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

2020 style curveballs

October 1, 2020 § Leave a comment

Two interesting things happening in fashion in response to 2020’s apocalyptic fantasy landscape.

One: Prada just showed a collection featuring above-the-neck branding, catering to the label-conscious Zoomer. Makes sense: if that’s what you care about – and so many do – why would you pay for it on a belt no one sees, rather than a fetching CRAVAT?

Two: Fred Perry is halting sales of its black polo shirts due to their popularity with white supremacist groups. How is this life? I can’t.

But isn’t it fascinating how style adapts to every era? Hemlines moving up to allow women more active roles in society. Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin bringing futuristic fabrics to the space race decade. Style is so much a part of how we navigate what’s going on.

I love it. I hate it. But it’s crazy fun.

Conversations with Conservatives

August 14, 2020 § Leave a comment

Gillian, my MP, is used to me. This year, I’ve emailed her at least once a month. Sometimes, it’s once a week. I think I did three in so many days at one point.

She’s a Conservative MP. She does not get the best side of me, I’m afraid. She chose to be a representative for that party, and it’s the party that has displayed the most cheery ineptitude and blustering disregard for, like, human life?

So, she gets a slightly snarky tone from me. I’m not proud of it but it’s an outlet, and I think it’s more useful for me to rant at my MP than shout all the swear words I know as my husband tries to ignore me.

Yesterday’s subject: A-Levels. God, what the WHAT?

“Hi Gillian,

“Today, I’m appalled by young people having to deal with the devastating screw-up of their A-Level results, after a year full of disappointments. It should be a day of excitement, but when high-achieving kids in schools with poor academic records are downgraded by the average, we should all be ashamed of this failure. And private schools have had a great year for those top grades! How surprising. 

“This was always going to be biased against working-class and underprivileged communities. I work with an organisation called The Girls Network, which helps girls from those communities grow their confidence and access spaces usually closed to them. What does this approach to their education tell those girls? That, actually, the government doesn’t care that they’ve worked hard against the odds – but the kids who are already in those spaces get an extra leg up based on their school’s history. 

“I know academic results are never guaranteed but students not getting into ANY of their uni choices after being predicted the grades they needed? That’s horrendous. They were already looking at an uncertain future, with travelling cancelled, summer jobs cancelled and no firm idea of what university would look like in the autumn. Now, this. 

“I’m a university drop-out and proof that university isn’t the be-all and end-all of success, but at 18, you don’t know that. For a lot of teenagers today, this is the end of the world.

“While I understand that this was an incredibly challenging situation, I hope your government will be open to all and any ideas for solving the blatant error in judgment and will act with compassion for students who haven’t had the privilege of attending historically successful institutions. 

Regards, etc. etc.”

Hey, I know there’s an appeals process. But young people who should be looking towards the start of their career or continued education are now stuck in a maze of bureaucracy. Even that is biased; what government appeals process is going to be easily accessible for all students, regardless of their family support, ethnicity and life experience? Not to mention financial background: each grade requires a separate appeal and, depending on the area, will be paid for by the school or by the student. It’s hard to find out how much this sum is (go figure!) but ANY amount puts this process out of reach for some. For underfunded schools, there may simply be no way for them to undertake this process for all the students that want to appeal. Students who choose to take their exams next summer, although getting more time to study, will need somewhere to live and food to eat – which should have been taken care of by their student loan or financial aid. This is a burden that many families will struggle with.

Seeing teenagers like Mithushan Thiagarajah, who had an offer to read medicine at Cambridge with 4 A*s predicted, get downgraded and therefore rejected is heartbreaking. Universities overfill courses because, of course, not everyone will get their grades. So, with private schools performing better in this circus, more of Cambridge’s medicine course will have been taken up by – potentially less brilliant – privileged kids. Leaving no room for Cambridge to use discretion based on the interview process as there will be enough students who did get the required grades. Mithushan just has to suck it up, after TEACHING HIMSELF four A-Level courses for most of this year, and hopefully take his exams in the autumn or summer. By himself. Because he’ll have left college.

I’m angry. Can you tell I’m angry? Gillian just loves seeing my name pop up in her inbox.

Yours,

Furious

Ballet

July 31, 2020 § Leave a comment

I started dancing as a sturdy little thing with an intolerance for baby ballet. I’d been imagining arabesques; I got skipping with scarves. I didn’t like children even when I was one.

But I stayed with ballet for over a decade. I’ve loved it and hated it, but it’s in me. A couple of years ago, I finally found classes for adults and started dancing again.

During lockdown, no ballet. I’ve stayed fit in other ways but missed ballet a lot. Today – email: ballet’s back.

In a bit of funny timing, I bought a ballet catsuit yesterday. I’m intending to wear it as clothes because – I don’t know if you heard – pandemic. Nothing is real anymore and we do what we want. Ballet has often crept into my wardrobe but usually in a more subtle way. Subtle? I don’t remember her.

I’m so excited to have ballet again, especially as I have suffered a recent blow to my skating. I’d been practising at my local village tennis court (yes, a middle-class nightmare) nearly every night for a month but I’ve now been BANNED. Unfortunately, despite my lengthy essay to the rec grounds manager, it’s an insurance thing. Here was me thinking I could overcome some snap judgements with a beautifully-worded case for celebrating female rollerskaters. No, stymied by a very kind man who actually checked his insurance policy. I’ve moved on to a bigger and better court now (shhhhhhhh) but who knows how long I’ll get to keep that.

So, ballet’s come along at a perfect time. I’m proud that I’ve kept fit over lockdown, but it’s going to kick my arse anyway. That’s the great thing about ballet: it never stops being hard. The better your form gets, the harder you work. I can’t wait to scream with pain in a room of old ladies again.

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