Overcoming Anxiety

Presenters at the Anxiety Super Conference reinforced the view that adverse childhood experiences provided the foundation for anxiety in later life.  The early childhood experiences could involve sexual and/or physical abuse, psychological control, cruelty, demeaning words and actions or any other form of adversity that undermines a child’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth and security.  The effects of adverse childhood experiences are long-lasting, sometimes a whole lifetime.  I find it amazing that in my seventies, I am still anxious in confined spaces, especially lifts.  I track this anxiety back to 18 months of confinement in an orphanage when I was 4 years old and separated in the complex from my younger sister.

We are told that there is wisdom in anxiety and it can be good for us, e.g. warning us about an unhealthy situation, either self-generated or other-generated.  It can also be useful when it activates focus and energy when pursuing our goals, whether at work, in sport or in our homes.  Anxiety is counterproductive when it undermines our confidence or causes us to freeze, dissociate or engage in destructive, addictive habits.  However, the path to overcoming debilitating anxiety does not lie in avoidance or denial, but in truly facing up to anxiety and related fears.   The presenters at the Anxiety Super Conference provided ways to overcome anxiety, many of them embedded in the body, such as Restorative Yoga offered by Adelene Cheong.

Anxiety Loops

Amber Benziger, who spoke at the Anxiety Super Conference, provides a short video on the nature of anxiety loops that potentially generate escalating fear.  She suggests that experiences like the pandemic can intensify uncertainty around day-to-day activities like getting the children to school, retaining a job or maintaining physical and mental health.  The uncertainty can provoke anxiety about how to handle the resultant disruption and disconnect with established routines.  This, in turn, can lead to physical manifestations of heightened anxiety such as increased heartrate, headaches, or pain in the arms , legs, neck or back (through tightened muscles and constriction of blood flow).  The physical symptoms can activate negative thoughts such as, “Why haven’t I prepared for this?” “I am not a good parent/spouse/colleague”, “Why can’t I cope with this disturbance when other people seem to be coping?.   Amber suggests that, over time, the uncomfortable feelings intensify, negative thoughts become reactionary and excessive and anxiety can be experienced as a panic attack or burnout.

Breaking the anxiety loop

Amber’s suggestion to break the anxiety loop is to first validate the true nature of the external stimulus, e.g. acknowledge that it is a global pandemic and certainly a challenging time that is causing uncertainty and worry for many people.  Then, asking yourself a number of questions relating to control (which appears to be the thing we experience as most under attack), e.g. “What can I actually control?, “What is in my power to do now to prepare, protect and provide for myself and others?”  She encourages us to check in to our bodily sensations via processes such as a body scan and progressive releasing of tension.  At the same time, she encourages us to challenge our negative thoughts and underpinning assumptions.  Amber asserts that in the final analysis, “feelings are not facts!” and we should question why these feelings are arising  – just as Jon Kabat-Zinn asserts, “We are not our thoughts!” and we should use diffusion strategies to minimise their impact.

Amber is the creator of The Anxiety Lab which is a membership site for women who want to overcome anxiety and restore control in their lives.  Besides social support provided by members, Amber offers resources and workshops to enable participants to develop mechanisms for coping with anxiety.  As a trained counsellor and clinical therapist, she also offers counselling for individuals and families as well as group therapy and teletherapy.

Anxiety can be compounded when we take on new roles such as that of a leader in a community organisation or a manager in a commercial enterprise.  Our inability to cope with anxiety can be more public and open to scrutiny in these roles and environments.

Managerial anxiety

Managers can be anxious about the decisions they make, their impact on the welfare of staff, their ability to properly represent the organisation and its goals, their capacity to observe legislative requirements or meet any of the multitude other demands of a manager in this day and age (including coping with new technologies and industry discontinuities).   Managers can be concerned about how they are viewed by their hierarchy, their staff, their colleagues or their clients. They can be anxious about meeting targets, avoiding budget overruns or achieving the required organisational growth.  Managers, whether executives or managers lower in the organisation, can be captured by expectations, those of others as well as their own unrealistic expectations arising from a perfectionist tendency.  This anxiety can lead to overwork and an inability to create boundaries between work and home (particularly in these days of hybrid work).

