For many years I lived in a fog of constant, low-level anxiety. No matter where I looked there seemed to be things to worry about. In fact, there weren’t enough hours in the day to fit them all in, so I’d often wake up to think about them at night too.
One day, when things were particularly grim, a friend asked me this question:
“Are you anxious about something – or are you simply anxious?”
At first I was indignant. Of course I was anxious about something. How could anyone suggest otherwise?
But the more I sat with the question, the more I realised there was something there.
On paying close attention, I noticed that I often seemed to be looking for something outside of myself to worry about, to justify the way I already felt on the inside. The anxiety didn’t appear as a result of what was happening to me: it was there first.
Realising that opened up new possibilities for response.
I discovered that my default strategy of rushing around trying to fix all the external things that were bothering me was actually counterproductive. I might find momentary relief, but then I’d simply discover something else to worry about.
What did seem to help was noticing and naming what I felt and then being as kind to myself as I possibly could. I didn’t find that easy, but discovered that treating myself as if I was a bit poorly helped. (I suspect I’m not alone in finding it easier to access self-compassion around discomfort of the physical rather than the psychological kind.)
That switch from an external, fixing-orientated focus to an internal, nurturing one made a big difference to me – so I wanted to share in case it’s of interest to you too.
And it got me wondering – what do you find helpful when you feel anxious?
A few days ago I was heading out for my daily lockdown walk, feeling uninspired by both the weather and the route, when a friend messaged asking if I would take some pictures along the way. She works in a hospital and rarely gets to go outside during daylight hours, so even photos of a gloomy February afternoon seemed appealing to her in that moment.
I said yes, but was quietly doubtful that I’d find anything worth capturing. Everything looked so relentlessly grey.
Then a thought occurred to me. Although the big picture didn’t look very exciting, perhaps there were details within it that were?
And sure enough, as soon as I narrowed my focus, I could see them. Bright tufts of moss. Hawthorn berries. A frothy blanket of Old Man’s Beard. Streaks of yellow lichen on an old brick wall. A tiny white feather in the mud.
Somehow, finding those little treasures made everything feel just a bit brighter. For both of us, as it turned out.
So if – like me – you sometimes find yourself getting lost in the same old, same old, I can recommend detail-hunting as an antidote.
“When I’m going to do something that matters to me I always ask myself why I’m doing it – and then I ask myself why I am doing that. Everyone can do the ‘second why’ and it helps you to be grounded when you enter a situation because you know why you’re there. When people really feel grounded they tend to have more courage, they speak more strongly, they sit up in their chair taller, all kinds of things happen… I really dread the idea of public speaking and it takes quite a bit for me to to fly somewhere and do that. I end up quite frequently talking to large rooms of people and I’m just really terrified of doing it. So I really have to do the ‘second why’ right before I walk out on the stage – and I notice when I do that I start breathing slower, I can remember what I need to say, all kinds of things happen to who I am. So it is an immensely simple thing. You could think of it as some kind of pop psychology trick, but it really grounds you in optimism and a hopeful view of yourself in any situation.”
Close down your day and set an intention for tomorrow.
“End your day and really think about what you’re going to do tomorrow. So reflect back and say, “Have I done everything I wanted to do? No, I haven’t. Right, what am I going to do tomorrow?” And keep that list very short, maybe one, two, three things. But really have a sense of stopping today and having an intention for tomorrow.”
“There’s a technique I use all the time called the ’10 minute rule’. Let’s say I want to write and I’m tempted to check email or look at Google or maybe I want to eat something unhealthy that I know is tempting me. So instead of giving in to that temptation right away, I give myself this 10 minute rule of – I can give into that temptation in 10 minutes, but in those 10 minutes I have to write down the distraction. I have to write down the internal trigger (what I’m feeling), and I just have to kind of feel that sensation for just a few minutes. 90% of the time, that sensation just washes over you like a wave. It’s called ‘surfing the urge’.”
Imagine – if you had one year left to live, what would you do? What would you change in your life? What would you say to the people that you love? What would be important to you? And it might make you think, “Okay… I’m going to do that”. They don’t have to be big things. It might be saying something to someone: “Oh, I’d better ring my sister and tell her I really love her and I really appreciate her and I’m really proud of her.” People save that stuff and that seems really sad to me. There’s this idea that if you’re terminally ill or you’ve been given a diagnosis that things aren’t looking good and you haven’t got long, people start doing those things. And I always think, why does it take that? Why can’t we say that now? What’s stopping us from saying those really nice things to people? You know what – it makes you feel good too.”
