I’ve learned that my particular brand of anxiety – or poor mental health, is triggered by been out of whack with my values. When I’m not true to myself, when I don’t stand up for and act on what I believe in, when I don’t focus only on what I can impact, when I don’t practice acceptance, when I try to conform with others who might think, feel and behave differently, when I find myself in environments where optics matter more than humans – it triggers me.
I feel myself shrinking, I feel less than, I sometimes feel panicky, even now, even after I’ve spent decades working in health, teaching, and using psychology and neuroscience. I’m lucky, I recognise the pattern and have plenty of strategies for managing myself, most so well practices they happen almost by default.
It wasn’t always like that though…
My anxiety started in my last year of school, I had no idea why, nothing major happened to me, I didn’t have a traumatic childhood, I was doing ok at school, I had friends and a plan for my future. Then anxiety set in, I couldn’t stay in the classroom, I suffered panic attacks, then I couldn’t go out of the house, then my bedroom – my world shrunk, my dreams of university and been a teacher along with it. I didn’t understand why or what triggered this anxiety until many, many years later.
I was lucky, I had a supportive family, my dad in particular, he knew when to hold on tight and when to loosen the reigns. He helped me navigate my way out of my bedroom and back into the world, and when I felt strong enough to actually sit some A levels – in my 20’s, my dad came too. I said I wanted to study politics, he said so did he, we both knew why he was there really and neither of us needed to speak of it – and we both got an A level out of it. This picture is from our last trip up Snowdon, dad was in his late 80’s, I think he still held the reigns.
I learned how to control my physiology first, becoming a nurse helped me with that, and then eventually I learned that a lot of what went on in my head was my own creation. At that point I realised just how powerful I was, and more importantly I felt back in the driving seat. I stopped arranging my life to avoid situations I found stressful and learned to manage my busy brain as well as my physiology.
Perhaps the biggest gift anxiety has given me is the very thing I believe kicked it all off, the need to be true to myself, even when I’m out of whack with everyone else. At school this was often the case, not with my friends, sometimes with my classmates, and frequently with the teaching team and establishment! I felt weirdly at odds with most of the things my school espoused, and some of the behaviours I witnessed from those in leadership positions felt alien to me as a human. I couldn’t help myself, if something felt wrong, I spoke out. I think the seat outside my headmistress’s office was reserved for me, the number of times I got sent there.
Eventually, I started to internalise things, spoke out less and suffered more, a series of unfortunate events, a tennis accident, a chess tournament, and a geography class left me too anxious to go to school. In those days there was no attempt made by school to accommodate, or even explore my challenges – there was something wrong with me, better to just hide me away.
25 years on my bestie from school, who I’m still great friends with today, persuaded me to go to a reunion with her, mostly because she didn’t want to go alone. In the days running up to the event I was in a real spin, I didn’t want to go, I felt all the old emotions, felt stupid that the last time most of this people saw me would have likely been in a full-blown panic attack, cue shame, fear and ridicule – how could I possibly show my face.
This was balanced by the human I have become, or maybe always was. My friend needed me, it was only a couple of hours, I’d faced much worse and survived, – what could possibly go wrong?
Well, nothing as it happens, I went having worked hard on grounding myself first, I went and I was truly surprised by other’s reactions everything from ‘we always knew you’d do well’ ‘you were always so brave’ – ‘you stuck up for everyone’ and only one person spoke of that geography class – ‘That teacher was wrong, I didn’t dare say anything, none of us did,’
The reason for sharing this reunion story is that we each have our own version of reality, based on our experiences, memories, and the emotion we attach to them, my perception of being a freak at the end of my school journey, was a long way from other’s perceptions – the suffering I’d caused myself from running and rerunning my version fuelled my anxiety for a long time.
Sometimes we need to consciously choose what we focus on, what we say to ourselves, and how we manage our physiological state to keep ourselves from suffering. This can feel silly and unreal yet it works, you calm yourself, your neurochemistry changes, you get out of fight /flight and have better access to the logical parts of your brain. It takes time and practice, and it may not cure your anxiety, but it will give you one more tool to help you live with it.
You might be thinking it’s ok for you, you got better – and I have, only because I understand what triggers me, and I have tools to manage myself.
Perhaps the biggest lesson was we all have our own challenges – poor mental health, shows up in many ways, some obvious, some deeply camouflaged –like super confident, life and soul of the party, always right. I’ve learned to always look beyond the behaviour and see the human,
I wouldn’t dream of telling you how to manage your own mental health, but I know this, if you pay attention to yourself, when you feel ok and when you don’t, what helps what gets in the way then you stand a chance of managing your own wellbeing in a way that works for you.
My gift from anxiety, be true to yourself, don’t hide the weird, awkward bits, they might be your genius, as I say frequently to my students, clients and friendlearn to stand in your own imperfect glory, however wobbly you feel.
So, here’s to your imperfect glory,
and thanks for reading.
With love Lynda x
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Anxiety feels like a suffocating weight that can crush even the strongest of souls, and yet it’s your body’s natural response to fear, threat and the unknown.
That response is usually transient, it triggers your fight / flight response, physiologically preparing you to either fight or run for your life. You might feel your heart pounding, your palms sweating, or your stomach churning – all a normal response to an adrenaline surge.
Very simply put, your brain has three levels of function the basal ganglia, responsible for most of your autonomic functioning like breathing, required for survival, the limbic brain, responsible for emotion, memory and perception and the neo-cortex or logical brain.
Things you see, smell, taste, hear or feel stimulate your brain, which then it works to rapidly identify what that means and predict the best action. A tiny, brain structure in your limbic system, called the Amygdala, which is responsible for emotion and memory formation, acts a bit like radar constantly looking for threat, once it picks up a message it processes it as threat or non-threat, and engages your autonomic nervous system to create the appropriate neurochemical reaction, (fight / flight or rest and restore).
A second structure, called the hippocampus effectively orders and time stamps your memories, so they can be rapidly called on. This filing system, if you like, gets easily confused by heightened emotion, overthinking, and when under threat causing it to misfile information, contributing to over use of fight /flight response.
While we might like to think we are logical creatures, that part of our brain works more slowly than your limbic brain, so most of your response happens before logic kicks in, which is why something can make you jump before you realise all is ok.
We are designed to function in rest and restore mode most of the time, using fight flight as an emergency response.
Think of an antelope grazing on the plain, out of the corner of their eye they see a lion approaching, the antelope literally runs for their life. While running the antelope notices the lion has dropped back, and seems interested in something else, as soon as they are at a safe distance the antelope goes back to grazing on the plain.
That is exactly what we are designed to do. Except our big brains have created something Neuroscientist Prof James Doty calls feedback loops, we constantly analyse, replay, and run scenarios for things that haven’t happened yet. This together with our ‘always on’ lifestyles, means we don’t get to go back to grazing on the plain.
Anxiety takes many forms, most start when your threat regulation system (or amygdala) triggers repeatedly, keeping you in a low-level flight/fight response, this creates an excess of cortisol and sometimes adrenaline in your system, which draws your processing resources away from your logical function, and keeps you stuck with a whole range of symptoms, feelings and emotions that exacerbate each other.
I’m being deliberately vague here, because the physiology maybe similar for each of us, but the experience can be wildly different. The way we each manage that that crushing weight is by learning how to stay connected with who we are and by having ‘go to’ strategies to help us in a hurry when we need them.
