How Stephen Hawkings challenged his illness with mind over matter
Your thoughts become your beliefs
Lately, I've had a lot going on.... I mean, a lot of changes work wise.
And I decided I need to ask you something.
---> Have you ever taken a risk, be it personal, financial, career-based, without any clue as to how it is going to work out? It's pretty hard to focus on being present and calm when you have a lot riding on a future outcome, isn't it?
Well, I recently signed an agreement to start practising my wares out of a health centre in the Sydney CBD. Maybe it doesn't sound like much to you, but it involved quite a bit of upfront money, and a massive dose of courage to put myself into a new space and share my passions with new people. For me, this was BIG!
You might be surprised by this. You might even think I'm Queen of Calm and 'have it all together', but, like anyone else, doubts and fears can rise in times of uncertainty and risk. I'm not immune.
Truthfully, I'm super excited but I'm pretty damn nervous too! I mean, a whole day to offer all kinds of stress relief treatments to stressed out people in the cbd?! I can't wait to start!! But it is a big change too.
I wasn't always a business owner and I am still not used to risks like this, so it is easy for that voice of panic and anxiety to jump in and have a say in what's happening!
"No one will come! You'll lose all that you invest! Who are you to be offering that?!"...I mean, it's just incredible what these anxieties say!
Can you relate to this?
Do you find yourself catastrophising the outcome of some future events?
Do you find it hard to sleep or stay calm, thinking of all the different ways it can go wrong?
Well you're not alone. Many people tend to spend more time focussed on the past or the future, without really being present in the present! And it seems to increase in times of uncertainty or change.
Now, I'm not saying anxiety is a bad thing altogether. Anxiety and fear are equals to happiness and anger in the broad range of human emotions. All human emotions are valid. There can be a positive twist to anxiety, which is motivation. Imagine being extremely anxious about an upcoming exam, versus laissex-faire and super relaxed? Which one might help you be more prepared to take action and study?
Clearly there are benefits to recognising potential threats, be they social, physical, mental, or environmental and taking action to avoid them. The question is, are you taking action (physical response) on threats which are not real or cannot be changed?
Take a look at the timeline below.
Where do you spend most of your thinking time? If you close your eyes right now for a minute and let the thoughts flood in, where are they focussed? Past? Future? Right this moment?
When you're about to take a risk, or there's some type of uncertain event playing out, you might be spending a lot of time hanging out in the future. Playing out different scenarios, possibly getting yourself into a state of anxiety over what 'might' happen. Maybe you have a doctor's appointment you're dreading, maybe you're about to invest in a new business or a new home and you're wondering if it will all fall down around you ---future focusser.
On the other hand, if you've just done something with a strong emotional investment, possibly with a poor outcome, chances are you are currently dwelling in the past. Maybe that first date didn't go so well, or your boss had a go at you in a staff meeting, or you said something you regret to someone you love. Now, you're going over what went wrong, replaying the scene in some kind of torturous replay again, and again, your mind can't let it go. You are ruminating on it --- past dweller.
This is where our anxieties get the better of us.
Now, let me be clear here before we go any further. I'm not talking about the medically-diagnosed psychological disorder of Generalised Anxiety Disorder or all the other classifications of Anxiety in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V of Mental Disorder of the American Psychiatric Society. If you feel that you are suffering from a level of anxiety that is beyond the 'normally expected' levels, and is persisting for months please go straight to your GP for a referral to a specialist.
If, however, your anxiety is not ongoing and is specifically related to an event or series of unusual life events, you may benefit by thinking about where you focus your thoughts.
It is possible to train your mind to bring awareness to the present, despite your mind's desire to dwell in the past or future.
Really. It is possible!
Why is this important?
One of the main answers is: the body can't tell the difference between what is real and what your mind is saying. Your body will react to your fears in the same way as if it was really happening. If you imagine a terrible scenario, like your manager ripping you apart in a meeting, your body believes that you are actually being threatened, even though it is only in your thoughts.
