How to stretch time

I’ve been wondering why it is that time appears to pass at different speeds in different circumstances, given that we know it travels at a constant rate.

Take a second, for example. Its length is clearly defined: it lasts 1/86400th of a day*.

But that’s clock time. Our personal experience of time is not at all the same thing.

Have you ever had the feeling that time is passing more quickly as you get older? Or that it has slowed to an infuriating standstill whilst you’re waiting for traffic lights to change or a webpage to buffer? What is controlling that perception? And if we understand that, can we learn to stretch time to our advantage?

The way we perceive time is directly related to how much attention we are paying to the present moment.

When we do something new, when we feel we are in danger or in the presence of something that shocks or surprises us, we tend to be busy noticing and absorbing the details of what is going on. In the words of Stefan Klein, author of ‘The Secret Pulse of Time’, “The more sense impressions you assimilate from every moment, the richer and more expansive time will seem in retrospect.”

So the greater our attentiveness, the longer time appears to have lasted.

Conversely, when we’re doing things we’ve done a thousand times before, distracted by thoughts about the conversation we need to have later or what we want to eat for dinner, the time can disappear without us even noticing. Which is perhaps why our lives can feel as though they are speeding up as we get older – we are simply spending more time doing things we have done so many times before, we’ve stopped paying attention to them.

So is there a simple way to stretch time – or at least one’s perception of it?

Well, yes. More or less.

By paying more attention to the here and now.

By acting more mindfully.

There is a growing body of evidence supporting the idea that practising mindfulness can result in physical benefits that could result in a longer life.

But regardless of the number of years it might add, we now know that living mindfully can help us feel as though our lives are longer, simply by helping us to stretch our perception of the time we have had.

Cool, huh?


So I’m curious… have you had experiences of shrinking or stretching time?

If so, what happened?  


*Or the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom (at a temperature of 0 K), with a leap second thrown in periodically to compensate for the slightly variation and slowing of the Earth’s rotation, if you want to get technical about it.

I wish I’d known this sooner…

As we know, there are a huge number of benefits to getting regular exercise:

However, for many people actually getting regular exercise is a problem.

Amongst all of the other demands on our time, it can be hard to find the 30 minutes five times a week we’re encouraged to take. And for those of us who are feeling out of shape or lacking in confidence, the idea of going out and exercising can be utterly daunting. (Where do you go? Will you feel stupid when you get there? Do you have to wear Lycra?)

If the above sounds familiar and you like the idea of exercising regularly but find that you don’t actually do it, you might find this encouraging…

A study published earlier this year found that the total amount of exercise is what counts, regardless of how long each period of exercise lasts. So if you walk briskly for 150 minutes each week (even if you only do it for a minute or two at a time), the effect on your health is the same as if you do five 30-minute exercise classes. What matters is that you are doing some kind of moderate / vigorous activity regularly.

I used to have a rather all or nothing approach to exercise and would think it was only worth doing if I had the time, energy and self-confidence to go out and take part in a class or go to the gym. As a result, I passed up lots of opportunities to be just a little bit active a lot more often. And at times when I was feeling bad about myself, I would find myself doing less and less exercise (which had the result of making me more tired, more depressed and more reluctant to do anything at all).

These days I’m a big fan of doing very small things, so I’m delighted to find out that – in the case of physical activity, at least – there’s good reason to believe that even very small steps are worth taking. Particularly if they get you just a bit out of breath….


So I’m curious…what are your favourite (most amusing / unusual) ways of keeping active?

If you’re not as active as you’d like to be, what is it that gets in the way?

……..

I was fortunate to meet and talk with with Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE, the founder of Parkrun, at this year’s Do Lectures. As a former non-runner who discovered the joy of Parkrun – a place where people cheer you on simply for showing up, even if you walk slowly round the course and don’t run at all – I was really touched by the story of why and how it all came about. If you’re interested, you might like to watch his talk….

From inside a cloud…

Looking out of the window this morning, it would appear that the entire town of Wotton-under-Edge is inside a cloud.

This has happened twice this week and many times over the years I’ve lived here. For a little while everything disappears into a damp white blur, making it impossible to see more than a short distance in any direction.

It always makes me smile, because it feels uncannily similar to something that occurs inside my head from time to time.

