Why the US election keeps me up at night

November 3, 2020 § Leave a comment

On election day, 2016, I woke up every two hours as America’s votes were counted. Not on purpose, and with very little hope. After the referendum, I was grim in my expectations.

I didn’t cry. But the foreboding feeling that would stay with me for the next four years began.

You see, America is our bellwether. We watch them do the most bizarre things and think huh, America. Then, we start to see ‘Pregnancy Crisis Centres’ popping up across the UK (spoiler: these are undercover outposts of religious organisations against abortion) and hear the beliefs of certain UK politicians, like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

And we realise, if we’re not too blinkered, that it can happen to us. Because the people in charge have common interests and goals: to make money, maintain power, suppress change and stifle the voices of those who do not look like them.

We have no real measure of the power at play, quietly, behind the scenes. I’m not an Illuminati guy, but the very, VERY rich don’t shout about it. They exist – with many layers of power beneath them to ensure they continue to do so – in the dark.

When the bad things happen in America, I imagine they are largely approved (and, most likely, funded) by these behind-the-scenes people. Progress is the enemy of long-standing institutions of patriarchal power. Why wouldn’t they want to maintain their generational positions by preventing change?

Money can achieve the unbelievable. So, the unbelievable can happen anywhere.

That’s why US politics keep me awake.

The bellwether is sounding.

A new analogy

November 2, 2020 § Leave a comment

Sewing. A humbling experience. You do a bold, brave line and you double back on yourself to make sure the stitching is strong.

Then you realise you’ve sewn an arm to a leg, or to yourself. You have to unpick and start again. That’s sewing.

And that’s life. You want the lovely jumpsuit? You’ve got to be prepared to unpick a lot of stitches and try again. With practice, you’ll spend less time correcting your mistakes – but unpicking will remain a fact of life, however many years you put in.

It’s almost better for the mistakes: for the feeling of pride when you look, tired and sore-fingered, at your finished piece that took you twice as long as you thought it would. It may be untidy and homely, but you made it. YOU did that.

There’s a healthy vulnerability in trying, isn’t there? In saying to the world, ‘I am not good at this but I will try.’ It’s good practice for any perfectionist, to try your hand at something new. Rollerskating did that for me this year and, for second (wintery) lockdown, I have clothes-making.

Find something totally absorbing that doesn’t matter, with zero stakes. Practise for the joy of slowly gaining a new skill. A glow of pride is so good for the soul.

Remember: no one sees the messy stitches but you

Thoughts, feelings and behaviours

October 27, 2020 § Leave a comment

This makes up your cycle or pattern in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Different beasts, all feeding and feeding off each other.

Certain thoughts can make us feel physical things. Those feelings can make us behave in a certain way.

Instinctive behaviours can reinforce thoughts and trigger feelings.

Feelings, unnoticed, can make us think in a set way and act out behavioural patterns.

What a mess. To get a handle on our doom spirals, we have to first try to dissect what each of these things are.

Thoughts

You might experience thoughts as words or pictures or emotions. They may be active or they may come unbidden and uncontrolled – intrusive thoughts.

A thought can be triggered consciously (though some argue that thought can never be truly concious), for example, choosing to return to a memory or work through a problem. Or a thought can be triggered unconsciously by our brains seeing, remembering or in some other way sensing something.

My dude, even neuroscientists are still trying to wrap their heads around what a thought is.

Most importantly for us is being aware of negative thoughts. Not so we can switch them off and turn on our positivity pump – no, avoidance ain’t the thing. Just recognising and accepting, rather than running from or reacting to it.

Turn the thought over

  • If it’s a question, try to answer it
  • If it’s a memory, explore it
  • If it has a negative effect on you, share it
  • If it’s useful, save it

Feelings

Feelings – dread, fear, sadness – are even more elusive than thoughts, because we don’t really even put them into pictures or words. The point of emotions is to make us do something, whether that’s running away from something scary or sexing with someone we love.

