What is Anxiety Telling Me?

You know you are spending too much time researching decision making theory, when you cannot decide if the anxiety you are experiencing is the result of catastrophising, experiencing status quo bias,  the wise voice of your intuition speaking up, fear of regret or an unrealistic expectation of being able to control everything.

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Type one thinking (the intuitive, emotional way that we make many decisions) gets a mixed press.  The limbic system (sometimes referred to as the mammalian brain) is responsible for a lot of our quick, automatic decisions.  It is responsible for all our auto-pilot actions, and also our sense of “gut feeling” or intuition. It gets us through the day by making all sorts of decisions from what to wear, how to get to work and how to do our routine tasks.

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” describes the limbic system as a bit lazy and prone to bias.  It will tend to prefer the familiar option or the status quo, which probably protected us from danger in days gone by, but may keep us stuck rather than moving us forward.  My anxiety could simply be my natural preference for things to stay the same making itself felt.

Apparently, we tend to have a magnified fear of regret, which is why we prefer a passive, non-decision over an active choice to do something different.  When we find it hard to decide, we tend to stick with the path we are on rather than risk regretting our decision later.  When I find myself hoping that the decision will be taken out of my hands, that is probably because I have a fear of making the wrong decision and then regretting it (for ever, of course).

On the other hand, many people credit intuition with providing deeper insights that our logical, rational brain cannot access.  Type one thinking occurs as a result of the brain quickly and subconsciously analysing all the similar situations we have been in, all the information we have right now and how important different aspects of the situation are to us.  It then sends us a message in the form of an urge to take action or an emotional response.  It can sift through far more information than our type two, logical thought process could ever hope to.  The more relevant experience we have to draw on, the wiser this intuitive response is likely to be.

Dina Glouberman has written extensively about the power of images and imagination to guide us wisely, since they can operate without being filtered through the prism of language and logic.  I think she might say that this anxiety is coming from a part of my brain that knows me better than my logical, analysing neocortex, and I should listen to it.  I need to explore what images come to mind as I feel this anxiety and what is lurking in my sub-conscious.

Indeed, scientists have fount that there is one specific part of our brains that carries on subconsciously analysing a problem while our conscious brain is working on something else, and finally gives us the answer when we are not expecting it.  This is why we sometimes get that “aha” moment while in shower or walking outside.

Aaron Beck, in developing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, described a series of “thinking traps” that people with anxious or overly pessimistic thought patterns tend to fall into.  One common one is “catastrophising” or imagining that the worst will happen and we won’t be able to cope with it.  I can quite easily catastrophise about all the options open to me and imagine them all ending in disaster, so that is probably not doing my anxiety levels any good!  How likely are these disasters really?  Well, they could happen, but I am probably more able to cope than I give myself credit for, and I am definitely spending more time focusing on potential disaster than potential joy.  This is type two (logical) thinking going into overdrive and not really making any progress at all.  There are just too many unknowns for type two to cope with.

And of course, the gurus of mindfulness (Thich Naht Han, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Danny Penman) would all say – just sit with it.  Notice the anxiety, notice the sensations in your body and just allow them to be.  Stop trying to solve it all!  If you sit quietly, and focus on the present moment, instead of letting your mind run wild with all the things that could happen, things will sort themselves out and the right path will become apparent in it’s own time.

Perhaps I am over-analysing things!  I have always liked a good theory, but I am not sure that they are really helping at the moment.  Maybe I just need a holiday…

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Love Your Job …or Is This Unrealistic?

IMG_0547.PNGIf you follow a lot of career coaches on social media, as I do, you will find that you are bombarded with messages about how you should chase your dreams, find work you love and not settle until you do.  Now, I am all for finding a way out of a job that makes you miserable, and doing what you can to reach your potential and find career satisfaction, but I’m not sure that all these messages are helpful (although they probably do generate business).

Is this expectation that we should all have a job we love unrealistic?  Are these messages just making anyone who does not have a job they love feel like a failure?

If you mainly enjoy your job, find the rewards outweigh the benefits, can pay your bills and feel that your work sits comfortably with your values, surely, you are a success already!  You have achieved something pretty good there!

