The power of a hug

hug illustrationA hug is wonderful when you feel sad, stressed, tired and even when you feel good.

I love what the Free Hugs people do when they stand in a city centre holding a ‘Free Hugs’ sign. Their hugs produce human connection, vulnerability, smiles, laughter, positive emotion, and even sometimes tears, especially if it’s the first hug a person who has been suffering has experienced in a long while.

Hugs are also good for the heart. They increase our levels of the hormone ‘oxytocin’, which as well as being known for its role in trust, childbirth, and breastfeeding, is also a powerful ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. This basically means it helps protect the cardiovascular system.

From what? You might ask. From the negative side-effects of poor dietary and lifestyle choices and also from mental and emotional stress.

Oxytocin works by producing nitric oxide in our arteries, which then widens (dilates) our arteries. Nitric oxide helps our arteries stay flexible and also helps reduce blood pressure.

So, ultimately, hugs are cardioprotective too. And I’d say so for more than simply their oxytocin-and-therefore-nitric-oxide-inducing power, but because they make us feel relaxed, cared for, even loved. Hugs are medicine for the soul.

I remember crying in front of my mum and dad when I found out our beloved dog, Oscar, had osteosarcoma and was unlikely to live beyond a few months. Mum hugged me and I melted, collapsed in her arms. I felt like a child again, being loved by and tended to by my mum.

I think we have that memory of being tended to by our parents as children, where we were upset or in pain and we knew that ‘everything is going to be OK’, ‘the pain will go soon’, or ‘it’s OK, Mum (or Dad) will fix it’. It’s a memory held deep in the unconscious but whose emotions are released in our adult lives when we receive a hug.

So hugs are medicine for the heart and they are medicine for the soul. If we could bottle hugs, we would take our daily dose without question.

Here’s the thing, you can have a daily dose. You don’t need to wait to be hugged. You can hug others.

As a typical Scottish male (OK, I’m not really able to speak for my entire nation but I’ll make a generalisation based on my 45-year-old observations), hugging didn’t come naturally to me. To be honest, I felt like a sissy if someone hugged me. I’d do the whole, awkward, chest-held-back-not sure-about-touching thing, followed by a little pat on the back, secretly hoping that the hug would end soon.

But I learned to enjoy hugs. I think it happened when I was in my late 20’s and Mum (again to the rescue) looked after me for a week while I suffered a bout of depression. It was the first time in my adult life I opened up to someone. I think something shifted in me then, a willingness to open up to others that I’d not showed before. I then became an initiator of hugs.

Even in the bar on a Thursday night after work (that was our standard weekly visit), I’d say goodbye to my friends at the end of the night with a hug. At first, some of them were a little awkward but soon got the hang of it too. It came natural to some others. But within a month or two, a hug was the standard goodbye for us after a few drinks in the bar.

So I’d add that hugs are also contagious. As we hug others, we share a connection. It opens us a little. It feels good. And that makes it contagious.

So given the medicine that hugs carry, that they are free, and contagious (in a good way), it might be a good idea to see if you can add a few more hugs to your day.

You’d be doing yourself a favour, but each time you hug you also deliver a gentle dose of medicine to the heart and soul of another person too.

And that is the power of a hug.

The art of self-correction

daisies growingSeveral years ago, I spent time as an athletics coach, coaching young people in the long jump and triple jump. It was one of these things that just kind of happened.

I had no previous coaching experience, and certainly wasn’t a technical expert in the logistics of jumping, but the existing coach was moving on and asked if I’d take over. I’d been training in the long jump myself but mostly got by on raw speed. So without a great deal of know-how, I decided to do it my way.

During each training session I led the athletes through basic routines – things I’d done myself. But throughout each training session, my strategy was mostly about lifting the spirits of each athlete in the squad by saying positive things that helped them feel good about themselves. I’d noticed that my chemistry teacher at school did that with me.

He always made me feel good about myself, pointing out how well I was doing, that I had potential, expressing joy when I’d got an answer correct. As a result, I loved being in the chemistry class, excelled in it, went on to university and finished up with a PhD in the subject. I wondered if the athletes would excel in their own ways if I did for them what my chemistry teacher did for me.

It seemed to work. The athletes made great improvements. So much so, in fact, that every single one of them became medallists in their age groups at the year-end national club finals.

The athletes would often notice by themselves where they could improve in the technical aspects of the event. That’s what happens when you’re enjoying something. They also learned by observing each other. Then they made many of their own adjustments accordingly. By coming from inside themselves rather than just from my instruction, they seemed to take more responsibility for their training and more pride in the event. Success, for them, was an inside job.

I call this kind of thing, where we make adjustments by ourselves, ‘Self-Correction’. It’s where we identify where we can improve and make corrections when necessary. It’s an aspect of self-awareness, but where we then act on what we become aware of.

We can apply it to all manner of things. If you’re learning mindfulness, for example, because you need to manage your stress levels, you can self-correct simply by noticing when you’re not feeling calm and doing something about it.

I apply it to personal growth work. I used it extensively when I was working on my self-love (self-esteem) project. Regular awareness of how I was feeling and how I was acting in particular environments helped me a lot to make useful adjustments.

It seems like a no brainer, pretty obvious stuff. And it is, but you’d be surprised at how little we actually do what we know. That’s why I shared my story of athletics coaching. As simple as it sounds, just knowing that you can make big improvements through self-correction helps enormously. If you’re trying to reduce stress, for example, knowing that self-correction can help will actually cause you to notice times when you need to relax.

A simple awareness of the power of self-correction generates a feeling of hope. And that hope shifts the centre of gravity away from seeking solutions in other places, and into yourself.

