The Meaning of Life… in under 300 words

Perhaps you think I’ve set myself an impossible challenge here?

Not so. The meaning of life is pretty straightforward to state. Your life has whatever meaning you give to it. So the question becomes: what do people say gives their lives meaning? That’s easy enough to measure and psychologists have done exactly that.

Baumeister and Vohs (2002) have synthesised four factors. When people are asked, the more they report each of these four factors being fulfilled, the more meaningful their lives feel:

  1. Purpose – this could be climbing Kilimanjaro, going to work or getting the kids a good education, whatever it is, meaning in life comes from reaching goals and feeling fulfilled. Even though fulfilment is hard to achieve because the state fades, people need purpose and to continually re-evaluate what purpose they are focussing on.
  2. Values – people need a moral structure to work out what is right and what is wrong. There are plenty to choose from: some come from religion, others from philosophy and still others from your friends and family.
  3. Efficacy – people want to make a difference and have some control over their environment. Without that, the meaning of life is reduced.
  4. Self-worth – we all want to feel we’re good and worthwhile people. We can do this individually or by attaching ourselves to a worthy cause. Either way we need to be able to view ourselves in a positive light.

So, there you have it: the meaning of life in under 300 words.

Two words of warning. Firstly, it can be quite difficult to get all these aspects in balance at the same place, although certainly not impossible. Secondly, a meaningful life is probably necessary to be happy, but that should never stop you from developing a healthy curiosity about harvesting and adding other aspects that nourish your life on a deep level.

What gives meaning to your life?

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Shining from the inside.

Low self esteem, a cause and symptom of depression, anxiety and anger problems, has become the modern pariah.

Low self esteem, a rope that binds; preventing us pursuing our dreams and enjoying simple things that ‘other people enjoy’. We talk of ‘self esteem issues’ and nod sagely to one another.

We use the words but do we examine what they really mean? You can’t hold self-esteem in your hand or take the kids to see it on a Sunday afternoon. So, what actually is self-esteem?

Self-esteem: A Definition

Many religions’ scriptures teach that pride and arrogance are terrible sins, the idea being that you can’t worship yourself and a god at the same time. Supposedly, if you are ‘full of yourself’ you have little space for anything or anyone else.

However, real self-esteem is not arrogance or self-love or vanity.

Real self-esteem consists of:

  • An appreciation of what we can do.
  • An honest respect for our own abilities, potentials and value.
  • Knowing our strengths and trusting in them.
  • An appreciation and open acceptance of our limitations.
  • An acceptance of these limitations whilst understanding that some limitations can be overcome.
  • A freedom from over-concern with what we imagine others think of us whilst accepting these perceptions do play a part in everyday life but do not determine who we are.
  • Having a strong sense of who we are.

The self-esteem movement and self-affirmations

I’m sure you’ve seen and possibly read some of the countless self help books out there. Some of these encourage us to ‘love ourselves’ or repeat ‘positive affirmations’ to ourselves everyday in order to ‘re-program’ ourselves.

Does this work? And if it does work what does it say about human beings?

If I am a bullying, vindictive sadist would it be wrong for me to experience self reproach or even self disgust or should I just tell myself one hundred times a day I am a good human being whilst continuing in the same way?

Balance in all things

Feeling bad about aspects of our behaviour, be it selfishness, laziness, intolerance or aggressiveness is valid feedback. We can judge ourselves and feel bad about ourselves sometimes.

If I have behaved terribly then I need to feel badly about that particular time for a while but not badly about my whole identity. To state ‘I am worthless to the core’ on the basis of one mistake is unrealistic. Because, equally, I can find times when I have behaved decently or done well.

The essential difference

There is a difference between telling myself:

“I am a totally worthless human being, because last week I was rude to the in-laws, and that I will always be hopeless and hopeless in every area.”(Low-self-esteem)


“I behaved really badly last night with those specific people at that specific time”.

This accepts responsibility but doesn’t damn one’s whole personality and life as worthless. (Good self-esteem).

So we can still be self-critical and have good self-esteem at the same time. And we do this by not generalising about our mistakes and weaknesses to include everything about ourselves.

To sum up : Belief in yourself in important, but so are the skills that stop you having to work so hard at believing!

