Perfectionism – Don’t trim your grass with scissors

Stop cutting your lawn with scissors

Do you trim your grass with scissors?

I’m guessing most of you don’t, and if you saw your neighbour doing it, you’d think they were pretty crazy. But some of you are probably doing the equivalent somewhere in your lives. Perfectionism – for which the desire for all your grass to be the same, appropriate length seems an effective metaphor – can drive us to great heights of achievement. It can also paralyse us and ruin our enjoyment of what we have.

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a strong desire or drive to control the outcomes of everything you do, to create the best possible result – to be perfect. For some people, it’s about working extraordinarily long hours, for others it’s about making sure their house is always the picture of tidy perfection. For some it’s about never allowing someone to see them struggling. It’s about not allowing what you feel are sub-standard results from your endeavours. Sounds like a good thing, surely? Don’t we all want to be the best we can be?

Sure! Nobody wants to be crap. Perfectionism can be motivating; high performers of all kinds have a tendency to perfectionism and use it to help them succeed. For others, anxious people for example, it can be a trait borne of the need to control everything, to make sure everything stays OK, so that everything that happens is as expected. No surprises, no terrible outcomes. After all, surprises become cave lions and none of us want to run into one of those.

What’s the cost of perfectionism?

Perfectionism can be costly. Many perfectionists judge themselves extremely harshly, and this can impact their self esteem, because more often than not, their standards are unattainable. They can never be good enough. They also tend to judge others by their own, unreasonable standards, and so nobody in their lives “measure up” either. This Judgy McJudgerson attitude can cost you relationships and make you miserable.

Being perfect is tiring. Just being an average adult human being is hard enough, so constantly putting yourself under pressure to the The Perfect You is just plain exhausting. All that worry about not getting it right costs you energy and time.

Perfectionism is constantly looking to the future – you must do better. It also looks to the past – I didn’t do that as well as I should have. There’s the McJudgersons again. Perfectionism gets in the way of being in the moment and enjoying who you are, and what you have now.

Perfectionism can cause paralysis – the ultimate demotivation of not wanting to do something at all, if you can’t do it perfectly.

What we gain once we accept imperfection

Once we accept imperfection, we free ourselves to learn from our mistakes, because we allow ourselves to make them. We’re more productive, because we’re no wasting all that time making sure everything is perfect. We’re also nicer to be around, because we get to put Judgy McJudgerson away. We take more risks, and risks are where the rewards are. We can relax more, enjoy the moment and also reap the rewards of all that extra energy. Doesn’t all that sound great?

Five ways to train yourself out of perfectionism

You can retrain your brain out of perfectionism, if it’s bothering you. Here are five ways to experiment with:

1 Create standards, not rules

When you’re a perfectionist, you make a lot of rules for yourself. If the house isn’t clean, I’m a bad mother. If I don’t do the best job, I’m not good enough. These are rules. Try swapping them for standards, which are more flexible and more broad. I will make sure the house is clean once a week (or if you’re me, a month if you’re lucky). I’ll do the best I can in my work, but I won’t do more than two hours of overtime a week. I’ll mow that grass every few months, when I notice it’s long.

Think about the rules you’ve made for yourself, and try out some standards instead. They take the pressure of and give you some room to move.

2 Practice imperfection

There’s a musical term, “close enough for jazz”. “Near enough is good enough” is another way of putting it. Everything you do doesn’t have to be perfect. So practice imperfection. Do a task until it is to a standard you feel would be acceptable to the average person. Remember, if you’re doing something for someone else, don’t exhaust yourself trying to deliver a Rolls Royce when they probably asked for – and would be very happy with – a Toyota Camry. It doesn’t matter if my grass is uneven.

This will feel very difficult at first – practice. It gets easier.

3 Life is a draft

Life is never finished (until it really is). Everything you throw out into the world is a draft – nothing is permanent. Seth Godin talks about tattoo thinking. Hell, even tattoos aren’t permanent, and your decisions aren’t either. Remember that in risk there can be great reward – but you have to risk being wrong. That’s OK. If you’re wrong, you can change your decision. It’s not a tattoo. If you don’t like the length of your grass, you can always mow it shorter next month.

