Posted in Life & Happiness

Fork Theory

The Spoon Theory discusses our reserve for the amount of positive energy we have to give away, until we run out, crash and burn. This is a useful analogy describing the “fuel” we have to cope with life’s demands, but does not address the “damage” that we accumulate on a day-to-day basis.

The Fork Theory is an eloquent, complementary theory to the Spoon Theory to visualise the effect of stress and annoyances on our mental health on a day-to-day basis.

Unlike spoons which we give away from a collection throughout the course of a day, forks are negative experiences and events that we accumulate over the day. We are stabbed with various forks day-by-day. Some are tiny, such as stepping on a Lego block or finding out that you’re out of milk. Some are giant pitchforks, such as finding out that your partner is cheating on you or being diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Whatever the size of the fork may be, the damage from each fork accumulates until you reach a personal threshold.

Much like running out of spoons, when we are stabbed by the last fork that breaks our threshold, we stop functioning normally. This may manifest as breaking down in tears, a rage-filled tantrum or engaging in self-destructive behaviour.

From the perspective of those around us, it may seem as if we are being triggered by the smallest thing, such as seemingly breaking down because a jar won’t open. But forks are invisible to others; only we can see and feel their effects. Therefore, no one can truly know how many forks a person has had to endure before they cannot take any more forks.

The Fork Theory helps us understand (others and ourselves) why we can be so reactive or sensitive at times. As much as we try to be proactive instead of reactive, there will be days when a small annoyance, such as our partner forgetting something insignificant or a slight delay, can set us off down a spiral of anxiety, depression and frustration. It is important to know that the reaction is likely to the total accumulation of forks, rather than to the final, individual fork.

Ergo, the way we should address forks is to remove as many forks as possible to reduce the burden on our mental health. We all know that smaller forks are easier to deal with than larger forks. It is much easier resolving your hunger or cleaning the room than paying off your mortgage or attending therapy to heal old traumas. By clearing away the small forks wherever we can, we create more room and emotional capacity to handle the tougher, more painful forks, while giving us a buffer for any new forks headed our way.

For example, let’s say your partner comes home from work and you tell them that you would like to talk to them about a financial issue that you two are facing currently. Your partner acknowledges you, but also proceeds to head directly to the kitchen to eat a sandwich. You are perplexed by this action: are they blatantly trying to ignore you, or suggesting that you and the household’s finances are a lower priority than a mere sandwich?

If we apply the Fork Theory, we may react less angrily. Perhaps our partner is exhausted from work and starving because they missed their lunch, while already being stressed from the economy being down. We have just stabbed them with a large fork that is financial stress, so our partner may be taking a completely healthy, rational step to remove a smaller fork such as satisfying their hunger, so that they have a greater reserve to deal with the new fork, preventing a threshold being breached and causing a breakdown.

If the Spoon Theory teaches us that we must be mindful of how much reserve we have left to give out, the Fork Theory teaches us how to better manage our woes so that we can survive each day, while facing new challenges that life throws our way.

Posted in Life & Happiness, Special Long Essays

Serenity Prayer

In the early 20th century, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a prayer preaching about how one should approach hardship. The most well-known version of the prayer goes:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

Regardless of whether one is religious or not, this prayer is very helpful as it highlights and beautifully summarises the philosophy of fighting for change and also radical acceptance. It has since been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous for their twelve-step recovery program and is often quoted in self-help and well-being texts and courses.

When we are faced with hardship or a stressful situation, our brain may easily default to fighting against it. We may go into denial, find something to blame, judge the situation, or simply lash out with anger and frustration. We may even choose to give up completely and flee from the situation, sometimes withdrawing into ourselves to protect our fragile egos.

But these are all destructive behaviours secondary to our primal fight-or-flight response that end up wasting our time and energy. It is driven by adrenaline, base emotions and instincts, meaning that it is crude, unrefined and can be harmful to our long-term mental health.

When we are unhappy with a situation, we will often have the power to change things for the better, even if we don’t see it at the time. We could address a problem directly by communicating our concerns with a colleague or asking for a promotion. We could change how we are behaving, such as trying a more assertive rather than aggressive tone, or using the tit-for-tat approach so that we are not too hostile or too much of a doormat. We could re-prioritise our life so that we have a better work-life balance, such as taking more leave so that we can destress and reset. We could alter our environment by leading a change in culture or moving jobs or cities (although geographic solutions are never a great answer). We could also change how we respond to our environment, such as learning self-soothing or grounding exercises to calm our unsettled headspace and feelings.

