Browsing the archives for the anxiety tag.
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A Simple Way to Start Dealing With Worries

Handling negative emotions

I don’t know about you, sometimes I find myself in a mood where I feel out of sorts but can’t point to any one thing as being the cause. That kind of state rarely does me any good: usually it means I won’t get a lot done, won’t enjoy the day as much, and am no help to the moods of people around me–unless I get out of it. To accomplish that, I have a very simple process I use, which is to list out worries in writing.

The idea here is just emptying my head. It’s related to David Allen‘s recommended practice of getting all of your thoughts and concerns on paper so that you can organize them, although in this case organization isn’t the point. It’s also related to decision logging, the practice of writing down notes about your own situation and choices as things happen in order to increase mindfulness, but it isn’t about mindfulness per se. In fact, the thing it’s most like that I’ve mentioned is swatting deer flies by letting them settle on you before you hit them (although I promise it’s much less nerve-wracking): that is, it’s about paying simple, direct attention to worries individually, one after the other.

This tactic doesn’t take any preparation: just grab paper and pen or fire up a computer, then start writing a list of whatever comes to mind that’s bugging you. It might look something like this:

– I’m still annoyed about that guy at the store who wouldn’t stop talking to me
– I can’t believe I forgot to pay my cell phone bill on time
– How in the world am I going to find time to take that refresher course?
– Do I need to go shopping? I don’t think there’s anything for dinner
– My car’s making that noise again

It’s not necessary to do anything about these issues as they come up, but when you’re done listing, you might want to start writing out your thoughts about each one, and to look for broken ideas. Sometimes all that’s needed to completely solve an issue is to reframe it in a healthy and accurate way.

You might think that writing these things down would cause more anxiety instead of less, but it really tends to produce relief. Instead of being plagued with multiple, unnamed anxieties, instead we’ve now got a list of clear, specific issues–issues we might even be able to do something about, although just getting them down in writing itself makes a real difference. My favorite moment in this process is when I ask myself “OK, what else?” and I just can’t think of anything. In that moment I’m reminded that the things I worry about have a limit, and that I might be able to make some progress in fixing them them … or even, until I can do something about them, just accept them … just for now.

Photo by Phoney Nickle

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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part V: Scared of Trying

Strategies and goals

This is the fifth in a series of articles that strive to answer the question “How can I get myself to work harder toward a goal?” Today’s article tackles the problem of being worried about what will happen to you if you try.

In part III of this series, I talked about emotional conflicts–about both wanting to do something and not wanting to do it. Being worried about trying is a special kind of emotional conflict, and a common one. I realized the other day that I’ve been running into this problem myself. Lately I’ve been sending out magazine article queries (that is, proposing to write articles for various magazines), and in some cases getting assignments (success!). However, I haven’t been sending out nearly as many queries as I’ve been wanting to, and when yesterday I sat down to send out another, I also did some thinking about why my progress has been so slow so far. As silly as it is, it became clear that I’m just worried about rejection.

I say “silly” because for writers, rejection isn’t so much something to worry about as a near-unavoidable fact of life. For any given query, the editor who reads it could just not like the idea, could have bought something just like it, could decide that they don’t want to work with a writer new to them just now, or could reject the story for any number of other rational or irrational reasons. Whatever reaction the editor has, it’s out of my control: all I can do is send out the best queries I can manage.

But I haven’t done as much querying on articles as I have of submitting short stories and even work on book proposals and submissions. It’s more familiar and comfortable for me to pitch a novel, propose a non-fiction book, or send a short story to a good market than it is to query about a magazine article, just because I’ve done those other things more. And without even noticing it, I was letting my fear of not doing well slow me down.

Like most fears, the best way to get past this one is to both acknowledge it and ignore it. Yes, I’m likely to receive some rejections (or non-responses, which is how some magazines do things instead of sending rejection letters). But I’m also likely to continue to sell some articles, and so rejection ultimately doesn’t mean anything: what matters are attempts and successes. Any query I don’t send is one that has failed out of the gate. If I send it and it gets rejected, at least I’ll have some information with the failure–and if it gets accepted, I have both some information and an article sale.

