Saturday, April 28, 2018


Give yourself time | Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

I would like to introduce you to Time Decompression; or Time Expansion, if you prefer.  It is a technique I developed while researching counselling psychology, and studying the way time seems to work in therapy sessions.

If you have ever watched yourself when you were anxious, or reflected on it afterwards, you may have noticed that anxiety often has at its root an impatience for things to be otherwise, and quickly.  Perhaps you are anxious because you have an exam next week, and you do not feel that you know enough.  This kind of anxiety has four components:

1. You feel that something in your life needs to change
2. You feel that it is difficult or fearful for you to effect that change
3. You (consciously or unconsciously) conceptualise a time limit for that change
4. You (consciously or unconsciously) feel that the time limit is too short

Therapy sessions are often set at 50 minutes.  Some therapists try to offer convoluted reasons for this, but the main reason is that an hour is western humans' go-to time for meetings, and therapists need to wee, and make notes (10 minutes therefore deducted).  The strictness is so that therapists can appear very professional.  I mean, really, what would therapists have to denote ther professionalism if they did not control the time, and pathologise anyone else who wanted to control it?!

What I noticed was that anxious clients often felt the need to cut meetings short, and certainly were out of the door quicker than depressed clients.  It was as though anxious clients lived in accordance with an invisible rule: get home as quickly as possible.  Home, whatever it was conceived to be, was a place of safety.  Time pressure was evident pretty much all the time, even in micro-behaviours.  Such clients tended to be watchful of other people's movements, and keen to detect when it might be time to move on.  It was as though they were alarm clocks, set with a hair-trigger mechanism, liable to panic at the least provocation.

Time felt compressed.  As a counsellor, I often rely on absorbing a sense of where a client is in the moment.  Internalising into myself what was going on for them, I became aware of a kind of impatience, and over-watchfulness, together with a sense of personal inadequacy - a feeling, in short, that, as above, (1) something was wrong, (2) it was difficult to confront, (3) it felt urgent or pressing, and (4) waiting was not an option.  Thus the body became a kind of pressure cooker, boiling up with urgent need, perhaps the skin flushing, panic symptoms arising... all in a kind of impatience with the world.

I don't want to pathologise my clients.  I experience the same thing too.  Most of my human knowledge is gained from self-observation.  I am at least as guilty of anxiety as the next person.  But I am outlining what I think I saw.

This, to me, is to do with our experience of time.

We all, consciously or unconsciously, apply time frames to our lives.  You might feel you should be married by the time you are a certain age, or out of bed by a certain time, or have disposed of a lost loved one's possessions by a certain month... we are often full of self-imposed requirements that our worlds change by a certain time.

In my research, I took this thought, and tried to apply an opposite.  If anxiety is often characterised by time compression (i.e. wishing things could quickly be otherwise for us), then perhaps anxiety could be reduced by time-expansion (or time decompression), by lowering the pressure to change our world in a short time.

I began to ask myself: what tasks do we perform which might be time-expanding, and anxiety-reducing?

In my ponderings, I noticed that boredom was a kind of opposite of anxiety.  I noticed that, when bored, individuals' adrenal systems closed down, and they started to fall asleep.  They no longer needed to be alert and hyper-sensitive.  Now, I bet you have never heard a doctor prescribe boredom as a medicine for patients!  But perhaps it is not such a silly idea.

Boring situations have certain characteristics, which are in many ways the opposite of the anxious characteristics:

1. We feel that our challenge or extreme action is not necessary
2. We feel that it is all too easy to assimilate and experience
3. There seems to be no time limit to things (such as an interminably boring lecture!)
4. There seems to be no urgency (perhaps everything is flat, routine, predictable)

I am not suggesting we live our lives permanently bored!  But I am suggesting that we apply to anxiety an opposite context, in order to balance it out and calm it.

If you are anxious, I suggest you design for yourself an activity which consists of the following:

1. A manageable, minimal level of challenge
2. A fairly easy thing to get your head around
3. A time guide which is much longer than the activity needs
4. Something that is not urgent

An example for me: if I wish to calm down easily, I pick up my boots, and polish them.  I know how to do it; it's easy; I give myself half an hour, much longer than I need; it's not urgent (my life won't end if I can't polish my boots!).

For you, it may be something else.  But try to choose something easy, and give yourself a longer time than necessary to do it.

