The dojo

A recurrent theme of 2020 is can anything else really go wrong? And then it does! I exchanged as much with a most excellent and special friend yesterday in the following text message exchange:

Just inside the door from the wreckage in the back garden, our lovely little dog lies paralysed with a spinal stroke.

He can’t stand up unaided, and is making little progress as we enter the third week since he collapsed. Poor lad.

So what’s going well?

Not so much if I’m honest, but a good psychology resource has been helping this month – Dr Karen Reivich’s ‘Resilience Skills’ from the University of Pennsylvania currently available for free on Coursera.

There is so much to like about Dr Reivich’s exceptionally well-evidenced and practical explanations: the dimensions of resilience and how you can cultivate them, the killer ‘thinking traps’ which bring us all down, and how to disrupt them; plus how to manage anxiety and cultivate positive emotions – even in the worst of times.

As an illustration here are Reivich’s five ‘thinking traps’:

  1. Mind-reading – I already know what you’re thinking and what you’re going to say and do to me (no, I really don’t)
  2. Me – it’s all because of me and it’s all my fault (no it isn’t)
  3. Them – it’s all because of them and it’s all their fault (nope, not that either)
  4. Catastrophizing – it’s bad, it’s going to be terrible and then the walls will cave in on me (notwithstanding the image above, not wholly likely)
  5. Helplessness – it’s hopeless and there’s nothing I can do (but there always is…)

Reivich’s point is if you get into a negative spiral with these five, you just circle down and down. Which is a great insight – but what are you supposed to do about it?

She has three simple ‘Real Time Resilience’ countermeasures, which are easy to remember and easy to deploy. Each begins with a simple mental ‘sentence starter’.

  1. “That’s not true because…..” insert counter Evidence of facts which challenge the thinking trap.
  2. A more helpful way to see this is……Reframe more realistically or positively by broadening the context.
  3. If x happens, I will y……. make a simple Plan, with a practical step you would take if the bad thing(s) starts to happen.

These can be combined with another practical tool – worst case, best case, likely case, practical plan – which puts outer limits on what might happen (including some cheer-inducing good ones) and prepares the mind and body for action, not yet more rumination.

Sometimes simple is best. Walking and talking in the park with my 13 year old son (sadly without 🐶) he got the thinking traps straight away. The ‘sentence starters’ made sense to him too.

This week’s Penn course covers how to manage anxiety. As per my gazelles the key finding is everyone gets anxiety spikes – what makes the ‘Resilience’ difference is mentally and physiologically how fast you can return to normal function. And that’s a set of skills you can learn.

Locked-in and cooped-up, the biggest Covid-19 challenge is keeping mind and body healthy. 2020 is one helluva dojo, but however many times it knocks you down, the answer is: learn, change your mindset and get up again.

No Worries

I took the redoubtable Chris Croft up on his offer of a ‘Year of Happiness’ emails over Christmas. I told a friend, and she did the same.

She emailed me last week as below:

This made me smile – in truth 2020 has been a car-crash from start to finish. And where we are now: locked down and cooped-up – as the economy stops dead and we improvise field hospitals – is simply incredible.

Chris’s advice in this week’s happiness email is to ‘worry less’. For once I very nearly didn’t bother to read on.

But as always he has a point; and a practical suggestion… make a list.

To start with, make a list all of your worries. There’s something very therapeutic about writing things down, because it gives you permission to get them out of your brain, and that takes them further away from you, where they seem less important, and more easy to work on and to kill them off.

Usually, my list of worries would be the same somewhat improbable ‘sum of all fears’ one it’s always been:

  • Losing my job;
  • Not having enough money;
  • Having to sell the house;
  • The whole family confronting me and saying: ‘Dad, you’ve completely failed us.’

Thanks to Coronavirus though these are bang on the £££money – compounded by the very real fear of the lack of it.

But now I can add:

  • Facing a riot/riots at work;
  • Facing a riot in our street;
  • Having to stop paying people;
  • Having to furlough people (whole new worry!);
  • Having to make people redundant;
  • Having to hold onto people’s money who want it back;
  • Having to pay other people for things we are no longer sure we can afford;
  • Loved ones getting ill;
  • Running out of food;
  • Not being allowed out to walk the dog;
  • There never being any jobs of the sort I do ever again
  • My pension disappearing so I can never escape work I hate.

That about captures it! A proper list of worries.

So what to do? Paraphrasing Chris:

But what if the worry really is about something serious? What can you do about that? And the answer is nothing, there IS nothing you can do. Just tell yourself, it’s going to be fine. Keep saying it till you believe it, and finally, put it into context, it’s not the end of the world if it happens.

Unless of course it is… But I was helped today by some useful historical context; reminded of my old friend Michel de Montaigne by an article in Philosophy Now on his great friend Etienne de la Boétie (1530-1563).

Montaigne’s Essays talk of French life in the sixteenth century, in a way which is accessible, modern and make it seem much like life today. More letters and fewer screens back then; but the same dramas of human affairs.

Except… they were in the middle of a bloody civil war of all-against-all.

As La Boétie describes it:

The result: “almost universal hate and malevolence between the king’s subjects, which in some places feeds secretly, in others declares itself more openly, but everywhere produces sad results… It divides citizens, neighbours, friends, parents, brothers, fathers and children, husband and wife.”

What followed was a series of massacres starting in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s Day, spreading to twelve other cities: Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Bourges, Rouen, Orléans, Meaux, Angers, La Charité, Saumur, Gaillac and Troyes; and killing c10,000 people.

François Dubois (1529–1584) Wikipedia

The UK’s WWII ‘Blitz spirit’ and Dunkirk rhetoric is getting more than a bit tired, but I’d rather take Covid-19 than face religious slaughter.

My worries – like everyone’s – are very real; but pretty much every age which precedes us has known worse.

Onwards.