Dealing with Mental Chatter

We all have mental chatter. It’s often a running commentary on our lives, going on inside our heads. Sometimes it’s a dialogue where a couple of voices argue the rights and wrongs of a situation. Often it would be nice if we could switch off those voices that take us out of the present moment. So what can we do?

There is a simple but effective way of acknowledging the thoughts without allowing them to carry us away into the future or into the past. The first step is to recognise that although thoughts may weigh us down, they don’t actually have a mass. They aren’t real things. One of the common problems people report when trying to meditate is that they can’t clear their minds and switch off their thoughts. However, what if the thoughts occur for a reason? What if they ‘mean well’? What if all we really have to do is acknowledge them.

In psychology despite appearances we aren’t very good at multi-tasking. Our attention is very selective. We can’t process all the information that comes our way, so our attention shifts to the things that have the greatest importance for us or to the things that shout loudest? So what if all of this mental chatter is just a way for our brains to get our attention.

It’s often said that when we face death, our lives flash before us. One theory is that our brains indiscriminately download everything we know, in the hope that the solution is there somewhere. A similar thing happens when we are stressed. Our brains chatter away like small children trying to get attention, often repeating the same things, over and over again.

The technique for dealing with mental chatter in everyday life is simple. It’s the same as dealing with mental chatter when we are trying to meditate. All we have to do is name the thought. Just acknowledge the thought and say ‘Thought about. . . . ‘. Then bring your attention back to the present moment. It is  a choice to engage with the thought. Often naming it is enough.

Often when trying to solve a problem, the mind will often keep firing off the same thoughts. If naming the thought doesn’t quieten the mental chatter, simple ask ‘Is there anything new here?’ If there is, make a note of it, if there is not say ‘nothing new, got it covered’ then let it go.

This simple practice, quieten the mind, reduce stress and give you a useful list of possible solutions.

___________

If you found this post useful:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching worldwide through Skype. Contact Gary by email to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization. See: Testimonials from former clients.

Has mindfulness become a dirty word? And why it’s just really about connecting more fully with everyday life

Is mindfulness becoming a dirty word? Has it become the most over-used concept since Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Judging from some of the comments I hear in coaching consultations and training, for some people it has taken on all the baggage that goes with the idea of meditation. It’s the idea that it’s all very impractical ‘head in the clouds, aerie-faerie nonsense’ that lacks meaning or relevance for everyday life. In this post I challenge some of these negative misconceptions by offering some down-to-earth examples of mindfulness in action.

How we define a concept shapes our attitudes towards it. Sometimes mindfulness is presented as something we need to add to our already-busy lives. However, it’s really just about ‘present moment awareness’. When you watch a sunrise or a sunset, your full attention is on the present.That’s mindfulness. When you become totally absorbed in your hobby (or goals), that’s mindfulness.

There are many things we do on ‘auto-pilot’. When we first learn a new skill we have to pay attention to the details. When the skill becomes automatic our minds can wonder. You might listen to two singers or musicians of equal technical ability both perform a piece and prefer one over the other. One you might describe as ‘really feeling it’ and the other as ‘just going through the motions’ or ‘phoning in the performance’.

Examples of everyday mindfulness

Food

Research has shown that mindfulness has a positive impact on the more mundane pleasures in life such as eating. This is a particular ‘hobby of mine and it’s been said that I’m often far too vocal about my appreciation of a good meal (although I stop short of a ‘When Harry Met Sally’ mment). When we really pay attention and appreciate the food we tend to eat fewer calories than when slumped in front of the TV shovelling in the food on autopilot. Think how much popcorn we consume at the cinema when our attention is elsewhere. So any healthy eating could start with actually making a conscious attempt to pay attention to the food. Food is best served with the lights on and the TV off.

Taking Up A Hobby

Who can forget the sight of Ozzy Osbourne sitting in his kitchen colouring-in (in the first season of The Osbournes reality TV show)? However recent research suggests that the ‘prince of darkness’ was on to something. Colouring-in can be good for us. In effect it puts us in a state of mindfulness as pay attention to the task of ‘not going over the lines’. Research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, found that people who pursue creative activities outside the workplace deal with stress better and performance improves at work, even humble ‘colouring-in’.

In book Unlock Your Confidence I mention how a simple walk in nature can boost feelings of self-esteem. According to writer Richard Louw connecting with nature boosts creativity and health. Not surprisingly, research also shows that spending time gardening can also increase feelings of well-being. They ground us in the present moment.