It’s the same for anything. Yes, failure is always possible, and trouble can always arise: finally getting around to sorting out an old pile of mail might reveal an unexpected overdue bill (or unexpected uncashed check! Though I admit those are rarer). Asking someone out may lead to failure or even embarrassment. But since not attempting at all is a guaranteed failure, trying–while sometimes painful or scary–is almost always an improvement.

Photo by CRASH:candy

The previous installments in this series are:

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Mindfulness and Deer Flies

States of mind

One early morning recently I went running with a friend. The sun shone out of a blue sky onto woods and meadows showing twenty shades of green, the air was mild, and the breeze was soft. We jogged up a hilly dirt road between open fields, counting our blessings and waiting for our bodies to wake up and provide the power that we’d need as the slope began to rise more steeply a little further into the run. Then the deer flies came, in little, hovering groups of six or eight or ten.

Stand or panic?
Now, I’m usually a pretty calm guy. While I have my better and worse days, usually my reaction to trouble, perhaps after an initial few seconds of cussing, is “OK, what do I need to do?” Sometimes I even skip the cussing. But where groups of biting insects are concerned, I tend to lose my cool. I don’t want to get bitten, so I hop around and slap at any least sensation on my skin (real or imagined) and turn in circles to try to catch the little beasts in the act. It’s difficult to get running done under these circumstances, and with the flies circling and dodging, it’s also difficult to swat them.

My friend has a different approach. When she realized that the flies weren’t going to leave her alone, she stopped and waited. If one came very close she would sometimes clap her hands together (sometimes getting it, often not), but most of the time she stood there and held up her arms. The deer flies buzzed around her, but after a moment or two one would alight on her arm, getting ready to bite, and then she would swat it–and hold up her arms for the next one. Using this approach, and helping each other by watching for the flies that landed on backs or ears, we could wipe out a whole group of deer flies in just a couple of minutes–even though the first few times we did this, I did more hopping around than effective swatting.

We probably had to stop four or five times during our run to take care of deer flies, but as my paranoia about being bitten gradually relaxed, I found I was able to enjoy the run despite the insects.

Swatting worries
Using mindfulness to settle annoyances and figure things out is a lot like swatting deer flies. If, like me with the deer flies, you’re so worried about being being bitten that you spend all of your time flailing at circling troubles, you’re not likely to actually get rid of many of them, even with an occasional lucky clap. But if when you first notice that problems are circling, you wait for them to settle and watch them–that is, if instead of getting carried away with the worry you allow yourself to relax and see what it really is–then as the problems settle, you can take care of each individual one, then let the next settle.

It’s easier with a friend to watch your back and ears, but even alone, you can catch more flies by watching than you can by flapping your arms and turning in circles. And when you’re done, you can turn back to the road and focus once again on ascending that hill.

Photo by net_efekt

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18 Ways to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Habits

Author and fellow Codex member Elaine Isaak posed this question:

So as I was tossing and turning last  night, it occured to me that the one area where I’m not sure I *can* effectively apply my willpower is in getting a good night’s sleep.  I can’t WILL myself to sleep the way I might will myself to get up on time to start writing or to go to the gym.  I wondered if you have come across any research that tackles this, or have any tools to suggest?

I have to agree with Elaine on not being able to will ourselves to sleep by sheer determination, but fortunately I do know of a number of ways to get to sleep and to sleep better, based on research. Understanding that serious problems with insomnia are worth seeing a doctor about and that these recommendations are not professional medical or psychological advice … here they are:

Long-Term Habits

1. Plan your schedule so that you can get to sleep at a decent hour and still be able to wake up if you want to. If there are things you need to do before going to bed, do them earlier in the evening to make sure they don’t push your bedtime back.

