Mindfulness, Psychology

Panic To Public Speaking: Breaking The Silence By Finding My Voice

Breaking the silence
Breaking the Silence Panel (left to right): Meryl, me, Farina, Sanya, Isabelle

My sternum reverberates from train-track palpitations. I desperately search an escape route. I avoid eyes. Can they hear the thud? Can they see? This can’t be happening. Not now. I’m not ready. Soon it’s my turn to talk and I’m paralysed: I’ll choke; I’ll be exposed. This is too much to hide.

It’s 2012, around 3pm, an autumnal October afternoon in Sheffield. Second year of university has begun, and I’m in a workshop for radio production. Our group of around 15 are “going around in a circle” sharing ideas for our upcoming project. Uh. How I hate going around in a circle. The anticipation, the rising anxiety. The palpitations and fear are familiar. But this time, something is different.

One spot away from sharing, I stand up. I mumble an excuse and walk out. This is the first time I’ve fled, flight-mode too strong to ignore. I walk out of the newsroom and enter the toilet, hoping my escape wasn’t obvious. I stare into the mirror, my post-panic attack reflection tinged beige by off-yellow fluorescent lights. Fucking beige. Fitting.

I’m hiding. I’m actually hiding. Has it really come to this? Now comes the shame. Now comes the hopelessness.

My sternum reverberates from train-track palpitations. It’s 2018, precisely 6:30pm on a scorching September evening in Berlin. I’m at coworking venue St. Oberholz, minutes away from introducing myself as a member of an expert panel. The anticipation, the rising anxiety. The palpitations and fear are familiar. But this time, something is different…

I’m about to find my voice.

These resources and techniques helped me overcome public speaking anxiety

The short answer to what has changed in those six years would be: a lot. Even with an expanded self-awareness, public speaking is a terrifying prospect — some say it’s feared more than death. Fortunately, my recent experience allowed me to explore, from the inside out, the resources and techniques most useful in managing anxiety, helping me move beyond fear to deliver a talk I never thought possible. These tools, I’m sure, can be helpful for anyone facing a crowd.

Let’s jump back in time, again.

Resource #1: Grounding in the present when pulled into the future

It’s mid-August. I’m in Holy Coffee, Berlin. I’m calm. For a brief respite from work, I check my phone. A missed call and message from my friend, and fellow coach, Sanya. She’s been invited to talk on a panel organised by Vanessa, the founder of Word of Mouth. The panel  Breaking the Silence — is the first in a Deep Talk series. It involves an open discussion on mental health. Vanessa is extending the invite to me.

deep talk
Can you spot my name?

Immediately when I see the message I’m transported to what I’ll call the anxious place. Facing me, a sea of people, baffled looks etched on faces as I mumble inaudibly, voice cracking, words an anxious jumble. My body responds in the here and now. I’m living it. I’m sat in the same spot, but my stomach flutters as my brain reminds me of the times I’ve choked.

From this moment I begin practising the first resource. I bring myself back to the present by noticing the thoughts, images and sensations without judgement, indulgence or resistance. This helps me avoid being caught up in storylines of how I’m going to mess it all up, of how I won’t be able to cope. I breathe. I call Sanya. After words of reassurance and support, I begin to relax.

Resource #2: Embracing impermanence

“Wisdom is the clear seeing of the impermanent, conditioned nature of all phenomena, knowing that whatever arises has the nature to cease.When we see this impermanence deeply, we no longer cling; and when we no longer cling, we come to the end of suffering.” — Joseph GoldsteinInsight Meditation: A Psychology of Freedom

Unlike normal nerves, public speaking anxiety doesn’t begin an hour before the presentation. Or a day. Or a week. It can begin as soon as the event becomes a fixed point in the mental calendar. I emphasise fixed point because that’s what it becomes; though life flows freely and each moment is transient, when an anxiety-inducing event enters the calendar of the mind’s eye, that point becomes rigid and immoveable.

In the past, I’ve had moments where I’ve been paralysed by visualisations of events months away. A glancing thought would instantaneously transport me to the anxious place. The build-up to this panel was a promising sign. I was transported occasionally, but I noticed a number of visualisations had positive associations. Excitement was outweighing fear.

When those projections were anxiety-ridden, I called upon one of the three marks of existence in Buddhist philosophy — impermanence (anicca). I reminded myself the hour I’d be on stage was as transient and flowing as any hour I’ve ever experienced. Like all hours, this too shall pass.

That being said, the event did play tricks on my mental timeline. It was a hard for me to envision beyond the event — a common theme I’ve detected when the anxious mind fears a specific event. As well as recalling Resource #1 and grounding myself in the present, I accepted this fixed point was in my mental calendar. I didn’t try to fight it.

Resource #3: It’s not now… even now

Another common trait I’ve detected in run-up to aforementioned fixed point is obsessing over clock-time. This is a distinct focus on the passage of time, measured by calendars and clocks, not a mental projection of the future. However, it does appear to share a symbiotic relationship with future projection.

For example, I noticed my mind engaging in a countdown, seemingly subconsciously. Two weeks to go! 10 days to go! AHH — tomorrow! This is amplified on the day of the presentation, as days become hours. The closer the event approaches in clock-time, the stronger the pull of the future visualisations.

To accompany this, I notice myself occasionally resisting time. Resistance increases the closer the event gets. Of course, with resistance comes inner-tension, manifesting as anxiety, stress, despair. Considering the passage of time is a fundamental law of nature, resistance is like jumping from the top of building and trying to resist gravity. It’s futile. And probably dangerous.

The third resource cultivates acceptance of the moment and the inevitable passing of clock-time. I call it, it’s not now… even now. This is a reminder that even when the event is really close, it’s still not now… even now. It’s easier to ground ourselves in the present when we know we still have a few days to go. The purpose of this resource is to maintain mindful relaxation as the event gets closer.

