Thoughts / stress

Experimenting with Worry

For something fun - and to avoid having to write a blog myself – I set some of our Hope Street Volunteers on an adventure. Maybe less adventure, more psychological experiment. An experiment around worry.

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life. Most of which has never happened.” Mark Twain.

We all worry from time to time. We generally do not have immediate control over the things we worry about. We typically tend to worry about undesirable future events, or about things that happened in the past that we wish turned out differently. The problem is, some of us have a tendency to worry about things more than is helpful.

Worrying is different to thinking. Thinking is a good thing.  It involves reflection and analysis that leads to greater clarity and purposeful action, when action is necessary. Worrying, on the other hand, is essentially problem solving gone awry. What starts out as concern over an issue, eventually turns into preoccupation; that’s worry.  Worrying is also a common go-to in times of uncertainty.

The unfortunate truth is that we will probably never be able to completely stop worrying. However, we can develop control over how we deal with our worries when we experience them. We can learn to worry more effectively. And this is where the experiment came in – Scheduled ‘Worry Time’.

Scheduled Worry Time is a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) technique whereby we are encouraged to set aside time specifically to ‘work through’ the things that we may be worried about. The time is scheduled for the sole purpose of considering what is causing us to feel anxious, nervous or concerned. At first, this technique may seem both difficult and counter-intuitive. However, with persistent practice, it can help us to significantly reduce the level of worrisome thoughts.

The ’Worry Time’ Experiment steps were pretty straightforward:

  1. Schedule ‘worry time’ each day for one week. Put it in your calendar. Start by setting aside 10-30 minutes during the morning or afternoon.  This will be your worry time.  It’s best not to schedule worry time right before you go to bed, for obvious reasons.
  2. During that 10-30 minute window, write down all of your worries that you can think of. Don’t put pressure on yourself to solve them during that window, but if your mind naturally goes there, that’s fine.
  3. Between worry times: if you start to worry, tell yourself to let go of those thoughts until the next designated worry period. This will feel hard at first, and may require a lot of reinforcing self-talk (e.g., telling yourself over and over to let go of thinking about your worries until it’s the appropriate time). Try not to worry about worrying outside of your worry time! You won’t be perfect with this exercise, nobody is.  But, your intention and effort will make a difference.

Simple. To see if it had any psychological benefit whatsoever, let’s hear from our first Human Guinea Pig (and favourite Creative Person) - Trudy!

I come from a short lineage but absolute world-class heritage of worry. Just ask my sister or Dad (but don’t, they don’t like attention and it will stress them out). I’m a different type of worrier - and I’ve even got the incredibly trendy patch on my jacket to prove it.

Maybe 10 or less years ago, I think I developed this idea that I was here to fix shit. Whilst this felt like a practical role at the time, I now realise that it was just like being a character where I saw that people around me were being eaten up with worry, and if I just fixed things, there would be less to worry about. Nowadays, I try really hard to allow people to worry for themselves, which is good, but my worry has morphed into another weird role.

Over the last few years, I thought this had initially developed into behaviour that allowed me to ‘avoid confrontation’ but in actual fact, it’s this fancy prediction trick, where in a situation that requires me to put myself first, and raise an issue that I would like changed, my imagination tells me that in correcting this, the sky will positively fall. Avoid it, and it’ll just simmer down and things will be fine. So I don’t have to tell the person who I think is not being nice to me, because they’ll yell at me. And I don’t have to tell the person who is making me feel uncomfortable, because they’ll tell me I am being sensitive. And I won’t tell the person who is eating with their mouth open that it weirds me out, because they’ll just burst into tears. I’m constantly worried that people will not accept my needs, and this will make things worse. So I just decide that it’s too hard, and I swallow the worry and live through it. I know this is silly. I watched enough of the early seasons of Ally McBeal to know that I’ll eventually implode if I keep this behaviour up. And in most instances, after I implode, people around me will be all like "Whoah, where did Trudy go? Did that just happen coz she didn’t tell me that my behaviour was hurting her? Awkward. She should have just told me."  

I had originally concocted a plan for this experiment, where I was going to share my worries with someone else, and we were to dedicate our allotted 30 minutes to each other. Given that this friend was in a completely different timezone, this didn't work out as well as we’d hoped. But it did make me think I was holding onto worry for another moment for the first week. It was a pretty freeing feeling, as I compartmentalised it for a later moment (I also had decided that she was going to solve everything for me as well, so I really put it off).  

