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 🙂

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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Perfect Day

Now that January is safely out of the way, taking with it those dark days and doomed resolutions, I’m in a safe space to talk about being happy.

My inspiration? I recently went on a Flourishing and Thriving course facilitated by leadership coach, Kim Gregory. It sounded refreshingly upbeat compared to some courses I attend as a therapist; Death and the Dying is booked for later in the year …

My Saturday was spent with a relaxed circle of delegates learning about positive psychology techniques, some of them were new to me, some not. I have selected a few to share here with you.

I have mentioned before, in my memoir and blog,, the benefits of expressing gratitude. Yes, even to yourself, being thankful it seems makes you a happier person. For example, scientific research has proved we can help control our emotional reactions in difficult situations with the power of positive thoughts. Next time you are going to the dentist or whatever makes you feel bad, make a conscious decision to think about something that makes you happy. See for yourself if the normally intolerable, really does becomes bearable.

Need ideas? No need to overthink it. On the course, my happy thoughts were scribbled down:

I imagined choosing a nutty chocolate from a large selection (I can smell the cocoa bean aroma), slipping between freshly laundered sheets (I can feel the cool cotton on my skin and notice the lavender scent), imagine the smiling face of someone I love, the suspense of opening a beautifully wrapped gift, or giving a gift, even hearing I’ve passed an exam came to mind.

You get the idea … So next time you are feeling challenged or anxious just tune into your own happy thoughts and see what happens.

The gratitude exercise involves choosing a journal you like, or a diary would work just as well (avoid writing in a tablet before bedtime as it stimulates the brain). Before going to sleep, each night cast your mind back and recall three things that went well that day.

I keep my journal in the bedside draw, even if I’ve had a horror of a day, I can usually think of a few things that went well, or at the very least did not go wrong! Again, the science proves if you do this for three weeks and jot your findings down, you will be a happier person. That is how long it takes to grow new neural pathways in your brain. Amazing isn’t it?

If you are prone to depression or low days, and frankly everyone has some of those, this is welcome news and could help transform your life, optimising your mood and vitality. What is more, you can do it without spending any money; it just takes a little self discipline to get started.

You can also use your own powerful imagination to create new positive thoughts and images, then by simply learning to say “stop” to negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones, you will retrain your thinking processes and experience positive feelings as a result of those happy thoughts.

Apparently the “mother of all gratitude experiences” is to write a gratitude letter to someone you really respect and explain all the things you love and appreciate about them. Ideally you should take it to them and ask to read it aloud while they listen. Being British, and naturally inclined to reserve, this sounded somewhat toe curling, so this is work in progress for me; I’ve written the letter so will let you know how it goes.

The exercise I found to be most useful is the Perfect Day exercise. Cue Lou Reed’s seductive piano intro to his Perfect Day. This song immediately puts me in a good mood. Skip the lyrics if its not your thing:

Just a perfect day

Feed animals in the zoo

Then later

A movie, too, and then home

Oh, it’s such a perfect day

I’m glad I spent it with you

Oh, such a perfect day

You just keep me hanging on

You just keep me hanging on

etc …

What would your Perfect Day involve? What you would be doing and would you chose someone to do it with? If you are an expat you might recall happy times in another country.

My list included; a scenic walk with a friend or loved one, laying on a sun lounger in the garden while reading or listening to music, writing, having a massage, shopping without the pressure to find anything in particular, playing tennis and so on.Poolside radio

Sharing my list here makes me realise how ordinary it is, perhaps I should have mentioned skydiving or something more unusual. And yet these are simply the everyday activities that nourish me. And when I’m refuelled I’m more relaxed and happy.

My list inspired by my own awareness coming to the fore, I’ve managed to find time in the weeks since the course for these activities. If you, like me, are a big doer then you may find that writing your own wish list for a Perfect Day and giving yourself permission to go for it, will indeed help you to thrive and flourish. I’m sure you deserve it.

You can follow Kim Gregory on Twitter @StrengthsAtWork or visit her blog at:  

www.strengthsconsultancy.com/blog