It’s not now… even now is a useful mindful reminder hours, or even minutes, away from the event.

Resource #4: Let the adrenaline elevate you

This breaks a habit I’d long formed, based on a mistaken belief there is a “perfect” way to prepare. Go to bed by 10:27pm the night before, eat 75g of oats with blueberries and chia seeds in the morning, throw salt over shoulder, etc. This was linked another belief that the only way to perform well was to be on my A-game. In the zone. Amped up. The delusion is believing there’s a magic ingredient that would make everything okay. It’s superstition.

Breaking silence 2
Finding my voice on the panel.

Believing in a perfect way to prepare causes unnecessary suffering because anything outside of the concept of perfection would cause stress. Plus, it’s not particularly empowering to believe the only way of coping is following a strict pattern in the build-up. Preparation morphs into an attempt to control the uncontrollable. So this time, I rejected it.

Instead I opted for a different technique. I put every ounce of focus into being present, courtesy of Resource #3. This was all the preparation I needed. I didn’t need to find my A-game — the event would do that for me. Knowing my adrenaline would kick in as soon as I was in position, I focused on being as relaxed as possible.

After years of believing I needed to get in the zone for events such as this, this approach felt counter-intuitive. But once I arrived at the venue, I knew it was a good call. The nervous-excitement of meeting the other panelists and seeing people fill the room one-by-one, naturally elevated me. Because I was coming from a relaxed state, this elevation wasn’t overwhelming.

No blaring Eye of the Tiger or running up the steps of Rathaus Neukölln whilst punching the air from now on.

Resource #5: Loving-Kindness meditation towards the audience

On the day of the event, I turned to meditation for sanctuary. Fortunately those of us involved met at the venue the evening before, so I could visualise the space. I practised a meditation tailored for public speaking, using the metta bhavana (loving kindness meditation) as a foundation.

The aim was twofold; I wanted to extend feelings of compassion and love to the audience and to cultivate self-compassion. I wanted to erode the barrier between me and the audience. A huge factor in public speaking anxiety is being the centre of attention, all eyes on you, rabbit in the headlights.

Instead of sponging up the attention and feeling overwhelmed, this meditation visualised cultivating loving kindness by sending energy into the crowd. This is a powerful tool because it eradicates one of the biggest barriers I’ve faced in connecting with people in the audience…

Resource #6: Undoing the cognitive distortion of labelling

Labelling is a common cognitive distortion. You could call it overgeneralising. I call it — Me Versus Them. Who’s them? Everyone other than me. Though it happens to all of us from time to time, I learned a harsh lesson in this distortion during a paranoid spell, where Me Versus Them became normality. This mindset is threatening and incredibly isolating.

It blinds you from reality, obscuring the texture in social situations that provide counter-evidence Me Versus Them is a mindset. I experienced this form of cognitive labelling on buses, in clubs, in lectures, in the gym. It was particularly palpable when preparing to give a presentation, such as the walk-out moment mentioned earlier.

Fortunately this mindset is rare now. But I was conscious it could return to some degree while sat on stage, microphone in hand, facing a group of people. Counteracting this possibility, I used the public speaking meditation to humanise each and every member of the audience. To connect, human to human. To cultivate the experience of seeing texture, and transforming them into us.

It worked.

Resource #7: Vulnerability, surrender, finding flow

Back to the final countdown, September 2018, 6:30pm. I’m fortunate to be joined by Sanya, Isabelle, Meryl and Farina, with Vanessa in the wings. The sense of camaraderie and mutual support helps calm the nerves. However, familiar feelings kick in as the panel is being introduced. Oh, shit. This is the moment I’d anticipated, and I knew there was one thing left to do — surrender. I couldn’t control the situation. I had to stop resisting. I had to let go. I had to be vulnerable.

As it’s my turn to talk, I do the one thing I’ve tried so hard to avoid in the past. Each member is asked to introduce ourselves and share how we are feeling, encouraged to answer honestly. Those familiar palpitations thud in my ears. But this is a time for openness, a space to break the silence, a challenge to remove facades. I look up. I see the sea of faces. I’m handed the microphone.

“I’m Ricky.
I’m a Life, Spirituality, and Wellness Coach.
I’m an expert on depression and anxiety via experience. And…
…I feel nervous.”

Initial waves of fear subside. Palpitations cease. Then, something incredible happens. Rather than rushing to get it over and done with, I feel present. I feel a connection with members of the audience, like having 50 one-on-one conversations at once. I see nods of encouragement and attentive expressions. I find flow.

Years ago, I never thought this would be possible. I never thought I’d be able to talk this way in front of a crowd. But thinking is thinking. I’m moving beyond thought, moving beyond fear.

Finally, I’ve found my voice.


 

MindThatEgo Podcast, Psychology

🎧 MTE Podcast #3: Banishing Winter Blues With Dr. Kelly Rohan

Listen below:

Or listen on these platforms:

The nights are drawing in. Autumn is upon us. For many, the change of season comes and gos with relative ease. But for some, winter is a time of low mood, low energy, junk food, hibernation, or even clinical depression.

For the MindThatEgo Podcast #3, I speak with psychologist and leading expert on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Dr. Kelly Rohan. Kelly has undertaken extensive research around SAD as the Director of Clinical Training at the University of Vermont. Though light therapy is the frequent go-to for combating seasonal depressive symptoms, Kelly’s work has uncovered the important role thinking processes play in regulating seasonal mood.

In fact, the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is more effective than light therapy in preventing relapse. No longer do any of us have to feel helpless victims to our biology and body-clock; by working on our thoughts and creating healthy behaviour patterns, it’s possible to banish winter blues.

