Mindfulness, Uncategorized

Back to school – What have we gained? What have we lost?

Standing at the school gate (behind the freshly painted yellow line) I watched yesterday as my children skipped off towards their classrooms without looking back.

Seeing their school bags bob out of sight, ushered by smiling teachers, marked the end of 6 months of lockdown. Parents were shuffled out through the new one-way system, blinking in bewilderment as we stepped out onto the pavement. Everything was so strange and yet so familiar; we seemed to slip back into the routine so easily that in some surreal sense it felt as though lockdown hadn’t happened.

Standing in the drizzle, I was, for the first time in half a year, free. Free from what had begun to feel like an inescapable, chaotic dance of multitasking, entertaining, cooking, tidying and refereeing, Now I had the chance to look back down the mountain we had climbed.

Our little nuclear family experienced no tragic personal losses from COVID-19, beyond those we witnessed in the news, which we followed helplessly, until the numbers and the politics became too confusing. Our three boys are young. They hadn’t missed out on any milestones or rights of passage. In many ways they adapted into lockdown with as much ease as they adapted back out of it. Just like that.

Lockdown had its upsides. Our children bonded and their bonds grew stronger. They played together for hours. In the absence of schoolwork they had to do, they began to lead their own learning; crafting, drawing, painting, reading, writing stories. They explored every inch of the garden. They spent more time than ever before with their dad, who was working from home. They built genuine friendships with their grandparents. As parents we realised the strength of our support network.

But there were losses of a different kind and with these came consequences for the whole family. We lost routine and a stabilising structure to our day. We began enthusiastically enough, the children and us, following a timetable, keeping up with a ‘school day’ of sorts, juggling working from home with homeschooling reasonably well. The grandparents joined in with zoom lessons and virtual story time. But as the weeks went on, the novelty wore off. Enthusiasm waned. Bedtimes got later, school days got shorter. Keeping homeschooling varied and interesting for three different ages was a challenge. Fighting was relentless and inevitable. The children learnt about Netflix and how to use the remote control. Their methods of mischief became extraordinarily creative.

As parents we lost time. Time to invest in our own projects so that we could feel personally fulfilled and able to give more of ourselves. Time to invest in our own self care so that we could do a better job of caring for others. Time to focus on one thing at a time, whether it was work, a phone call, or admin task so that we could give others our full, unwavering attention.

As parents we also lost space. Amidst the unbroken noise of three boys, we lost space to think. Space to get out and go. Space to calm down. Space to have an uninterrupted conversation. We literally lost space to sit, as the couch became a fortress.

We tried to solve these losses ourselves, but ended up simply moving the loss from one place to another, like a sliding puzzle.

We took on new projects to mark our personal space. In turn we lost time to invest in caring for each other and for ourselves, and we lost patience with our children as we piled yet more on to our multi-tasking list.

We stayed up late to gain back some child-free time with each other and time for ourselves. In turn we lost sleep, and we lost both time and space the following day as we limped groggily through the day with tired brains.

And now, looking back down the lockdown mountain we have climbed with its steep slopes and craggy crevices, we have time and space to process the last 6 months.

I have time and space to ask myself – How much did our lost space and time as parents impact our family through lockdown? Could I have done things differently? What could I have done better? Will my family be ok? These questions are likely to lead me to negatively introspect about the past and negatively forecast the future, creating worry and anxiety.

We have waited a long time for this time and space. Too long to fill it with self criticism and doubt. So I’m going to fill it with gratitude. Gratitude is an immensely powerful tool we can use to situate ourselves firmly in the present. Consciously considering what we are grateful for connects us with the people around us, and with the present moment itself. So,,.

I am grateful for family.

I am grateful for friends.

I am grateful for home.

I am grateful for passion.

I am grateful for hope.

What are you grateful for?

Mindfulness

The multitasking epidemic

Modern society applauds the multitasker. The more plates we can spin simultaneously, the bigger the pat on the back. Did you manage to do the online shop while helping your child with their homework, answering a couple of work emails, emptying the dishwasher and feeding the cat? Our frantic, relentlessly competitive, modern culture holds you in high esteem. Well done you.

Except that multi-tasking isn’t the magic mode that cultural expectations and our incessant inner critic would have us believe, according to research conducted at Standford University by Clifford Ivar Nass.