During the Anxiety Super Conference, Moira Aarons-Mele raised the issue of leadership anxiety and explained that it is different for every person.  She stated that because of our nature as “human relational creatures”, we worry about how we are viewed by others, “ping” off others’ anxiety and take on others’ urgencies.  She maintained that this anxiety-related behaviour is aggravated both by email (where we worry about the communications we initiate and our response to others’ communications) and online meetings.  Meetings via platforms such as Zoom, can be draining not only because of the level of concentration required but also the fact that we are “performing under lights”.  Moira suggests that the “energetic output” required for a series of Zoom sessions is excessive and in a TED Talk, she offers 3 steps to stop remote work burnout.

Moira self-identifies as “an extremely anxious overachiever” who is working to bring some normality to her life.  In pursuit of this purpose, she created The Anxious Achiever Podcast – a series of podcasts in which she interviews experts in the field of anxiety management including those who propose writing as therapy, adoption of the Acceptance and Commitment (ACT) therapy and dealing with the “imposter syndrome”.  One of her interviewees, journalist Priska Neely, explains why managing is the hardest job she ever had.

Overcoming managerial anxiety

Moira offers a number of ways to overcome managerial anxiety.  She suggests that one of the first steps for a manager is letting go – stop micromanaging and empower others through mindful delegation.  Associated with this, is the need to adopt healthy work habits that become new norms by way of modelling desired behaviour.  Sometimes this involves changing the expectations of staff that have arisen as a result of the previous behaviour of the manager, e.g. arriving early and leaving late. 

Moira also recommends talking about the work situation and the stressors involved and working collaboratively with staff to develop ways to cope effectively – e.g. introducing a wellness program or a morning exercise routine.  This self-care and other-care approach could involve checking in on oneself as well as staff experiencing distress.  Moira also strongly recommends setting boundaries , both at work and at home, ensuring there is a clear divide between work life and home life (avoiding endless spill over, a trap for the unwary when working from home).   Moira, like Ginny Whitelaw, encourages movement and bodily awareness to enable leaders to let go of tension – otherwise, their tension contaminates the mood of everyone else they come into contact with (bosses, colleagues and staff).

Reflection

There are many paths to overcoming the anxiety that negatively impacts our health, productivity and overall well-being.  We have to start, and persist with, the journey into our inner landscape.  This can be a lifetime pursuit but the rewards are great as we begin to break free of expectations and the other ties that bind us.  As Janine Mikosza writes in her novel, Homesickness: A Memoir, “your past doesn’t have to be your future”.

If we adopt mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi, yoga or meditation, we can find that over time as we grow in mindfulness we begin to develop heightened self-awareness, the courage to change, the creativity to develop new ways of being-in-the-world and the resilience to maintain the journey.  In the process, we will positively impact others whom we interact with at work, at home or during our everyday endeavours (such as sports or social events).  

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

How to Do Those Difficult Tasks That You Avoid or Put Off Doing

We all have tasks that we ought to do, or want to do, but that we avoid or put off because they are difficult or challenging. Sometimes our negative self-stories get in the road, other times we may have developed the habit of procrastinating without knowing why. We find ways to distract ourselves from the task or take on other tasks that are not important or time-sensitive. We may have difficulty building up the energy to tackle the task in addition to overcoming the personal barriers we create that prevent us from completing the task.

Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog, offers a comprehensive strategy to address this problem of avoiding or putting off tasks. In his article, How to Do Your Scariest Tasks of the Day – with Joy, he introduces an approach that he describes as creating a “training container”. He discusses how to develop the training container and offers a number of steps to encourage you to undertake the associated training in a spirit of joy.

Creating a training container to develop the habit of tackling a difficult task

Leo is an internationally recognised expert on developing habits – he has 2 million readers who seek out his wisdom in this area. The training container (or dedicated block of time) acts as a routine (for a new habit) that can be developed to suit your own personal and work style and that, with persistence, becomes an integral part of your day (just like any other training or gym regimen).

The key elements for creating a training container are:

  1. Set aside a time of the day when you train yourself to do the task. It’s important to allocate a set time that suits your lifestyle and/or work pattern that you can dedicate to the training. I’m a morning person, so I find that mornings are best for training myself to complete a difficult task. You can let others know about your dedicated time and even set up a reminder through the alarm on your mobile phone. The time set aside may change as your circumstances change, e.g. when I was writing my PhD, I used to write at 4am for two hours before our baby woke up and before the phones started to ring.
  2. Set aside a place for this training. You can find a space that is different to your normal place of working so that you break free of environmental blockages associated with your procrastination. If I have a difficult task to work on, I go away from my office and work at the kitchen table (with a view) or go to a tolerant, coffee shop. If you have a recurrent difficult task, you can go to an alternative space daily and treat it as your training space.
  3. Set up a ritual for starting your scary/difficult task. Leo, who happens to be a mindfulness expert among other things, encourages you to develop a ritual at the start to focus on your intention and commitment to dedicate your attention fully to your task. This helps you to undertake your task mindfully, fully utilising the opportunity that the training container provides.
  4. Focus on a single task during your training session, do not multi-task. I learnt early on that if I start the morning with reading emails, I get side-tracked very easily and hours can pass before I get back to my difficult task or have to put it off to another day. If you find that you feast on the news, you will have to develop the discipline to put off chasing the news until you have finished your training session. This discipline of undertaking a single task during your training session, not only builds your capacity to focus but also enhances your productivity.
  5. Revisit your “why”. You need to get in touch with the fundamental reason you want to do the difficult task – Who are you doing it for?, Who will benefit from it? In my case, I try to keep my focus on my readers who come from all walks of life but who share many common personal difficulties that impact negatively on their lives. Richardo Semler suggests that you ask yourself three “why’s” to get to your deeper purpose. Focusing on purpose builds motivation.
  6. Express gratitude at the completion of your training session. Leo suggests that initially you set a timer for your training session. He urges you not to rush off to something else when the session is completed, but to take the time for a brief gratitude meditation. As he puts it, “Bow to the practice, and to yourself, out of gratitude.” In the long run, you will certainly be grateful for having set aside the time, place and focus for your training container.

I have found these tactics very useful in creating the discipline and focus to write this blog. Yesterday, I completed my 300th post. I now have a set time and place every second day when I write my blog and maintain a single focus throughout the research and writing involved. I have found, too, that some preparatory work in the form of thinking or research before my writing day also helps me to start writing because I am not starting from a blank sheet. So, jotting down some notes during the day may be helpful when you come to tackle your task within the training container.

Training with joy

Leo provides a number of ideas to help you bring joy to the challenge of completing your training session. Two of these steps – dropping into your body & staying with your sensations – are consistent with my previous discussion on managing anxiety with mindfulness.

Leo also suggests that playing some music can help to achieve the mindset and focus necessary to realise joy in undertaking your difficult task. I play classical music when I write this blog. I find that Mozart’s music strengthens my concentration and increases my relaxation. I have yet to follow Leo’s final step, “Dance with the chaos- let your body move to the music”. He also suggests that the dance can be figurative in the sense of having fun while you are encountering uncertainty and venturing into an aspect of your life that you used to avoid or put off.

As we grow in mindfulness – by bringing a disciplined, mindful, focused, curious, grateful and joyful attention to a difficult task – we can experience greater productivity, energy and sense of achievement. Overcoming procrastination takes time and persistence but having a plan like the “training container” can help us to remove the blockages that get in the road of achieving our tasks and associated, meaningful endeavours.

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Image by rawpixel from Pixabay 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Reprioritising Your Mindfulness Practice

In my previous post, I identified five strategies I could use to establish and maintain a daily practice of Tai Chi. The strategies can be applied to any form of mindfulness practice, whether some form of meditation or a practice such as mindful walking, mindful eating or open awareness. In reflecting on these strategies, I realised that underpinning them was the need to reprioritise my mindfulness practice according to its level of importance to various aspects of my life. Reprioritising means
to arrange things in a new order of importance.

Identifying the importance of your mindfulness practice

A starting point for reprioritising your mindfulness practice is to identify what it brings to your life, how it improves your life in its various aspects and what its importance is to your overall quality of life.

You can ask yourself a series of questions that will serve to highlight the importance of your mindfulness practice:

  • does it give you clarity, confidence and creativity in your daily work?
  • how does it help you to manage your stress at work and home?
  • in what way does it improve your significant relationships, e.g. with your partner, your children or your work colleagues?
  • what does it bring to your favourite sporting activity? (e.g. my practice of Tai Chi develops balance, coordination, timing and control in my tennis game)
  • does it help you to appreciate your life more and build a positive outlook?
  • what does it do for your physical health?
  • how does it improve your mental health and sense of equanimity?

If you can truly and comprehensively identify the ways in which your mindfulness practice contributes to your quality of life, you will build the motivation to reprioritise your mindfulness practice so that it assumes a regularity and consistency that reflects its importance to you.