Talking points include:

  • The difference between normal fluctuation in mood, Winter Blues and full-blow SAD.
  • What Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is and how it combats SAD.
  • The effectiveness of CBT versus Light Therapy.
  • Noting common cognitive distortions contributing to low mood.
  • Ways to schedule activities to override the habit of hibernation.
  • How cultural messages can give us a bad impression of winter.
  • Mindful exercises to override symptoms.
  • Some example CBT restructuring… with real life examples from yours truly ;)!
  • Practical tools you can start using today to make winter fun and enjoyable.
Psychology, Spirituality

World Suicide Prevention Day: The Times I’ve Wanted To End My Life

suicidal thoughts.
World Suicide Prevention Day.

In this article I’ll share my personal (and detailed) experience with suicidal thoughts, which could be triggering. If you are currently experiencing suicidal thoughts or extremely low mood please visit Samaritans.org or call +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90. Those in Berlin can contact: International Helpline Berlin: 030-44 01 06 07.

I first contemplated taking my life when I was 18. I felt the world would be better off without me. This wasn’t self-pity or melodrama — I genuinely felt the world would improve with a Ricky-shaped hole in it. I didn’t plan on telling anyone my intention. That’d put a spanner in the works. It’s not easy planning suicide if people know about it. Especially if those people love you.

I was exhausted by the daily emotional pain. I was overwhelmed and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t really know what was going on or why I felt the way I did. I had no idea what steps to put in place to manage the feelings and thoughts I had. There was no escape.

Countless quiet Sunday mornings I’d lie in bed, paralysed by a sense of foreboding, thoughts of death ringing in my ears. Suicide, a symptom of depression, disguised itself as a rational form of treatment.

A Lunchtime SOS

One day I cried in front of my mum. I remember that day because it was the day after my mum rescued me on my lunch break, after I made an SOS phone call. I was working in a law firm and I’d just been promoted, somehow functioning despite regular panic attacks and a death wish. My first task in the new role wasn’t difficult. I had to phone a solicitors’ office and ask for their email address. Well, that’s a piece of piss, I thought.

So why couldn’t I do it? 9:10am, 10 minutes into the day. I’m a sitting duck at my desk, just about keeping my head above wave after wave of despair. I’m shaking. I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I wait. I pretend to look busy, hoping no one will detect how I’m feeling. I make it until 12pm. “Just gonna pop out for lunch,” I say as nonchalantly as possible, tripping over the chair as I stand. I fling my bag over my shoulder, pleading for no one to ask: “Ricky, why are you taking your bag with you to lunch?”

Of course, no one asked such a innocuous question. But to the depressed and anxious mind, this question was a threat. It was a threat because my bag symbolised freedom. It symbolised my intent to walk out of the door and to never come back. If anyone asked, well… I’d find an excuse. Knowing me, I’d fail to find one. I’d probably cry and in front of the whole office. Game over. I’d be revealed for the pathetic, depressed weakling I was. Man up, or end it all, my thoughts told me.

“I Can’t Do It”

I walked out that lunchtime and phoned my mum instead. “I can’t do it, can you pick me up?” No matter how old you get, there’s nothing more comforting than your mum coming to pick you up. She did, of course, her maternal intuition knowing not to ask too many questions in response to my cryptic-yet-obvious plea for help. She knew she needed to be there and that’s all for now, and she was.

The confession was freeing. A weight lifted. Truth be told this moment was coming for a long time; the depression was consuming me, the anxiety burning from the inside. Until that point, I’d only confided in my girlfriend of the time. Neither of us knew how to handle it. The time had come to share the burden; through the tears the next morning I confessed. “I just feel so sad, and I don’t know why.”

It’d be some years before I explained to my family that “so sad” meant suicidal. Although the stigma is reducing, there’s a visceral response to talk of suicide. It’s almost too much to handle, yet one of the most effective ways of fighting the cause is by being open.

Before writing this article, I was speaking to my mate Ben. I’m vocal about my mental health experiences, yet in seven years of friendship, I realised I’d not once spoken fully about my experience with suicidal thoughts.

Mental illness and stigma kills people, far too many people, and the easier we can openly discuss, the better. So here goes.

The Times I’ve Wanted To End My Life

I’ve had three or four suicidal spells. Lunchtime walk-out was one moment in a year-long period where killing myself felt a viable option. I remember searching on Google for techniques. I considered crashing my car on the motorway and making it look like an accident. One of my more flamboyant plans was to jump off the Bristol Suspension Bridge. Then I discovered they had suicide barriers. Balls.

I had a special spot in a beautiful park some miles from my house I’d morbidly nominated as “the spot.” One day soon, I told myself, I’ll go there and I’ll overdose on pills, washed down with vodka to make sure. Occasionally I’d drive to the spot, stop the car, sit. Wait. Contemplate whether to get out the car, to walk to “the spot.” I never got out of the car. I sat until the sun set, the darkness embracing me, a familiar embrace.

Aside from fantasising and plotting, I’ve been dangerously close to taking action a few times. Stumbling back from town, dizzy from five-too-many Jägerbombs, far too much smooth R’n’B and Joop Jump aftershave, I argued with my girlfriend over the phone. It’s five in the morning and I’m five minutes from home.

Fuelled by the falling out, something kicks in and I turn around, back from where I’ve came, towards the canal. I walk onto the bridge, a bridge I cross on my daily commute. I climb over the barrier. I sit and stare at the mud-brown water below, contemplating the jump. Not today, I decide in the end, and go home.

Stoppage Amongst The Cutlery

I had another severe bout of depression at university, triggered viciously by the sudden death of a friend in a motorcycle accident. I fell apart. I experienced extreme paranoia, panic, suicidal thoughts, I heard voices. The noise was deafening. Staying alive was a challenge; sitting on a bus was the mental equivalent of holding my hand over a burning flame. Lecture halls were sensory torture. Social interactions were exercises in how long I could act hinged when wildly unhinged under the surface. It’s surprising how far smiling and cracking jokes can get you.