We also give the label ‘feelings’ to physical symptoms, like pain, nausea and shortness of breath. These can also be prompts from our body (ouch! don’t touch that!) but they may just be side-effects of an automatic process our body is already following.

Feelings can often be addressed with physical techniques to redirect our negative patterns.

Examining our feelings

  • What emotions am I feeling? Why?
  • What am I feeling in my body? Why?
  • What are my feelings prompting me to do?
  • Can I sit with my feelings and not push them away or react?

Behaviours

Behaviour can mean action or lack of action. Fight, flight or freeze.

Faced with conflict, I’m a ‘freeze’ kinda guy. In the moment, I shut down, my thoughts are paused and my face is a sulky mask. That prospect makes me choose flight before anything has even happened.

Recently I found myself, five minutes before a Thing, with a whole bunch of physical feelings that were making me long to act out my usual behaviour: avoidance.

The tight chest, raised heart rate and sweating hands were all begging for a reprieve from this upcoming Thing. Hoping for a cancellation – classic anxiety.

Sometimes our coping behaviours protect us; sometimes they do more harm than good. When we know we’re reacting in a way that doesn’t fit the facts, a process for resetting our behaviour is useful.

Reprogramming behaviours

  1. Notice your typical anxiety behaviours like avoidance or over-prep
  2. Next time you feel the emotional or physical clues to your stress, intervene before acting out your usual cycle
  3. Decide to enact a different behaviour: that can be something distracting (going for a run), calming (breathing exercise) or opposite (bit more extreme – like running towards your fear instead of away)
  4. If that helps with your anxiety, draw out your new behaviour cycle: when I think X and feel Y, I can do Z

Here’s what I did:

Instead of prep-prep-prepping right down to the wire, as I usually do (fake control!), I spent my remaining five minutes with my cats. Physical grounding and positivity. Opposite of stress-working.

I told someone how I was feeling. Darkness retreats from light.

I programmed my vibe to a casual, bright breeziness for the first few minutes of the Thing. That set the tone for the Thing, tricking everyone involved (including me) into feeling breezy about the Thing.

Why CBT now?

I’ve been doing therapy for years. I’m as well-adjusted as I’ve ever been, but I’m left with these remnants of anxiety that are triggered by things I’ve pathologised.

That’s shit but it’s also possible to deal with. I – a fairly settled and stable person – can look at this little pile of negativity and think through ways to deal with it.

It’s like someone who gets a lot of nosebleeds. You’re like ugh, ffs but you know what to do and you do it. I’m someone who gets dumb panic feelings. Ugh, ffs but let’s get on with it.

I still have work to do, to help my brain stop triggering my patterns. But in the meantime, I have some tools to get me through the bad feels.

The physical impact of fear

October 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

My talk at the copywriting conference was mostly about fear. God, I hate fear, and its buddies, dread and panic. Is there anything that feels worse? Maybe only guilt and grief. Horrible, treacly feelings that shut you inside your body.

Don’t get me wrong; fear can be useful. It can be life-saving. But when you’re feeling it for the wrong reason, or too hard, or too often, that’s not useful.

Hi, not-a-therapist here. Not a doctor. I’m the unfortunate kind of expert: just a person who’s got insider knowledge of a shitty condition. As a reader and a researcher and an obsessive and a strategist, this is what I know about fear and how we can try to manage it.

Remember: nothing is true for everyone.

How fear works

The physical sensations of fear

We’re told that stress can have a long-term impact on our health but I don’t think we HEAR it. Until you’ve had a panic attack, you can’t really appreciate the complex physical manifestations of anxiety. It was astounding to me that my brain could make physical things happen in my body – but, LOL, of course it can. It’s doing it all the time.

We know what ‘nervous’ or ‘worried’ feels like. But we don’t give it the respect it deserves. Each of the physical sensations of anxiety is because of a step in our body’s reaction to fear.