What happens? You prepare for 'flight or fight' of course!
Your adrenals start pumping out stress response hormones to engage your body. Your muscles tense. Your heart rate increases. Your breathing shortens and quickens and you are ready to roll. All to prepare you for a 'flight or fight' response to something which probably won't even happen, or if it has happened, can't be changed, and is probably not the catastrophe you think it is.
What a waste of energy!
It is your thoughts which are creating a scenario which your body is reacting to. It just isn't real!
So how do you get yourself out of this and back into the present moment?
In short ---> mindfulness and focussed awareness is a great way to get your wild imagination back to NOW.
German-born Eckhard Tolle, a famous author and speaker who resides in Canada, has spent many years studying and researching spiritual philosophy and psychology. He has worked as a counsellor, a teacher, and an author. One of his most famous books is called, 'The Power of Now', which extols the transforming virtue of living in the present moment. Because the present moment is all we really have.
In this short video, Tolle outlines some steps you can take if you find yourself being overwhelmed by anxiety:
- Firstly, recognise what is happening with your thoughts and the impact it is having on your body. How is your body currently reacting to your thoughts? This takes quiet awareness.
- Then, choose (actively make a decision) to step out of the situation. This is difficult sometimes because the thoughts are very powerful, especially at the beginning.
- If you can't manage to get yourself out of the anxious thought process, it is enough to just recognise that you are in it. Notice what is happening in your body and mind. Later, as you progress, you can start trying to step out of the anxious thoughts. Just knowing the anxious thought has control over your body and mind is already a step forward.
- Next, take a conscious breath --- long, slow belly breaths, not chest breaths.
- Lastly, remove the tension from your body. Shake your body, hands, arms, clap your hands, move your jaw to release tension. Or just notice where you are sitting, look around, notice where you feet are, where your hands are resting, the position of your body.
He describes it as a kind of awakening and returning to your body and returning to the present moment.
This type of thing takes time. If you are used to getting caught up in 'what ifs' and creating panic in your body, it will take some time just to become aware of the thoughts themselves. Let it happen slowly, and as you become more used to noticing the anxious thoughts for what they are, you can begin to start making an active choice to step out of the process.
Creating your own alternative thought pattern can also help you. So consider this:
A. You notice yourself in the throes of anxious and unrealistic thinking.
B. After practising, you are able to choose not to stay in that anxious thought.
C. You take a long, slow belly breath.
D. You shake your hands, shrug your shoulders and move your body to release tension.
E. You choose an alternative pattern of thoughts to focus on. You might choose something more mundane, like planning your shopping list. Or you might choose to look around you and find something positive to focus on in the present moment, like your children happily sitting in front of you, or the delicious taste of your early morning tea as you sip it.
What do I do?
Well, thankfully, I noticed pretty quickly that I was getting a little anxious and overwhelmed with my changes because over time I've become used to noticing subtle changes in my body. So firstly I added a few extra personal yoga classes to my schedule as I had let them slide recently. I also increased my morning meditation time and decreased my morning cardio time.
Yoga is my go-to when I am anxious. It is an incredibly meditative way to get into the present moment as you use your breath to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system (aka the 'rest digest' response), the opposite of the 'flight or fight' response. Through yoga you become mindfully present in your practice and in your meditation, allowing more time to notice damaging thoughts and bring the mind back to the present moment.
I'll finish with this.
When in the grips of anxiety, it can seem as though it has complete control over your life. It can seem as though all the worst things are going to happen and they are all targeting you. There is a window though, for you to recognise those anxieties and, with practice, choose to step out of them and into the beautiful present moment.
Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness allow us to be more present. I feel absolutely thrilled that I can offer these gifts to others, and call on them when I need them myself. Just send me a message right here if you'd like me to share them with you. xo
Links and resources:
Wisdom Talks, 2015, Get Rid of Fear and Anxiety Today, videorecording, Youtube, viewed 28 February 2016, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ze0-vGa-MQ8>
beyondblue depression and anxiety organisation Australia : https://www.beyondblue.org.au/
Note: As stated above, if you feel that you are suffering from a level of anxiety that is beyond the 'normally expected' levels, and is persisting for months please go straight to your GP for a referral to a specialist. In fact, while I'm at it, if you are in Australia, you can also contact Beyond Blue, a fantastic organisation which can give you advice and point you in the right direction to receive good care. If you are not in Australia, please speak to your GP for a referral to a mental health professional, and try Googling for a similar organisation in your own country so you can talk to someone straight away. I need to say this because if you are mentally ill, reading a blog is not going to be enough to remove chronic anxiety. It is in your best interests to seek the care you need from appropriate qualified health professionals.
Sometimes, 'being positive' has been getting a bit of a bad rap...unfortunately the concepts of gratitude and positive thinking tend to conjure up the cringe-worthy image of a smarmy smiley Eastern suburbs green smoothie gurgling yoga fanatic with 'no sense of the real world'. In fact... if you look on the surface, you might even see that in me! Youtube parodies and TV shows mock the stereotype that yoga and healthy living has become, but does that mean some people are missing out on something that might change their lives?
The truth is, positive thinking runs much deeper than that, and the thread can be followed to the increasing presence of Eastern philosophical practices in our Western society. As many of you know, the standard Western lifestyle has left many dissatisfied and disillusioned. The drive to --> work --> earn --> build --> and buy - has left many feeling unfulfilled, off-track, and sometimes flat out depressed.
While more and more of us have sought insight and inspiration in Eastern philosophies on the individual level, many scientists and researchers have also sought to glean new knowledge from ancient practices. In fact, such has the line separating Eastern from Western practices blurred through modern global living, that practices like yoga, meditation and Buddhist philosophies have become a common part of the every day life of many. Also, the anecdotal quips of the benefits of these practices are often being backed up by thorough scientific research.
So why is it that makes some of us recoil when we hear about positive thinking - yet again!?
What is it that gets us all worked up about it?
The truth is, we all have our own inner demons to battle, and sometimes being told to 'just smile' or 'think positive to get positive' when in the midst of our darkest moments can leave us feeling alienated, strange, and misunderstood. If only it were that easy! For those going through real, 's*@! is hitting the fan' life events, hearing this can be the ultimate slap in the face. Yet, while well-intentioned do-gooders can sometimes be annoying, there is something to be said about giving it a go.
---> Confession! You may class me as one of those well-intentioned, do-gooders - it's true! In fact, I am passionate about finding ways to improve health through body and mind, including living with authenticity and positivity. But anyone who knows me will agree that I am not your run-of-the-mill, smiley, 'bless thee' yogi sterotypes, and you don't have to be either if you want to live with more optimism. You can improve your mindset and, as a result, improve your health, without floating away into blissville.
What I'd like to do today, is to urge you to look a little deeper than the modern, superficial presentation of 'positive thinking' and:
- Consider how practicing positive thinking can benefit your physical health;
- Consider how it can benefit your emotional health; and
- Consider how it can help build and sustain emotional relationships around you.
I'm asking you to consider how, on a day to day basis you might start to just appreciate 'being', the mere fact that you are alive in this very moment, and that is all.
Barbara Fredrickson is a social psychologist who has been researching human emotions and psychology for over 25 years. She points out that optimism is a mindset that produces many positive emotions, such as, amusement, joy, happiness, gratitude, serenity, inspiration, and peace. Her research has found that an increase in positive feelings leads to an improvement in levels of happiness, and an enhancement of physical and psychological health, even to the point of seeing healthier gene expression (Positivity: All in the Mind, 2015). Other researchers support Fredrickson's work. Harvard School of Public Health researcher, Laura Kubzansky, found that engaging in meaningful positive emotion and engagement can improve mood, reduce the risk of heart disease, reduce systemic inflammation, and increase antioxidants and good blood cholesterol (The Observer, 2013).