Remember that sometimes the workplace can be rife with fear, threat and the unknown, and most of us will feel stressed or anxious some of the time. If you are feeling worried, afraid, or if you can’t switch off your thinking, you may want to think about your physiology, most of what you are feeling is caused by a surge of neurochemicals designed to help you run away from sabretooth tigers.
One of the best strategies for reducing your anxiety is to burn up some of those chemicals, you might choose to do a few laps round the work carpark, but you probably don’t need to go that far, any movement will help recalibrate your nervous system, so a walk to the loo, coffee machine – for decaf of course😉, using the stairs, even some deep breaths will give you a little short term respite, and if you can get outside for 10 mins even better.
With love Lynda x
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Have you ever felt icky or uncomfortable talking to someone about their or your mental health? You probably feel exposed, or vulnerable and you might even have to face up to some biases. Both collectively and individually, we need to get brave enough to have these conversations, it’s the only way we get more comfortable and more importantly, it’s the only way we get beyond the stigma that pushes people’s suffering under the radar.
Having spent many years working in emergency care, as well as suffering from poor mental health in my early years, I know just how devastating and isolating it can be. I’ve seen lives shattered and beautiful reconnections made, and I’ve felt the shame, inadequacy, and fear that come with mental health challenges.
What I’ve learned is this:
1 in four people admit to having poor mental health at some point, the real figure is probably way higher.
It’s easier to put on the mask or shield and pretend like everything is ok – especially at work, because many people still see it as a weakness, a failing or even an excuse.
Most decent humans are kind, they care, and they want to help, many are also fearful, don’t necessarily know what to do or say to help, so deploy a whole load of avoidance or ‘fixing’ strategies which don’t help at all. A few are hanging on by a thread themselves, and don’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with the messiness and uncertainty poor mental health brings.
This is why campaigns like Mental Health Awareness Week make a difference. They allow us to explore tough topics in a slightly less personal way, while hopefully giving us each one or two tips or insights into how we deal with the things in our own lives.
This year Mental Health Awareness Week focuses on anxiety.
According to WHO in 2019 over 300 million people globally suffer from anxiety, other sources suggest this has reason by up to 28% in the wake of Covid. The chances are you or someone close to you are directly impacted by the effects of anxiety.
We are diving deep into anxiety at work, what you can do for yourself and those around you, how expectation, values, and story impact how you feel, and how you can use the wisdom anxiety sometimes brings. I’ll also be talking about how being a ‘freak’ (in my own head) crippled by anxiety, turned out to be one of the greatest gifts of my life. You can follow and share your own stories and experiences in #Braver Leadersor on any of our posts.
Rightly, there will be a lot of social media and press focus on anxiety this week, some obvious, some uncomfortable, some enlightening. Campaigns are important, they move us to act and each of our actions, however tiny, helps us to reduce stigma and suffering.
My ask is that you notice what you notice and use what is helpful.
With love Lynda x
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Every 90 days or so I like to do a mini review in the hope of keeping myself and our business aligned with the things that matter to us and our plan for the year. I seize the quieter moments to reflect while I have a bit of space. This year has been all go, which makes it feels harder to make the time and also even more critical that I make the time.
I ask myself three questions:
Am I being true to my aims? (and these include how I want to feel as much as what I want to achieve)
Am I showing up for the people and things that matter to me?
Am I on the right track or do I need to course adjust?
The answer (as it often is) is both yes and no, I’m impactful, I’m on the right track and I’m being true to what I believe in. I’m also distracted, busy, and surrounded by obstacles. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it reflects the human growth story. We set our intention or goals and then life gets in the way, how we handle that determines who we become.
Like many people at the moment, I feel my life and work are evolving in the wake of the Covid, both the personal and global impact have given me a sense of urgency around the work I do, and I suspect I am not alone in this feeling.
The word that reflects my year so far – stickiness.
Why? Because playing beyond your comfort zone is required. I find myself in sticky situations where I don’t necessarily have all the answers, I might feel like an imposter – which is a good thing in my view, and I’m called to think bigger, play bigger and be bigger.
I’m currently working through Rachel Rickett’s book ‘Do Better’ which is an uncomfortable journey – and one I totally recommend. It also brings me to the second bit of stickiness, which is sticking at something. It’s all too easy to give up on the hard stuff because in our noisy world there is plenty to fill our time.
The hard stuff is rarely pleasant, but usually worth the effort – think getting started on a new exercise routine – hard at the beginning, and it’s tempting to quit before you get any reward, stickiness is what gives you the win.
Transformation of any kind meets resistance in the form of habit, time constraint, being busy, excuses, and expectations – your own and other people’s. It’s often easier to settle, keep doing what you do and kid yourself that you are doing your best.
Holding on to where you are going – being clear about and true to who you are and the contribution you make, certainly help; so does celebrating the milestones and little wins that track your progress. But mostly, it’s stickiness that makes the difference, or more precisely, whether you chose to stick with where you are or stick with the, sometimes uncomfortable, journey towards human growth.
Let’s use my current kitchen refurb as a metaphor for human transformation.
I started planning this back in 2019, and finally put it into action in January 2022! After much indecisive exploration, financial consideration and a pandemic, I finally committed to what I wanted to achieve, who my dream team were – a trusted plumber who I’ve known for over a decade, a neighbour who is a kitchen designer – who knew, and a carpenter & electrician recommended by him. What could possibly go wrong?
Like with any transformation, you have to let go of the old to make space for the new, which for my kitchen was a combo of storing, repurposing and recycling, skipping only the bits we couldn’t do the former with. This was a surprisingly emotional process – there was a lot stored up in what has been the heart of my home for the last fifteen years. Letting go was not as easy as I expected – even though I really want the new kitchen.
So with stage one complete, the kitchen ripped out, the transformation – by way of plumbing, electrics and a lot of plastering, could begin. It’s messy, but sticking with the vision makes it worthwhile. Then comes the first big challenge, the kitchen bits we were all expecting we very different to what actually arrived, things didn’t look right, they weren’t going to fit in the space right, and the company were less than helpful and my dream kitchen was looking a bit ragged around the edges.
We had two choices – we could circle back, compromise on the original plan and rebuild my kitchen in a useable way, or we stick with the vision, ride out the discomfort and do the work needed to get it right. Which of course is the route I’ve taken. There’s been obstacles, diversions, delays, and very little feels in my control.
This, of course, is not true – plenty is in my control. I chose to persist; I choose how I behave towards the other people involved in the project, who because of the relationships we’ve built, particularly with my plumber, who has gone out of her way to help me experience the disruption in the best way possible. I choose the attitude I bring to the inconvenience of not having a full kitchen – luckily, I’m an adventurer and have plenty of experience of camping out and making do.
In the end my kitchen is just a kitchen – even though it’s consuming energy and time right now, it will get sorted and the results will be worth the stickiness endured.
It is a great metaphor for human growth though – we have a plan which has sometimes been a long while in the making – particularly when it really matters to us. As soon as we embark on the plan things get in the way to test us, to see if we really want it and critically if we have the commitment to see it through.
Often, we don’t, we circle back; maybe with a small upgrade and a lot of post hoc justification of why we’ve made the right choice.
Stickiness, for me is about having the courage to go for the things that really matter to you, being able to sit in the discomfort of uncertainty or not knowing in order to grow, and being tenacious enough to hold vision and grow into the person you are here to be.
As the world reboots itself, evolves, and settles, I believe we each have a narrowing window of opportunity to do the things that matter to us, hence my own sense of urgency.
I hope you choose the version stickiness that feels right for you now, whatever that is, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences of stickiness or word for your year this far.