4 Give yourself a time limit

Perfectionists work on their creations far longer than the average person, constantly re-working them, never happy with the draft. So give yourself a time limit, and at the end of that time, the task is done. Submit it,make that decision, mow the grass for an hour, move on. Remember “close enough for jazz”; you’ll get a lot more done with your time.

5 Divorce yourself from the outcome

Practice distancing yourself from whatever it is you want to be perfect. This one is tough, because you need to practice saying “I don’t give a shit”. Practice not caring so much. You may think that people will think less of you, but trust me, they’re hardly thinking about you at all; they have their own stuff to be worrying about. So what if the house isn’t clean? So what if that report was sent off in draft instead of in Rolls Royce standard? So what if my grass isn’t even? Will anyone die?* No? OK then.

Stop trimming your grass with scissors

You might be reading these and thinking “Well this is all well and good, but I’LL know it’s not perfect and I can’t let that happen. That’s just not me.” That’s your brain’s perfectionistic habit kicking in. Don’t listen to that voice – just keep practicing letting go of perfection so your brain can develop some new messages. However you’ve developed perfectionism, it’s not something you have to live with. Practice these techniques over and over and soon you’ll find you’ve developed a better perspective.

Isn’t it time you put the scissors down and enjoyed the grass?


* OK if you’re a brain surgeon then perfection really does save lives so if that’s you, keep doing what you’re doing. You’re awesome.

The dangers of positive thinking

Dangers of Positive Thinking

I don’t believe that positive thinking is always healthy. Now, before all my fellow coaches and relentlessly positive thinkers jump down my throat, hear me out.

I’m not criticising optimism. I’m an optimist myself – I have an innate setting that makes me expect the best, rather than the worst, and I believe everything will be OK in the end. I give people the benefit of the doubt and assume good intentions. The kind of positive thinking I’m referring to is not optimism. It’s goes well beyond that.

The kind of positive thinking I take issue with is the kind that says that NO MATTER WHAT you should look at the positive. There is something fantastic in every single situation and if you can’t see it, you’re not being positive enough. Positive thinking, when it’s promoted as a strategy for success, is usually positioned as “with positive thinking, you can achieve anything”. This type of positive thinking promises to get you the life you want, the spouse you desire, a cure for your depression and even your cancer. You don’t feel happy? Well you’re not thinking positively enough. You’re fighting a disease? Well you have to think positively, or you’re not working hard to enough to heal yourself.

I have a couple of huge problems with this kind of thinking.

It denies us the natural emotional process

Demanding everyone see the positive in everything implies that the negative should always be avoided. This denies us the natural emotional processes that allow us to learn from, and move on from negative experiences in our lives. If we concentrate only on the positive, we risk ignoring the things that we should be working on in our lives, and it stops us from natural processes like anger and grief. If you don’t deal with those emotions, you risk having them return in the future to be expressed in destructive or inappropriate ways. You can’t deal with an emotion without feeling it. If we push away all emotions we perceive as negative, we don’t feel them. Positive thinking can become an unhealthy strategy of avoidance, rather than a healthy supportive habit.

It implies that we are to blame

You have to think positively. The implication is that if you don’t, somehow you’re complicit in whatever is going on. What if you think positively and you don’t get better? What if you don’t achieve what you’d hoped? You must not have been thinking positively enough, and now you feel to blame, and a failure. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to achieve or heal, and that you have no role to play in those processes. My point is that the emphasis on positive thinking being the key to success can backfire and make us feel worse if it doesn’t work. It puts extra pressure on people who may already be anxious about life’s challenges, and is monumentally egotistical. There are things outside our control that we cannot change no matter what we think we can do.

It’s not realistic

Sometimes life is shit. It’s impossible to be constantly positive, unless you really dig being in denial. Do you know someone who always seems to be grinning and telling everyone to look on the bright side? What about inspirational memes that aim to inspire us to be better people by focusing on how grateful we are for everything? Do we believe these people really are incessantly joyful, or do we think they’re a bit over the top? I believe that type of relentless in-your-face happiness is at best rare, and at worst fake. Yes we should be grateful for the positive things we have in our lives, however small they may be. Yes it would be terrific if we could all be happy. But life is tough, and people suffer. Let’s get real.

