Mindfulness and Anxiety

Have you heard about Mindfulness ? If not where have you been hiding, it’s all the rage and all the cool kids are doing it !

Mindfulness is a concept that the West has borrowed principally from Buddhist meditation practices, and has been popularised over the past 40 years in the west. One of the leading pioneers of mindfulness is Dr Jon Kabat Zinn, who applied the concept of mindfulness to combating stress and anxiety.

He created an eight week program called Mindfulness Based Stress Management (MBSR). Another similar course is called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. These programs have been researched scientifically and found to be very effective in helping to reduce the symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and even chronic pain.


So what exactly is Mindfulness.  Well in a nut shell, mindfulness is method of distancing ourselves from unhelpful thoughts and emotions. Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as “Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment , non-judgmentally”

The benefits of mindfulness includes ;

  • Reduced rumination or worrying
  • Stress reduction
  • Boosts working memory
  • Better focus
  • Less emotional reactivity
  • More cognitive flexibility

You can find out more about the benefits of mindfulness here … Mindfulness Benefits

There is a great TED Talk about Mindfulness here too



How can this help with anxiety ?

Well, the cause of anxiety are our thoughts. Now sometimes our anxiety is useful, and we as humans evolved to have anxiety to keep us safe from harm. However, sometimes our mind can indulge in worry too much and trigger our fight or flight response prematurely. This is akin to the smoke detector being activated in your kitchen by slightly burning some toast.

By learning to adopt a perspective of mindfulness to our thoughts and emotions, we can gradually become less reactive to them, so that we recognise that the issue is just burned toast, and not a real fire.

Getting started with Mindfulness

There are lots of apps around to learn mindfulness, such as Smiling Mind, however in my experience it is establishing a regular mindfulness practice that is the tricky bit. However there is a 4 week online course available for FREE from Monash University, called Mindfulness for Wellbeing & Peak Performance.  I will be doing this course over the next 4 weeks, and writing some posts about my experience, and I’d like to invite you to join me, and share your experiences.

Another option is to learn a couple of mindfulness techniques from singer-songwriter, Jewel ……. right here …. right now.






Making the Most of the Mid-Semester Break

The phrase “All work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy” was recorded as early as 1659 according to Wikipedia, which demonstrates that there has been a strong understanding of the need for work / life balance for almost 500 years.

So when mid-semester break arrives it is really important to not only catch up on overdue projects and assignments, but also to catch up on overdue sleep, exercise and social connections.

Studies in the science of resilience show that if we live in what scientists call an “enriched environment” i.e fun, stimulating, with good nutrition, exercise and company, that we become much more resilient to stress.

Let’s face it, we know that the pressure of study, assignments and exams will be increasing in second half of the semester, so ensuring a good balance of activity, rest and relationships during the semester break  makes sense.

Make the most of the final week of the break by making looking after your wellbeing a priority.


App Review  : Prana Breath

Learning to breathe effectively can dramatically increase your ability to manage stress and perform under pressure, and now you don’t have to even attend that Yoga class to get some breath training.

Prana breath guides you visually to control the ratio of  inhalation to exhalation, which is a simple way of activating the para-sympathetic nervous system, which helps us to calm down and relax.

The makers claim the following benefits, and as a Psychologist and Yoga Teacher I am in agreement, but only if you practice regularly.

+ Improves brain activity: memory, attention, concentration
+ Decreases colds’, migraine and asthma attacks’ frequency
+ Improves the quality of sleep
+ Develops resistance to stress, and physical endurance

Start training now, and you will reap the benefits come exam time !

PranaBreath is available on Android, and a similar app Universal Breathing – Pranayama Lite is available for Iphone



RUOK ? A conversation can change a life.

It’s a very sad fact that on average  8 people take their own life each day in Australia, and for each death, 30 others attempt suicide.

