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.

Sign, Direction, Kids, Cute, Paint, Png, Transparent

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…

Advertisements

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.

Girl, Crossroads, Choice, Way, Direction

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.

Helpful Buddhas Meditation

This mediatation is brilliant for the end of a frustrating day, and it can actually be quite entertaining as well, and reminds me of the lighter side of life. I first came across it in Jack Kornfield’s book “A Path with Heart”.

image

Sit quietly and tune into your breathing. Imagine that the earth is filled with Buddhas (or whatever wise guides you prefer), and every person you have met today is one of these enlightened beings, there just to teach you a lesson. Each person exists entirely for your benefit and is acting to help you learn something new.

Your task in this meditation is to discern the lessons that have been offered to you today.

So, if you have just been to a job interview, and found they had a favoured internal candidate all along, perhaps there is some thing to learn about non-attachment or compassion.

If your boss has been piling the work on, the lesson could be around finding your wellspring of calm in the face of it all, or developing your assertiveness skills.

If you have been stuck in a heavy traffic jam on the way home, maybe all those drivers were there to teach you to accept your boredom and turn it to mindful acceptance.

A bullying colleague could be there to teach you to to find the inner strength to believe in yourself, ask for help or change your situation.

The more you use your imagination, the more you can see the ways all these wise beings are helping you. What I love about this meditation is that it can make difficult situations feel lighter and de-toxify difficult relationships.

If you have never meditated before, see my post onReally Simple Meditation to help you get started.

 

 

Fourteen Books That Might Change Your Life

image.jpegLike Hermione Granger, if in doubt I go to the library. Many times in my life, I have been full of doubt or negativity, and the right book has come along at the right time to help me turn things around.

So, these are the books which have changed my life at different times.  I’m not saying they are the best spiritual guides out there, just that they are the books that came and spoke to me at the right time in my life.  Maybe it is a right time in your life for one of these books!

Benjamin Hoff – The Tao of Pooh

I was given this book as a teenager, by my Mum, and it was my first introduction to Eastern philosophy.  It’s a simple book, but was very comforting at the time. It makes Taoism very accessible.

Anne Dickenson – Assertiveness

I found this book as a teenager, just as I was getting into feminism and political activism.  I was a very unassertive teenager, and this book helped me claim my right to express my point of view.

Carl Rogers – Client Centred Therapy

His concept of unconditional positive regard is a beautiful one, and learning to extend acceptance and warmth to others, we inevitably learn to extend it to ourselves as well. This book changed my relationship with m,y clients, but also with myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh – Peace Is Every Step

This is a beautiful and easy introduction to mindfulness and meditation from a Vietnamese monk.  He is super practical and gives mindfulness activities that you can do while washing up, in a traffic jam or answering the phone. This book helped me appreciate the beauty in the present moment long before I did any kind of meditation course.  I have to thank my step-father for this gift.

Martin Seligman – Learned Optimism

I read this whilst the organisation I work for was going through a major restructure and redundancy exercise. This book helped me to recognise some pessimistic thought patterns that were making me feel mildly depressed, and I was able to re-write my internal script with the help of this book, and feel a lot more optimistic. Seligman is a leading expert on cognitive behavioural therapy and positive psychology, and this book is very practical.

Patanjali – Yoga Sutras

I first read the Sutras when I was doing a Yoga Mind course with my yoga teacher, Ade Belcham.  This book and the discussions we had transformed my whole understanding of yoga and changed they way I think about my practice quite profoundly.  It’s often said that the Sutras are like an onion and you need to peel away the layers with each read, and I think that is true. Definitely one to re-read.

Martha Beck – Finding Your Own North Star

This is a career development book that both annoyed and challenged me. Beck’s book is a guide to finding your true calling or dream job, and I often find these sorts of career books slightly annoying, for reasons I will explain in a future post. But this book did really challenge me to identify what I really wanted to achieve with my working life. It’s career planning with a spiritual heart, and that is much needed in the modern world.

