From anxiety to eagerness

I had an interesting experience just now as I went for a nice midday walk with my wife:

It was the most relaxed and happy I’ve ever felt on a leisurely stroll, but after half an hour I started to feel unwell, a little like being car sick.

I didn’t know why, but asked for an easy explanation and immediately I knew what was going on.

Dampening the senses

In the past my anxiety levels were much higher, and walking without a purpose or destination would trigger lots of vigilant behaviour that made me tense and uncomfortable.

In an effort to combat the anxiety I would do various things to dampen my sensory acuity and block out or filter the stimulation flowing in.

But anxiety itself would also filter and channel my awareness in strange ways, heightening my attention to movement, sounds, and possible “threats” in a fight-or-flight way.

I won’t bother trying to detail all the little things that contributed to this tunnel vision or active filtering of my sensory experience. Suffice it to say that being more relaxed and appreciative as I walked had an impact on those processes and left me feeling disoriented and then sick.

Rediscovering eagerness

As usual the answer was to “feel better”. And what felt better in those circumstances was to allow myself to once more feel an eagerness, excitement, and active engagement with my environment.

My previous attitude was like putting on blinkers to relieve the stress and anxiety of too much going on. But now that I feel better I actually want to see what is going on, appreciate it, take it all in, and revel in the environment around me.

This change in attitude is the difference between fearfulness and anticipation, a shift from wanting to hide and be invisible to looking out with a sense of eagerness for what my universe has in store for me.

I think the nausea was a direct physiological response to subtle things I was doing to avoid looking at the world clearly. But since I create my reality, I know that looking for things to relish and look forward to will eclipse and outshine anything I would once have sought to avoid.

Letting go: tension

I want to use my daily writing discipline to focus on letting go. But is that a contradiction?

Years ago I told my Chinese philosophy teacher that meditation tended to make me more tense.

“Relax harder, dammit!” he laughed.

I’d love to find better ways to let go of the tension I’m used to holding; and I’ve been noticing lately that the tension really is intentional.

Like most long-standing yet unwanted conditions, the thoughts creating tension in me have a lot of momentum to them, from a time when I very intently sought control over my physical body.

An intentional state

That’s the other way tension is intentional: it’s a state of stretching or reaching for something. Longstanding physical tension isn’t arbitrary, it’s informed by an effort that uses the body in a taxing way.

Expecting criticism and attack from others, I intentionally tried to control my gaze, my facial expression and my observable physical reactions.

I had this ideal of always looking implacable and unperturbed.

But the only way to maintain such tight control is to prime those muscles with tension, inhibiting spontaneous and natural responses.

Have you ever tried not to laugh or smile at an inappropriate time? You can do it if you clamp down on your expression, clench your jaw and look away as if concentrating elsewhere.

Or what about trying to hold back anger? Again, clench your jaw, stare straight ahead, set your face like stone and seem impassive.

But the worst is being ridiculed, criticised or mistreated on account of your natural expression. “Wipe that stupid grin off your face”, “watch out, the wind might change”, “what are you looking at?” “Don’t just stand there looking like an idiot” These kinds of comments teach you that you are judged for your expression and body language, fairly or unfairly, and imply that there is something to be gained from monitoring and controlling it.

Letting it go

Self monitoring and control are a recipe for chronic tension not only in your face and head but likely your neck and elsewhere as your body’s natural balance is inhibited.

But as we have seen, such tension is a consequence of anxious, fearful, and negative thoughts about how we are seen and perceived by others.

The antidote to such thoughts are simply thoughts that feel better.

As children we took harsh comments at face value, but as adults we know that people who offer unsolicited criticism like that are typically full of s***.

Looking back, the people who criticised me the most turned out to be the least pleasant people to be around, and their rampant negativity and even harsher self-talk is now obvious.

As an adult I’ve seen so many different faces, some anxious and uptight, many profoundly oblivious and relaxed. There are no rules to how we should look and carry ourselves and be. No one goes around, taking people aside to warn them against being too ugly, too stupid-looking, too arrogant looking, too anything.

If you can retell the story around physical tension in whatever form you inflict it, you will be able to let it go.

Our aim should be to soothe those thoughts in a direction of security, trust, and letting go.

Ultimately, people have all kinds of faces, expressions, and body language. But we know from our own observation that what is inside each of us will shine through. For us that includes tension and resistance and fear at the moment. But it doesn’t have to, and it won’t forever. As we soothe and soften our negative thoughts, we will inevitably find the ease and relief we desire.

Count Your Blessings Day 5

It’s actually brilliant…

Counting my blessings is doing something to me that is both cool and amusing.

