blog, self improvement

How To Stay Positive In A Negative World

feel better without drugs or therapy

the Golden Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan
Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto Japan

We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.
Stephen Covey

When you look at the world around you, what do you see?

Do you see beauty, hope, and possibility? Or do you see destruction, despair and delusion? It all depends on your viewpoint.

As seen above, the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji has natural beauty, man-made elegance, the richness of gold, and the calmness of water reflecting serenity.

The reality was much less attractive. We visited at the weekend and the site was swarming with tourists from all over the world, their different languages clashing in a modern day Babel. Everyone wanted unobstructed photos of the pavilion, everyone was waving a selfie stick, and everyone crowded at the barrier.

We’d travelled a long way and we wanted our picture too. Frantic tourism and ancient tranquillity fought for the same space, and I knew which I wanted to remember. By stepping back from the crowd and being patient, I was able to spot the opportunity to capture a moment.

Was that choice reasonable, or was I refusing to see the truth in order to present a lie?

Open Your Eyes

You see what you expect to see, Severus.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Just open your eyes and look — but it isn’t as simple as that. You filter and disregard far more information than you retain. It’s essential, because you could not hope to pay attention to all the inputs.

Studies estimate that the brain receives 400 billion bits of data per second, of which the eyes receive 10 million bits per second. You’re only aware of perhaps 2,000 bits per second.   

Thinking about buying a new car, maybe a blue VW? Suddenly you see VW cars everywhere, and especially blue ones, where you didn’t notice them before. That doesn’t negate the existence of all the other cars on the road, but they’re temporarily less important than the ones you’re paying attention to.

Your brain is wired to take shortcuts and build theories to deal with all this data quickly. This can be helpful, but it also leads to confirmation bias, causing you to ignore evidence that disagrees with your first impression. That bias is a bad thing if you’re investigating a crime or making a diagnosis.

But if you’re trying to stay positive in a negative world, confirmation bias can be your friend.

Mind The Gap

Stress is the gap between our expectation and reality.
Buddha

The lifetime prevalence of major depression in high-income countries is 14.6%. Less severe mood disorders affect a further 12% of patients in family practice. How can this be, in this era of technological advance and generally high levels of personal safety and freedom?

As high as living standards may be, our expectations at every level of society are still higher. Driven by comparison on social media and seductive advertising, our desire for more is constantly fed and never fully satisfied. We rapidly adjust to each step up – and there’s always something new to aspire towards.

Unmet expectations induce emotions such as anger and resentment, and feeling unable to reach them leads to helplessness and despair. While you absolutely can use envy to fuel your progress, there are times when that’s not appropriate. Expectations must be managed.

Taking a vacation is an example. Before booking a hotel, you probably look at reviews. Surprisingly, guests staying at the same time often give wildly varying accounts of their stays.  One guest was disappointed not to be given the best room in the property, treated the staff like servants and saw reasons to complain about everything from the weather to the amount of ice in their drink. Another was happy to be on holiday, treated others with respect, and saw reasons for praise.

You will be happier when you match your expectations to the limits of your personal influence. Where you have no or limited influence, try to manage your expectations as low as you can tolerate.

If you are content with less, then everything else is a bonus. If only perfection will do, even a small deviation will disappoint you. You can see this play out at the Olympics, where a study of medal winners’ expressions showed bronze medal winners are generally much happier than silver medallists.

Bronze medallists are happy to get a medal they didn’t have before, like Tom Daley in 2012. Silver medallists are unhappy not to get a gold medal, like McKayla Maroney in 2012.

It’s tough to work hard for something and then try to let go of your attachment to the outcome. It’s galling to hear people who have already achieved your goal say it doesn’t matter because process is the real prize. But that doesn’t make it less true.

Make your product or your advice great, send it into the world, and get on with the next one without obsessing over the reception you think it deserves. As soon as you talk about what you should have, your expectations are showing.

There is only one person you can expect more of, and that’s you. If you have given your all in the pursuit of a goal, that is a form of success. You can’t force any result to go in your favour and the world does not owe you.

