Today’s interview is with Dr Erika Penney, a registered psychologist and Doctor of Clinical Psychology based in Sydney, Australia.
Tell me about your new business, Foresight Psychology, and what inspired it.
I was inspired to start Foresight Psychology because of my own experiences with depression and anxiety, as well as the experiences I was hearing from the people around me, from clients and colleagues to friends and family. We all experience anxiety, low mood, loneliness, or anger at some point in our lives, but do we know how best to look after ourselves at those times? When I was a teenager, I know I didn’t. Emotions can be confusing and we often think about intense emotions, such as anxiety, as “bad” or “dangerous”. I feel passionately about helping young people to think differently about their emotions and to better manage these experiences.
Whilst there is a growing awareness in our society of mental health, we still have a long way to go. A lot of programs and information out there are about building awareness of mental illness which is important in understanding the debilitating impact of disorders, such as depression and anxiety. At the same time, however, I think it is so important for us to give our kids the knowledge and tools to build resilience and wellness before many of these difficulties begin. That’s what Foresight Psychology is all about, providing information and tools to promote mental well-being.
The first onset of disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and substance use, typically emerge in mid-adolescence to early adulthood but treatment is often not sought until years later. Given the prevalence of mental disorders in young people, Foresight Psychology aims to educate young adults about mental well-being. It is recommended for key transitional years such as year 10 and year 12. The presentation is designed by a registered psychologist and can be tailored to meet the needs of individual schools.
What does the program involve?
The types of skills utilised in the program are based on cognitive-behavioural and mindfulness-based approaches. Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs have been associated with reduced stress levels and increased empathy and self-compassion in healthy individuals and combined cognitive-behavioural therapy and mindfulness training may prevent the reoccurrence of depressive episodes.
(1) Distinguish between normal and disordered levels of anxiety and depression
(3) Encouraging adolescents to make choices based on their goals rather than their fears,
For the later High School years we also talk specifically about managing exam stress, perfectionism, and overcoming procrastination. I have found that many adolescents and adults buy into a lot of societal myths about emotions; for example: “I must be in control of my emotions to be a successful person”, “If I’m not happy most of the time, there is something wrong with me”, and “I can’t do important or difficult things if I feel anxious, worried, or depressed”.
I talk a lot about how happiness (just like all emotions – fear, sadness, anger, joy) is a temporary state that comes and goes, and so aiming to “be happy all the time” is a bit like aiming to “be awake all the time”. By definition, it is a temporary state that will come and go, and it sets us up for failure if we cannot achieve this. Instead, I talk about how it may be better to aim to have a rich and meaningful life (which can give us a deeper sense of fulfillment), rather than aiming to feel the temporary emotion of happiness (which we often get through a sense of relief by avoiding difficult and meaningful things).
I also talk a lot about about normalizing emotions, and that it is normal to feel anxious before challenging tasks such as tests and speeches, and that if we wait until we “feel ready” which feeds back to the emotion myth (“I can only do important/difficult things when I feel confident or ready”) then we’ll never get around to doing important things. I walk through some strategies like defusion, thought challenging, and urge surfing to help this process.
I wanted to create a program that is based on evidence-based techniques, and I wanted to find what psychology as a science could offer young people. Cognitive-behavioural strategies has a robust evidence-base and the techniques can be applicable over a wide range of mental health difficulties. Whilst mindfulness-based approaches are newer in clinical psychology, evidence suggests they are a useful tool for building personal resilience and in the prevention of mental health difficulties.
Tell me more about mindfulness.
Mindfulness is all about focusing our attention on the present moment with a non-judgemental attitude. It is treating our current experience with curiosity and openness, and being descriptive of our experience rather than interpretive or judgemental. Mindfulness is a powerful tool for changing the way we relate to our thoughts and emotions. Over time, it can lessen the impact of unhelpful thoughts and feelings on our day-to-day experience.
Can you tell me about a recent memorable experience you have had working in the field of psychological health and wellbeing?
Last year, I was working in an inpatient hospital and I saw a lot of people in crisis. I ran groups that talked about finding meaning and value in life, in normalizing emotions, in problem solving, and finding a balance between acceptance and change. One day a patient said to me “This makes so much sense now that you say it, but I never thought about this before. Why don’t we learn this stuff at school? Why did we spend all day learning algebra and no time learning to tolerate distress and regulate our emotions?”
What have you learnt in the process of starting your own psychology business?
The ideas I am discussing with people in the program are much like this business venture itself. I find myself fearing failure and not feeling “ready”, and every day I need to remind myself that I can work on things, even when I have doubts and worries, because it’s normal to have doubts and worries when you do something difficult and important to you. That doesn’t necessarily make me feel “happy”; it makes me feel anxious, and it’s really hard, but it does give me a deeper sense of meaning and feeling it’s worthwhile.
Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful and helpful ideas with us today!
For more information, please contact Dr Erika Penney:
Email: [email protected]
For Mindfulness Audio Exercises please go to:
Thanks for stopping by and see you next time,