The Stress Myth

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There is a myth in our culture that stress is a good thing. People think that they work better, or that they’re only able to work, when they’re stressed.

I think it’s helpful to separate pressure from stress. Pressure is when we feel we have to really focus on getting the job done to the best of our ability because it’s not easy and we’ve got limited time. Under such conditions, we can enter ‘flow’, become fully immersed in what we’re doing and do it really well.

Stress, on the other hand, is the body’s response when it’s ready to flee, fight or freeze in the face of a physical danger, historically something like a sabertooth tiger.

Your heart beats faster, your muscles contract, you sweat so that you’re harder to catch hold of and digestion stops because there’s no point processing your last meal if you’re about to be eaten yourself.

Very few of us, thankfully, have to face physical threats in our daily lives. However, we often react in the same way to a harmless threat, like missing a deadline, a presentation or an exam, as we would to a tiger. It may not be as intense as if we were eye to eye with something that might bite our heads off, but it’s quite common for people to feel low-level stress on a daily basis.

Stress is one of the most toxic things for your health. It can cause high blood pressure, which makes heart attacks more likely, back and neck pain, muscle tension and stiffness, stomach pain, digestive problems, increased risk of diabetes, reduced sex drive, impotence in men, mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, anger, sleeplessness, nervousness, inability to concentrate and decreased or increased eating.

And people say they like it?!

It’s also not good for productivity. The graph at the top of this blog shows that when pressure tips over into stress, performance plummets. This is because it becomes harder to concentrate, you make worse decisions because you’re panicking and you reduce your ability to relate to people.

From experience, I can tell you that what does work in being productive, is feeling positive, calm and focused: doing one thing at a time. You are more creative and productive when you’re focused on a result you want to achieve rather than an outcome you want to avoid, so work out what that is.

Get clear what it is you need to do, and then work out if you’ve got enough time to do it. If you don’t, see if you can do less or ask for more time. You’ll be surprised how willing people are to grant you it.

When you work, as I’ve suggested before, use the Pomodoro method and focus on a single task, take short breaks to stand up, stretch and move around.

Stress is bad for you, it’s bad for the people around you and it makes you les productive, so find a way of working that makes you feel good, for everyone’s benefit.


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Why so blue?

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Last week I delivered some mindfulness sessions in a school. I decided to frame it around happiness: the lack of it amongst young people and how mindfulness can help.

The statistics are quite shocking. Last year’s parliamentary Mindful Nation report cited that

  • 30% of British adolescents report sub-clinical mental health
  • The number of 15 – 16 year olds with depression doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s
  • Over half of those experiencing mental health problems as children experience them again as adults

And it’s not only young people being affected: according to clinical-depression.co.uk there is 10 times more major depression in people born after 1945 than in those born before. Also, stress is now the most common reason to take time off work.

So what’s going to badly wrong in our society? I asked the 14 and 15 year olds I was working with, and the most common things they came up with were pressure to perform in exams, which is widely agreed to have increased over time, and social media.

As humans we’ve all got a tendency to compare ourselves with those around us, but the desire to show off to the Joneses has gone into over-drive, with many people now only having experiences so that they can post about them on Facebook.

We look at other people showing off their baby/tan/law degree/perfect partner/pet dolphin and we feel inferior. And we often respond by trying to come up with our own impressive posts to re-inflate our wounded ego and so the snowball keeps rolling.

Clinical-depression.co.uk points to a deeper societal malaise: the individualism and lack of emotional support in our society. They suggest that in Amish communities depression is unheard of because if you have a problem you know that people will help you and you in turn help others when they need support.

One of the big criticisms of mindfulness is that it’s inherently selfish. Naval-gazing in a silent bid to boost your own happiness with no concern for the collapsing society around you.

Some even accuse it of being a corporate/government conspiracy to make you feel that it’s your own fault, and not the system, that you’re unhappy, and therefore head you off from demanding change.

Personally I think both need to change. Imagine if you were suffering from depression, went to see your GP and they said “Sorry, I’d love to help you but we’ve got to undergo an economic, cultural, political and philosophical transformation as a society before there would be any point.”

There’s nothing selfish about it: when you work on your own mind through meditation and start to become calmer, more present, less fearful, more compassionate and empathetic, you naturally help others more even when you’re not doing so consciously.

I couldn’t take away the challenges those young people are facing, all I could offer were some tools and approaches for helping them to deal with them more skilfully. I also hope that mindfulness can offer young people a different view of what really matters – compassion rather than materialism, which could lead to some of the bigger changes needed in our society.

