WORRY, A BUSY MIND AND LEARNING TO COPE
Most people feel self-conscious when they are outside of their comfort zone. It’s quite normal, quite natural. It could be speaking in public or doing something new for the first time that gets the pangs of anxiety and worry taking over your whole world. For me, my self-consciousness was tied to my Dyspraxia and my Dyspraxic-traits years before I even knew the condition even existed.
Every single syllable that came out of my mouth were sounds rehearsed countless times in my head out of a very real fear that my words would be met with an ‘excuse me?’ , ‘pardon?’ or a ‘what??’. Responses to the mass majority of people who would be perfectly reasonably replies when you hadn’t quite heard someone, to me however, these replies coming back at me felt like daggers to my heart.
Every single step I took carried along with me a trepidation and worry that I was walking ‘wrong’. Too slow, too fast, moving my arms too much or too little, should I be gripping my fists as I walked, would I bump into someone or something? Was my posture ok? Was I too hunched?
These questions would race through my mind not just daily but constantly. Over-thinking every minute aspect of how I was coming across to other people. Emotionally exhausting is not the word. Dyspraxic minds tend to be a racing free-for-all with new thoughts leaping into the brain and taking the brain, your plans, your priorities hostage for seconds and minutes and minutes and more minutes. Overthinking is something that nullifies your ‘off-switch’ meaning you cannot relax or escape.
With Dyspraxia, train of thoughts aren’t so much a 2 minutes tube journey to the next underground station but can be a 5 hour commute to the other end of the country without warning. Ok so I exaggerate but the metaphor stands and when you want your thought to be that 2 minute journey it can often turn into the much longer one.
The Dyspraxic brain can be like a really annoying train driver!
So what did I do? For years, nothing. It was me, it was who I was. Overthinking is normal right? Perfectly healthy? Everyone does it?
What my self consciousness did to me was keep me to the outside world as ‘perfectly content and happy’. The reality was strikingly different and darker. My self-consciousness and perpetual worry had become so chronic I was holding myself captive. A prisoner within my own comfort zone. Sat in my bedroom , happily avoiding eye contact, away from any chance of embarrassment or having to worry about negotiating social situations, making eye contact, speaking clearly, walking confidently, being an entertaining physical presence. This wasn’t just the odd day. This was my teenage years and crept into my 20’s and was with me throughout my days at university.
I was not living, I was making it through each day with an angry resentment building within me that I was missing out on years what should be filled with a youthful exuberance , a zest for life and a free spirit that comes from a lack of any real responsibility. I believed that there was only one person to blame and that was me.
So what changed? Coping mechanisms. I suppose you could call the avoidance of social situations its own coping mechanism but the more I put myself out there in the outside world I realised living life is all about expectations and being realistic.
I have learned some amazing things over the years which have frankly changed my life. It goes without saying that Dyspraxia is incredibly diverse and these suggestions relate to anxiety issues that I experience and may not be relevant to you at all.
THE ‘BERMUDA TRIANGLE’
The triangle. The upside down triangle should I say. I call it my Bermuda Triangle because it has helped my anxiety around eye contact all but disappear. I learned this on an Assertiveness Course I was encouraged to go on by a charity i was interning for in my early 20’s.
A simple principle. If you have someone stood opposite you think you should make eye contact with, look at their point of their nose and from the tip draw a triangle 🏻🔽 in your mind so that the triangle cover the nose, eyes and forehead.
Now, look anywhere in that triangle and the person you’re looking at will believe you’re making eye contact with them without burn holes in their eyes like lasers. Something that I occasionally I used to when trying to make eye contact as massively over-compensated which could only have made me look like a raging stalker or axe wielding maniac better placed in a slasher film.
THE PRINCIPLE OF ‘SELF-TALK’
This is something I learned about while undergoing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy just before i hit the big 3-0.
My therapist introduced a term to my vocabulary that drew a blank stare from my initially. And then she explained it.
SELF ESTEEM is one of those words always seemed a bit vapid to me, nothing tangible a bit like the concept of a ‘soul’. Self esteem turned into phrase ‘SELF TALK’ connected to me.
So what is self talk? Simply, it is the way we talk about ourself when we are in our own heads. If something goes wrong or you make a mistake or get something wrong you might swear at yourself, call yourself an idiot, a loser, a failure, angry emotive, negative words and labels you’ll casually throw at yourself as part of the course.
If someone stood in front of you, maybe a friend or a colleague made the same mistake, would you throw these words at them and make them feel rubbish about themselves? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d be kind, supporting, empathetic, understanding, keen to make them realise that the mistake is far from the end of the world.
Now then. Why when you make a mistake aren’t you as delicate,kind, forgiving, understanding , long-termist when speaking to yourself as you are when dealing with other people? Aren’t you as deserving as the patience and kindness and tolerance that you’d give to other people. Of course you are.
My therapist’s words struck a chord with me and it was so powerful. I deserve better than to be angry with myself, flippant, negative and reactionary when dealing with myself. Self talk is just two words but knowing the principle has changed the way I view my apparent failings and mishaps. Now everytime I make a mistake instead of harsh, crushing self-critique I adopt a tone as if I were trying to re-assure a friend. And for me at least, works!!