I work in the mental wellbeing field, I have decades of experience, and yet the one thing I constantly have to remind myself is to make space – space to just be.
This is how / where I ground myself, feed my soul, stay clear on what is important to me (or rather when I’m ‘doing’ that I’m doing the stuff that matters to me), this is also how I stay mentally well, creative, compassionate, focussed and any number of other emotional states necessary for running my business – and getting the best out of life.
And yet I can very easily find reasons to put myself last, to distract myself with busy things – important and impactful or not, because it’s easier – occasionally necessary, but usually an excuse for not dealing with something else.
Why am I sharing this with you?
I’ve spent months talking to clients – particularly in healthcare, about surviving the ‘mess in the middle’ and space – to ground, to refuel and to rest for a bit is how you survive.
More critically, you can only process – and heal, from the shit you are dealing with (whether it is your own shit or stuff you have absorbed from others you love, you hang out with, work with or from the media), when you step back from it and create space.
Ritual and routine are hugely important and give you the structure to prioritise yourself, self-awareness helps you to work out what works for you and what gets in your way, but in the end, you then need to find the will to prioritise yourself.
We are all work in progress – I don’t say this to be preachy, this is definitely a ‘those in glass houses’ moment!
I know what ritual works for me, I know getting out for a walk with my camera, or scratching around in my somewhat ungroomed garden work for me – I don’t always prioritise them. I’m sure I’m not the only one, it’s sometimes easier to not bother, to be too busy, or watch Netflix, or whatever.
Finding the will to prioritise yourself is about two things, self-worth and understanding the impact (or contribution if you prefer) you make. I don’t know of many truly impactful people who don’t look after their own needs first – maybe not 100% of the time but certainly the majority of the time.
Self- worth is a biggy, and there is no quick fix – but most people I’ve worked with can find something they at least like. Choose to focus on what you like, or even on your impact. You will probably feel weird if you are not used to doing this, but ever so gently you will also start to train yourself to see your worth.
Finding the will to prioritise yourself is also about what you choose to limit or stop doing in order to create space.
I have a very clear list – and when my time doing these goes up, it’s usually a clue I’m out of wack with myself. They include feeling guilty – both about what I’ve done and not done, making comparisons, and scrolling through social feeding the above.
It’s amazing how much space I can free up but taking charge of my thoughts & actions – it’s equally horrifying how much space I loose when I don’t pay attention to these.
Mental space is a critical part of wellbeing, there is no one right way to create it, but most of us do have to actively make space to just be – so think about your rituals and practice, your commitment to yourself and what you might need to reduce or stop.
I’d love to know what you what you do to create space and stay balanced please share below.
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Mental Health is an uncomfortable subject for many, it calls on us to face our vulnerability, consider our attitudes, and possibly reconsider our bias.
In my years in emergency care, I’ve seen the whole range of emotion, behaviour and deflection play out when it comes to mental health – from denying it’s a ‘thing’ to real love and compassion. I’ve seen lives shattered and beautiful reconnections.
On a more personal note, I know first-hand how devastating, isolating and all-consuming poor mental health can be. On the cusp of adulthood, I suffered a period of extreme anxiety, agoraphobia, panic attacks, the works – it derailed my life completely.
I felt weak, less than my peers, ashamed, inadequate and afraid – for many years after I had recovered from the acute bout. I never talked about it, even within my own family. I went through college, my nursing career, my friendships and early relationships terrified anyone would find out – in doing this I helped maintain the stigma.
In fact, it was one of the most powerful periods of my life, it has totally shaped the human I have become. Yet it has taken me decades to feel able to talk about it – to acknowledge that I, like at least 30% of the population, have suffered poor mental health.
This is why awareness weeks are important. It is not about a hat tip to mental health, it’s about healing – healing the attitudes, the stigma, the judgement even. It’s about making what can sometimes be invisible, visible. It’s about how we stay connected to ourselves and our fellow humans – how we really lean into the discomfort of facing stuff we might not be able to fix.
As well as the practical mental health strategies offered during mental health awareness week, let’s consider the bigger picture here. Let’s start to heal the rift, the othering, the disconnection that our attitudes and beliefs around mental health have created – and by default what people who experience poor mental health endure.
This starts with each of us getting brave enough to look inward at our own views, biases and experiences, then look at what we put out into the world and consider what impact that has. Then the tougher bit, consider whether this is who we want to be or whether we might have some things to reconcile.
Try this short exercise:
Sit somewhere comfortable where you won’t be disturbed for 5 -10 minutes. You might want a pad & pen to capture your learning, if you journal you may want to allow a little extra time at the end to free write, and you may prefer just to be in the moment, there is no right or wrong here.
Take a few slow deep breaths to centre yourself
Now ask yourself what you believe, no judgement – just feel it. Take note of the emotion that comes up, not just the words. How do you feel?
Then consider where it comes from – is it experience, is it fear, is it inherited, is it true?
Is this how you want to show up in the world?
Keep focused on your emotion, what you are feeling, – is there something, someone, or maybe even yourself, you need to forgive, is there anything you need to let go of in order to show up how you want to? Do this now, feel the emotion and let it go.
What have you learned?
This is the simplest form of healing conversation. Neurologically if we don’t experience our emotions, we can’t fully process what happens to us, our experiences or memories get misfiled or supressed, and our beliefs and attitudes get distorted. Denial, judgement and othering are all examples of this distortion.
Healing conversations enable us to reconnect with what we feel and reprocess and potentially reconcile what we think and how we show up – allowing us to connect more around the things that are important to us.
All healing starts within, hence the conversation with yourself first. As humans we also have a lot of collective healing to do, there are so many global, cultural, national and local issues and none of us can champion everything. I fundamentally believe that connection and contribution are ingredients for good mental wellbeing, so think about what is important to you, what you have control and influence over and start to explore how you can contribute to healing.
For me, one of these things is mental health awareness – rewriting the narrative, reducing fear – and ignorance, acknowledging the progress being made and the journey we still have to go on.
Poor mental health is debilitating enough, without social stigma, judgement or even well-intentioned avoidance, so this week focus on what you can do. You don’t have to fix stuff or say the right thing. You just have to show up – this might be a kind word, a connecting smile (masks permitting), or checking in on a friend.
A little thing for you might mean the world to someone else.
All nature, and particularly the sea is very grounding for me so I’m treating myself to a few days working from the seaside this week, enjoying this force of nature, the picture above doesn’t do it credit!. Sea air has evidenced benefit for your neurological wellbeing, it is charged with negative ions, increases oxygen uptake and serotonin production.
Until next time look after yourself and those around you and #ConnectWithNature
We all coast in life & business now and then and that’s ok – necessary even, but coasting as a default is a great way to stop living.
It’s almost like the more successful you are, or the more expectation you feel there is on you, the harder it is to shake things up – pursue that little voice inside that whispers “there’s more than this, you’re better than this.”
It’s like your own version of Groundhog Day – you do your stuff because you can and it’s making you money, while quietly dying inside.
I hear over and over clients giving me all their ‘reasons’ – aka excuses, why this won’t work and that won’t work, when really there is just one problem.
You might fear different things to me, but unattended the outcome is the same, you are stuck. Fear kills you, not physically but mentally; it steals your dreams, your confidence and eventually the life you are here to live.
Unlike physical death, you can control this– you are in charge of your habits and your thinking.
Two things keep you in control
Belief in possibility
Courage to act.
There’s nothing like a pandemic to bring into perspective the value of life and how we need to adapt to survive.