If stress is an issue in your workplace, get in touch for a free taster session to experience how mindfulness can help.

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What to do in the heat of the moment

punch

This morning I got some bad news. A client cancelled a job on me, last minute, that would have brought in some much needed income. I felt angry at how they’d acted and then anxious about the financial consequences of not having the job.

My sister asked, ‘How do you deal with this mindfully?’ A useful reminder, as when you need mindfulness most is usually when it goes out the window. I told her “I need to let go of it.” But there were actually a few steps before that.

First I made sure there was nothing I could do to change the situation, and there wasn’t. I had definitely lost the job, and my mind was already moving on to what I would do instead and how I would make up for my deficit.

My immediate reaction was to just ‘get on with things’, which is often what people tell me they do when they’re feeling stressed. Sometimes it’s the idea that getting more things done will relieve the stress (which is rarely the case, in my experience) and sometimes it’s to distract away from feeling the feeling, which just buries it.

So when I realised that was what I was doing, I decided to sit down and take a few of minutes to check in with myself, and really pay attention to how I was feeling. I used the Three Minute Breathing Space, from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, which guides you through noticing your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and breathing.

I noticed tightness in my chest and diaphragm area, a slight headache right at the top of my head, and a general heaviness in my body, like the situation was literally weighing me down. I did feel a bit better by the end of it though, and I started to think about how I could use the experience to push me to look for more work that I really want to do.

The general principle is that you won’t be able to fully deal with the emotion of an experience until you’ve allowed yourself to feel the full extent of it. It’s like the emotion’s got something to tell you and it won’t leave your body until it knows you’ve heard what it’s got to say.

So I suggest you try this three minute meditation (it’s the fifth one down). Next time a situation hits you like a punch in the stomach, it might come in useful.

How to deal with unpleasant emotions, mindfully.

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In this country, I think it’s safe to say that the go to method for dealing with unpleasant emotions: stress, anxiety, heart-break and so on, is to get drunk. We drink to let go, relax and forget. It doesn’t deal with the emotion, it just temporarily suppresses it.  It’s basically a way of avoiding feeling what you’re feeling.

The mindfulness approach, in contrast, is to ‘sit with’ you emotion, and allow it to express itself to its fullest extent. The idea is to focus your attention on the feeling and curiously investigate where you can feel it (e.g. stomach, chest, jaw) and what it feels like (e.g. heaviness, tightening, stabbing pain).
What happens if you don’t so this is that the emotion will probably become buried in your body as tension – a tight jaw, knots in you back, an impatience in your mood, and or it will come back again even bigger than before.

An emotion is your body trying to tell you something, and if you don’t listen, it usually shouts louder. This can result, as I have both experienced and witnessed in others, as rage or a panic attack that seems to come from nowhere, or all manner of manifestations that you’d probably rather avoid.

So one thing you practise in mindfulness is listening to the body more. This can be in the form of a body scan such as this one, in which you try to feel each part of your body in turn and notice what sensations are there.

Once you’re feeling a sensation, the practise is then to allow it to be there. Not to tense up, not to distract yourself away from it, not to carry on working and hope it will go away. Imagine the stress, anxiety or anger is knocking at your door, and instead of putting the bolt across you welcome them in as an old friend. This approach is beautifully described in the poem The Guest House by Jelaluddin Rumi.

And what to do with tension that seems to be stuck in you body? Well, we’d do well to learn from polar bears, who, after a stressful experience shake their bodies to dissipate the emotion, as you can see in this video. I finding stretching, singing and dancing are good ways to release tension. Also clenching and releasing the tense area can really help.

So although it goes against our cultural ‘wisdom’, next time you’re feeling an unpleasant feeling, try it for yourself. Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, investigate what it feels like and see if you can allow that sensation to be there. Try not to analyse why you’re feeling like that and especially don’t start blaming yourself or others.

Try being a bit playful with it. Sometimes I sing to myself (to the tune of The Sound of Silence) “Hello tension my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…” It usually brings a smile to my face!

My somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion is that the way to be happy, is to allow yourself to feel sad. It might feel scary, but it’s not as bad as what happens when you bottle it up.

Are You Here Now?

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A friend once recommended me a book called Be Here Now. “What a meaningless title!” I thought. Where else are you going to be other than here?!

It took me a little while to grasp the idea that, as the cartoon at the top our website shows, our body is always in the present moment, but our mind often isn’t.