This all fits in with the concept of ‘flow’ in positive psychology. Put simply ‘flow’ is the state of total absorption in a task or activity when we appear to lose all sense of time. According to positive psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced ‘Chick-sent-me-high’).spending time in ‘flow’ is a definition of happiness.

Mindfulness is about engaging more fully with life

Mindfulness doesn’t have to feel like an alien activity. You can connect with the present moment in very ordinary ways that support your everyday life. The difference is that you connect more fully with your life.

So next time you hear the world mindfulness in a training course, in a magazine, book or on TV, just take it as a prompt to ask ‘where’s my attention now? Is it on the activity in hand? If not, take it is a signal to reconnect and engage with what you are doing.

Links

If you found this post useful:

__________

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

How Taking Photographs Can Impair Your Memories (and what to do about it)

New research indicates that although we think of photographs as something to preserve our memories, the process of taking pictures may actually impair our memory of events. This phenomenon has been dubbed the photo-taking impairment effect  by Dr Linda Henkel (from Fairfield University, Connecticut). She states:

When people rely on technology to remember for them – counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves – it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences.

The research was carried out in museum to learn the effects of visitors’ memories of what they had seen. Participants were given a tour and asked to either photograph exhibits or simply try to remember them. When their memories were tested the following day the results showed that the photographers were less accurate in recognizing objects and memory of detail was poorer compared with those who had only looked at them.

However in a follow-up experiment participants were asked to take photographs of specific details in objects by zooming in on them. In contrast to the previous experiment the recall for detail was preserved, not just for the part of the object in shot but also for other details out of frame. So the conclusion here is that photographs do preserve memories if we take the time.

This research fits in with what we know about learning in that the deeper we process information the easier it is to recall. So for instance it is more difficult to remember a list of random words than the same number of words that have been organized by category first. It also reminds us of the value of goals. Where the participants had a more specific goal they engaged at a deeper level with the subject. Active learning is always more effective that passive learning. Setting your own goals is better letting them be set by chance. In a previous post I discussed how to get the most out of a self-help book. The key recommendation is to actively engage with the material rather than just passively reading the book. Most of my work in academic coaching helps clients to tap into the fundamentals of human psychology and employ active learning techniques.

And so to mindfulness the state of fully experiencing the present moment. The research on photo-taking impairment effect hinges on the level of engagement the participant has with the subject material. There is a great lesson in the research for life in general: take your time, create balance in life, have a goal, be actively present and focus on what is really important.

With advances in digital photography the temptation is to ‘point and shoot at anything that moves and anything that stays still! The result is that we amass lots of pictures we never look at again. In the past people would decide whether to take on holiday a camera film with 24 or 36 shots. Today that would barely a few minutes.

The famous painting by René Magritte “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) is a reminder to us that photographs are not memories. Photographs are representations of memories. It is important to have the experience as well as click the camera shutter. With mobile (cell) phones and digital cameras the temptation is to use the device as a companion rather than engaging with ‘real-time life’ and people who are present. So before you whip out your camera or reach for your mobile consider the balance between ‘capturing the moment’ and ‘being in the present moment’.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary Wood(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire)

Gary’s book Unlock Your Confidence’ covers mindfulness, goal setting and how to feel comfortable in your own skin. It is out now. Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA

Links:

Practise Mindfulness and Reduce Your Phone Bill! (. . . and Build Confidence)

Social media has made social commentators or us all

Living in the modern world is not necessarily living in the present moment. I went out with a group of people recently and one person periodically reached for his phone to post a series of updates, a running commentary on the night’s proceedings. It begs the question of whether he was really there at all.  Observing people on their mobile phones and hearing about their astronomical phone bills has made me think about needs, motives and mindfulness. Can being more aware of life make you happier, more confident and save you money?

Experiencing the moment rather than observing

I ran an experiential team building course as part of a university’s management development programme. Part of assessment for the course required the students to keep a reflective diary. The whole aim of the course was to experience team building rather than sitting and listening to theories in a ‘chalk and talk’ format. So there were lots of group activities. One person just hung around at the edge of the activities writing things for her reflective diary. Despite being encouraged to join in she kept gravitating back to her diary which had really become an observation of other people since she contributed nothing. She successfully avoiding being in the room so what could she really reflect? She was just a passenger. It reminds me of the time when I was a passenger in a car, travelling back from a night out in another city  (in the early hours of the morning). The other passengers took the opportunity to go to sleep leaving the driver ‘alone’. I also started to fall asleep until the car swerved. It seems that the driver had the same idea too. I suddenly became pretty mindful and participated in the journey. Despite being tired, being in the present moment was infinitely preferable to the alternative!

