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
The hypnotherapist explains how to sleep without counting sheep
Anxiety and sleep are not great soulmates. This means that when we’re confronted by a global climate of anxiety, as we are at the moment, increasing numbers of people start the day feeling exhausted. I know this is happening because in recent months more of my clients have been seeking help for sleep problems.
It’s time to make some changes, not least because poor sleep damages our health – one consultation in ten with a doctor relates to sleep difficulties. A recent five-year study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health indicated that people who suffer from anxiety as a result of stressful events can have disturbed sleep for at least six months afterwards. Feeling irritable and unable to concentrate, common symptoms of sleep deprivation, are unhelpful as we face the challenges of 2009.
If you’re tempted to count sheep, take note of last year’s report by Oxford University scientists who found that imagining a relaxing scene is considerably more effective. But first I’d like you to take some practical steps to create an environment that will induce a relaxed state of mind.
Make sure you’re tired
A child who has been running about will sleep better than one who has been playing computer games. The same is true for adults. Regular physical exercise counteracts depression and anxiety – as studies have shown – and helps you to sleep. You don’t have to work out – a brisk walk, some gardening, a swim or a bike ride are all beneficial. If you’re less mobile then do some gentle stretches.
Create a sleeping room
You need an atmosphere of peace and quiet. TVs and computers are not conducive to sleep: keep them out of the bedroom. You need curtains or blinds to make the room dark and it should be ventilated. If you have an uncomfortable mattress make changing it a priority.
Dealing with worries
Don’t talk about your anxieties just before you go to bed. Do something relaxing instead, like reading, listening to soothing music or have a bath.
Get up early
Set an earlier wake-up time on your alarm. Research has shown that consistently getting up half an hour earlier than usual helps to reset faulty sleep patterns.
Things to avoid before bed
Caffeine less than five hours before. More than a glass or two of wine. Nicotine – including patches and gum. The late news or any action, suspense or horror film.
Dream away your cares
Make yourself comfortable in bed. Close your eyes. Begin to relax by taking a few deep breaths. Then have a long, slow stretch throughout your body, tightening the muscles and holding the tension first in your face, shoulders and neck; then your chest, back, stomach, arms, hands and fingers. Continue the stretch down to your legs, feet and toes. Then let go and relax.
Notice your breath: feel it happening as, slowly, you draw in each breath from the abdomen and release it. In and out. Feel the gentle rise and fall of every breath, like a glass of liquid filling and emptying by itself. As each breath leaves you, feel relaxation spreading throughout your body, down your arms and legs to your hands and feet. As you let go more and more with each breath, every muscle throughout your body relaxes.
Continue to notice your breathing, feel it relaxing you, and slowing down, becoming more shallow, relaxed and automatic. As you release each breath, you can see all the thoughts that fill your mind during the day streaming away like bubbles from your nose and mouth.
Now begin to think of a place where you are totally relaxed. Somewhere that you’ve been on holiday perhaps, a favourite room, or a place that you’d like to go. You’re lying down, you’re comfortable, wonderfully relaxed, you’re calm and safe. With each breath you can let go a little more and drift off to sleep when you want.
Interview by Penny Wark
When the world as you know it seems to be disintegrating, it’s normal to reach out for a quick comfort hit. Sadly, many of us choose distractions that give us more to worry about in the long term. Cigarettes, the extra glass of wine, the multipack of crisps, the shopping trip that we can’t afford, recreational drugs – they may offer temporary respite from our anxieties, but they won’t take them away.
I’m not a puritan. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of wine or having a day at the sales if you can afford it. But if this kind of comfort-seeking is becoming habitual and compulsive, you need to find positive strategies to deal with the challenges that you face – ones that won’t leave you with a headache, bloated with saturated fat or full of panic because you’ve just spent the mortgage payment.
I am eminently qualified to advise on this. I used to think that if I had some external help, my uncomfortable feelings would go away – and I’ve overcome many addictions, including shopping and cigarettes. This page is designed to support people who overuse coping strategies, but if smoking, overeating, drug-taking or shopping – or any other destructive habit – has become a dominant part of your life and is damaging you and those around you, seek help from an addiction specialist or support from a self-help group.
With therapy I came to understand that you can find inner resources to deal with anxiety. To do that you need to take back control, first by identifying your feelings and working out what is really going on around you, rather than focusing on what you perceive to be happening.
The difficulty is that when we look within ourselves we tend to see turmoil. By using the exercises I’ve given you this week regularly – there’s another one on this page – you can dissolve negative feelings and find strength and resilience. You may not be in your comfort zone, but if you see yourself as a survivor and take small steps forward every day, you will get through this challenging period.
Once you begin to regard yourself as proactive rather than as a victim, you will start to feel more relaxed and better able to cope without resorting to an unhealthy fix. You can then begin to replace old habits with healthy ones.
Create a stress protection bubble
Take a long, deep breath and hold it for a moment. As you exhale, relax, close your eyes and focus inwards.
Remember a time and a place where you felt completely safe and secure. If you can’t, imagine such a place. See yourself cocooned there and notice the warmth, the colours, the smells, the soothing sound – and how much calmer you feel.
Then allow this memory to surround you so that it becomes transparent and spherical, as though you are standing in a bubble that contains your safe memory. It’s all around; you are protected by it. You can see out but nothing from outside can get in.
