Walk the Thought

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Fly Meditation

“Change your thoughts and you change your world.” –  Norman Vincent Peale

I’ve been on a course this weekend and yesterday I learnt about CFT (Compassion Focussed Therapy); a therapy that is used to help people who are highly self critical and need help overcoming the shame they feel towards themselves.  CFT bridges the gap that can sometimes be left by CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) where people know and understand that their thoughts are irrational but don’t ‘feel’ their rational thoughts on an emotional level (if you don’t understand any of this, or care, just skip to the last paragraph).

Part of CFT is the practise of Mindfulness; a type of meditation that had been proven effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression.  Mindfulness is said to be an effective treatment because, with practice, it helps people to disengage with the negative thoughts that maintain their anxiety or depression.  In time, cutting the mind off from negative thinking relieves the negative emotions.

We were shown the animation below called ‘Fly Meditation’ by Hanjin Song to illustrate how Mindfulness works (the fly represents a thought and the battle represents the inner battle you experience if you don’t learn to disengage from your thoughts).  I thought the animation was a great metaphor for Mindfulness and wanted to share it with you.

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Is unemployment really the issue?

On the 2nd January, I wrote a post called What’s the point?  It was in response a news item I’d seen on the BBC website that morning which quoted that a large number of young people the UK feel they have nothing to live for.  It cited unemployment as the main contributing factor and stated that young people’s mental health was suffering as a consequence.  On reading around other sources and from watching the news that evening, it seemed that young people in the UK feel their lives lack meaning because a without a job they have no reason to get up in the morning and without a job they weren’t able to contribute to society.  I also had feedback that young people feel they have nothing to live for because they aren’t able to afford a house or put money by for a pension.

In my post, I felt I was being sympathetic and suggested that the reason  young people’s mental health was suffering was because they are wasting too much of their time and energy focussing on one future-oriented goal, i.e. home ownership and need to set themselves present-oriented goals to give them satisfaction in the here and now.  On reflection I would like to elaborate on that post as I feel I did not say everything that needed to be said.   What I feel is required, is a big virtual slap in the face for those who feel the Government and unemployment is to blame for young people’s ‘suffering’ mental health.

Despite leaving university 10 years ago with a first class BA degree, I am still not in a position where I have the disposable income to put aside for a deposit on a house, pay off my student loan or put any extra money towards a pension.  I have also suffered with mental health problems on and off for most of my life.  So with that in mind, I think that I’m more than qualified to have the following opinion.

I am not a fan of the current Government (I used to be a teacher) but by holding them and the current financial climate solely to blame, we are neglecting the real cause of the report’s finding that young people feel they have nothing to live for.  What I suggest is to blame is a chronic lack of self-awareness, resilience and lateral thinking amongst some young people.  It is not the lack of ownership and disposable income that causes mental suffering in this context, it is thoughts those young people have about their situation that causes their suffering.  It is their thoughts about what they ‘should’ have that cause their suffering.   It is their thoughts about what is ‘normal’ and what their entitled to that cause their suffering.  These thoughts need to change.

I would very much like to be able to own my own house without having to share part of it with the Government but just because my parents were able to (which they weren’t in my case) and my grandparents were able to, it doesn’t mean I’m entitled to it or that it is the only way to achieve happiness in life.  By holding the demand that ‘I must own my own home, it is the only way to feel successful’ or ‘I must own my own home, it is the only way to feel happy’, or ‘I must own my own home because the children I plan to have need it’, young people are setting themselves up for despair because these are demands, they are rigid, they’re all or nothing.

I’m willing to bet good money that someone comments on this saying, ‘it’s not demanding to want to own your own home; it should be a basic right’.  If they do, it will illustrate my point beautifully that some young people are chronically lacking in self-awareness.  I’m going to repeat my point from my previous post.  If you place all your happiness on the condition you achieve one future-oriented goal that you may or may not achieve, you will feel miserable; it’s a given.  Carry on with this line of thinking and you will continue feel miserable until you hopefully buy a house in 20 years’ time. Do you honestly want to delay your happiness for that long?  Stop whining about and dwelling on what you can’t get in the future and focus more closely on what you could have now that brings you satisfaction and joy.  For me, this blog brings me satisfaction and joy. I wrote a post about my experience of overcoming anxiety.  One person commented that I’d given them hope and that’s all I need.  The fact that I’ve managed to give hope to one person in the world gives me enormous satisfaction in the here and now!  By blogging about my experience in the hope it will help others helps me find meaning in the adversity I’ve faced.  I’ve made a choice.  I could have been beaten by adversity but I’ve chosen to use it for my personal growth and to support others.

