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 🙂

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

Picture This

Jim can’t face the flight he’d need to catch in order to visit his beloved sister living in Barcelona.

Rob can’t face filling in the form he needs to get a passport; he might “get it wrong”.

Sophie can’t face going to the Post Office for a Passport Application Form, it might involve conversing with the person behind the counter.

Amy can’t face driving her car; she might forget her way, “or worse, crash the car”.

Joe can’t face leaving the house; he hasn’t felt safe enough to do so for five weeks.

Debbie “can’t face getting out of bed” and has another “duvet day”.

Anxiety is relative; at best it provokes us into taking positive action, at worst it can stop us living. We all suffer from anxiety to a lesser or greater degree. Some people only notice their anxiety occasionally. When it impedes our progress in life it is a problem.

So we know ‘normal’ levels of worries don’t usually get in the way of our daily routine and we’re able to manage unpleasant concerns without any great distress. It is also normal to occasionally experience a number of concerns that we find more worrisome, overwhelming even.

If you find you are suffering from a more disruptive, uncontrollable anxiety level or feel your worries are out of control; limitless, or you are always expecting the worse, you may be experiencing a more pervasive, generalized type of anxiety, known as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

There are usually complex reasons why people suffer from GAD. Symptoms of anxiety vary significantly in severity from person to person. Symptoms will be physical and psychological; although, this is usually true of people who experience more ‘normal’ levels of anxiety also.

rosePhysical symptoms of anxiety are common place in all of us, you may recognise these or know of others you could add to this list:

  • Headaches/tension
  • Sweaty or clammy hands
  • Feeling sick
  • “tight’ chest
  • Panic attack
  • Restlessness

Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and/or taking a mindful approach to your day, can be helpful in reducing anxiety.

Here are some ideas to help take practical steps forwards to manage anxiety levels:

  • Give time to specifically manage any worries for a limited time slot (fifteen minutes may be enough). This can lead to problem resolution and leave you freed up to enjoy your day free from worries knowing you will give time to them appropriately.
  • Get into the habit of noticing anxiety ‘triggers’. Think back to what was going on at the time you became anxious; did someone say something to provoke anxiety in you or perhaps even a smell reminded you of something? For example, one of my daughters hates the odour inside an aeroplane because it reminds her of leaving her friends behind when she moved countries.
  • Many people who are anxious don’t understand why they are; by focusing on the events that trigger us we can explore what it was about that event we found upsetting.
  • Asking yourself “what is the worst that can happen?” and consider if that is really likely to play out … It should help to challenge unrealistic worries and negative thinking.
  • Consider how our life could be affected by our fears being realised and ask yourself does this remind you of anything that happened in the past?
  • What would your parents say about this and would it affect how you see yourself?

I also particularly like one of Paul McKenna’s exercises designed to reduce worry and help you sleep.

Read the exercise through once before trying it:

  1. Remember now one of the things you lay awake and worried about. Bring it to mind, and picture it now. It may be something from the past that still worried you, or something you were worrying about in the future such as not being able to sleep.  You may see it as a few pictures – for example, someone’s face or a room full of people – or you may see it as a sort of mini-video, a film of something happening or people watching you and talking. It doesn’t matter what sort of picture or video it is – just see it in your mind however it looks to you.
  2. Next step out of the image like a special effect in a movie – in other words, imagine floating out of yourself, so that you can see the back of your head as you float further and further away until you can see yourself in the picture.
  3. Now, float the image away from you another 12 feet so you can see the stressful situation as if it is happening to someone else.
  4. Next drain out all the colour from the image until its only in black and white like a very old movie.
  5. Now shrink it down in size until it’s a lot smaller.
  6. Keep watching it and make it as transparent as you can.
  7. Finally, now that the emotional intensity has been reduced, ask yourself if you need to make any decisions about the situation, and if you do, make those decisions using the calmness and sense of distance you have now that you can see the situation like this.

Paul McKenna, I Can Make You Sleep, 2009, Transworld Publishers

I hope you find these tips helpful; in order to bring about change it is important to be open to the possibility of trying something different and giving it a go. Good luck and let me know how you get on.