I’ve seen first-hand how both health & business clients have made stuff happen that they’ve been ‘playing about with’ – (polite version) for months or even years – suddenly necessity trumped fear.
Take Katie who, like many of my clients, has a coaching business – she’s got just enough clients, a reasonable living and she is the main earner in the family. Since I’ve known her, which is a while, she’s resisted online stuff: social, zoom, video – it’s not for her!
Almost overnight Covid-19 took away her business, and when I moved the CoWork programme she was part of online she had two choices: show up online or leave.
She showed up and, with courage, a steep learning curve and belonging to a great online community, Katie has transformed her business. She’s online, running groups and 1:1, making more money, each week she comes on our call excited, passionate, alive – telling us about the sales she’s made and the people she’s helped – just imagining her aliveness while I’m writing this is making me smile.
This only happened because she chose to believe it was possible, she leant into her fear and she took action.
Don’t become one of the walking dead!
Focus on what makes you feel really alive – have the courage to poke around and explore it a bit, think about what is possible – and if someone else has done it, it’s possible. Think about what you need to make stuff happen, this might be that safe online space like Katie, it might be sharing your message out loud – don’t wait months, start now.
We all need a bit of encouragement to stay brave and follow our dreams so join me in Braver Business – a virtual coworking group for those on a mission.
Take action now to pursue the life you are here to live.
First, let’s get really clear about where we are at – we each have different experiences of lockdown and of social distancing depending on our circumstances, our jobs, our families and the degree of isolation we are feeling. To move forward we have to accept and, more importantly, respect those different experiences may evoke different emotions and behaviours. This is a time to be kind, to be tolerant, and to refrain from judging each other for handling stuff differently.
I believe there are a number of neurological things that help with this acceptance: your perspective, your self-talk and your ability to assume people are doing the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves in. I would be the first to accept this is difficult when your neighbours are having a full volume row in their garden, their dog is barking and you are trying to have a serious zoom call with a client – but hey the rain will put a stop to that, right?
Seriously though, you have two choices don’t you – well three maybe – you could scream at them over the fence to be quiet (definitely not kind or understanding), you could get really frustrated and distracted and derail your own day, or you could manage your own state – which is the only thing you actually have any control over. Feel grateful that you are not in that situation and cut them a bit of slack; even when you love people being with them 24/7 has its challenges.
You can only do this if you are prepared to get real. Being able to focus on positive aspects in life is hugely important and so is not being in denial, kidding yourself everything is ok, when your world is unrecognisable, is equally important.
How do you ever get to act courageously – which is what you need to do right now, if you are deluding yourself that the uncertainty, the isolation, the level of ambient fear is not affecting you in any way. It is, you are a human being – none of us are left untouched by the suffering of other humans, unless of course you are a psychopath.
Seriously though, none of us are left untouched by this.
I believe this is about mitigating the damage caused by isolation – we know isolation changes our neurochemistry. Oxytocin is produced in response to bonding – physically and emotionally. Babies evoke oxytocin production in their parents as well as the other way around. The resulting, often unconditional, love between a parent & baby gives us a great start in life, and as we get older we need to find other ways of creating this oxytocin production. Mostly this is from socialisation, from connection with other people – or animals in some cases.
So just as connection increases Oxytocin – which is needed for empathy, for love and for emotional safety; isolation causes stress and increase in cortisol. It doesn’t need to be actual physical isolation either. The perception of social isolation has exactly the same impact; cortisol levels rise which can reduce your higher cognitive function – like rational processing and creativity – because your brain is focused on survival activity. When you lack social contact – real or perceived, activity in your dorsomedial prefrontal cortex – the region of your brain associated with altruism and social judgement, changes and this in turn makes you less tolerant, less able to see other’s perspectives, less trusting and more judgemental.
It strikes me that this potentially makes the current situation less tolerable depending on your circumstances, and it makes it more difficult for you to emerge from lockdown as it inevitably gets lifted.
So what can you do to ensure you emerge stronger, more courageous and more in control of your own wellbeing – all of which I believe are possible.
First, focus on the things you have control over and limit your exposure to things you have no control over – to be clear I’m not suggesting you stick your head in the sand – but it might be that you don’t need to read every article or scroll relentlessly through social media just in case you miss something – this just fuels fear.
The things you have control over are those that you can directly impact: your mindset and attitude, the way you show up, how you behave towards yourself and those around you and, critically, how you spend your time now.
I am a great believer in investing in your future self and now is no different – here are a few ways to invest in yourself:
Invest by being kind to yourself, think about the stories you tell yourself, do they help you to be the person you want to be – or do you need to change your script a little – they are your stories, you can change them. Your brain will look for evidence to support whatever you focus on so you might need to choose to consciously focus on something different to your default story – with practice the evidence follows and a new story grows.
Invest by accepting that things may not be as you want them, you might not be as productive, as organised, as groomed even and that is ok. You are allowed to stand in your own imperfect glory
Invest by identifying what relationships or activities enrich you and make time for them, even if they are nothing to do with work, or what you think you should be doing with your time. It’s no accident people are going baking mad – myself included. It’s distracting, it’s nourishing and breaking bread – quite literally – is one of the most connecting of human activities.
Invest by staying fit mentally and physically in whatever way works for you, there is no right or wrong. There’s plenty of free stuff online you can do at home. Use routine or ritual to calm your mind, it doesn’t have to be clever or traditional meditation, just the things that create space for you. If you need a hand try some simple things like anchoring activities to calming – like hand washing, add in a little ritual about reminding yourself you are well and safe (if those words work for you – or choose your own). Listen to your favourite music, get up and dance, go in the garden if you have one. Remember the things that keep you feeling connected and do something every day.
Give help and accept help – for the simple reason that this creates connection and raises your oxytocin levels. Even in lockdown there are so, so many examples of human kindness – focus on these and emulate what works for you.
Finally invest by staying positive and grateful – even on the worst of days there are a few moments of positivity – something that made you smile or laugh, something that made you feel loved or worthy. Focus on this not the hundred bad things that might be your go-to default – it is worth the effort to retrain yourself.
Remember, courage takes two things: a willingness to act and an ability to manage fear and anxiety – even temporarily. You manage fear by focusing on your values, on what matters most to you, on where you can make a difference. You are willing to act because you believe something is possible, you can picture an outcome and that outcome matters to you enough to endure your fear.
What could possibly matter more than being the best version of yourself that you are capable of right now? – this is how you emerge stronger, this is how you care for those you love, this is how you find the energy to re-craft your business or your job, and this is how you stay mentally well.
So please invest the time and know that your future self will thank you. If you need a little help do join us in our virtual co work community.
Like many good myths and stories, Pandora’s Box has iterated over time – if I had a pound for every inspirational speaker I’ve heard say ‘and the last thing out of Pandora’s box was hope’ I’d be doing very well. For hope to prevail, you have to suspend your fear long enough to believe in something better. Pandora did not.
As far as the myth goes – in a very abridged version – Pandora was a curious being, sent by Zeus to punish mankind. She had many gifts from many gods – these were stored in a jar (mistakenly translated as a box), and she was told never to open it. Of course, she did and once she did all manner of evil flew out into the world – she watched hardship, sickness, sadness, death and many other bad things fly out of the box and in an attempt to stop the flow of evil she had released, she slammed the box shut – trapping hope inside. (Later iterations of the myth have her finding hope at the bottom or have her husband showing her hope, which is obviously a much more palatable version of the story – particularly for children)
The interesting and relevant point here is that when you are in scary, uncertain situations you don’t know what is going to come out of the box – you may not be the one who opened the box, but you do have to deal with what flies out. You can’t stuff everything back in and you can’t pretend nothing’s changed – well maybe you can do that but it’s not a very good strategy.