Drinking didn’t help, neither did drugs, I did both. In a similar incident to years prior, triggered by a drunken argument with my then-girlfriend, I storm back from town, walk into my kitchen, find the sharpest knife and hold it to my wrist. I hold long enough for the cold blade to warm to my body temperature. The next day I attend a friend’s birthday party. I joke as I retell the story of storming home. I censor my stoppage amongst the cutlery.

Depression Is A Great Teacher

All things considered, it might sound weird to say I wouldn’t change a thing. Depression has been my greatest teacher. Depression taught me courage. It made me realise the power we each have to shape our perception of the world. Depression forced me into a journey of understanding the mind, to glimpse behind the curtain. Knowing what true rock bottom feels like opened me up to a new appreciation of normal.

It’s not easy to recollect and articulate these experiences. But I do so with a purpose. I want to send a message of hope to anyone feeling the way I did. I’m here now, behind these words. I survived, somehow, and I’m happy to say in the years passing, I’ve experienced stillness, tranquility, peace, contentment, fulfilment, joy. Not all the time, of course, but it’s a miracle I feel the way I do now. I experience low mood at a tiny fraction of what once was.

Contemplating suicide isn’t contemplating physical death. It’s contemplating an escape from extreme suffering. Within the midst of immense mental pain lies an opportunity for rebirth. An opportunity for the self-image to crumble, the ego to disintegrate. It’s an opportunity to rebuild. In A Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck goes so far to argue mental illness is an act of grace, a “powerful force originating outside of consciousness which nurtures our spiritual growth.”

Indeed, depression, anxiety, psychosis and a host of mental illnesses are so much more than emotional responses to events. They’re messages from the soul.

Shameful To Shamanic

Suicidal thoughts don’t have to be acted upon. Instead, if we transform our approach to mental illness and reduce stigma, we find Peck’s words ring true. We find emotions are a form of inner intelligence telling us something isn’t right, the beginning of a significant shift in consciousness. In many indigenous tribes, those who suffer become healers and shamans. Their mental illness is viewed as a gift.

If you’re reading this now, and you’ve experienced suicidal thoughts, this post is for you. Seeing the experience as a gift may feel almost insulting. But I want you to remember hopelessness is not truth, it’s a symptom. I want you to make a promise to yourself to keep going. I want you to have the courage to continue to fight. I want you to surprise yourself by living and experiencing things you never felt possible. I want you to look back in 10 years time, teary-eyed and stunned by the beauty you’ve seen, beauty you never thought possible. All of this beauty lies ahead, hidden from view.

I don’t know what stopped me from harming myself, but something did. If you’ve had suicidal thoughts and you’re reading this now, it’s what stopped you. Never underestimate the power in staying alive. And never underestimate the power that has kept you alive. Let this be an indication of your strength, a reminder you can rebuild, transform, grow, experience, love, laugh, create, take control.

For now, just keep going.


Need to talk? Hey, I’m Ricky, creator of MindThatEgo. If this article has affected you, please feel open to comment below, or message me directly at [email protected]. Thank you so much for reading.

Psychology, Spirituality

I’ve Been Feeling Overwhelmed With Life — And That’s Fine

feeling overwhelmed
Feeling overwhelmed with life? Relinquishing resistance is a good place to start.

Navigating the flow of life can be compared to captaining a ship. Sometimes the ocean is calm and navigation doesn’t require much effort. Sometimes the ocean is vicious and navigation is difficult. Sometimes we may navigate choppy water with effortless skill, anchored by inner stillness. Sometimes we may struggle to navigate the calmest waters, feeling overwhelmed as much by storms within as waves without.

Yesterday, I couldn’t steer; I let go of the ship’s wheel, knees shaking from seasickness. I stumbled to the edge and gazed into the distance, fear rising as abruptly as the crashing of the wildest shore. What I had previously navigated suddenly overwhelmed me. I felt paralysed. Mindfulness was resigned to memory as I became preoccupied by thoughts, lost in visions of the future.

I’ve been here before. I’ve capsized, gone overboard, fought to keep my head above water. However, a selection of tools, resources and robust self-care has helped me to recover quickly. Writing hasn’t flowed recently, but what better time to approach a subject I’m sure we can all relate to to some degree?

Why not write about my experience of feeling overwhelmed, from the inside out? 

Here are observations of the subtleties of mind as I was momentarily stopped in my tracks. Step by step, this is an uncensored, behind-the-scenes examination of feeling overwhelmed with life. I’m hoping this article will contain relatable experiences, helping you find an approach to manage a similar situation.

Feeling Overwhelmed With Life Started With An Energy Dip

“Tonight I’m gonna rest my chemistry.” — Interpol, Rest My Chemistry.

The first vaguely noticeable red flag was a dip in energy. Not the usual daily fluctuation, but something deeper, beyond the restoration of sleep. An essential Life Force, described as ch’i in Chinese culture, Prana in Hindu philosophy, and many other names across many centuries and cultures. I became aware of such an energy deficiency days before overwhelm hit. And… I ignored it! Even though I strive to maintain balance and understand the importance of rest, I overextended myself energetically. I didn’t take note. I didn’t switch off.

Switching off for me slowing down, taking it easy for a while. It doesn’t include relaxation techniques or meditating or socialising (important for introverts) or reading, but instead doing nothing. The type of self-indulgent, cosy nothing most of us engage in during a harmless winter cold.

