Lying on your back, you are your own guide and bring your attention to every part of your body – scanning it from toes to head. Such a simple practice helps to reconnect with your body, release physical tensions and quiet a busy mind. It is also a very effective technique to strengthen attention control.
So here is a resilience practice we invite you to cultivate this week:
He dare not come into company for fear he should be misused, disgraced, overshoot himself in gestures or speeches, or be sick; he thinks every man observeth him.
Robert Burton,1621, quotes Hippocrates describing a patient.
If you are feeling a little uncertain, uneasy, anxious or worried, you are in good company. We will remember 2020 for fires, Covid-19, floods, hurricanes, moral outrage, and massive job losses. There is little to indicate that we are ‘going back to normal.’
We hear from our clients, colleagues and reputable media that anxiety is the most troubling concern right now. Anxiety is both unpleasant and debilitating. It can range from a very appropriate and necessary recognition of risk to being immobilised in a state of panic.
Depending upon the situation, anxiety can be alife-saving super-poweror alternatively, a psychiatric diagnosis of mental illness.
A clear understanding of how anxiety works and practical steps to counter it will guide you back to calm and curious playfulness.
The five steps are:
A Psychiatric Perspective
Large population surveys show that up to 33.7% of people are affected by ananxiety disorder. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) claims that 18.1% of adults are affected and 25.1% of young people (13 – 18).
An “anxiety disorder” in theDSM-5is diagnosed by excessive anxiety and worry (difficult to control) occurring most days for six months about a number of events or activities. Symptoms include restlessness (on edge), fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance.
Psychiatrists apply a wide range of descriptions including anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobia, andseparation anxiety disorder.
Treatment is counselling, CBT or anxiety medications. The pharmaceutical market is worth about $7 billion (excluding antidepressants ($18 billion) often prescribed for anxiety).
You cannot die from an anxiety disorder or even a panic attack. However, prolonged anxiety has been shown into increase risk of cardiovascular disease and can make inflammatory disorders such as asthma and rashes worse.
A Biological Perspective
Anxiety is linked to the primary emotion of fear. Fear exists from reptiles through to humans. Fear has been retained in evolution because it increases the chance of living long enough to reproduce. In a dangerous world of predators and deprivation, fear saves lives. It is so important, that the flight reaction is a powerful, automatic reaction to threat.
The flight reaction activates before you can think about it. When the senses detect a threat, the amygdala and hypothalamus fire up the sympathetic nervous system. You are flooded with adrenaline. Blood leaves your brain, skin and gut to power up the leg and butt muscles so that you can run.
Just as an impala might dash off with a whiff of a lion, so you might jump away at the sight of a coiled object in your path. Thinking in humans only happens after the event. Your body, gripped by a surge of fear, may just have saved your life.
At the milder end of the anxiety range, is a sense of doubt or unease. A very mild activation of the fear response leaves you feeling uncomfortable (butterflies), tense (neck and back) and wide-eyed. The experience could be triggered by a creak of a door or even an imagined threat. Either way, it wakes you up, you pay attention and prepare for a threat.
There are two dimensions of anxiety: severity and duration as shown here. A quick surge of fear can alert you to threat and help you focus on mastering the situation (1). But we have to tame the fear in order to be calm, focused and connected to the situation. Too much fear will make us rigid and unable to respond with skill (2).
When fear persists and is experienced as chronic anxiety and persistent worry, it is of no adaptive use (3). Chronic anxiety will undermine your life and health (4). It feels awful, thinking is compromised, and you may find yourself avoiding and procrastinating in the face of challenges you need to address.D
Anxiety can be understood from physical, emotional and mental perspectives.
The body is activated by adrenaline, blood flow changes, muscle tension, breathing, and heart rate. We can experience this as a physical experience. The bodily state is felt as a feeling, or emotion, of fear. This fear can express as unease, wariness, terror or even panic. These are emotions we can learn to label accurately. They can be captured on camera and in voice.
Face of fear
Fear focuses our attention on future threats. You may notice yourself thinking: ‘this could be scary’. That is a useful thought that helps you plan and prepare. However, you may find your mind looping around the same thoughts: ‘this is terrible, what if, this is going to hurt, they will hate me.’ This is worry. It is not helpful. Your mental resources are distracted from the present moment.