And that makes all the difference.

Find yourself vs reveal yourself

homeless - travellerIt can be hard to be yourself. In fact, what does it actually mean?

It can mean a lot of things to different people. We sometimes think we need to ‘find’ ourselves in order to ‘be’ ourselves. But finding yourself can actually feel stressful to some people because it conjures up the idea of a long and challenging journey, one beset with obstacles along the way to test your mettle and commitment to the journey.

One of the things I’ve discovered is that an important part of being ourselves is actually a lot about removing the masks of who you are not; like stopping pretending that you are always positive or happy, or that you always have the answers, that you have everything figured out, or letting go of the pretence that you don’t get scared even, or that people’s comments don’t hurt you … etc … and there are many more.

We pretend because we want to be liked, accepted, to belong. We are prone to hide our ‘wobbly bits’ from others because we want to present our best side to the world. We want the world to see us as what we consider to be our most desirable, most talented, most intelligent, strongest, wisest, funniest, (etc, etc) self.

This is because, deep in the human psyche, not being liked by others feels like a threat to our very survival. You see, millions of years of evolution have ingrained in the human psyche (and biology) the need to form connections with others because these connections are what created community that ultimately helped our species thrive. The need for connection has become as much part of our biology and psychology as has the need for air to breathe.

It’s why connection stimulates the production of growth hormones and oxytocin, both which play key roles in the growth and repair of the human body. An infant deprived of connection grows at a slower rate than an infant shown an abundance of connection, mostly due to lower levels of growth hormones and oxytocin.

It’s also why a lack of connection is associated with depression in adults as well as a weaker immune system and poorer function of the cardiovascular system.

In centuries past, one of the worst punishments was banishment, where a person could never again return to their community. It was not uncommon for those banished to make multiple (and eventually fatal) attempts to get back into the village or town again. They simply could not live without connection.

In the modern world, the need for connection creates, for many, an inbuilt, unconscious desire to please people, to need them to like us, because we believe that being liked will help us bond and form connections. That’s why we try to show our best bits and hide our seeming weaknesses. We fear that if we show our weaknesses, vulnerabilities, insecurities, that people won’t like us and thus we won’t be able to form connections. Of course, this is mostly going on unconsciously.

But we have it a bit back to front. In holding back our real selves, in only showing up as part of ourselves (the shiny bits and not the wobbly bits), we don’t really form the quality of connections our biology and psyches need. We erect artificial barriers, built upon the fear of people seeing our seeming shortcomings, barriers that actually block authentic connection.

On the other hand, having the courage to show our wobbly bits – our vulnerabilities, our insecurities, our seeming weaknesses – actually makes authentic connection more likely. It helps us forge deeper connections because we let go of pretences.

We give up the idea of being who we are not. We knock down these internal barriers. We show up as we are. We move away from wanting specific people to like us, give us approval, love us, even, and move towards knowing that if people don’t like us as we are then they will simply drift out of our lives, making space for people who like, approve, love us for who we are. In effect, we become more comfortable in our own skin.

So perhaps, rather than try to find yourself, have a go at ditching who you are not. And as you let go of these false ideas of yourself, who knows … you might just find the person you were looking for.

A matter of perspective

sunglassesI’ve always thought of myself as having a positive attitude. Not all the time, of course. I think we all have our good and bad days, the latter making positive thinking quite a bit harder, those days when if someone says ‘Think positive’, well, I’ll leave it to your imagination.

But in many instances, whether a day is a good day or a bad day is really a matter of perspective. Let me share an example of a day I had a few weeks ago.

I’d flown to Dublin on a Sunday evening for my 4th speaking event in 4 days, arriving around 10.30pm, and when I went to retrieve my case from the luggage carousel, it hadn’t arrived. I reported it at the service desk and they discovered that my case was still in London. I explained that it was full of books and that I needed them for an event I was due to speak at the next day.

The girl at the desk sent an email to BA to explain that my case was a priority. She then informed me that there was a flight due in from London at 8am the next morning and that she’d try to get BA to put my case on that flight. If so, she’d then arrange for it to be couriered to the venue.

I was really grateful because she seemed really determined to help me. I also received a text from BA at 4.19am the next morning to tell me that my case was now on the plane. I decided then that I’d just collect the case myself off the 8am flight rather than have it couriered to the venue. After all, I was staying at an airport hotel just a few minutes away. Plus, I had an odd feeling that something might go wrong with couriering my case to the venue.

Arriving at the airport, I was led through the staff security area, which was quite cool. I’d forgotten that I had a bottle of water in my bag so they had to take it off me, but the guy said I could come back and collect it once I’d retrieved my case, which I thought was a nice gesture.

Case in hand I then had to make my way into Dublin. I didn’t know until then that this was the day of the Dublin marathon, the annual 26-mile 385 yards race. It turned out that many of the roads were closed and therefore cars, buses, and taxis couldn’t get into the part of the city I was travelling to.

The bus driver only discovered this himself when we reached the point of a road closure. He said I’d need to get off and walk the rest of the way, which was one and a half miles (2.4km). So I did, dragging my two cases with me (I had a carry-on case as well). Oh, and there was a light drizzle of rain, the kind of rain that soaks you right through, and I didn’t have a hood or an umbrella.

Despite my walk, I arrived early and the venue hadn’t opened yet so I sat in a lovely coffee shop nearby, which was also nice and warm, ideal, in fact, for drying my hair and clothes.

The day went well. I chatted with loads of nice people, delivered a 1-hour talk and taught a 2-hour workshop, having to make a swift exit afterwards to get back to the airport to make the last flight home. With the traffic situation due to the marathon, I just made it!