Here’s why fear does what it does to us:

  1. Dizziness: oxygen leaves the brain to head off to more important parts of the body in readiness for fighting.
  2. Blurred sight: our pupils dilate to let in more light, so we improve our night vision.
  3. Dry mouth: we produce less saliva and gastric juices, so energy can be used for fighting.
  4. Choking sensation or ‘a lump in your throat’: muscles in the neck tighten to protect it from damage and we try to breathe faster to get more oxygen to the muscles.
  5. Rapid heartbeat: our heart pumps blood and oxygen to organs and muscles faster, so we can move quickly.
  6. Tightness or pain in the chest: more muscle tension because of the rapid breathing.
  7. Numbness: an interesting one. Numbness may be caused by oxygen leaving the skin’s surface to reduce bleeding in a fight and redistribute it to more vital areas, but it can also be because of hyperventilation leaving less carbon dioxide in the blood.
  8. Feeling sick or having butterflies in your stomach: as your liver releases glucose (because your body is burning through sugars) and blood travels away from the gut to key fight-or-flight areas, the stomach’s sensory nerves create fluttery or sicky feelings.
  9. Shaking: that fast munching of available glucose and increased adrenaline flowing can cause your hands to shake.
  10. Sweating: this one’s fascinating, too. Your body is hot and flushed because adrenaline makes your blood vessels dilate to let blood move around more quickly. So, you start to sweat to cool down. But that means you also become more difficult to grab hold of and give off more odour as a warning to the aggressor. We’re just animals, man.
  11. Heavy legs: ironically, this is because increased muscle tension lets you move more quickly.

Do you see? Fear is EXHAUSTING and harmful to your body when it’s out of control. For people with diabetes, immune system issues or any number of other conditions, stress is actually dangerous. We need to recognise and respect these signals from our body that things aren’t OK.

Techniques for combating fear from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Because this is a physical process in our bodies, we need to take notice of what happens to us when we’re anxious and address that physically, too.

Something I didn’t like about CBT when I first tried it was that it’s quite mind over matter. Like, JUST DECIDE NOT TO BE ANXIOUS. Huh?

I still don’t see CBT as a stand-alone therapy (one surely needs to get to the bottom of why one experiences fear in this harmful way, as well as treat the symptoms), but it does have useful tricks that can make our bodies stop reacting to fear, which then makes our brain stop alerting and triggering all these tiring processes.

Move

  • Distract your silly brain by swapping environments: run up- or downstairs and get into a different space
  • Do some stretches, dance or go for a run, to get back into your body and fool it into focusing on a different physical process

Adjust

  • Sit up straight, move your feet on the floor
  • Shoulders back and down, chin up
  • Change your facial expression: unclench your jaw, raise your eyebrows, relax your face and smile
  • Force yourself to breathe deeply and slowly

Reconnect

  • Go outside and touch some trees
  • Write down what you’re feeling
  • Talk – moan to someone or say nice things to yourself and others

I know. Obvious. But obvious shit doesn’t work if you don’t do it. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is about understanding your patterns and establishing better ones.

I struggle to force myself to do my POSITIVE cycle when I’m triggered by something. I’m panicking, so my brain doesn’t want to focus on the clear, sensible tactics I have for feeling better.

Make it easy for yourself. Draw or write out your steps for dealing with anxiety. Then, when you’re feeling shut in your body, all you need to do is look at that process. Minimal thinking required.

I’ll say it again: this stuff isn’t instead of counselling if you’re suffering with anxiety. These are techniques to deal with the immediate physical symptoms of stress – they won’t stop your brain doing this in the long term.

What they can do is give you a bit more agency when your body goes into autopilot. It’s horrible, feeling trapped within your body as it tenses up for a fight. Go make your plan for next time it happens. Let’s meet this fucker where it lives and tell it NOT TODAY, SATAN.

How to fight perfectionism imperfectly

October 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago, I talked at the Professional Copywriters’ Network annual conference.

