Stop Hoovering

  
I knew this (or at least I kind of did) but a line in a book has recently kept it on my mind… ‘Mood’ is more a matter of biochemistry than anything else.

In the right mood everything is possible: ingenuity, problem-solving, creativity and joy. In the wrong mood, it’s all too much; all too hard and nothing can be done.

Win the lottery, lose your job, whatever happens most people’s underlying ‘mood’ ticks along remarkably unaffected; so long as you let it. Apparently only bereavement really affects mood for extended periods. It seems we can’t short circuit grief.

So ‘mood’ in fact, is not really about how happy, fulfilled, successful, busy or creative we are. It’s about noradrenaline, serotonin, cortisol and melatonin. These operate in an internal chemistry set, controlled by the limbic system – which is pretty much the same as in a bear, a monkey, a cat or a dog.

The limbic system is very resilient, very effective and very old – crocodiles have one. But it needs looking after. Apparently if you stress it to much, it chemically crashes and puts you into a state of hibernation. Literally. 

My book says the physiological symptoms of stress-related depressive illness are best understood, as exactly what happens in a bear’s body when it prepares for hibernation…
  

Why? Because the limbic system interprets the signals from the environment as too ‘hostile’, and that same old system kicks in: which enables a crocodile to lie dormant in mud for months; or a bear to hole up in a cave. We shut down; to wait for better days.

And here’s where the Hoover comes in. Because if you’re working yourself to the point your limbic system is about to blow a fuse – you have to stop; however exhilarating is the sense of achievement of getting more things done, or however great the pressure to do even more.

The test for hard-working diligent people is this; literally and metaphorically can you sometimes ‘leave the Hoover in the middle of the room’..? That is, can you visibly leave half-finished a task, you and people around you expect you to finish? 

Ouch, guilt and fear of humiliation – that hurts…

Because if you can’t – and you don’t listen to your body and look after your mood, there’s only one place you’ll end up…. shattered, flat and feeling like hibernating. 

This much I have learned in the past few weeks – if you want to avoid becoming a very grizzly bear, sometimes you have to leave the Hoover in the middle of the room.

Broken Wings

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A great many birds with broken wings or ruffled plumage, have come to perch in my tree in recent weeks. Human beings are fragile and so easily damaged – usually by each other.

We all like to believe life is fair. So, in the end, very few people are able to cope well with anxiety or things going badly for them.

We were taking about this at home the other day, asking the question:

“Is it possible to communicate to other people you are stretched, stressed or tired yourself, without being pissy, shirty or sad with them?”

Probably not. Because ‘pissy’, ‘shirty’ and ‘sad’ are exactly the ways we communicate stress. To do it any other way just confuses people – or they simply don’t hear.

So for the various birds; small and large, young and old; who have come to unburden themselves on me, there are only really two ways to be:

1) ‘pissy’, ‘shirty’ or ‘sad’; and quickly break both their wings so they never come back to my tree again.

2) reach for patience, tolerance and kindness; give away some all-too-precious time, and hopefully help them a little, to fly onwards.

I’ve mostly managed the latter. Some are still chirruping in my branches. Some are permanently nested there; so they are to be lived with.

But at least a few have gently flapped away with splinted wings or smoothed feathers. And that’s a success of sorts. Kindness is always the best answer.

Shirty

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Suckered in to fronting up
It’s my job, but it’s other people’s too
It brings admin, stress and cortisol
But also profile, contacts and stories to tell
I feel shirty
But perhaps I should get over it
Writing this has helped, a bit.

Fronting-up at big events has never been my favourite occupation. I’ve got more sanguine with age and experience, but the worst part is the uncertainty: what’s the format, how many people, who’s talking first, speech Q&A or panel.

It all takes time to bottom out and you never really know what you’re going to get until you show up. Being lumbered makes me shirty, but I probably shouldn’t be. A poem helped – a bit.

Caterpillar

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The throbbing caterpillar in my vein
Concertinas toward my brain
Which tells me that I must be calm
Not much time for repose
Life all over me like a rash
Oh for some time to ponder,
To dream or meander, as I dash
But instead I keep on marching
Doing, fixing things
But snatched words with good comrades
Some solace brings.

