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 🙂

Advertisements

Twelve Blocks to Listening this Christmas

Are you imaging a happy and stress free holiday season? I’ve been thinking about how to make this happen, and mindful of the need to limit disagreements, I’ve decided to focus here on communication skills, specifically listening skills (very useful if you are an expat and separated geographically).

I’m used to listening intently in the therapy room, but suspect I am not so good at practicing those skills in my non professional life. My husband has been know to say “If you’d be quiet for a moment and listen… “ Oops.

musical christmas

All good conversations being with listening and I guess, any time of year is a fine time to hone our communication skills? The benefit is when we feel listened to we don’t get so cross.

The ancient song Twelve Days of Christmas, is about gifts given on the twelve days running up to Christmas. You’ll remember it goes:

‘On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree.’

There are some unusual sounding presents;

‘Twelve Lords a leaping’

In the spirit of that much loved song I would advocate planning, in good time, presents for those important ‘others’ in our lives. To minimize stress, I try and maintain a sense of humour, it can also be a useful device for deflecting those tense moments that can epitomize family gatherings.

With usually far flung family ensconced for extended periods and children subjected to adults, and vice versa, frankly anything that brings harmony to the scene will be welcome. And let us not forget the hours of extra chores most of us embark on at this time of year.

Sadly those enforced hours together, will for some couples, be the end of the line. I’m thinking of the spike in divorce rates immediately after the holidays; the sombre fact is there are more divorces in the New Year than any other time.

However, before I get too carried away and become curmudgeonly, let me state that I do want to be happy and joyful, as befits the season, so to minimise discord would be helpful.

I have compiled Twelve Listening Blocks for this festive season, the hope being that respectful, clear communication will improve relationships, keeping negativity in check.

Have a look through the list and consider what rings true for you. This is not an opportunity to berate yourself, we are all guilty of at least some of these behaviours, its about raising awareness and choosing to stop, if you feel inclined.

TWELVE LISTENING BLOCKS

  1. You are second guessing what the person is thinking instead of listening fully.
  2. Notice the pull to compare stories, “oh yes that happened to me too”. I’m guilty of this one. At least make sure let the other person finish telling their story first before you tell yours!
  3. Finding yourself practicing in your mind what you are going to say next instead of listening.
  4. Allowing yourself to be triggered and letting your thoughts drift off from the conversation.
  5. Personalising everything the other person says, again, over identifying with your own experience.
  6. Selective hearing, filtering – only listening to what grabs you.
  7. Discriminating, making judgements about the other person without hearing them out.
  8. Problem Solving; telling them what they “should” do. I recommend limited use of the word should. If they ask for advice, make sure they’ve finished speaking first and rather than telling them what they should do, you might want to ‘own’ your words saying “I would … “ that way you won’t get the blame if the advice doesn’t turn out well.
  9. Discounting the other person. For example, by not accepting a compliment when it is offered.
  10. Hanging on to the conviction that you are in the right. Try to be open to the other’s point of view, listening to their perspective.
  11. Trying to outdo the other person by putting them down. Even witty put downs are not funny for the person who is the butt of the joke and can create emotional distance. Placating and patronizing are also subtle techniques we may employ as put downs.
  12. Changing the subject inappropriately, just because you suddenly feel like it. There are times however, when changing the subject can be a way of moving on. For example, when an argument is going around in circles, the option to change the subject can be openly acknowledged “Shall we leave it there?”.

Whatever you are doing in the month of December I hope it is a happy one for you. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog Laura J Stephens in 2014. On Twitter? Join me @LauraJStephens

FURTHER READING

Messages: The communications Skills Book by Matthew McKay, 2009

Mindfulness: Happiness is an inside job

You may have heard the buzz around the practice of ‘mindfulness’? Its use has becomes far reaching, with schools and even governments employing its use. Its origins lie in centuries-old Buddhist meditation practices and breathing exercises.

I was sitting over a latte trying to explain what mindfulness is to a friend and have to say I found it quite difficult to describe, I thought it would help to write about it, so here goes …

Put simply, mindfulness requires us to focus on ourselves, tuning into the here and now; stilling the mind and concentrating on the present reality.