Having periods where we rest and recharge is vital. But as covered in an article on time valuation, doing nothing is low value because it isn’t productive. As a result of these internalised beliefs, the dip in energy was accompanied by an inner resistance, operating outside of my awareness. I attempted to carry on as usual, rather than respect my body’s message to slow down; despite a clear reminder on my wrist…

slow down
An overlooked reminder to slow down.

Burnout Via Resistance

Many of us face chronic burnout due to similar resistance, ignoring the warning signs of stress. We don’t pay attention to our natural, limited energy resources, instead attempting to soldier on with an IV drip of caffeine and false-promises of slowing down at some fixed point in the future. Resistance manifests differently for everyone, but for me, it arrived in the form of emotional frustration, combined with a sense of inconvenience:

“Uhh, not now, low energy! I have things to do. Why am I tired? I shouldn’t be. This isn’t fair. How do I return to how I felt days ago?”

This string of inner-dialogue is insightful. The first section — “not now!” — is me resisting. I’m attempting to push away unwanted sensations. Essentially, I’m in denial. I then question the why of the situation, another form of resistance. Then, I indulge in unnecessary suffering and pity, spinning the narrative things “shouldn’t be”  this way, that it’s “unfair”. The last section — “how can I get back to how I was” — has a different structure. This is a form of resistance manifesting as attachment to the past.

Mindfulness is attempting to be in the moment to the best of our ability. Yet here I was, wistfully indulging in what once was, craving the return of energy and creative flow. The paradox is, attachment to a previous state is one of the biggest barriers between feeling alive in the present and, ironically, experiencing the desired state again. You can’t be fully in the moment when your mind is stuck in memories of past, or imagined futures. During this stage, I was floating between two timelines while unwittingly neglecting The Now.

The Illusion Of A Fearful Future

The energy dip began late last week, Thursday or Friday. I can’t quite remember. But after a few day’s resistance, I’d become intoxicated by the mind. Self-awareness is the ability to step back from thoughts and feelings. Yet indulging in memories of the past led to identifying strongly with thought. The stronger we identify, the harder it is to step back. Indulging in memory is a deceitful form of identification and often hard to catch. Ultimately, it’s a powerful pull from The Now, disguised as a way to diagnose present-moment pain by searching for answers in the past.

I didn’t chastise myself, as that defeats the purpose of balance and self-compassion. But it’s important to note at this point, I was struggling to step back from thinking because my reserves were low. My ch’i needed to recuperate, and I wasn’t giving it necessary space. Tiredness, hunger, illness — these challenges make mental resilience harder to harvest. I felt like I was trapped in the middle of a swarm of bees, attempting to swat one away at a time. Each thought felt tangible, real. As someone prone to depression, this is the moment a dear old friend, hopelessness, turns up for a reunion.

That’s because, as well as becoming attached to the past, I projected my current state into the future. That’s when overwhelm really kicked in. Scenario after scenario popped into my mind as I visualised myself unable to cope, catastrophising my imagined future. I can’t cope was swiftly followed by hopelessness. This worst-case-scenario projection is a breeding ground for anxiety and stress.

It can be hard to remember these are only thoughts, and we all have the resourcefulness in any given moment to step back, witness, and become The ObserverFortunately, I soon became aware of my inner resistance and my mind’s time-travelling tendency. This is when change began.

Opening Up To The Richness Of Melancholy

“I’m going to go home, put my jogging bottoms on, and be nice to myself.” — Me. Yesterday.

I was sitting in one of my favourite cafes having finished one task for the day, with many left, struggling to ignore my lagging Life Force. Suddenly, awareness illuminated my mind. A sense of comfort glided into my consciousness like a warm hug, acknowledging my need to slow down with the loving assuredness of a caring parent. Immediately I abandoned resistance and accepted my energetic nature and sense of overwhelm.

Free from the tension of resistance, I opened up to how I was feeling in full detail. I became The Observer of thoughts, emotions and visualisations, rather than feeling infused with them.

A rich spectrum of emotion came to the forefront of my awareness, and I realised I’d been resisting a delicate sadness, a midnight-green melancholy. Selectively numbing our inner experience isn’t possible, instead we numb everything. My resistance had closed my heart to a degree; now, I cracked it open and vulnerability flourished. The humidity of numbness was pierced by rainfall of sensitivity, as the enriching aroma of petrichor enlivened my emotional landscape.

Awareness opens us to the exquisite shades of inner experience. Now the air was clear, I could see the factors contributing to my state of mind.

I noticed two voices: The Victim and The Saboteur. I needed to manage these voice to avoid indulgence and the risk of becoming stuck, which could lead to a depressive episode. I’ve discovered ways of facilitating the needs of each. Your approach might be different. Experiment, be creative, see what works for you, but keep the balance of the Middle Way in mind. Here’s my approach.

Giving The Victim The Spotlight

The Victim is the voice within that tells me life’s unfair, that things shouldn’t be this way, that I’m a victim of circumstance and someone else or something else is to blame. It’s an alluring voice, a voice resonating with me for many years. It’s a common voice, one which only serves to strip us of power and make us feel helpless. Thanks to the catalyst of awareness, I moved into The Observer role and created space from thought, allowing me to tune into this familiar thinking pattern. This allowed me to empower myself, relinquish blame and remember:

I am the only person responsible for resolving this mood.

Succumbing to The Victim mindset only makes things worse. Realising responsibility is Stage One in dealing with The Victim, but there’s another practice I find particularly effective. The Victim wants attention, it wants to be heard. So I give it the spotlight for a select period of time. I step into the role like an actor stepping on stage and consciously indulge in a self-centered, pitying rant. I feel the frustration and unfairness with the vigour of a bawling child:

“Life is so hard! It’s so unfair! Why can’t I just be allowed to live out my dream? Surely I’m working hard enough for it? Won’t someone notice me? Come along and make things easier? I never get my own way. Poor me!”