Nass describes our generation as suffering from an epidemic of multitasking. The biggest multitaskers among us will typically switch between at least four different tasks at any one time.

The adrenalin, cortisol and dopamine that course through our body when we keep another ball in the air, tricks our mind into thinking that we have increased our productivity. However, as Nass and his research team demonstrated, multitasking decreases productivity by 60%

While the juggle may seem to work for us at first, it is ultimately unsustainable. Multiple tasks battle for our attention, each one distracting us from another. Not only does this chaos of distraction decrease our productivity, it also decreases our IQ. We find it harder to remember things, and we are more likely to make mistakes.

Inevitably the dance of multitasking leads us away from meaningful connection. We are too irritable, too busy, too distracted. Creativity, and people, are kept at a distance, lest they disturb the plates are spinning with such desperation it can start to feel like the plates are spinning us.

So what can we do to protect ourselves from this epidemic of multitasking?

In their book Ikigai. The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Héctor García and Francesc Miralles propose various strategies for fostering a state of flow – the antithesis to multitasking. Many of their suggestions are useful, even when we have no specific task on which we need to focus, as they serve to bring us back to the present, something a wealth of research has shown to improve our mental health.

  • Don’t look at a screen for the first hour you’re awake and the last hour before you go to sleep.
  • Turn off your phone when you wish to focus on a specific task.
  • Designate one day a week to turn off all devices.
  • Read and respond to email only once or twice a day.
  • Practice mindfulness or other meditative techniques, or simply get out for a walk as this help you return to the present when you find yourself getting distracted.

Turning down the distractions and quietening the noise of our busy lives and gifting each thing that we do with our undivided attention can help us find our natural flow, our Ikigai. Once we shift our focus away from the past and future, and situate our whole selves in the present moment there is no place for anxiety and so more space for a steady flow of progress towards where we would like to be.

A happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much on the future.

Albert Einstein

References

García, H., & Miralles, F. (2017). Ikigai. The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. London: Penguin Random House.

dreams

What happens when we dream?

Dreaming is something almost all of us do, some of us remember, and most of us take for granted. But why do we dream?

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, or dream sleep, is our mind’s natural way of processing the emotions around whatever we have thought about or experienced during the day. Perhaps we have been brooding following an argument with a friend. Perhaps we have fretted over a presentation we have to give at work the following day. Perhaps we have been flattened by an stampede of bad news, and wept for those around the world who are suffering.

These thoughts have scurried around our brains like commuters at a busy airport, each with a different purpose, each with a different set of worries, raised voices rising towards a constant noise, that is so inescapable we forget it’s even there. In his book Waking Up Sam Harris refers to this noise as the “trance of discursive thought”. For the majority of us, unless we have refined meditative techniques to hand, it is not until we leave behind consciousness and enter into sleep that the airport empties and we escape the din of competing thoughts.

Unless we are suffering with severe anxiety or depression, REM sleep, which makes up only 20% of our sleep patterns, is designed to carry out crowd control on this thought chaos, processing each thought by converting it from an emotional memory into a narrative memory. These narrative memories are then moved from our primitive brain into our intellectual brain, where we have more control over them.

At the onset of REM sleep the brain behaves in much the same way as if someone were to bang saucepans together behind our heads as we sat quietly reading a book. Founders of the Human Givens approach Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell suggest that the reason the eyes move around rapidly as we dream (hence the name rapid eye movement), is that we are responding to the signal that something very important is happening, right now, and we are searching for what it might be. This search is in vain however, as the source of emotional arousal is internal rather than external, as we metaphorically act out, within our dreams, the unresolved musings from the day, discharging their emotional baggage.

Our dreams are creative, unbound by the rationale and logic that governs our conscious minds, which equips them to clear emotional hurdles that our awake selves simply stare at helplessly. Dreams help us to peel away the layers of frustration, anxiety and fear from our thoughts, until we are left with smooth pearls of wisdom. We file these pearls away in the library of our intellectual mind, in cabinet drawers labeled ‘perspective’, ‘understanding’, and ‘knowledge’. 

There is much research yet to be done to help us understand exactly how dreams process anxiety, however plenty of existing research shows that they do, and do so incredibly effectively. Quietening the noise, calming our minds, making space. Ready for tomorrow’s thought onslaught.