It pushes people away

Have you ever been feeling truly awful, shared that with a friend, only to have them say cheer up, it could be worse? How did that feel? Pretty awful, right? They may have good intentions, but when people do this it denies you the right to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. You no longer feel safe to express your feelings because they weren’t acknowledged. Instead they were brushed away with the platitude of positive thinking. If someone becomes too zealous in their desire to show everyone the benefits of positive thinking, people can become resentful and closed to the idea.

It’s annoying as hell

Obsessively, fanatically positive and up-beat people are emotionally inaccessible, exhausting and, frankly, annoying as hell.

What’s the answer?

How can we use the intent of positive thinking, then, without throwing it all away?

  1. Feel what you need to feel, but don’t linger. Emotions we perceive as negative may be part of a process such as grief, or may indicate that we need to make some changes. Notice and experience these feelings, but don’t get stuck in them. Learn what you can from them, then let them go.
  2. Be realistic about what could be worse. It doesn’t make sense to think “I didn’t get that job. Well, it could be worse, I could be a starving child in Africa”. Yes, certainly that would be worse. But does that comparison have an emotional impact on you? Probably not, because most people can’t really imagine what it’s like to be a starving child in Africa. You may as well say “at least I wasn’t eaten alive by rabid otters”. So if you want to use comparisons to help you put your troubles into perspective, think of comparisons that you can connect with, to make them more impactful. I find the best ones are when you compare your current life position to a previous one. It reinforces how far you’ve come, and is easy to connect with. “At least I’m not still having to sell crap door-to-door” is a lot more impactful than comparing yourself to a situation you can’t envisage.
  3. Use gratitude sparingly. Gratitude journals are in fashion. These are journals where you record, at the end of each day, things that you’re grateful for. While I think it’s a great strategy for developing positive mental habits, I believe that doing this every single day removes the impact of it, makes it routine and you risk it having no emotional impact. Positive thinking is linked closely to emotion, so you want the experience to be as meaningful as possible, or again we risk not feeling a connection with it. I recommend writing down what you’re grateful for on the days when you struggle, but not in between. One option for the days when you’re doing OK is to mentally recap what was awesome about that day. But save the gratitude for when it will mean something, even if all you end up with is “Today I am grateful I didn’t punch anyone in the face”.

These are tips that have helped me deal with the pressure of positive thinking. Be an optimist by all means, but I recommend that you use positive thinking with care, and don’t let the pressure of all those memes and super-positive-happy people get you down. Feel what you need to, after all, it could be worse, right?

What do you think about positive thinking?

Five more ways to manage anxiety and panic

Five ways to beat anxiety and panic attacks
The way a cave lion looks these days. Ooooh scary. Not.

Hello again and thanks very much to those of you who’ve been tweeting links to my blog and commenting. As promised last time, I’ve collated five more techniques to help you deal with your amygdala hijacking your frontal lobe with shouts of CAVE LION. I hope you find them helpful.

Six – Relax your muscles

When we panic, our bodies tense up, ready to spring into action to run away from that cave lion, or kill it. If you can, find somewhere to sit or lie down. Starting at your toes, concentrate on tensing the muscles (scrunch those toes right up), hold them in that position for a few seconds, then relax them. Now move on to your calf muscles, and repeat the process. Continue up your body, tensing and relaxing groups of muscles as you go. Don’t forget to do your face, no matter how silly it might feel. This achieves a couple of things. The concentration required forces your frontal lobe into action, stopping that amygdala hijack. It also forces your body to relax, giving your brain a clear message that the pesky cave lion has gone.