When you act from a place of fear you tend to make poorer decisions from a more limited set of internal resources – which is fine when you are in immediate danger and you need to remove yourself, but not so good for the decisions that most of us make most of the time. There is a fairly simple neurological reason why this is the case – fear ups your cortisol and adrenaline activates your sympathetic nervous system and diverts effort to key survival areas of your brain. It literally narrows your conductive bandwidth, bypassing some of the rational processing that might be needed to find solutions.
Once this happens – even if you are not fully in fight / flight mode, your limbic brain has the wrong chemicals sloshing about for courageous, connected longer term solution finding. For this you need dopamine – the reward hormone, serotonin – for confidence and significance and oxytocin – for bonding and connection. Hope helps to release these hormones, but there is a caveat – you have to believe the outcome you are considering is possible. You don’t have to have it all planned out, you don’t have to know how to do it all – but you do have to believe it is possible that you can do it.
These are very uncertain times for most of us, whether it’s health, wealth or both, it is reasonable to feel fearful. The thing is, we will emerge from this pandemic, what is happening now will pass, and life may well be different after. The decisions you make now, right now, about your business or your work, about your behaviour and about how you show up for your community will impact how your future looks – and while it’s really tempting to launch in and start ‘pivoting’ or changing your for the sake of it if thinks aren’t right, remember this, you have to live in the future you create.
So before you react from a place of fear, think about the future you hope for, the leader you want to be, the life you want and look at how you might start to craft that. If you don’t know, and it’s ok not to know – these are exceptional times, sit with it. Wait. You may well have more than a bit of time on your hands. Make sure you are informed about any financial support you may be eligible for, make sure you have looked at your expenditure and culled where necessary – that is good business housekeeping.
Then, when you start to craft the future you actually want, remember two things – hope helps you to have the right neurochemicals for expansive thinking and creation; and when you hope for something, you need to also believe it is possible in order to get the neurochemical hit.
When people say hope is not a strategy, they are right, and for the record fear is not a strategy either. Both are available to you: fear you’ll probably experience whether you want it or not; hope you might have to look for.
All I’m suggesting is you hang on long enough to get to the bottom of the box – don’t be like Pandora and react (or shut the lid), before you’ve allowed yourself hope.
At the risk of stating the obvious, we live in scary times – whatever your background, your job, your politics – this affects you. I’m seeing a complete contrast between my small business client, many of whom have seen their work evaporate overnight, and friends who thought they were in stable jobs being laid off, to my health care colleagues who are being called upon to give even more than they usually do in even more difficult circumstances.
The vast majority of us are simply asking ourselves what we can do to help. Whether that be staying at home to slow the spread of the virus, whether it be volunteer delivering for local pharmacies or charities, whether it is through your paid work – we can all do something. This I believe is critical – not just because of the ‘doing’, but because of the sense of purpose, or contribution it brings with it.
As humans we need to contribute, we need to feel that we matter and for many the perceived lack of control over our own circumstances and our health even, is incredibly anxiety provoking. Knowing and accepting what your contribution is right now – however small it might feel, and let’s face it ‘stay home’ doesn’t really play into the hero in most of us, will help you to feel more in control.
Feeling more in control goes hand in hand with feeling less anxious, and at a practical level it also leaves you better placed to contribute.
Anxiety is both complex and simple. It’s complex because it doesn’t often have a specific cause or cure, it may have some known triggers and those of us that have experienced it will have a few management strategies, but often it can be a bit like trying to keep liquid in a sieve. It’s simple because whatever the trigger, it creates the same chemical change of events in your body that, left unchecked, will make you feel awful, it will stop you functioning as you are used to and make you question yourself more than usual – this is a physiological response.
I’m very much taking the simple chemical approach here. When you help others, what goes on in your amygdala activity changes. Fear is suppressed by the oxytocin (the feel good, empathy hormone) floating around in response to social connection / contribution – you feel good for giving help.
According to research by Inagaki & Ross in 2018, who tracked amygdala changes through MRI scans, targeted help was more beneficial than untargeted help. People giving to charity, for example, give untargeted support – they have no direct control over the outcome of their action, in the research these people experienced a wellbeing benefit. Those who gave targeted help – i.e. they took specific action to create a specific benefit over which they had some control, showed reduced amygdala activity (the thing that reduces fear and anxiety). In part this is because we are socially connected creatures who need to be of service.
As oxytocin levels rise, so do dopamine and serotonin which boost your mood and counters the impact of cortisol (the stress hormone) thus reducing anxiety.
Back to the current situation and our need to help; it is in part innate, we are each part of the social structure under threat, but it is mostly about targeted help – a way to bring a little bit of control to our chaos, away to rebalance our internal chemistry in favour of wellbeing – oh and an increased immune system by the way!
What can you do practically?
It might be that staying off the streets and looking after your immediate family is your contribution right now – so recognise it and focus on the difference you are making (both by way of protecting your family and slowing spread). It might be that if you are well and not in the vulnerable category, you can support others, friends, wider family, neighbours by being an ear, dropping off supplies at their door or simply checking in from time to time.
It might be you have some time, resource or skill you can share. We are creative creatures, we can find work arounds for many things. I’ve seen volunteer shoppers and deliverers, people showing one another how to use tech to stay connected, people having virtual coffee breaks, cocktail hours and watch parties – playing games you’d normally play in person, like monopoly, over video – think about what you can do.
It might be you are working from home and, having done that off and on for many years, it is not without its challenges in a full house. If you are not used to it don’t simply try to recreate your office at home, you may need to take breaks when you can and you’ll probably need to treat distractions as a blessing (yes I do mean children, pets and even chores). Be kind, graceful and helpful when your flow gets interrupted. Stay in touch with co-workers, they are probably feeling some of the challenges you are, it is amazing how much a kind word and online smiling face, or a collective laugh at your circumstances can do to help.
If you are still out working then the rest of us probably need to say thank you as it’s likely you are in healthcare, public service or essential industries and your efforts are quite literally helping the rest of us survive. You are already providing targeted help, and I, like so many others, am incredibly grateful. Do try to find time to acknowledge to yourself the contribution you are making – this is the way you get the neurological benefit. I know from my emergency care work it is all too easy to brush your contribution of as normal or just what you do, or even to feel like you haven’t done enough because of an overwhelmed system.
Taking stock of the difference you’ve made, the small acts, the things you take for granted will give you the energy and resilience to carry on.
Humour is also a great way to socially connect, to help one another relax for a minute and to change your neuro chemicals – I believe this is one of the reasons ‘black humour’ is so prevalent in health and emergency services, and I’m sure most industries have a version of their own, so take a moment to have a laugh where you can.
Finally, remember it is the uncertainty – the lack of control – that is throwing so many of us off kilter. It is the not knowing what comes next that leads to catastrophising and, ultimately, heightened anxiety. Regaining some modicum of control is the answer. Do this by focusing on what you personally can do – follow guidance from respected sources – like the NHS, try to keep a bit of structure if you are at home, identify where you are making a contribution and do more if appropriate, and finally be mindful or what you are spreading emotionally as well as physically.