This brings me on to the chronic lack of resilience in some young people.  The self-pitying whining I’ve witnessed in the press is, quite frankly, embarrassing.  I feel embarrassed because there are people in Syria and other parts of the world who have no home, no belongings, have been separated from their families and live in fear of losing their own lives.  There are people who are living through the most horrific, barbaric and degrading adversity but they carry on.  They have no choice but to carry on because they only other option is to opt out of life altogether.  When I was a teacher, I witnessed this lack of resilience in the young children I taught; I saw their defeatist attitude towards the most minor setback.  I worked extremely hard to help children build their resilience; I believe it’s one of the most important qualities we can own in life.  I had to teach them from scratch that making mistakes and learning from them is one of the best ways to learn; some lessons are forgotten but never the ones where you’ve learnt from your mistakes.  I had to teach them about acceptance; that unfairness is a part of life we will experience our entire lives and sometimes even as adults, we can’t change the unfairness, we can only accept it.

Finally, I want to talk about the chronic lack of lateral thinking.  Young people of the UK, what brings you joy and satisfaction in the here and now and how can you use it in a creative way (I don’t mean creative in as in artistic.  I’m not asking you to draw a picture of yourself playing football or baking a cake)?

I’m going to do some spoon-feeding now, because from what I’ve witnessed, it may be needed.  If you love sport or exercise, why not start a team?  Why not organise lots of teams and start your own league?  Use Facebook and Twitter to publicise it.  Make links within your local sporting community and work together; you can find them on Facebook and Twitter!  Do it to raise money for charity.  If you don’t want to start an adult’s team or league, do it for local children.  If you don’t know how to organise it, then research it and find out.  Perhaps you can start a running club or start your own boot camp in the park (pool resources with friends) and don’t be under the illusion that it all takes money that you don’t have.  Nothing I’ve suggested so far requires any cash.  Are you a poet, a writer, an illustrator, a musician, a lover of fashion or technology? Get blogging and show off your ideas and share them with other people.  Follow other people’s blogs and see what ideas you could use; get inspired!  What would you like to do as a job?  Do you need to work for someone else?  Setting up your own website needn’t cost any more that £15 a month at the most and with social media, marketing is free.  If you keep hearing ‘no’ from employers, go out and do it yourself.  Don’t think you’re good enough?  Nothing ventured, is nothing gained.  It’s your choice but just have a go at exercising some lateral thinking!


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How I overcame Anxiety

portrait of a sad girl sitting near the window

The first time I remember having an episode of anxiety was when I was 10 years old. It was more than the usual worry a child feels when faced with something new or something they don’t want to do. I call it an ‘episode’ because it is one of several significant periods of anxiety I’ve experienced. They have come and gone rather than being continuous. When I was 10, I had an allergic reaction to some new earrings which made my ears inflamed and sore. A boy pointed it out in class and laughed. That made me feel upset but I didn’t feel particularly worried at the time. It was the thoughts I had about the event afterwards which triggered my first episode of anxiety because I began worry about the allergic reaction and then my thoughts turned to my overall health. My Grandmother had breast cancer at the time too and had been in and out of hospital alot, so I suppose the two events were linked in terms of why I was worried about my health.

The symptoms of the attack began with that horrible feeling of dread, that something bad was going to happen (although I didn’t have a specific idea of what I felt was going to happen). Then I would begin to shake, feel panicky and start to cry. This all lasted for a few weeks. At the time I didn’t know what the reason for all this was, I was too young to know about anxiety and my mum, understandably, didn’t pick up on it either. My Grandmother eventually died from breast cancer when I was 11 and when I was 14 my Grandfather died from a brain tumour.