Griffin, Joe; Tyrrell, Ivan (2013). Human givens : a new approach to emotional health and clear thinking (New Ed.). Chalvington, East Sussex: HG Publishing.

Harris, S. (2014). Waking up. Simon & Schuster

Mindfulness

Lockdown parenting: finding the positive

With schools out for lockdown, and parents working from home, the four walls of the family home loom higher; some days casting an enormous black shadow over the occupants. Sharing space without reprieve is tough. Relentless multitasking is exhausting for our minds and for our morale. 

But what if we shifted our focus to what we have, rather than what we don’t? In place of time to think, we have extra time to spend with our children, whose younger years will slip through our fingers like grains of sand. 

In place of by-the-book parenting, we have a collection of imperfect parenting moments, that, as Brene Brown points out in Daring Greatly, become gifts as our children watch us try to figure out what went wrong and how we can do better next time.

In place of freedom to connect with friends, we have freedom to connect with our home, the space we come back to every night, the partners with whom we used to bookend each day with the scraps of ourselves we had left, the children we struggled to get more than two words out of when we asked about their day.

In place of a deceptive certainty of what the future holds, we have the glorious present moment, and as Sam Harris acknowledges in his aptly named book Waking up, that’s really all we have.

In place of plans and diaries bulging with progress, we have opportunities to take stock, to change direction, to connect with another path. 

In Solution Focused Hypnotherapy, we spend time guiding our clients to reconnect with the strengths in their lives. To shift focus to the positive. Moving forward, this change in mindset can be both liberating and life changing. As Elliott Connie, Global Leader in Solution Focused Brief Therapy Elliott Connie says; “There is magic in being led by what you want, rather than what you don’t want.”

So embrace the moment; embrace the magic. And recognise that to do this is, in itself, an achievement. A demonstration of your powerful mind. 

References 

Connie, E. (2016). Small Things Can Lead to Big Things. Moments with Elliott Connie. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rd3QIelHxhk

Harris, S. (2014). Waking up. Simon & Schuster.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.

Mindfulness

Does Google always have the answer?

Feeling that something is physically wrong with ourselves or someone we love can be a huge source of anxiety. 

As humans, we harbour a fundamental fear of the unknown (Carleton, 2016). It makes us uneasy, and when we can start to negatively forecast the future. We imagine what will go wrong. So when something about our body doesn’t feel right and we don’t know why, we might fill our minds with negative thoughts like ‘What if it gets worse?’ ‘What if it affects my sleep?’ ‘What if it stops me from doing what I want to do?’.  

In Solution Focused Hypnotherapy we talk about how all of these negative thoughts are converted into anxiety in our minds. As our anxiety builds we spend more time operating from our primitive emotional mind: we become irritable and distracted. We lash out or we withdraw. And this anxiety fuels yet more anxiety. 

In our desperation to know and to alleviate the anxiety that comes with the unknown, many of us reach for our phones. It has been estimated that Google’s health related searches amount to approximately 70,000 every minute (Murphy, 2019).

However, new research from Edith Cowan University (ECU)  published in the Medical Journal of Australia this week revealed that online symptom checkers produce the correct diagnosis just 36 per cent of the time. 

So not only is this information inaccurate, it provides further fuel for our negative forecasting. It gives colour and detail to a number of possible negative futures, so that we can imagine them in more clarity, again and again, increasing our anxiety each time. 

So next time you feel the urge to reach out to Google for a medical diagnosis,  take a moment.  Make an appointment with a health professional, and then focus your attention on the present, on what you can do, right now, to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and get your neurochemistry working in your favour. 

References

Carleton, R. N. (2016). Into the Unknown: a review and synthesis of contemporary models involving uncertainty Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 39. 30-43, 10.1016/j.janxdis.2016.02.007

Murphy, M. (2019) Dr Google will see you now: Search giant wants to cash in on your medical queries. The Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2019/03/10/google-sifting-one-billion-health-questions-day/

Hill, M. G., Simm, M., & Mills, B. (2020) “The quality of diagnosis and triage advice provided by free online symptom checkers and apps in Australia”. Medical Journal of Australia doi:10.5694/mja2.50600