The five steps from anxiety to playfulness
When you experience anxiety in the body, feel it as emotion, or notice it as worry, name the experience immediately. For example: ‘I feel my heart thumping’, ‘I feel fear’, or ‘I am worrying about x. The goal is to make an object of the experience.
If we don’t name it, we become the subject. We feel lost in a whirl of heart thumping, dread, and swirling worries. You feel like you are the flight reaction. Your reptilian brain is in control.
This step puts you in control as the observer. My body is tense. This is a feeling of fear. My mind is caught in a worry loop. You have just put your pre-frontal cortex in control. The reptilian systems immediately deactivate when you name it. Now you have access to conscious perception, judgement, creativity and can choose the best response.
Once you name the state, feeling or thought, the experience of anxiety and fear is already reducing. There are many tactics to achieve this. Relax your face, breathe out and pause, massage your neck and shoulders, have a cold shower, sing, gargle or reach out for a hug.
Learn how to focus attention on your body or the flow of your breath. Each time the mind charges off to worry, gently bring it back to the rise and fall of your belly.
There is tremendous power in learning to do this well. I believe every student should be taught these skills early in education. It will be life changing. If you know you can reduce your anxiety with practical steps.
Our most popular blog is “Take a Deep Breath is Bad Advice.” Taking a deep breath, especially if it is through the mouth makes anxiety worse. Rapid, shallow and chesty breathing can combine with breath holding and sighing. These are signs of hyperventilation. You may be breathing 18 times per minute. If you hyperventilate deliberately, you will feel anxiety rise.
To start, lie flat, close your eyes, relax face, body and limbs, and exhale fully. Pause a moment and then inhale through your nose. Aim for ten second breath cycles. My preference is 4 seconds in (1, 2, 3, 4) and 6 seconds out (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Keep your chest and belly relaxed. Allow your lower ribs and belly to rise and fall as you breathe.
Two or three minutes of this slow, diaphragmatic breathing through the nose has a huge impact. If you can accumulate this sort of breathing for about 8 minutes a day your vagal tone becomes stronger and your brain becomes more focused and agile.
The next step might be to learn and practice a meditation. Try to do this every day even if for just five minutes.
A reframe is consciously and deliberately choosing a different state. You take your body from tense to relaxed. You nudge your feelings from fear to calm. You test the worry with thoughts of hope and opportunity. The concept comes from CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy). You can reframe body, emotion or thought.
The All Blacks use the term ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’. Ceri Evans (see below) uses the aphorism: ‘Red or blue? Decide! Do!’ Approaching a difficult play, notice the fear (red), step back, step up to focus on the goal (blue) and step into deliberate action.
By practicing these disciplines repeatedly, you can learn to reframe in a split second.
Notice that we are not advocating that you deny feeling. The information is an important message. Use it to quickly reframe your body, emotion and mind into a state that can solve the challenge.
When you look at memorable learning moments in your life, they are often found where you confronted big and scary challenges. There is nothing more rewarding than finding a way to engage adversity with curiosity and a sense of play. This is what young animals do in play. In play we engage voluntarily with adversity. We chase, we run, we wrestle, and develop the skills to be able to do it under pressure.
Develop a habit of playful engagement. When adversity presents:
Feel the fear and name it
Breath out and relax your body
Step back and up to look around
Say to yourself: ‘this is interesting, there must be 7 ways to play.’
Make a decision
As you keep practicing this your attitudes to adversity will change from threat to playful opportunity. As your skills improve, you vagus nerve will myelinate and get stronger.Calm, focused connectionbecomes easier. You will learn to trust yourself.
Life and its challenges become a playground for adventure.
Joseph LeDoux, Anxious, 2015 (a sound neurobiologist)
Jean Twenge, i-Gen, 2017 (researcher on young people)
Ceri Evans, Perform under Pressure, 2019 (how All Blacks do it)
Deb Dana, Polyvagal Exercises for Calm and Connection, 2020 (get it)
A micro-break, from 30 seconds to 2 minutes, offers your body an opportunity to release built up tensions and reduces the risk of keyboard-related injuries. It helps combat tiredness and has a positive effect on productivity, problem solving and creativity. So here is a resilience practice we invite you to cultivate this week:
I practice rejuvenation during my workday by taking regular micro-breaks.
A search of “burn-out” delivers 485 million results. How strange to be so attached to a word that has no clinical or biological substance. A year ago, the World Health Organisation included “burn-out” as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. This is an error second only to their mishandling of Covid-19.