This is similar to the inner-dialogue I used to cleanse my mind. Try it — it’s cathartic! The key is doing it with awareness. We can call this purposeful self-ranting, its aim to satisfy and quieten The Victim. Putting pen to paper and writing this string of dialogue is just as, if not more, effective.

Having purged The Victim, the voice dimmed. Now The Saboteur came to the forefront (personified as The Matrix‘s Agent Smith). The Saboteur knows what’s good for me and actively tries to encourage me to do the complete opposite. Thanks Agent Smith.

This time, The Saboteur was encouraging me to binge-eat, to binge-drink, to stop going to the gym, to stop writing, to abandon MindThatEgo, to sabotage relationships, to sink into the murkiness of the ocean while waving the white flag and throwing in the towel.

Silencing The Saboteur

Green waves
The Victim and The Saboteur can keep me below water — if I let them.

The Saboteur is an interesting part of my psyche because I know the depths it can take me. I feel its presence, and acting against it can take a great effort. The sooner it’s managed, the better.

When I woke this morning I felt better, but The Saboteur was still there. “Don’t get out of bed,” it said, “you’re tired, you don’t have energy.” It was telling me there was no point in going to the gym. This isn’t a voice to pay attention to. Indeed sometimes my body does need to rest, or I do need more sleep. But thinking processes courtesy of The Saboteur arrive in narrative form; not intuition or sensation from the body. The latter is worth paying attention to.

Knowing its nature, I deal with The Saboteur differently than The Victim. I’ll give in a little, feeding its needs in a way I know won’t cause harm. Then…

I tell it to fuck off.

Seriously. Try it. Having recharged yesterday my resilience returned, and I was having none of it. I was regaining control and aside from tenderness, The Saboteur was my biggest challenge. Noticing its attempt to prevent me from starting my day, I knew I had the choice to listen, or to fight. So I stood in the mirror, stared deeply into my eyes, and channelled my warrior.

Carrying this mindset into the gym, each rep became act of defiance. Evidencing how effective weight training is in managing my mental health, I could feel The Saboteur retreat. It knew its place, it knew I wasn’t playing games.

As a side note, it’s interesting to witness the balancing of feminine and masculine energies throughout this process. I needed to cultivate a feminine energy to open up to vulnerability and sensitivity. Once I’d accepted and processed my emotions, it took a cultivation of masculine energy to overcome The Saboteur; a perfect illustration of the duality of yin and yang.

I suspect the depletion of my Life Force arose from an imbalance that needed to be addressed.

A Summary Of Overcoming Overwhelm

“It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” — Rocky Balboa

As I write, I feel lighter. Seasickness subsided. Knees no longer wobble. More space, more flow. Past and future have less pull, present. I’m aware I still need rest, but the change is noticeable. In the past this would have lasted much, much longer. Best of all, I’m ready to get back behind the wheel, to steer the ship through challenging waters. However, I’m also aware I need time to adjust to my usual pace.

I’ll end by summarising my approach to dealing with overwhelm. The initial step is relinquishing resistance and denial of how I am truly feeling: physically; emotionally; cognitively; energetically. I pay attention to the tendency of my mind to indulge in the past, or project fearfully into the future. Then I open up to my full experience, allowing myself to be vulnerable. If sadness arises, I allow it to wash over me, and experience it with self-compassion and curiosity. This allows other contributing factors to surface.

On this occasion these were the voices of The Victim and The Saboteur. Each needed to be managed in their own way, allowing me to clear the mind and to re-focus on the here and now, while respecting the need to adjust back to my usual pace, to find balance.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and struggling to navigate, I hope these techniques help you find your sea legs. Remember: this too shall pass. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to feel. In no time, you’ll be back behind the wheel.

Features, Psychology

Time Management Isn’t The Solution To A Stressful Schedule, Time Valuation Is

time valuation
Is time valuation more important than time management?

In the chaos of modern, fast-paced living, it often feels we don’t have enough time for… well, anything. Time is of the essence, time can be well spent or wasted, time is money, time is valuable, time is ticking, and above all else — time flies. If only we could manage our time efficiently, we’ll have all the time in the world and achieve all it is we desire time after time. Modern convention says time management is absolutely essential to keep track, to help achieve our goals. Not so fast, though; I’m going to argue time management is secondary to something more important — time valuation.

This approach is less focused on the physical act of scheduling in a journal or diary. Instead, the focus is the abstract, mental visualisation of how each of us perceive future time. Entries in a diary within themselves aren’t stressful, but the way we perceive our timeline of upcoming events often leads to stress or anxiety. Let me begin by explaining my distinction between time management and time valuation.

What Is Time Management And How Can It Cause Stress?

Time management is a way of managing and arranging the things we need to do into the time we have. I visualise this process as a calendar in our mind’s eye. The things we need to do are entities we attempt to fit into this mental calendar, from the important (go to work, pay bills) to the not-so-important (take the bins out, shower, tidy room, organise internet bookmarks) — and everything in between.

These are usually a mixture of physical entries in a diary and mental notes floating around in the recesses of the mind. However they are stored, stress arises when the things we need to do don’t comfortably synchronise with the time we have.

It can drain a lot of energy, and make us incredibly frustrated, when we mentally pluck tasks out of the air and try to squish them into an apparently restrictive amount of time. Let’s call this squishing process the square peg, round hole approach. For example, I may have a number of things to do floating around my mind’s eye for an upcoming week. They may or may not be entries in a diary:

  • Coach
  • Write
  • Exercise
  • Food shop
  • Call parents
  • Reply to Whatsapp messages
  • Meditate
  • Make time for reading
  • That errand I’ve been putting off for too long

When I attempt to manage my time, I float each of these entities to fill the vacant space in the calendar of my mind’s eye. This may be accompanied by a visualisation or prophecy of each event, playing like a movie in the mind — along with a perception of how much time it will take. As is frequently the case, during this process I may feel there’s no way I’ll fit the things I need to do into the time I have. I feel stressed, I feel powerless, I sometimes feel paralysed. This leaves me despairing: “How am I going to get all of this done?”