The Importance of Developing Skills as a Foundation for Good Self-Esteem

So, now we come to the crux of the matter. If I tell myself that ‘everyday I am becoming more and more confident in social situations – then I go out and feel terribly shy and embarrassed, what do you think it is sensible for me to believe?

Should I believe what I have been endlessly repeating to myself, or should I believe my actual everyday experience?

If, however, someone were to come along  and teach me conversational skills, relaxation techniques and thinking skills then I can start to experience feeling more comfortable socially. This lets me know that I am better socially and when I know I don’t need merely to believe.

‘Soft Skills’ for Low Self Esteem

Learning sports, languages, practical skills like driving or carpentry can all raise a sense of competency. However handling our emotions effectively is also a skill. Emotional skills are sometimes termed as ‘soft skills’. Some of these soft skills include:

  • Being able to ‘read’ the emotions of others.
  • Knowing when others are angry, upset, unsettled etc.
  • Being sensitive to others whilst realising that we, too, have a position within any given situation.
  • Having empathy. Being able to ‘put ourselves in the position of the other person’.
  • Being able to assert our point of view. When appropriate ‘speaking up for ourselves’ assertively.
  • Having an effective communication style.
  • Being able to make ourselves understood and being able to compromise to the benefit of all involved.
  • Having good rapport skills and being able to forge and maintain friendships.
  • Observing our own emotional ebbs and flows.
  • Knowing how to manage our own anger and ‘low times’ so we are not swamped by our own emotions.
  • Understanding our own needs for company, rest, creative stimulation, healthy lifestyle, achievable goals, attention and intimacy so that we can feel a sense of control.
  • Making allowances for these needs in our everyday life.
  • Having wide interests and activities (as far as possible). So we are not just ‘Mother’ ‘Wife’ ‘Co-worker”Father’ etc.
  • Being able to manage stress in our lives-which relate to some of the above skills.
  • Understanding the paramount importance of the company we keep. Do we just mix with people who bring us down or do we associate with others who are positive and fun?

A person’s self-esteem seems to match the extent to which they have the above skills in place.

The Perfect Self Esteem Trap

‘Heaven would be just a little better if there weren’t quite so many angels playing harps.’

Of course some people do have a wide variety of skills and talents and still seem to suffer from low self-esteem! You may be a perfectionist or know somebody who is. You know the idea, ‘Nothing is ever good enough’

Demanding the impossible from yourself and then falling short is obviously a trap! Knowing when we have done a ‘pretty damn good job’ and giving ourselves an appropriate level of credit is actually an important ‘soft skill’ (as is taking appropriate responsibility for our screw ups).

So, if someone wants to have perfect ‘soft skills’ then they need to stop talking to themselves in ways which they wouldn’t even consider talking to other people.

I remember being stunned when a school friend confided to me how disappointed he was for only getting 96% in a French test. He said he ‘should’ have got 100%. Our teacher was pleased with him, his parents were pleased with him but, for him, the losing of that 4% made the whole exam a failure. I won’t tell you what I ‘achieved’ in the same test but I can tell you I was pleased to have understood any of it.

It’s great to have high aims and expectations for ourselves but we need to temper this with an appreciation that we are human.

Self-Esteem – A Summary

So, rather than trying to convince ourselves desperately that we are worthy of great self admiration through a series of unsubtle brainwashing, the way towards good self esteem seems to be through the development of skills, specifically the so called ‘soft skills’.

When we are less self-conscious, less negatively biased and more open to our own abilities to adapt, progress and develop then we can have the spare capacity to forget about self-esteem and begin to enjoy and participate more fully in life.

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How to make a good decision.

Jason was in despair. “I just can’t make a decision. I’ve written all the reasons for and against leaving my wife. But there are as many logical reasons for staying as for going. If I stay, I feel like I’m missing out the excitements of a single life. If I go I’ll feel guilty and might regret the decision, as I still love her dearly. What shall I do? And how can I be sure whatever I decide is the right decision?”

How do you make a decision? And how will you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is the right one?

Decision paralysis by over-analysis

Some things in life are black or white, and so are easy to make decisions about. A juggernaut is speeding towards you. You want to live. You jump out of the way and you know unequivocally you have made the right decision. But should you buy a car in silver or blue? Should you buy this house or that house? Should you go to the party? Marry or not? And if so, who?