Donna Farhi – Bringing Yoga to Life

This is a wise guide to taking the lessons of yoga off your mat and into real life. A lot of what she says about yoga at different stages of life really resonated with me and inspired me to deepen my practice.

Tara Brach – Radical Acceptance

This book takes mindfulness and meditation a bit further, and talks a lot about acceptance (as the title implies) – of difficult emotions, limitations, loss – and gives brilliant guidance on how to sit with those difficulties and just let them be.

Carol Dwek -Mindset

Dwell has researched the difference between the fixed and growth mindset and through many experiments, has shown the power of the growth mindset. This book made me very conscious of the language I use, with myself, my kids and at work. It gave me confidence that it is ok to make mistakes and more important to focus on learning and getting out of my comfort zone.

Sheryl Sandberg – Lean In

Sandberg’s book was quite controversial when it was published, but it gave me  the professional kick up the backside I needed, at a time of self-doubt.  It’s a call to professional women to stretch themselves at work rather than hideout in the shadows.

Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Seagal and Jon Kabat-Zinn – The Mindful Way Through Depression

This was my introduction to structured mindfulness and I first did the eight week mindfulness programme from this book.  There is a great CD of guided meditations that comes with it, which I still go back to if I need some focus. Karat-Zinn has a lovely voice that instantly makes me feel peaceful. It’s also a very clear explanation of the theory of mindfulness, and you definitely don’t need to be depressed to read it.

The Charisma Myth – Olivia Fox Cabane

This sounds like it is going to be an awful book for people who want to make it in sales or as the next CEO, but it is actually a rather lovely book that is very rooted in mindfulness and body awareness.   She talks a lot about the power of “presence” and developing real listening skills, about developing more positive mental dialogue and being more aware of body language and how that both influences your own mental state and how others respond to you.  It’s more a book about how to be your best authentic self than how to perform for others. Great if you are training, chairing meetings, networking, or influencing people.

Eastern Body Western Mind – Anodea Judith

This is my current read. It’s a fascinating guide to the chakras, explaining them using concepts from Western psychology. The chakras are linked to life stages and developmental tasks as well as energy flows, and this book explains how childhood experiences can impact on the energy balance we experience as adults, and the behaviour and thought patterns we enact.

I hope one of these books speaks to you as well, at a time you need it.

Which books have changed your life? You are welcome to add to this list in the comments.

Sparkly Moments and Appreciative Inquiry

Traditional organisational improvement focuses on what has gone wrong – complaints, poor performance, failures – and then looks at how to improve. This is anxiety provoking for all involved and people learn to associate improvement work with negative emotions. Doing improvement work implies that something is lacking.

Appreciative Enquiry turns the traditional approach on its head, and uses questions from solution-focused coaching to find examples of where things are going well and then to amplify them. A good solution focused question could be, “Think of a time that things were going well, or customers/clients were particularly happy. What was going on then?” This helps people to focus on where things are going right, generates positive emotions so people want to do improvement work, and can lead to rapid improvements because people engage. After all, what you focus on, you tend to get more of.

A fun workshop activity to get started can be to ask everyone in the room to think of a “sparkly moment” from their working life, a moment that gave them pleasure and satisfaction. Ask them to describe it to a partner, while the partner uses active listening skills. The listener then notes down all the strengths that were described or implied by the story, and then feeds them back to the storyteller.

image

I did this recently with a team of careers advisers, and took note of all the strengths that were described and turned them  into a word cloud poster. They were reminded of all the times they have been resilient, passionate, caring, proactive, determined and helpful.  The activity also reminded them of the wide range of professional skills and knowledge they have. Reminding the team of the strengths they have on a good day is feelgood exercise, and by helping them to identify more strongly with their strengths, they are being helped to amplify them.