I’ve discovered it is not something just for other people; we can all use it to help us concentrate better and reduce our stress. Life can be so challenging and complex and we all experience suffering in different ways; physically, emotionally or spiritually. This can lead to a sense of disconnecting from ourselves. Mindfulness can help us to tune in and reconnect with our inner space; that might be our own subconscious or simply the ongoing internal dialogue we have.water lily

INVITATION TO PAY ATTENTION IN THE PRESENT MOMENT

I’d like to invite you to stop what you are doing and give what is written here your full attention. For example, you could do this in a multi tasking, half hearted kind of way; whilst checking your phone, eating a sandwich or allowing your mind to wander off, OR you could read this blog mindfully.

If you’d like to try, reading with your full attention might involve:

  •          Pausing from anything else you are doing
  •          Becoming aware of the feeling to be ‘pulled’ to carry on with other activities … notice other thoughts and feelings creeping in and perhaps the need to rush.
  •          There may be something distracting you; a noisy environment perhaps? Allow yourself to observe how your senses are being stimulated and those thoughts and feelings as they crowd in. Try to let them go, think of them as just thoughts and sensations.

‘Mindfulness’ means ‘to remember’ or ‘to recollect’ the present moment. It can be surprisingly difficult to achieve staying in the moment for any length of time, and yet the benefits are well documented.

There is a plethora of information available on how to practice mindfulness; possibly too much to capture and keep your attention in one blog post! So I have compiled some links and book resources to help you decide an appropriate place for you to dive in, should you wish to.

PEACE, SILENCE & SOLITUDE

You might like to try a breathing exercise to help step out of the auto pilot state and reconnect with the present moment. You will need at least ten minutes but can take up to an hour if you wish:

Sit quietly, close your eyes and ‘go inside’. Allow yourself to become more aware of distractions. It is completely natural for your mind to wander, just notice this happening and take your attention back to your breathing.

Focus on the cool air coming in to your nose. You can think of your breathing as a mantra, counting up to six as your breathe in, and eleven as your breathe out (I found this quite difficult at first but learned to do it easily in a few days.)

Remember to be gentle and compassionate with yourself; being mindful takes practice and resistance is normal – humans are designed to be constantly thinking!

After a little while of focusing on your breathing you could ask yourself these questions:

  •          What am I thinking?
  •          What am I feeling?
  •          What is happening to my body?
  •          What inner sensations am I aware of?

Try to notice, acknowledge and stay with each answer.

Accept all your experiences, even the unwanted ones. You can have strong feelings but you don’t have to react.

Now gently re focus on your breathing, it is a constant in your life, always there for you, follow the breath all the way in and all the way out.  Do this for a few minutes; take as long as you can.

Notice when your attention wanders and again gently bring it back to your breathing.

Feel your awareness encompass your whole body; expand your awareness so your body feels as though it is breathing.

Allow any sense of discomfort, resistance or tension. Sense the space around you, hold that sense and imagine yourself being soft and opening up (your might find it helps to visualise your favourite flower opening up and blooming).

Did you know …

One of the best ways of developing

mindfulness is to start a regular

meditation practice.

Daniel Siegel

pebblesBy allowing ourselves to be still, anchored to our breathing, we learn to tune into our thoughts and feelings. In this way mindfulness can helps us to deal with negative emotions such as anger, fear & greed. It can therefore impact positively on our relationship with our inner self and others.

Mindfulness can be simply maintaining awareness in the moment, whether you are reading a blog or eating a sandwich (and if you are take notice of the taste, texture, smell and how your sandwich looks!).

I have found mindfulness most useful as a becalming tool, particularly when I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed, it provides a welcome opportunity to stop, rushing, doing, planning etc and generally going too fast. In the stillness I am free to tune in to what is really important and make more considered decisions and that must be a good thing.

RESOURCES

Guardian Articles:

Should we be mindful of mindfulness?

Julie Myerson: how mindfulness based cognitive therapy changed my life

Coping with stress: can mindfulness help?

Books

Loving What Is, by Byron Katie, 2002

For trauma: In an Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine, 2010

Videos

Thich Nhat Hanh – Ten Mindful Movements

Guided meditation: Guided Meditiation with Dan Siegel (Wheel of Awareness)

Quotation Reference

“Happiness is an inside job” ~ William Arthur Ward