So much of life is ambiguous. Sometimes both decisions would have been right or wrong… to some extent. If we wait for absolute certainty before acting then we may never act. Sometimes there are no ‘right’ decisions, only different or alternate decisions. Trying to make the ‘right’ decision assumes that life is always simple or even simplistic. But some people respond to decision making time like a rabbit snared in the headlights of a fast approaching car.

How to mess up your life (or how not to make decisions)

People wreak havoc with their mental health by worrying about what to do. The four most common traps are:

  1. Wanting too much certainty before acting. Perfectionist types with simplistic ideas of right and wrong go for this one. They don’t feel it is reasonable to act on a decision while still having doubts about it. They want a certificate to come through the letterbox telling them the right decision has been reached and officially approved. As this doesn’t happen, their minds go round and round in circles and they actually think too much.
  2. Making emotional decisions based on a whim. Although such decisions are often easily recognised as mistaken, the emotional decider will rarely admit this and instead seeks to ‘back up’ their dodgy decision with emotional rationalisations – kidding themselves and sometimes other people. For example, ‘I have taken up with this violent psychopath because he is so good at helping my child with his history homework’ or ‘I won’t stop smoking just yet, because so and so is still smoking and if I stopped now it would upset her.’
  3. Believing a decision can only be valid if ratified by other people. This approach often comes out of fear of making an entirely independent decision. It may be a sign of reluctance to become fully adult and take responsibility for one’s own life.
  4. Constantly making the same mistakes because of failure to learn from the past. Of course, people rarely admit that they have ‘failed to learn’. Instead they blame lack of decent ‘karma’, ‘fate’, conjoined star signs, ley lines, lack of support from family and friends, and any number of other ‘reasons’ for their problems.

But what about Jason’s marriage?

Not making a decision is a decision

Jason fitted into the first category. He wasn’t sleeping properly and was constantly obsessing about what he should do for the best. Should he stay and make a go of his marriage (which was by no means bad) or should he leave and ‘enjoy being single’; a touch of mid-life crisis. He had asked friends for advice. He wanted his wife to make the decision for him. He just couldn’t find the answer. The trouble was that the ‘problem’ he was trying to solve wasn’t maths. He was treating the problem of what to do in his life as if it were algebra. If X is the joy of the single life, and Y is the guilt I feel for leaving my innocent wife, what is the product of X x Y? And hey presto, he would come up with a magic number, and a kindly teacher would come and tell him he was correct, and then he’d know without doubt that he’d found the solution.

I had to do something about this.

Sweating the small stuff

I asked him if decision making was something he struggled with generally. “You bet”, he said, “and it’s getting worse. I can’t even decide what drink to have in the pub, what to eat, where to take a walk. There are pros and cons to everything.” This gave me a clue. When someone is panicking, it’s essential to take pressure off. Jason was putting all the pressure on himself. I suggested he ‘decide not to decide’ anything at all about his marriage for a period of three months. During that time we would work on improving his decision making skills around the small things. He visibly relaxed. He’d half wanted me to make the decision for him; to tell him what to do. Now I had told him that he needn’t – in fact shouldn’t – make any decision for a while. He was let off the hook for a bit longer. With some decisions you’ll never know for sure it was the right one.

When people do make life decisions, they don’t necessarily ever know they’ve made the right decision but they can still be happy with that. You might stop pursuing one career to pursue another. You may never really know whether it was the absolute right decision as it may have been just fine if you’d stuck with the first one. Unless the old one was awful and the new one is fantastic, the situation is ambiguous. Bad decision makers aren’t good with ambiguity. They want certainty where they have no right to expect it.

But get this – some research tells us that for many decisions you are better off not thinking about it.

Don’t dither; trust your gut instincts

When decision making gets tough – trust your gut instincts. Research published in ‘Current Biology’ shows that in some instances snap decisions are better than endless pedantic pondering and logical weighing up. Test subjects (what we non-scientists know as ‘people’) were asked to pick the odd one out on a screen covered with more than 650 identical symbols, including one rotated version of the same symbol. They performed better when they were given no time to linger and were forced to rely on their subconscious to select the correct answer.