“The challenge that I set myself is to do this exercise that I read about in a book called ‘The Artist’s Way‘. It’s called ‘morning pages’ and literally the very, very first thing you do in the morning before you’ve had breakfast, before you’ve woken up, is to take yourself off somewhere quiet and sit with a notebook and write for just 10 minutes whatever it is that is in your head. It doesn’t have to be good. It’s not meant to be re-read or seen by anybody else. It’s just to get things out of your sleepy brain and into the world. I’ve found that to be hugely, hugely helpful and the most creatively sparking thing I’ve done in recent years, for sure.”
So now I’m curious… If you were to suggest a Little Challenge of your own – what would it be?
Perhaps my new-found willingness to be in the presence of confusing and apparently contradictory ideas without demanding that one is right and the other wrong has come from learning about Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. DBT is an approach which can be helpful for people who find it difficult to regulate their emotions, thinking and behaviour (particularly those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, eating disorders or addictions, or at risk of suicide or self-harm).
The dialectic at the heart of DBT is this: we can accept ourselves exactly as we are right now, whilst also committing to doing things differently from this point onwards. It invites us to be gentle with ourselves for the things we are not able to control (for example, what happened to us when we were younger, how we behaved in the past when we didn’t know better) and to step up and take responsibility for improving things in the future (by learning to do things in new and healthier ways).
In life (as in DBT) it seems there is a constant balancing to be done, a strangeness to be embraced, a middle path to be found which is neither-this-nor-that.
Increasingly, what I find to be wise and true cannot be expressed directly in language. It shows up in the spaces between words – an oddly beautiful, indescribable thing.
I’m currently experiencing what I describe as an ‘introvert hangover’.
After a period of intense social activity, I can often feel a bit out-of-sorts. Nothing terrible, just a bit tired and headachey and conscious that I’m less productive, focused and resourceful than usual.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who experiences this. In fact I’ve talked to lots of people who describe something similar.
For those of us who recharge by spending time alone being quiet, it can be easy to get a little bit overwhelmed by the world. It’s not that we don’t enjoy being out there in it, it’s just that being in stimulating environments with interesting people generates lots of ‘data’ to be processed. All that filing, categorising, making sense of, takes some doing. It’s like updating software on your computer whilst simultaneously trying to carry on with business as usual. Sometimes everything just grinds to a halt for a bit.
I notice that I can feel a bit anxious about the fact that I’m prone to these ‘hangovers’. I can think that I should be different from how I am. I can be tempted to try and distract myself with food or fidgeting or analysing things. But none of those things really help.
Here are some things that do:
Accepting that this just happens sometimes. It’s not wrong or something to be fixed. It just is – and, soon enough, it will pass.
Practising radical self-care. Allowing time for silence, rest, eating and drinking healthily, getting outside, breathing deeply, exercising…
Explaining to others that it may not be possible to be as productive / communicative / creative or energetic as usual on days like these but that normal service will resume shortly.
Taking a shower and enjoying the white noise, the immersive experience and the symbolic value of washing away all the accumulated busy-ness.
Doing something distracting and unstressful – like watching or reading something entertaining, doing a puzzle or playing a computer game.
Some people find that it helps to have a cry – not necessarily because they feel sad or that there’s anything wrong – but simply because it can be an effective way of discharging tension in the body. Others find they can physically shake it off. Yet others find that breathing techniques and mindfulness can help them to move through the experience more quickly and easily.
This week I received a message from a friend who had watched Matt Walker’s TED talk, Sleep is your Superpower, which I shared in the Ideas Community a few weeks ago. If you’ve seen the talk, you’ll know that it focuses on the harmful effects of not getting enough sleep. However, as my friend pointed out, many people know they’re not getting enough sleep – but that doesn’t help them to fix the problem. In fact, the anxiety provoked by knowing you need more sleep but aren’t managing to get it can be yet another cause of insomnia.
So I offered to see what I could find out about practical ways we can help ourselves sleep better. What makes it easier to drift off in the first place – and how can we get back to sleep when we find ourselves unexpectedly awake, minds racing? Here’s what I found:
Doing moderate- or high-intensity aerobic or resistance exercise during the day can help to improve quality of sleep in people who are experiencing sleep problems. Even regular episodes of low-intensity exercise (such as walking) can make a significant difference to someone’s ability to fall asleep and the quality of sleep they get. Exercise can also help us to feel better psychologically, meaning that we’re less likely to find ourselves awake as a result of anxiety.
