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?
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!
Ask yourself, what single habit would I like to create in my daily routine? Now ask, why?
“If you want to be calmer, if you want to be able to respond rather than react, meditation’s a great habit. If you want to get fitter, then your habit might be to walk for half an hour three or four times a week, the same time of day on designated days during the week. Or it could be reading poetry or it could be having a phone call with someone who makes you feel good regularly; reaching out in some way. Whatever the habit is, start today, but be clear on your why. What’s it going to give you? How will it improve your life? How will it create better, deeper connections? Because it’s the why that is instrumental in motivating us towards the behaviour we want to create every day… So many people want to change half a dozen things, which is overwhelming so they don’t start. Don’t worry, just choose one. That’s it.”
Look at people you pass in the street and silently wish them well.
“I look people in the face and wish them well for their day. Just in my own mind and my own thoughts, I wish them well – I don’t voice it. Wishing good on other people, particularly people who look troubled, I find incredibly powerful and energising. It helps me. I mean I kind of believe that we’re more connected than we believe we are, that we’re not all just these separate individuals. And if you think of it like that, if we’re connected, it’s kind of wishing well upon the system of which we are a part. And ultimately by doing good to others, you’re doing good for yourself. So I just have this practice that I find really helpful of ‘wishing well’. In a kind, gentle way, just doing that to 5 or 10 people as you walk along the street, I find really powerful.”
Take a few moments during your lunch break to practise yoga.
“Lunch yoga is the Little Challenge that I’d like to offer you. Not eating lunch while doing yoga (although maybe I shouldn’t knock it until I’ve tried it). Lunch yoga is simply doing yoga during your lunch break. There are a million videos on YouTube iff you want to just follow along with someone, One thing that I’ve done, not that I’m brand loyal or anything, but I’ve used the Nike Training Club App. They have a lot of exercises. You can just filter by yoga, pick one that fits the amount of time that you have and you’re good to go.”
Choose a small object that has meaning for you that you haven’t thought about for a while. Put it somewhere obvious. Each time you notice it, pause and notice the thoughts that come up.
‘Three Simple Steps To Find Meaning From A Personal Object’.
“Here’s what you do. Find something wherever you live that’s kind of small, something you’ve had it in some place for so long that you’ve really stopped noticing it, but it’s important to you. It might be something you picked up on a vacation or a gift that you were given at some point, but you put it initially in a spot and it had meaning for you, but now it’s been there so long that you’ve kind of lost track of that meaning. Take it and put it somewhere else. A conspicuous spot where you’re going to see it and then, each day, when you come across it, just pause for a split second and see what comes up in your mind. Pay attention to what happens and just take note of that. It could be, now you’re thinking of this person who gave this to you. Or you’re thinking of the vacation that you got it or whatever the case may be. That could be enough right there, but if you really want to extend it, take a minute to jot that down. Write down what feelings, emotions, people that this is evoking and then act on one thing if you want to go a little bit further. You could jot someone a little note and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you”. If it’s a memory that that triggers, maybe you’ve got a photo or two that you want to share or maybe you were on that trip with somebody and you want to talk to them about it.”
When you’re in a stressful situation, pause for a moment and think of three things you’re grateful for.
“When you get really anxious or mad or unhappy with something – let’s say you’re in traffic jam and you’re getting really riled up and you can feel your heart beating and your temperature rising – you’re locked in an emotion, a stress reaction that is really hard to get out of. And that’s kind of like the lizard brain has taken over, and that can be quite harmful because you’re producing a lot of stress hormones. When you’re in a situation like that, find three things you’re grateful for. Because two things are happening. First of all, you are forcing your brain to use a different part of the brain. So it’s interrupting the stress response because you’re having to think for things that you’re grateful for. And the second thing is that you’re rewiring your brain to become more sensitive to positive things. And it can be something really silly like, “The sun’s shining”, “The car smells good”, or, “I like the way my hair looks today”! Whatever it is, every time you feel yourself getting into that spot of darkness, just come up with three things you’re grateful for and you will see yourself immediately calm down. Over a period of time, within two weeks, you can actually find yourself being a happier person.”
Find out more about the line-up of guests for Series 2 of Adventures in Behaviour ChangeHERE.
It’s the end of series 1 of Adventures in Behaviour Change: the Little Challenges podcast and I’m taking a little time out to reflect on all the wonderful conversations there have been so far.
At the end of each episode, I invite our guest for the day to suggest their own Little Challenge that people can try for themselves. There have been all sorts of different ideas of tiny, practical things that can help to make life just a little bit easier, happier or more meaningful.
Here are the first 5 Little Challenges our guests shared:
Use a guided meditation app such as Insight Timer to help you meditate for just a few minutes a day.
“When I first started a mindfulness practice a little over five years ago, I had read a book and it was suggested 10 or 20 minutes a day and I thought to myself, “That’s just way too long – I can’t sit that long!” And so the way I approached it was I said to myself, “What is the smallest amount of time where at the end of the day, I can’t say to myself, I was too busy, I didn’t have time for that even though it’s really important to me?” And so I came up with two minutes. And so for two and a half years I meditated for two minutes every single day. Now I meditate a minimum of 10 minutes a day, but even the two minutes a day for those two and a half years, really had an impact on my ability to react to stress differently, because it gives you that skill to just pause instead of be very reactive.”