Dr Li Zhaoping of University College London said: “You’d expect people to make better decisions when given time to look properly, but this was not so.” He explained: “The conscious or top level function of the brain, when active, vetoes our initial subconscious decision – even when it is correct – leaving us unaware or distrustful of our instincts.” So thinking too much about a decision can leave us worse off. This is what happens with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, when the subconscious knows very well that you have turned the gas off, but the conscious brain gets too involved and throws the whole thing into doubt, forcing you to check fifty times!

So the famous Milton Erickson’s injunction to ‘trust your unconscious’ is now backed up by research. Your conscious logical brain doesn’t always make the best decisions.

Upside down artists pick better cars

Another study (quoted in The Independent on 9 January 2007) showed that artists drew better portraits when their subjects were shown upside down. This prevented the artists from being distracted by whose face it is, or other ‘higher level’ information, and allowed them to focus on details instead. But does this ‘not thinking’ apply to real decision making, like buying a house or car, or even buying a shampoo?

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam found that thinking hard about what car to buy leads you to make a poor choice, or not the best choice. People identified the best car of four, each with 12 desirable attributes, around 25% of the time. This is no better than chance. The surprise came when the researchers distracted the participants with puzzles before asking them to make their choices. More than half of them managed to pick the best car. Instinctively they picked the better one when they had less time to think.

Clearly logical thought has its place in decision making, but logic is a tool and not the only one in the box!

Which leads to the question: are some people just well too sensible when it comes to decision making?

On being too sensible

Being ‘too sensible’ doesn’t seem like much of a drawback. Sensible people will inherit the earth, I’m sure. But sometimes the most sensible seeming decision just isn’t the best one. Being ‘sensible’ doesn’t allow for the unexpected. It may be more ‘sensible’ not to go on holiday with friends of friends whom you don’t know that well, but at the same time you don’t know what opportunities for new friendships you might gain by going. It may be more ‘sensible’ and safe to always work for someone else – but who knows what you might achieve working for yourself? So if being sensible could be expanded to allow for spontaneity and sometimes just going for it, that would be truly… sensible. Sometimes we can ‘sensible’ ourselves out of having a life.

Finally – how to make a decision

So to make good decisions you need to:

  1. Learn to trust your instincts. Don’t always insist on ‘logical’ reasons for everything, such as why to get the silver rather than blue car. Learn to say: ‘Because it feels right.’
  2. But don’t be tempted to automatically go with greed driven decisions because of strong emotion and then try to flatter yourself with after-the-event justification and rationalisations. Intuitive decision making works best when the distorting effects of emotion are kept to a minimum.
  3. When you do base decision making on weighing up the pros and cons, use your imagination. Really sit down and envisage living with the decision. How does that feel?
  4. Remember, some decisions won’t make sense to other people – and that may be OK. Most medical advances (open heart surgery, for one) were instigated by people who decided to follow what seemed like crazy ideas to others at the time.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up if you do make a ‘wrong’ decision. You can learn from it and hey – you are human!

And the upshot with Jason? Well, after three months of learning to go with spontaneous decision making over small stuff, I finally asked him about his marriage. He looked confused and then laughed. “You know, I haven’t really been thinking about that lately. But we’ve been getting along great – so I guess my decision is I’m going to make a go of it!”

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Facebook and the rise of Narcissism


Social media-minded millennials are the most narcissistic generation on record, but recent psychological research indicates that Facebook isn’t to blame for that image obsession.

Despite multiple media reports to the contrary, Facebook and social networking sites (SNS) aren’t fueling a narcissism epidemic among younger people.

“We do know that narcissism levels among millennials are higher than previous generations and that this rise in narcissism has coincided with the explosion of Facebook,” said Shawn Bergman, an assistant professor of organizational psychology at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. “However, our research suggests that SNS usage is not an indicator of narcissism, but rather a product of the times.”


Bergman and colleagues conducted a study examining the relationships between narcissistic traits among millennials and their social networking habits, and it turns out that those who exhibited high levels of narcissism didn’t update their statuses or spend more time on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks than participants with low levels of narcissism.