When I got back home later that evening, I received a lot of ‘Goodness, what a day!’, ‘What bad luck, what with the case, then getting soaked’, etc, ‘especially after all the travel you’ve done recently’. I understood. I’d have said the exact same things if it had been someone else. These kinds of reactions are motivated by empathy.

But you know what? Until that moment, it actually never occurred to me that the loss of my bag following by getting wet while dragging my cases over a mile and a half in the rain was a negative thing.

That really struck me! Until that moment, it really hadn’t dawned on me at all that I could have viewed it all as negative.

Instead, I remember that my main feeling at Dublin airport was gratitude that the girl at the service desk was so kind and helpful in tracing my bag. I also felt gratitude towards BA for texting me to let me know my case was onboard the early morning flight, even though they texted me in the middle of the night. In fact it was moments after I received that text that I had the intuitive insight to collect the case myself rather than let it be couriered. Had it been couriered it would never have reached the venue due to the road closure situation. So I was grateful for the text in two ways: one, because I knew my case was in transit, and two, because it inspired the intuition to collect it myself.

I also recalled how much I enjoyed not having to go through the customer security process but going through the staff one instead. I enjoyed chatting with the staff, and even remember high-fiving myself that I got my bottle of water back. After all, I’d only just bought it and hadn’t even opened it yet. A small thing, perhaps, but it was a first and I was in quite a good mood.

I also appreciated that the bus driver, upon learning of the road closure, helped me to find the venue on the Maps app on my iPhone and showed me that the road I had to walk was actually a straight road, leaving little chance of getting get lost. I also enjoyed the walk. It was a lovely part of the city and I recall looking at many of the lovely houses and imagining how people probably loved living here. I also loved that the coffee shop was warm and cosy where I could dry off.

I recalled, also, that I really enjoyed the day, chatting with people, catching up with one or two friends who were also there, and that my talk and workshop had gone really well (and the audiences laughed at my jokes), and my relief that the taxi driver got me to the airport on time afterwards.

Reflecting on all this made me think of how much our emotional responses to things depend upon our perspective.

For example, two people could arrive for a night at a hotel and stay in identical rooms. One person could label it a bad hotel and another might consider it a lovely hotel. It’s the same hotel. All that differs is their perspective, which might be a consequence of past experience. It’s a person’s perspective that runs the show.

Depending on our perspective, we can view the same event in multiple ways, making us feel good or bad. One of the insights in life, I believe, is being aware of this, and one of the skills in life is using it to our advantage.

I suddenly realised that the gratitude exercises I’d been doing recently had kind of worked wonders. From time to time I make a point of working on gratitude. I don’t do it all the time, lest I get bored with the exercise, but I do it, as I said, from time to time. I basically spend a few moments a day listing all the things, people, circumstances, events, aspects of nature, etc, that I’m grateful for at that time. I had been doing it for a couple of weeks prior to this eventful day.

The exercise seemed to have created a habit in my way of thinking regarding what I focused on and how I interpreted events. Instead of focusing on negative things – I could easily have been frustrated that my case didn’t arrive off the carousel, especially as it was so late at night and that it would likely take at least a half hour to go through the process of reporting it lost, and that I was wakened by a text message in the middle of the night, and that I had to walk for over half an hour in the rain while dragging a heavy case – but my mind seemed to settle on other things, aspects of the situations that made them seem lighter.

That’s the power in gratitude exercises, when we’re consistent with them, that they create habits of thinking that alter the way we experience things.

Now, I’m not saying that gratitude will always work this way. It hasn’t always been that way for me. And it’s not like gratitude teaches us to ignore difficult or painful things. It really just seems to be that, in everyday life, the effect of a gratitude practice is that the detail that our minds settle upon in the landscape of the day contains more light than dark. That’s all.

For me, what really struck me was the degree to which the practice I’d been doing had done this. It had spared me a lot of frustration, which I might have experienced instead.

7 ways to help you take your time

woman reading book by windowI’ve had to remind myself of it recently, to take my time. We bought a house in May, an old cottage that needed a lot of renovating. Our plan was to do the renovation work and move in by the end of June. It was a deadline that we were working towards.

It didn’t quite work out that way and we’re still living with in-laws. Renovations often take longer than planned. We’ll be ready to move in soon but the whole experience has helped me look at how I do things and reminded me of the importance of not doing everything in a hurry.

Here’s 7 ways to help you take your time:

1) It’s healthy

Hurrying all the time creates stress. Decide that your long-term health is more important than getting something done quickly.

2) Start earlier

If there’s somewhere you need to be, either leave earlier or contact the person you’re meeting and give them a realistic E.T.A. If you’re regularly late for things, ask yourself, honestly, how late you typically tend to be. Next time, leave early by that amount… plus an extra 10 minutes.

3) Meditate

Practice daily meditation. A regular practice of meditation trains you in new habit of having a quieter mind. The result is that you are more focused in the moment and also less likely to get stressed. Neurologically, this is because meditation causes physical changes in the concentration and focus areas of the brain and also those that affect positive emotion.

4) Reorganise your To-Do list

Make a To-Do list and create two columns. In one, list your priorities, and in the other list things that you have to do but that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you didn’t manage them. Sometimes, just having things a little clearer relieves stress and helps you take your time with the things that are more important, thereby ensuring that you do a better job.

5) Learn from nature

Observe that nature takes its time. You don’t see a tree hurrying to grow or the sun rushing to get out. Take a walk in nature and simply notice that it does what it does when it does it. There’s no urgency with nature. Let yourself be inspired by its pace.