RUOK is a campaign to address the main risk factors of suicide:  Isolation and feeling like a burden to those around them.  The aim is to  increase our awareness of when our friends, family, co-workers or class mates are struggling, and perhaps becoming more withdrawn than normal.   It can feel uncomfortable for us to reach out, but RUOK helps by giving us simple action plan to follow.

1.      Ask RUOK ?

2.     Listen  without judgement

3.     Encourage action  e.g.   seeing a GP or counsellor.

4.     Check in.     Follow up at regular intervals to stay connected, and encourage further action.


NUPSA and the student services team was out and about on campus today spreading the message of RUOK, initiating converstaions  by handing out free fortune cookies to fortunate students.

Checkout the video of them in action here

Just because today is RUOK, does not mean we can’t can’t practice reaching out and asking RUOK throughout the year, today is just a reminder of how important a single conversation could be.  By reaching out you will increase your own self confidence and self esteem, and feel more connected.

We now even have a special bench outside Student Central to remind us to ask too.

Find more details about how to ask RUOK  at https://www.ruok.org.au/how-to-ask

(All photographs courtesy of NUPSA )

Three Good Things

It is common for people to perceive that Psychology is all about mental illness, but this is far from the truth. The field of Clinical Psychology actually started to grow after World war I & II, when many soldiers returned from the war with shell shock ( known at Post Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD nowadays), but there is also a branch of Psychology which focuses on making us better and happier humans. This branch is termed Positive Psychology, and its goal is to help promote “flourishing”.

Flourishing has 3 core features which include; positive emotions,  engagement & interest,  meaning & purpose

Other features of flourishing include;  self-esteem, optimism, resilience, vitality, self-determination and positive relationships.

I’m sure we’d all like a little more flourishing in our lives, and Positive Psychologists have been busy devising practical ways for us to do just that.

One of my favourite Positive Psychology based practices is called 3 Good Things.


3 Good Things : Instructions

Time required = 5-10  minutes/day for at least one week.

Each day for at least one week, write down three things that went well for you that day, and provide an explanation for why they went well. It is important to create a physical record of your items by writing them down; it is not enough simply to do this exercise in your head. The items can be relatively small in importance (e.g., “weather was warm and sunny ”) or relatively large (e.g., “I got an HD”). To make this exercise part of your daily routine, some find that writing before bed is helpful.

As you write, follow these instructions:

  1. Give the event a title (e.g., “received compliment on a project”)
  2. Write down exactly what happened in as much detail as possible, including what you did or said and, if others were involved, what they did or said.
  3. Include how this event made you feel at the time and how this event made you feel later (including now, as you remember it).
  4. Explain what you think caused this event—why it came to pass.
  5. Use whatever writing style you please, and do not worry about perfect grammar and spelling. Use as much detail as you’d like.
  6. If you find yourself focusing on negative feelings, refocus your mind on the good event and the positive feelings that came with it. This can take effort but gets easier with practice and can make a real difference in how you feel.

Try the 3 Good Things Challenge.

Commit to doing the 3 Good Things  exercise for a week and see what difference it makes to your mood and outlook on life.



Excellent Autonomy Day Tips

In the classic 80’s movie, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, starring a very youthful Keanu Reeves, a very profound mantra was born ….. “Be Excellent to each other, and party on dude!”.

I’d like to expand on this great wisdom with a few additional tips to help you maximise your experience of Autonomy Day 🙂


  1. Get Your Priorities Right

We are all at University to get ahead in life, and Uni offers great opportunities for development, both academically and personally.  However, when partying becomes excessive and unsafe, it can have an extremely destructive effect on our studies and often our close relationships too. Uni is a big investment of time and money, and in order to get the best reward for that investment, partying safely is a wise decision to make.

  1. Party Planning

Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company famously said  “When we fail to plan, we plan to fail”.

When it comes to partying, if you choose to use alcohol or other drugs, then the planning parts of your brain are going to take a nap for a while, meaning that it becomes very easy to get caught up in what others are doing, and consuming excessive amounts of intoxicating substances.

Follow the plan Stan …..