Reprioritising your mindfulness practice

If you want to reprioritise your mindfulness practice, it means that you have to create space in your life to enable this to happen. This means that you have to give up something else if you have a life characterised by busyness. Again, you can ask yourself a series of questions and be honest with yourself:

  • do you really need to spend the time getting and drinking the extra cup(s) of coffee or tea?
  • do you feast on the news, forever checking what is happening in the world around you and beyond?
  • how often do you access email and divert your attention from your task at hand?
  • are you wasting time by multitasking?
  • how much time do you devote to watching television shows, movies or sports events?
  • how much time do you spend on social media and what does this activity add to your quality of life?

If you review how you spend your time, you can invariably find a way to reprioritise your mindfulness activity so that it assumes a priority that reflects its importance to your quality of life.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the importance of our mindfulness practice for our quality of life, identify how we spend our time and learn to accord our mindfulness practice the priority it deserves. This is, undoubtedly, an ongoing learning process.

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Image source: courtesy of Alexandra_Koch on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Overcoming the Tyranny of Email

Every time I facilitate a manager development course, the topic of email arises along with an expression of hopelessness – people are suffering from the tyranny of email. They often feel out of control, overwhelmed by the volume of email and stressed by the “implied” deadlines involved. People sometimes perceive their inbox as a “ticking timebomb” if they don’t immediately process email as it arrives.

The emotional burden of email

Our communication patterns and related expectations have accelerated since the days of “slow mail” – the hand-written letter. The expectations of a timely response have grown with the increased speed of communication – how often are you asked, “I just sent you an email (or text message), didn’t you receive it?” The expectation of a speedy response is implied along with the underlying assumption that their communication is the only thing you have to deal with during the day.

Leo Babauta, author of the Zen Habits blog and related eBooks, found that reading his email before he got out of bed was actually a procrastination habit – putting off getting out of bed and also delaying doing something productive like researching, writing or planning his day. I have found that if I focus on writing a blog post before I read my email, I am much more productive and less distracted. I can relegate email to the role of a secondary, rather than primary, priority.

Recent research has shown that if you access your phone first thing in the morning (to check emails, texts and Instagram notifications), you are limiting your productivity and capacity for creative problem solving, adding stress to your life and making yourself unhappy.

The tyranny of email – capturing your attention

Besides adding to your stress, the volume of email and its implied deadlines serve to capture your attention and distract you from more important things that you are doing or have to do. Email is a form of disruptive technology more often driven by people who are actively trying to gain your attention to pursue their own ends. If you let it, email takes over your life, determines your priorities and undermines your capacity to focus.

Frequent checking of email takes you off-task and reduces your productivity because you have to take time to reset your brain when you return to your task at hand. Research has found that people who check their email only three times a day (instead of the average of 15 times per day) experience less stress, are more productive and achieve a greater sense of satisfaction during the day because they are better able to accomplish desired results.

How often do you find yourself following a “link-chain” in an email and going completely off-task to explore the latest news, social media post or “lifestyle” comment? Some people are driven by the desire for the latest news and pursuit of this desire consumes time and energy. If you find that you have no surplus in your life, you might find that your email-reading habits consume much of the space in your life.

A mindful way to handle email

Leo Babauta provides an approach to handling email which he calls, A Mindful Guide to Email in 20 Minutes a Day. The essence of his approach is to avoid starting the day reading email, allocate 20 minutes for reading email, have a system for sorting through your daily inbox, take action appropriately and reduce your inbox flow by unsubscribing from electronic newsletters, notifications, etc.

His system identifies three kinds of action that you can take:

  1. delete (or store in a folder for future reference if you are going to use it later)
  2. action in two minutes (brief responses where required)
  3. add to your to-do list (if you need to take action that will be longer than 2 minutes).

One of the problems with email is that we become indecisive and put off action on individual items, only to return later and repeat the process – this is a waste of time and a major source of distraction. Having a clear system enables you to regain control from the tyranny of email, so that you are in the “driver’s seat”.

Leo’s final piece of advice is to treat the process of email as a mindful endeavour – undertaken consciously, thoughtfully, with compassion and kindness. It is important to realise that email amplifies the message because of the proximity of the screen – so, for instance, writing in all capitals is effectively experienced as shouting. Mindfulness, too, is developed if we express gratitude for the opportunity that email provides, especially being able to connect with others and maintain valuable relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness by treating email as a conscious, mindful endeavour undertaken in a systematic (rather than chaotic) way, we learn to overcome the tyranny of email, regain control over our priorities and improve our productivity.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.