We often forget that we have the power to change things for the better because we get so caught up in stress and chaos, or because we don’t trust or believe in ourselves enough. This is why the first step of the Serenity Prayer is to stop and think about how we can improve the situation by changing what we can. Because some things such as love, happiness, our identities, our self-worth and our well-being are all worth fighting for.

Then again, there are some things we just can’t change, no matter how hard we fight. The beauty of the Serenity Prayer is that it acknowledges reality for what it is: we can’t always get what we want and we can’t win every battle. That’s just life. So instead of throwing ourselves against a brick wall – causing suffering and feeling powerless – we can choose to accept our situation. This is the concept of radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance is not the same as giving up. It is a non-judgemental view of the world, accepting that bad things happen sometimes without any specific reason. Instead of entering a spiral of anger, frustration or despair, we can choose to be mindful of our emotions, let ourselves feel them, but also recognise that they are not permanent and this moment – no matter how hard it feels now – will pass. It is an active choice to accept our situation rather than waste mental and emotional energy. You may not approve of the situation, but you accept that you cannot change it, so you must change your perspective and state of mind instead.

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)

A good example of how the Serenity Prayer can help in daily life is when you are stuck in traffic. You could choose to rage at the car in front of you for their bad driving, rage at the city council for poor planning, or rage at the world for your misfortune, but this does literally nothing to help your situation. Instead, you can recognise that this is frustrating, then let that feeling pass so you can think of how to better use your time and energy. You can call in to let your boss know that you will be late. You can think of alternative routes that might help you shave some time. You can make a note to remind your future self to leave earlier or use a different route next time.

But if you can’t shorten the time that you are in traffic, then you can accept the situation for what it is. Now, you can use your mental energy doing and thinking about things you enjoy, rather than letting yourself be consumed by your emotions. You can listen to a podcast you had been meaning to listen to for a while. You can do some breathing exercises and meditate. You can start planning that pet project you were thinking about for some time. You’ll still be late to wherever you were going, but at least you’ll feel more settled and productive rather than having built-up anger and anxiety, ruining the rest of your fine day.

The simplicity of the Serenity Prayer means that it is applicable in almost all aspects of your life. For example, if you feel that you are unhappy with your relationship with your partner, friend or family, then you can do the same thing.

  • Explore your feelings and why you may be feeling them.
  • Ask yourself what negative, probably untrue stories you are telling yourself.
  • If you identify a specific problem, try to solve it using different strategies, such as talking to them, reaching out first or changing your own behaviours.
  • If it is an issue of self-esteem, read about how to improve your own mental health through positive psychology.
  • If you have exhausted all of the tactics and efforts to improve the situation to no avail, then either consider a drastic change such as investing less emotional energy into that relationship, or radically accept the situation.

It could be that you are asking too much of your partner – to be your best friend, lover, father, househusband and support person – and you have to accept that one person cannot fill every role perfectly. It could be that your friendship with a friend is of a fun nature, not a supportive nature. It could be that you and your mother will never truly be friends or understand each other fully, but it does not change that you love and care for each other. Change what you can; accept what you cannot.

Over time, practising the Serenity Prayer in your approach to daily problems will train you to be more mindful of your feelings, analyse situations rationally and help you to be level-headed and calm in critical situations because you will think less reactively and emotionally. Whether you are religious or not, the Serenity Prayer is a simple yet powerful tool in improving the quality of your life and well-being.

Posted in Science & Nature

Oobleck

If you mix 1 part water to 1.5-2 part corn starch, you create a strange mixture called “oobleck“, named after a Dr. Seuss story. It is so simple to make, yet it exhibits some very strange properties that makes it a popular science experiment.

Oobleck is what is known as a non-Newtonian fluid, where the viscosity (or “thickness”) changes with how much stress it is under. If you press your finger gently into it, it will feel like water, but if you strike it with a hammer, it will behave as a solid. It will stiffen when you stir it, but run when you swirl it.

Related image

You can even run over a tub of oobleck as long as you change steps quickly enough to apply enough pressure to keep the fluid under your feet solid. This is because oobleck becomes very viscous under high stress, making it behave more solidly (shear thickening).