Of course, maybe you don’t wake up every Monday morning eager to get to work.  Maybe there some things about your job that irritate the hell out of you or even just bore you a little.  In the real world, very few jobs are perfect – that is just life!  It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is any problem in settling for a job that on the whole meets your needs.

Some people do, of course, feel inspired to make a dramatic change and re-train or set up their own little business that they truly do love.  A Career Coach can do a lot to help them analyse the options, do their research, make a plan and cope with setbacks.  But if, on balance, someone decides not to change, and to stick with their existing path, perhaps because it provides for their family, then this choice should be honoured too.

It’s a beautiful thing to be an ordinary human being, doing ordinary things – walking the dog, playing with the kids, getting your work done, hanging out with friends, dancing, singing, running, or whatever it is that you do.

Maybe we should be doing more as a society to honour the people who cook, clean, care, make things and provide services? They probably don’t love their jobs but where would we be without them?  A toilet cleaner  is often thought of as the lowest of job roles, yet at least they are making the world a better place.

The problem with setting your sights very high is that you are going to experience a lot of frustration along the way. Those of us who are happy to be ordinary are probably going to be more easily satisfied because we have set the bar low.

 

Are We All Oversharing?

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I was recently sitting with a group of yoga teachers, lovely people who I generally have a lot of time for.  However, on this particular occasion, I had that rather uncomfortable feeling that you get when you really don’t agree with the heated opinions being voiced, but can’t quite find the words to speak up.

The topic of their vitriol?  People who share their emotional angst on Facebook.

“People just share far too much on Facebook.  Really personal stuff about how depressed they feel.  It’s just attention seeking,” one said.

“I barely know this person, and she is sharing posts about how much she misses her dead sister.  I don’t feel comfortable with it,” said another.  “I’ve never met her sister.”

“I know.   And it annoys me when this woman posted about how much she appreciated her wonderful husband on his birthday.  I mean, she could have just told him to his face.  It’s just showing off,” said a third.

Now, I am not a yoga teacher, so I didn’t feel very qualified to comment on whether sharing your thoughts and feelings on Facebook is yogic or not, but I didn’t feel comfortable.

On reflection, surely if we are working towards kindly acceptance of all our emotional states, then being able to name them is important, even when they are grief, loneliness or existential angst.  Appreciation and gratitude are also attitudes worth cultivating. Naming these emotions in public is a strong way of acknowledging them.

Facebook can sometimes feel a bit like Smugbook – all those perfect holiday snaps and nights out – so personally I find it a relief when people allow their less than perfect lives to be seen in public.  It helps me feel that I am not alone with my domestic chaos or my quiet night in.

If a friend of mine shares that they are lonely or grieving, I give them a few moments of kind thoughts and post a message to let them know they are not alone.  I might give them a ring or make a point of chatting to them in the office next time I see them if that seems appropriate.  It can make the connection between us stronger.

I’ve noticed that it tends to be my male friends who are more likely to share feelings on social media.  One friends recently posted that he felt inexplicably lonely, even in a crowd of friends, whilst another posted that he missed his recently deceased father.  Men are often criticised for not being emotionally literate, so surely this sharing is a great step forward in redefining masculinity.

Female friends seem more likely to share the frustrations of parenthood or juggling home and work life.  The laundry that fell in the mud, the child behaving like a brat, the baby that won’t sleep, the babysitter that didn’t turn up or the cake that just didn’t rise. Letting a less than perfect life be seen in public builds intimacy.

A bit of appreciation for the long-suffering husbands/wives and mothers/fathers who support us through this quagmire reminds us all to appreciate those around us.  And doesn’t everyone like to be acknowledged in public for the great things we do?  Even if those great things are not ending world poverty or inventing a solar powered aeroplane, but simply being a supportive partner or parent.

So, now I have finally gathered my thoughts, here are my replies to those yoga teachers.

  1. If you really don’t care that someone is grieving for their sister, there is a simple solution – don’t be friends with them on Facebook.  You are obviously not friends in real life, even if she thinks otherwise.
  2. It’s good to be appreciative of all those who help and support you, and appreciating people in public is a lovely gift.
  3. If you need support, it’s fine to ask for it.  Nothing wrong with that.  Your real friends will be happy to send you kind messages when you need them, and make time for you.
  4. Sharing your real life with its emotional ups and downs helps all of us to know that we are not alone, that no life is as perfect as it may look from the outside.
  5. If you want to share person information about your life, think about who your friends are, and your privacy settings.  Make sure you are sharing with the people who really do care about you.

