The History of Anxiety and the Importance of Living in the Here and Now

Our brains have developed through a process of evolution. In their current form our brains have been around for about 100,000 years; a mere drop in the evolutionary bucket. It is important to remember evolution as we consider our behaviours today. Why have certain behaviours evolved? How might those behaviours promote survival or reproduction?

The way we live today is very different to that of our evolutionary ancestors when there were no cities, no agriculture and no technology. We would have lived as foragers. There are still some (an extremely small number) of forager societies living in the world today.

Anthropologists who have studied these societies observe the immediacy of people’s lives, the extreme focus on the present. If your hunt has been successfully you return to camp to eat, if not you search for an alternative food source. People live by the motto “If it is not here and now what does it matter where (or when) it is?”

In foraging societies there is little if any gap between the efforts you make and the feedback you receive about your efforts. In our society there is often a long delay between the efforts we make and the payoff. By the time we do get feedback it may be too late for us to change what we are doing. Take for example farming. Farmers need to plough the fields, plant the seeds, water the fields, monitor for weeds and pests, harvest and store the crop. By the time it is done it will be months before the farmer knows if they have been successful. It is much harder to resort to a plan B if it has all gone wrong.

Some researchers suggest that it is the move 10,000 years ago from a foraging society that focused on immediacy to an agricultural society where there is more uncertainty and a greater delay before outcomes are known, that has led to us experiencing anxiety. We evolved to live in a foraging society where our actions had immediate consequences but modern life means that we are living very differently.

What does this mean for us now? Well, I am not suggesting that we move back to living in foraging societies, but there is a lot that we can learn from that way of life. We live a life now that is very focused on the future – we hurtle towards that future at great speed without taking the time to enjoy the here and now.

Being aware that our brains did not evolve for the way that we live today can give us new understanding and compassion for our feelings of anxiety.

Staying Resilient and Keeping Well: A personal reflection.

If you were to ask me what one thing is essential to building mental resilience I would say self-awareness. There are lots of components to resilience – positive emotions, cognitive flexibility, life-meaning, social support, active coping styles (all of which I am sure we will look at in more detail in future blogs) – but underpinning it all is self-awareness. Knowing yourself, your energy patterns, the way you think, the things that drain you, the things that energise you, the things that sustain you, what your values are. Being your greatest supporter and your greatest friend.

I am a work psychologist and executive coach and I have been working in the work and wellbeing field for over 15 years. But it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition that put me at a high risk of heart attack and stroke and led to me experiencing bouts of fatigue that I really began to understand the concepts of stress and resilience. If I wanted to move into a healthy old age then becoming more resilient was an imperative not an option; and I think that is true for everyone. Being resilient isn’t about ‘doing less work’ it is about maintaining a life style that you love alongside keeping yourself mentally well. The same as for our physical resilience, most of us have an awareness of what we eat and drink and our exercise levels because we know the benefits of good physical health. Being physically resilient doesn’t mean doing less it means doing the things that we know will help us to keep well.

One of the things I never knew until I experienced fatigue was that it has both a physical and an emotional component. Fatigue drains both my physical and my mental resources. It leaves me feeling exhausted and emotionally vulnerable. When I am fatigued I find it harder to manage conflict and complexity. I have to be very careful about what I focus my mental energy on – because it is finite.

There has been lots of learning for me. I love my job, I love working hard, working long hours and travelling the country. I didn’t want my health problems to stop me from doing something I loved. And it hasn’t – it just means that I have had to develop my self-awareness to help me take better care of myself. So here are some of the things that I have learnt:

Plan your week as a whole
This has been a big one for me. There are some things that I find more draining then others: physically long days outside of the office, networking, intense meetings, hospital visits. I don’t know what my energy levels are going to look like in a few weeks or months ahead. So I try and plan my diary so that each week I have at least 2 mornings working from home. I know that not everybody has this option – but this is about what works for me.

I like to work long hours – I run my own business so long hours are part of the job description – this isn’t about not working those hours it is about having a variety of activity during the week – because if I don’t pace myself my fatigue can take a hold.

Use your weekends
There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t do some work (see the bit about running my own business) and for me that is fine. But one of the things that I have had to learn is that I can’t work a full working day 7 days a week. I need to spend my weekends with family and friends, taking the time to do the household chores and re-charging my batteries for the week ahead. This has been one of the hardest lessons for me, in order to increase my effectiveness I have to spend some time away from work. Time-out increases my energy, helps keep my thinking creative and agile, and gives me the time to do the pesky chores, which once out of the way will help me to keep focused during the week.

Align your head and your heart
Ok, this may sound like a bit of a poncy one, but I am a firm believer that if your work and your life reflect your core values then it is going to be more joyful and less draining. We all have values – they are the things that give our life meaning, a map that guides us through the world. Some of those values are more important to us than others (at WorkGuru we have 2 exercises to help you identify and priorities your values); these are the ones that we wouldn’t wish to compromise on. Sometimes in life we lose sight of what those values are.

