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Posts tagged ‘motivation’

Panic Attacks, procrastination and fear: transforming panic into excitement.

A few weeks ago I was with a friend who showed me a video of Mel Robbins talking about how she had learnt to transform her panic attacks into an experience of excitement. In my work I am often asked what suggestions I have for applying mindfulness to panic attacks and I was keen to listen to this talk to see what she had to share and see how I might apply it in my own life.

I have never had a panic attack, but I was writing in the last email about the feeling of dread and anxiety on approaching an event where I have to meet people, and how this fear of socialising that I picked up as a teen seems to create a false narrative in my head about what I can and cannot do. Listening to her talk I could certainly see how I might apply it to these situations, and how people might use it if dealing with a panic attack.

In her talk she starts by discussing the limitations of motivativational thinking to get us to do things. She says: “we are not designed to do things that are scary, difficult or uncomfortable. Our brains are designed to protect us from those things, because our brains are trying to keep us alive. In order to change, to build a business, to be the best parent, best spouse, to do all those things that you know you want to do with your life, your work, your dreams, you’re going to have to do things that are difficult, uncertain or scary. Which sets up this problem for all of us: you are not going to feel like it….[because] our minds are designed to stop us from doing anything that might hurt us.” She goes on to say that as a result of this we all have a habit that holds us back, the habit of hesitating.

She then outlines how one technique the brain uses is the spot light effect, where the brain magnifies the risk of something in order to make us back away from doing it. She goes on to say “you can truly trace every  single problem and complaint in your life to silence and hesitation”.

Mel then talks about how the sensations in our body are the same when we feel excitement or fear, and that it is this similarity which enables us to reframe how we are interpreting these sensations. She gives an example from her own life: when she is about to go out and give a talk she can feel her heart racing, her palms a little sweaty, her breath racing. If she were to tell herself “I am anxious and frightened of talking” this would create a feeling of fear of going out on stage. Instead she focuses on the sensations as an expression of feeling excited, and this supports her as she walks out in front of the audience.

The root of this approach is based on the fact that the flow of adrenalin is the same if we are feeling excited, or scared. It is how we interpret it that then determines how we think and feel about the physical sensations adrenalin causes.

In her longer talk below Mel describes how she was at a low point in her life, waking up with feelings of dread, and how this would lead to her laying in bed, consumed by panic and anxiety, hitting the snooze button until the morning was turning into the afternoon.  One evening she saw a programme about a rocket launch, and as she watched the rocket take off she decided that was what she would do the next morning on waking, she would count down and launch herself out of bed before her brain had a chance to start thinking, working or catastrophising about the day.

As she woke up the next day she immediately started a count down: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then got up. Once she was up the debilitating anxiety that would otherwise have kicked in and kept her in bed could then start to be absorbed through becoming active: she started to face the day as it was rather than as it appeared to her as a thought as she lay in bed worrying about it.

Mel then started to apply this 5,4,3,2,1, approach in her waking life. On noticing that she was caught in an addictive behaviour – perhaps prevaricating before going to bed, or moving on to an activity she needed to focus her attention on – she would then say to herself 5,4,3,2,1, and at 1 move on to the activity she had been avoiding and stop the activity that she was wanting to move away from. 

“When you count backwards, you mentally shift the gears in your mind. You interrupt your default thinking and do what psychologists call “assert control.” The counting distracts you from your excuses and focuses your mind on moving in a new direction. When you physically move instead of stopping to think, your physiology changes and your mind falls in line.

The Rule is (in the language of habit research) a “starting ritual” that activates the prefrontal cortex, helping to change your behaviour. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that you use when you focus, change, or take deliberate actions.” (Ref)

I have started to use this as I wake up, and it really works. Rather than laying in bed with the feeling of dread of the day that is to come, which could easily lead to 30 minutes or an hour of delaying getting up, when I count back as soon as I wake up and swing myself up and out of bed then this mood that might have kept me trapped in bed immediately starts to dissipate, as instead I head to the bathroom, brush my teeth, get a glass of water and move into doing some yoga and meditation. I am also starting to explore using it during the day, at times when I notice myself caught in procrastination, hesitation and avoidance.