2. Figure out how much sleep you actually need by keeping track of how much sleep you’re getting each day and whether that turned out to be enough. This may change over time, or under different circumstances (such as in stressful periods or with more or less exercise).

3. Get on a steady schedule with your sleeping hours. Staying up late on weekends or going to bed at different times every night, for instance, can sometims interfere with your body’s attempts to establish a natural sleep schedule.

4. You may need to make your bed an environment you associate mainly with sleeping (and, if appropriate, sex). Take activities like reading, using a laptop computer, or watching TV out of bed if your bed doesn’t feel like a place that naturally relaxes you.

5. On mornings when you don’t have to get up right away, if any, don’t sleep in for long periods, as this may tend to muck with your ability to sleep that night. More sleep isn’t always better.

6. Take steps to make sure you have the physical comfort you need, to the best of your ability: a firm, comfortable mattress; good ventilation; a comfortable temperature; etc. For me, one of the most relaxing features of my bedroom in summer is a fan pointed at the bed. You may also find it more comfortable to use a non-illuminated bedroom clock, although this is admittedly inconvenient if you are up in the middle of the night and want to know what time it is.

Daily Habits

7. Watch out for caffeine and consider cutting it out for a little while if you’re having sleep problems. Remember that in addition to regular coffee, most sodas, black/green/white tea, and chocolate contain caffeine, and that even decaf coffee and decaf tea contain some caffeine–just a reduced amount. Other stimulants to be careful of include ginseng and nicotine.

8. Exercise during the day! Be active! Regular exercise contributes to very good sleep.

9. Watch out for alcohol: while it can help you fall asleep more quickly, it also can cause sleep problems. According to MayoClinic.com, “it prevents deeper stages of sleep and often causes you to awaken in the middle of the night.”

10. Don’t eat or drink a lot late in the evening. Either can cause physical discomfort that keeps you up at night or that can interrupt an otherwise sound sleep.

Before bed

11. Stretch, either doing yoga or basic stretching techniques. Stretching will release tension and improve blood flow.

12. Before bed, steer clear of things that might stir you up, like watching television, reading a suspenseful novel, or taking on stressful tasks. Relaxing activities will help settle you down so that you can sleep more easily. These can even include things like picking up and cleaning around the house to set things in order, or gathering things you’ll need the next day. The relative mindlessness of these tasks, the mild physical activity, and the way this prevents you from having to worry about getting things done in the morning are all conducive to good sleep.

13. Consider meditation, for instance body scan meditation, in which you focus your attention on each part of your body in turn and allow it to relax. Meditation can help still mental chatter and create a serene state of mind.

14. Ask a romantic partner, family member, or friend to give you a massage in the evening. This is an excellent means to rope someone into giving you a free massage, so don’t miss out.

In the moment

15. If you find yourself kept up by specific worries or general anxiety, try idea repair, journaling, or talking things out with someone who cares about how you’re doing.

16. Soft earplugs are great if you’re having trouble with noise. There’s a picture of the kind I like in this post.

17. If you’re obsessing about making yourself sleep, you may want to get out of bed, go sit on the couch, and read a book or listen to music or watch a movie that you’ve already seen, turned down low. These kinds of activities can engage your attention in a more relaxed way that may allow you to fall asleep more easily. Just make sure to have a comfortable couch.

18. In bed, listen to low music or a relaxation CD. Like the tactics mentioned in the previous item, this can help relax you when your mind is overstimulated.

Photo by babblingdweeb

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Fighting Anxiety with Hopelessness

Handling negative emotions

Pema Chödrön

Buddhism is a rich source of insights about emotions and emotional states. While I don’t know that we can fairly call the centuries-old Buddhist tradition of investigation into the human mind a strictly scientific approach, it really is a rigorous tradition that builds its conclusions on direct experience. So I offer today’s post, based in Buddhist teachings, as food for thought.

American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, in her book When Things Fall Apart, offers an unusual route to living a happy life: embracing hopelessness. My initial reaction to this idea was extreme doubt, but hearing her point of view, I began to see the value of the idea.