We can learn from oobleck not only some interesting physics principles, but also how to interact with people.

Much like a non-Newtonian fluid, people will tend to react stiffly and with more resistance if you apply stress or force. But if you apply gentle pressure and be assertive, you will find people generally react more softly and fluidly.

This simple change in your approach will lead to much better conflict resolution and constructive outcomes when dealing with other people.

Image result for oobleck run gif

Posted in Life & Happiness

Spirals

You see an attractive person.
You think about approaching them to talk with them.
You toy with the idea of asking them out for a coffee.
You worry that they will be offended by your forwardness.
You feel certain that they would never say yes because you are unattractive.
You become sad that you will never find love and will die alone.
As all of these thoughts race through your head, the person walks past you and carries on with their day, oblivious to your internal torment.

This is a classic example of a negative thought spiral. Our brains are experts of association. But unfortunately, they are also experts of worrying. Evolution has trained us to be prepared for all emergencies with a state-of-the-art fight-or-flight system, which unfortunately is more useful for fleeing from lions than the stresses of modern life.

Because of our anxieties and stress, a fleeting, negative intrusive thought can spark a chain of negative thoughts, spiralling infinitely tighter and tighter as we catastrophise and despair.

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to rescue yourself from a negative thought spiral.

The first is to recognise that you are in a spiral. A person walking down a spiral road may think that they are walking down a straight road, because they cannot see the bigger picture. This is why it is important to be mindful of your mental state. How are you feeling? What is making you feel this way? How are these feelings affecting your thoughts?

Sometimes, the sheer process of recognising a spiral lets you snap out of it. You may notice obvious rational answers to your anxiety. Perhaps your partner is not texting back because they are busy at work, not because they died in a fiery car crash.

Failing this, we can try grounding exercises. This is a classic distraction technique where by focussing and anchoring yourself on the present, you can escape the spiral.
This may range from simple breathing exercises, to more detailed mindfulness exercises such as the five senses meditation.

Lastly, remember to be kind to yourself. Do not let the spiral be cruel to you. When the spiral tells you that you are worthless, correct them by telling yourself that you are worth it. Talk to yourself as you would to someone you love dearly. As important it is to have other people to rely on for compassion and love, it is so difficult to escape these spirals if we do not show ourselves compassion and love.

Contrary to what we have discussed, not all spirals are bad. To quote John Green:

“Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out.”

When you are mindful of your thoughts, you will notice the occasional positive thought spirals. For example, you may have a sudden thought that you might want to travel on your own. You might come up with a gift idea for a friend that you think they might appreciate, despite how cheesy it is. Sometimes, these thoughts become seeds that grow out into more elaborate ideas and plans.

These are the kinds of spirals you should listen to, as it is your subconscious prompting you to take action in your pursuit of happiness. As long as it does not harm you or others, you should follow these spirals outwards, as they may lead you to an infinitely wonderful place.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

The Importance Of Television

Fire is considered one of the most important discoveries in the history of our species. Since the dawn of time, it has provided us with warmth, light, cooked food and the power to invent even more things.

We can see how important fire was to our ancestors from how integral it was within a house.
In prehistoric times, there would always be a fire at the centre of a cave or hut, where the family could gather around for warmth and light. Here, they would warm themselves on a cold winter’s day and cook meat that they hunted during the day to tenderise it.

Unlike the old days, we no longer have open fires in the house. Instead, fire has been split into three different forms.

  • Instead of huddling around an open fire for warmth, we have boilers and hot water cylinders to warm our houses.
  • Instead of cooking our food over a campfire, we have gas or electric stoves and ovens.
  • Instead of the flickering flames providing us with light and distraction, we have television and computers.

Of course, we still have fireplaces, barbeques and candles, but the modern person tends to rely more on modernised versions of fire.

An interesting takeaway from this theory is how television is the modern form of the psychological comfort that fire provided us. In prehistoric times, people would struggle to stay alive, running from predators and hunting to feed the family. Looking at the fire mindlessly at the end of a hard day’s work would have been a way to destress and unwind.

Nowadays, most of us are lucky enough to not have to fear death on a day-to-day basis, but we still suffer constant stress from the busy modern life. Perhaps sitting in front of a television or computer to procrastinate for half an hour is not the worst thing in the world.

That said, everything should be done in moderation. It is good to relax for a set amount of time, but if you spent every evening after work staring at a screen without an original thought, your mind will dull and atrophy.