To find out more about her method I’ve included her interview below.

Using the 5,4,3,2,1 method for a panic attack

With panic attacks Mel uses the similarity between feeling excited and feeling fear to create a different way of focusing your attention and interpreting the experience. In a panic attack we have no clear trigger for why we feel panic, so there is nothing to move away from. All we have is our body telling us we feel panic and our brain has no idea why. Given that our brains purpose is to keep us safe by helping us move away from danger, this is the most terrifying thing for our brain: the experience of danger with no clear action it can take to escape.

As one of the participants on an 8 week course I was running observed, mindfulness helped them to stop panicking about the panic attack, and that in itself stoped it from escalating. But how to transform a panic attack? Rather than riding it out, which the mindfulness helped this participant to do, is there a way to actually transform the experience. Mel suggests that there is. 

At a time when you feel calm and at ease take a few moments to connect with an anchor thought you can use when a panic attack occurs. An anchor thought is an image/thought of a situation where you feel safe, grounded and excited. The example in the video the woman connects with is of seeing her grandchildren. 

On first noting the sensations of a panic attack count back: 5,4,3,2,1. Then connect with your anchor thought and say to yourself “I am so excited to….”what ever you anchor thought is. In the case of the woman in the video she would think “I am so excited to see my grandchildren tomorrow”. The effect of this is that it tells the brain the reason for the sensations in the body are not an unexplained terror, but a feeling of excitement at the idea of the thing you are about to do.

Perhaps you like going on a roller coaster, or bouldering, or feel exhilaration on going dancing or are excited to take your dog for a walk. Connect with one thing that gives you a feeling of excitement and that you enjoy which you can then focus on when the panic attack starts. This gives your mind an explanation to then enable it to calm your body down.

Think of the brain as a guard on watch at the city gate – suddenly the dogs start barking, the guard looks up with concern, ready to sound the alarm in case the city is under attack. If the guard sees no reason for the dogs barking he will become more agitated and alert, looking for any sign of danger. In the same way in a panic attack the brain is alerted by the body to danger, but there is no clear danger. All the brain can do is look for danger and attempt to remove you from an unseen harm which gives rise to increased alarm as there is no obvious escape route from an unseen danger. If the guard were then to see a cat sitting on a wall, he would suddenly know that the dogs were only excited by the cat, and there was no need for concern. In the same way, give your mind an image of being excited by your anchor thought and the brain can settle, telling the body it is ok, stand down the alarm signals, it’s only excitement at seeing a cat! 

If you experience panic attacks and use this method please let me know how it works for you. As I have not been able to apply it to myself I would like to hear if it does help you interrupt a panic attack, as I will then be more confident to share it more as I teach. 

We are meeting again this Monday. Looking forward to seeing you there.

For details of the next 8 mindfulness week course starting on Thursday 3rd May click here

Miricle Morning

This morning I was reading a book about how to engage with the morning in a more creative way and the author gave six tips which I’ll share below. Some of them I’ve been doing, others are new to me, but it helped to see them outlined so clearly and I hope they will offer you some encouragement or ideas for how to enjoy your morning and engage wit it in a creative way.

1. Getting up with a sense of purpose. It’s so easy to hit the snooze button and roll over.  But the muggy sense of not quite having woken up can then hang like a fog over the morning. In another book I’ve enjoyed reading, The Chimp Paradox, by Dr Steven Peters, he talks about the conflicting agendas that can occupy the mind at this transitional time of waking.  The more instinctual brain, which he refers to as the chimp brain, simply wants warmth and comfort. It has no interest in our morning yoga routine or the super green smoothie or hot lemon water we intend drinking. It just wants to  lo lie in bed, feel warm, and quite probably have a wank to pass the time!