Choose a task or an activity you’ve been meaning to do but putting off. Now ask:
Is there a barrier that’s stopping me from doing it? If so, what is it?
How can I adjust my routine or environment to make it easier to do it?
How can I remind myself to do it when it’s the right time, right place?
How can I make a public commitment to doing it?
“I think everybody will have something that they have been wanting to do but haven’t quite got there yet. A ‘Little Challenge’ could be recognising that thing and first working out, “Is there a barrier, or is there friction to me doing that thing?” And, if there is, then looking at ways to get rid of that barrier or reduce that friction. Then thinking about, “How could I make it more obvious for myself to to do this thing?” It might be if you’re taking some pills and you keep forgetting, you know, “Where can I put them so I’m not going to miss them?” Thirdly, thinking about the right time, right place. So actually I may be thinking about this behaviour quite consciously now because I’m doing the ‘Little Challenge’, but when it comes to actually doing it, I may not be, so what is the perfect time and place to nudge myself to do this behaviour? And then finally, the commitment piece, so, “Can I find a way to externalise my commitment to myself to do this thing? Can I physically write something down, sign something, could I make that public in some way? Could I tell somebody, put on a website? Can I write about in my blog?” And so, so maybe just thinking about whatever it is that you’re not doing and try to follow through those steps.”
Breathe in through your nose and breathe out, slowly, for a longer amount of time than you breathe in.
“My ‘Little Challenge’ would be to create a bit of space for yourself in the day. Just breathe and be really conscious of your breathing. In particular breathe in through your nose and breathe out, slowly, for a longer amount of time than you breathe in – so you could maybe breathe in for two counts and breathe out for, say, eight counts, which will slow you down. It’ll oxygenate your blood, it’ll bring you into the moment. You know, particularly at times if you’re stressed or you’re anxious, this is when you need it most.”
Make a daily appointment on your calendar to do something that’s just for you.
I think we’ve forgotten how to make serious appointments with ourselves and put ourselves first so that we’ve actually got a full tank to be of service to others. And so I want people to get their calendars out and put something in their calendar every single day that’s for themselves. Maybe it’s five minutes of just sitting on a chair staring out a window and just being mindful for five minutes and it’s your five minutes. And it could be doing some gratitude journalling or it could be five minutes of pulling out your favourite recipe book and finding a recipe. It doesn’t matter what it is, but every single day, something just for you that is scheduled. It’s non negotiable. It’s for you. The interesting thing about using your calendar is that it feels kind of counterintuitive, that if you fill your calendar up, you don’t have freedom, but the opposite happens. The more you’ve actually scheduled your day to account for you, the work you need to do, the people you want to be with, the activities you want in your day, and the more they’re scheduled in, they become guiding posts for you. You’ll actually have that freedom because you built it in.”
Share a little bit of honesty with another human being.
“My ‘Little Challenge’ would be to create a truth, something honest that you’re going through or that is affecting you, and share that with another human being. It doesn’t have to be something big and horrible, but just a bit of honesty. If you’re not using social media, then you can do it in real life, or you could write a letter. We’re evolved to be in a tribe, in a village, and our modern society doesn’t really work in the same way with us looking out for each other, so we can create a virtual village by doing that using the internet or using analogue means to share some truth. So that’s what I would suggest to people: think of a truth and share that with someone.”
When I was growing up, my parents always napped after lunch. Each day at 1:30pm they were to be found fast asleep in their respective armchairs, rugs upon their knees and the television murmuring quietly in the background. At the time I didn’t realise that they were unusual in doing so – that most people didn’t work from home and couldn’t nap even if they wanted to – and it came as quite a surprise to discover that napping wasn’t a universal practice.
Like many people I went through a phase of wanting to do everything as differently from my parents as possible, so for a while I was a determined non-napper, using caffeine, sugar and sheer obstinacy to help me through the saggy bit of the afternoon. However, in recent years my behaviour has started to change – largely because I can’t help but notice that a brief period of sleep has the most extraordinarily restorative effect on me. It’s like an afternoon ‘reboot’. In just the same way I might try turning electronic devices off and on again when they start malfunctioning, I find that I think better, feel happier and am more creative and resourceful after just a few minutes of switched-off-ness. And it seems I’m not alone…
It seems that the length of nap is all important. In this study, researchers found that the optimum nap length is 10 minutes. Much shorter and the associated benefits (improved cognitive ability, increased vigour and reduced fatigue) don’t show up. Much longer and there’s a risk of experiencing ‘sleep inertia’ – waking in a state of confusion, mental fogginess and exhaustion.
This study suggests that early afternoon is the best time for a nap and that napping regularly works better than occasionally.
It’s also worth knowing that very frequent or long-lasting daytime naps can be associated with reduced mental and physical health (more here).
In Daniel Pink’s excellent book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing he explores the subject in detail, including a description of how to take the perfect ‘nappuccino’ – a coffee/snooze combination that seems to bring the greatest benefits of any type of nap.
So, after all these years, I’m beginning to think that my parents were onto something with their little siesta. How amused they’d be to hear me say that…