In yoga, we sometimes choose a sankalpa before meditating or doing yoga nidra. The  Sankalpa is a intention formed with the heart and mind. Although it is a statement of a quality or situation we want to bring about, we say it to ourselves as if it has already been achieved. So we might hold the thought “I am compassionate,” “I have abundance in my life,” “I am loved,” or “I am successful,” depending on what we want in our lives. By stating it in the present tense we are acknowledging that we already have this potential inside ourselves. The sankalpa is a tool to help us focus single-mindedly and at every level of our being on the situation we want to cultivate.

Appreciative Inquiry is an organisational development approach that acknowledges that the organisation already has the potential to become whatever it needs to become. There just needs to be a strong united focus on what the organisation wants to achieve and a determination to grow. A statement of intention left sitting on someone’s hard drive is meaningless, but a statement of intention genuinely owned by the people is powerful. The seeds of improvement are already planted, we just need to find them and water them!

 

Really Simple Meditation

image I talk a lot about meditation in my posts because it has transformed my life in numerous ways. I’m not particularly good at meditation – I often get bored or distracted – but that’s not the point. I do stick at it, and one thing I know for sure is that the more I meditate, the better my life gets. It’s not that bad things don’t happen, but I navigate them so much better.

When I meditate, I feel happier and find more joy in my daily activities. I walk around smiling for no particular reason. I connect better with other people and find myself starting conversations with strangers instead of being in my own world. I’m less irritable and more compassionate. And more good things happen!

Meditation can be really simple. Anyone can do it. You don’t any special equipment or a guru (although a teacher can really help). You just need a bit of quiet.

So, here is my simple guide to getting started:

1. Find somewhere quiet to sit and turn off your phone. Ask people not to disturb you. You can sit in a straight back chair or on a cushion, but be comfortable.

2. If you are in a chair sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor. If you are on a cushion, sit cross legged or kneel. Sit up nice and straight, so you feel alert rather than slouchy.

3. Start by focusing on your breath. Just notice it to begin with, and see if it is deep or shallow, fast or slow, even or irregular. Then start to lengthen your breath by counting slowly to 3,4 or 6 on the in breath and the same number on the out breath. Just keep going like this, staying focused on your breath.

4. Your mind will inevitably wonder because this is what minds do. They are very busy! When you mind does wonder, just notice what has happened, and take your focus back to the breath. Don’t criticise yourself, you are not doing anything wrong.

5. After a while you can let go of the counting and just notice your breath. Notice how it feels as it comes in and out, around your nostrils, chest, rib cage and stomach

6. Carry on for five, ten or fifteen minutes. It is helpful to set a timer, so you don’t have to keep looking at a clock. Or, if you don’t want to use a timer you could try this: the first time you a have a strong urge to stop, notice the impulse and come back to your breath, the second time you have an urge to stop, come back to the breath again, and the third time you have the urge to stop, then finish for the day.

7. Try to meditate every day to see the real benefits.

When you are are getting started, it can be really helpful to use a sound file to guide you through.  My favourites are the Danny Penman Frantic World files and they are freely available on his website.

Even better, try an eight week mindfulness course. You will need to commit to meditating every day, and you will get lots of support from the teacher and your group. It helps to keep you motivated and deal with any difficulties that arise. I did mine with Sue Weston but there are courses all over the place.

Above all, just keep practicing every day, even if it is boring and uncomfortable, and you feel too busy! It will start to make a difference.

Self Compassion as a Career Management Skill

Self-compassion is a skill that is often lacking in the workplace. We often drive ourselves very hard to achieve or simply to keep up, even when it damages our health. We don’t always cut ourselves a lot of slack when we struggle to balance our work life and family life or cope with challenging problems. Many people are dogged by a self-critical voice that pipes up every time a mistake is made with variations on the theme of “you just aren’t good enough” or “you should be ashamed to have made that mistake”. When faced with a new challenge, the inner critic reminds us that we probably won’t succeed and may just end up making a fool of ourselves.  Moreover, we often believe that we are the only people who suffer in this way.

