The Times Online – Survive and thrive guide

The Times Online - Survive and thrive guide

Anxiety is endemic in a recession – but there are ways to keep the gloom at bay. All this week a leading hypnotherapist will show you how to plan for the future

We are living in anxious times. Paint a picture of unmitigated gloom often enough on 24-hour rolling news programmes and it’s hard to avoid the virus of fear it spreads. We react by feeling anxious and somehow frozen, as though we can’t move forwards. Whether you’re working or want to work, whether you’ve got a mortgage or you’re burdened with credit-card debt, or whether you are watching your nest egg vaporise, you’re likely to feel that 2009 is an uncomfortable, if not terrifying, prospect.

As a clinical hypnotherapist who helps people to make changes in their lives, I’ve seen a steady increase in the number of clients with anxiety problems in recent months. They’re worried about money, they’re anxious about keeping their jobs, they can’t sleep, and I’m seeing more people who feel out of control and who are using self-destructive forms of behaviour – shopping they can’t afford, drinking, comfort eating – to try to escape their negative feelings. Many of them have physical symptoms that confirm their stress: insomnia, nausea, headaches and shallow breathing are common. For all of them there is an underlying current of anxiety and fear.

To say that I understand how they feel is an understatement. For most of my life I’ve felt as though I am anxiety personified. There’s a predisposition for people who feel that way to find a release for their uncomfortable emotions – drinking, taking drugs, or some other form of escapist behaviour. I’ve been through a lot of them and I’ve beaten them all, including smoking. I’m a survivor and that is what equips me to advise you on how to find healthy alternatives to shift the way you look at the economic crisis. Instead of feeling immobilised by anxiety, you can approach 2009 with the knowledge that you will come through it intact.

We’re not talking about conquering the world; we need to be realistic. This is a time when there is value in the idea of going back to basics, of doing what we know will work and focusing on what matters. What I can do is guide you through strategies that will make your circumstances seem less daunting, and that will move you out of a position of despair and into one of strength and resilience.

The key to dealing with anxiety is to look at what’s going on in your head, to examine how you perceive what’s happening around you and to adjust the filter through which you see and feel these things. If you distinguish between the fears that are based on what’s happening and the fears of an imaginary version of what might happen – the bailiff at door or who might knock one day, the P45 and the possibility of redundancy – you’re on the way to finding survival techniques. By focusing on what’s happening now, and on what you want rather than what you fear, on positives rather than negatives, you can protect yourself and summon up the confidence to take the next best step. This is my area. I’m not going to advise you on the best credit card, but I can tell you how to live within the life that circumstances prescribe, how to accept and make the most of what’s happening to you, how to combat the doom and gloom around you by becoming mentally tough.

So that you know where this advice is coming from, I’ll tell you about myself. I was born in 1960 and grew up around the Kings Road, Chelsea. I was aware of great affluence around me, and equally aware that my family wasn’t affluent. When I was a boy my father was a photographic agent and a model: his hand did the walking in the Yellow Pages ads. My parents had a clothes shop, one of the first boutiques. They were bohemian and in the 1970s the Kings Road was pretty wild. There was probably a part of me that loved it because it took away the feelings that were lurking under the surface of not feeling comfortable. My father had been married before and wasn’t divorced when he met my mum. There were problems, I was an only child, I was impressionable. I hated school and would wake up each day with terrible anxiety, not wanting to go, convinced that I was going to be beaten. When I discovered things such as cannabis it was a relief. I managed to get a place at St Martins School of Art but I wasn’t in good shape and left and went off to New York. Since then I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve designed magazines and record covers, I’ve sold advertising for commission-only during the early 1990s recession. That was demoralising. I set up a marketing company doing telecoms and that got my dad and I through the 1990s: we sold the business and then I traded mobile phones on the web until the dot-com collapse. It makes me shudder to think about it, yet it was through enduring experiences such as this that I came to understand the importance of dealing with anxiety, rather than letting it control you. It was at this time that I had a lot of therapy and was supported by good friends, including the woman who is now my wife and the mother of our two-year-old son, and I began to rebuild my life.

I’d had some hypnosis in the 1980s and loved it and as I used it again I started to understand how important it is to be mentally well – you are what you think. That’s when I decided to become involved in helping people to make changes and trained as a clinical hypnotherapist and a Neuro Linguistic Programming master practitioner. I think of myself as helping people to evolve.

My two big tools are posture and breathing and I use them all the time to anchor myself into what’s happening right now. That’s my third tool: being present, focusing on what’s happening in the moment so that I can’t worry about some imagined fear of the future. Throughout the day, whenever I notice that I’ve picked up any stress, I straighten my spine into what I feel is my confident shape, draw in a long deep breath, being aware of the stressful feeling as I do so, hold the breath and release it, allowing the feeling to leave with the breath. Often within three breaths I feel balanced, clear and calm, focused and oxygenated in my mind, able to move on to whatever needs to be done.

The other thing I do is to practise self-hypnosis, sometimes in bed, or in a quiet moment. I visualise thoughts going away, letting go throughout my body, until I’m calm and relaxated. I also use the principles of yoga, just a few stretching exercises make a difference, or I stop what I’m doing and go for a walk. I’m fortunate to have close friends and loved ones with whom I can communicate what’s really going on, so I don’t feel as though I’m burdened and that no one understands me. I face fears by talking about them, turning them to the light, using breathing and posture, and I am able to snap out of destructive feelings.

If things are happening that are unsettling I write them down, which is therapeutic because it gets them out of my head and forces me to look at them from a different perspective. It’s a way of structuring and ordering what’s happening in my life, it gives a sense of control and enables you to process each of them properly.

I’m big on gratitude too. I’d rather be glad for what I’ve got than think about the things I haven’t got. Health is the most precious thing and it can be reassuring to look back at how far I’ve come.

These are the techniques I’ll be explaining this week. Today I focus on strategies to combat financial anxiety. Later we’ll look at making the most of your relationships, how you can enhance your chances of hanging on to your job, and I’ll be helping you to sleep and to avoid destructive compulsions. Each day you can download a podcast in which I talk you through the strategies you need to learn to face – and survive – the rigours of 2009. I wish you luck.

Interview by Penny Wark