To get a sense of what she means, let me give the example of my fear that everything will go to hell in a handbasket. Being interested in how things fit together–societies, supply networks, and so on–I often think about how easily something I’m used to having could be cut off. For instance, this past winter during a storm, we lost power at my house. This should not have been a big problem, especially since we have gas heat. Except that I found out that the gas heat system is dependent on electricity to run, so we had no heat or power. And the water is dependent on an electric pump, so we had no heat, power, or water. And our phone is through a VOIP service, so since we had no Internet due to having no power, we also had no phone. And of course with the refrigerator not working, I was concerned about most of our food going bad.

The power came back on after not too many hours, and my son and I had other places we could go if the outage went too long–and since it was winter, at worst I could put our perishable food outside. Still, it’s a little sobering to realize that one break in a cable can mean losing Internet, power, phone, heat, water, light, food, and more. And for years I’ve been a little bit concerned. What would happen if there were a really bad economic situation, or a plague, or a war, or something else that interrupted some of the ways that food, power, water, and other necessities get to us? How would I keep myself and the people who are important to me safe, sheltered, and fed?

Hopelessness doesn’t solve this concern, but interestingly, practicing it made things better. You can’t make anything completely safe, hopelessness says. Stop hoping that you can prevent every bad thing from happening if you just scramble hard enough. Bad things will eventually happen. Eventually, too, we’ll all die.

If you’re not feeling happier yet, I don’t blame you–but when we think about it, giving up the idea that everything will ever be perfect or absolutely safe allows us to let go of a lot of unneeded anxiety. “Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself,” says  Chödrön, “to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on … if we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.”

Stress and anxiety are a result of struggling with fears and things we want to avoid. If we don’t struggle, if we accept that bad things will sometimes happen, then the stress and anxiety lessen or disappear, because all we have to deal with is the moment right in front of us, and the moment in front of us usually isn’t so bad. Think of your situation right now, for instance. You probably have things you need to do, things you’re worried about, things you can think of that might cause trouble. But if you focus on how things are with you, right in at this moment, you may find it surprisingly easy to feel that everything’s fine. You are probably not in any great amount of pain. You’re alive. You have the ability to think about things that make you happy. Things could be worse.

There’s a limit to all this, though, at least if you ask me. I see value–real, lasting value–in moving toward our goals, in making progress, in striving for things. Hopelessness is absolutely not about striving: it’s about letting go. There is even value in negative emotions: see my article The Benefits of Feeling Bad. But striving for things is living in the future, and by my reckoning, there are times to live in the future, times to live in the past, and times to live in the present. When we need to come back to center, to marshall ourselves, to let go of things long enough to get our bearings again, then hopelessness and living just in the present moment can be just what we need.

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Does Guilt Help or Hurt Self-Motivation?

Handling negative emotions

A warning light

Let’s say Derek is a student, and on his mid-term exam he did badly because he blew off studying. Let’s further say that Derek feels pretty crummy about this. Is feeling crummy going to help him or hurt him? Will it make him more or less likely to study next time? Will it improve him in other ways, or hurt him in other ways, or both? Does he have some kind of moral obligation to feel guilt?

Guilt is useful … sometimes. If I feel guilty, it means that I’ve looked back on something I did and compared it to how I’d like to act. This is a very smart thing to do, because if I’m not aware of whether or not I’m following my own best instincts, then I have no idea what I might want to improve or how I would need to improve it. Guilt is a red flag, a warning indicator on the dashboard saying that something has gone wrong. And guilt can persist for quite a while if the problem doesn’t get fixed.

That warning job, as far as I can tell from research, coaching, and personal experience, is the only useful thing there is about guilt. Once you get that message and commit to doing something about it, the guilt is no longer useful, providing you won’t forget about your commitment the minute the guilt is gone–so it makes sense to get rid of it. How? By detecting and repairing the broken ideas that are keeping the guilt going. (I won’t go into more detail about that for here, but just follow the links for more detailed information.)