Self-compassion is our ability to be kind, forgiving and accepting of ourselves.  It is our ability to care for ourselves in the same way we would care for a child or dear friend: with tolerance, warmth and nurturing. We can  be self-compassionate whilst recognising that we make mistakes and have many imperfections and limitations.

In that sense, it is different to self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence, which all invoke more evaluation of how good or bad a person we are (often in relation to others) or how good or bad at doing something we will be. There is a judgement involved and the positive evaluation of ourselves is often dependent on us achieving certain things.

Self-compassion is a warmth towards our selves simply based on the fact that we are human. We don’t need to be good at anything or successful at anything to be self-compassionate; we care for ourselves just as we are. In this respect, it is rather like Carl Roger’s concept of unconditional positive regard except it is directed towards ourselves instead of others.

There are many meditation practices that help people to develop self-compassion. One example consists of visualising a wise being who sees our inner most thoughts and secret actions and offers us warmth and acceptance just as we are.  You could also try this guided Befriending Meditation by Danny Penman.

In yoga, we learn to cultivate steadiness and ease in our bodies rather than strain, and learn to accept our physical limitations with kindness. It is a good lesson that can be taken off the mat and into our lives.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapists help their clients to be more aware of how their inner critic may be sabotaging them and teach their client to replace this voice with a more positive and encouraging voice. The client can learn to recognise where their internal narrative is critical, unkind or even abusive, and learn to challenge it. So if the inner voice says, “you are going to mess up this presentation” they can become aware of this thought, and consîder what evidence there is that the thought is actually true. There may in fact be evidence, perhaps previous successful presentations, that can be use during to challenge the inner critic.

So, why is self-compassion an important career management skill?  Self compassion helps us to be more accepting of difficult emotions, including fear, shame and anxiety. Most career changes involve some level of fear and anxiety, as we may worry that we could be making the wrong decision, that we might not be up to the job, that we might not be able to make a living, or that we will find it hard to adjust to a new environment. Self-compassion helps us to accept these difficult emotions as a normal part of life, rather than something to be avoided or hidden. If we accept them we can explore what they feel like rather than try to repress them or mask them as something else (possibly resentment, apathy, irritation or stuckness).

Self-compassion can also help us to take responsibility for mistakes,  be willing to listen to feedback and be more accountable for our actions. Instead of beating ourselves up for getting something wrong, we accept that mistakes are part of being human and we learn from them rather than hide them. This willingness to learn and develop helps us to cultivate the growth mindset which has been shown to be an important element for success. Wouldn’t any employer want to employ or develop the person who asks for feedback, takes responsibility for the outcomes of their work, and owns up to their mistakes whilst trying to put them right?

Self-compassion is also closely linked to compassion for others. Warmth towards ourselves is likely to increase feelings of warmth for others too, as we realise we are all on the same journey, experiencing the same range of feelings. Being able to form warm relationships with others is an important skill for networking, management and customer relationships. Warm and genuine relationships can help to generate opportunities, as others are more likely to approach us if they feel there’s is a genuine connection.

Imagine approaching a job interview with a genuine sense of both self compassion and compassion for others. We would accept that we were nervous and understand that everyone else probably is too. Maybe we could even extend that sense of compassion so that instead of despearately hoping that we’ll get the job, we offer the wish to the interviewers that they have the wisdom to pick the  best candidate for their organisation, and we offer the wish to both ourselves and the other candidates that we can all give our best performances. Sounds hard to do but it would probably lower the stakes and reduce our sense of desperation. And even when we make mistakes and don’t achieve our potential, self compassion allows us to forgive ourselves, learn from our mistakes and wish the successful candidate well. With self compassion the experience is less bruising, so we will be less likely to give up.

Self compassion can help us to be more resilient, more able to bounce back from setbacks and more able to ride out difficult challenges.