“I think people have made a causal connection between Facebook and higher levels of narcissism because they know this one highly narcissistic kid who is always on Facebook,” Bergman said. “They use this anecdotal evidence as proof that there is a link between the two and conclude that Facebook is breeding narcissism in our children. What they forget to consider is that the quiet, humble kid down the street is also always on Facebook.”

Actually, by the time most kids sign up for Facebook, any narcissistic traits they might develop have already taken root.

“There is a significant amount of psychological research that shows that one’s personality is fairly well-established by age 7,” Bergman said. “With Facebook policy not allowing youth under age 13 to register and recent research showing that 85 percent of SNS users are over the age of 18, the personality traits of typical users are fairly well-ingrained by the time they get on a SNS.”

But if Facebook hasn’t fueled this generational spike in narcissism, what has?

Bergman acknowledges that unraveling the cause of millennial narcissism is complicated, but he has a hunch that it has more to do with offline interactions with parents and educators than online networking.

“Parents have coddled and overprotected their children more over the generations and have taught them, intentionally or not, to expect special treatment just for being them,” Bergman said. “This, in combination with the ‘self-esteem’ movement in the schools, has likely resulted in increased narcissistic tendencies in our youth.”

Young narcissists do, however, have different motivations for primping their online profiles. Facebook can serve as a Personality Test.

Rather than keeping in touch and interacting with folks, millennial narcissists are more driven to acquire as many friends as possible and use their carefully crafted profiles to impress.

“Narcissists use Facebook and other social networking sites because they believe others are interested in what they’re doing, and they want others to know what they’re doing,” said Laura E. Buffardi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain, who studies narcissism and social networking.

Narcissists’ profiles tend to feature more self-promoting profile photos and first-person singular pronouns in their “About Me” sections.

“Some research actually indicates that there’s a curvilinear relationship between number of friends and positive outcomes, such as social attractiveness and social support,” Buffardi said. “That is to say, up to a point, having more friends has benefits, but after a certain large number — research indicates around 600 — these benefits actually decrease.”

Hmmm…let’s look at Twitter next.

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Their weakness is their secret of their strength…

Depression in Command

In times of crisis, mentally ill leaders can see what others don’t


[depression2]Getty ImagesWinston Churchill

When times are good and the ship of state only needs to sail straight, mentally healthy people function well as political leaders. But in times of crisis and tumult, those who are mentally abnormal, even ill, become the greatest leaders. We might call this the Inverse Law of Sanity.

Consider Neville Chamberlain. Before the Second World War, he was a highly respected businessman from Birmingham, a popular mayor and an esteemed chancellor of the exchequer. He was charming, sober, smart—sane.

Winston Churchill, by contrast, rose to prominence during the Boer War and the first World War. Temperamental, cranky, talkative, bombastic—he bothered many people. During the “wilderness” years of the 1930s, while the suave Chamberlain got all the plaudits, Churchill’s own party rejected him.

When not irritably manic in his temperament, Churchill experienced recurrent severe depressive episodes, during many of which he was suicidal. Even into his later years, he would complain about his “black dog” and avoided ledges and railway platforms, for fear of an impulsive jump. “All it takes is an instant,” he said.

People who are chronically a little depressed — gloomy, grumpy, low energy — have “dysthymic disorder,” a condition with its own risks of job and family problems, as well as episodes of major depression. Melinda Beck has details.

Abraham Lincoln famously had many depressive episodes, once even needing a suicide watch, and was treated for melancholy by physicians. Mental illness has touched even saintly icons like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom made suicide attempts in adolescence and had at least three severe depressive episodes in adulthood.

Aristotle was the first to point out the link between madness and genius, including not just poets and artists but also political leaders. I would argue that the Inverse Law of Sanity also applies to more ordinary endeavors. In business, for instance, the sanest of CEOs may be just right during prosperous times, allowing the past to predict the future. But during a period of change, a different kind of leader—quirky, odd, even mentally ill—is more likely to see business opportunities that others cannot imagine.

[depression1]Getty ImagesAbraham Lincoln

In looking back at historical figures, I do not speculate about their relationships with their mothers or their dark sexual secrets, the usual stuff of “psychohistory.” Instead, I base my diagnoses on the most widely accepted sources of psychiatric evidence: symptoms, family history, course of illness, and treatment. How, then, might the leadership of these extraordinary men have been enhanced by mental illness?

