Managing Uncertainty

In the kitchen, I am glowing in the humidity underneath a wash of pale spotlights. Outside in the dark yard, the cedillas emit their ceaseless din. Rubbing my strained eyes I wonder, with a heart pumping fast, could there be  someone out there looking in at me?

A toad releases an ungodly belch. Nothing feels normal. Moving through to the garage, I locate a familiar looking screwdriver, large and heavy in my hand. I know I need it, but can’t remember why. Turning to leave, I press the wrong switch and jump as the garage door clangs loudly and begins to rise up into the gloom. As it lifts up and out, a downpour of Hollywood proportions comes in to view.

The rain is making V shapes as it hammers on to the drive. I feel my senses ambushed and shiver perversely in the heat. I stab at the switch repeatedly and beat a hasty retreat.

My chest is tight and skin prickling inside swaddled sheets. Bound like an Egyptian mummy I try to free my heavy legs. Rain is lashing down on the bedroom roof.

Calm down, I tell myself. The positive self-talk begins to sink in as I realise TV footage from the previous evening has worked its affects on me. Images of Houston in Texas submerged again, have reconnected me to old experiences and fears. It’s a sense of being out of control, the not knowing how events will play out …Hurrican Ike storm gathering

I suspect most of us have memories of an extraordinary weather event and have felt the unstoppable powerful of nature at her worst. Hurricane Ike was special to Houston; the eye of the storm covered the width of the city. Houston took a direct hit.

It is perhaps a cliché to recount a dream sequence, but aren’t dreams fascinating? They inform us, provide a commentary from the unconscious. Watching news footage undoubtedly tapped into mine, giving me nightmares. Sensations that passed through my body five years ago, recalled in the here and now, while I slept.

Short scrappy scenes; waking in the stifling heat, striding forward, fumbling through a dark house, clammy and panicked, desperate to locate a cup of tea or some iced water. Only then to remember the power is out. There are no lights, or kettle to boil or iced water to pour from the fridge. The power outage went on for two very long weeks …

It wasn’t life threatening for us, although sadly approximately 200 people did die as a direct result. It was a slow trial; a test on the nerves. The aftermath was at best inconvenient. At first there was a sense of adventure, the ‘together in the trenches’ moments. In the photo you can see our children inspecting our neighbourhood the morning after Ike. houston 2009 139

The knowledge of the hurricane approaching and inherent uncertainty was more challenging. Growing up in England, I’d experienced storms, high winds and flooding before. I was in my early twenties and living alone when the 1986 ‘hurricane’ passed through Kent. Sevenoaks, where I now live, lost six of its seven oaks, planted in 1902. Although the oaks were replaced, it has been known as ‘One oak’ ever since …

In 1986 the Kent weather event caused significant damage and yet it wasn’t a true hurricane. Another crucial difference was it happened without warning. The BBC weatherman, Mr Fish, famously poo poo’d the idea of a hurricane coming when he read the weather forecast on the evening before. As a result the fear of what might play out was absent.

Back then; I woke at 2:00 am to a chorus of unfamiliar whistles and crashes. I was awestruck by the chaotic scene in the street below my flat. Trees bent double, trash-cans bounced down the street like discarded newspaper. Unable to make sense of the scene and alone in my little flat, I went straight back to bed and slept on. Oh to be young and carefree of life!

When you are an expat you take what the posting brings as part of the package. You expect the unexpected (some of it very positive) and you cope as best you can. The ten day build up as Hurricane Ike made it’s way across the Gulf of Mexico and subsequently the certainty of it’s impending arrival, were scary. And yet there was no time to deal with the anxiety, hurricane preparations – boarding windows, gathering essential supplies took over.

Dealing with the unknown, the unexpected and feeling out of control are some of our most stress inducing experiences. So how might we cope with uncertainty coupled with fear?

6 Tips for Managing Uncertainty

1) Thinking logically when you are feeling anxious is challenging, so a clear head will be help. I recommend you stop what you are doing and sit down, now tell yourself to relax. Easier said than done? Take a deep breath in through your nose to the count of ten and then breath out through your mouth, slowly to the count of ten. Relax your jaw and facial muscles. Do this seven times and you notice as you begin to feel calmer. Repeat this as many times as you need to.

2) Ask yourself, What is the worst that can happen? Consider what action you can take now to prepare or help ease your situation. If you are truly powerless over events (a rare occurrence) commit to staying calm, this will help maintain a sense of control.

3) Remind yourself ‘This too shall pass’.

4) Distracting ourselves can be a way of ‘avoiding’ particularly when we know we should be doing something we don’t want to! Conversely, at times of great stress, distraction or displacement activities can allow us the space to calm down. For example, studies have shown that doing something with your hands that doesn’t require much thought, such as knitting, will help. Moderate exercise is another good stress buster.

5) Remind yourself that although uncertainty is difficult to tolerate, it is not impossible to do so. Recall a time in your life when you coped with not knowing what was going to happen. With the benefit of hindsight, what have you learned from surviving that experience?

6) Mindfulness can help us to still the mind and stay focused. Do you have memories of unexpected events?

Would you would like to share your experience and possibly what you learned from them?