The square peg, round hole approach is a recipe for stress due to a number of problems with the process of assigning the things we need to do to the time we have. It can apply to any time period: the next hour, day, week, month, year, or even lifetime. Fortunately we can train our brains and take control of this process, making it serve us effectively in both pragmatic planning and emotional ease. Before understanding how to take control, I’ll highlight the problems with the square peg, round hole approach. Becoming aware is the first step in making change.

Problem #1: Most Of Us Don’t Accurately Perceive Time

“Temporality temporalizes as a future which makes present in the process of having been.” ― Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

Humans are notoriously bad at mentally perceiving time. Not so much the rationalisation of “it’ll take me 30 minutes to exercise,” but more the experience of time. Time’s nature is one of life’s greatest mysteries; it’s heavily subjective, illusionary and is influenced by the context of events. This is understandable as our brains lack the pathways to process temporal information.

Unreliable future-projection certainly has a big influence on my life. When I visualise the things I need to do, I struggle to visualise accurately how much time they will take. Let’s say a smouldering passion of mine is to write a book. Write a book becomes an entity in my mind’s eye, floating around in an abstract manner, waiting to be assigned to the time I have. Writing a book is a long, drawn out process and I might have formed the following mistaken belief:

“Writing a book takes a long time. I’ll need to dedicate a number of hours each week to writing, even when I don’t feel like it.”

Eager to get going and excited by the prospect of structuring time for writing, I say to myself — the most important thing is time management. Write a book becomes another mental entity on the list of things I need to do. The trouble is, even before attempting to write a book, the things I need to do don’t fit the time I have — at least from my perception. I may have formed an additional mistaken belief:

“In the past I’ve never had time to sit down and write, because the things I need to do always outweigh the time I have. The only way to write a book, which will take a number of hours per week, for a year or more, is to get more time so the time I have fits the time it takes.”

Now the process of time management has a few deceptive layers. I have an attempt to synchronise the things I need to do into the time I have, with an erroneous belief of how much time it takes. This leads to another mistaken belief — the only way to do what I want to do is get more time. Yet time isn’t a commodity, something to gain or throw away, so I have tricked myself into believing there simply isn’t time to write a book, and consequently writing a book is a fanciful, impossible dream.

Interestingly a 2009 study led by Dr. Zauberman, a professor of marketing at Wharton School of Business, explored the subjective feeling of elapsed time. “For many people, we think about our [past] goals, and if nothing much has happened with those then suddenly it seems like it was just yesterday that we set them,” he told The New York Times. This perception can change “depending on what you think about, and how.”

perception future
Erroneous beliefs can lead us to think the only way to perform certain tasks is to have more time.

Zauberman’s study could be significant in understanding how the above limiting belief of not having enough time is formed by memory and perception of past attempts at achieving goals. If we live our lives taking the square peg, round hole approach and not pursuing our passions or desires, we can become stuck in self-fulfilling cycle of lack of time. We perceive time as flying by, as limited. We project this erroneous belief into our mental calendar and can’t find space. Writing a book becomes a write off.

Problem #2: We Value Certain Tasks By Productivity

“Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed.” — Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

On top of erroneously perceiving how much time it takes, there’s another key mistaken belief in modern culture:

“I can’t afford to waste my time, because it is valuable.”

What this common mistaken belief is really saying is: “If I’m not being productive, my time is wasted.” As Tolle points out in the above quote, this is a fallacy. Time isn’t precious, but each waking moment is. Yet we’ve been taught to value the concept of time, the idea of a blissful future where all our materialistic dreams are fulfilled.

This is an important element of time management and our perception of time — we live in an economically-driven, materialistic society that deems “productivity” as valuable, because it contributes to economy, and thus its agenda. Society does not value being because being is the antithesis of this agenda.

There are a number of forces at play here. Culturally, we assimilate the idea that a) time is valuable and it cannot be wasted and b) there is a hierarchy of productivity (thus value) framed by economically-driven principles. The number one principle for productivity is spending our time in a way that makes money. Other values closely linked include achievement, framed within itself to essentially mean career success, and material gain (get the house, get the car, get the iPhone X). You could argue escapism, and hedonism, cunningly weave their way into this value system as a means of “switching off” from incessant productivity.

I’ll let the words of Bill Hicks illustrate this particular point. The provocative stand-up comedian believed the key to understanding a society was to look at the drugs it permissed. In his typically astute, cynical view:

“Except for pharmaceutical poison, there are essentially only two drugs that Western civilization tolerates: Caffeine from Monday to Friday to energize you enough to make you a productive member of society, and alcohol from Friday to Monday to keep you too stupid to figure out the prison that you are living in.”

Problem #3: Productivity Is Based On Values Driven By Economic Agenda

There are many more layers and this order isn’t an exact science, but in a nutshell, our economically-driven, materialistic society frames what productivity is, and the best way to spend our time is to be productive. I’d argue:

Productivity has become an addiction.

We strive to be more productive, with the aid of modern technology. We strive for motivation, the elixir or productivity. We’re productive at the cost of our mental health and wellness. We’re even transforming mindfulness into a tool to make employees more productive at the workplace. All this leads to most of us feeling a noticeable twinge of guilt any time we aren’t productive. But it’s important to remember it’s all a matter of perspective.