6) Should your deadlines be guidelines?

Be flexible with your deadlines. OK, having deadlines can be good because they help focus us on our goals. But are you one of those people who give everything a deadline? Look for some middle ground. Decide which things are better with a strong deadline and where your deadlines should really be more like guidelines. Working to a deadline can be good and small amounts of stress can also be good, but making everything a deadline is not so good as it can create too much stress too much of the time.

7) Focus on the present moment

A nice stress-relieving trick is simply to give whatever you’re doing your complete focus. If you’re walking fast to get somewhere, listen to the sound of your footsteps instead of reminding yourself that you need to hurry. If you’re washing dishes, become aware of the feel of the water. If you’re stuck in traffic, listen to the sounds around you. Do it with an open, curious mind. When you focus on the present moment, it quietens your mind and often produces an influx of positive emotion.

Is reality a simulation?

virtual reality simulationYou know I like to write on the fusion of science, self-help, and spirituality. Well I think this article pretty much spices things up a bit so try to soak it up in a light-hearted way.

The pace of development of computer technology is phenomenal. Have you heard of Moore’s Law? In 1965, Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel, predicted that “the number of transistors incorporated in a chip will approximately double every 24 months.” The law has held true for the past half century. In the early 70s, the average chip had a couple of thousand transistors. Modern chips have around 5-10 billion.

There’s more power in a pocket calculator than in the guidance computer used by the first Apollo manned lunar program, for instance; more power in a smart phone than in the first Space Shuttle.

Exponential

Computers have become smaller yet their power is increasing exponentially. For the purpose if this article, it’s important I explain what exponential is. If you know then feel free to skip this wee section. If you don’t, you might find it fascinating.

Exponential growth basically means that growth appears to accelerate to infinity in the relatively near future. Think of it this way. Linear growth is where you continue to add a number to another number, like this:

If we start with 0 and keep adding 2, we get the series: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16,18…62 (after 30 additions)… 102 (after 50 additions)

But with exponential, we are doubling each time instead of adding. The result is very different. Starting with 1 we get:

1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 (10 doublings), 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32786, 65536, 131072, 262144, 524288, 1048576, (i.e. about 1 million after 20 doublings)… 109 (i.e. 1 billion, after 30 doublings), 1012 (1 trillion after 40 doublings)… 1015 (after 50 doublings), which is 1,000,000,000,000,000.

Compare the number ‘102’ after 50 additions (linear growth) with ‘1,000,000,000,000,000’ after 50 doublings (exponential growth) and you can see the difference between linear and exponential growth. Computing power is growing exponentially like this and has been for the past 50 years. As you get to bigger numbers, that is, faster computing power, developments seem to accelerate. You might have noticed! Look at the pace of development of computer technology in the past decade compared to the decade before. It appears to have accelerated.

From our simple perspective of thinking of things linearly – i.e. adding one thing to another – exponential growth literally appears to ‘explode’ into infinity.

What does that actually mean for computing power and how does it relate to the question of whether reality is a simulation or not?

I don’t mean to screw with your head here so please just take what I write with a pinch of salt. Much of it is just me having some fun with ideas.

Doubling of computing power is what’s occurring every 2 years. At the moment our best technology has the computing power approximately equal to an insect brain. It sounds like we’re quite primitive! But in a few years of exponential growth, we should have surpassed the power of a rodent brain. By around 2025 we’re looking at reaching the power of a human brain. That’s where artificial intelligence (AI) should surpass us in computing power. But just 25 years later, around 2050, if exponential growth keeps up, AI should have the computing power of every single human brain combined. That kind of computing power is unimaginable to us right now. It would be like downloading the entire current Internet plus everything that’s ever been written in recorded human history into a device the size of a small molecule in an infinitesimally tiny fraction of a second.

And that power will double again just two years after that, and double again two years after that… and so on into apparent infinity.

Where will we be in by end of the century? What about by the 24th century? OK, here’s where I’m going with my playful train of thought.

We currently have technology where a pilot can fly a plane with his mind, where simple thoughts are read through activation of brain regions. We have technology that can map the brain into a kind of grid where it’s easy to ‘read’ which brain regions are activated when a person thinks a particular thought. In the piloting example, the grid is integrated into the plane’s controls. A pilot simply thinks ‘left’ and this activates, say, region C7 of the grid. Since the grid is part of the navigation controls, the computer simply reads C7 as an instruction to veer the plane to the left. The same technology is being incorporated into state-of-the-art prosthetic devices. The suggestion of this, say, 20 years ago would have seemed preposterous. A glimpse of the future would have appeared supernatural.

We also have holographic technology and virtual reality simulators that appear astonishingly real. I don’t think it will be very long at all before our computing power will give us virtual reality (VR) simulators that appear like reality. It’s just a matter of computing speed, like how the ZX-81 with its block graphics in the 80s gradually evolved into streaming live HD TV on a tablet.

All it would take to make physical objects seem completely solid in a VR simulator is an electrical current applied to regions of the body as a person ‘touches’ an object, like to the finger when a person touches something solid. There’s nothing actually there at all, but to all intents and purposes, our senses would tell us there was. Then we have VR as indistinguishable from actual reality.

At our current exponential rate of development, I predict we’ll have more than surpassed this in 50 years from now. A person could then live an entire lifetime inside a VR simulator that would appear completely real to her or him.