Watch ‘An Inconvenient Posting‘. Huge thanks to author Jack Scott  and Liam Brennan at Summertime Publishing for their work on my book trailer and new look blog. If you have a second to ‘like’ them I would very appreciate it 🙂

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An Inconvenient Posting

an-inconvenient-posting-book-design

British psychotherapist, Laura J Stephens, already had the living abroad tee-shirt, and believed that another intercontinental move, this time to a country where they spoke the same language, would be child’s play. How wrong she was! This always candid and often humorous memoir demonstrates that things don’t always go as expected – particularly with three kids in tow and an oft-absent husband. Setting up home in Houston placed Stephens in the eye of hurricane Ike, a frisky piano teacher and a crushing loss of identity as she came to terms with losing her hard won career.

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Exam Stress? Self-care Tips

graduatesSTRESS, the very word is defined as significance, meaning, emphasis, consequence, weight, value and worth, all of which could apply to the taking examinations. And then there is the other meaning of stress … And that’s the kind I am concerned with here.

Young people across the globe are currently in the throws of preparing for exams. In my own home there is an atmosphere of ‘now or never’; the days are slipping away on the revision timetable, posted on the fridge. Gone is the opportunity to fob me off with pleads of “I’ve got plenty of time Mum, chill”.

I am trying to be chilled, but with two out of three of my children taking exams, I’m very aware of a delicate balance to be struck in terms of encouragement versus provoking more stress. I can feel the pull to ask “Are you sure you are doing enough?”, an internal voice I am trying to ignore.

One child will hear your words as nagging another as a reminder to push on. It is easy to say too much and in doing so inadvertently lump on more pressure. In a bid to becalm our parental anxieties, ‘holding’ our own negative feelings around exams and choosing to keep them to ourselves, or sharing them with someone other than our child, may be a better outcome for all concerned.

Not every student feels they can, or even want to, work for exams and we know many successful, happy people have not, but what if you suspect your child is lazy, avoidant or simply disorganised? It would be understandable if you feel you can’t just sit by and watch it happen. I believe, as a parent we have a duty of care – to support and notice when things are wrong?

I don’t profess to have all the answers to this dilemma and individual circumstances will vary, however, it may help to sit down together and have a face-to-face chat with your son or daughter. It sounds obvious, but how often do we do that?

Choose a time and place when you will not be interrupted by marauding siblings, and a location that offers a neutral setting. Aim to keep your tone respectful, not accusing and be prepared to listen without interrupting. You could try the following questions:

  • How are you feeling about the exams at the moment?
  • What helpful advice would you give yourself at this time?
  • Is there anything I can do to help you prepare?

Try not to take it personally if your child is not forthcoming in their response; we know it is normal for teenagers to be obtuse. You could notice, “You look a little sad”. Or if they react defensively/with anger you could likewise acknowledge this and be curious about what they imagine might be giving rise to those feelings?

Be prepared to listen and show you understand, perhaps mirroring back what you’ve heard, “I hear you are feeling really anxious, that’s understandable”.

If your child will not say anything and you are non-the-wiser by the end of the ‘chat’ let them know that you are there for them and will do your best to be supportive; the act of taking time for the chat and being interested in him supports this.

exam room

Exams are an isolating experience, even when you are spending some time with friends who are studying, ultimately only you can devote the hours required to learn and absorb information, then face the stomach churning day and the intense, nerve jangling experience of the exam itself.

It may help to acknowledge together what makes exams so stressful – the combination of factors playing out in the mix. A selection that comes to mind are:

  • So much importance being placed on the outcome of the exams and uncertainty around the future if the predicted grades are not achieved and university/college places are lost.
  • Being with other students who are similarly stressed out, bemoaning, even crying is not helpful and can create a hysterical backdrop,
  • Giving up or missing out on other more tempting activities can be hard to do, even for a comparatively short period.
  • Watch out for displacement activities such as spending hours on social media. Agree a how best to manage this; suggest that phones and devices are put to one side might be helpful, going somewhere else without distractions sometimes is another possibility (a library or quiet café for example).girl studying in cafe
  • We know that lack of power and control over even the smallest situations can be stress provoking for human beings and young people with less experience and stoicism to draw upon can be profoundly affected or overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in the exam process. Therefore, feeling in control over the build up may help.So here are some practical tips to support both of you:
  • Self care should be high on the priority list; good sleep, nourishment (fish or take omega 3’s optimises brain function) cut down on sugar intake to avoid high/lows caused by glycaemic dips, eat whole foods regularly to maintain performance.
  • This is not a time for weight loss or as my daughter’s teacher put it, “No ball dress dieting, and don’t fall in love, break up with your boyfriend or get sun burnt”.
  • Limit alcohol intake or cut out altogether if possible, it will inhibit clarity and encourages low mood afterwards.
  • Have a timetable of the days between now and the exams; plan what work will be done when, but also schedule in down time in which to exercise and relax.
  • Be kind and compassionate to yourself during this time and remember this is an opportunity to show the world what you are capable of.
  • Envisage yourself going into the exam sitting down, picking up your pen and successfully doing what you need to do.
  • Some people find alternative medicine helps with exam nerves and take Arnica or calming herbal remedies.
  • Plan some treats for after the exams and look forward to putting the whole thing behind you, kick back and live a little.
  • Remember that whatever the outcome of exams, they are just that, not life threatening, and there will be a path to follow. Often exams can be re sat if you feel you could have done better. Likewise, it could be time to have a rethink about future dreams and aspirations.

Finally, good luck and please comment if you have anything to add.