Some days I find it’s just not possible to see clearly. My beautiful long-distance views of life get obscured for a while and I become disorientated and lost. I lose all certainty about what I’m doing and why it matters and who and what I might be in the first place. Everything disappears into an existentially-bewildering cloud.

This can be a disconcerting experience in a world that seems to place a high value on ‘knowing’ and ‘being right about things’. We can imagine that we are supposed to have answers and be acting on them now.

On these days I have adopted a policy of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-ness: of taking whatever seems to be a reasonable, useful step in a direction that looks just about right and then seeing how things look once I get there. I find that each step seems to reveal slightly more of the path ahead. Sooner or later I’m not in the cloud any more.

There can be relief in embracing the not-knowingness of these days. In realising that it isn’t actually very important to understand and feel in control of everything – that what matters is showing up and doing the best one can, whatever that looks like.

Little by little, I’m learning that the world seems to keep turning even when I don’t quite understand how. (Phew.) Life feels a lot gentler and less overwhelming as a result.


So I’m curious…do you have cloudy days too?

If so, how do you find your way through them?

Cold showers and comfort zones

Every day for the last two years I have ended my morning shower in exactly the same way: by turning the temperature control as low as it will go and standing there (gasping) until I adjust to the cold.

Every day I dread it. Yet every day I’m really glad to have done it.

Why?

There are all sorts of hypotheses about the benefits of cold exposure on the body and mind, including the suggestion that it can play a role in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. So far there hasn’t been a great deal of research carried out, which is surprising given that cold water therapy has been used all over the world for at least 3500 years*. However, some interesting ideas are starting to be explored:

  • It has been suggested that, throughout our evolution, we have adapted to cope with brief changes in body temperature (such as might occur during an outdoor swim), and that the absence of this kind of ’thermal exercise’ in our modern-day lives may have a negative effect on brain function.
  • It is believed that the body’s response to cold exposure (increased blood levels of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline and a surge of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain) may generate a naturally anti-depressant effect.
  • There is a growing body of evidence connecting depression with inflammation in the body. Extreme athlete, ‘Iceman’ Wim Hof, is currently working with Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands to explore the effects of deep breathing, meditation and cold exposure on this kind of inflammation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students of the Wim Hof Method regularly experience reduced levels of stress, anxiety and an increased sense of wellbeing as a result of using such techniques.

I’m not sure whether the benefits I experience from my morning blast of cold water can be attributed to any of these things or not. Maybe I just find it helpful to have a daily reminder that I can cope with discomfort, whether I feel like doing so or not. The practice of deliberately stretching one’s comfort zone (or ‘voluntary discomfort’ as the ancient Stoics called it), is certainly a great way of building self-confidence.

Whatever it is that helps, I’m realising that I’ve become rather attached to those daily cold showers. I may dread the moment when the warm water is replaced by ‘aaaaaaaargh-ness’, but I kind of love it too. It feels great. (Afterwards, at least.)


So I’m curious….do you have love-hate habits of your own?

Do you also enjoy cold showers or practice ‘voluntary discomfort’ in other ways?

If so, what do you do – and why?

*Cold water therapy is mentioned throughout the Edwin Smith Papyrus (an ancient Egyptian medical text dating from 1600 BCE).

Gentling the inner critic

In a recent Ideas Community email I asked if other people have an inner critic and, if so, how they dealt with it.

By ‘inner critic’ I mean a voice in your head that belittles, criticises or discourages you.

Here’s a brief snippet of what mine might say as I write this, so you can see what I’m talking about:

“This writing isn’t good enough. I can’t share this kind of drivel. Think of those poor people, having to put up with my wittering… It’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassing. This is just like that time I wrote an English essay I thought was entertaining and funny and the teacher said it was ‘immature’. I should just give up now.”

I used to listen to that kind of stuff and really take it to heart. I thought all those nasty, judgmental things were true and I felt constantly afraid and ashamed.

Then, one day, I discovered a different voice inside my head – a gentle, compassionate one. I stumbled into a conversation with it completely by accident. It was one of the strangest things that’s ever happened to me. So strange that I’m currently writing a book about the experience (amongst other things).

Learning to communicate with that other voice – my ‘inner coach’, if you like – transformed my mental health. The more I got used to conducting respectful two-way conversations in my head, the more I started talking back to my inner critic rather than just accepting everything it said as being what I thought.