My values are about creativity, honesty, respect, openness being genuine and really believing in what I am doing. When I work in a way that doesn’t reflect these values then I lose my energy and motivation, I become frustrated and risk feeling burnt out.

Listen to your body
It was whilst lecturing to postgraduate University students on workplace stress that I suddenly had the revelation that my head and my body didn’t always agree with each other. My head can tell me “I love all the challenges we are facing at the moment, I am feeling stimulated and energised, it is great to be so busy” but my body is saying, “I’m knackered”. I have a tendency to listen to my head and not notice what my body is trying to say.

Two things that have helped me to listen to my body are Mindfulness and yoga. In Mindfulness meditation you learn the use of the body scan (our module on Mindfulness includes 3 guided meditations one of which is a breath-body meditation that includes a body scan); this involves bringing your awareness to each part of your body and just checking on how it is. Doing this on a regular basis helps you to begin to see connections (maybe noticing how tense your shoulders become after certain meetings, or after long car journeys), and helps you to begin to recognise early warning signs of stress. Yoga works in the same way; through regular stretching and movement you become more attuned to your body, learning to recognise when it is out of kilter.

Physical exercise is important
Finding time for everything that you want to do in life is difficult if not impossible – but don’t neglect exercise. Try to build it into your everyday routine: walking or cycling to work, taking the stairs, walking at lunchtime, taking the dog for a walk – and if you don’t have a dog taking yourself for a walk. Ring-fence time for more vigorous exercise. The gym isn’t for everyone so find something that suits you and put it in your diary. The problem with exercise is that the less you do the more difficult it becomes – but keep going it will get easier and more enjoyable.

When my fatigue is bad getting out of bed in the morning is often a challenge – I don’t have the same surge of energy that propels me into the day – the idea of exercise feels like too much of a hurdle; and it often is. When I am fatigued my energy becomes a very very precious commodity and not one to be squandered lightly. If I were to exercise the way I normally do I would not have the energy to do any work. But I also know that not doing anything lowers my resilience. The answer for me has been short walks, and on days where my work tasks are routine and don’t require too much energy, or at the weekend – a short bike ride.

When my fatigue has lifted I increase my exercise thinking of it as making a deposit in a savings account – building up resilience for when I am going to need it again.

Make changes now
And finally, make changes now. Having a chronic health condition gave me an imperative to change the way I was living. Increasing resilience and managing stress wasn’t a ‘nice thing to do when I have some time’ thing any longer – it was something that I had to take seriously. And for that I am grateful. I now work in a much more effective way, I find time to do the things I love outside of work, I have got back in touch with the things that are important to me, I have learnt to prioritise and, I think I am a much nicer person to be with. Without my health problems I would have still known the theory on mental resilience, but I am not entirely sure I would have put it into practice.

Has Work Become Harder or Have We Become Softer?

15% of us find our work either very or extremely stressful (HSE 2012). But is the workplace of today a more stressful environment then 50 years ago? Has work become harder, or have we become softer?

My parents’ generation the “baby boomer generation” (born post World War II) had a very different experience of work then my generation or maybe more particularly my son’s generation (Generation Y).

When my parents started working jobs were plentiful, fairly well paid, universities were free (but aspirational, not so many people went to university – my mother got her education through the Open University when she was in her late 30s), jobs were secure and mortgages were low (you could afford your mortgage on just one salary). Many of my parents’ generation were able to retire before the statutory retirement age with large amounts of equity in their houses and with good company pensions.

For my son’s generation – recently out of university trying to get their first jobs – things are very different. They have debts from their education, jobs are scarce and the ones that are available aren’t that secure, house prices are high, mortgages difficult to get and impossible to afford and they can expect to retire sometime in their 70s.

There have also been radical changes to the working environment. For my parents their working life was fairly static. There wasn’t much change to the way that they worked or the job that they did. Their workplaces had very hierarchical structures. You knew where you were, you knew who your boss was, you got promotion by putting in the years, trade unions and collective bargaining offered you some protection of your rights.

But workplaces are very fluid environments now. The average person will have 10 – 14 different jobs over their life and 3 – 4 career changes. Even when we aren’t changing jobs our jobs change anyway. The technology revolution has changed the way that we work, our organisations tend to by flatter and more agile meaning that we need to be more flexible and able to manage changing tasks and changing working practices. If we want our CVs to remain strong and competitive then we have to take more responsibility for our own training and professional development.

Technology means that we work in a 24/7 environment – always able to access emails and to be contactable. And working in an environment where redundancy is always a possibility then the pressure is on to not only work but to be seen to be working – at all hours of the day and night.

Exhausting. No, we haven’t got softer our working lives have become much more stressful. Which is why it is important that we find ways to build our mental and physical resilience. Helping us to cope with our fast changing, demanding working lives.