So here’s a playful thought. Given the age of the universe (13.8 billion years) and the 300 billion or so known galaxies, each with their roughly 300 billion stars, and then multiply that by a truly astronomical number representing the estimated number of universes (if you take up-to-date cosmological theories), I think it almost inconceivable that an advanced civilization has not already reached such a place. We’re talking of VR as indistinguishable from actual reality in 50 years… the universe has existed for 13.8 billion years and other universes (again taking up-to-date cosmology theories) might have been around trillions and trillions and trillions of years.

If I were creating such technology I’d want to make it the most real it could be. I’d have us enter the simulator and experience ourselves as a single fertilized cell, so that by the time that cell has grown into a human fetus, a player’s consciousness would be fully integrated into the idea of a physical form. As it’s just been a few months, the player will remember his or her previous life outside of the simulator, but maybe they’d start to forget after living as a human for a few years with the constant stimulus around them. By the time they learn to speak as a toddler, a player would likely have completely forgotten where she or he came from; they might have completely forgotten their existence before ‘birth’ and so spend an entire lifetime living their new life.

Perhaps some players would get fragments of memories of their time before entering the simulation, where they chose where they wanted to start their ‘life’. They would have chosen lines of code to become their genetic code so they’d have certain characteristics. Maybe players would enter the simulator with some family or friends and live together in varying relationships.

And let me stretch my playful idea a little further, just for fun.

How do we even know that human form is our ‘real’ form, if we are existing in some kind of simulation where human form is simply a consequence of computer (aka, genetic) code?

Given the age of the universe, life could have evolved so that no physical body is even needed and consciousness is free to attach itself to a single atom or any particular bunch of atoms. In that sense, we would all be truly infinite. The true description of yourself would be ‘I Am’. Not ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’; ‘this’ or ‘that’ would be temporary forms. Your ‘universal’ description would be ‘I am’… and that’s it.

Computers by this time would be quantum computers (scientists are building those today) that simply involve arranging subatomic particles into patterns. And since consciousness could attach itself to atoms and particles, consciousness would control the quantum computers and, in a sense, the computers would be part of us.

If such a thing were true, the simulation we humans currently find ourselves in is merely a projection of our own consciousness and ‘life’, in many ways for us, resembles a cinematic projection in 3D but one that is controlled by our conscious and unconscious thoughts and beliefs. In human life we have no idea of who or what we are.

If I were such a consciousness, seemingly infinite, I think it would be quite fun to forget who and what I am for a while and create a simulation of ‘primitive’ human life.

Anyway, I did say I was having a play with some ideas. Don’t take this too seriously. 🙂

A strategy for overcoming worry, fear or anxiety

Breathe written on a pebbleEverybody has worries and fears. They can be useful because they can be warning signs of danger. They can also give us insights into the workings of our own minds. For some, understanding the source of a worry or fear helps them address a deeper issue causing it. But for most people, those repetitive bolts of worry, fear, or anxiety are nothing but a nuisance.

New insights in neuroscience offer us hope, however, in being able to change our emotional states.

During worry, fear or anxiety, brain resources tend to be flowing towards worry, fear and anxiety areas of the brain. Part of the fear architecture in the brain is the amygdala.

It’s a habit…

You might have noticed that the more we worry the more we seem to find to worry about. Worry, fear and anxiety are like habits for many people and so much so that eventually it only takes a small thing to set it off. Several years earlier, the same thing wouldn’t have had as much of an effect, if at all, and you now wonder why it is that you seemed so much stronger, more resilient, when you were younger. It’s partly because just like a muscle grows bigger and stronger through exercise, so worry, fear and anxiety brain areas grow too.

Just as a muscle becomes more powerful, so worry, fear and anxiety seem to become more powerful, in that we become more sensitive to circumstances around us and even begin to lose confidence. The phenomenon is broadly known as neuroplasticity.

This is where the hope lies though, because, a) neuroplasticity occurs in many regions of the brain, and b) it doesn’t just refer to growth but to shrinkage through lack of use. Think of what happens to a muscle if you stop using it.

The strategy I’d like to share with you uses this insight. If you stop worrying so much, you tend to find less things to worry about. That’s because you’re not using the ‘worry muscle’ as much and so it shrinks, just as a muscle shrinks if you stop working it.

Easier said than done! True! So the strategy involves bypassing the whole positive thinking thing. Instead we use simple techniques to divert resources away from the worry areas of the brain to areas associated with conscious control of our minds. It’s kind of like not letting resources flow backwards but making them flow forwards instead. Through not ‘feeding’ the worry areas so much, just like a muscle weakens through lack of use, the same happens to worry regions of the brain.

It takes a little bit of work, but it can be well worth it.

The How-to…

Here’s what you do. Each time the worry, fear or anxiety surfaces, take a comfortable breath, focusing all of your attention on the act of breathing – the sound, the sensation in your nostrils, the movement of your tummy or chest. By doing this, you interrupt the flow of brain resources towards the worry areas and instead send resources towards the prefrontal cortex (the bit above your eyes). It’s an area at the front of your brain that’s associated with conscious control. This is because you are consciously controlling something; in this case, your breath. This prefrontal cortex, among other areas, is active when we focus our attention on our breath.

It sounds easy on paper and initially the positive effect might only last a moment or two and you might find yourself having to do it 2, 3 or even 10 times in a row. This is where the work comes in. You almost need to be relentless, focusing on your breath every time the fearful thought or feeling arises. The technique is not for everyone as some might find it tiring and you might also doubt it could actually work.

But it can bring powerful results if you keep it up for a few days. Within that time, as neuroplasticity occurs to build the prefrontal cortex while at the same time shrinking the amygdala, you might notice a little letting-up of your fearful thoughts and feelings. Keeping the practice up for a few weeks might produce lasting results.