First, humans do not burn out. Second, there is a better way to understand the experience of overwhelm so that you can recover, bounce and reconnect with life. Third, the term burnout hurts the person labelled and misleads the experts trying to help you.
Surprised? Bear with me and I think you will drop the term.
Why you can’t burn out
A light bulb, an engine and a fire can burn out. Entropy wins and the system has no further use. It must be replaced. That is a poor analogy for human life.
Humans are self-healing and regenerating systems (negentropy). In fact, under pressure we respond with learning, growth and greater resilience. A recentmeta-analysisshowed that about half of people (77.3% in one study) experience post traumatic growth after severe traumatic events.
What actually happens when overwhelmed?
Our desire is to becalm, connected, playful and effective in one’s life. In this state, the ventral Vagus nerve is active. We feel safe, trusting, intimate and energised to engage. To have this experience through childhood is a key factor for a good life. We can learn to have more of it.
Sudden or prolonged experiences of threat or pressure cause us to lose this adaptive state. The sympathetic system activates and shuts down the ventral vagus system. This is not a decision you take but rather a reaction deep in your autonomic nervous system. It can be sudden, erupting as a panic attack (flight) or rage (fight). It may also activate slowly as a feeling of anxiety or anger.
These unconscious autonomic reactions are selected when the body feels unsafe or threatened. The old sympathetic system will select cues that your mind may not notice. For example: “are those footsteps of a thief in a dark alley?” or “is he looking at my daughter…?”
The sympathetic system can become unstable and overactive. This is what happens in anxiety and hostility disorders. The first questions asked is if I can run away and avoid the situation (flight, fear or anxiety). If I cannot escape, the system switches to attack (fight, anger or hostility).
These reactions do serve a snake or a mouse in in the jaws of a cat. In humans, it is a huge waste of energy, disables thinking and rarely has any positive effects. In any demanding situation – combat, sport, keynotes, performance – the effect is debilitating.
It can get worse. We call it the freeze reaction. If the threat is so severe that neither flight nor fight are options, we simply immobilise. The old, dorsal vagus activates and we collapse. In extreme situations we may void bladder and bowels, faint or burst into tears. This is common in natural disasters, war and abuse. Blood pressure drops and the human brain is deprived of oxygen.
In a more chronic situation, hope fades, we lose energy, give up and surrender our responsibility. Yes, it feels like being “burned out”. It is hard to distinguish from depression if sustained over weeks. Remember, you did not consciously choose it. Your body activated an ancient reaction to protect you.
Polyvagal theory is being successfully used by hundreds of therapists to show you how to reconnect with and master your autonomic system. Deb Dana’s book (see below) is an excellent start.
Even after severe trauma, in autism, anxiety, depression and hostility, this methodology is changing lives. There are some clear learning steps:
Accurately perceive what is happening in your body
Label and observe the freeze, flight, fight and engage signals
Develop skilful state shifts to move in the right direction
Activate calm, connection, trust, and playfulness
Myelinate your ventral vagus nerve fibres (swim or meditate)
When you feel overwhelmed, remind yourself that your body selected protective immobilisation to keep you safe. Relax, notice, exhale, reconnect and reengage. As your ventral vagus response strengthens, you can leave burnout behind you.
Getting past burnout and fixed mindsets
As we become more familiar with how physiology, body, emotion and mind operate, the concept of burnout becomes redundant. When you say it to yourself you reinforce hopelessness. When experts label you with burnout, you feel broken and permanently damaged.
All too often, burnout leads to grievance and blame. This is absolutely the last thing you need for your recovery.
Burnout is a term that no longer serves us. It locks us into thefixed mindset. With patience, understanding, learning and practice the immobilisation reaction can be mastered with many safe and proven techniques. Therapists, consultants, resilience experts, business and you really can do much better with agrowth mindset.
Polyvagal Theory Exercises for Safety and Connection, Deb Dana, 2020
Nassim Taleb wrote aboutBlack Swanevents in 2010. A Black Swan is an improbable event with massive consequences. We are in one right now. Every one of us is facing unknown unknowns. Our savings are impacted. We are concerned about family, friends and business as borders start to close. Many can no longer go to work. Am I well enough to survive an infection?
Leaders walk a blurry, dangerous edge between under and over reacting. The consequences of closing a border, a store or a business are huge. We are facing decisions under an overload of information and unclear guidance. There is little certainty.