An obvious place to start is with depression, which has been shown to encourage traits of both realism and empathy (though not necessarily in the same individual at the same time).

“Normal” nondepressed persons have what psychologists call “positive illusion”—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them.

Mildly depressed people, by contrast, tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is. In one classic study, subjects pressed a button and observed whether it turned on a green light, which was actually controlled by the researchers. Those who had no depressive symptoms consistently overestimated their control over the light; those who had some depressive symptoms realized they had little control.

For Lincoln, realism bordering on political ruthlessness was central to his success as a war leader. Few recall that Lincoln was not a consistent abolitionist. He always opposed slavery, but until 1863 he also opposed abolishing it, which is why he was the compromise Republican candidate in 1860. Lincoln preferred a containment strategy. He simply wanted to prevent slavery’s expansion to the West, after which, he believed, it would die out gradually.

[depression23]Getty ImagesRev. Martin Luther King

When the Civil War came, Lincoln showed himself to be flexible and pragmatic as a strategist, willing to admit error and to change generals as the situation demanded. He was not the stereotypical decisive executive, picking a course of action and sticking with it. He adapted to a changing reality and, in the end, prevailed.

As for Churchill, during his severely depressed years in the political wilderness, he saw the Nazi menace long before others did. His exhortations to increase military spending were rejected by Prime Minister Baldwin and his second-in-command, Chamberlain. When Chamberlain returned from signing the Munich agreement with Hitler in 1938, only Churchill and a small coterie refused to stand and cheer in parliament, eliciting boos and hisses from other honorable members.

At dinner that night, Churchill brooded: How could men of such honor do such a dishonorable thing? The depressive leader saw the events of his day with a clarity and realism lacking in saner, more stable men.

Depression also has been found to correlate with high degrees of empathy, a greater concern for how others think and feel. In one study, severely depressed patients had much higher scores on the standard measures of empathy than did a control group of college students; the more depressed they were, the higher their empathy scores. This was the case even when patients were not currently depressed but had experienced depression in the past. Depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ point of view.

[depression4]Getty ImagesMohandas Gandhi

In this we can see part of the motivation behind the radical politics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Their goal was not to defeat their opponents but to heal them of their false beliefs. Nonviolent resistance, King believed, was psychiatry for the American soul; it was a psychological cure for racism, not just a political program. And the active ingredient was empathy.

Gandhi and King succeeded to a degree, of course, but they also failed: India was fatally divided because Hindus and Muslims could not accept each other; segregation ended in the U.S., but it happened slowly and at the cost of social traumas whose consequences still afflict us. The politics of radical empathy proved, in the end, to be beyond the capacity of the normal, mentally healthy public.

Great crisis leaders are not like the rest of us; nor are they like mentally healthy leaders. When society is happy, they toil in sadness, seeking help from friends and family and doctors as they cope with an illness that can be debilitating, even deadly. Sometimes they are up, sometimes they are down, but they are never quite well.

When traditional approaches begin to fail, however, great crisis leaders see new opportunities. When the past no longer guides the future, they invent a new future. When old questions are unanswerable and new questions unrecognized, they create new solutions. They are realistic enough to see painful truths, and when calamity occurs, they can lift up the rest of us.

Their weakness is the secret of their strength.

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Nothing to fear but fear itself…

Everyone gets anxious from time to time, for some reason when i stand in front of a large group of people and have to deliver a speech my mouth gets dry and my palms become clammy even though i feel quite calm inside. For about one in six of us, a low level of anxiety may cross over into what psychologists term a ‘disorder’ at some point in our lives. An ‘anxiety disorder’ is when people are almost continuously anxious and find it difficult to concentrate, have trouble sleeping and become irritable and restless. Women are roughly twice as likely as men to suffer from an anxiety disorder.

For the majority of us, anxiety will come and go as part of the normal human condition. Whether it’s a constant or occasional affliction, dealing with anxiety effectively is important.

People are often prescribed drugs for anxiety but these are less effective in the long-term, some are particularly addictive and many have side-effects. So what other types of treatment are available?