Dr Peters goes on to say that the less attractive side to this chimp brain is its tendency to also get lost in all of the vague worries and sense of unspecific sadness that can arise in the morning – and that wanting to stay cuddled up in bed is in part an attempt to avoid facing these. Rather than allow the chimp mind to take over with unspecific cares and worries as we lie in bed Dr Peters suggests that we make a resolve the night before: “on waking I’ll say to myself no thinking until I’ve got up and brushed my teeth”, then as we wake and the mind wants to go into its worry mode – the chimp wanting to check if there is any danger around before leaving the den – instead we say to ourselves “no thinking until I’ve brushed my teeth” and jump out of bed. Which brings us to Harv Eker’s second point.

2. Change you morning routine to increase your wake up motivation. If you imagine a scale of 1 too 10, where 10 is that you are most eager to get up, 1 least eager, where are you currently? The following points are intended to help you reach 10.

i) On going to bed affirm that you will wake feeling refreshed and ready to enjoy the day. Imagine waking and wanting to start your day in whatever way you have planned and feel the enjoyment of this. This is based on the principle that our last thought on falling asleep will likely be our first experience on waking.  If we fall asleep dreading the next day, then we likely wake up with that feeling of dread. It can help to think about what our objectives are for the next day so that the brain can reflect on these as we sleep and we wake ready to engage with them.

ii) Place your alarm clock on the other side of the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. This  links with Dr Peters suggestion to get straight out of bed and not succumb to the chimp mode of retreating into the den and worrying if it is safe to emerge and may help if we really can’t motivate ourselves to get up. I often find that there’s a feeling of lethargy that tells me I need more sleep, which goes as soon as I am up but with could lead to spending more time in  bed without benefiting from it and may result in not having enough time to meditate before breakfast. For me the contrast of a period of meditation on waking and laying in bed after waking has no comparison. Meditating leaves me feeling centred and refreshed and is  as if I have had a second does of deep sleep, whereas napping just leaves me feeling buggy and less refreshed.

iii) Go and brush your teeth so that you feel fresh.

iv) On waking drink a glass of water with half a lemon squeezed into it to rehydrate after a night of loosing water through breathing.

I would add a 5th suggestion: meditating for ten minutes before going to bed and then seeing how much you can keep your attention on the breath or the sensations of contact with the bed as you fall asleep to prevent going back into random thoughts. Meditating before bed is a bit like doing a system clean on the computer. You may not feel very focused, and a lot of images and thoughts from the day may drift through your mind, but by dong this before going to sleep you’ve already started the process of clearing out the detritus of the day and may be able to sleep deeper as a result. Keeping your focus on the breath or body as you fall asleep also helps you go into a deeper sleep.


3. Making time for purposeful silence each morning.  The easiest way to do this is to establish a regular mindfulness practice. Ten minutes a day of mindfulness practice has been found to be the minimum amount of time that is still effective. Any less and participants on research projects did not show the benefits of the practice. Meditating for longer but more sporadically did not show the same benefits as those who were able to do it every day for ten minutes. If you do not already have it here is a ten minute guided meditation to down load. Or you might enjoy sitting for ten minutes looking out at the garden or the sky with no other distractions. Finding your way to have some purposeful silence at the start of the day.

4. Affirmations. This is one I struggle with as I think we often use affirmations to try and escape from where we are rather than face what we are feeling. I may be about to give a public talk and notice feeling anxious. Saying “I am confident and strong” a 100 times – when in fact I need to feel that I am frightened and terrified of speaking in public – will not necessarily change the fear and may just add to the sense of failure when I still feel it on standing to talk. In contrast learning to hold the fear means it can then be felt, allowed, listen to and may change…or may not, but the relationship to it has changed. Denying that it is there only pushes it under the surface and then when we dry up on giving the public talk we just feel worse because our affirmations did not work!

But perhaps there is a way of using affirmations so that we face what is there and give ourselves a boost of confidence. Saying “I am willing to feel my fear of public speaking and be patient with it”, or we may have some affirming self talk to counter the voice saying ‘you’re going to fail’ such as:”On standing to speak I will remember to take a breath and feel my feet on the floor and however it is I’m OK, I still love myself as I am, not for how I perform.” or whatever it might be that connects us to our self-worth and self-empowerment.