I’m beginning to take for granted that each day is full of blessings.

I’m even getting a bit impatient about writing them out.

And I’m definitely feeling eager for more. Not necessarily more of the same, but more variety, more richness, more surprise, more satisfaction.

Today was spent mostly at home, and I really appreciated it. I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything.

Well, I drove my wife and son to a meet up with friends and picked them up later, but most of the day was spent relaxing.

In the past I would avoid all kinds of events and activities, but I didn’t really relax. I just wanted to avoid the extra stress because, truth be told, I was still stressed at home.

I carried my stress around with me. Keeping it alive and feeding it frequently.

But today felt like genuine relief, because I felt real appreciation for the down-time after so many days of uncharacteristic activity.

There were lots of beautiful moments today. Watching my wife and the kids dance to some YouTube videos.

Enjoying the delicious meal my wife cooked, while I was blissfully unaware she was even doing it.

Sitting with a coffee on the front porch in the cold autumn air.

Playing Minecraft with my son.

And little things like aches and pains that would have ruined my day were just…things I noticed, I guess?

So I’m wanting more now, and I’m getting a clearer picture of the kind of feel I’m after.

The process of counting my blessings has focused and tuned me in super quickly to what a blessing is, what it feels like, and what more I can look forward to.

I have a sense that it is never going to stop being this process of discovery and expansion.

Writing from my couch

This past week I finally downloaded the WordPress app to my phone and I’ve been writing my posts while lying on my couch.

I should have done this ages ago! Forget stand up desks, yoga balls and ergonomic keyboards; this is true creativity untethered!

Lying on a couch is the best way to write. Honestly it feels so good I’m jealous of myself.

There’s something simultaneously rebellious and luxurious about it, playful and deeply satisfying like a childhood dream where bed becomes a boat and we float on the ocean waves in the miraculous comfort of dry linen, pillows and blankets.

I can hear the cars go by on the busy road outside my door. A clean breeze is blowing through the room. My head is supported by the arm of this 100 year old sofa, as I share my thoughts with you through the glowing screen.

And who needs ten fingers to type, anyway? What can be said in two minutes that can’t be better said in ten? I’m all thumbs right now but that’s more my speed.

Whatever makes me feel better, what makes writing more satisfying and more fun, what turns work into relaxation…

I don’t think I could have done this before. I’d have thought writing should be more serious, more intentional, more focused.

But more relaxed? More happy? More easy?

This tiny miracle of technology and receptivity is just one of many I attribute to my work of learning to feel better.

The smartphone, wifi, and apps are one miracle, but more significant is even allowing myself to consider it, to think that enjoyment is worthwhile, and care enough about how I feel to reach for it.

Imagine you’re relaxing

I wanted to lie down on the couch.

I’d been sitting at the computer for a couple of hours, and I really really wanted to go and stretch out and relax on the couch.

The couch was right there…12 feet away.

But then I thought…

Huh. 

What if I focus on the good feeling of relaxing on the couch, rather than actually doing it?

What are the limits of my ability to focus on relief and relaxation as the desired outcome of lying on the couch?

After all, lying on the couch is a neutral action. You can lie on a couch and feel stiff and terrible, just as you can say the words “I feel good” while feeling horrible.

I want to lie on the couch because I believe doing so will relieve tension and discomfort from sitting for too long.

But is it necessary to get up and go lie on the couch in order to feel that?

As a test or experiment, I thought I’d find out how couch-like I could feel without actually getting up and going to lie on the couch.

Oh man.

It turns out I’ve never really appreciated lying on a couch as much as when I didn’t actually lie on it.

The process of getting deeper and deeper into couch-like relaxation revealed hidden resistance.

For example, in the past I’ve hurt my back numerous times, and so I have an ingrained fear of arching my back unsupported in case I pull a muscle in my lower back.

It’s a protective habit, but it means I’m walking around with this guarded tension in parts of my back.

Why can’t I relax without lying on the couch? It turns out I can, I’m just not used to it.

This weird little experiment of declining to recline demonstrates that I can evoke feelings of relaxation and letting go, without taking the action that I usually associate with those feelings.

It also suggests that action can sometimes stand in the way of truly changing how I feel.

Deceptive activity

The action of lying down might relax me to some degree, but it also stops me learning how to relax without lying down, which is far more valuable to me.

After about ten minutes focusing like this, I went and lay down. Surprisingly, it was harder to relax lying down than when sitting. It was harder to relax because lying down hadn’t truly relaxed me, it had just taken away the pressure.