So the example of negative self-talk above isn’t what I experience now. My inner critic is still alive and kicking, but these days our relationship looks a little different:

IC: This writing isn’t good enough. You can’t share this kind of drivel.

Me: I’m just getting some ideas down here. Give me a chance. I can always rewrite them in a minute.

IC: I’m pretty sure the next version will be rubbish too. Think of those poor people, having to put up with your wittering…

Me: They can always stop reading if they want to. I’m just going to keep going and do the best I can.

IC: It’s embarrassing. You’re embarrassing. This is just like that time when you wrote an English essay you thought was entertaining and funny and your teacher said it was ‘immature’. You should just give up now.

Me: Would you mind just shutting up for a minute? I’m trying to write here….

From the responses I received, it’s clear that there are all sorts of ways to change our relationship with a critical inner voice. Some people find meditation and mindfulness helpful in creating the mental space necessary to take the thoughts less seriously. Some people talk back to their critic in a similar way to the one I describe above. Others have found their own version of a compassionate ‘inner coach’. Here are some links, if you’d like to explore more of the ideas people shared:

Alfred and Shadow – A short story about self-criticism

How the subconscious mind works

Internal Family Systems Model


So I’m curious…do you have an inner critic too?

If so, how do you handle yours?


………On a related note, here a link to a music video my community made back in 2011. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the sound of lots of different people’s inner critics in the introduction. Amazing how hard we can be on ourselves, isn’t it?

On silliness (and tea cosies)

“Never trust a man who, when left alone with a tea cosy, doesn’t try it on.”           Billy Connolly

I don’t know if this is a universal thing, but from time to time* I find myself being what can only be described as….silly.

Not silly in an endearing way. Not in an ‘I’m wearing a teacosy on my head in an attempt to make you smile’ kind of a way. Not that at all. (Though on good days I can do that too…)

Silly in an ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing and everything feels a bit wrong and important and I don’t like this very much’ kind of a way.

I notice that it takes just a short hop from this kind of silliness to finding myself in the middle of arguments and self-righteousness and storming about. And just another short hop from there to staring gloomily into a future that looks terrible and must be avoided at all costs.

It’s very easy to take this kind of silliness really seriously. It seems to demand it of me. It can feel impolite to refuse.

But in the midst of the taking-seriously, I find there is relief in seeing that it’s really just silliness underneath.

Instead of coming up with explanations and blaming and flouncing, I’m learning that I can simply say – to myself and those around me – “Please bear with me, I don’t know what I’m doing today. I’m going to try again tomorrow.”

And very often, when tomorrow arrives, I’ve forgotten what I was getting all flouncy about anyway.


So I’m curious…do you do ‘silly’ too?

If so, how do you handle it?


*Ok, so when I say ‘from time to time’, what I actually mean is, ‘quite often’.

‘Marinating’ in inspiration

A few months ago I came across a podcast interview with writer Jon Morrow in which he spoke about an extraordinarily difficult time in his life. After being hit by a car travelling at 80mph, he spent a year in hospital. It was a traumatic enough experience in itself, but all the more difficult to recover from for someone who had been paralysed from the neck down since birth as a result of a neuromuscular disorder (Spinal Muscular Atrophy).

In terrible pain, able to move only his facial muscles, Jon decided he needed to do something to ‘reconstruct’ his reality. He started listening to audiobooks and podcasts for many hours each day – specifically to stories of people who had accomplished incredible things. Here’s what he says about the experience:

“I’d spend more time listening to people who had done incredible things than in my current life where it looked impossible, and it trained my brain to believe that it wasn’t difficult because there were all of these other people who had already done it. I spent so much time listening to it that it became normal… I started to hold myself to their standards rather than the standards a case-worker at Medicaid might hold me to. Their lives became so real to me. I was ‘marinating’ my mind in incredibly inspirational stuff.”

Listening to Jon really made me stop and think about the significance of what we surround ourselves with. The world we’re living in is constantly shaping us: our attitudes, our beliefs, our sense of what is possible.

Each day we are quietly being influenced by the things we choose to spend our time on, the people we choose to spend our time with. Infinitely absorbent. Always learning.


So I’m curious…how do you choose what influences you?