The timing seems to be important. Exercising can elevate body temperature for up to 90 minutes afterwards, signalling to the brain that it’s time to be awake. The endorphin-release we get can also make some people feel livelier (and less sleepy) for a while afterwards too. So best to finish particularly vigorous workouts at least a couple of hours before heading off to bed. (Related info here and here)
We often focus on the amount of night-time sleep we’re getting and forget that daytime sleep counts too. Napping can be a great way to boost our sleep levels. Research findings suggest that 10-20 minutes during the early afternoon works best for most people. Some swear by the ‘nappuccino’ or ‘coffee nap’, which involves drinking coffee before taking a short nap, so that the caffeine is kicking in just as you wake. However, napping isn’t for everyone and can be counterproductive for some. (To find out more, here’s a great article on the subject, plus a blog post I wrote exploring the topic in more detail.)
Having regular times for going to bed and getting up not only makes it easier for our bodies to know what to expect and respond accordingly but also helps us to do better work when we’re awake. Occasional lie-ins to make up for lost sleep can be useful for some, but where possible it is best to get up at the same time each day, so as to avoid confusing our circadian rhythm (or internal clock).
Creating a pre-bedtime routine that helps us to wind down and adjust to sleep mode can be helpful. This might involve setting aside time for listening to music, reading, meditation, breathing exercises, physical relaxation techniques such as body scanning, or taking a bath or shower. Beforehand, it can help to make a note of anything on your mind that feels unfinished or worrying. By writing down everything you need to remember and reassuring yourself that you will look at what you’ve written first thing in the morning and take care of it then, you can help to bypass the Zeigarnik effect. I wrote a blog post on the subject here.
Our circadian rhythms are easily affected by light exposure – specifically, how much light we encounter, what kind and when. Living in an artifically-lit environment can affect our production of melatonin (a sleep hormone) and confuse our internal body clocks, which are still evolutionarily primed to work best in natural light. In order to sleep well, it helps to:
get plenty of bright daylight, especially during the morning and early afternoon (which can be supplemented by light from a light box during the darker months if necessary).
avoid anything that generates blue light (such as phones, TVs and computer screens) for a couple of hours before going to bed. Blue light is proven to stimulate brain activity and wakefulness -which is great during the day, but not so great when you’re wanting to switch off.
keep the bedroom dark (by using blackout blinds if necessary, or replacing digital alarm clocks with analogue ones).
Our behaviour is sensitive to environmental cues and we can help ourselves to sleep better by ‘nudging’ ourselves in the direction we want to go. For example, if we want to sleep when we’re in bed (rather than lying awake, thinking), we can help to form that association by keeping mentally stimulating activities out of the bedroom. Watching TV in bed may feel like a relaxing thing to do, but it can easily compromise the quality of the subsequent night’s sleep. If there’s a phone by the bed, we can find ourselves checking for messages out of habit when we stir during the night, and then finding ourselves wide awake, even though it’s still 3am. So keeping it in a different room overnight – or at the very least, putting it so far away from the bed that you can’t reach it without some considerable effort – can help.
Dim bedside lighting, a cool temperature (ideally around 65-70° F or 18-20° C), good ventilation, a comfortable mattress and pillows, and a quiet environment (or earplugs) can all help too. (More on how to create the optimum conditions for sleep here.)
Food and drink:
What we eat and drink, particularly in the hours before bed, can have a significant effect on how well we sleep. The general recommendations seem to be:
avoid going to bed hungry
don’t eat heavily immediately before bed
don’t drink so much that you’ll need to get up in the night
take care with alcohol, as it can help you to get to sleep but has a detrimental effect on overall sleep quality
try snacking on melatonin-containing foods such as almonds, walnuts and bananas or relaxing with warm milky drinks or herbal teas if you’re in need of a little something before bed
If you find yourself awake in the night and can’t get back to sleep, the advice is to get up and go into another room for a little while. Keep the lighting low. Do something gentle and not-too-stimulating. Perhaps make a warm drink and cuddle up on the sofa with a blanket and a book or some relaxing music. If you have worries on your mind, write them down and reassure yourself that you’ll tackle them in the morning, when you’re fully awake again. If you find yourself starting to feel sleepy – go back to bed and let yourself focus simply on relaxing. Who knows, you might just get a little more sleep – but even if you don’t, you’ve taken good care of yourself and allowed your body to rest.
There are so many more ideas I could include. But for now, I’d love to know – what helps you to sleep? How do you cope with night-time waking? Do you have any tips to share? If so, it would be great to hear from you!
Why is it that some of our attempts at behaviour change stick, whilst others fall by the wayside?
What is it that motivates us to push through the discomfort of doing things differently, even when it’s tempting to give up?
I’ve been thinking a lot about questions like these, inspired by this week’s podcast interview with Erica Mohr. In our conversation, Erica introduces me to the concept of self-efficacy and the role it plays in learning to do new things.