 

 

 

Meditation on Life Choices

This one is for you if you are sitting at life’s crossroads, wondering  which direction to take with your life.  Should it be the high street, the country lane or the overgrown path that few others have walked down?  Maybe you are trying to decide whether to stick out your secure job until retirement, or take a chance on a new direction.  You could retrain or do a further qualification.  Maybe you are going through a transition (leaving school, parenthood, moving house, graduation) and you are not sure what comes next.

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Whatever dilemma you face, using visualisation is a great way to get in touch with your intuition and the knowledge stored in your unconscious mind, created out of all your memories and experiences.  Sometimes when we relax and empty our mind, and just stop analysing everything for a moment, an image arises which contains some kind of message about how we really feel deep down.

This happened to me recently when at at the end of a particularly busy week of working, writing, yoga, family activities and cooking for guests, I sat down and invited my unconscious mind to offer to me an image.  The image that came to mind was of a blacksmith hammering something into shape.  I knew that it was me hammering myself –  forcing myself to achieve all the things I wanted to achieve.  When I allowed the image to change to reflect how I wanted things to be, the blacksmith stood back and allowed the metal to shape itself in its own time.  This felt like a clear message that what I needed was to allow things to unfold rather than drive myself so hard.

The following visualisation is has slightly different instructions and may help you to visualise several paths or options so you can explore how you feel about them.  To get started you will need a quiet room where you won’t be interrupted for ten or fifteen minutes.

  1. Lie down on your back if this is comfortable, or on your side if it is not.  You can put cushions under your knees and head if this makes you more comfortable.  If it is chilly, cover yourself with a blanket. Close your eyes.
  2. Take a few deep breaths or sighs, and breath out any tension.  Tense and relax each part of your body, including your shoulders, jaw and eyes.
  3. Breath into every part of your body.  If any part still feels tense, send it a gentle message to relax – “relax my shoulders, let my shoulders relax”.
  4. Set the intention to allow whatever images arise to arise, and accept them just as they are, even if they seem strange.
  5. Imagine yourself at a crossroads.  What kind of roads or paths are there?
  6. Take the road or path that seems most inviting and walk along it.  What do you see?  How does it feel to walk this way?  What is there along the road? Is there anyone else there?  Imagine you have walked five years down this road?  Now how does it feel?  What are you doing? Has anything changed?
  7. Once you have explored this road enough, go back to the crossroads and try another pathway.  What is this pathway like?  How do you feel?  Again, walk five years into the future down this pathway and see how it feels?
  8. If you want to, you can come back to the crossroads and try a third road.  You could also re-visit either of the first two roads.
  9. Once you have explored as many roads as you want to, allow your mind to relax again.  Take a bit of time to focus on your breath and just see if anything else emerges.  When you are ready, you can bring some movement back into your arms and legs, turn onto your side for a few minutes, and then open your eyes and get up.

You may have quite a clear sense of what each path represents, but it may not be immediately obvious.  Perhaps one path feels riskier, but it’s not clear what risk you are contemplating.  It may be that further insights come to you some days later, or they may not come at all – you can’t force them, but you can invite them in by making quiet time to contemplate.

If you would like to read more about working with images, I recommend Dr Dina Glouberman’s book, “Life Choices Life Changes” which has many more activities using visualisation to support your decision-making.

Permission to Experiment on a Brave Group of Teenagers

Over the last couple of weeks, I have had the privilege of working with a fantastic group of teenagers who all volunteered to let me “experiment” on them with some creative career coaching techniques.  Armed with felt tips, post it notes, craft materials and our imaginations, we ventured into the world of images, metaphor, photographs, spider diagrams and visual planning.  Some things worked and some things didn’t, but that didn’t matter – we enjoyed ourselves and everyone went home feeling a bit more inspired and motivated.