In addition to that helpful warning role, guilt plays a harmful role in other ways. It can make it painful to think about certain obligations–for instance, if Derek feels guilty about not studying for his mid-term, he may avoid thinking about studying for his finals because he doesn’t want to revisit the unpleasant subject of him failing to study. Guilt sucks up attention and causes negative emotions like sadness and anxiety, which can make it harder to be motivated even in unrelated areas.

So the best possible use of guilt is to experience it, pay attention to it, figure out what needs to be done, and then get rid of it.

A study by Michael J.A. Wohl, Timothy A. Pychyla, and Shannon H. Bennetta (“I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination“), published this past February, supports this view of guilt as damaging in the long term. It surveyed students who felt guilty about past studying habits, whether they forgave themselves, and how that forgiveness (or lack of it) related to their studying afterward. Wohl and colleagues concluded that students who forgave themselves (a kind of organic idea repair–though that’s a subject for a future post) tended to do better studying afterward than students who kept beating themselves up. In other words, letting go of the guilt helped them act better so that they wouldn’t need to feel guilty in future.

Thanks to Jeremy Dean of Psyblog for the mention of the article.

Photo by akeg

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A Solution to Depression?

Guest posts

Today’s guest post is from Kari Wolfe, whose blog Imperfect Clarity passes on everything she’s learning as she works toward building a writing career, interviews fascinating people, parents her daughter in ways she never expected, and forges her own habits of success.


For years, I complained of back and knee pain.

For years, I received the same advice from lots of well-meaning friends and family: go on a diet, lose weight, breast reduction surgery, walk more.

I ignored the advice.  And my muscle pain became worse.

In April 2010, I started a 12-week-long session of physical therapy.

And everything began to change.

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My assignment, should I choose to accept it…

My physical therapist gave me exercises to do, every night, six nights a week.  And I did my exercises.

Begrudgingly.

I did my exercises, focusing on the point where they would not only be done.  I stretched all the muscles that I needed to stretch, worked all the muscle groups I needed to work.

I’m still doing my exercises.

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Well, while I’m working on this, I want to do this too…

Strangely enough, (I thought at the time, anyway) once I started focusing on my physical problems, I started paying more attention to my life.

I started focusing on an idea for a business.  My writing, both fiction and non-fiction.  I started looking for motivational material, books< and blogs, to read, to get my spirits up and centered on what I wanted to do.

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Is there a solution to depression?

The solution to depression isn’t always a pill.  While medication can be helpful, it’s honestly not the “end-all, be-all” wonder cure for depression.

The downward spiral of depression can convince you there is nothing out there.  If you take a walk, you’ll just end up walking back.  If you exercise, you’ll look funny and people will laugh at you (my very own problem).  If you try to solve the problem, you’re going to fail.

Or if you have back and neck problems, what you really need is a drug to numb the pain.

I’ve been there.

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My solution, thus far.

The solution to depression can be as simple as getting up and going for a walk.  Or starting an exercise routine.  Or tackling a long-existing problem and working toward it’s solution.  It’s not so much exactly what you do, but what you focus on.

Oddly enough, I think I like exercising when I wake up in the morning.  Yep, first thing.  Just don’t tell anyone.  Please–I don’t want to ruin my reputation.

Once my heart begins to pump faster and my physical needs (shhhh…) are met, I’m ready to rest for a few minutes and then start to take on the day.

Kari Wolfe is a stay-at-home mother of a very curious three-year-old daughter who happens to be autistic. She is a writer and maintains her own blog, Imperfect Clarity where her focus is becoming the best writer (and person) she can be by living her life to the fullest 🙂

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Why Lousy Is a Great Place to Start

Handling negative emotions

I’m reading a book called Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, about meditation, coming to terms with suffering (our own and others’), and connecting to the world in a compassionate way. Much of the book is about meditative and partly spiritual practices that I won’t go into here, but there’s one particular section where she says something very striking that applies equally well to any process of self-improvement:

Start where you are. This is very important. [Meditation practice] is not about later, when you get it all together and you’re this person you really respect. You may be the most violent person in the world–that’s a fine place to start. That’s a very rich place to start–juicy, smelly. You might be the most depressed person in the world, the most addicted person in the world, the most jealous person in the world. You might think that there are no others on the planet who hate themselves as much as you do. All of that is a good place to start. Just where you are—that’s the place to start.