There is another fun way to do it. Instead of focusing on your breath when the fearful feeling arises, I have encouraged people to do a little victory dance – a silly, crazy set of made-up dance moves, choreographed by your good self. The key with victory dancing is to do it long enough until you smile (or laugh) – that might take 5 seconds or half a minute. That way, you’re activating positive emotion centers of the brain instead of fear areas. The same thing occurs as before – you build positive emotion areas of the brain while shrinking the worry areas and this is because you’re giving positive emotion areas a workout in instead of feeding worry areas.

You can even add a little visualization or an affirmation while you do the breath thing or the victory dance thing. For the visualization you might imagine the worry area of the brain shrinking down. For the affirmation you might say a positive statement that reflects how you intend to feel.

And if motivation to do it is a hurdle for you, a good thing to help keep you motivated is to remind yourself that you’re simply choosing to work different muscles. We all know how muscles get stronger and weaker depending on how much we exercise them. Doing this and acknowledging that there are actual changes taking place in the brain can provide just the motivation you need.

It is a vey useful strategy. It might not be for everyone and it’s also not the answer to all of our worries, fears, and anxieties. But it certainly is a useful tool.

Helper’s High

Give with heartThe term ‘Helper’s High’ was first coined by Allan Luks, in his book, ‘The Healing Power of Doing Good’. You’re probably familiar with the high. It’s that good feeling we get when we do something kind for someone or an animal.

There are loads of ways we can help each other. Giving time to someone face-to-face brings on Helper’s High. A recent study commissioned by the charity ‘Guide Dogs’ found that when we give our time in helping someone the improved feeling can last up to 24 days. It’s even more pronounced in the 18-24 age group, where effects were reported to last 34 days.

Donating money also makes us feel good. The study found that donating money can make us feel positive for round about a week.

The good feelings come because we’re wired to feel good when we’re kind, which I’ll explain below. That’s why Helper’s High is pretty universal. The Guide Dogs study was of over 2,000 people and found that 95% of those who gave their time to a good cause felt happier. This is what Allan Luks’ study found too. Questioning over 3,000 people on their charitable ways, he also found that 95% reported feeling good when they help others.

I personally think it’s important that kids and teens realise the importance of kindness and how it makes a difference. They’re the future.

In a powerful but mostly forgotten study back in the early 1970s, rather than be punished, teenagers with behavioural difficulties were asked to tutor younger children instead. The results were later published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. By helping younger kids, the ‘teen tutors’ made significant improvements themselves in maths, reading, and sentence completion tasks. Most of them also showed positive changes in their attitude towards themselves, others, education and the future. Quite a result, I’d say.

There are hundreds of studies that show how kindness makes us happier and is healthier for our hearts and immune systems. I don’t intend to list them all here. That would make this a veerrryyyy long blog. If you do want to access them, I collated a large number of them in my book ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ and reference over 250.

In the meantime, let me explain why kindness makes us happier. In short, it’s because we’re genetically wired that way. Helping each other is a behaviour that glues communities together. Thus, through evolutionary timespans, nature has ‘selected’ genes that a) make helping each other a quite natural behaviour and b) ensure that helping each other makes us feel good, so we’ll keep doing it, thus further gluing our communities together.

I would also say that deep in the human psyche, and this is a spiritual thing for many, is the sense that helping each other is basically the right thing to do. We have an intuitive sense of the rightness of helping.

What I really want to get across in this blog is that helping each other is a mark of who we are. It’s in our nature. It doesn’t mean that you have to spend every waking moment helping, else you feel guilty, nor that you respond to every call for help. We have lives to lead, families to support, jobs to do. But if we can just be a little alert to the needs of those around us, that’s a good thing.

I’d also like to address an issue some have with kindness, that it’s really selfish to be kind because we benefit from it. My view is that we help because it’s our nature to be kind. We don’t help to make ourselves feel good. Evolution has simply built a little emotional reward into our biology.

I’m saying this because I’ve read endless debates on whether there is really such a thing as altruism, given that we gain from an act of kindness. It’s the question I’m most often asked when I give a media interview on the science of kindness. My answer is always the same. “I prefer to leave the arguments to academia. In meantime I’m going to be kind.”

And in case you wondered, helping animals produces the same positive effects as does helping humans. Around a month after our dog, Oscar, passed away last year, we went to a rescue center and took some dogs for a walk. In these places dogs don’t always get the exercise they need and the staff are always looking for volunteers to help out. I remember feeling really good that we were able to provide some happiness for the dogs we walked.

And to come back to the selfish issue, we walked the dogs because we loved Oscar and we knew how much he loved to walk. We took the dogs out because we knew it would bring them some pleasure. It just so happens it gave us a sense of inner warmth as well.

I love that there’s such a thing as Helper’s High, that kindness benefits our health (mental and emotional health, heart, immune system, nervous system). It’s like a little reward we get. We don’t help for the reward, but it’s kind of nice when it comes anyway.

So I’ll leave you with my guiding principle in life, which you might be familiar with from some of my other blogs: Whatever you do, do it with kindness.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes

connectedHave you ever wondered if things happen for a reason? A very unusual thing happened in my life a few years ago. I still chuckle to myself when I think about it today. 🙂

Between 2001 and the end of 2002, I had been director of a charity (Spirit Aid Foundation) that a few friends and I had set up. I had many roles within that charity, as is often the case when budgets are limited and so volunteers have to learn to turn their hands to many different tasks.

One of my roles had been to build the charity’s website. At the end of 2002, I stepped down from my work with the charity so that I could start work on writing my first book (It’s the Thought that Counts). A few days after I left, I received a call from a volunteer (Pat) who had assumed responsibility for the website. She excitedly told me that a local IT company had agreed to create a new website for free but that she would need all the original files for the site asap. Could I get them to her by tomorrow? No problem, I told her.

