Aaaaarrrrghhhh do something!!!!!

Recently I’ve been thinking about how great anxiety is at ruining a potentially peaceful state of mind and making you feel like shit, and why that is.

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I think in part, it’s down to anxiety being linked with a ‘fight or flight’ response.

Think about it. If you’re in a fight or flight situation, your brain is dealing in absolutes. It is latching onto anything that might be a threat, that it then has to get away from. It’s ACTIVELY looking for threats… or in daily life, potential negative events.

While that is happening, the other part of your brain …. your true, more logical self … has to deal with all its focus being shoved towards the ‘what ifs’ … the stuff that your fight or flight part of the brain is shouting about.

You need to break the loop.

If you force yourself, even for a few minutes, to step away and realise what your brain is doing, you can stop the fight or flight automatic response in its tracks.

The way I do it is to think about something nice that I can reward myself with later on in the day. Like a Netflix special, or maybe a super indulgent snack.

Suddenly it’s like my brain says “oh yeah, that stuff I was worrying about is silly” because I’ve ignored it.

Meditation is also good. Visualise a stream with all those worries and problems floating down it. Then just let them go.

However you do it, you need to zig when your anxiety is telling you to zag.

What The F*** Was That Dream About?

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Two nights ago I dreamt that I had a second wife, who looked identical to my real wife, only she was an alien. Somehow I was disturbingly living the life of an interplanetary bigamist. Also, we had kids that looked like little squid people. I had to carry them around in a bucket and unfortunately left one of them on the beach.

Other than indicating that I watch far too much sci fi and am possibly worried about being a good enough parent, this dream might have been my brain’s way of telling me about the state of my emotions and my anxieties.

Dreams have long interested psychologists, and are often penned as the ‘window to our subconscious’. Dreams occur during our REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycle during which your brain is undergoing a high amount of activity. It is thought that they not only tell us our deepest anxieties and desires, they also contain clues to our personality (like me being a massive sci fi nerd).

Freud himself developed a guide for interpreting dreams, which I’ll link to below. There are some really interesting interpretations. For instance, did you know that men and women dream differently? Men dream about other men twice as much as women and women dream about both sexes equally. And that’s just one of the differences between our dreams.

But a very interesting aspect to dreams are studies that suggest they are responsible for problem-solving, memory formation, or that they occur simply due to random brain activation.

I’m a firm believer in ‘sleeping on it’ when you have a problem to solve. It’s part of the reason that I keep a little notepad or my phone near the bed, because I often wake up with ideas.

So remember to try and sleep at regular times, to allow your brain to enter REM and solve problems. It may be more beneficial to your state of mind that you think.

The Endlessly Chattering Monkey Voice

One of the topics covered by a book I’m reading at the moment (see my last post) is something related to mindfulness.

Essentially it talks about the premise that every person has a ‘continuous chattering voice’ that has always been there, and is constantly commenting on their current situation or life, often negatively.

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It won’t shut up, and is invariably wild in its musings. It might comment that someone doesn’t like you, or you’ll never get to the end of your run because you are tired, or that you are going to screw up your school play.

However there is another layer to your being. The quiet observer. And it’s this real you that so often goes unobserved.

If you think about it, you’ll realise that this quiet observer is actually your ‘true’ self. And the endlessly chattering monkey voice isn’t.

Let me give you an example.

Today I was sat at home, trying to handle all my life admin. And I was getting stressed.

At some point I thought “hang on, I need to listen to what’s going on here” and all at once, I realise my chattering monkey voice had been telling me that I wasn’t going to handle my admin stuff and that it was all too much. But as soon as I noticed it (and the fact that I had been reacting to it), it was like I had shone a torch on my naughty anxiety voice. And all at once, it died down. I literally felt my body relax.

So just be aware, and mindful, of the fact that there is this chattering monkey voice inside you, and sometimes it really isn’t in your best interests to listen!

Calm your tentacles

octopus psychology

Octopuses have been studied extensively for their intelligence. They are said to have the smarts of a golden retriever, which is pretty impressive.

In studies scientists have found that individual octopuses display different personalities. Some octopuses were shier than others (!) Even more interesting – the personality traits seem to be inherited by their offspring.

It’s not hard then to imagine that humans inherit certain personality traits from their parents. And if these traits include a propensity for introspection, or dwelling on their situation, someone’s genealogy could affect certain psychological traits, and aspects of their mental health.

Just something to ponder on.

Triggers Should Be Handled With Caution

In the realms of psychology, the word trigger refers to something that elicits a cognitive event. Or put in layman’s terms, something that has an affect on the way you look at the world.

Triggers can be anything, and depend on the individual in question. They can be a social circumstance (shit, I said something dumb and now I’m going to be chucked out of the tribe!), a smell, something the person has consumed like alcohol or a certain drug.
The list goes on.

A fellow student at my old University had a fairly unusual trigger. Every time she saw an image of Rolf Harris, she’d have a nightmare. Okay so we didn’t know at the time, but her subconscious thoughts were scarily on the money.

Personally, if I drink too much beer after a heavy work week (which in advertising was pretty much an occupational hazard on a Friday night) I wake up very anxious the next day. For me, alcohol and work-related fatigue don’t mix well, but that’s not necessarily a rule of thumb for anyone else.

When it comes to being aware of your own ‘triggers’, the ones that cause you anxiety or otherwise, you have to be your own detective. A good detective sticks to the facts, and tries not to be too emotionally-led (difficult when you’re actually in the throws of an anxiety attack), by analytically and systematically compiling evidence. I know this because I’ve watched shitloads of detective programmes.

