The truth about stress and resilience

medium_6072966411This post follows on from my earlier article Why Stress Does Not Exist.

It was Hans Selye who first coined the word ‘Stress’ in relation to non-specific illnesses. Contrary to popular myth, Selye did not say that ‘Stress’ caused illness. What he meant was that if the individual fails to adapt to adverse Life Events then a breakdown in body functions could occur. Examples of ‘bad’ life events include job loss, relationship breakdown, financial disaster, overwork and illness.

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How to make that breakthrough

Breakthrough

My good friend and collaborator Mark McGuinness recently alerted me to a stimulating new book by Steven Pressfield called Do The Work which is about a subject dear to my heart: how to overcome Headmind when it is messing your life up.

I was doubly intrigued because Steven Pressfield once wrote a powerful historical novel about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae called Gates of Fire – one of the very few books of that kind which had me (and my wife) in tears by the end.

Taking time off from writing fiction Steven’s new, very short, book is about how to achieve your goals when you don’t think you can.

The premise is simple: whenever you work on a project that is really important to you, but which is going to take time, hard work, and personal sacrifice then you are going to hit a wave of resistance. And that resistance comes not from outside but from within;  your own personal version of Headmind in fact: doubts, excuses, distractions, worries, whinges, procrastination, or so-called ‘low self-esteem’ – in which Headmind keeps on repeating the mantra that there is no point in your doing anything very much because it is bound to end in failure.

The solution is also simple: just do it. Once you have decided that the project really is important to you then you ignore Headmind when it is trying to do you down and sabotage your goals. Specifically, you ignore the Chatterbox. Or just tell it to shut the fuck up while you get on with things.

Here are some examples from the world of Therapy:

You are working on your recovery from Depression and you have decided to get out more. The Inner Voice says ‘what’s the point?’. Your response: go ahead and call a friend and make that date regardless.

You are working on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and you have decided to increase your morning exercise routine to 10 minutes. Your Internal Saboteur says: ‘you’ll make yourself ill’. Your response: increase it to 15 minutes.

You are working on Anxiety. Your Internal Control Freak says: ‘I worry that you won’t be able to stop worrying because you have been a worrier all your life….’. Your response: you focus your attention on a non-worrisome activity for the next few hours.

One difference between using Steven’s method on creative work, and using it on personal problems is this: in creative work you just get on with the project (for example: your next novel, or work idea, house redesign, etc.). In that way you force Headmind to get on with doing something useful.

Whereas if you are depressed, anxious, obsessional, etc., you may need to give Headmind some substitute activities to do. A good example relates to giving up drug/alcohol/cigarette/ gambling addictions. Whenever the Internal Saboteur twitters on about needing a fix/drink/fag/bet then you just do a 180 degree attention turn and go off and do something more worthwhile. My experience with my clients is that when they do this repeatedly, then over the ensuing weeks that Internal Voice will gradually dwindle away to a whisper.

Image by permission of Fuyoh

Hugh Laurie, Schopenhauer, and the art of life

Schopenhaue This is the follow up article to Schopenhauer: a philosophy for grumpy people? Which attracted  a good response from many readers, many of whom had never heard of him, and were intrigued by his pessimism. Like Hugh Laurie in House he attracts people with his attitude problem.

In fact both Dr Gregory House and Schopenhauer have much in common:

  • Both are loners
  • Unconventional thinkers
  • Grumpiness combined with a wish to help others
  • Black humour
  • Grim realism
  • Mockery of conventional, pompous, people and ideas
  • Atheism
  • Disillusion
  • A (well-disguised) compassion for others.
  • Both are skilled wind-up merchants

For Schopenhauer, the world was a place he never made and little admired. Unlike almost all other philosophers, he did not believe that human beings were created to be happy. The reason for that is that our Will for personal gratification is out of all proportion to what Life can actually offer us. That, he claimed, was the reason for our continually recurring states of frustration, heartache and boredom.

Now, while I believe Schopenhauer was right in some of his diagnoses, I disagree about the cause. It is not the Universal Will which is the cause of personal misery but Headmind obsessions working through the Ego. I have written about this before in my article on How your Head F*cks You Up.

While I agree with Schopenhauer that we are not created to be happy (because we are blessed/cursed with an enlarged Headmind/Pre-frontal cortex), I disagree that we cannot, in fact find it. We can find it if we persist, through Awareness, and through downsizing the Ego.