I wasn’t learning to let go, I was just relieving the worst of the burden.

In this sense, action can be counter-productive at times.

It can relieve the pressure that would otherwise motivate us to change our behaviour – like learning how to properly relax.

It can also confuse us as to what we really want.

For example, I thought I really wanted to lie on the couch. But it turned out that I really wanted to feel relaxed and relieved…and by resisting the more obvious course of action, I learned that I could feel relaxation and relief even in an uncomfortable position.

Isn’t that exciting? That means it wasn’t even really about the position or the action (or lack thereof), but about something in my mind from the beginning.

If I can use my mental focus to relax, then presumably it was my lack of focus, or my focus on something else, that caused my tension to persist in the first place.

Doesn’t that imply that I can feel relaxed and relieved of pressure whenever I like?

This idea of mental relaxation through visualisation is nothing new. I’ve heard it before many times but never succeeded in applying it.

I think that might be for melancholic reasons.

Simple tricks or techniques to relax (or for any purpose) tend not to appeal to melancholics because of our deep desire for meaning.

That’s why I’ve only used this technique successfully now, because it fits into the broader context of how one’s experience of reality, feelings, and thoughts, flow from one’s point of focus.

I think this serves as a useful experiment in “positive thinking”.

In the process of changing my focus I discovered that I didn’t want what I thought I wanted, that my usual course of action was usually only a half-measure at best or counter-productive at worst, and it also brought me renewed excitement and curiosity as to the broader applications of this technique.

Melancholic with Type A Personality

I’d heard of Type A and Type B personalities before, but I didn’t seem to fit into either category. Type A are supposedly harder-working, competitive, ambitious, organised, intense, hostile, and stressful. Type B are laid-back, relaxed, disorganised, friendly, and so on.

The problem with a lot of these descriptions is that they seem to be dealing with Type A personalities of a Choleric temperament. But in the pursuit of a cure for my auto-immune condition, I’ve come across more general descriptions of Type A which suggest that a person could be Type A regardless of their temperament.

I don’t think I’d ever be mistaken for being an over-achiever, but that’s because most people think of specific, socially esteemed and easily recognisable achievements like winning sporting competitions, getting promotions at work, hosting big parties, winning awards, and so on.

What about someone who feels bad if they aren’t working toward some kind of goal, however humble or eccentric? Or what about someone who pushes themselves towards goals that they find more difficult than others because of their temperament? Or what about the temperament type that ruminates and analyses everything in exhaustive detail, and treats those silent efforts as a kind of progress to be made?

As I understand it, a Type A personality is about being driven, and it doesn’t matter where you happen to be driving to. I have a med-student friend who is also melancholic and Type A, and  all the study she has to do in addition to family, work, music, and other commitments makes me feel sick just thinking about it. I’m not achieving anything so exalted as a medical degree (or so I tell myself in false humility) yet I greet each moment of potential rest with the question “what could I be getting done instead?”

I’m acutely aware, for example, of not having made any cheese since my blue brie finished over a week ago! Not only that, but my beer reserves are getting perilously low, and I’ll have to make time for another brew soon.

I jumped at the chance to turn this reflection into a blog post, because I haven’t written any for a while and I’m feeling genuinely bad about it, because I’m measuring my self-worth in large part by how productive I am. It doesn’t matter that my idea of productivity isn’t typical: those sardines aren’t going to salt-cure themselves! (Actually, they pretty much do once they get going).

Several months ago, in the midst of severe back pain I tried something a little unusual at the behest of an acquaintance with an interest in hypnotism: I asked my subconscious mind to tell me what the real cause of my pain was.

The answer I received was a mental image of myself lying face down in the driveway of our home, pinned by the front wheel of my car which happened to be driven by another me.  Apparently my subconscious mind loves puns and metaphors as much as I do. The message was clear: I am crushing myself with my own drive.

Still, it’s taken months and additional resources from people with expertise in this field for me to recognise the greater extent of this “drive” that is making me sick, stressed, and sad, when really I have so much to be grateful for in my life.

I’m so accustomed to it, I’ve embraced it so wholeheartedly that this drive feels like “me”. The thought of not accomplishing anything today, or this hour, or this minute makes me feel anxious and nauseated. On some level I’ve decided that I’m running out of time, I need to get things done at any cost. I’ve come to believe in the inherent goodness of purposive activity, and I feel empty and inept without it.

Something is terribly wrong when you feel like you can’t go to the park with your wife and son because it’s too good an opportunity to “get things done”. Something is terribly wrong when the act of getting out of bed to “get things done” is hampered by severe pain despite feeling inwardly fine.  There’s something wrong when the high of analysing, pursuing, and seeking to solve problems and understand mysteries drowns out love, happiness, and the experience of peace.

