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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How to cope with Social Anxiety: Behaviour Experiments

worried woman

In Wednesday’s post (8th January), I spoke about performance anxiety and began to put together some action steps for preventative self-help. I explained the theory behind REBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy) which counters the common held assumption that ‘things’ make us feel bad. REBT (a form of CBT) argues that it’s not things that make us feel bad, but the irrational beliefs we have about how things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be that make us feel bad. If we can identify our beliefs and see that they are irrational, we can amend them and begin to change how we feel about a situation.

I detailed a series of questions I ask clients which highlight the beliefs that cause their anxiety and help them to realise their beliefs are irrational. Identifying and disputing irrational beliefs and re-wording them to make them rational are the first steps in relieving future performance anxiety.

Thoughts, emotions, behaviour

Our thoughts, plus our emotions cause our behaviour

If we experience performance anxiety (or any kind of anxiety), the following sequence plays out:

You’re about to give a presentation 100 people –

Thoughts = I’m dreadful at giving presentations. I become a total mess. I’m going to look stupid and everyone will talk about me behind my back!

Emotion = Anxiety
When we feel anxious, body sensations such as shaking, sweating and blushing begin. We start to focus on these and make our anxiety worse by worrying about them. To try and relieve this added anxiety, we start to adopt ‘safety’ behaviours to mask what is happening from others. While in the short term, these safety behaviours help relieve the added anxiety, in the long term they begin to add to it.

Let me show you how this plays out with an example –

Before the presentation, you anticipated that the anxiety would make your neck flush and you would sweat more. The safety behaviour you took on to relieve your worry about this was to wear more layers of clothing to absorb the sweat and to wear your shirt buttoned up to the neck to help disguise the flushing. However, during the presentation you feel hot from the extra layers of clothing and feel like your flushing is even more obvious; in the long term, your safety behaviour in maintaining your anxiety, not relieving it.
Another scenario might be that your hands start to shake during the presentation and you try to hide them as much as possible. You avoid picking up your notes or drinking any water. However your mouth begins to dry out and your become focussed on the discomfort.

Changing your behaviour, changes your thoughts and emotions

In REBT, the idea is that we can try to change our emotions by changing our thoughts first (as described in Wednesday’s post) however for some of us, changing just our thoughts is sometimes not enough to change how we feel. In this case, if we can change our behaviour, we can think differently and therefore feel differently.

Behaviour experiments

When we experience anxiety, we make predictions about things that ‘might’ happen or how we ‘might’ feel in a particular situation. When you take part in a behaviour experiment for anxiety, you put yourself in a situation where you know you will feel anxious and you purposefully ‘drop’ your safety behaviours (as they only serve to maintain anxiety in the long run). The idea is that before you go ahead and put yourself in the situation, you list what ‘safety’ behaviours you are likely to adopt how you think you will feel in the situation if you stopped yourself from using them. The next step is to go ahead and do the activity (without the behaviours) and assess afterwards how you felt; were the outcomes as negative as you had predicted?

The purpose of this is not to throw yourself in at the deep-end. Your first experiment should make you feel uncomfortable but not panic-stricken and put off.  You should aim to move further out of your comfort zone with each activity. You can begin by writing a list of activities you can do that will make you feel anxious and grade them from 1-10. Start at 1 and work your way up to 10 as you begin to realise your negative predictions are not coming true.

If you can get feedback from others, then make sure you do.  Did they see your hands shaking? What were their thoughts when/if they did? Try to get feedback from a mix of people, not just your friends.

Before you do the experiment, you may need to return to the questioning process I went through on Wednesday’s post to help recognise any irrational beliefs you hold over your safety behaviours to diminish them first.

I’ve attached a behaviour experiment record sheet, with an example to show you what to do (from http://www.psychologytools.org/).

Behavioural_Experiment


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How to cope with Social Anxiety: Irrational Beliefs

The anxiety that accompanies public speaking has probably affected most of us at some point in our lives.  Even those of us who are normally very confident in most social situations can find ourselves with sweaty palms, shaking hands and a racing heart when we are standing in front of an audience and presenting.  Take for example Michael Bay, director of the Transformers films, whom Samsung employed to reveal their latest television to a crowd of hundreds in Las Vegas this week.  Not long into his speech, the teleprompter that Bay was reading from malfunctioned.  Bay froze, became embarrassed and walked off the stage.  For most of us, having our minds freeze in the middle of a presentation is our worst nightmare; the prediction of it happening before we’ve even began is enough to give us palpitations.