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Working in school, it can be hard to experiment.  The bell dictates the length of the session, and the clients that we see are mainly those at key transition points so there is a sense of urgency.  The temptation is to stick to the methods that I know will work, and be an efficient use of time.  Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioural Coaching, evaluating options, unpicking decision-making processes, eliciting skills and interests through discussion, teaching research skills – these are my comfort zone.  It’s a very linguistic approach to coaching, making good use of the more logical parts of our brains, but could more visual imagery strengthen this process?

Language shapes how we think.  We can only think about things if we have words to describe them.  Working with visual images can sometimes get under the skin of things in a different way, without all our thoughts having to be filtered through the prism of language.  This is why daydreaming can be powerful and our dreams can sometimes tell us things that have eluded our conscious thought-process.  I wanted to find a way to bring this into my career coaching practice.

And the result? Allowing our imaginations more of a free rein in this process certainly seemed to be really motivational and left the young people enthused about their next steps.

So Which Activities Worked Best?

Backwards action planning was a clear winner for those who were a year off a key a transition point.  They stood on a tile on the kitchen floor, which was designated “one year into the future”, closed their eyes and imagined how things would be if they had made good choices, were succeeding in their chosen course, had made new friends and settled into a new environment.  We took our time with this, and I asked them questions about what they were doing, what they were wearing, how they felt, what was going particularly well and so on.  Once the image seemed to be really strong, I asked them what steps they had taken to get there.  They called them out as they imagined them and I wrote down each action on a slip of paper.  After they had opened their eyes, they put the actions into the order that they needed to be done in, and photographed it with their phone.  Visualising a task uses the same neural pathways as actually doing a task, so imagining the process should actually strengthen the pathways needed to carry it out, which will make it easier.

For the younger teenagers, who, at fourteen, were two years off a key transition point, the winning activity was thinking about all the things they value and want for themselves in the future, and writing each thing down on a post it note.  I have done a similar activity in school when the client is thinking about which option to choose, but here we tackled the much bigger question of “What do I want my life to be like?” They talked about wanting to be able to change the world, the importance of being able to be themselves and speak truthfully, their interests in fashion and music, political views, being creative, care for the environment, wanting to be in the countryside, wanting to travel, as well as hobbies, school subjects and part-time jobs.  They then put these post it notes in order of how important they were and photographed the list.  As one of them said, “All these things were a clutter in my mind, but now they make sense.  I can see the connections.”  Identity and the big question of “Who am I? Where do I fit in?” is so important for teenagers, and this age they need to expand their career ideas rather than narrow them down.

The moral so far?  Don’t go anywhere without your post it notes, career coaches!

A new technique which had a more variable success rate was thinking of images that summed up how they felt about their lives at the moment.  I asked them to close their eyes, relax and see if an image, perhaps of a plant, animal or object, came to mind.  Some were able to think of images, but they did worry a lot about whether they were “doing it right” and needed a lot of reassurance.  They tended to come up with fairly sensible metaphors rather than wildly imaginative images.  Strangely, I think I found their images more useful when reflecting on the sessions than they did; these images did point to the high leverage issues to which we returned throughout.

Drawing pictures was also fun and relaxing, especially for the teenagers who told me they couldn’t draw.   A wonky picture of an Engineer with a spanner in her hand caused us some giggles, and then we had to add a computer and an office environment, since with a bit of thought, we both knew that Chartered Engineers don’t often go near a spanner.

So, I thank all these teenagers for letting me “experiment” with them, and wish them all the best.  Although I have known all of them since they were toddlers I got to know them better in that hour than in all the years I have been around them.  And I will definitely be repeating the experience.  It is so much easier to try new things out when freed from the constraints of the school environment or the knowledge that the client is paying for the service.

High Low Goals

A great goal is challenging enough to motivate us, but not so challenging that we expect to fail.  It should take us to the edge of our capabilities, but no further.

We like to be stretched (why else would we set goals?) but we are not great at persistence in the face of failure, so it’s best to avoid goals that we are unlikely to achieve.

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It takes a strong person to pick themselves straight back up after failure and keep going, and the tendency is to give up the whole goal as a bad job as soon as we go off track.  How many times have you decided to give up biscuits, but then you slip up and eat one, and having eaten one, you carry on to eat half the packet?