Do we text so we don’t have to talk or just to fill time?

Routinely I see people alone on buses who spend most of the fifteen minute journey phoning anyone and everyone but not really saying anything. Much of the conversation, at best, involves a running commentary of the bus journey.

I’m often amazed when some people tell me how much they spend on their mobile phones. Even with staggering allowances they still manage to pay double their monthly tariff. Most of the money goes on SMS (text) messages. Every month they seem genuinely surprised by their phone bills. One of the biggest ‘culprits’ is the text conversation in which numerous texts are exchanged, one for each line of the conversation. Sometimes a text will just say ‘yes’ or ‘lol’ or a smiley face emoticon. Actually calling the person would be easier, more efficient and cheaper. Texting has become a way to keep in touch without really communicating. It’s seen as more convenient because you don’t want to spend too much time talking to someone. Ironically, there is no time saved as lives are put on hold waiting for the next line in the ongoing text saga. Time is not saved. Money is just wasted. It just creates the illusion of connecting. Often it’s just a way of pimping someone else’s time.

People run up huge phone bills because they aren’t really paying attention to the world around them. They are either trying to alleviate boredom by killing time, alleviating loneliness or blocking unpleasant emotions. Practicing mindfulness can help to deal with unwanted thoughts and feelings.

Present Moment Awareness

To be surprised by a huge phone bill means you haven’t been mindful of what you have been doing.  A pivotal moment in my own personal development was going on holiday alone. It was before mobile phones had become an integral part of our lives. I carried a paperback book and a notepad around with me. I’d guessed that sitting alone having a coffee might be awkward so I could read a book or pretend to read a page then gaze of into the distance thinking about the page I’d just ‘read’. Alternatively, I could scribble things in my note pad. Effectively I was keeping a reflective diary without actually having done anything to reflect about. After a while, I got a bit tired of getting the books out and just decided to sit there and enjoy the present moment. After all, I was sitting over looking a beautiful harbour. I credit this moment as the discovery of my confidence, my true inner confidence. I wasn’t concerned about other people and what I imagined they might be thinking. I just looked out to sea, the boats, the sky, the sounds and so on. That was enough. I realized that doing this I’d become totally comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t occur to me that the experience would be heightened by ‘sharing it’ with someone back home. That would have taken me out of the moment.

Being Mindful, Being Happier, Being More Confident (and saving money)

We hear a lot about the practice on mindfulness and usually it’s about taking time out to be still and just observe our breathing. If our minds wander we simply bring our attention back to our breathing. Research has shown that meditation and mindfulness can increase our sense of well-being including optimism, confidence and happiness. It also has a beneficial effect of stress levels and strengthens our immune system response. There are however other types of mindfulness. There are many types of mindfulness apart from being mindful of your breath in a mediation exercise. If you go for a walk in the park you can practice mindfulness of nature. A tree is no more or no less because someone has texted another person about it. It just is. Switching off the TV and paying attention to what you’re eating is mindfulness of food. Being ‘in the zone’ and being engrossed in a hobby is never made better by getting out of the zone. Indeed, the state of being totally immersed in a task is known as ‘being n flow’. The more time you spend ‘in flow’ the happier you are.

Here is a simple mindfulness exercise taken from my book Unlock Your Confidence that I use for the basis of confidence building:

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodClose your eyes, take long slow deep breaths and simply focus your attention on your breath. If intrusive thoughts pop into your mind, just acknowledge the beginning of the thought and then observe when it ends. Then bring you attention back to your breathing. That’s all. If you want you can name the thought and then let it go. You will notice that the thoughts become less frequent and the periods of stillness increase.Do it for ten to 20 minutes each day.

Ideally, commit to trying this out everyday for a month to assess the effects on your relaxation, confidence, happiness and, of course, on your phone bill. Spending more time practising being in the present moment may mean will help to still the mental chatter and intrusive thoughts so that you don’t need the distraction of endless text messages.