Time spent “not being productive” is framed that way because of societies hierarchy of values. When we abide by the value society gives time, and money-centered productivity, it means we value other pursuits as less than. Doing nothing is a cardinal sin, the epitome of not being productive. Taking time to reflect. Doing for the sake of doing. Being for the sake of being. Writing. Painting. Walking. Playing. Resting. These are noble pursuits that nourish the soul — yet they do not hold much value in the hierarchy of productivity.

Problem #4: Time Management Is Subconsciously Filtered By Values

Mentally the entities in our mind’s eye — the things we need to do — are arranged in accordance to values assimilated by society’s hierarchy of productivity. We can further break the things we need to do into the following:

  • Core needs: eat, sleep, pay bills, shelter. These are essential to survival and are naturally high value.
  • Hierarchy of productivity: entities linked to the hierarchy of productivity are a close second. Making money, striving for success, moving forwards, career progression. These are future-based and attainment-based, thus making the future more valuable than the present (Tolle rightly refers to this notion as insanity).
  • Escapism: we are social animals — socialisation is a core need. But there’s emphasis in modern times to always be seen as having fun, escaping, creating Instagram, Facebook ready “moments.” During alone-time, escapism may include binge-watching Netflix or digesting social media. This form of escapism encourages a lack of self-reflection, self-insight and consequently self-actualisation.
  • Doing stuff or “busyness”: doing nothing is low value, so many of us fill our time rushing from one thing to the next, doing stuff to avoid doing nothing.

Again, these categories are far from exact science, but they hopefully provide an idea of how the motivating factors behind the mental process of assigning the things we need to do into the time we have. Let’s return to the book example to clarify. I start the process of time management by attempting to assign the entity write a book into the time I have in my mind’s eye. This process encompasses a flawed perception of how much time it takes.

During this process, conflicting values will fight it out to see where write a book can fit. The values I assign to write a book may include fulfilment, satisfaction, creative expression, and so on. However, in a value system based on society’s values, these rank poorly. In a Top Trumps standoff, fulfilment, satisfaction, and creativity can’t match making money, doing stuff, and even plays second fiddle to fun or escapism. I’ve lost count of moments in the past where I’ve planned to get up early and write, only to choose to get drunk the evening before and sleep in.

The Solution: Conscious Time Valuation

Time valuation is more important than time management and here’s why:

If we don’t consciously apply value to the things we need to do, those values are set for us.

If we simply attempt time management, the process is dictated by the hierarchy of productivity and external values fitting the agenda of an economically-driven society. Once aware of this process, the antidote is to empower ourselves by setting our own values. This transforms the process in a way that serves us. Back to the book example; if I consciously set this at high value and understand the process of time management, the process of assigning the things I need to do to the time I have changes.

Instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, I trim the edges and make the square a circle. Write a book becomes high-value, beating other categories such as doing stuff, escapism, and even the hierarchy of productivity. The process of assigning the things I need to do into the time I have becomes a conscious, creative, and fluid activity.

square peg round hole
The square peg round hole approach to time management.

Other things I need to do are automatically ranked lower, and therefore will not take precedent when attempting to fill the time I have. Identifying write a book as high value allows for more flexibility; perhaps I acknowledge even 30 minutes of writing per day is valuable, and actively schedule the time, turning the abstract notion into a concrete reality. Maybe I go to bed early so I can wake earlier to write. This is the process of trimming the edges, making the square peg circle:

“Writing a book is high-value. I will assign two hours to write on Wednesday evening and rearrange the things I need to do if necessary.”

I’m not advocating irresponsibility. Meeting core needs and gaining financial income to provide security and shelter are necessities. Socialisation is a necessity to the extent of keeping our relationships, sense of connection and intimacy healthy. Escapism is necessary at times, as long it doesn’t become a habitual avoidance technique. Balance is key.

But if we can incorporate the conscious time valuation, imagine the difference when assigning the things we need to do into the time we have. Writing a book has transformed from a task that takes lots of time and doesn’t fit the time we have, to becoming a concrete addition to the mental calendar, immovable, valuable.

The Higher The Value, The More Likely You’ll Stick To Completing The Task

An additional bonus is that high-value entries become solid entries in the mind’s eye, not featherweight entries easily blown by the wind of outside influence. Let’s use exercise as an example. Take three people: Person A regularly works out multiple times per week. Person B enjoys exercise and understands how important it is for health, yet never gets more time to go to the gym or run. Person C doesn’t value exercise.

For argument’s sake, let’s say they are both contracted the same amount of hours per week, at the same company, and have the same level of social invites, same core needs, and same day-to-day responsibilities. In this scenario:

  • Person A has consciously placed high-value on exercise, so exercise becomes a solid entry in the calendar of their mind’s eye. When undertaking the process of assigning the things they need to do to the time they have, exercise ranks highly. When looking at the time they have, Person A sets solid entry for exercise, three times per week, and always manages to “make time” for it.
  • Person B, though clear on the value of exercise, hasn’t consciously assigned it higher value than external values. They may be unaware they are influenced by the perceived value of busyness, escapism, the hierarchy of productivity. They take the square peg, round hole approach and always struggle to get more time for exercise. When exercise is successfully scheduled, it is low value, and easily replaced by other events.
  • Person C doesn’t assign value to exercise. It’s not even an entry on the things I need to do. But what happens if Person C develops diabetes or suffers a heart attack? Exercise enters the things I need to do. Depending on the person’s desire to improve their health, they may then end up in the same situation as Person A or Person C. They either consciously place high-value on staying well, or struggle to get more time as exercise plays second fiddle to external values.

These examples aren’t clear cut. There are many areas in our life we subconsciously assign value and manage our time accordingly. The main point to take home is this:

Consciously assigning value can transform the way you assign the things you need to do to the time you have.

This transformation leads then to a more fulfilling, relaxed, rounded and balanced use of the most precious thing you have — not time, but the present moment.