Seven – Notice morbid thoughts and replace them with sloths

Sometimes when we’re fighting off panic and anxiety, our brains fill with morbid thoughts. We call these “persistent” morbid thoughts, because they’re usually imaginings of highly unlikely, tragic events that might happen in the future to ourselves or the people we care about, and they can be hard to get rid off. These thoughts are one of the warning signs for the onset of my own anxiety – when I get them, I know I need to work extra hard on my anxiety-reducing strategies, because stress has increased. These morbid thoughts most often happen at night, when we try to go to sleep. During the day our brains are occupied, distracted by our daily lives. However, in bed, in the dark, we clear our minds of these distractions and sometimes morbid thoughts rush on in to take up the space. The first step to dealing with these is to notice them. Start looking at your thoughts on a regular basis. What am I thinking about? Is it reasonable to be thinking about this? Is it making me fearful? If so, gently push the morbid thought away, and – and this is the important bit – replace it with another, more positive, thought. It’s not enough to just push the morbid thought away – it’ll come straight back to fill the empty space. Think instead about something that makes you feel good; your favourite television show, your pets, a place you went on holiday. If the morbid thought comes back, stop, notice it, push it away again, and replace it again with happier thoughts. It takes practice, but this strategy can be very helpful. The first and most crucial step is noticing your thoughts. That takes practice too, but soon it becomes a very healthy habit.

Eight – Mindfulness

Mindfulness is all the rage at the moment, and for good reason. Most of us spend the majority of our time either looking back at the mistakes of the past, or looking at the future, thinking about what’s happening tomorrow, next week, next year. The majority of us aren’t paying that much attention to the present. Mindfulness is connecting with the present, being aware of your thoughts and sensations right now. To practice mindfulness, I recommend that you close your eyes, and think about what you can feel against your skin. What you can feel under your feet. What you can hear. Think about listening to your own breathing. Now what thoughts are going through your brain? What emotions are you feeling? Open your eyes and take in what you can see. Mindfulness activates the brain in a similar way to meditation – and demands your frontal lobe’s full attention, shutting down the amygdala.

Nine – Visualisation

Visualisation is a close relative of mindfulness. This strategy, though, activates your imagination. First, think of a place where you feel calm, happy, and safe. It might be your lounge room as a child, the beach, a forest; it’s specific to you. Now close your eyes and imagine that in front of you is a lift. The lift door opens, you step in, turn around and doors close. You watch the lights in the floor buttons go slowly 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10 slowly down to Ground. When the lift gets to Ground, the lift doors open, and you step out into the place where you feel calm, happy, and safe. Stand there for a minute. Breathe in and out. What can you see? What can you smell? What can you feel? Once you’ve been in your safe place for a minute, and you feel calm, step back into the lift. The lift doors close and the floor button lights go slowly from Ground, 1, 2, 3, 4, all the way back up to 15. At 15, the lift doors open and you step back into the present. Open your eyes. Notice how calm you are. Now you can take that safe place with you wherever you go.

Ten – Get professional help

Finally, I thoroughly recommend that you get some professional help, either from a GP, counsellor or a psychologist (or all three). GPs can assist with the prescription of anti-depressants, some of which are specifically designed for anxiety, and with referrals to other professionals. Counsellors can provide behavioural strategies for dealing with anxiety, and psychologists can provide both counselling and treatment strategies such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. I have used all of these, and they all helped, but the one that worked the best for me was EMDR. There are many resources available about this technique on the internet. I thought it was a bunch of rubbish when I first heard about it, but it made a huge difference in the frequency and severity of my panic attacks. It also gave me relief from persistent morbid thoughts; they only appear occasionally now when I’m under stress. I really recommend that you talk to your GP in the first instance, and see what they suggest. Don’t be afraid to give anything a go – you’re not alone, and help is out there. Get your team working for you!

These are another five  ways to help you take back control of your brain when your amygdala shouts CAVE LION. Remember that practice is the key, because with practice you develop those supporting habits that will keep those cave lions at bay.

Soon I’ll have some more tips for managing background stress caused by the fact that our amygdala is always seeing cave lions, but we can’t kill or run away from them in modern life. In the meantime, I’d love to hear more of your strategies for dealing with panic and anxiety attacks, and if you try any of the above techniques, I’d love to hear whether they worked for you.

How do you stop your panic attacks?

Five ways to manage anxiety and panic

Five ways to beat anxiety and panic attacks
This is a real cave lion. It’s unlikely you’ll ever meet one, despite what your amygdala tells you. Image.