One instance I can recall, during a time when I was still holding off to talk to my friend, I had actually not given the worry the time that I normally would. Concerned about an impending conversation, when it actually came to the time it got forced upon me, I’d not had the chance to entertain the imaginary situation that would have occurred, and so when the band-aid was ripped off, surprisingly, the conversation just happened, like normal. And it went fine. Even without all the worry time alloted to it. The sky didn't fall.

This - to me - was a big worry, and it became your general ‘proof is in the pudding’ example. After this, it felt like my worries paled in comparison, and really, if that went okay, how relevant were my imaginary scenarios?

Using designated worry time then felt practical. It felt like I was using time efficiently. And by efficiently, I mean it gave me more time to aimlessly scroll through instagram.

Would you recommend this practice to a friend who was worrying a lot? Do you think this might be useful as a strategy for someone experiencing anxiety?
Given that my only advice to friends when they worry is to just put their happiest shoes on, because that will instantly make them feel better, I can imagine this might be an option for providing a bit more evidence-based support.

What do you think the purpose of this experiment was?
To reinforce to me that I’m not a psychic (believe it or not).

Remember if you're interested in volunteering to be a part of similar adventures / psychological gifts / human experiments that don't have any ethical clearance, send us an email (hopestreetcards@gmail.com).

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Stress - should we really be 'managing' it?

The other day a colleague of mine said to the work room, “I have to give a session on ‘stress management’. Any ideas for what I should talk about?” Her question was met with groans. And grunts. And “Don’t ask me!” And even laughter.

I struggle with the concept of ‘stress management’. Firstly, it’s a definitional thing. ‘Stress’ is such a vague, catch-all, airy-fairy, difficult-to-narrow-down-WTF-it-actually-means type of word. And secondly, once we figure it out, is ‘managing it’ really the best thing for us? Or should we be preventing it? Or even adapting to it? Let me rant on this for a while.

It seems like for most people, stress is a really simple concept. The word gets tossed around all the time. But what exactly is it? Is it the same thing as physiological arousal? Is it the same thing as “workload”? Is it any different from anxiety or frustration or anger? Is it the cause of trauma? Is it anything at all?

Let’s think about stress through the concept of change, because life really is one big long process of change. Pretty much anything that involves change contains within it the “demand” that we adapt to it, in one way or another. Graduating from school can be as demanding as starting school, and starting a new job can be as demanding as losing a job.

How we perceive the change really determines how we manage to adapt to it.

If the perception is positive, we generally embrace the change with open arms and relief. And the story essentially ends there.

If the perception is negative—that is, if the change challenges our stamina or resources—the body will automatically—and dramatically—respond to this perceived threat with a variety of physiological responses.

In the early 20th century, Walter Cannon’s research in biological psychology led him to describe the “fight or flight” response of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to perceived threats to physical or emotional security. Cannon found that SNS arousal in response to perceived threats involves several elements which prepare the body physiologically either to take a stand and fight off an attacker or to flee from the danger:

  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase
  • Perspiration increases
  • Hearing and vision become more acute
  • Hands and feet get cold, because blood is directed away from the extremities to the large muscles in order to prepare for fighting or fleeing.

In the 1950s Hans Selye first popularised the concept of “stress”. Selye theorised that all individuals respond to all types of threatening situations in the same manner, and he called this the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).  Hans Selye claimed that, in addition to SNS arousal, other bodily systems such as the adrenal cortex and pituitary gland may be involved in a response to threat. For example, chemicals such as epinephrine (adrenaline) may serve to focus the body’s attention just on immediate self-preservation by inhibiting such functions as digestion, reproduction, tissue repair, and immune responses. Ultimately, as the threat wanes, Selye suggested, body functions return to normal, allowing the body to focus on healing and growth again. But if the threat is prolonged and chronic, the SNS arousal never gets “turned off,” and health can be impaired. With a continuously suppressed immune system, for example, a person would be more vulnerable than usual to infection—which is one explanation of why some individuals get sick so often.

Regardless of whether Selye was right or not, psychology, as well as medicine and popular culture, have accepted the concept of “stress” as an unpleasant fact of life.

Okay, so if that is definition sorted. Stress is related to our physiology of arousal during periods of change. I suppose I can handle that.

So how do we manage unwanted increases in physiological arousal? There’s heaps of wonderful things we can do there. We could exercise. Engage in calming activities. Practice relaxation and meditation. All of these things will help our body and nervous system to settle readjust. Stress managed.

So am I now jumping at the bit to give a presentation on stress management? Hells, no.