And later, she continues:

Suppose you are involved in a horrific relationship: every time you think of a particular person you get furious. That is very useful for tonglen [the practice the book describes]! Or perhaps you feel depressed. It was all you could do to get out of bed today. You’re so depressed that you want to stay in bed for the rest of your life; you have considered hiding under your bed. That is very useful for tonglen practice. The specific fixation should be real, just like that.

She goes on to describe how to harness these emotions in meditation, but the point I’d like to make is that they’re essential to any process of improving your life through changing the way you think. There are a few reasons for this. First, feelings like this that go unacknowledged tend to continue to torment us, because if we don’t take them in and really pay attention to how we’re experiencing them, we only have our habitual ways of responding to them, which won’t change anything (by definition, because habits are what we automatically do already). Second, if I’m going to improve my life, why should I wait for a time when I feel better? If I’m feeling bad now, then now is when improvement would be the most welcome, and there’s nothing preventing me from improving more when I feel better some other time too. And third, as Chödrön points out, strong negative emotions have a lot of juice. Someone who doesn’t feel excited (in a good or a bad way) about anything much at the moment doesn’t have a strong emotional incentive to change their lives. Someone who’s feeling something strong, whether it’s delight or love or anger or despair, has an immediate emotional reason to change things for the better.

Chödrön has specific recommendations for using negative emotions in meditation practice, and for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation, I strongly suggest the book for that purpose. For our intentions here, though, there are also specific ways we can harness negative emotions. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll talk about how to use pain and trouble to repair broken ideas.

Photo by Pensiero

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Everything Sucks. Reboot? Y/N

Handling negative emotions

Every once in a while, I have a day where enough seems to have gone wrong that I’m lodged deep in a lousy mood. Sometimes I’m not clever enough to be aware of this right away, so it persists until mindfulness finally kicks in with something to the effect of “You’re in a bad mood, and there is no reason for it unless it’s somehow helping you. Is it helping?”

It generally isn not helping. So I try to find my way out of that lousy mood using one of the techniques in this post.

The human brain is not very much like a computer. It changes its own structure constantly, stores information in locations scattered throughout the brain, and even runs two different systems (one neural and mostly cognitive, the other chemical and mostly emotional) at the same time. There’s more on this in my article about science fiction and the human brain at Clarkesworld.

But even though the brain doesn’t work the way computers do in many respects, it is capable of reboots: shutting down everything that’s currently running–including bad moods–and starting from scratch. However, reboots are not always easy. There are at least two things that get in the way.

The first is called “mood congruity”: this is the tendency of human beings to have trouble really imagining any emotional situation other than the one they’re already in. If you’re in a bad mood and you picture enjoying a nice walk outside, chances are it will be difficult for you to believe in your gut that the walk will be enjoyable–even if you have every reason to think it will be, and even if it generally has been under similar circumstances in the past. Whatever mood we’re in, we tend to imagine the future fitting the same mood. This is one reason the advice “Cheer up! Things will get better” often sounds so hollow. Mood congruity can be overcome, but it’s helpful to realize that the way our brians work, they’re a little limited at imagining an emotion while experiencing a contrary emotion.

Another barrier is that generally speaking, any mental control we have over our emotions happens by thinking (cognition), but cognition can change much more quickly than emotion, because so much of emotion has to do with chemicals like dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin, adrenaline, and others. The chemical states that influence our brains aren’t capable of changing nearly as quickly as our thoughts. We can go from thinking about a horrible tragedy to thinking about a really funny joke and back all within seconds, but our emotional state would not be able to keep up. This means that any mental effort to change mood needs to be kept up for a minute or two at least to allow emotions to catch up with cognition. It also means that idea repair doesn’t have its full effect right away, a subject I’ll be tackling in another article soon.