Generally, the reason for this is we are dissatisfied with what we are experiencing and so our mind gets to work going over the past to analyse how things should have happened differently or obsessing about what we do or don’t want to happen in the future.

This is often a futile exercise. The only moment that exists is the present one, so if we want to feel good, that’s the one we’ve got to work with! Mindfulness is a training in first of all staying in the present and second being OK with whatever we are experiencing.

I think of it as like tuning a radio. The present moment is like a beautiful symphony that we occasionally tune into and enjoy. But when we don’t like what we hear – maybe we find it sorrowful or tedious – we try to tune into something else and end up spending large swathes of our day listening to the hiss and crackle of an untuned radio.

That’s not a very pleasurable experience, so we try to make it feel better with chocolate cake, booze, caffeine, comparing our lives with others’ or fishing for attention on Facebook and all manner of inadequate substitutes for the beauty of the symphony.

The problem is that the present moment contains emotions that we don’t want to feel, and if we’re going to stay listening to the music, we need to sit through them.

Last week I challenged you to label your thoughts as you notice them while you’re brushing your teeth or showering. One reason for doing this is to notice the pattern of thoughts that your mind creates in order to take you away from the present. That’s one way to become more present.

Another way is to use the phrase ‘be here now’ On the way in to work today I noticed myself becoming lost in thought planning this blog, and missing the wonderful autumnal scene around me, so I said to myself ‘be here now’ and started to take it in and appreciate it.

I do the same when I’m supposed to be listening to someone and I my mind goes walkies, or when eating I realise I’m not paying any attention to the food.

If you only remember one thing about mindfulness, I would suggest that you just keep reminding yourself to “be here now” and see if you can dance to whatever music is playing.

How Self-Aware Are You?

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I used to think I was self-aware. In my head, people who weren’t self-aware didn’t know their weaknesses, and I did. I knew I had a tendency to be disorganised, last-minute, and arrive late for things. I knew I forgot to do things unless they were written down and had at least two alarms associated with them. I wasn’t very good at remembering people’s birthday’s or calling home on a regular basis. Wasn’t that self-aware of me?!

Then I started practising mindfulness and realised how unself-aware I was. It occurred to me that you wouldn’t’ know if you weren’t self-aware because you wouldn’t be self-aware enough to realise!

I noticed the tension in my body that arose from feeling awkward, anxious, embarrassed or angry, and how long it would last for. One time I realised that my jaw had been tight for a week as a result of a disagreement with my housemate.

Another thing I became much more aware of was my thought patterns. People often think that mindfulness is about trying to not to have thoughts. If you try to that, you’ll become very frustrated very quickly. Rather, it’s about noticing the thoughts you are having as you’re having them. One reason being that by becoming more aware of your negative thought patterns, you can break them.

I find myself thinking a lot about how much money I’ve got coming in and when, as I don’t have a regular salary. Sometimes this is helpful but often it’s useless anxiety. The other strong pattern I’ve got is thinking about things I feel I should have done and things I plan to do in the future. This might go along way towards explaining my aforementioned disorganisation and busyness – I’ve got a strong compulsion to keep generating more tasks for myself!

When I realise I’m having unhelpful thoughts I try to break the pattern by coming back to the present moment, either by noticing my breathing, or the ground beneath my feet, or my bottom on my bike seat. Often I then start to notice what’s around me, as if waking up from a dream. I might think, ‘those trees are wondrous’, or ‘that sky is beautiful’ or ‘that child is cute’ and very quickly my mood lifts and I feel happy to be experiencing being alive.

So I challenge you, in order to get to know yourself better, to try notice what types of thoughts you have when you’re in the shower, or brushing your teeth or lying in bed. I find it helpful to label the thoughts and feelings, for example, ‘money’, ‘work planning’, ‘guilt’, ‘present buying’, ‘meal planning’ and so on. There’s no need to analyse the thought, just notice it.

If you practise this little exercise regularly, I guarantee it will change your life.

Have You Got ADD?

Death of Conversation

Photo from The Death of Conversation by Babycakes Romero

I recently met a friend of a friend who had just been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. The symptoms he described were ones I could recognise in myself as well as most people I know. It is my belief that the internet, and particularly smartphones are causing us to have shorter and shorter attention spans.

I found this online test for ADD. How would you score yourself on the following questions:

1) How often do you have trouble wrapping up the final details of a project, once the challenging parts have been done?

Never  Rarely  Sometimes  Often  Very Often

2) How often do you have difficulty getting things in order when you have to do a task that requires organization?