Self-efficacy is a term that was coined by psychologist Albert Bandura back in 1977. It refers to an individual’s belief in their ability to achieve their goals.
A person’s sense of self-efficacy can vary according to context. In Erica’s words: “I might have high self-efficacy for presenting a prepared keynote speech, but low self-efficacy for responding to audience questions at the end, for example.”
What we believe we are capable of has been shown to have a significant impact on not only our personal and professional accomplishments but also our physical and psychological health . When we have high self-efficacy we tend to try harder and persist in the face of obstacles, increasing our chances of success. When we have low self-efficacy we are more likely to give up and fail to accomplish the task at hand.
“People’s beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities. Ability is not a fixed property; there is huge variability in how you perform.”
So how can we increase our sense of self-efficacy?
Performance accomplishments. “As you practise something more, as you improve in that skill, as you have more experience doing it, you feel more confident in your abilities.”
Vicarious experiences. “Watching someone else succeed who you identify with. For example, thinking, If she can do it, I can do it!”
Social persuasion. “When a key figure in our life, a mentor, a colleague, perhaps even a parent or a friend gives us encouragement and says, I know you’ve got this – you can do this.”
Physiological and Emotional States. “How we interpret what’s happening in our body and connect that with our capabilities. So if I’m going into a keynote and I feel nervous, do I interpret those nerves as me not being capable or do I normalise them? Of course, everybody’s nervous when they go into a keynote! That’s totally understandable. So how we interpret that psychological state is key.”
Reflecting on our conversation, I realised that all four of these methods were crucial in my personal experience of overcoming long-term psychological distress:
A pivotal moment in my recovery was when I saw a new psychiatrist who said: “I’ve seen people like you get better”. (Source 3)
Once I had a sense that recovery was actually possible, I actively sought out role models, reading everything I could find that had been written by people who had overcome the same kinds of challenges I was facing. (Source 2)
Having found information about the kinds of skills I needed to learn, I started practising them actively. It took a while, but little by little, my confidence grew. (Source 1)
And on the days when I felt disheartened, when old symptoms returned and I felt as though I was going nowhere, I learned to normalise my feelings rather than catastrophising. I came to understand that learning is often a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of an experience and that wobbly days are simply part of the package. Developing a simple mindfulness practice helped me to cope with uncomfortable feelings, rather than trying to suppress or run away from them. (Source 4)
What we think is possible, what we believe we are allowed to experience – these things matter.
By seeking out role models, surrounding ourselves with supportive people, actively practising new behaviours and learning to normalise and cope with fears and discomfort as they arise, we can create the possibility of lasting, positive change in our behaviour. And with each tiny accomplishment, we can help ourselves recognise that we are capable of more.
We routinely use thought patterns to conserve time and energy and help us to make sense of the world. We use them to help us predict what will happen, how people will behave, how we will feel – and they often serve us well. But when these patterns are over-simplified, or skewed towards a negative interpretation, we can start to have problems.
A 2018 study found that people who are experiencing anxiety, depression or suicidal thinking are significantly more likely to use ‘absolutist’ language than people who aren’t. Here’s a list of the kind of words the researchers were looking for:
Absolutely – All – Always – Complete – Completely – Constant – Constantly – Definitely – Entire – Ever – Every – Everyone – Everything – Full – Must – Never – Nothing – Totally – Whole
As someone who previously qualified for a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and experienced decades of anxiety and depression (conditions which are strongly associated with this kind of language use), I can remember all too well what it felt like to think in these terms. Until a few years ago, if you had climbed inside my head and listened to the inner monologue there, you would have heard a lot of things like:
“It will always be like this.”
“You’ll never get better.”
“They all think so.”
“Everything’s gone wrong.”
In fact, at the point when I reached rock bottom, this was all there was to hear. I felt sure I knew how things were and how they always would be. It seems inconceivable now – but at that moment in time, and at many others like it, it felt completely and utterly believable.
So for me, the process of learning to be well has involved learning to think differently. I’ve come to understand that things are rarely as black and white as I used to imagine them to be. I’ve learned to see not just shades of grey, but a whole range of colours that simply weren’t visible before. I’ve found that it takes conscious effort and repeated reinforcement, but little by little, those old patterns of thinking can change.
Occasionally an old pattern will surface – most often when I’m tired or hungry or under a little more pressure than usual – but they rarely hang around for long. Because, as time goes by, I notice that life is infinitely more complex, more changeable, more subtle, more paradoxical, than seemed conceivable before – which makes concepts like ‘always’ and ‘never’ a bit harder to take seriously.
