• Debbie Russell

I need a haircut but will it be a disaster ?! - the power of helplessness

Updated: Feb 6, 2020

I went for a haircut recently. Now I have to tell you I hate having my hair cut. Many hairdressers don’t know what to do with my unruly curls. Sometimes I’ve left a salon hating my new appearance and feeling terrible. This has led me to feeling anxious, even panicky, when I visit any new hairdresser, not knowing what on earth I’m going to look like when I leave. However I eventually plucked up the courage to go. On the way there, something got me thinking about an article I'd just seen about plastic pollution, and I started worrying about the destruction of marine life. This triggered off thoughts about whether my close 'eco-warrior' friend would hate me for buying her a plastic wrapped gift. By the time I got there I was feeling pretty anxious, fed up and helpless. Well, the Universe works in mysterious ways, and while flicking through a magazine, I came across an article entitled “How to be an optimist in an uncertain world”(1) Here’s my take on what it was telling me:

1. 'Meet your inner cave-wo/man'

There’s a primitive part of your brain (and everyone else’s) that’s hard wired with a negative bias. It's always on the lookout for any danger or threat. Whenever it thinks it senses danger (even if there isn't really any there), it will send signals to the rest of the brain and body to switch on your anxiety reaction (fight, flight or freeze). Just like your cave-wo/man ancestor when they encountered a wild beast or fell into a primeval bog!  Nowadays even apparently insignificant events (like being in a crowd, or noticing someone looking at you strangely) or even your own thoughts (“I need a haircut, but…”) can trigger this off, even if you ‘know’ your reaction seems way out of proportion.  When this happens you might find that your emotions start to take over and it becomes difficult to think clearly and make good decisions. Logic goes out of the window, and it's easy to get carried away with worried thoughts and feelings of being out of control. These then feed back to that primitive part of your brain, which in turn increases the fight/flight/freeze reaction, and you feel even worse. Understanding this process is normal can help you to take the following steps...

2. 'Calm down'

Accept what's going on, don’t judge yourself, and breathe - its been known for ages that slowing down the breath has a calming effect on the mind and body. More recently it's been discovered that breathing out engages the ‘rest and digest' (relaxation) part of the nervous system. So allowing the out breath to be longer than the in breath accumulates the amount of relaxation you're getting in a very powerful way. You can help this process by counting in your head which engages the logical left side of your brain, and makes the emotional right side 'back down'. Close your eyes and really pay attention to your breath and any sensations you can feel (without judging them). Your cave-wo/man ancestor was far more in touch with the here and now (‘engaged with the present moment’) than you are today with all those demands on your attention, so was almost certainly able to relax and enjoy those times when ‘danger’ really was absent.  Paying attention like this has been shown to increase peaceful calm feelings for most people. Finally, spend as much time outside as possible. Full spectrum light through the eye’s retina (hardly any gets through your glass windows) has been shown to have an immediate effect on the brain’s production of seratonin - which calms and lifts the mood.

3. 'Wise up'

In therapy people often find that just the knowledge above can help them to feel more ‘normal’ and realise that it happens to everyone.  But you can also deliberately 'gather evidence' by writing down what you do know and what you don't, what you can do something about and what you can't. Then you can see when your brain might have tricked you into believing something is an absolute disaster or that absolutely everything will go completely wrong. Writing things down can take power away from the unknown. You cannot stop thoughts popping into your head, and you can't stop events happening and other people doing (or even thinking or feeling) things.  But you can learn how to feel better and calmer..

4. 'Embrace the chaos'  

You may be hearing words like 'emergency', 'catastrophe', 'crisis', 'cliff-edge', 'disaster' etc. and seeing polarised attitudes all over the media and in many conversations these days. Like a lot of people you might also have heard the advice ‘no point worrying about what you can’t control’ - it’s good advice but not

easy to take - we humans have a basic need to feel a level of control over our destinies. As the author of the article says: recognising there's only so much one person can do makes you human, not powerless. Remember 1, 2 and 3 above - focus on your breath, slow it down, notice what’s happening right now, be realistic - will you be worrying about this in several years time? The human brain actually needs to feel challenged and be given problems to solve, otherwise it gets bored - choose something you can do something about (however small) and make a plan - but remember you can only have so much influence.  

4. 'Keep your feet on the ground'

Bring yourself into the present here and now. When you can do this, you won't be dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Go outside, pay attention to what you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste right now.  Try Yoga or Meditation or Mindfulness exercises.  Be realistic - gather evidence as described above to see if you really need to panic - because the only time you really need flight or flight is when there is a real danger and there won't be time to gather any evidence!

5. 'Trust your gut'

Did you know your gut has its own nervous system (the enteric nervous system)? It communicates directly with the brain via the main bundle of nerves which connects the two.  Learn to trust your ‘gut instinct’ - if something doesn’t feel right, it’s a sign that something’s amiss - don’t ignore it. If you find you can't trust your own gut - it's time to talk to someone who can help.

6. 'Train your brain'

Remind yourself you’ve come through uncertain times before and survived, then - practice imagining a good outcome - the imagination is a powerful tool which you can use for imagining what success looks and feels like, as well as failure - your brain has an amazing network of neurons called the 'reticular activating system' (RAS) which means that what you focus on is what you get.  The more you practice these things, just like worrying, the more they become habit, you actually build new neural pathways in your brain - and it’s perfectly possible to replace old habits with new more positive ones that will allow you to calm down in the face of uncertainty, and make deliberate informed choices in life.

1) Woman and Home May 2019 by Christabel Smith p.16-17

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