Happy 2015 everyone! I hope your festive season was calm and enjoyable. I always find Christmas so exciting in advance and so exhausting in reality, so I’ve been conserving my energy and staying in my cave since then. I’m poking my head out to say hi and share some cave-lion-killing ideas with you.

Do you make New Year Resolutions? I don’t, because it doesn’t motivate me, but many people do. Maybe you’ve resolved to generally work on reducing your fear and panic. Or maybe you want some sure-fire ways to head off a panic or anxiety attack as it’s happening. Remember what fear is? It’s that amygdala hijack that robs you of your decision making ability and kicks off the fight or flight reflex. Here (in no particular order) are five great ways to take control of your brain again, after your amygdala shouts CAVE LION!

One – Count

Yes it seems ridiculous, but if you feel panic start to rise, count something. I remember being at a funeral and I realised I had instinctively begun counting the ceiling tiles of the church. Part of my brain knew what to do to get control of my frontal lobe again. Counting is something you do with your intellect, your frontal lobe – so it gets control of your rational brain again and stops that amygdala hijack.

Two – Use Objective Description

This strategy has a number of different names but Objective Description is exactly what the name suggests, and works in a similar way to counting. When you feel your amygdala start to kick off, examine your surroundings, and describe them to yourself in non-judgemental, unemotional words. If you’re not alone, do this exercise in your head, to avoid stares from strangers. It’s very important that you choose objective, neutral language in your description; for example, you don’t want to say “I see a messy desk, full of junk”. Replace that judgemental language with “I see a wooden desk; on it are seven piles of paper, a half full coffee mug, a piece of yesterday’s pizza, and my cat.” The act of carefully choosing those neutral words triggers activity in your frontal lobe, and the amygdala’s hijack is defeated.

Three – Breathe

One of the things panic does to our bodies is it makes us breath shallowly. This can be useful if we’re about to fight a predatory mammal but doesn’t help us in a panic attack. There are plenty of variations on the breathing exercise theme, and I recommend that you try a variety of techniques, to find the one that works best for you. The first thing to understand about breathing when panicking is that we forget to breath out fully, and this lack of being able to get a good lungful just adds to our distress. It’s like trying to blow more air into a balloon that’s already full. So first, exhale, slowly and deeply. Then do the exercise that suits you. I inhale as slowly as possible through my nose, hold the breath for as long as I comfortably can, then exhale out of my nose, taking as long as possible. Doing this three times does a number of things; I’ve had to concentrate (hello frontal lobe, goodbye amygdala), I’ve filled my lungs and therefore my brain with helpful oxygen, and I’ve stopped the cycle of shallow breathing that adds to the panic. You can do this anywhere at any time and nobody will be the wiser. It’s a great secret weapon against those cave lions.

Four – Make a list

With anxiety often comes a feeling of loss of control. You have seventeen hideous scenarios sloshing around in your head – or perhaps just feel anxious with no specific trigger – and you don’t know how to make it stop. You feel helpless. This just adds extra cave lions to the pack your amygdala thinks it’s seen and is very unhelpful. One of my favourite techniques to manage a panic attack is making a list. It can be anything at all – shopping, who to invite to a party, who to send Christmas cards to, your to do list. What it is doesn’t really matter. This technique does two things; it turns on your frontal lobe by forcing you to decide what’s on the list, so shuts up your amygdala, and it takes a load off your memory. Did you know that the average person can only remember a maximum of six things in their short-term memory? (Or if you’re like me, minus three). So making lists also takes the stress out of remembering things. Keep something to write lists on next to the bed for the next time you have insomnia. You’ll be amazed at the feeling of control making a simple list can create.

Five – Plan something

This technique works in the exact same way as making lists above, but is a much larger endeavour, as it requires more than just one list. This can be a helpful technique for anxious children, to create the feeling of control. Get them to plan their next birthday party, for example. In addition to the advantages that apply to lists, this technique also helps reduce the stress that large projects can create. It’s a truism that often, the anticipation of an event is worse than the event itself. So to help manage the anxiety triggered by a large event or project, start planning. You don’t have to start at the start – jump in and start planning the easiest bits first.