When I was 17 I had another episode of anxiety. I was studying for my ‘A’ levels and began to experience symptoms of stress such as chest pains and palpitations. I didn’t know that these symptoms were what happened when you felt stressed so I began to worry about my health again. At this point, my Dad was receiving treatment for bladder cancer. Ruminating about my family history of cancer along with my symptoms fed my anxiety and made it worse. I thought maybe I could have lung cancer or a blood clot. At this point I went to my doctor. He listened to my chest and questioned me about my lifestyle. I told him I was studying for my ‘A’ levels and there was no discussion about my family’s health. He told me I was experiencing symptoms of stress relating to my studies and sent me on my way without any advice on how to manage my symptoms. I then started to get IBS, which I convinced myself was bowel cancer and went back to the doctor. He ‘helpfully’ told me it was another symptom of my stress, recommended some over-the-counter drugs and sent me on my way again. You would hope my doctor would have looked at the notes related to my past visits and put two and two together and thought about how to help me manage my stress. I still had no idea that I had been experiencing anxiety.

After several months the level of the symptoms subsided. I would wake up most mornings feeling that ‘fight or flight’ response kick in the moment I opened my eyes, followed by nausea but it would wear off during the day. I experienced this every morning throughout my teens and into my late twenties. It was almost like it had been programmed into my brain and there didn’t need to be a reason for it. It became normal so I didn’t think too much of it, it was just ‘me’.

When I was 27, I had my worst episode of anxiety. This time it began after a series of changes in my life. I split up with a long term boyfriend, left my job, began living on my own for the first time, started a new job, met someone else and then split up with them too. This time my normal morning routine of waking up feeling panicky and nauseous got worse. I would wake up, feel panicky and vomit. I wouldn’t be able to eat breakfast as it wouldn’t stay down and my appetite became less and less. This time the feeling did not go away over the course of the morning but it stayed with me all day, every day. Eating became a chore as I could barely manage half a sandwich before I felt completely stuffed. I felt embarrassed eating in front of my colleagues in case they thought I had an eating disorder as they could see that I would never eat much and was losing more and more weight. I then began to worry about my health again which fed my anxiety and then I became anxious about being anxious which fed it even more. By this time I knew I had anxiety, I had researched it online but I felt like I was going mad. I didn’t feel like my recent upheavals were a good enough reason to feel so bad so couldn’t link these to my anxiety.

I went to the doctor and told him that I thought was suffering from anxiety. He interviewed me and diagnosed ‘free floating anxiety’ based on my explanation that I didn’t think there was a reason to feel so anxious. He prescribed beater blockers and told me to make another appointment for 6 weeks time to review my symptoms. At the time beater blockers felt like a God-send! It felt as though someone had pressed a ‘pause’ button in my brain and I was able to get a holiday away from my thoughts (probably because I was so sedated) and I no longer felt that sense of dread. Beater blockers also work by blocking the release of adrenaline so I no longer woke up feeling panicky, shaky and nauseous. I got my appetite back and began to return to ‘normal’. I didn’t want to go back to how I felt before so decided to stay on the beater blockers and my doctor didn’t discourage me from doing so. At first the idea of coming off the beater blockers was frightening because I didn’t want to return to how I was before but after three years of being on them and at a more settled point in my life, I decided to bite the bullet and stop. The dose had to be reduced gradually over time but I came off them and felt okay. The morning feeling of waking up feeling panicky and nauseous returned after a while but it was at a level I could cope with and it wore off once I got going with my day.

It didn’t take long though before I faced my next upheaval. I became a primary school teacher when I was 31. I managed my first year as an NQT well but in my second year it became clear that my head teacher and I were not going to see eye to eye. Our values as teachers were at polar opposites and she wasn’t happy that while I worked in accordance with her policies, I didn’t agree that they were the best for all the children I taught. I found myself on the receiving end of treatment from my head teacher that wasn’t particularly professional or ethical and my symptoms of anxiety began to return. I was constantly anxious of what she would say or do next, and I would ruminate over it. My own predictions about what ‘might’ happen made me feel even worse.