However, I will leave you with a few more conclusions from the Master:

  • Make good use of the only thing you can control: your conscious mind.
  • Strive to live in the Now
  • Set limits everywhere: on desires, wealth and power.
  • Accept limitations: that leads to peace of mind.
  • Accept misfortunes: only dwell on them if you can change something about them.
  • Seek out personal space and time for yourself; other people may try rob you of peace of mind.
  • Keep busy, always.
  • Do not expect too much from other people: like you they are only human.
  • In the long run, assume disappointment will be your lot more times than not.
  • You are not alone: others share your disappointments.
  • Your recognition of your shared humanity with others is the basis for compassion.
  • This recognition frees you from the Ego.
  • At times of great difficulty you can take consolation from the fact that every other human being has endured similar difficulties.
  • Contemplation of Nature, Art, Music, Literature and the Spectacle of life raises you above it.

Can feeling grumpy be good for you?

Moods1 I receive a mischievous communication from my very good friend Mark McGuinness who wants me to comment on a research article he has looked into, written by some ‘Australian psychologists’, which claims that being in a ‘bad mood’ can be ‘good’ for you.

Now, some of my best experiences in life have been prompted by my ‘bad’ moods. With the aid of those I have got rid of countless annoying relationships, irritating jobs and pointless activities. So my first thought was that – yet again – a bunch of overpaid academics were being subsidised to announce discoveries most of us learned in primary school. And that Mark had forgotten our many rambling midnight conversations about emotions and the meaning of life.

Yet I realised immediately that these gorgeous, Bondi-beach seeking academics have made yet another category mistake: While bad moods can, indeed, be ‘good’, those are not the same as ‘bad emotions’.

To remind you: there is no such thing as a bad emotion. Emotions are an expression of Bodymind
intelligence. A mood is different. It is a  Headmind attitude. It expresses a relationship between our attitudes and the world as we find it. You can read more about moods here.

A grumpy mood, for me, is a relationship based on suspicion. It means that I no longer trust that experiences, situations, people, or the Lord God himself are doing me any favours. And that, in turn, is a cue that I need to revise my trusting attitude towards these entities. I need to retreat, stand-off, complain, and have a moan. I may even need to disengage – permanently.

So yes – a grumpy mood can be good for you if it helps you get rid of your intellectual garbage.

The funny thing is that I actually find grumpy moods enjoyable. Entraining my suspicion and pessimism on the planet gives me a god-like sense of detachment and playfulness. It also gives me a playground for wit.

Rather like one of my favourite philosophers – Arthur Schopenhauer – who once wrote:

“If we were not all so interested in ourselves, life would be so uninteresting that none of us would be able to endure it.”

Come to think of it, Schopenhauer deserves an article all to himself, so I will write that next.

Why your life has gone wrong – and what to do about it

The most important reason our lives go wrong is that we give away our power – to Others, to  Life, to God.  We cease to take responsibility for ourselves.
Munch

Or we say that Life is Unfair. Or that God has let us down. Or that we could be ok – if it wasn’t for our Partner, our Parents, our Children, our Employers, our Doctors, etc, etc.

The first step – if you are blaming others for what has happened to you – is to let it go. Whatever people have done to you happened in the past and its over. Go through a process of forgiveness and decide to make a fresh start.

When you forgive and let go you stop living in the past. That’s the next step. You can now stop wasting effort on regrets, recriminations and ‘if onlys’ and your energy level will start to rise (you will feel relief first).

The next step is to stop waiting for Life to get better. That isn’t going to happen until YOU happen to Life. To do that you are going to have to break the habit of procrastination, take risks, try something new and start being more honest with people. One of the important laws of life is that you only get out of it what you put in.

Side by side with that step you stop making excuses: ‘That won’t work’, ‘I don’t know what to do/how to do it’, ‘People won’t like it’, ‘It’s too scary’, ‘I’m not attractive’, ‘It’s too difficult’, ‘I don’t have time’, etc. Instead of making excuses, do that new course, start talking to people about the help you need, say ‘No’ to people who drain you and make some more time for yourself. Experiment with new clothes, hair-styles, make-up. If you are shy, then look for people who can teach you some social skills.

By now you should be well on the way to doing the single most important thing that helps you get your life back: living in the present. Not the past and not the distant future. Now. That means focusing your attention (aside from the odd ten minutes you spend planning for the immediate future) on activities that satisfy you today. It also helps if you regularly practice an awareness technique that keeps you grounded in your body in the Now. We teach people how to do this in Reverse Therapy but other approaches – Yoga, Breath training, Tai Chi, Meditation, Qi Gung – can work just as well.

When you discipline yourself to stay in the moment you are also letting go of the Headmind chatter – worries, regrets, blame, guilt, day-dreaming – that kept you locked in the past and paralysed your will.

You can learn how to stop listening to that parrot on your shoulder and start listening, instead, to yourself: your emotions, your desires, your needs, your passion, your inner drive toward love, truth, connection to others and self-fulfilling work (or play). For more advice on how to kill the parrot see Mark McGuinness’s blog.