Of course, it was virtual. And for me, that meant props. As I was having to compromise on space and physicality (big part of my presenting style), I decided I’d bring my story to life with a few talismans.

I brought along my rollerskates, a book, a glass of cold coffee masquerading as whisky, and a coupe of champagne. (The champagne was not a prop.)

A few bits from my talk:

  • Honor is presenting a talk about perfectionism
  • The hypothalamus tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and adrenaline, which elevates heart rate and blood pressure. Other body systems are surpressed to focus on the threat. Exhausting!
  • Treat yourself kindly, treat yourself as a business, treat yourself
  • Invest in understanding your mind, let yourself enjoy your creative practice, get a hobby
  • Honor's final message: fuck fear
  • Honor talks with David McGuire after her talk

I first discussed this topic with Leif, Mr PCN, because I’d been reading a book called How to Take Control of Your Life by Mel Robbins. Sounds like a cliche of a self-help book – but it got me analysing my perfectionism properly for the first time.

Perfectionism has had a profound impact on me, both within myself and at the hand of others.

And it sucks.

Perfectionism is based in fear. Of not doing a good enough job, of not meeting expectations and of being found out.

It’s a fear response: a technique our brain uses to keep us away from danger. It shapes our reality and makes us, in turn, react, rather than respond intelligently, to perceived threats. That could mean procrastination or obsessing over details to delay the fear of failure, or it could mean being overly defensive when having your work reviewed, because you’re protecting yourself from people seeing flaws or weakness.

I’d thought from time to time that perfectionism was perhaps a little niche and many people would find this merely an amusing interlude in the day. Wrong-o. The conference chat popped off while I was speaking, with many accusing me of some sort of witchcraft that let me see into their very souls. OK, OK, unfair advantage after that little deal I did with His Darkness.

I was overwhelmed by how relevant this group of copywriters found it to their experience, particularly this year. Clearly, with the government allowing freelancers to fight for survival alone, 2020 has hit creatives extremely hard.

A mental health check-in was needed. And not just by them.

At some point, preparing for this talk became a sort of therapy for me. (I do real therapy too, don’t worry – this wasn’t like Americans doing their own surgery on YouTube.)

I kept getting that knotty, guilty feeling of procrastinating and I knew that was about fear. Ironically, my perfectionism was sabotaging my ability to do a great job of something I was passionate about.

Then I went on a skating trip to the seaside, where I sat on the sunny stones and started recording my thoughts on my phone. Putting the thing I was afraid of into a totally positive day and place worked. I had begun.

I left it a few more weeks – marinating – and then thought ‘Well fuck, it’s like six weeks away now.’ I typed up my voice notes because words on a page always makes a copywriter feel better.

I then set myself some guidelines for how I’d approach putting The Thing together. It only seemed fair that I treat myself with the kindness I wanted to show my audience.

And wow – what a revelation! Rather than obsess for hours over how this was going to look, I said no. No, you do not need a colour palette, pictures or anything else that’s just an excuse to torture yourself and avoid the meat of it.

Guidelines (not rules – rules are also punishment) set me free to make the main focus what I wanted to tell people. I’d spent a year actively working on this topic in my own life; what I had to say was the point.

That meant I prepared for this talk honestly. When it came to actually doing it, I did not panic. I even enjoyed myself. Because it’s both easier and harder to be honest and vulnerable than keep spinning a desperate facade. The facade makes us feel like we’re protecting ourselves from danger, but it takes so much energy and prevents us from feeling safe, happy and worthy.

Feeling safe is essential for any creative. We make our best work when we don’t feel pressured not to make mistakes, to deliver perfection and to fight against criticism.

‘Failure’ is just a step on the route to success. I hope I always empower the creatives around me to accept imperfections as part of the process. I hope I can empower myself to live that every day.

You can’t be perfect at anything except being you. Yes, I’m talking directly to YOU, dear reader. You’re the perfect you, and nothing else in life can match that perfection. So stop trying x

  • Honor Clement-Hayes of Arch Copy
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