Take a deep breath in. Stretch up inside it as you hold the breath, hang on to the breath for a moment, and notice how your held breath feels good – and how releasing it calms you down. Then, as you breathe out slowly and open your eyes, notice where you really are; but that each time you half-close your eyes, you see that safety bubble around you still.
Last year, the government think-tank Foresight published a Mental Capital and Wellbeing report, compiled by more than 400 scientists, which confirmed that simple activities such as gardening or mending a bicycle can protect mental health and help people to lead more fulfilled and productive lives.
So think simple. The next time you feel the urge to reach for an unhealthy prop, go for a walk or a swim instead, get on your bike, do some gardening, make a telephone call to a friend, cook a healthy meal, read a book, watch a favourite film (without popcorn) or listen to music that you find uplifting.
Shift your focus to something that you enjoy and that isn’t self-destructive, be active, get involved with others.
Financial insecurity is one of my specialist subjects, although I wish it wasn’t. Anyone who has a business or a mortgage, rent to pay or debts to face – and who has watched the global economic collapse over the past few months – knows what it feels like to worry about bills. It’s frightening and even if you haven’t over-borrowed, the climate of financial gloom is infectious.
We know too that anxiety affects your health, your heart rate, your circulation, your sleep and makes you reach for the drink that you don’t need, the cigarette that your doctor has told you not to smoke and the chocolate that you know you should leave on the supermarket shelf.
So how can you begin to take control of your financial worries? What you think, you tend to get. My advice is that instead of imagining a negative outcome – which will only push you towards a mentally created abyss – think of a positive one. You’re going to keep your house, you’re going to survive no matter what, you’ve got inner resources and you’re not too proud to ask for help.
Concentrate on the outcome you want and, keeping yourself anchored in the present, start to take small steps towards it. Perhaps you need to phone the bank, keep an appointment with a prospective employer – or maybe just do your tax return. But suppose you feel so anxious that you’re stuck ? One way forward is to recognise that you don’t have to do everything at once. As a first step, try simply identifying when would be a good moment to begin the task – decide on the least you could do. For example, you might say: “I don’t think I could phone the bank but I could begin to think about what I would say.” Write down a few bullet points.
You still don’t have to make the call, but having chosen the right time you can then get everything ready. At that moment, think about how, if you took a wonderful long deep breath and straightened your spine, you could pick up the phone and dial the number. Maybe you’ll hang up. But then you might take a deep breath, straighten your spine and know that if the phone was answered you would be confident about what you needed to say.
You can use the same process for a meeting that is making you anxious. Maybe you’ll get ready, maybe you’ll get to the building – but you don’t have to go in – or maybe having got that far you take a deep breath and maybe walk into the lobby. Use good breathing to walk in, use your posture, look around you, you might enjoy meeting someone new, you might have an interesting conversation.
Always give yourself credit for each step forwards, rather than looking at the whole task. You might not be able to solve the problem today but you’re in a better position to come back and do some more work on it tomorrow. You’ll be surprised what you can achieve – and how good each step makes you feel.
A mantra to make you stronger
Having done the visualisation exercise on the previous page, you know that you have inner resources on which you can draw. So think of a few words that focus on your strengths and your ability to survive the financial crisis. “I am strong,” or “I can and I will,” or “I’m in control living in the moment” – something like that. Write your mantra down, scatter it about the place and get used to saying it out loud, always with meaning, sitting up straight and using deep breaths.
Slowly the idea will become internalised. As you drink down the positive thought breath into it and combine that with good posture. You will find that you are stronger than you realised.
The next stage of this exercise is to sit down somewhere quiet and undisturbed and close your eyes. Imagine that all your financial troubles are immediately in front of you, as though stuck to the side of a vast forbidding mountain. The bills, the mortgage payments, the overdraft, the collapsing shares, they’re all there and your financial problems seem overwhelming.
Then imagine that an open-topped car appears on the horizon and drives towards you. As it approaches you’ll see that it’s driven by a good friend who invites you to get in and go for a spin. Your friend drives away from the mountain down a long dirt road, then stops the car and invites you to get out. As you turn round you can see the mountain in the distance, but now it looks small set against the rest of the landscape and you can’t make out the details of your financial troubles.
You’re in a desert but what you can see clearly is a nearby tree, beautiful and ancient and somehow it has fresh growth on it. It has tenacity and resilience, it has survived and even thrived in this hostile climate. And you remember your mantra: “I am strong.”
Avoid bad news before bedtime
Every night you watch the 10pm news before bed. What is that doing? If you’re worried about financial insecurity and a jobs cull at work then, just before you retire for the night, you hear that hundreds of workers have been laid off and there’s a big fraud, how well do you sleep?
In times of troubles, absorbing even more anxiety isn’t a good idea before sleep. It creates distortion. It’s late, you’re tired and this is never a good time to talk about your financial problems – and neither is it a good time to listen to details of the recession. Better to look at these things in the light not the dark, in the daytime when you’re more positive and have a broader perspective. Before you go to bed, do something that relaxes you, such as listening to music or reading a novel. Or listen to my podcast on sleep, which will be available later this week.
Read the article on how Max helped Emilie McMeekan from the London Evening Standard Quit Smoking in one session.
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