It takes so, so, so much effort and time to become skilful at managing ‘stress’. And intervening once stress has actually occurred can mean that the process itself can even be stressful. Once we are in a state of heightened arousal, implementing a management technique can be really, really difficult. Would it not then be a bit smarter, to spend some time developing good stress prevention skills that minimise the need for strenuous self-soothing efforts in the first place? Look instead at the things we can do to reduce and minimise our chances of becoming distressed?

I don’t really have any grand ideas for what ‘stress prevention’ would look like. But I reckon it would also include that vague, airy-fairy-hard-to-define-word ‘balance’. Maybe it would be the ongoing cultivation of a balanced perspective towards one’s life and place within the world. And generally speaking, perhaps the following steps would assist us to reduce stress:

  • becoming aware of what our true needs are and are not
  • understanding how to meet our true needs

Efforts to clarify values, ambitions and social boundaries; to become aware of physical limitations and meet basic needs; to be able to say “yes” to things and “no” to others; to recognise and intervene early when our triggers for stress are set off; and to cultivate a positive, optimistic and emotionally resilient attitude towards life and to the process of change.  

So many sources of stress are totally unavoidable. We can’t prevent, control or change stressors, such as the death or a loved one, the rise or fall of interest rates or the behaviour of our boss. Acceptance can be really, really freaking difficult, but when there are so many things in life beyond our control, accepting the things we can’t change makes for a much more manageable existence.

It should be stressed here that like all effective stress management techniques, stress prevention is probably not a one-time effort but rather an ongoing discipline. Stress prevention techniques, such as establishing routines based on our true needs and spending time with the people we care about as well as ensuring our relaxation and calming techniques are up to scratch, would need to be regularly revisited in a sort of ongoing life-maintenance project if their benefits are to be continuously enjoyed. Life is not a static thing, but rather an evolving and dynamic process. The ‘balance’ and perspective that works well for one chapter of our life may be quite crap for a later chapter, requiring revision and updating to take place.

Now, that’s a stressful thought.

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Perfectionism paralysis - when it breaks

It’s time to continue our adventure into the misjudged 'virtue' of perfectionism. To recap, we’ve explored what perfectionism is and the rigged game of self-imposed pressure to inform. We trekked through some possible hypotheses for how perfectionism – in particular, Sam’s perfectionism – begins and develops over time and we investigated some of the factors that possibly keep that perfectionism in motion.

Today’s episode: what happens when our excessively high personal standards and harsh self-criticism become too great? When the pressure we place on ourselves to achieve our rigid standards of perfection becomes too great? What happen when our shield breaks?

You may have guessed it. It’s burnout.

Perfectionism is really closely linked to burnout. A syndrome that health professionals associate with chronic stress, manifested as extreme fatigue, perceived reduced accomplishment, and eventual detachment.

Recent research has found that individuals who experience perfectionism also experience high rates of burnout.  And knowing what we know, this isn’t all that surprising.

Perfectionism comes with a grand amount of self-critcism, black-and-white thinking ("I'll be a success if I get the promotion, and a failure if I don't") and excessive fear of failure. These things all have the potential to be particularly damaging to a person’s mental health.

In an analysis of 43 studies on perfectionism conducted over the past 20 years, researchers found the trait of perfectionism was highly correlated with burnout in school, sports and work. Burnout was characterised by feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, low motivation and decreased personal efficacy.

The researchers examined two main dimensions of perfectionism: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic strivings - setting high personal goals and proactively working towards those goals - were not linked with burnout. This aspect of perfectionism may ward off burnout by contributing to a sense of personal accomplishment. 

On the other hand, perfectionistic concerns - including the constant fear of failing, making mistakes, or letting oneself and others down, and the need for constant self-validation - were significantly correlated with burnout.

It's easy to see how this relationship works: The constant fear, self-flagellation and self-doubt that characterise perfectionistic concerns contribute to both acute and chronic stress - and, over time, high stress levels lead to burnout (not to mention other physical and mental health problems).

Furthermore, perfectionism was particularly likely to lead to burnout in the workplace. Why? The researchers suggested that it's likely that perfectionists enjoy less social support and clearly defined goals in the workplace than they do in school or sports. 

And when it comes to our case study into perfectionism – me – it appears I am a textbook case here. I’ve experienced burnout, more than once, and on each occasion at work or study. And on at least one occasion, that burnout has contributed or triggered an episode of mental illness.

And it’s pretty simple to see why.