Knowing the obstacles, what are the techniques we can use to reboot our brains? Well, computers can go through a “warm boot” (rebooting through software only) or a “cold boot” (physically restarting the computer), and the same is true of our brains. A mental cold boot can be accomplished with techniques that completely clear out what’s going on in our minds. Two excellent approaches for this are meditation (which narrows focus to a very specific subject while letting everything else kind of float away) and exercise (which creates a physiological state that tends to help us cut back to a minimum of thinking).

Techniques for warm boots change attention, immediate experience, and/or thinking. Idea repair is one very useful means to do a warm boot. Other methods include emotional antidotes; visualization; and getting into a flow state (or at least distracted by something interesting for a bit).

Regardless of which method you use, rebooting takes attention, effort, and a little time. However, it often doesn’t take any more than that, and while not every bad mood can be banished in minutes, many of them can.

Photo by rofreg

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Impostor Syndrome

Handling negative emotions

I was corresponding with someone recently about the Impostor Syndrome, the feeling some people have that their successes are due to luck or oversight and that they’re likely to be identified as a fraud and cast out at any moment.

It’s not unusual even for those of us who don’t have a regular problem with Impostor Syndrome to have those feelings from time to time. When I was in high school, I auditioned on bass clarinet for the All New England Music Festival, an event that accepts only the most skilled and able high school musicians. My rehearsals with my accompanyist leading up to the audition were terrible: I wasn’t practicing consistently, and the audition piece was naturally very difficult. I practiced very hard for the last couple of days, but the chance of avoiding extreme embarrassment seemed low. I obsessed about the audition, showed up at the appointed time, went in … and nailed it. I played the piece magnificently. My accompanyist looked at me as though I had grown antennae. I got the highest score of any bass clarinetist who auditioned (admittedly, not as difficult as being the best flutist or trumpet player, but not easy either) and had my pick of positions at the event.

Of course, I felt like a complete impostor. When I arrived at New Englands, I more or less held my own, but I wasn’t as good as the other bass clarinetists there and clearly hadn’t practiced as much, either. For years I regarded that audition as a fluke. It wasn’t until very recently I understood what had really happened.

The key realization was that usually when you’re credited with doing something, it’s because you actually did it. At the audition where I got the great score for my playing, I actually played that well. That was not a fluke in the sense that it is impossible to accidentally play a complicated piece on the bass clarinet well. What probably happened was that I immersed myself so much in desperate practice those last few days that I got into a flow state regarding my playing and was able to play at the very peak of my ability–whereas those who had been practicing all along wouldn’t have needed to obsess over the last couple of days. About 16 years later, I attended the New England Folk Festival (NEFFA) in Natick, Massachusetts and did barely anything but play music for two days. By the second day, I was playing far better than I thought I possibly could, because again I had reached that flow state.

So the fact that I happened to be in that flow state at the time of the audition was a bit of a fluke: I hadn’t been trying for it or even known it existed. But the fact that I was capable of that flow state was no fluke at all. I had, after all, been practicing for years, and had enough love of music to put my heart into it sometimes. Was there luck involved? Yes. In an entirely just world (which of course we don’t live in), would I have been the top-ranked bass clarinetists at New Englands that year? Heck no. But could I under the right circumstances actually play that well? Yes. The things we accomplish rarely fall into our laps.

That’s the irony of Impostor Syndrome, actually: fear of being found out sometimes drives people to work much harder to “cover” for their “shortcomings,” which means they get better and better at the things they think they’re being overappreciated at. As Geoff Colvin and others explain very well, the people who do really well at things are the ones who practice the most.

The question becomes not one of how much we deserve for what we’ve done so far, but instead how we can repeat and build on our best successes in the past.

Photo by MissTessmacher

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