If you want to join me online, we are hosting virtual coworking and coffee breaks on Wednesday mornings at 11am (these are practical conversations sharing knowledge and skills) join atwww.bravescene.com/coffee
Resolving a crisis often demands innovation, a change in the way you do things. Discomfort, uncertainty and fear, will likely call on you to hold fast, keep doing what you are doing, or have you feeling overwhelmed, like you have no control, or you can do nothing to influence your situation. I get it, this is the emptiest my sales pipeline has been in a very long time, and it’s not something I can easily fix.
I have spent much of today on the phone with healthcare colleagues and clients around the world – mostly postponing work we have planned over the next few months. Unlike our non-healthcare clients, they do not have the capacity to take stuff online, to continue developing their staff – they are working flat out to care for those in need. I’d like to say a big thank you to all of you in health care who might be reading this.
Like any ‘crisis’ Covid-19 is bringing out the best and worst of humanity, I’ve seen all sorts of behaviour from people, as I’m sure you have too. One thing that feels very clear – people are scared, we might not all be scared about the same thing, but there is definitely a heightened anxiety in the air.
From a neuro perspective, whatever you are consciously focussed on gets amplified. At the moment it feels like wherever you look it is fear and anxiety that are getting amplified. Now I’m not saying there is nothing to be concerned about, but I do think we have some individual and collective responsibility to be mindful of what we are spreading around emotionally as well as physically.
I am a great believer in focusing your efforts where you can actually make a difference. As well as obvious self-care precautions, I think there are two areas you can make a real difference.
First, pay attention to what you are talking about, listening too, reading and generally consuming online. Make sure you are amplifying things that actually help you, being reliably informed is one thing, scaring the sh*t out of yourself is totally different. Remember the things that help you feel good, uplifted and resourceful and include some of that in your day where you can.
Second, concentrate on activities that have the potential to sustain your business.
For many of us this will be bringing work online, focusing on how you can engage with clients remotely and looking at how you use a potentially less busy period to develop your business.
While times are tough right now, Covid -19 will fuel a wave of innovation – changes to the way we do business, that will stick long after the virus is gone. One of those will be a greater focus on digital working.
Look first at sustaining your business, think about cashflow, delivering on existing commitments differently and things you already have in place that you may not be using. I bet if most of you did an inventory of your tools and software you’d find some stuff that is underused because it doesn’t fit with how you work, some you don’t know well enough to use to its full potential, some that was just a good idea at the time but you’ve never really got value from.
It often takes an external event to make us change the way we work, we are creatures of habit after all. A great example of this, all be it very different circumstances, was the postal strike in 1988. One of the biggest outcomes was the increase in purchase and use of fax machines, a practice that continued after the strike. What practices might you need to change to operate in an evolving digital world? When you look at what you already have you may find making the transition to more digital working is not as hard – or as undesirable, as you first thought.
Cancel those things you subscribe to and never use – protect your cash flow. Think about things you could offer to clients, if you are in training or coaching for example, you may have several tools at your disposal, things like 360 feedback, profiling tools and team tools – these might just help your clients with the transition to home working, and the emerging work cultures that come with that.
Look at how you stay connected and continue to build relationships with your clients and community – what do you have in place that helps you navigate remote working – personally I’m a great fan of zoom video conferencing it has enabled me to serve clients in a much more convenient manner for both of us, and is now an even more essential part of our business. Have a look at what you have access to, for example Microsoft teams if you use Office 365, Skype, even What’s App or Facebook communities – it may be you already have more at your disposal than you realise.
Finally, think about your future business – what can you reasonably spend your time on now, especially if you are a bit light on client work, to invest in the future of your business. It might be getting round to creating resources to support your main client offerings, it might be creating a digital version of what you sell, it might be learning to use your software and tech more fully, or it might even be investing time in yourself and your own development – personally I quite like the idea of reading, researching, catching up on things going on in my industry and beyond.
Whatever you are doing over the next few weeks, protect yourself – both emotionally and physically, take the opportunity of a quieter time (if you have one) to stay connected with those you serve, to build relationships and to spend some time on your business infrastructure and offerings.
If you don’t fare well working alone – ie. you are easily distracted or demotivated, in addition to our existing Braver FB group, I’m hosting weekly Brave virtual coworking & coffee sessions. These are an open, no agenda co-work session, bring questions, ideas and challenges – let’s connect and lift one another. Join us here at 11am every Wednesday. One plea, there are plenty of places online you can talk about Covid -19 and its impact, this is not one of them, give your brain a break for an hour.
When thinking about this week’s blog I had a wee debate with myself – do I address the elephant in the room for many of us, or do I carry on with my planned neuroscience and connection theme. The reality is these are uncertain times.
Whether you are worried about the Covid-19 virus itself, the impact on your business or the effects of mass purchasing seemingly essential supplies, whether you are irritated by what feels like hysteria, annoyed that others don’t seem to be taking the risk seriously or happily trying to bury your head in the sand, it is unlikely you will be totally unaffected.
Uncertain times create stress and tension – as humans we don’t do well with ambiguity, in fact our unconscious will do it’s best to fill any actual knowledge gaps and create a cohesive story upon which we can act, (or react). This is in part why you can share an experience with someone and yet have conflicting memories of it.
Neurologically most people have an aversion to ambiguity when it comes to decision making. Back in the 1960s Daniel Ellsberg’s famous decision-making game demonstrated this beautifully. The game is predicated on simple gambling known factors against unknown factors.
In 2005, Colin Camerer, a neuro-economist tested this paradox while monitoring brain activity, he found that the less factual information people had to rely on, the more amygdala activity there was. Your amygdala is associated with emotion, particularly fear, aa well as the storing and sorting of memories, often ‘filed’ through their association with emotion. It also balances risk and reward and, by default, prioritises fear responses. Unchecked your unconscious will fill gaps in your knowledge with fear. It is this, seemingly irrational, by-product of not knowing that stops you focusing on the possibility of future rewards.
In our ordinary lives most of us don’t actually deal with much actual uncertainty. Most of what you feel uncertain about is, in fact, predictable, it’s socially based and related to how secure you feel. As your brain likes patterns, or habitual responses to certain triggers it is easy to repeat the same cycles, drawing on stories created from emotion, memory and incomplete information.
Of course there is a huge variance in how much uncertainty people can tolerate. Two people can have the same circumstances but a totally different experience, think about someone you love being late home, not answering your attempts to contact them, where does your brain go – are you catastrophising, are you unphased – or simply the parent of a teenager! Seriously though, your reaction will totally depend on your tolerance of uncertainty. Most people, even when excited by something, will also feel a little uncomfortable with uncertainty. At the other end of the spectrum anxiety induced by uncertainty is thought to affect 1:20 of the population.
Even if you are not particularly risk averse, most people will try to control circumstances to include more known variables and reduce the likelihood of surprise, just as demonstrated in the Ellsberg Paradox. The more you know the more you can predict what will happen and decide on ways to deal with it. When the outcome is unclear it is difficult to prepare, especially if you are splitting your brain processing between several possible outcomes.
When significant uncertainty arises, like major financial difficulties, significant health issues or major relationship challenges, anxiety increases across the board. The less control you have over a situation the higher the increase. Which brings me back to our current situation. Whatever your views around the newly declared pandemic, one of the things we should all be watchful of is its effect on mental well-being, our own and that of those around us. What is unfolding is the perfect storm of uncertainty – health risk, potential financial risk for many of us, lack of control and lack of knowledge.
Your brain will create a story or stories that enable you to process what is happening around you, it will fill in the blanks based on what you have previously experienced, what you choose to believe, and your emotional drivers – whether that be fear or something else. You will then unconsciously seek to prove your story right – it is no coincidence that you see more of what you focus on.