Activate Centripetal Forces
There are disruptive centrifugal forces at play. Centrifugal forces pull things away from the centre. It feels uncertain, scary and threatening. Centripetal forces hold things together. They keepcalm, control and connection. Now is a time to focus on the key centripetal forces that you can apply to guide yourself, your family and your team.
10 Centripetal Forces
These recommendations are aimed to maintain your physical health and immunity first, and second to support your mental and emotional wellbeing.
Discipline your attention: sip cautiously and sparingly on information
Maintain or reinforce your daily disciplines of self-care and growth
Exercise every day and make sure you get out in fresh air and sunshine
Lock down your sleep discipline: consider stretching it to 8 hours
Eat fresh foods & eat sparingly: lose unwanted weight if you can
Stay calm and relaxed: a daily relaxation practice has multiple benefits
Be present and savour the moment: catch worry, focus on breath and body
Stay connected to your family: consider co-locating while you can
Be positive and seek out optimistic positions: don’t catastrophise
Keep cash on hand and set yourself up for remote work
No one can predict how this will turn out. Focus on what you can control and change. Fretting over provocative media hype is futile. Stay informed but focus on respected authorities like the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) andJohns HopkinsUniversity & Medicine.
Focus on Physical Health
Reduce inflammation, fatigue and poor health. Experts warn that that age, obesity, diabetes, smoking and chronic conditions increase risk of infection and consequences. Now is the ideal time to put in place a good daily discipline that nurtures fitness, sleep, relaxation and wellbeing. A fresh-food diet and relaxation will keep your gut bacteria healthy.
Master Anxiety (and worry)
Anxiety is a key risk. Uncertainty and risk trigger the emotion of fear. Fear will stir and stimulate futile loops of worry. It is essential to discipline your thinking. When you notice the discomfort of anxiety or loops of worry, breath out long and slow. Bring your attention forcefully to your breath, your body, and the feeling of being alive right now. As your attention learns to stay present on the unfolding moment, anxiety will dissipate.
Build Hope, Optimism and Joy
Hopelessness and depression must be countered. We may lose money, jobs and opportunities. Isolation can fragment the connections we need for emotional wellbeing. Humanity is brilliant at rapid bounce. We will find a way. Be active and practical. Do useful things like keeping your home tidy and lovely, cleaning your car, or reading a good novel. Be alert to rumination on losses and what could have been. Create a positive story with your situation. Spend time with loved ones and help each other build optimism and hope.
Know that things will eventually get better. Humanity will learn. We will come out wiser and stronger. When things are shaken up like this, it is a great time to reflect on what really matters to you. Perhaps let go of some things that no longer matter quite as much. It may be an opportunity to make a much needed change.
We tumble to the end of another warp-speed year. We spin through our tasks and grasp at floods of information.
We press too hard, too fast and for too long. Reservoirs are sucked dry. Self-awareness fades. Self-regulation is impaired. Your health and your relationships are at risk.
It is time to slow down, repair, rejuvenate and reconnect with what matters.
In a world of optimisation, ambition, pride and duty, we push hard on multiple fronts. The rest, recovery and rejuvenation cycle is squeezed out between ever shorter bursts of dopamine. We are child-like in our impulsive tapping, swiping, checking, buying, rushing, feeding… compelled to chase the next hit.
As I come to the end of 2019, I feel battered. My mind is a little flat. Attention is fragile. Relationships are edgy. I know I need a good break. I am struggling to disconnect, calm my hypervigilance, and allow the natural cycle of recovery. I sense it in our family, friends and colleagues.
Rest, recovery and rejuvenation (R3) is the next competitive edge. Ironic!
My end of year message it to give rest, recovery and rejuvenation your full attention.
At a cellular level, the R3 cycle is vital to repair and rejuvenation. It is the key to longevity and sits at the biochemical core of fasting, sleep quality, intense activity, meditation, and cold water baths. It is a promising solution that supports this process of slowing, cleaning and repairing hard working cells.
The R3 cycle is key to musculoskeletal strength and physical wellbeing. Intimacy, touch and dreaming (REM) sleep stimulate the R3 cycle for emotional wellbeing. The default network is the R3 cycle for cognition allowing us to focus, engage and refresh our minds.
Our end-of-year pause is an opportunity to capture the R3 cycle for life and family. Please make an effort to allow for adequate rest, recovery and rejuvenation as your year comes to an end. Engage your family in this process so that you may reconnect in more intimate ways.