A number of leading universities have taken great interest in researching this fascinating subject. The University of Pennsylvania's 'Authentic Happiness' website of the Positive Psychology Centre is dedicated to researching, reporting, and providing resources on the influence positive psychology has on health and well-being. Centre Director, Dr Martin Seligman, an influencer of Fredrickson, has also spent decades researching positive psychology, focussing on how character strengths and optimism can serve to enhance the well-being of people and communities. If you'd like to discover more about your own character strengths, virtues and approach to happiness, head on over to the website and register to take some of their free questionnaires.
Choosing a different mindset
Some of Fredrickson's work focussed on what happens to people when they consciously change their input and output of positive emotions each day, i.e. when they 'choose to be happy'.
In her trial, participants were randomly assigned to be taught certain techniques to self-generate positivity each day for more than 6 weeks. The techniques were derived from ancient Buddhist and meditation practices. At baseline, the participants were measured physiologically, and completed an extensive survey on their emotional habits. Participants were tracked via a daily log for 3 months. At the end of the study they were assessed again, with monitoring of the heart and blood samples taken, and they also completed the same extensive survey that they completed at the start of the study.
What the researchers found was that those who learned to consciously 'chose' positive emotions had improved heart rate variability and alterations in the gene expression of their immune system (Positivity: All in the Mind, 2015).
What does that mean for us?
So, I bet you're wondering, what are these techniques? What are these positive practices that researchers are proving to be so health-giving?
Does all this mean you have to run around with a smile on your dial all the time, like some kind of Stepford wife?
> I'm happy!
> I'm happy!
> Yay I'm happy!
Firstly, let's be clear. All emotions are useful and should be listened to for what they are communicating. One of the beautiful aspects of yoga is the way it makes you slow down and pay attention to the physical presentation of the body in connection with the mind.
Emotions are not only contained in the mind. You know it yourself. What happens when you feel hurt or overwhelmed or angry? You get a physiological response don't you?
Anger increases the pulse rate, switches on many muscles, clenches your jaw, and prepares your sympathetic nervous system for 'fight or flight'.
Sadness closes in on you. Your world becomes smaller. You become smaller, your eyes are downcast, your shoulders are rounded. These are universal presentations of different emotional states. No one is telling you to just pretend they aren't happening! But what you can do is take a moment to...
Close your eyes. Put one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Focus in on your breath and ask yourself,
What emotions am I feeling now? How is this showing up in my body?
Begin to recognise your emotions. See them and accept them.
Often what happens is, we tend to stay in negative emotional states longer than we need. The situation has passed or changed but we are still hanging onto the emotion.
Like ruminating on a past event, going over and over in your mind what someone said to upset you.
Building a positive mindset is about having strategies to move from a negative state up the emotional scale to a more positive state, and as the research shows, doing this on a daily basis builds resistance and makes you more likely to stay in a positive state.
So, step number one is to recognise the state you are in, and step number two is to employ some effective techniques to improve your mindset.
This is the key when those negative emotions are no longer serving you and are only causing you distress and physical strain.
Even more so, this is the key to moving from a flat, humdrum existence, to living with more vitality, greater health, and a daily sense of joy...
...simply for being alive.
There are many techniques to help you improve your mindset.
Try some different techniques to see what works for you.
Or, if you'd like to go a little deeper, contact me to set up a free 15 minute Discovery Session via phone or Skype and we can talk through your next steps to a better mindset and good health.
Wishing you great happiness ;-) xo
'New Frontiers in the Science of Positive Emotions', 2013, Observer, Vol 26. No.6, July/August, accessed 10 February 2016, <http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2013/july-august-13/new-research-on-positive-emotions.html>
Positivity: All in the mind, 2015, Radio Program, Radio National, ABC, 14 June 2015
University of Pennsylvania, 2016, Authentic Happiness, accessed 10 February 2016, <https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/home>