WORRY TIME, MEDITATION AND BACKGROUND NOISE – THE GREAT ESCAPE
The constant buzz and chitter-chatter inside my restless mind throwing up worst case scenarios as if they were dead certs was doing me head in. I explained it to my therapist as my brain feeling like a really old PC and having the work out where all the cables came from and what ports the connected into and looked at the back of the computer and finding a huge pile jumbled up cables and not having a clue when one started and one ended. My brain, my self-esteem problems, the route cause of my anxiety, were so deep routed so engrained in me it was as if I was that computer and for years I was blind to my cables being jumbled and tied up in knots and hadn’t a clue what was what. It made making sense of my worries and rationale behind my feelings nearly impossible.
[SPOILER ALERT: much of it was all explained by undiagnosed Dyspraxia that I wouldn’t realise until that fateful visit to Google.]
So, what is CBT? We ran an article , an interview with a CBT therapist (here) which explains it well. I went into the CBT session ready and willing to regale my unsuspecting therapist with stories from my childhood. After all, I’d be dealing with the route cause of my issues surely? I was wrong. The CBT I experienced was highly practical and dealt with me in my present state. Jumbled up computer wires and all. Not so much a, ‘how did we get here’ but a ‘where do we go from here’.
I soon learned that despite worrying being normal and natural it is becomes a problem when it takes up minutes, hours ,huge blocks or even tiny intermittent flickers throughout your day which stops you functioning. Be that performing at work or enjoying your free time or enjoying a friend’s company or getting sleep or interrupting your day, stopping you eating.
I soon realised my worry WAS definitely a problem. I was taught that worry is not an evil temptress or stealer or happiness and hours in your day but actually serves a purpose. We feel pain when we put our hand on an oven hob not because our body fancies a giggle but because our body is trying to warn us against doing it again. In a similar way, our worry is natural. We are hard-wired to fear danger and sense threats. Except in my case these threats are seen around every corner in every waking moment. As I said at the beginning bring misunderstood by someone to most people gets a shrug of the shoulders, to me it is a massive threat and potential for me to feel useless and inadequate.
So what is CBT’s answer. We take our worries and we don’t treat them like enemies and demons we need to exercise but we are very practical and sensible about it.
Firstly, we take all our worries and we do something that I’ll talk in more detail about later. Lists. Out of the head and onto paper. Juggling with a swirling whirl wind of worries inside your head is a nightmare. Stick them down on paper and they become something you can tackle.
Now, a simple exercise. Next to each,write next to it yes or no; your answer to a very obvious but very often forgotten question; ‘can I ACTUALLY do anything about it?’.
I CAN do something about not having bought someone a birthday card yet. I can go out and buy one. The answer is YES. I can do something. LEAVE IT ON YOUR LIST.
Next on the list – I’ve forgotten to buy someone else a birthday card and am constantly filled with worry about how they’ll react about not receiving a card from me. Now, what’s done is done. Unless you have a time machine you can’t go back in time. You can’t change how the person will react either. They will react how they react. It is something you cannot control and therefore something that you don’t need to worry about. CROSS IT OFF YOUR LIST. One less worry. If you go through them all like this you’ll be amazed how many worries you can cross off your list.
Exercise number two; spend less time worrying. This is another coping mechanism I learned In CBT.
As we’ve said worrying is a problem when it gets in the way of you living your life, your daily routine and functioning how you want to. Makes sense that we’d want to limit the amount of time we spend worrying. Pick a time. Any time. Sky plus your soaps. The kettle can wait. Picks time where you have a bit of free time and can be alone in peace and quiet. Get your revised list of worries you DO have control of and go through them one by one with practical or reasoned solutions to each worry starting with, ‘look on Amazon for birthday present by Monday at the latest’.
When you’ve dealt with each solution, tick it off.
Same time tomorrow, look at your list. Same time, same 15 minutes. Same time everyday. 15 minutes, just you and your list of worries. Before you know it you have gone from spending a whole day sick with worry over 20 different ‘problems’ to 15 minutes dealing with 5.
Same 15 minutes everyday. Keep doing it and it’ll become as routine and natural as watching your favourite soap.
This coping mechanism has helped me so much but it is hard. Every day, a bit like sticking to a diet – it’s hard. You have after all spent 99.99% of your life accepting spending whole days worrying about stuff and tuning ruining your day. Habits of a lifetime are hard to break.
So what do I do when the worries creep in throughout the day? It does take discipline and it can be worst when you are bored or have nothing to do. I was introduced to meditation and mindfulness by my CBT therapist by way of an app called Head Space. What meditation does is helps you connect with yourself on a level much deeper. The soothing sound of peaceful, relaxing music allows you to enter a deep state of consciousness and completely escape your worries and thoughts. A 10 minute session of guided meditation which you can do anywhere, at home, or on the train by listening to a meditation app, CD or podcast can really help relax and refocus your mind. It isn’t for everyone but I swear by it as a form of escaping your stream of worry.
Guided meditation is a practice which usually involves listening to a meditation guru (via podcast, CD, app) instruct you to do certain breathing exercises whilst listening to soft, relaxing music. The focus on your breathing takes you away from your worries and I try and do this daily. There are some great bits on Spotify and countless apps.
After years of constant self-criticism, worry and fear of failure or embarrassment I now have the tools I need to help manage the things like throws at me better. It will always be a daily thing but the more I practice my techniques the more normal these things become.
As has been said in all my pieces so far, Dyspraxia is incredibly diverse and everyone of us is different. What one person struggles with, another may not. These techniques work for me and I really hope someone somewhere out there reading this discovers that one of these techniques can really help them too.
I am truly thankful to my CBT therapist for these tools and mechanisms and the continued love and support of my loving wife, supportive family and friends.