I got out my laptop, opened up the files, popped a CD in the drive and pressed ‘Save’. Nothing happened. I hit ‘Save’ again and again and again. Still nothing. I tried a different CD and the result was the same. I actually went through a whole pack of CDs and none of them worked either.

I decided I needed some new CDs so I jumped in the car and drove to the nearest town where I could purchase some new CDs. I entered the shop and immediately came face to face with a large display of cheap floppy discs. I made my way around them, chuckling to myself that floppy discs are ‘so yesterday’. Being tech savvy, I told myself, I would be using CDs as they are the ‘in thing’. This was 2002, around the time when floppy discs were being phased out and replaced with CDs, which could store much more data.

Everywhere I looked for CDs in the shop, I kept finding floppy discs. Eventually I had to ask a store assistant where to find them. When I took them to the counter to pay, the assistant even then attempted to sell me floppy discs on special offer. I think they had an excess of stock they wanted rid of. Affirming how tech savvy I was, I even gave the assistant a little lecture on the differences in storage capacity between a floppy disc and a CD and why it’s much better to use CDs.

Proud of my new purchase of a pack of five shiny new CDs, I made my way back home. I popped a CD in the drive and pressed, ‘Save’. Nothing! I went through all five of my new CDs and none of them worked.

Not being one to allow myself to get too stressed, I had concluded at that time in my life that if I started to feel stressed, a good exercise was to do the exact opposite from what was stressing me. So naturally, knowing that I really needed to get the files onto a CD and to the post office by around 5pm, I decided to take the rest of the day off instead.

I phoned Elizabeth and she collected me in her little Fiat Cinquecento. We decided to go for a drive to somewhere nice where we could have lunch. Once in the car, Elizabeth asked me where we were going. I hadn’t a clue. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. So I opened up the AA Road Atlas (this was 2002, long before we had a sat nav) and found the large double page that covered central Scotland, where my small village of Banknock could be found. The page spanned quite a large area of cities, towns, villages about 250 by 250 kilometres, so I randomly selected as our destination a small town neither of us had ever visited, which was about an hours’ drive away.

When we got there, we drove into a large car park that was utterly deserted so we had our choice of parking spaces. Elizabeth selected one, parked and switched the engine off. As I stepped out of the car, a little box right in the centre of the adjacent parking space caught my attention. I moved closer to examine it and was quite taken by surprise when I learned that it was a box of ten floppy discs!

I decided not to touch them, just in case somebody had dropped them and was maybe on their way back for them. So we went for a walk and stopped into a pub to get some lunch, where we stayed for the next hour or so before returning to the car. We had swiftly concluded that perhaps one of the reasons why we’d never visited that town, nor had heard of family of friends visiting it, was because there really wasn’t much to see or do.

Back at the car park, still there, sitting ‘parked’ in its very own space, was the box of floppy discs. This is when I had the thought that maybe they were meant for me, so I took them and we drove back home again.

It’s a useful strategy for managing stress and boosting your creativity, to do something completely different from what is causing you stress. Back at my laptop I decided to once again attempt to save the web files onto CDs. I figured that I probably did something in error earlier in the day. Now that I felt refreshed I had a feeling I’d spot my error. And spot it I did. My error was that I didn’t actually have a CD Writer so I couldn’t possibly save onto a CD.

I had a CD Reader. Computers nowadays (the ones that still use CDs, that is) have the ability to read a CD (i.e. open what’s on it) and write a CD (i.e. burn files onto it). In 2002, you needed to buy a CD Writer, which was a little box you plugged into the side of your computer. I didn’t have one, despite my proclaimed tech savvyness. This was the point I felt a little pang of regret at having lectured the shop assistant about all my knowledge of technology. I had needed floppy discs all along.

But it’s funny how things work out. I just happened to have a new box of floppy discs that I had found in a car park a few hours earlier. I used them instead. And I actually needed all ten of them as there were so many files.

Once it was done, I packed them up and just made it to the post office as it was closing for the day, thereby ensuring that, as promised, Pat received all of the website files the next day.

I often wonder how weird stuff happens. Being scientifically minded, I have difficulty leaving things be. I have to find an explanation. Statistically, the chances of finding a box of ten floppy discs in a car park an hours’ drive away, where I could have selected anywhere in the same radius, when I actually needed floppy discs, is round about zero, I would think. If I thought I could do it again, I think I’d have more success betting on winning the lottery two weeks in a row.

I have written in some of my blogs (see: A Cluster of Synchronicities and Do You Have a 6th Sense?) and in one of my books (Is Your Life Mapped Out?) about how we’re all connected and, in fact, how everything is connected to everything, and that if we play with the idea that consciousness is not inside the head but is spread out over the universe, then that might provide part of an explanation for why we seem to sometimes attract who and what we focus our attention on.

In this case, my larger (subconscious) awareness knew all along that I needed a box of floppy discs and, as everything is connected, was also aware of exactly where I could find such a box. At first, it drew me to a shop where I was given numerous opportunities to purchase them, but where I instead elected to let my ego have its say as I explained the merits of CDs to the shop assistant who, for the sake of good customer service, feigned some interest.

My subconscious must have had a sense of humour that day as it then seeded the idea of choosing a place nearly 100 kilometres away where I would have no choice but to accept the floppy discs that I had needed all along.

That’s my explanation anyway. I do think it’s funny how things work out sometimes.