These are five simple ways to help you take back control of your brain when your amygdala shouts CAVE LION. The first step is to notice when the strategies are needed. Practice noticing your anxiety/panic state, and implementing some of these strategies. Eventually, with practice, some will become habits, and bye bye cave lions!

Soon I’ll have some more tips for cancelling the amygdala hijack, managing background stress, understanding anger and some tips on self-care. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your strategies for dealing with panic and anxiety attacks, and if you try any of the above techniques, I’d love to hear whether they worked for you.

How do you stop your panic attacks?

How to keep those cave lions away and cope with stress

 Coping with stress
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld said (and I’m quoting very roughly) that at a funeral, most of the audience would rather be in the coffin than up giving the eulogy, such is the general fear of public speaking. Fear is a helpful thing – it keeps us alive (and off stage if you’d prefer not to be up there). But Anxiety Disorder (anxiety), as I talked about here, is this Fight or Flight reflex gone out of control. There are strategies you can use to let your amygdala know that you haven’t seen a cave lion, and strategies to manage the background stress that constant anxiety produces.
Today I’d like to concentrate on some strategies that tell your amygdala that no, that threat isn’t a cave lion, so your brain doesn’t have to hit the THERE’S A CAVE LION AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE switch. One of my favourite strategies is to care less. Sounds ridiculously easy, doesn’t it? It’s hard, it takes practice, and caring less requires small steps. It also might require you to not take yourself too seriously, and to allow yourself to be vulnerable. I may seem on the outside to be successful and confident, but on the inside I’ve always been that scared 14 year old. You know all those super-confident, socially-adept, amazingly successful people you admire? I bet they’re all scared 14 year olds on the inside, too. They just hide theirs behind mad confident socially-adept skills at caring less what people think of them. Here’s a snapshot of the things I tell my brain to help me care less:

It doesn’t matter

If you can identify what’s worrying you, ask yourself this question: in a week, will what happens today matter? What about in a month? A year? Then why invest all your emotional effort in worrying over it today? Let go of the wheel and tell yourself it doesn’t matter.

Will anyone die if this doesn’t work out how I want?

Again, if you can identify what’s worrying you, ask yourself: Will anyone die if something goes wrong? No? Then why do you care so much? Relax and jump in. Because…

It’ll be OK

This is a good one even if you can’t identify what’s triggering your OMG WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE reflex. I’ll let you in on a secret:
You will always be able to deal with whatever life throws at you. How do I know?
Because you have a 100% success rate so far.
Think about that. You’re still here, right?
So it’ll be OK.
Remember that the anticipation of an event is usually far worse than the event itself. Unless you’re talking about a cave lion eating your face, in which case feel free to tell your amygdala to go to town!

Risk it for a biscuit

This is a good one for when indecision due to fear paralyses you. It’s also helpful when you’re in a situation where you’ve made a mistake, or something hasn’t turned out how you wanted it to. I’m a risk-taker, despite my history of fear and my experience has told me that nothing good or bad happens if you don’t take action. Sharing a little of your own vulnerability gives permission to other people to do the same and magic happens when people are open and vulnerable. People also forgive mistakes and allow you to be human, but you have to show them you’re human first. Remember that, unless your job is about saving lives, if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter. The world will keep turning. Go on, take the risk. It’ll be worth it.

Fake it till you make it, baby!

Nobody can see that scared 14 year old inside you. Only you know how terrified you are. So chin up, do your best, and pretend to confident (remembering that if you make a booboo, take the risk and be vulnerable). Sooner or later what you do, you become, so go do!
These are just a handful of strategies that have helped me care – and fear – less. I hope they help you too. Don’t let fear rob you of your joy and hold you back. I trained my brain to care less, and you can too.

Are there things you’re scared to do?

Catastrophising about cave lions – Anxiety Disorder

Catastrophising and Anxiety Disorder
Brains are remarkably stupid

Me:         Hey brain, it’s 2am. Why are you still awake?

Brain:     Shhhhh I’m busy.

Me:         Doing what?

Brain:     Catastrophising.

Me:         Why? And I’m pretty sure that’s not a word.

Brain:     Because I need to work out what I’d do if a car drove through our front window. And it is so a word.

Me:         WHAT? A car is NOT going to drive through our front window.