  • Make a commitment to enjoy the day, and not write yourself off for the following day
  • Pre-plan how much alcohol or drugs you will use, and stick to it.
  • Set yourself a rule e.g. 1 alcoholic drink per hour, or less.
  • Lastly eat something healthy before you start partying to help absorb the alcohol.


  1. Inbetweeners

A great strategy is to always have a soft drink or water in between any alcoholic drinks. It will help you stay hydrated, save money and save your head pounding the following day.


  1. Know Your Substance

    Apologies for the graphic photo, but ignorance isn’t always bliss


If you are taking party drugs, it is really important to know what is in them. Since they are manufactured illegally, who knows where, by criminal gangs, use only drugs from a trusted source and use a small amount initially,  where ‘recreational’ dose is hard to estimate.


  1. Avoid Rounds and Drinking Games

Drinking games and rounds make it more difficult to stick to a plan, because we get caught up in peer pressure and social conformity.

Avoid getting caught up in a herd mentality.


  1. Be Excellent & Look After Your Mates

Keep an eye on your mates, if you think they seem drunk or are behaving out of character given how much you know they’ve had, they may have had their drink spiked, overdosed or be excessively intoxicated. If your friend is suffering from the effects of alcohol or drugs or needs help, suggestions include:

  • Always dial triple zero (000) for an ambulance in an emergency, or ask uni security to call as they can direct the ambulance on Campus. Don’t avoid calling the ambulance because you’re afraid the police may become involved, as the ambulance officers and security staff’s main consideration is the welfare of the student, and your friend may suffer serious consequences if you delay getting them help.
  • Stay close by your friend and monitor their wellbeing. Offer reassurance.
  • If your friend is unconscious, lay them on their side to reduce the risk of aspirating (breathing in) vomit.
  • If your friends have had too much to drink, encourage them to drink water or eat something. If they have gone somewhere to chill out or sober up check whether they are alone or with someone – are they safe?

7. Exit Strategy

  • Know beforehand how you will get home,
  • make sure you have enough money for a taxi or Uber.
  • If the plan changes, tell your mates where you are going and with whom.
  1. Knowledge is Power
  • Knowledge is Power said Einstein, so the more we know about the substances we take, the more power we have. I’m sure that’s what he meant.
  • Test your knowledge by taking the UON Thrive Survey  which asks questions about your alcohol use and provides you with personalised feedback on your drinking, possible health impacts and how your alcohol use compares to other university students.
  • The University also has a new drug & alcohol resource portal called eCliPSE UON, which provides access to free online treatment programs for students of the University of Newcastle who are wanting to improve with mental health or reduce alcohol or other drug use. eCliPSE allows students to complete some initial questionnaires to receive feedback about their mood and substance use and a recommendation on the most appropriate program. More information about eCliPSE is available at www.uoneclipse.com.au


9.   Take Advantage of the Placebo Effect

The Psychologist in me couldn’t resist mentioning the Placebo Effect in relation to partying safely. Placebo Effect is real physical effect that happens just by expecting something to happen. All pharmaceutical drugs are tested against sugar pills to screen out expectancy ( placebo) vs real effects.

What is very interesting is that there is also an expectancy effect for alcohol, which means that you can still get a feel good effect, even from a non-alcoholic beer, or mocktail.

So try a non-alcohol or low alcohol alternative , the great news is the placebo effect still works even if you know its a placebo.



How Stress Affects The Brain

It’s the start of Semester 2 … Yay !   Hopefully the stresses of last Semester have been forgotten, and perhaps some lessons learned about what not to do.

There are few guarantees in life, death and taxes perhaps, and I might add that the increasing study pressure throughout the next semester is up there too.

So today’s blog post is just a short animation to demonstrate how chronic stress actually affects the brain. Hopefully this will give us a “heads up”  about the importance of managing stress, and later blog posts we’ll explore some pro-active strategies to help keep on top of stress.