When I’m busy and under pressure at work, the ‘caterpillar’ – which is a prominent artery on my forehead – sometimes comes out. It’s a bit of a standing joke, as I suggest it’s marching like a thrombosis towards my brain, shortly to bring blessed relief in an aneurism. But it’s also a warning sign. When the ‘caterpillar’ comes out I’m working myself too hard. Time for a brief pause. Friends are an important part of keeping the caterpillar at bay. Three of them, in three good humoured, thought-provoking and rich conversations, this week, helped keep me sane. I salute you Comrades.

Courage

I’ve been working in the USA this week – same language, quite different working cultures. Still Brits talking to Americans is easy enough. But add Germans, South Africans, Sudanese, Cameroonians, Central African Republicans, French, Colombians, Turks, Japanese and Koreans – and an age range from 18 to 70 and you have plenty of difference to accommodate.

The very different people I was working with cared about very different things. They wanted to talk about different things and wanted to do different things. My job was to facilitate and find a collective conclusion. Enough to give me a thumping headache. But not this time. Why?

Usually on overseas work trips the combination of travel, missed sleep, wall-to-wall meetings, some sort of set piece event to speak at and produce an outcome from – plus lunch meetings and formal dinners – gives me a throbbing headache by 3pm on day one. It then goes on to throb the whole time I’m away. But this time, no headache. Why? Mainly thanks to an Aristotelian virtue – drawing my courage a little more from confidence than fear.

When I first read: “Courage is the mean between confidence and fear” it didn’t seem a particularly significant insight. My first thought was Aristotle was on about ‘courage’ in the sense of ‘fight or flight’ – there was after all a lot of fighting in ancient Greece. Given the clank of metal and the clash of swords is rarer these days, I didn’t think much about Aristotelian courage – one for the battlefield I thought. Who knows whether I’d stand and fight or run into a hail of bullets. Hopefully I’ll never find out. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see Aristotle’s point with ‘courage’ is as much about motivation as action.

I’ve come to realise that from school to university to the bigger world of work, I’ve used fear of failure as my prime motivation to perform. And it has always worked. Fear failure, worry the detail, think of what might go wrong, fire up the adrenaline, run flat out on intellectual broadband and the job gets done – and well. But at what cost? Stress, tiredness, raggedness, fraught, strung out and brittle.

So, thanks to Aristotle, once, a few months ago, when I started to feel the rising tide of anxiety and the throb of the vein in my head – the feeling of spotting and galvanising myself for another tough challenge – I stopped myself. I stopped myself from firing up my fear generator: what might go wrong, might I fail, what will people say, will I look like a duffer – and the killer: will someone say I did a bad job?

Instead I fumbled in my kitbag for something else – confidence. This could go well, I know how to do this sort of thing, I’ll be fine, who’s better than me to do this – and if someone says I did a bad job, so what, I’ll learn from it. The first few times I tried to do it I’d readily flip back to fear. I’d have to concentrate hard to find the courageous ‘golden mean’ with confidence. But with practice I’m learning how to plug in and stay more connected to confidence. And the courage to do new things with a smile flows from there.

As Aristotle said:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence [arete in his words], then, is not an act, but a habit.”

To help me form the habit, I’ve started to think of Aristotle’s courage as a choice between two different forms of energy. One is red, electrical, crackling and spitting like lightning or charge sparking from a Tesla coil – fear. The other is blue, pure, unwavering like a beam of laser light – confidence.

Both work. Both help me get the job done. But the red form is hot, sparky, volatile and the toxic by-products pollute my environment. The blue form is cool, reliable and powers me with clean reusable, renewable and sustainable energy.

In the USA I was running on ‘blue energy’ – better mastering myself, enjoying the experience more, enjoying the different people, performing and getting the job done. No headaches, heartaches, worries or lost sleep. I came home quietly pleased, quietly satisfied and with a spot more confidence to draw on.

Day to day courage, like the battlefield kind, is the mean between confidence and fear. Developing Aristotelian virtue and excellence is simply developing good habits. And, I’ve come to realise, what is at stake, is developing the courage to live a confident happy life – not one haunted by the spectre of constant fears, real or imagined.