Think about the days that surround your most anxiety-ridden moments.
Was there a specific type of stressor? Work deadline? Did you eat before you went out drinking? Did someone say something that pushed specific kind of buttons? Did you get a sense of deja vu? Did you compound several things together (eg. being naked + on a busy bus + in the middle of Trafalgar Square)?

In the end, you’ll hopefully work out your triggers then adjust your lifestyle to avoid them.

Failing that, remember these sage words….

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Your Mind is a Muscle

Everyone knows that working out keeps you in shape, and not working out means getting all flabby and untoned.

The same goes for your mind. If you just go on automatic all the time and never apply any thinking, never push yourself creatively or intellectually (like learning a new language or doing a sudoko) your mind gets…. rusty.

Edward De Bono is an author and philosopher, and pretty much a solid thinker. I’ve seen him talk and read a few of his books that focus on ways of thinking that are a pure pleasure to read. I think if you suffer from anxiety you more than likely are an overthinker, so to divert your attention to a different, constructive way of thinking has got to be beneficial, instead of just turning your wheels.

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The above book got me into De Bono. It covers a pretty cool way of thinking that helps construct everyday thinking tasks into a cast-iron process. It entails splitting up thought processes into different ‘hat colours’ – from emotional, to factual, to critical thinking and up to seven different thinking types.

It forensically examines the way the west and east differ in their corporate thinking – from western meeting where everyone shouts their opinion in a group discussion, to eastern meetings in Japan where each person around the table has their facts and the conclusion is reached after everyone has said their piece. Neither are wrong perhaps, just different ways to think.

Anyway, my point is that exercising the mind takes many forms. But just like physical exercise, you need to change your routine sometimes, and do something new.

Fight or Flight

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Fight or flight has been around for a while

When we were cavemen and women ages ago, our brains learnt to react to perceived threats. At least, the brains of those who survived getting mauled by things did, because they ran away.

The response is called the ‘acute stress response’ (remember that for later) or ‘fight or flight’. It’s when sympathetic nervous systems stimulate the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines like adrenaline and noradrenaline.

All this leads to various physiological effects like a rise in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat and an increase in breathing rate to get more oxygen to the muscles that will help you run like shit-off-a-shovel away from a woolly mammoth or punch the crap out of a shark.

Now, back to the ‘acute stress’ bit.

If you suffer from anxiety, your body is experiencing this same fight or flight response, only over longer periods of time, to perceived threats that are buried somewhere either in your conscious or unconscious mind.

Which is like a perceived threat hanging around, stressing the hell out of you all the time. Making everything seem extra difficult to cope with.

So the next time you feel anxious and get a stomach ache, headache or feel your blood pressure rise, it should be no surprise that your anxiety’s fight or flight effect is causing your body to react.

There’s even evidence to suggest that constant fight or flight response can cause changes to the brain*.

And that is nature’s little reminder to slow down, and give yourself some self care.

* Understanding the stress response on Harvard Health site

Mondays suck, but only for 24 hours

I hate Mondays. Probably because they represent the start of a working week and the uphill struggle for anyone who is trying to get back into it.

Doesn’t matter which Monday it is, I just feel like crawling back into bed.

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Illustration by Matt Weston

But the way I get through is to have little incentives.

I write 1000 words of my book, and I can make a coffee and have a snack.

I apply for 5 jobs and I can have fun drawing a weird skull design (see above).

You have to respect, and be good to yourself, so that when you do get back out there, you have more passion, strength and purpose to give to others.

Don’t think about how far it is

One thing I love to do is go running in the local country lanes.

They say that exercise is superb for lowering stress and anxiety, so I look at running as a way of keeping myself calm.

The other day I just had one of those runs where you feel like a sack of potatoes being pushed up a hill. I was puffed and felt like my legs were deadweight.

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But then I realised that I was overthinking it. I was thinking about how far I had to go, how steep the hill was, and how hot it was.

So I changed my thinking. I thought “one step at a time, it’s cool”.

And this strikes me as a way to tackle over-worrying about the future. If you spend too much time worrying about how difficult it will be to get a new job, or how much effort it is to plan a wedding or how much home renovating you need to do, you will stress about it.

The better way to live is to not worry about how far you’ve got to go. Or the effort required.

It’s just to enjoy the run.

I’m No Astronaut, But I Am Okay

A few weeks ago I was listening to a talk by an ex airforce test pilot and astronaut (sorry I can’t remember the podcast, it was probably the Moth or TED). He was very humble as he told the most spellbinding story about such an amazing career. Admittedly I forgot his name as soon as he uttered it, but it was obvious that he was a great man. A good and wise person.

“Some people are just better” I thought to myself, and “I have to be better”.  

But wait. This is the kind of “should, must” thinking that anxiety loves. Putting pressures on ourselves to measure up to unrealistic standards is unhealthy for our mental wellbeing. Not that I couldn’t have been an astronaut … oh who am I kidding. I can’t even see across the road without my contact lenses and I have the reaction time of a piece of granite.

So I adjusted my prep talk to something more constructive. “I have to be a good communicator.” I told myself.

Something I did at first in lockdown, is keep a diary. I used to rate my feelings and thoughts on a scale. Then reassess them with a more analytical, objective view. This kind method is a cornerstone for CBT which teaches you to reassess all your thoughts and feelings. And it helps you keep all your aspirations in their place.

It’s absolutely essential we have hopes and dreams. That is our difference as human beings. But they are there as a ‘North Star’ to guide us. They are not a mandatory for us to have fulfilling lives.

If you want to address this kind of Cognitive Behavioural Therapeutic way of thinking in your day to day life, I strongly recommend the “Catch It” app which is offered by the NHS. Find it here

CATCH IT