Brain:     How do you know?

Me:         Well I guess I can’t guarantee it but the odds would be very small.

Brain:     See? You don’t know. Therefore it’s possible. So I’m just going to lie here in your skull for two hours and run through a complicated scenario of what would happen if a car drove through our front window.

Me:         You’re mental.

Brain:     No, I’m anxious.

Me:         What are you anxious about?

Brain:     Nothing. Everything. Why do you ask? Should I be worried about something?

Me:         No.

Brain:     Are you keeping something from me?

Me:         (sighs) No.

Brain:     Are you sure?

Me:         Go to sleep. We have work tomorrow – make that today. We need to sleep.

Brain:     Oh no, I’m going to be useless tomorrow and everyone will hate me.

Me:         No they won’t. Go to sleep.

Brain:     What if someone drives through our front window while I’m asleep?

Me:         I promise to wake you if we all end up dead, OK?

Brain.     OK. Wait. We’re going to die?

Me:         Oh God.

In my last post I talked about the amygdala, and how, when fear becomes a constant part of our lives, we’re trapped in a cycle of threat and reaction. We become anxious, worried, sometimes sick. Fear, which was our friend, has now become our foe. When this reaction goes out of control, it’s called Anxiety Disorder.

Someone once said to me that Anxiety Disorder (let’s just call it anxiety from here on) is bullshit because everyone gets nervous and worried. Well, that’s partly true. Everyone doesn’t suffer from Anxiety Disorder. Everyone’s felt a bit worried or fearful from time to time, but anxiety in this context is not a tendency to worry. It’s not that feeling you get when you’re about to do something challenging. That’s a normal amygdala response to a perceived threat – the risk of failure. Worry and fear were designed by nature to hone our senses and warn us of those pesky cave lions. Anxiety doesn’t serve any purpose that nature would recognise as advantageous – quite the opposite.

Anxiety is having your Fight or Flight reflex stuck constantly in the “on” position. Your frontal lobe and amygdala should be occasionally catching up for a quiet chat about the proliferation of cave lions, over a coffee and vanilla slice. Frankly, brains are a bit stupid. When you have anxiety, these two pesky brain areas indulge in 24-hour-teleconferences, catastrophising about cave lions, your kids, everyone else’s kids, money, sex, money, kids, your job, money, your relationship, what to have for dinner tomorrow and OH GOD I HAVE TO GET UP IN AN HOUR AND I HAVEN’T SLEPT YET AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE.

Anxious people stay on high alert for any threat, regardless of how ridiculous it is. Often we can’t articulate the threat; it’s just a horrible, dread-filled ooze that creeps up on you. Some symptoms include panic attacks, memory problems, irritability, insomnia, and chest tightness.

You may think this is a terrific survival instinct. No cave lion is going to sneak up on you and eat your face! This may well be true (particularly if, like me, you live in suburban Melbourne, where there is a remarkable scarcity of cave lions) but living permanently on the alert is very bad for you. Your brain is always looking over its metaphorical shoulder, always hearing or smelling or seeing a stalking cave lion. That would all be just fine if there really WAS a cave lion about to eat your face. However, none of these strategies are much use (or indeed appropriate) when you’re at work, chatting with friends or having dinner with family. Your body is constantly being bombarded with the chemicals that help you run or fight for your life (adrenalin, cortisol etc) but because your system is constantly “on”, these chemicals don’t get a chance to leave your body.

We need to re-educate our brains, because while we’re hyper-vigilant, but unable to distinguish between real and bullshit threats, we’re making ourselves exhausted and sick.

And everyone knows that the weakest members of the herd get picked off by cave lions first, right?

Don’t worry (oh the irony) – in my next post I’ll be talking about some of the ways you can fight against your amygdala hijacking your frontal lobe.

Have you been diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder? What are some of your triggers?

What is fear?

What is fear?

Fear is a very powerful force. It can stop you from living the life you deserve to live, it can interfere with successful relationships, and ultimately, it can make you sick.

So what is fear?