The simpler your needs, the more likely they will be met or even exceeded. When needs are met you can be content; when needs are exceeded you can be happy. How can you make this shift in mindset?

How Much Is Enough?

My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.
Stephen Hawking

Sometimes we’re told to live each day as if it were our last. How would you spend your final, precious twenty-four hours?

You could either focus on all the time you would miss, or you could focus on what you still had. The taste of your favourite coffee, the smile of your favourite person, birdsong, or the scent of a rose would take on a new significance.

The good news is, those things are available to you right now. Happy feelings can be yours, if you look for them. Rather than discount all the real things you have compared to the imaginary stuff you don’t, appreciate and enjoy them. Compare your current experience not with some fictional worse-off person, but with not having them yourself.

Reacquaint yourself with gratitude.

Gratitude journals have been shown to increase happiness. However, I’ve found that people react to the idea with disbelief or cynicism, particularly when depressed. Those with low mood have the most to gain, but their focus is unfailingly negative. There’s a way around this.

First acknowledge the suck. The suck is real so feel free to pour your heart out on the pages of your journal. Then once you’ve run out of suck, you find three things to be grateful for that day and write them down.

I’ve done this exercise and the truth is, some days it’s a struggle to find positive things. It’s tough. That’s when it’s most needed. You might have to dig deep but even little tiny things count. A cup of tea given without asking, a puppy running in the park, flowers, a pretty sunset, hot water and indoor plumbing, or no queue at the checkout are all reasons to smile.

For anyone preoccupied with everything that’s wrong, focusing on the tiny spots of light in the darkness can produce a real shift in attitude – without therapy or drugs. And since what you focus on grows, the more you seek out positive things the more you’ll see.

Of course it’s not the whole picture. You are applying a filter to the world, not changing it, so does any of this matter?

Your viewpoint matters because you can’t hope to feel content when everything looks negative. You can’t change your world from a position of despair. You need to feel better first.

Turn To The Light

As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?
Anne Frank

With practice, you can be happier without therapy or drugs. The keys are managed expectations and regular deliberate focus on positive moments in your current life.

  • Work within your circle of influence, which is your thoughts and actions.
  • Expect the most from yourself and less from others.
  • No matter how bleak things look, make the effort to look for the small positives in everyday life.  

The little pleasures you notice along the road to your future will build your positivity so you can take on the world.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

When you feel you can’t go on

10 steps to let your body carry your mind

seascape_HypnoArt
HypnoArt via pixabay

What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t always make you stronger.

Sometimes God or the universe sends you more than you can bear, piling one pain atop another. It doesn’t kill you, but you want it to end. Your spirit bends, quivers, threatens to shatter under an immense load of bad thoughts, feelings, or events. The room is locked from the outside, and you can’t even find a door because the light flickers and fades. It’s dark and frightening.

Your strength is gone. What to do now?

This mind, with all its anguish and desire for oblivion, is housed in a body that only knows one thing. Even when broken, at the extremes of pain and suffering, the body strives to go on.

No matter how many people surround you, depression is a lonely, solitary place filled with funhouse mirrors. Your world is twisted and distorted, pain reflected back from every direction.

The body can help.

While the mind searches for solutions, focus on your body for a while. Often we neglect it, for various reasons. We lack motivation, we are at war with a body that does not work or look how we want it to. We’re preoccupied with fighting whatever battle is consuming our lives. Acknowledge that and set it aside. This is not the time to address those issues.

First we must survive, body and mind together. And it is strange but true; the mind comes to rest in a body that is usefully occupied.