For this reason, “high-low goals” can be more motivating than specific goals.  A “high-low” goal specifies a range, so examples include:

  • Do 20-40 minutes revision each night
  • Apply for 2-5 jobs per week
  • Practice yoga for 10-30 minutes every morning
  • Reduce consumption of biscuits to 1-3 per week/day

These goals can be more motivational because if you only make the bottom of the range (twenty minutes revision or two jobs), you can still feel positive and good about yourself for having achieved your goal.  You are more likely to continue to pursue the goal, because you feel you are succeeding and you are getting that little buzz of achievement each day.  Next day or week, you might achieve nearer the top of the range.

On another occasion, you may achieve the bottom of the range quite easily and feel encouraged to continue for a bit longer to achieve the top of the range.  So you may apply for two jobs, and then carry on applying for another three.  With a traditional specific goal, you might have just thought “job done” at two and stopped.

So with this in mind my goal for September is to write (or research) for 10-60 minutes per hour each day.  I can definitely manage ten minutes per day (that is only reading half a chapter or drafting a few paragraphs) but on a good day I might well manage an hour.  Knowing that I never have to do more than an hour is also a relief!

To count or not to count…

Counting my breaths is a habit that has become ingrained by years of Ashtanga yoga.  Five breaths in this asana, twenty breaths in that asana, oh and a hundred breaths in Tolasana (that was always a challenge); I counted my practice away until it was over.

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And now my yoga has slowed down, but I still count the breaths – ten breaths, twenty breaths, thirty breaths.  I’m still counting!

There are definitely some benefits to counting.  It’s a good way to measure the time in an asana and regulate the practice.  It helps me to ensure I challenge myself sufficiently, without letting myself off the hook as soon as I start to feel any discomfort or impatience.  It helps me practice evenly in the poses I like and the poses I don’t. It does help to focus the mind. Focusing on a count is obviously better than focusing on tonight’s supper or the things I must not forget to do tomorrow!

And yet, the more I practice and count, the more I feel that counting is actually distracting me from being really aware of what is happening in my body.  I am focused on the counting in my head, instead of being fully present to the sensations of my legs, back, arms or even breath. I am slightly disassociated from my body when I count. I am focused on the end goal, rather than the moment, and sometimes my breath speeds up if I am particularly eager to reach that goal.

And yet, when I don’t count, it is a real challenge to judge how long to stay; staying long enough for the asana to be challenging, yet not so long that I lose my sense of ease and balance.  It’s a new skill to notice the beginnings of discomfort, acknowledge them and then decide to continue a little longer before choosing the right moment to complete the asana.

I often get into an internal narrative about how long I have been there, and whether it is long enough, and of course that is even more distracting than counting.  Some days I am impatient and can’t wait to move on, while other days I get so comfy in a pose I could stay there all day, so my practice is less even.  I don’t know whether that matters or not. Maybe I just need to acknowledge that every day is different.

Of course, there is always the kitchen timer option!  A timer can be useful for longer, restorative holds, as it does get rid of that internal narrative about how long I have been there.  With a timer, it is easier to let go of impatience and allow whatever is there to be.  But it also removes the challenge of listening to my body and making the right judgement.

And like so many things in yoga, there is a metaphor for life here too.  How many times do I set myself a target of work to do, and complete it no matter what (even when I am tired, thirsty or need the loo); I ignore the inconvenient messages from my body.  Whether it is completing my blog post before I go bed, tidying one room of the house every day, sorting out my email box before I go home or analysing that spreadsheet before I move onto another task, I set myself goals and focus on completing them, rather than truly listening to my mind and body, and using that to judge how much to do.  I would probably be healthier and more productive if I took that break when my body is sending me thirsty/tired signals, rather than soldiering on to reach the target I have set myself.

So, later today I need to tidy and sort out my younger son’s bedroom (with his help, I hasten to add).  Should I:

  • A) Work for half an hour and then stop, no matter where I have got to
  • B) Do half a bedroom and then stop, no matter how long it takes
  • C) Stop when the time feels right – when I have made some decent progress, but before I feel tired and irritable (even if that is not very long at all!)

Answers on a postcard please….