To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders – Lao Tzu

Links:

Being Happy: Memories and Goals

In a recent radio interview I was asked about the process by which we recall happy moments in our lives whilst less happy times tend to fade. Of course, it’s not the same for all everyone. Some people are adept at recalling past events as reasons for not engaging with the present or the future. I’m not referring here to recalling serious trauma but more the refusal to move on in the coaching context.

Working with mature students there have been numerous examples of people who have held on to the callous remarks of (poor) teachers. It took some of them 30 years to go back into the classroom. It wasn’t that they had suddenly found the confidence to do so, it’s just that the ‘pain’ and regret of not doing so became greater. As well as teach the syllabus it was also my job to convince them that it was the right decision. These students are the main reason I got into (life) coaching.

Social Media and Memories

A recent research study at Portsmouth University by Alice Good and Claire Wilson suggests that we use social media like Facebook, not just to interact with others but also to interact with our former selves. Some people spend a great deal of time looking through the old photographs the post on networking sights. The process of looking back can create have an emotional buffering effect especially during tough times. It can create a sense of well-being and optimism to help us to deal with present challenges and to face the future.

Constructed Memories

The human memory is not an infallible storage device. Cognitive psychologist  Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in the 1930s that memories are highly constructed. When things don’t make sense or when there is missing information, we fill in the gaps based on memory default values based on our experiences of likelihood, Often our memories bear little relation to what actually happened, which is why the accuracy and reliability of eye-witness testimony (in the justice system) has been challenged by psychology, most notably by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. In cognitive-behavioural therapy questioning techniques centre on cognitive distortions, most often on black-and-while, absolutist thinking. Similarly by exploring exceptions to negative evaluations, in the solution-focused approach, we can reveal small nuggets of possibility to build upon. In classic psychoanalysis we have he concept of defence mechanisms, where sometimes memories of painful experiences are blocked at an unconscious level in order to protect us emotionally and psychologically. Often memories seem to have a life of their own.

Being Happy

Happiness is no longer just in the realm of pop psychology, it has become a legitimate topic in academic psychology led by pioneering Positive psychologist Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For Seligman, happiness is about living our lives according to our values and strengths. For Csikszentmihalyi happiness is about setting goals that stretch us and put us into a state of flow. ‘Flow’ is that state of total engagement in what we are doing, when we are totally ‘in the present moment’ and lose a sense of time and of ourselves. We can actively do something about our own happiness. Along with confidence-building it is one of the main motivations for seeking (life) coaching.

The Past-Present-Future Balance

As with all aspects of life, balance is key. It’s good to reminisce and look back and be reminded of the good times. The best times in our lives are often when we most in tune with our strengths and values. For some people the past has a powerful lure, so much so that it taints the present and the future. Philosopher Walter Benjamin said that ‘History is an angel blown backward through time’.  It means that, essentially, we walk backwards into the future. We cannot help but look back but still need to move forward. It’s important to value the past for its lessons, for uncovering our strengths and for providing us happy memories to see us through challenging times. Perhaps it’s greatest value is to help propel us into the future. There lie new opportunities to live according to our values, to use our skills and strengths and more opportunities to experience a sense of flow, those moments where time appears to stand still. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness – the ability to live in the present moment for what it is without letting it get crowded out by the past or the future. It’s all a delicate balance that becomes a whole lot easier when we take a few moments out of our day to settle our minds and take a few, long, slow deep breaths. Taking control of our stress/relaxation is the first step to confidence and happiness.

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 21/3/13 )

Links:

A Short Course in Personal Development: Psychological Skills for Elite Performance

The four basic psychological skills for elite performance are:  relaxation; goal-setting; self-talk; and creative visualization. Here are three exercises utilizing these skills. Practised regularly they will support and enhance personal development and elite performance:

(i) Relaxation: Our ability to control our stress response has a profound effect on human performance and how we process information.

(ii) Self-Talk: The way we talk to ourselves – our inner dialogue – creates self-imposed limitations for how we view the world and what we do in the world.

(iii) Goal-setting & Visualization: This simple exercise is used by top athletes and uses creative visualization to support goal setting to create a sense of having already achieved the goal. It’s a good way to build and maintain motivation.

I use the concept of ‘personal experiments’ with coaching clients. This approach allows us to try techniques on for size, with no intrinsic sense of failure. We simply commit to the techniques for a given period of time (say two to four weeks) to allow ourselves to collect data. So give them a go and assess the results (and feel free to post any feedback). For some information, see the link to my self-help book below.

Links:

Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It