Never  Rarely  Sometimes  Often  Very Often

3) How often do you have problems remembering appointments or obligations?

Never  Rarely  Sometimes  Often  Very Often

4) When you have a task that requires a lot of thought, how often do you avoid or delay getting started?

Never  Rarely  Sometimes  Often  Very Often

5) How often do you fidget or squirm with your hands or feet when you have to sit down for a long time?

Never  Rarely  Sometimes  Often  Very Often

6) How often do you feel overly active and compelled to do things, like you were driven by a motor?

Never  Rarely  Sometimes  Often  Very Often

If you want to do the the whole test it is here.

Although I still exhibit a lot of these behaviours, since practising mindfulness, I’ve got so much better at sitting still, doing one task at a time and not getting distracted, being able to relax and being a bit more organised.

I used to be so compulsive about checking my smart phone that I’d get it out whilst waiting at the traffic lights on my bike. I used to be so fidgety that at least one colleague would avoid sitting opposite me because I was so distracting! I used to feel like I was constantly rushing to catch up with myself, never allowing enough time to make the appointment or to meet the deadline.

I think already displayed these behaviours before I got a smartphone, but having so much information in my pocket, the notifications, the ability to contact my entire social network, the limitless news I could read, the constant emails, meant that I never felt on top of my inbox and feeds and that any ‘spare’ moment I had I would whip out my phone both to entertain myself and catch up.

I think that one of the reasons that mindfulness has become so popular is that it improves your ability to focus on one thing at a time. I can now for the first time since I can remember work on a single task for an hour or more. I can read a book without having my mind constantly wandering and taking out my smartphone. I listen to people much better when in conversation, which means that we both get more from the experience.

So if you recogise these ADD symptoms in yourself, take heart from the fact that it is entirely possible to train yourself out of it. But just as you practise scattering your attention everyday, if you want to change you’ll need to practise focusing on one thing at a time, everyday. And that takes serious discipline!

How judgmental are you?

Judgement Time

Imagine this scenario. You’re walking along the street, carrying an expensive vase that you’ve bought for your mother’s birthday. Suddenly someone walks straight into you, you drop the vase and it smashes on the ground. Anger boils up.

Now imagine the same situation, except that this time as you look up from the smashed vase on the floor you see that the stranger who bumped into you is blind. You don’t feel anger. You don’t blame them, you feel it was an unfortunate accident. You have compassion for their situation.

So it’s not people bumping into you that makes you feel angry. It’s you blaming the other person that makes you feel angry. It’s your judgement that they shouldn’t have done what they did. But you’ve made that judgement without know anything about how that person came to bump into you. They might have been overwhelmed with work stress, heartbroken, running from an attacker – and you’ve just made them feel worse by getting angry with them!

When we look at a tree we don’t think “I wish it had more branches” or “this should be an oak and not a sycamore”. We appreciate it for what it is: a wonderously complex, beautiful organism with unique gifts to offer the other organisms in its environment.

When we look at people, on the other hand, we find accepting them as they are much more difficult. We’re constantly judging them for not meeting our expectations of how they should behave.

Mindfulness is sometimes defined as paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally. To be not judgemental is to realise that fundamentally, we’re all the same: we all want to be happy and we’re all making the best of the experiences that we’ve had in life.

When someone is angry or aggressive towards you, I think a powerful metaphor for understanding their behaviour is that of a dog with it’s leg in a bear trap. It’s snaps and snarls as you approach, not because it’s got anything against you personally, but because it’s in pain. Would you judge the dog for having its leg in trap?

Personally I catch myself judging people for being unfriendly. Not smiling at me when I greet them, not listening to what I have to say and not communicating what’s going on with them. But I try to remind myself that it’s not a reflection on me and it’s not their fault. They’re probably just struggling at that particular point in their life and the best thing I can do is to empathise with them, not judge them.

So next time you find yourself cursing someone’s rudeness, insensitivity or selfishness, try to pause, and think to yourself: “if I’d have had all the same experiences they’d had, would I have reacted any differently?”

An Autumn Challenge

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Autumn is upon us. The nights are cooling and the leaves are browning and falling. Inspired by the season, I’ve got a challenge for you. Find a fallen leaf and look at it, intently, for at least two minutes, as if this was the first leaf you’ve ever seen. Consider all the processes that culminated in it coming into being. How interrelated you and this humble piece of matter is. Notice how rarely you devote even two minutes to really looking at something. See what comes up for you. See if you agree with Henry Miller:

“The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”