Part of me enjoys the pressure, the power, the sense of control. But like any addiction, it’s a mask, a distraction and a false sense of self.

Auto-Immunity: stop hitting thyself?

Embed from Getty Images

An auto-immune disease is, as far as I can tell, the disease equivalent of accidentally biting off a chunk of your own tongue.

My particular auto-immune disease causes inflammation in various key joints, resulting in mild-to-excruciating levels of pain that erupt seemingly at random throughout the course of the year.

Each doctor I’ve spoken to has been more or less firm about the association between stress or negative affect and flare-ups of the disease; firmly against any such association, I mean. There is no evidence to suggest that the progression of diseases like mine is in any way linked to psychological factors, though there is good evidence that the experience of pain can be moderated by psychological factors.

Needless to say, I’m not content with this and rest somewhat assuredly on the dictum “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, taking some confidence in what I know to be the limitations of evidential standards and processes, such that if I find a personal or subjective association, I’m not going to dismiss it on the basis of insufficient peer-reviewed studies.

At the same time, it’s somewhat dismaying to see people dismiss actual studies from a position of willful ignorance and wishful thinking. I’ve seen plenty of people embrace conspiracy theories or other combative attitudes towards established medical and scientific practices and institutions. It’s not a pretty sight. Ideally we should know and understand the things we criticise, and be aware of the limitations of our own knowledge, n’est-ce pa?

As such, I’m not going to tell people that their auto-immune condition is the result of stress and negative affect. What I can tell them is that I’ve noticed in myself that my bouts of inflammation seem to correspond with periods of self-imposed stress or pressure.

It seems I am of a temperament which is inclined to say to itself: “Now you know what you ought to be doing, so do it; do it without ceasing. Do nothing else. Nothing matters but that you do this, and do it diligently forever and ever, Amen.”

For example, I had a flare-up some time after deciding that I ought to pursue my writing more seriously. ‘More seriously’ as in, unceasingly and compulsively without any concept of an end point. On the positive side, that helped me produce an unprecedented number of articles – if I remember correctly: 12 published articles in a one month period.

But as my productivity began to decrease, the conviction that “I must write” slowly devolved from a genuine motivation into a mere sense of grinding necessity. Grinding is perhaps the operative word, as my joints inflamed and it became painful to move.

I’ve noticed since that the pain seems to coincide with these bouts of grueling yet unproductive urgency, the sense that I must get something done without excursion or delay.

Yesterday I noticed a growing sense of urgency relating to ‘getting things done’ with respect to domestic production. I’ve been meaning to make some cheese, but have struggled to find a good local source of necessary ingredients. The delay and the awful heat (42 degrees C yesterday) left me feeling unproductive, and this morning I woke up with the telltale stiffness and pain in my lower back.

As tentative as I am to try to dictate the cause of my illness to others, I’m equally cautious in extolling a particular treatment. I’m not trying to sell anything.

However, I have found it personally beneficial to treat the pain as a symptom of the underlying urgency, and therefore to treat the urgency directly. I do this by making a conscious effort to defuse this compulsive state of mind. I reflect on the fact that it doesn’t actually matter if I make a cheese today/write an article tomorrow, or if I do these things next month, or in all honesty if I never do them ever again.

By ‘reflect’ I mean it’s not enough to simply tell myself that it doesn’t matter. I have to really feel that it doesn’t matter, because feeling it means I can let go of the stress, tension, and urgency. Feeling that it doesn’t matter reveals how truly tense and stressed I have become – winding myself up into a state of impossible and unnecessary tension. I can feel the tension now through my whole body, yet I was oblivious to it until I started to focus on ‘letting go’.

Does ‘letting go’ fix the problem? Objective analysis would be nearly impossible. The factors at play are highly subjective, and would be very difficult to study or isolate under experimental conditions. But like Pascal’s wager, if I’m wrong about the connexion I’ve nonetheless benefited from becoming aware of my stress and tension and reducing them to more salubrious levels.

Feeling more relaxed, happier, and healthier is a pretty benign form of treatment. There’s not really anything to lose.

Does the pain go away? As strange as it might sound: I hadn’t really noticed. In hindsight, it must go away because I notice its subsequent return. But I’m usually so caught up in the great sense of relief and relaxation, the sheer pleasure of ‘letting go’ all the stress, strain, and slowly mounting pressures of life, that the pain, the stiffness and the sense of disease seem to just dissolve away.