So, it is good to balance out the mindless entertainment such as comedy or reality shows with films that provoke thoughts and emotions, documentaries that provide you with knowledge, and shows that stimulate your creativity.

Most importantly, what you think and feel and learn after watching these should act as fodder for conversations that help deepen your connection with other people.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Voodoo Death

We inherently fear death. Much of what we do biologically is struggling against death. We eat and drink to sustain ourselves. We feel pain to avoid things that may eventually kill us. Even moments before our death, our brain will flash our life before our eyes to grasp at any past experiences that may help us survive.

Because of this, we are also inherently neurotic. Some fear flying in a plane because they can imagine the plane crashing and burning, even knowing that flying is safer than a car ride. Childhood traumas where we thought we might die cause long-lasting damage to how we behave and think as an adult.

The most interesting example of how the fear of death can affect us is the phenomenon of voodoo death.

American physiologist Walter Cannon published a paper in 1942 studying cases of “voodoo death” – where healthy people (usually from tribal societies) suddenly passed away after being cursed. Voodoo death starts when a person is cursed or condemned to die by a medical person, such as a witch doctor or shaman. The victim and those around them must believe that the curse will actuall kill them (due to the culture or tradition). The victim’s family may even prepare a funeral. The victim loses all hope that they can survive the curse. They then die, even though their body shows no signs of physical ailment.

For example, the Australian Aborigines are known to have practised “boning”, where a witch doctor would point a vexed bone at an enemy, causing the victim to immediately convulse and die. A Nairobi woman passed away within 24 hours of finding out that the fruit she ate was sacred and she committed a great sin. A Maori man, who was told he should never eat wild game meat, died a day after finding out that he had accidentally eaten wild game meat – even though he had eaten in 2 years ago.

Voodoo death is not only limited to pre-modern societies. In the 1990’s, there was a documented case where a patient was diagnosed with terminal metastatic oesophageal cancer. After saying his goodbyes to his family as were his last wishes, he swiftly passed away. On autopsy, they discovered that the cancer had not actually spread that much and was not the cause of death.

There are many theories as to what may cause voodoo death. The traditional thought was that intense fear and stress stimulates the release of catecholamines such as adrenaline, inducing a massive fight-or-flight response, as seen in broken heart syndrome. The surge of adrenaline causes the heart to beat too fast and too strongly, until it gives out and causes cardiac arrest.

However, more recent studies showed that animals that die from stress exhibit signs of the opposite happening – that is, the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the common type of fainting spells called vasovagal syncope) is overactive. Because the parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect to the sympathetic (fight-or-flight), it can cause the heart to slow to the point of stopping.

This parasympathetic overactivity may be triggered by a sense of absolute hopelessness, essentially causing the body to “give up” on life. On a related note, the hopeless victim will likely not be eating or drinking much while under extreme emotional duress, so dehydration and catatonia may play a role as well.

Voodoo death is an excellent example of how much power the mind has over the body. Ironically, the fear of death itself can cause death.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Weekend

Which do you enjoy more: Saturday or Sunday?

Most people working a standard Monday to Friday, 9-to-5 job will say that they prefer Saturdays. A common reason is that Saturdays begin after a fun or relaxing Friday night and a bit of a sleep in. Then, you can do whatever you want for the whole day, even if it means staying up late as you have another day to rest.

On the other hand, Sundays start with a relaxing morning, but followed by the stressful thought of having to return to work on the dreaded Monday.

Simply put, Saturday feels better than Sunday because we don’t have a Monday hanging over our heads. But why should this be the case?
Technically speaking, both Saturday and Sunday are days of rest. Sure, the night ends earlier on Sunday as we need to wake up early for work, but the rest of the day should be equally free and relaxing as a Saturday.

What keeps us from enjoying Sunday is our dread and anxiety for the next day. Because we stress about tomorrow, we fail to enjoy today.

When we focus on the present rather than the future, we can truly enjoy the precious hours of rest amongst the business of our lives. Don’t count the hours till you return to work. Instead, just enjoy the fact that you are not working right now.

If you change your perspective, every day can be a weekend.

(Image sourcehttps://xkcd.com/1073/)

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Bad Day

Life is hard. We are always fighting against the challenges of life, such as stress from work, financial hardship and relationship problems. People deal with hardships through different means. Some travel to catch some fresh air, while others seek the support of a friend or loved one. Although we ought to be spending our days in the pursuit of happiness, instead we are more often trying desperately to find a way to escape misery.