This kind of anxiety is called performance anxiety and when we experience it, we often make negative predictions about what may go wrong and what people will think of us before then event has happened. The most absurd and frustrating thing for those of us who experience performance anxiety is that our predictions never come true; we put ourselves though all that suffering for nothing.  Even though we’ve spoken time and time again in public and nothing untoward has happened, we still continue to disturb ourselves the next time we do it.

There is plenty of advice on the internet about how to cope with public speaking, but much of it assumes that reading the advice alone is enough to quell your fears and much of it talks about how to cope in the moment rather than what you can do in advance.  I have recently read an article that advises to focus your thoughts on the fact that you are helping your audience and to stop focussing on your own fear.  I don’t know about you but I feel this is easier said than done.  When I work with people to address their performance anxiety, I use a process that was designed for use in REBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy – a form of CBT) that uncovers and disputes irrational thoughts in order to weaken them.

Similarly to CBT, the theory behind REBT is that it’s not ‘things’ that make us feel bad, but the irrational beliefs we have about how things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be that make us feel bad.  If we can identify our beliefs and see that they are irrational, we can amend them and begin to change how we feel about a situation.

REBT identifies four beliefs that make us feel negative emotions and these are:

  • Demands: we demand or insist that something ‘should’ or ’must’ be a certain way.
  • Awfulisation: we believe that a situation is so bad that we just can’t cope with it.
  • Low Frustration Tolerance (LFT): we believe that we ‘should’ or ‘must’ always feel comfortable.
  • Depreciation: we believe that we or another is not behaving as they ‘should’ or ‘must’.

These beliefs are considered irrational because they are:

  • Inflexible (all or nothing thinking)
  • Unrealistic
  • Illogical
  • Unhelpful in goal achievement

Let me give you an example in the context of public speaking to demonstrate how I use REBT:

My boss asks me to give a presentation to an audience of 100 that comprises of people from my office and regional offices.  The request itself is enough for me to feel anxious as I immediately begin to imagine members of the audience whisper about me as they see my hands shaking.  They’re questioning my competence.  I imagine my throat drying out as I avoid drinking any water (I don’t want to show the audience my hands) and I start coughing.  I go red and feel humiliated.

As you can see, it’s not the presentation that makes me feel anxious but all the negative predictions I make before I’ve even written it.  When I help clients address their performance anxiety, the first thing I need to do is find out what prediction is making them feel the most anxious.  We then write the prediction down and see which of the above REBT beliefs the prediction is reflecting.

Let’s take the prediction, ‘if I shake, everyone watching will think I’m incompetent’ as an example of the most anxiety inducing thought in this instance.

A demanding belief could be:

‘I must never show weakness in front of others’.

An awfulising belief could be:

‘I couldn’t cope if I looked weak in front of my boss’

A LFT belief could be:

‘I must always feel calm and composed’

A depreciation belief could be:

‘I will looked stupid and incapable if I show I’m nervous’

Once we have identified the beliefs that cause the feeling of anxiety when thinking about shaking, I dispute the beliefs with my client.  By this I am trying to help them see that their belief are irrational and serve them no purpose.

REBT uses three main lines of disputing.  It asks:

  • Is your belief realistic?
  • Is your belief logical?
  • Does your belief help you achieve anything?

Let’s take ‘I must never show weakness in front of others’ as an example to demonstrate the disputing process.  First of all I will question the client about how realistic this belief is:

What evidence do you have that proves you must never show weakness in front of others?

  • What law of nature enforces the fact that you must never show weakness in front of others?
  • Do you believe that any great leader has never shown weakness?
  • With this in mind, how realistic is it that you must never show weakness in front of others?

Next I will question the client about how logical their belief is:

  • Does is make sense that because your anxious and shaking, that everyone in the audience will all come to the conclusion that you are weak?
  • What alternative thoughts could the audience be thinking?
  • What would you be thinking about someone who was shaking while giving a presentation?
  • With this in mind, how logical is it that you must never show weakness in front of others?

Finally I will question the client about how far holding this belief helps them achieve their outcome?

  •  When you think to yourself that you must never show weakness, how does this help you prepare emotionally for the presentation?
  • When you think this, how is it helping you focus when writing your presentation?
  • When you think this, how is it improving your ability to give presentations in the future?
  • With this in mind, how helpful to you is it to believe you must never show weakness in front other others?