Our tolerance of uncertainty has diminished over the last decade, in part because we have so much technology at our disposal, it is easy to stay in touch with the people you care about, it’s easy to find ‘facts’ to support whatever you say, and it’s easy to create echo chambers from the places you consume ‘news’ – especially social media. Emotions are just as contagious as viruses and excessive or extended bouts of fear are bad for you. It is exhausting, quite literally weakens your immune system and prevents you enjoying your life. They might manifest as paralysing anxiety, but much more likely you will notice symptoms like poor concentration, increased excuse making, procrastination, irritability, finding distractions, refusing to delegate, double checking yourself, being distant or disengaged – this is not an exclusive list.
There is no magic button to turn off uncertainty anxiety, but the good news is that because it is created and driven through your brain’s limbic system you can go some way to creating healthier, more empowering responses to uncertainty. There are two key factors, self-awareness and control. Self-awareness requires you to understand the stories you repeatedly tell yourself, the excuses you make and the triggers you own. Control requires you to understand what you can impact, where you might have some control and what you might be concerned about but can’t change right now.
Here are a few strategies to help you maximise your awareness and control:
Understand your triggers, they are the start of an emotional reaction – good or bad. When you are aware of the things that send you into a more anxious state you have a better chance of knowing when it happens and consciously intervening in your brain processing. Even a simple word with yourself – ‘I recognise this is fear talking and choose to let it go’ or a sentence that works for you.
Focus on what you can control – you always have control over some aspect of a situation so to decrease uncertainty anxiety, focus on this. In the current situation it might be washing your hands , choosing what you read or give air time to. It might be building up your mental resilience. Choosing to act on what you can control calms your limbic activity and done repeatedly becomes your default way of responding.
Stay positive – not for hippy, happy, clappy reasons, but because it raises your resilience, mentally and physically, start by consciously looking for and finding the small positives in everyday activities – there will be many you take for granted. This focus amplifies over time and creates an easier transition out of fear into calm.
Trust yourself – if your internal alarm bells are ringing listen, go through the steps above and ensure you are not reacting to an unhelpful story and then take the wisdom your ‘gut’ or intuition is sharing.
Take action on decisions you make it removes ambiguity – even if it turns out to be the wrong action.
When all else fails stop, take a breath, well a few breaths really. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system creating a sense of calm, calms your sympathetic nervous system and reduces anxiety.
We may have an uncertain few months ahead, and I don’t write this from some place of judgement or even direction. I do believe we each also have a responsibility to each keep our own house in order, we need to look after each other’s wellbeing and resist spreading harm, viral and informational. I also recognise that it can be a concerning time, if you need to talk, want to share ideas or challenges as part of the Brave community you are very welcome to do so.
Seriously – food allergies, medicines we’re on it aren’t we? Whether it’s life threatening, causes mildly inconvenient symptoms or anything in between, it’s a physical trigger causing a physical reaction and we pay attention to it. We know what we are allergic to, we know what we need to do about it and generally we avoid contact with the substances involved.
Have you ever considered your emotional allergies? I believe we all have them, you might even be having one right now reading this. Put simply, an allergy is an uncontrolled inflammatory reaction to a specific trigger. Think about this from an emotional perspective – a specific person or a specific topic repeatedly trigger negative responses in you. It might be anger, discontent, inadequacy, sadness, fear, it might be something else for you, but left unchecked all of these impact both your judgement and your decision making.
I have spent a happy evening researching new neuroscience evidence – a favourite pastime which often sends me off down some interesting – but not often relevant – rabbit hole. Tonight’s rabbit hole reminded me why rabbit holes can sometimes be a good thing.
Many years ago I decided to study an extra course in radical philosophy while at college – just because it was interesting, (and probably because it was not part of the curriculum I’d been told to study). Anyway, the understanding of philosophy, and specifically Plato’s Metaxy, paid dividends tonight as I got engrossed in truth and post-truth impact on connection and increased social anxiety – you can expect a more intelligent blog on this once I’ve digested my findings.
For now, it got me thinking about emotional allergies, the things you react to and create meaning around which might just be based on the B*lls**t your brain is feeding on.
Your reaction, whether good or bad, habitual or unexpected comes from the stories unconsciously (or consciously) run. Here’s the thing, it’s not how you feel that makes something true – or even right or wrong. It is consideration, analysis and judgement or all the truths or the evidence – internal and external. It is very easy to trust your intuition and make a quick decision and, to be fair, most of the time you will be right. Just check you don’t have an emotional allergy – otherwise faster than you can say ‘processing power’, your brain will have responded to your emotion and constructed reasons for your decision or action that you will call intuition.
Remember your brain is biased and your emotions tell lies – or at least not the whole truth.
It’s not hard to find your emotional allergies, and the great news is it is often easier to do something about them than with physical allergies. You may have realised you have an allergy while you’ve been reading this. If you’re not sure how to work out whether you have an allergy give this a go. Do it honestly, trust your first reaction and don’t judge – this is an exercise in awareness, nothing more. Below are just a few words, test out the exercise with your own words if you prefer.
Look at each of the words below and become aware of your emotions:
Entrepreneurial Spiritualism Money
Capitalism Feminism Freelancer
Authentic Conformist Whining
Profit Activist Rebellion
If you felt a negative reaction, or the need to justify why the word is bad in some way then the chances are you have an allergy – the extent of your reaction may determine the severity.
Like many things relating to your brain, you can choose to do something about your allergies once you know about them. Let’s face it the very fact you know about something changes the way you process it.
Things to try:
Know your triggers and how much exposure you can handle. Try an emotional ‘patch test’ – nothing with high stakes, test out your reactions, and have an exit strategy.
If you are triggered, give your brain time to catch up before you respond – I’m referring to the BS intuition your brain presents as evidence. Taking a pause may prevent you from reacting in a way you later regret.
Know that those who best push your buttons are those who put them there – family, partners, close friends. You won’t always be able to avoid them, but you can know those buttons are to serve their ends not to benefit you – awareness might stop you reacting.
Finally, congratulate yourself for your successes, keep a sense of humour and don’t ever judge yourself – we are all work in progress.
I hope you enjoy this journey of self-discovery and if you want to share what you find do join me in the braver group.
No idea what I’m talking about? I bet you’ve eaten a pancake or two in your time. Maybe enjoyed a pancake race, or tossing ritual?
Being shriven is to be absolved of your sins – it’s an Anglo-Saxon Christian ritual where on Shrove Tuesday, 47 days before Easter Sunday, you confessed your sins and sought absolution. This was followed by a period of fasting known as Lenten. It later became a day of feasting and celebrating preceding Lent. Making pancakes, once a practical way of using up eggs etc, became central to the celebrations. Similar rituals of celebration, food and parade can be seen in Mardi Gras and Pre-Lenten in Europe.
While we often associate ritual with religion, ancient tribalism or even the occult, it is actually in small everyday things that rituals are at their most powerful. Rituals give us a sense of order, control even, and in some small way they help to make sense of the chaotic world we experience, whether that be grand scale ceremony or a very personal routine. They are often symbolic enactments to which we attach a meaning.
Historically we see rituals where the outcome is important – like being absolved of your sins if you are a Christian. We see rituals when the outcome is uncertain – like dancing around the Maypole, an ancient pagan fertility ritual, designed to bring good luck to crop growing. We see rituals where the outcome is beyond our control – like the ancient fire walking tradition, a rite of passage in iron age India, purification in Malaysia and a modern-day empowerment activity.