 

 

Why your most useful ideas are delusions

One very strange result of studies on depressed people is that they are a lot more realistic than the norm. TheirStraitjacket_2 judgments about what they can and can’t do, their predictions about events, and their guesses about what others really think about them, are a lot more accurate than non-depressed people. Even the bets they make are more likely to make a (small) profit. You can read more about this discovery here.

Studies on non-depressed people show that most of us are ‘unrealistic optimists’ who believe we have far more control over events, and more talents and skills than is actually the case. We also tend to be irrational in our judgments about the future. For example, most of us tend to over-estimate our scores on ability tests, exaggerate the differences between our own abilities and those of people in the same job, and have a rosier view of the future than experience warrants.

The fact is that pessimism is usually more realistic
than optimism. And this got me thinking about the difference between the two types of thinking.

Here are two lists that I have compiled more or less off the top of my head.

True ideas that will depress you:

  1. On average, 50% of your decisions will be wrong
  2. You are a lot less talented than you imagine
  3. Many of your achievements owe something to luck
  4. Any success you have will be temporary at best
  5. Most people you have met are indifferent to you
  6. You have little influence over your own life

Unrealistic ideas that will make you happy:

  1. You can make a difference
  2. You are special
  3. You are likeable to most people
  4. You have free will
  5. You make your own luck
  6. You are continually growing and learning how to be more successful

The bottom line is this: Headmind thoughts, beliefs and judgments – no matter how accurate they are – make NO difference to your quality of life.

Take another look at the two lists and ask yourself what the main difference is.

Here is what I notice: The first list is reactive (based on past experience), impersonal and leads nowhere. Depressed people may have many true thoughts but they avoid work, stay away from people and spend a lot of time being miserable.

The second list is personal, affirmative emotive, and leads to action – community work, self-development, communication, decision-making, risk-taking and experimentation. Following those activities will keep you engaged in life, and experiencing the full range of emotions from joy to despair – rather than just observing it. No matter whether the outcomes are unrealistic or not, the journey is everything.

There is a poem by Cavafy that illustrates this point, If Odysseus had thought about the journey home to Ithaka, and all the problems he was likely to encounter, he would never have started. Neither would he have been reunited with those he loved. And he would have missed out on some rich experiences. As we say, in Reverse Therapy, ‘Don’t think about it – just do it!’


Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
 
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
 
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Cavafy

 

 

Life is so ridiculously simple that a child of five could get it

You have all heard the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. If you forgot, you can read it again here.

EmperorsnewclothesIn the story, the adults are fooled by their own conditioning into believing that a thing must be true because the Emperor says it is so. Although the Emperor’s clothes are, in fact, invisible – everybody behaves as if they exist.

The child doesn’t see the clothes because he is not deluded by other peoples’ rules about authority, about obedience, and about reality.

We all grow up with these rules. Some rules are open-ended, useful and benign. For example – rules that say we should give other people a fair hearing, or that we should check the facts and get advice before making important decisions.

Other rules are rigid, obsessional and malignant. For example – rules that say that some people belong to an inferior race, or that we are ‘evil’ if we disobey our parents.

Some rules can actually cause delusions. Meaning that Headmind ignores, over-rides or distorts what our eyes and ears tell us.

Here are a few examples:

  • Some people don’t ‘hear’ their children being rude because they have a rule that children should be treated differently from adults.
  • Some people don’t feel anger because they were taught that anger is ‘bad’ and should be ignored.
  • Some people don’t ‘see’ their partners showing them love because it was drilled into them that they are unlovable.
  • Some people don’t notice they are getting stressed because they are under an obligation to be SuperWoman.

Until a child goes to School his exposure to conditioning is generally minimal (although some parents do start way too early). This gives him a number of advantages:

  1. Living in the moment. Do you remember how endless the summer holidays were when you were a child? Because each day was spent in eternity?
  2. Spontaneous expression of emotions. So a child can be gentle one moment, angry the next and laughing a minute later – living in the stream of feeling and going with the flow.
  3. A child tells things they way they seem to her – not the way they ought to be.
  4. The child doesn’t pretend to be someone she is not (except in play) so her energy isn’t exhausted by acting a part.
  5. Connected to Bodymind – fully aware of their changing feelings, needs and perceptions.
  6. Creative, playful and imaginative. Playing infinite games rather than finite games.

So In Reverse Therapy we argue that the Child of Five ‘gets it’ when Adults often don’t. In fact the heading to this blog could say:

Life is So Ridiculously Simple that ONLY a Child of Five could get it.

If we adults are to get back to being wise we need to recognise, unlearn and release our conditioning and turn rules into choices, rather than obsessions. We can start that right now coming to our senses.

Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.
The Earl of Rochester