A trick for managing difficult emotions

For as long as I can remember, September has brought with it a mixture of excitement and trepidation: a lingering memory of childhood milestones (new classes, new teachers, new pencil cases) combined with a sense of the year moving into a different phase. This year I’ve felt it more than ever, having just helped my eldest son move away to college. I’m two parts joyous, one part bereft, which I guess is probably pretty much par for the course at a time like this.

It’s led me to reflect on how much I’ve learned about managing uncomfortable emotions over the last couple of years. After decades of rollercoastering between mood states, I’m finally much more able to let feelings be and not pick fights with them as they pass by. One of the most useful things I’ve learned is to name them – actually identify them in words – as a way of managing their intensity. It sounds bizarre but it is proven to work.

A number of studies, including this very recent one, have shown that simply naming uncomfortable feelings is enough to reduce activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain where emotional responses take place.

So if you ask me how I am and I happen to mention that I’m feeling a bit lost, now that my son (who was a toddler only a couple of years ago, I’m sure) isn’t around so much, don’t worry. Just naming the lostness will help me feel it a little less.


So I’m curious…do you have techniques to help you manage difficult emotions?

What works for you?


For those who’d like more info about how this process, also known as ‘affect labelling’, works….

When you trigger a strong emotional response in someone (for example, by showing them a photograph of an angry face), an fMRI scan of their brain will show their amygdala light up. The effect is instantaneous, prompting a flurry of biological responses designed to protect them from danger. However, when the person describes what they are feeling using words, their amygdala quietens down and a different region of the brain (the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, responsible for discrimination and emotional processing) takes over.

In a nutshell: through using naming language we can help ourselves move from a state of overwhelming, visceral emotion to one where we are calmer and able to see things more objectively.

What ‘kind’ of person are you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories this week. Specifically the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

We probably all have them. I’m not sure (never having been anybody else), but I know I do.

The thing is, until very recently, I hadn’t noticed that these stories weren’t real. That they were based on specific interpretations of things that could actually be interpreted in all sorts of other ways.

I was acting as though they were facts, when actually they were possibilities.

This didn’t matter too much when the stories I was telling helped me to be happy and healthy, but many of the stories did quite the opposite. For example, I had all kinds of stories that told me not to try new ways of being or doing things, because I wasn’t that kind of person. And I believed them.

Having started to get my head around the idea that these stories may not all be worth believing, I decided to see how many unhelpful ones I could dismantle and replace with new ones.

Lots of them, it turned out.

And I’m beginning to think: what if there isn’t such a thing as a kind of person? What if it’s ok to hold a little less tightly onto who we think we are and start being a bit more playful, experimental and curious about who we might like to be?


So I’m curious…do you have stories about yourself too?

Who else might you like to be?

What’s your safety net?

One of the most important things I’ve done over the last two years has been to create myself a ‘safety net’: a set of protective factors that support me in staying well.

I’ve discovered that lots of different things help me, but three of the most important are:

  • getting some kind of exercise
  • going outdoors, no matter what the weather
  • getting to bed before midnight

When life gets busy, I’ve noticed that it can be tempting to imagine that these things are luxuries. That it wouldn’t hurt to neglect them for a day or six. And initially it doesn’t seem to matter that much…

But, before I know it, I’m feeling just a bit more anxious. A bit less able to think clearly. A bit less patient with my nearest and dearest. A bit more critical of myself. A bit less hopeful about the future.

In just the same way that tiny positive changes can have a surprisingly huge effect over time, these little lapses really add up. And when they do and life gets really tough – as it seems to, sooner or later – it can seem completely unimaginable that such simple things as exercise, fresh air and sleep could bring any real relief.

For years people told me about the benefits of small, practical things like these and I smiled and ignored them. Behind the smile I even felt slightly indignant. How could they imagine that problems as terrible as mine would respond to such unremarkable things? (Good old ego…)

And yet, it turned out that unremarkable things exactly like these were able to help me turn a completely unmanageable life into really rather a nice one.

I suspect that everybody’s safety net needs to be slightly different. (I’m very definitely a morning person, so getting to bed before midnight matters to me, but might not to someone else.) I also suspect that it’s important to adjust one’s net from time to time. Optimise the tension. Make sure it’s still doing its job properly.


So, I’m curious…. do you have a safety net too?

If so, what does yours consist of?