These kind of rituals exist because they create a sense of connection, or belonging to something bigger, even if only for a moment. This is really important to human well-being.
In principle, rituals are a good thing, in practice not so much, unless we are prepared to get both conscious and intentional about what rituals we engage in. It is daily practice that shapes who we are, it is daily practice that determines how we show up and contribute to the world and it is daily practice that has the biggest impact on our mental wellbeing.
Here’s the rub. Most daily practice is completely habitual, it is often unconscious, and we don’t think about its impact – on ourselves or others. Think back to being shriven for a minute; how often do you continue to beat yourself up for something long after others involved have moved on? Is part of your ritual to beat yourself up, or can you learn what you need to learn and forgive? The latter of course is far better for you.
Many of our rituals are unconscious, habitual acts, yet we feel a bit out of sorts if we haven’t performed them. Think about cleaning your teeth for example, you probably have times of the day when you do this – when you get up, when you go to bed, you might have a way you do it and order in which you move round your mouth and so on – it’s habitual and a ritual. So might be the way you prepare for certain activities – I know many speakers who have a pre-stage ritual to get themselves in the right place to do their best work, musicians, actors, athletes, people who have grounding, connecting rituals prior to something important.
Rituals are a powerful internal conversation (no words necessary) about your self-worth, about the way you treat yourself, whether you are prepared to invest in yourself.
However busy you are, you can find a few minutes to be conscious about your rituals.
Think about your habits and rituals for a moment, how many have you got? How many create control, a sense of order? How many make you feel calm and /or connected. What have you been doing unconsciously and does it enrich or empower you or are your rituals keeping you stuck?
If you have some enriching rituals in place already well done, if you are alarmed by what you are habitually doing to yourself or not doing for yourself, it’s never too late to start investing.
Uncertainty, and the fear that comes with it, drives your sympathetic nervous system –your fight/flight, stress response. Your body is designed to operate here in exceptional circumstances, it can’t differentiate between actual physical threat and psychological threat, destructive self-talk, judgement and fear keep you stuck and have a detrimental impact on your long term well-being so watch out for destructive rituals.
Creating certainty, even for a few minutes, has a powerful impact on your neurological function. It trips you back into parasympathetic – rest and restore mode, where we ideally operate from most of the time. Ritual is a great way to create a few minutes of certainty.
If you need to upgrade your rituals here are a few things to try –
Wake up and consciously smile, it changes the chemicals floating around your brain.
Create tea / coffee / water time out routines for yourself (I love my 5 minute start my work day routine, of a coffee, my aim for the day and some affirmations – it sets my brain up again with the right neurochemicals sloshing around to keep me empowered and on track)
Set your intentions – some people say this is a morning activity, I believe it is a regular, but what works for you activity – the important bit being setting yourself up to succeed.
Exercise whether it be yoga, running, football, the gym, a regular routine for yourself is a great ritual.
Your self-talk – we are predisposed to focus on negatives, positive self-talk often takes a bit of conscious processing.
Getting outside and breathing fresh air.
Pick one of these and try it. you might find you have to try a few before you find the right fit, have fun. This is not an exhaustive list, if you have others you think people might like please share them in the comments or the Braver group.
You don’t have to join a ceremony or embody an ancient custom to enjoy ritual, unless you want to, but you do have to absolve yourself or your perceived shortcomings and wrong doings and invest in your well-being a little. Spend a little time on yourself and if you are having pancakes or joining bigger ceremonies have fun, as we will be with our own who can actually catch their pancake once they’ve tossed it competition.
I am constantly fascinated by narrative, language and storytelling, as they are key to the reality we create for ourselves – even when we are not the originator of the narrative. Our narrative frames possibility, both creating and limiting our potential to live our best lives.
Somewhere in the middle of all that sits ego. There are several differing interpretations of what ego is in psychology and neuroscience, so to be clear for the purpose of this article, I am talking about ego as your sense of self, the opinions you have about yourself and your abilities, and your sense of self-worth. I am not talking about ego in terms of conscious mind or psychoanalysis.
Humour me for a minute; stop reading and just jot down somewhere who you are, how you might describe yourself – your words, not what you think others might see or think.
Don’t read on until you’ve done the exercise!
Now have a look at what you’ve written – how does it read?
It’s probably a bit of your personal story , the things that define you. For example, I might write: I’m a mother, a teacher, an author, an enabler. I’m big into neuroscience, spent many happy years working in the NHS leading emergency care. I hate rules and being told what to do, I’m stubborn, curious and love creating – words, photos, food, décor – just creating. I have big dreams, a bigger heart and the courage to follow through – most of the time. The longer you give yourself the more you will come up with, the deeper into yourself you’ll probably go – and I often get clients to spend much longer doing this, it can be a very interesting voyage of self-discovery.
If your ego is your sense of self, then it is the story you create about yourself – create being the salient word. It’s not real, it is simply the illusion – or the story, you create in your mind. Your story is, of course, your lived reality, so reflect again on what you wrote above and think about the stories you repeatedly tell yourself – are they empowering, supportive of who you want to be in the world or are they fear driven limitations and excuses that hold you back?
Most people have some and some; you might believe you are great at what you do, you might also believe you are no good with numbers or money, you might think you are really clever and that you are too old to make a difference, you might believe you are kind and loving and also that nobody listens to you – do you see how these contradicting, but potentially real internal stories can create confused ego?
Your ego is in play every time you say I can do this or I can’t do that, it is being formed everytime you think I’m not good enough or I’m too good for this, and for the most part you will be oblivious to what is going on. Your ego is an evolving part of who you are, and it can be difficult to see, mostly because you are not looking; introspection is a hugely undervalued activity in our society.
Your ego plays a massive part in how you show up and engage with the world, it is fundamental to how you connect with those around you personally & professionally, face to face and online. It is also responsible for many of the emotional reactions you have to circumstances, other people’s behaviour, perceptions of fairness, feelings of insecurity. To protect from the confusion created by both empowering and disabling stories you may well have created one or a series of masks you pull on in different situations to protect yourself and your fragile ego.
It is these masks that are often the destroyer of connection, because the you that is showing up is playing a part, fitting in. However practiced you are – and you may have been wearing some of those masks for a long time, people can’t quite connect, they don’t feel entirely safe or like they can trust you. When your ego puts up a mask it creates a barrier to genuine connection, your ego fields behaviour and emotion driven by fear and self-protection. When people think about ego it is often over inflated opinions, or arrogance that come to mind – ego can keep you small just as it can make you big yourself up.
If ego is going to be the creator of connection then you have to drop the mask, you have to get comfortable paying attention to your ego and treating it as your friend – as the integral part of you that it is. You have to nourish it, not punish it and this comes down to what you feed it – the stories you chose to believe about yourself, the stories you repeatedly tell yourself.
It is time to stop confusing your ego. Think about who you need to be, how you want to show up in the world, how you want to connect and feed those stories to your ego, create that reality for yourself.
If you are not sure who this is go back and repeat the earlier exercise as if it were the very best version of yourself. You might start by jotting down everything you believe about yourself, then cross out the things that are not true – other people’s opinions you have chosen to own, or old stories that are no longer true. Look at what is left and choose to keep the best version. This way there is no need for a mask, the real you shows up and connection is created.
If you falter along you journey, be kind to yourself, your ego has been a lifetime in the making, remain introspective and work on your stories a bit at a time.
Your ego is not your enemy, it is simply your story – make it a good one.