First things first

  1. Get clean; shower, wash hair, brush teeth. Make your bed. These will give you a sense of achievement, early in the day.
  2. Fresh clothes, something soft against the skin, according to the temperature. Socks if it is cold.
  3. Drink water. Cold, hot with lemon, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, whatever appeals. Then, drink more water through the day.
  4. Eat something. Toast, cereal, fruit, yogurt, noodles, whatever is available and easy.
  5. Put on some music to distract you from the internal thoughts that constantly whisper negative things. Turn up the volume if it helps.
  6. Some, or maybe all of your environment is out of control, mirroring your internal state. Pick a room where you spend a lot of time. Start in one corner, and begin clearing up. Wash dirty dishes, put on laundry, fill bags with trash and take them out.
  7. When feelings arise about the process, note them and keep going. Remember this is practical, not emotional.
  8. If someone has offered their support and you feel able, ask them to keep you company and/or help you. Sometimes we don’t need someone to hold our hand, as much as we need someone to tidy the kitchen we can’t face any more.
  9. Go outside. Breathe fresh air, turn your face to the sun, stand barefoot on the grass and connect. If weather or other issues prevent this, open a window for a few minutes. Bodies need oxygen and sunlight.
  10. If you are able, a simple repetitive task will further occupy your body. Cleaning windows, ironing, digging a garden, painting a fence, mopping floors, pulling weeds, walking. Sing along with your music. Count your steps, left, right, left.
  11. You will be distracted by the pain. Tell yourself you will come back to it later, and concentrate on the task at hand. (You know it will still be there.) Mindfulness is not emptying your mind of thoughts, that’s impossible. It is about noting the thoughts, letting them go, and returning to the one point of focus. Counting breaths or steps, reciting prayers or mantras, all help to occupy the body and still the mind.
  12. Helping others can be very therapeutic. But we cannot give what we don’t have. Put on your own oxygen mask first.
  13. Remember we are all different, and YMMV. Try different things and see what works for you. Return to it when life gets tough, before things spiral too far downwards. Sometimes we sink deeper, and it takes more effort to climb out of the hole. Get to know your early warning signs, and act on them.
  14. Ideal outcome: your body is comforted and nourished; your environment improved; your sense of control enhanced; your mind rested. A break from pain frees up mental energy that can now be used to address the underlying issues, with professional help if needed.

I hope you find something here that helps you feel better. But if you don’t, if you really feel you can’t go on and ceasing to exist seems like the only way out, please stop and reach out. Help is available here (in many countries) and there is always another solution.

The bravest thing I ever did was continuing my life when I wanted to die.
Juliette Lewis

Sometimes, just surviving another day is the victory. Let your body carry your mind until it feels better.

(first published in Invisible Illness on Medium, 18th June 2017)

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Sharpening my pencils

pencils-1238810_960_720

“When the sea is rough, mend your sails”

Everything I’ve Ever Done That Worked, Lesley Garner

Last time, I talked about dropping the oars and letting my boat drift. Taking the maritime metaphor further, the quote above came to mind. It’s been years since I first read it, but remembering the phrase led me to search out a book long forgotten in my bedside cupboard. It is full of insights, the kind of book to dip in and out of, different stories for different times.

Life can feel like a long and exhausting campaign.

Each battle is succeeded by yet another clash, a siege, an ambush. The right tools are essential, the right skills indispensable. (A large, well equipped army would help too.) But there must also be periods of rest, whether chosen or enforced.

We neglect our greatest asset at our peril. Running a car without fuel and service is sure to end in disaster, yet we regularly do the same with our own selves; whipping up a frenzy of activity with adrenaline and caffeine, neglecting downtime. We are addicted to busyness, and never stop to consider whether it is the right kind of busy.

Stephen Covey, in his defining book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, talked about sharpening the saw. He advocates a balanced programme of self renewal, in the areas of body, mind, heart, and soul. He reminds us that this seventh habit supports all the others.

So, just as the marksman cleans his rifle, and the gardener oils her pruning knife, I will take this time to hone my technique. I will re-read old books and remember the comfort they can bring. The to-be-read pile beckons, with both fiction to enjoy and craft books to study. It is certainly time to step away from the screen and go outside, walk, maybe dig a little in the garden. Meditation might help me still the chatter, the anxiety about the future and regrets about the past.

I don’t know how long this will last. Not forever, because everything is temporary. But I can turn adversity into an opportunity to repair and regain my strength.

And the moment there is a fair wind, I will be equipped and ready to set sail once more.