This time I thought about going back on the beater blockers again to ‘get me though it’ but I decided not to. They hadn’t cured me of my anxiety, they had only treated the symptoms. I wanted to fight back against my anxiety, I felt angry now and wasn’t going to let it get the better of me. I felt I had to do something more decisive to prevent it coming back again in the future. I did my research and decided that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) might help.

The theory behind CBT is that it’s not events or other peoples actions that make us feel bad (which is was most of us believe) but the thoughts we have about them that make us feel bad; we essentially disturb ourselves with the irrational thoughts that we have about things. The problem is, that without someone else drawing our attention to our irrational thoughts, we don’t see them as irrational; we think they’re completely normal. For me, when I was 10, it wasn’t the allergic reaction which caused my anxiety or my Grandmother dying; it was my own irrational thoughts about my health in response to events that caused my anxiety. As my anxiety was never picked up on and dealt with, I continued my way of unhealthy thinking. CBT teaches you how to analyse a situation you feel causes your anxiety so that you can uncover your irrational thoughts yourself. You learn how to re-word your thoughts so they become rational instead of irrational. After a while your new thinking process becomes automatic and you’re able to do it pretty much instantly. CBT takes effort and commitment and you have to practise what you learn. If you’re hoping to be ‘cured’ by someone who sits there at talks at you, you’ll be disappointed.

I haven’t had an ‘episode’ of anxiety since then. I haven’t ruled out it happening again because it might but what I know now is that I can cope with it and keep it at a level where I can control it, rather than the other way around. Also, with the problem solving skills CBT has taught me, I find myself applying it to other emotions such as anger and hurt. I felt very angry and hurt about how my head teacher treated me but now I’m fine about it. I would love it if everyone in the world had morals that match mine but there’s now law which says they have to and you can see from the news this will never be the case so I accept it.

Now I’m a very passionate advocate of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. I choose not to be a ‘why me’ person. I’m grateful for all my experiences, especially the negative ones. Now I know that I don’t have to worry about the future because, while an experience might not be enjoyable, I know I can cope with it. If it’s something I have limited control over, for example a serious illness, then I have no other choice but to accept it; the only other choice would be to not accept it and experience further misery which is a choice I’m not willing to make. I’ve also decided to use my experiences to help others by training as a cognitive behavioural coach. I’m not qualified to treat people with anxiety or depression, but I use the skills that CBT uses to help people through other difficulties such as transitions in their home life, personal life or career.

My advice to others in my situation would be that there is no shame in talking to someone; showing vulnerability shows strength, not weakness. There is no shame in taking medication; beater blockers gave me the peace I needed to feel ‘normal’ again and get myself to a place where I could think more rationally. CBT doesn’t work for everyone, in the research I’ve done, there are plenty of people who haven’t found it beneficial. However, I do advise some sort of talking therapy such as CBT to complement the use of medication; it may get you to a place where you feel you might not need medicine. If it doesn’t, then make the best choices for you and not what you feel pressured into by others.

There are some wonderful charities that will go out of their way to support you and give you advice. I have listed the websites of some of them below.

http://www.mind.org.uk/
http://www.youngminds.org.uk/
http://www.sane.org.uk/


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What’s the point?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25559089

When I opened my Twitter feed today, I was saddened to read a report on the BBC website with the headline, Young people ‘feel they have nothing to live for’. The report discussed a study carried out on behalf of the Prince’s Trust which found that there could be as many as three quarters of a million young people in the UK who feel they have nothing to live for. The study, which interviewed 2,161 16 to 25-year-olds, found that 9% of those questioned agreed with the statement, “I have nothing to live for” and cited levels of unemployment amongst their sample as the main contributing factor. The report went on to say that, ‘[…] 40% of jobless young people had faced symptoms of mental illness, including suicidal thoughts, feelings of self-loathing and panic attacks as a direct result of unemployment.’ Alongside this, it quoted that 72% of unemployed young people felt that they had no one to talk to about it.