Well I’m sorry to say that it’s all in your head. No, really. Fear is a function of your brain chemistry that has kept the human species alive for thousands of years. Without it, we’d be extinct. I’m not going to go into detail about brain function because:

  1. I am not a brain expert
  2. Yawn

However, I can tell you about two important parts of your brain that play a big part in keeping you alive. The first is your frontal lobe, which is where your rational decision making is done. The other is the amygdala – two small clusters of cells that sit approximately behind your ears on each side of your head.

The amygdala’s job is look out for cave lions, because back in more primitive days, cave lions were a regular feature of the landscape and they could kill you. All day long your frontal lobe and amygdala are constantly chatting to each other.

Amygdala:        “See a cave lion?”
Frontal lobe:   “Nope.”
Amygdala:        “See a cave lion?”
Frontal lobe:    “Nope.”
Amygdala:        “See a cave lion?”
Frontal lobe:   “Nope.”

And so on, at least until your frontal lobe does spot a cave lion. Then it’s more like this:

Amygdala:        “See a cave lion?”

At this point the amygdala swings into action. It sends messages all through your brain and body. It tells your digestion to shut down. It tells your brain to produce adrenaline and cortisol. Then it tells your frontal lobe to take a break. All this makes sense if you think about it. You don’t need to digest food while you’re trying to stay alive, adrenalin makes you faster and stronger, and cortisol shuts down your immune system so you can do crazy things with your body that you normally wouldn’t do. And there’s no need for that pesky frontal lobe – when faced with a cave lion, you don’t want to be thinking long enough to decide between running over there or climbing this tree. You need to react on instinct, and that frontal lobe just gets in the way. So your decision-making ability becomes impaired, allowing your fight or flight instinct – the fear response – to take over to save your life. You run away, you fight the cave lion, or you’re lunch.


Except that these days we’re not running away from cave lions. For most of us, the kinds of threats our frontal lobes perceive are things like:

  • having to talk in public
  • loss of income or reputation
  • an unpleasant boss
  • the cafe not having our favourite muffin.

I think it’s fair to say that none of these are likely to kill you. Our frontal lobes, though, don’t know the difference between a disappointed expectation and a cave lion. So when you find out your favourite lunch venue is closed for refurbishment, your brain might perceive that as a threat you need to kill, or run away from at high speed. Either way, it’s an overreaction to something that wasn’t truly a threat in the first place.

Brains aren’t very smart.

Another modern issue around fear is that back when we really were confronted by cave lions, we either avoided the threat by running away, or negated the threat by killing the cave lion (or were dead, in which case the point is moot). Your body was full of lots of chemicals, but the threat was resolved and you got to lie down in your cave and let all those chemicals leave your body.

I think it’s safe to say that in modern times, it’s rather frowned upon for you to leap up and run out of a project meeting because your boss asked you for the quarterly figures. It’s even more unacceptable to jump over the meeting room table and kill them.

So not only are our brains reacting to non-threats as if they were cave lions, we’re trapped with our cave lions because we can’t kill or run away from them. We can’t get that satisfying resolution.

This is how fear becomes a constant part of our lives, trapping us in a cycle of threat and reaction. We become anxious, worried, sometimes sick. Fear, which was our friend, has now become our foe.

There are ways you can help your brain to recognise the difference between a cave lion and a non-threat, and I’ll be sharing some of these ideas with you in future articles.

Have you seen a cave lion lately? How did you react?


Welcome to Five Frogs Coaching

Welcome to Five Frogs Coaching for fear and anxiety

So there were these five frogs on a log, and four of them decided to jump off.

How many were left on the log?

Did you say one?

That seems logical, doesn’t it?

Five. There are still five frogs on the log, because deciding to jump doesn’t get you off the damn log. You have to actually jump.

Five Frogs Coaching can help you jump off that log.

Deciding to jump isn’t enough – you have to go ahead and jump. Welcome to the Five Frogs Coaching blog. On this site you’ll find all the information you need about my coaching services to help you beat your fears and help you create the life you want to live. On this blog I’ll be regularly posting tips and tricks to help you identify, and then jump off, your own log. In particular I’ll be writing a lot about anxiety and panic – two things that can keep you stuck on that log.

I hope you enjoy this blog and I look forward to helping you build the life you deserve to live.