a warning that alcohol has assumed a greater importance in your life than you perhaps realised.