It seems from responses cited in this and other news sources that without a job, young people feel they have no meaning in their lives; some of those interviewed said that having a job would give them a reason to get up in the morning and that they needed to feel they were contributing to society. In my post from 31st December titled, Top 5 tips for healthier thinking, I listed ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ as one of my tips. By this I explained that to focus all your time, thoughts and energy on one goal alone was not healthy because if that goal does not pan out as you hoped, you will be left feeling miserable. Goals give our lives meaning and without them we feel as though we lack drive and zest for life.

The Government responded to the BBC report saying that it was doing all it could to get young people into employment but is that enough? Young people need guidance as to how they can find meaning. It’s all very well for me so say ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ to adults; we have the life experience to appreciate what that means but young people don’t, what I suggest the Government need to provide in the interim is greater and wider ranging sources of guidance and inspiration for young people.

It has become an increasing trend for businesses to utilize the services of executive coaches for the development of their staff, as well as train their staff in peer coaching to support colleagues. Could coaching not be an option for the Government to invest in to help young people unlock the meaning to be found in their lives? One of the reason’s I decided to train as a cognitive behavioural coach is because in my previous career as a teacher, I worked with a wonderful coach who helped me find my own way out of a terrible time. Coaches are not employed to advise you, or tell you what to do, their skill lies in asking questions that give you greater access to your own understanding and knowledge; being coached is an immensely empowering experience. Why not send coaches into schools, job centres or even teach young people peer coaching as part of the curriculum so they can support each other?

It is distressing to be unemployed and it’s distressing to feel that you are being held back from achieving independence, having your own income, transport or home but life doesn’t need to be pointless without it. Everyone has at least one interest or skill that gives them enjoyment, they just need to realise it and how to use it. Using and expressing your skills doesn’t need to be expensive; whether you’re a footballer, artist, musician, writer or baker, volunteering in schools, youth centres or charities is free plus you get to use their materials and equipment; blogging is free, tell or teach the world about something you’re passionate about; start your own community project; pool resources with friends to use; use the camera on your phone to present an interest or idea and put it on YouTube.

Viktor Frankl argued that creative thinking and creativity was one of the most important factors in helping us to find meaning. What do you think? What creative ways can you think of that are free and would enable young people to express their interests and give them purpose? Or do you have a completely different point of view all together you’d like to feed back?


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Talking of personal responsibility…

“[…] everything can be taken from a man but one last thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

(Frankl: 2008)

I first read this quote a few years ago. I had bought myself a book called, ‘Water Off a Duck’s Back: How to Deal with Frustrating Situations, Awkward, Exasperating and Manipulative People and… Keep Smiling!’ by Jon Lavelle. I bought this book because I had a boss at the time that I found awkward, exasperating, and definitely manipulative so this book seemed quite a find! The book was okay, but it was Viktor Frankl’s quote that the book referenced which set me on a path to a new way of thinking.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with his work, Viktor Frankl was an Austrian Psychiatrist who survived imprisonment in concentration camps during WWII. The above quote is from his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (I really suggest you read it) and it concentrates on mapping the different stages of the prisoners’ mental states whilst being held in camps. In his book, Frankl talks of the men in his hut, who despite losing everything – possessions, family, health, physical freedom and who had faced daily and relentless degradation, continued to comfort others and share what little food they had.

Frankl’s quote resonated with me above everything else I read in Lavelle’s book. The idea that you could choose your attitude when confronted with adversity was a revelation to me (I feel a little embarrassed by this admission now), surely people make you feel a certain with how they treat you? In the situation I faced with my boss at the time, my emotions would range on a daily basis from anger, to anxiety, to depression and she was making me feel that way with how she treated me. At least that’s was I believed up until the point at which I read Frankl’s words; according to him I could choose my attitude and what better authority could I read those words from? It seemed easier said than done to me but I was determined to find out how I could learn to choose my reactions in a way that was more healthy for me.

It has been a journey learning to live Frankl’s philosophy. In response to the situation with my boss at the time, I decided to take Maya Angelou’s advise first which is, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” I changed my situation and left my job as a teacher and undertook training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT teaches us that we are responsible for our emotions; not events or other people’s behaviour but our own beliefs that we can change with support and practice. So that’s was I do now, as a cognitive behavioural coach, I help people to take personal responsibility and change their attitude and at the same time, I have learnt to change mine.