So if you sometimes find yourself imagining that everything is completely, absolutely, entirely and totally a certain way, if you fear that everyone, everywhere is doing something, or that you never, ever will – take a moment, if you can. A moment to stop and breathe and search for some colour in the situation. For some inbetweenness. For some not-quite-this and not-quite-that-ness.
Because somewhere, amidst the messiness and the blurred distinctions, there is relief, I think. The relief of discovering that things are often so much more than we allow them to be.
Can we change our own behaviour simply by altering the words we choose?
Research suggests that we can – and that to do so may be simpler than we imagine.
For some time, we have had evidence that the language we encounter can directly influence our behaviour.
For example, when older people are exposed to positive or negative age stereotypes before taking part in a physical or cognitive activities (such as walking, matching items to words or memory tasks), their performance changes. Priming with age-positive words such as ‘wise’ results in faster walking and processing speeds and improved memory performance. Priming with age-negative words such as ‘forgetful’ has the opposite effect.
Throughout life, we mentally squirrel away ideas about what is possible, how we expect to behave and what is likely to happen. These ideas – and the language they are dressed in – shape our experience. Often we have little or no awareness of what’s going on.
So could we make this process more conscious, in order to help ourselves live in ways that work better for us?
It seems that we can. Here’s one simple idea that can help.
When we want to change our behaviour, we can choose to focus either on the activity itself or on our personal identity.
For example, let’s say we decide to start taking more exercise. If we focus on the activity itself, we might say something like, “I should go for a run” or “I’ll go running later”. However, if we instead focus on our sense of identity, we start to think of ourselves “a runner” – and simply by doing that, we make it more likely that we’ll actually get our shoes on and make it out the door.
A 2011 study by Bryan, Walton and Dweck found that people were 13% more likely to vote in an election when they were encouraged to see themselves as ‘voters’ rather than simply asked to vote.
How we feel about the identity in question seems to be significant. In this study, people became less likely to cheat during a test when they received the message “Please don’t be a cheater” than the message “Please don’t cheat”.
It seems that many people are willing to do things they don’t agree with as long as they can mentally separate the behaviour from who they think they are. The moment the behaviour starts to define their identity, that willingness can quickly disappear.
So if there’s something you’d like to be doing but you’re not quite getting around to it, or you keep finding yourself doing things you’d really rather not, why not experiment with the language you choose to describe yourself? It might just be worth a try.
Having spent the last few weeks reflecting on some of the useful things I’ve learned since turning 18 – and inviting others to write in with their learnings too – I’ve found myself smiling wryly as I realise how many times people tried to share their wisdom with me over the years, and how many times I was completely incapable of understanding what they were trying to say.
In a recent conversation with behavioural scientist, Jason Hreha, I mention one such example. As a child, my dad would often tell me to “take deep breaths” – and I would often think how silly he was to imagine that something as inconsequential as taking deep breaths could be of any use whatsoever in the particular crisis I was facing. Fast forward three decades or so – and it turns out he was right. Deep breathing is good for all sorts of things.
Then there were the many times he reminded me that “charity begins at home”. Back then I thought he was using this as an excuse to be ungenerous to others. Now I realise that he was probably trying to share more or less the same insight I shared in a post just the other week. (see ‘Kindness’)
And there was the time he paraphrased Shakespeare’s: “To thine own self be true.” I’m not sure what I thought he meant at the time, but I remember not being terribly impressed. I had little interest in being true to myself at that point, busy as I was, gazing at others who seemed so much more deserving of my loyalty.
Ironic, really, that I find myself doing the work I do now – so much of which emphasises the importance of self-awareness and internal validation in building resilience and psychological wellbeing.
It’s tempting to imagine that we can save ourselves and those we love a lot of time and heartache by sharing wisdom down the generations, but the reality seems to be that we only take on board new ways of seeing things when we are ready to do so.
However, new research suggests that to focus on this is to miss an important point.
According to a recent study by Robin M. Kowalski and Annie McCord of Clemson University published in the Journal of Social Psychology, we “… should consult ourselves for advice we would offer to our younger selves… The data indicate that there is much to be learned that can facilitate wellbeing and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.” (Read more here.)
In essence, by thinking of what we wish our younger self had known and then acting on it here and now, we can help our current self become the person we wish to be in the future. A useful exercise in its own right, one could argue.
Sadly, my dad isn’t around to share a wry smile at all the wheel-reinvention I’ve been doing. Nevertheless, I like to imagine that, even though I wasn’t able to comprehend the insights he was trying so hard to share with me all those years ago, there might have been some value for him in the act of sharing. It would be nice to think so.