The second aspect of this stage is visualisations. Here we see and feel and imagine how it will be to be doing the thing we want. So we imagine how it would be to stand and talk and feel at ease, or at least to be at ease with our unease by breathing deeply and focusing on the contact with the floor. Or if we are wanting to stop smoking we visualise how we will feel when we can breathe freely again, or engage with a sport we have had to give up. The trick is to focus on the positive outcome rather than on looking at escaping from the unwanted behaviour. This links with a research project that found that when two groups of students were given a task to help a mouse through a maze (on paper) there was a distinct difference between the group helping the mouse back to its home and some tasty cheese and those helping it run home to escape an owl. The group who were taking it home to the cheese were found to be twice as open and creative in their thinking when tested afterwards. Trying to avoid the problem by running from the owl, in contrast, led to a significant decline in creative thinking and mental agility. So notice if you are using affirmations and visualisation to escape the owl of fear or a sense of weakness or anxiety about failure and instead focus on the ‘cheese’ of the good feeling of living to your full potential, or speaking clearly despite feeling nervous.

5. Morning exercise. I have recently started doing the Five Tibetans in the morning again. They are a set of five yoga moves that take around 15 minutes to do. I’ve also returned to Freeletics – a calisthenic style of workout. But it’s so easy to let it slip. So this reminds me of the value of doing the Five Tibetans every day and Freeletics four times a week. Consider what your exercise might be: yoga, a quick walk, jog or some other form of exercise. Eban Pagan, a successful entrepreneur, was asked what the number one key to success was for him. He answered “start the morning off with a personal success ritual” and then went on to emphasise the value of moving exercise as part of this ritual, explaining that it gets his heart rate up, his blood pumping and his lungs filled with air.



6. Read and write in the morning. 

i) We all know the value of reading, but it’s so easy to let the books sit by our bed as we are busy with other things. But making a new habit of reading 10 pages a day, which roughly takes 20 minutes, would result in reading approximately 18 books a year.  The suggestion is to find books that are relevant to your interest in personal growth and self awareness, but it could include any area of interest that you want to deepen your knowledge in or novels that open you to  the insights of the author about what it is to be human. After reading and taking notes then re-read or reflect on the notes. I have books full of notes on books I’ve read but when I look back I realise I forgot so much of what seemed relevant by not taking time to re-read the notes I had made and review the book. There’s the risk of moving on to the next insightful book without having fully taken in the message from the last! So the 20 minutes reading could include returning to the book we’ve just read, or taking time to reflect on the notes we made.

The app I read the book I’m summarising here is a useful place to start. If you would like to read more details of this morning routine the book is called The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod and is available for free on an App called Blinkist. All of the books are also available as an audio book. You can browse the books for free for three days then it is a paid subscription. There’s a wide selection of titles. You don’t see the whole book, but instead read a detailed summary of the key points. So you get the central message without any thing extra but if you like it you can purchase the book elsewhere and read it all!

ii) Writing for five – ten minutes in the morning to highten self awareness. This can take various forms.  There’s The Artist Way, which I have never done but friends all speak highly of.  It consists in part of keeping a morning journal to help connect with your creativity. I keep a dream journal, so spend five minutes each morning writing down my dreams from the night before. Or you may like to write out a plan for the day. The days that I do this I tend to be much more engaged with what  my intentions are for the day and less prone to drift. It can be even more useful to do this the night before, taking a few minutes to consider what your intentions are for the next day, especially anything you’re looking forward to – then your mind is able to ponder this as you sleep and dream and is more prepared for the next day, helping in the process of jumping out of bed ready to enjoy the day rather than snuggling back down.

The suggestion in this book is to keep a morning journal reflecting on the previous day. Dividing the page in half or using two facing pages label one ‘lessons learnt’, the other ‘new commitments’. This helped Elrod to feel more grateful for his life through focusing on the things he had already learnt as well as his goals for the future. By reflecting on lesson learnt it helped him to learn from his past and by looking at future goals it committed him to the changes he wanted to make in his life. The change might be being patient with how things are! It doesn’t have to be a huge goal, but one that feels right for you.

To help with this he suggests having an accountability buddy, someone whom we tell our intentions to and with whom we check in to say how we have met them, or not.  I’ll reflect more on this next week.


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