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

Finished my FutureLearn Psychology course!

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I’ve used some lockdown time to study one of my passions – psychology. 
I’ve just finished a great online Psychology course which is run by Liverpool University in he UK.

It’s part of my plan to get my swiss cheese brain more informed about mental health so I can communicate more about it. Hooray!

The course uses a shitload of really clever words, but essentially it challenges the current discussion amongst psychiatrists and psychologists about the relative importance of social, biological and psychological factors in mental illness.

If you are interested in doing the course on FutureLearn, you can take it here for free.

I think my general conclusion through my learnings is this:
Most mental illness is the product of what happens to you (social), how you see the world (psychological) and maybe some genetic predisposition for illness (biological).

Also though, the professor who leads the course makes an interesting discovery through research (done a while ago now in 2005) that the more a person ruminates on negative events in their life, the more they are likely to suffer mental illness effects.

I mean wow, this was particularly relevant in my case. I’m a massive ruminator (for some reason I’m seeing a cow in my mind) … bloody typical in people with anxiety I think. Personally, having social anxiety makes me go over every painstaking shit moment of any social event again and again… forensically inspecting it for a moment where I was a fucking bell-end. Something I personally am working on is to let go a bit more, and be kinder to myself.

Or, in other words, to just tell my negative magnification thoughts to shut the fuck up.