I repeat this process with each of my client’s beliefs.  By the end of the process, the client usually as a good intellectual understanding that their beliefs are not rational, which has the affect of weakening them.

After this, I ask my client to re-write their beliefs based on the answers they gave me, which may end up reading something like this:

‘I would prefer it if I didn’t shake when giving a presentation, but it does not mean that I am weak.  It is more likely that the audience sympathise because they’ve experience it themselves’.

You must bear in mind that this a process that intends to bring about sustainable change in your thinking.  It’s not a quick fix.  You need to practice identifying and disputing your irrational thoughts and repeating your new beliefs like a mantra.  Even though most clients have a good intellectual understanding that their thinking is irrational, some client’s aren’t able to ‘feel’ their new belief and need ongoing intervention such as completing ‘behavioural experiments’ in order to help them feel more emotionally convinced of their new belief.

I will talk about behavioural experiments in more detail about in my next post.


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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!

Who do you blame when things go wrong?

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A few months ago, I attended a lecture given by Dr Raj Persaud, a Consultant Psychiatrist based in London. The subject of his lecture was motivation; a subject that links nicely to my post yesterday. Yesterday I spoke about the importance of considering the sacrifices you will need to make in the pursuit of your New Year’s resolution; if you want something badly enough, a good measure of your motivation is to think about what comforts you are willing to give up in order to achieve your goal.

Dr Persaud began his lecture by showing the audience a clip from Rocky Balboa (2006) in which Rocky’s son complains that sharing the ‘Balboa’ name has been difficult to live with and warns Rocky of the negative impact his impending fight will have on his own career. Rocky hits back at his son’s words with a humbling reminder of the virtues of personal responsibility and the importance of fighting on when things go wrong.

After we watched the clip, Dr Persaud explained that when it comes to motivation, there are two personality types: internalities and externalities. Individuals with internalities are those who are more likely to enjoy success in life because when something goes wrong, they will look first of all at what they could have done differently. Individuals with externalities are those who are less likely to enjoy success in life because when something goes wrong, they will look first of all at other individuals or events to blame.

Internalities, when exercising personal responsibility, have power.  They have power because if they find the fault with themselves, they can set about changing the fault, learn from their mistake and move forwards.

Externalities lack self awareness and the ability to exercise personal responsibility. By blaming other individuals or events, they are powerless as the ability to change these factors is outside their direct control. They will find themselves wallowing in self-pity and anger and will ultimately hold themselves back just as Rocky’s son would have done.

So when you face the first hurdle on your journey to fulfilling your New Year’s Resolution, or any goal for that matter (and you will face hurdles), think about which personality type you fit into: are you an internality or and externality?


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Something to Consider before you make your New Year’s Resolution

I don’t know about you but in the past, when it came to sticking to my New Year’s resolution, I’d usually come unstuck around February time (the beginning, not the end). Not great going really. I’d start the year with such enthusiasm for my new fitness regime with my plan of action all mapped out, only for it to fizzle out at when I realised just how much effort it required. I used all the usual excuses to justify giving up on my resolution, “I’ve got too much on at work”, “I’m too broke” or “I’m naturally more motivated in the summer, I’ll start then instead”.

The fact of the matter was, when it came to the inevitable sacrifices I would have to make to achieve my desired level of fitness: cutting back on socialising to pay for aerobics classes, getting up earlier to make time for a run or getting myself out of the house when it was dark and cold outside, I just wasn’t willing to tolerate the discomfort that sacrifice entails.

I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t commit to resolutions you don’t feel passionately about because I believe there are mitigating circumstances where you will commit to a New Year’s resolution you don’t feel particularly excited about. Giving up smoking is one example; you want to give up so that you’ll live long enough to see your children grow up but actually, you really enjoy it. It’s going to be tough.

My advice for staying on track with your New Year’s resolution is once you’ve established what your resolution will be, anticipating times of discomfort and planning for them are just as important as planning the steps you need to take to fulfil your goal. Think about the last time you achieved a goal and ask yourself these questions: Was it easy? What did you give up to achieve it? How did it feel to give those things up? How did you get through the discomfort? How did you feel when you achieved your goal? If you’re a very organised type who writes an action plan for how you’re going to achieve your New Year’s resolution, then include what comforts you anticipate giving up to achieve your goal and what will you do to help yourself tolerate them when confronted by them.

How about you? What past resolutions have you made and what tips would you give others for overcoming obstacles?

Good luck and remember:

“There is no failure except in no longer trying.”
– Elbert Hubbard