All of those patterns we explored earlier drained my mental and physical energy, however the belief that if I didn’t achieve a ridiculously high standard, I would be a failure compelled me to keep going anyway. This rigid style of thinking brought such very strong emotions with it too (worthlessness, hopelessness, negativity) which would have amplified the body’s stress response. Ultimately, no amount of actual work would have helped me to achieve what it was I was setting out to achieve given the state my head and body was in.

Unfortunately perfectionism doesn’t just end with burnout. It’s not cured with a bit of time off and a rest. Next episode, we’ll start to unravel some of the challenging components to address perfectionism. The pursuit of im-perfectionism.

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Busting Busyness

The past couple of weeks some people have been trying to label me. And I’m not all that impressed. It’s something I used to describe myself as and a term I actively avoid now. It’s a descriptor I almost cringe at when those around me use it. And it’s a term I hear from others a lot. From the lovely lady at the checkout at the supermarket. From my closest and dearest friends. From my smartest and highly admired colleagues. From the people I eavesdrop on in the coffee shops.

It's "Busy".

It’s like “busy” has become the new “fine”. As in, when you ask somebody how they were doing, they used to answer, “fine”. Nowadays, we answer “busy”.

Sure, there are definite times in life where things become genuinely busy. Sometimes we just have a lot – or too much – to do. Sometimes things happen unexpectedly or we weren’t prepared and life feels hectic.

But it also feels like “busy” has become normal. That it’s become fashionable. That for some of us it has become our default state. That it’s become a source of competitiveness. And worryingly, that for some of us we may be measuring our level of success against how busy we are.

There have been times in the past when I believed that my happiness revolved around how busy I was. If I was busy, I was using my time well. If I was busy, I was proving to myself (and others) that I was valuable. If I was busy, I was creating the possibility of a better life in the future.

I never got happier though by being busy. The illusion that I was somehow building a foundation for that feeling that someday, somewhere I could slow down and be free never materialised.

Instead, when I was busy I just felt stressed. And overwhelmed. And anxious. And this is nothing to boast about. It was definitely not something that was ever going to make me more successful. It’s just burnt me out. It made me sick.

When we are under stress, our bodies release the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol helps our body deal with the clear and present danger we are facing, like a great white shark. To do that, cortisol dials down the systems we don’t require (like our immune, reproductive and digestive systems) to combat the clear and present danger in front of us and mobilise energy stores from fat. In small doses, it’s great for us. It keeps us alive and gives us what we need, when we need it, to get through stressful situations.

But how often are we faced with a great white shark? These days our stressors tend to be more long term. These deadlines, that event, those perfect instagram posts. The longer a stress is around, the longer cortisol stays in our system, which means the longer our non-stress bodily systems are suppressed.

Suppress our immune systems and we get sick.

Suppress our digestive system and we get stomach pains, our bowel habits change and we may even get Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Suppress our reproductive system and we may get irregular periods, PMS or have difficulty getting pregnant.

Too much cortisol in our system:

  • damages the cells in the brain that are responsible for long term memory formation
  • reduces bone formation, predisposing us to osteoporosis
  • increases blood pressure by making us more sensitive to adrenaline
  • produces an increase in appetite and cravings for fatty and sugary foods.

Stress is making us weak, fat, fart and forgetful. Surely this is not something we want to be seen as and hardly something we want to be proud of.

The other thing was that when I was busy and felt I never had enough time, I was never actually productive. And that’s the thing, busyness and productiveness are not the same thing. Over-working (in any sphere of your life) is not the same as smart working.

There are reasons why people bang on about the importance of spending time with loved ones, exercising, taking long baths and binge watching episodes of the original 90210. They’re all about self-care. There’s just no way we can be productive all the time, if we don’t spend some productive time recharging.

“Life is what happens to you while your busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

Whilst I’m on a rant, when we complain about how busy we are, it’s totally annoying. Because being busy is inherently a choice. A decision that we made. No one ever forced us into a lifestyle of busyness. If we really want to be less busy, we can choose to re-determine our schedules. We don’t have to live busy lives. We don’t have to contaminate the most valuable resource that have: our time.

But the thing that really annoys me about responding with “busy” to the question “how are you?” is that you lose a wonderful opportunity for connection. Answer with “busy”, and there’s not a big space for the conversation to move forward. Instead of us complaining/boasting about how busy we are, let’s tell each other what’s going on in our lives. How we are feeling. What’s bringing us meaning. Let’s open up for better connections and conversations. Our peeps love us for who we are not what we do.

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