Relaxation training comes in a variety of flavours, but the five methods which have much in common and the most evidence to support them are (Manzoni et al., 2005):

1. Progressive relaxation

The most commonly studied type of relaxation therapy may be familiar to you. It involves mentally going around the muscle groups in your body, first tensing then relaxing each one. It’s as simple as that. And with practice it becomes easier to spot when you are becoming anxious and muscles are becoming tense as, oddly, people often don’t notice the first physical signs of anxiety.

This is based on the idea that the mind follows body. When you relax your body, the mind also clears.

2. Applied relaxation

Applied relaxation builds on progressive relaxation. First you learn to relax you muscle groups one after the other. The next stage is to cut out the tensing phase and move straight to relaxing each muscle. Next you learn to associate a certain cue or affirmation such as ‘ be here now’ with a relaxed state. You then learn to relax really quickly. Finally you practise your relaxation technique in real-world anxiety-provoking situations.

Once again, mostly this is about mind following the body.

3. Autogenic training

Goes back to the 1930s and is another technique for progressively relaxing the muscles. To help you do this it has a mantra which you repeat to yourself as you go around major muscle groups: “my right arm is very heavy” and so on. A second stage involves inducing a feeling of warmth in the muscles. Once they feel ‘heavy’ from the first stage, you follow another mantra about warmth: “my right arm is very warm” and so on.

Further stages involve calming the heart and the abdomen and cooling the brow in much the same way.

Once again, you’ll notice that this is all about the mind following a calm body. As before practitioners recommend daily practice so that you can relax more and more quickly. With practice the simple intention to start the training will be enough to cause the body to become relaxed and warm.

4. Mindfulness based strategies

There is statistically sound evidence (Kabat Zinn et al 2009) that mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can work for people who experience anxiety. There are numerous books written by Kabat Zinn on MBSR which are readily available and some come with a CD which can be used to establish a daily practice which will sustainably regulate low-medium levels of anxiety.

Be aware that meditation is quite difficult and the drop-out rates are high from studies which investigate it (Krisanaprakornkit et al., 2006). This suggests some people don’t find it particularly acceptable. For people who can manage it, though, the results are often better than the other techniques (Manzoni et al., 2005).

Notice that this technique is much more actively related to the mind than the first three methods. It doesn’t just target the body and wait for the mind to follow, instead it’s about the way attention is focused. A fluttering attention (often referred to as the ‘mad monkey mind’) is the primary suspect in chronic anxiety, so learning to observe the mind as opposed to continually buying into its drama is a surefire way to creating a lasting calm, safe space within.

5. Cognitive behaviour therapy

Finally cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT, targets both mind and body. As it’s primarily a talking therapy you normally have to go to a psychologist who will help you target unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors. CBT and MBSR used together can be extremely powerful in anxiety management.

Integrative approaches work best

There’s no reason why you should stick to only one approach. When Manzoni et al. looked at studies which used multi-modal techniques, they found these were  extremely effective.

If you need to relax—for whatever reason and at whatever time—then try one or more of these different methods. As you’ll have noticed the effective techniques share a lot in common. Regular practice is the key and, if you give it a chance, the mind really will follow the body.

Try this experiment…sit somewhere quietly where you won’t be disturbed for a short time (approx 10 mins). Set an alarm on your cellphone for 10 minutes time (so you don’t constantly worry about how long its taking). Then settle down and become aware that you are breathing…in and out through the nose…try and focus your attention on the in breath…and the out breath…the in breath… and the out breath…attempt to breath in for a count of 1…and out for a count of 1….in for a count of 2…and out for a count of 2…until you get to 10….while focussing your attention just on your breath. You’ll notice that it isn’t as easy as it appears, often you’ll lose count…thinking about a thousand different things, judging, planning, worrying…etc. That’s ok, it doesn’t mean you’re failing in any way, it just shows you how busy the mind is! when you notice that your attention is no longer on the breath, gently (important-don’t judge yourself or punish yourself) guide your attention back to the breath and start again at 1…until your attention can reman stable on the breath until you have got to 10. If you have had little or no experience of focussing your attention in this way, it should take you about 5-7 days to hold your attention in a stable way until a count of 10 at which time you can increase it to 15…20…etc.

Go gently



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