It’s about the journey, not the destination

Street name ElizabethThere was a fierce storm in the UK last Thursday. All throughout the night we could hear the wind and rain. It was almost deafening. In the morning, our garden was strewn with torn-off branches of trees.

I was due to drive from my home in central Scotland to London. Each year in December, my publisher (Hay House) organises a Christmas party in London for the European authors. My plan was to drive because I needed a car to get to and from a speaking event 2 days later.

I delayed my early morning departure by a few hours until the weather had much improved, then set off on what is usually a simple 7-hour drive.

When I was about half way, an accident had occurred just up ahead. It was on the M6 motorway, just west of Manchester, and the M6 was now being closed. Over the next few hours, a long queue of very-slow-moving traffic was moved off the motorway and headed towards the town of Warrington to pick up a main road back onto the M6 at the next junction.

With not much else to do in a stationary traffic queue, I checked the BBC Travel News website to get real-time updates on the roads. I learned that there were two closures of the M6. The other one was about 100 miles farther, near Birmingham. I would meet that one too. At these times, most people act in one of two ways.

The first is frustration. A man in a blue car behind me was so angry when we were funnelled off the M6 that he started banging on his steering wheel – with his head! The other option is to accept what is happening in the moment. It’s not always easy to do, but I reasoned that there wasn’t really anything I could do to change the situation. I would most likely miss the party. It’s either frustration or find a way of enjoying the journey. I chose option 2.

Even the thought of having that choice was quite relaxing. I felt empowered as I dwelled on idea that I am in control of my own mind, and therefore how I feel. Just then, I caught sight of a car pulling out of a housing state and had a sudden intuition that there was probably a quicker route through the estates that would bypass the traffic queues.

I decided that trusting my intuition might be a good way to enjoy the journey a bit, regardless of whether it actually got me to my destination any quicker or not. I checked the ‘Maps’ app on my iPhone and I could, indeed, see a route through the streets. I pulled off the main road and into the streets lined with houses.

As I drove along, I felt a little buzz of crazy excitement – to be 300km from home and instead of being on the M6, I was driving though quiet streets lined with houses. It felt good to be trusting my intuition on purpose and I determined to continue trusting it, regardless of where it might take me. I passed a street called, ‘ELIZABETH DRIVE. I smiled, as that’s the name of my partner…the Elizabeth bit. 🙂

I figured it would actually be quite nice to go back and take a photograph of the sign and then text it to Elizabeth, so I did. It’s little things like these that bring complete contrast to what we could or should be doing that can actually help us to feel good. It further removed my mind from the stress of the whole ‘getting-to-my-destination’ thing.

About two minutes later, I passed another street name and, of course, I had to stop and take another photograph. This one was for ‘DAVENHAM AVENUE’. I laughed out loud.

The little intuitive side-step into the housing estates probably saved me about an hour. By the time I picked up the road back onto the M6, I began to wonder if the time-saving I’d made would actually help me get to London on time for the party. Perhaps the M6 at Birmingham would be reopened by the time I got there, I wondered. Then I’d definitely make it. I felt a little burst of satisfaction at having listened to my intuition.

But back on the M6 and heading towards Birmingham, I began to wonder why we all seem so future-focused, including myself. Why was I now turning an enjoyable experience of intuition and contrast into being ‘the reason’ I’d get to the party? It felt like I was cheapening the experience, like I was taking something away from it, that it was merely a means to an end.

We all do this, don’t we? We try to explain why everything happens to us. But does there always need to be a reason? Does the present always need to be a means to get us to the future? Such thinking is a recipe for unhappiness and, to be honest, it’s a dish that most of us serve up to ourselves on a daily basis.

Perhaps if, from time to time, we stop looking for reasons, we stop looking to the future, and just meet the moments, the experiences, as if they are the last we’ll ever have.

I had such fun diverting out of the traffic jam and into the streets of houses. Taking those photographs of the road signs might seem unimportant to many people, especially in a future-focused mindset, but it mattered to me. It was something I laughed at in the moment and it is what I most remember about my day in traffic. It’s these seemingly tiny moments that we most remember later in life. If we’re always looking to the future, our main memories are the goals we achieve. And these are short-lived, because we quickly come up with another goal. We miss so many of the moments in between. We forget about the journey.

I was soon caught up in traffic again. The M6 hadn’t reopened and I moved about 1km in 2 and a half hours. I was stationary much of the time. Great, I thought.

I did a meditation (the traffic was completely stationary, I had my engine switched off, and I did it with my eyes open). It was wonderful, and made more so with the excited edge to my emotions because I was meditating in a traffic jam. I bounced on my seat a few times afterwards. How many people could say they did a self-love meditation on the M6, I wondered?

I also listened to some great music on the radio, using the ‘Shazam’ app on my iPhone to get the name of the songs for downloading later when I could pick up a wifi connection.

I also made a few calls to friends and enjoyed a good laugh. One of my friends said, ‘Poor you, to be stuck on the road all day and miss the party’. My response was, truthfully, ‘I’ve had a great time!’ And I had.

I arrived at my hotel in London way too late for the party but I sat in the restaurant and had a lovely meal and a nice glass of red wine, and the service was excellent – smiling staff who did everything to ensure I enjoyed my stay.

Imagine if we applied this kind of thinking to our lives! My journey on the road could just as easily be the story of your life. Don’t you recognise it?

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time for future-thinking. It gives direction to our lives. But perhaps we don’t need to give it quite so much attention.

Do you want to live for the future and forget to live today, or do you want to squeeze every ounce of experience out of the moments of your life as the journey unfolds?

It’s up to you. You have that power of choice.

Choose wisely!