Enjoy 🙂


Sleep On It

sleepIt seems like every week there is a different awareness campaign attempting to help us live a healthier and happier life. Paying attention to all these different campaigns can be exhausting, and so it’s timely that from the 3rd July to 9th July it is  Sleep Awareness Week, and we can all get some well earned rest …….. or at least learn about the benefits of good rest.

We all know that we feel better when we get a good night’s sleep, but when we are struggling to fit in study, work, hobbies, social life into our days, often it’s sleep that takes a back seat.

Unfortunately, our brains seem to quite like a good sleep, and if we deprive them for too long problems can emerge. According to the National Sleep Research Project, the record for the longest period without sleep is 18 days, 21 hours, 40 minutes, which was achieved  during a rocking chair marathon. The record holder reported hallucinations, paranoia, blurred vision, slurred speech and memory and concentration lapses, which is perhaps a small price to pay for being crowned a rocking chair marathon champ (not).

BUT seriously folks  ….. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska, the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the Chernobyl nuclear accident have all been attributed to human errors in which sleep-deprivation played a role. Just imagine the damage that lack of sleep could do to your grades !

If we want our brains to operate at high efficiency (generally considered a good thing for learning) then making sure that we get adequate sleep is a high priority. How much sleep individuals need varies depending on a number of factors, especially age, but generally aim for 7 to 9 hours per night. It’s interesting to note that before the electric light bulb was invented, adults slept nine to 10 hours a night. Tennis No 1 Andy Murray claims he gets about the same number of hours per night.



In order to achieve this sleep goal, establish a regular bedtime and waking time, and stopping exposure to electronic screens an hour before bedtime will help you to get to sleep faster, as these screen emit blue light which suppress the sleep hormone melatonin.

The other major sleep disruptor is caffeine, which has a half-life of about 6 hours. That means 6 hours after a cup of tea or coffee, you still have about 50% of the caffeine in your blood stream. This can be a problem if you are drinking caffeine in the late afternoon or evening. If you are feeling drowsy and need a pick me, try taking a quick walk outside instead of reaching for kettle.

The very sensible folk at National Sleep Awareness Week have produced a lovely infographic with some very interesting and useful tips on sleep.


Dry July 2017

drink waterWOW – half way through 2017!

Mid-point in the year is often a good time to press the reset button, a bit like New Year. It can be a good time to reflect on the behaviours we’re using to cope with life’s stresses and think about how healthy they are for our bodies and minds.

Dry July is an initiative that provides an opportunity to experience the health benefits of a month without alcohol with the added benefit of raising funds for people affected by cancer. The great thing about dry July is it gives you an excuse, in the face of social pressure to drink alcohol, to give your body a healthy break from booze.

The idea is to sign up, go booze free in July, get friends/family to sponsor you and in doing so help people affected by cancer. So far 17,577 have signed up and raised over $1.5 million, and many more just abstain from alcohol for a month for the health benefits alone.



With a month off alcohol you’re likely to experience a bunch of health benefits. Enjoy a clearer head, increased energy and productivity levels, a sense of achievement, clearer skin, weight loss and a healthier bank balance.

The ABC : Ask The Doctor has a very interesting and entertaining episode all about Alcohol. Check it out on ABC IVIEW. 

Funds raised go Australian organisations to improve the comfort, care and wellbeing of patients. Check out how it all works on the Dry July webpage.

Here are some resources from the Dry July team to help you during Dry July. There are even some helpful psychologist tips for surviving.

The Dry July team encourage people to drink responsibly all year round and to stick to the recommended daily guidelines for the rest of the year. Those who are heavy drinkers or dependent on alcohol are advised to discuss with their GP before signing up. Make an appointment with a GP at the University Health Service for support.

If you want to discuss your or someone else’s alcohol or other substance use, contact our UON Counselling team on 49216622 or email counselling@newcastle.edu.au Ask a Student Support Advisor to speak to our drug and alcohol counsellor.

The material or views expressed on this Blog are those of the author and do not represent those of the University.  Please report any offensive or improper use of this Blog to RPS@newcastle.edu.au.
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