Amongst all this, we forget a very simple fact. Others around us are going through just as hard a life as we are. A sad truth about the human condition is that in times of stress, we instinctively become self-preserving. At the end of the day, evolution favours those who are able to save their own skin. Because of this, we are always seeking support and kindness to help us escape our misery, while often turning a blind eye to other people’s misery.

When is the last time you asked a friend about what’s really going on in their lives? It is much more common for us to blurt out what’s troubling us than asking others about their own troubles. We could be complaining to our friends about something trivial compared to the strife they are going through, but we would not know because we had not asked.

Even worse, what about strangers on the streets? If someone was rude to us, it would sour our day. But if we were rude to someone because we were genuinely in a rush or having a terrible day, we excuse ourselves and do not think much of it. How do we know that that person isn’t having the worst day of their lives and we just made it worse?

Of course it is impossible to know of all the bad things happening to everyone. We can make an effort to reduce the burden of our friends by being supportive, but it is hard to do that for someone you meet for less than a minute on the streets.

So perhaps the solution is this: be generous with your kindness. You have no idea what situation the other person is in, but it is hard to do wrong when you treat everyone around you with kindness. At worst, you’ve expended a small part of your emotional energy. At best, you’ve become more empathetic and happy, while making someone’s day. Never forget how much difference you can make with simple acts and words of kindness.

Posted in Science & Nature

Discomfort Index

Hot and humid weather is quite possibly the worst weather, as most people will feel sticky and uncomfortable, to the point that it will affect their mood and ability to think. This combination is so terrible that weather forecasts often mention a discomfort index (or temperature-humidity index) to highlight how hot and humid the day will be. Discomfort index is calculated as:

DI = 40.6 + 0.72 (dry-bulb temperature + wet-bulb temperature ).

Here, dry bulb temperature is the “ambient temperature” (not considering humidity), while wet bulb temperature accounts for humidity by looking at how low the temperature can get by evaporating water.

Evaporation absorbs heat but can only happen if the air is not saturated with humidity. Therefore, the more humid it is, the more “discomfort” we feel as we cannot sweat off the heat building up inside our bodies.

When the DI is at 70, about 10% of people experience discomfort. At 75, 50% feel discomfort and at 80, most people will feel extremely uncomfortable. A DI of above 85 is virtually intolerable and anything above this, serious conditions such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke can occur.

As our core body temperature rises and we cannot cool down by sweating, we experience thermal stress. Under thermal stress, our concentration and task performance begins to suffer – a phenomenon people will describe as their brain feeling as if it is melting. This is a well-established phenomenon that has significantly affected how architects design offices and homes to improve air flow and temperature control to create an environment with the least thermal stress possible – for both efficiency and comfort.

Posted in Simple Pleasures of Life

Simple Pleasures of Life #14

Taking time off to do something fun when you can’t afford to.

This is most relevant to my life right now with my O&G OSCE (clinical examinations) on Friday, short cases (biggest clinical exam of med school) next Tuesday and two gigantic exams (testing us on literally everything we learnt in med school) the week after that all crashing down at once. The sheer pressure of all of this is really pushing all of us (5th year med students) to a point of anxiety, depression and insanity, and without some way to relieve that stress somewhere, we’d probably end up jumping off somewhere tall or go on a shooting spree.

I personally believe human beings feel the happiest when they are enjoying a luxury they cannot afford. For example, having a nice dinner out once in a while even though your budget is straining. The same applies to time. No matter how busy life gets, just stop what you’re doing and take some time for yourself. Whether it be spending a couple hours having lunch with a friend, playing card games for half an hour, or singing a song on your guitar for ten minutes. Hell, go to the park and lay on the grass for even five minutes, doing nothing but staring into the blue, blue sky. Trust me, it will make a huge difference to your mental health and work productivity.

Here’s an analogy from an old ARK post:

There are two clocks: a still clock and a clock that is always a minute late.
Which clock is more accurate?

The answer is the still clock – it tells the correct time twice every day, but the other clock is always wrong despite the fact that it constantly ticks.
Sometimes when life gets you down, it is better to stop and rest instead of trudging on forever, always out of sync.

(Source: https://jineralknowledge.com/two-clocks)