There are several benefits to this approach.  I have used it a lot myself (I am my biggest experimental guinea pig!); and friends and clients have seemed to find it helpful.  A few classic benefits are:

1. It reduces adrenaline levels.  We all need to use our adrenaline systems, but not all the time, and not on overdrive!
2. It makes you feel more peaceful.  Your friends will appreciate your chilled-out manner :)
3. It broadens your attentional bias (when anxious, your world compresses; when peaceful, you can see more)
4. It gets something useful done! (Even Formula 1 drivers need their cars cleaned... you are giving yourself a 'pit stop'.)
5. It teaches your mind, conscious and unconscious, that everything is not urgent.  And it really isn't.  The universe has billions of years available.

Think of your diary as an elastic band.  When your appointments are constricting and urgent, you will feel your flow constricted and strangled by urgency.  Your body will tell you that it is tired, but your adrenaline system will tell you that things are urgent.  This is the formula for adrenal fatigue.

Time-expanding activities relax the elastic band a little.  Your life is still held together by a little structure, but you have room to move, to breathe, to be yourself.

When anxiety is getting the better of you, try to find a simple activity that you enjoy, and give yourself a nice long time to complete it, much longer than you need.  You will find your adrenal system relaxes, your attentional system expands, and you become more peaceful.  What more could you want?

If you are interested in practicing this or other forms of relaxing activity in your life, do get in touch, and I'd be happy to work with you, and learn from you, in developing helpful techniques.  Everyone is different, and I welcome the opportunity to meet others who want to join together and find practical ways to be peaceful.

Monday, April 2, 2018


Once we admit that we are, to a great extent, queue-ers-up in an existential queue, learning to be what others already are, waiting to be initiated, then we can begin to have a purchase on our existence.  Without this admission, we are deceiving ourselves about our own originality. Photo by Julie Johnson on Unsplash

One of the most underestimated ways to develop is simple copying.  Which is strange, because humans are very good at copying.  Our genetic foundation is based upon an ability, in principle, to replicate large chunks of our functioning between generations.  And our cultures are founded on rituals and processes which replicate, in principle, traditions, thereby passing them on.

You'll notice I said 'in principle' when talking about human replication.  In actual fact, no replication is perfect.  Nevertheless, we are, more than we know, biological and cultural photocopiers, perpetuating ways of life and being easily and naturally.

Why do I describe copying as an underestimated skill?  Well, centres of learning, for instance, often pride themselves on being centres of critical thinking.  But many qualifications can be obtained simply by copying of the factual and cultural practices of the institution awarding them.  At worst, we have a hypocritical situation where schools and universities say that they are encouraging creativity and critical thought; but in practice they reward replication of what they expect to see.

So copying is underestimated in that we pretend it has little role; we kind of ignore it, as though it is not worth thinking about.  Instead, we celebrate how innovative we are being, how new, how groundbreaking... while continuing, in practice, to replicate.

You might notice an ambivalence in this article about copying.  On the one hand, I seem to be saying it is a good thing, that we cannot do without it.  On the other, though, I seem to be suggesting it is a hidden sin, a symptom of hypocrisy.

I guess I feel that it is both.  On the one hand, it is a foundation of art, craft and science.  Tradition enables the building of knowledge bases which can inform the education of students, who can then get a head start, incorporating into their practice generations of awareness without having to suffer for it.  And replicability enables the building of scientific libraries, predictive in nature, offering models of being which can be assented to because consistently and methodically attained.

On the other hand, there comes a time when simple replication feeds those who replicate, but creates nothing new.  If institutions reward replication too much, they will become blind to the new.  Members of those institutions will have to escape in order to create.  Hence, I suppose, dissidence, where citizens move from the trammels of a self-replicating culture, towards one which offers more breathing space.

When young, we are, in a sense, built to investigate... but also to copy rapaciously.  For instance, we passionately seek out first experiences - we want to know what new sensations feel like, what new places have to offer, what happens to things when we drop them, throw them, put them in our mouth.  Thus investigation is embedded in our being from the start.

But, allied to this, and in some ways keeping us safe, is a complementary urge to copy.  We feel safe when we do what others are doing.  We compare, and feel it acutely when we feel too different; we often seek to buy what others buy, to join the groups that others join.

So I am certainly not suggesting that copying is inherently bad.  We need it in order not only to assimilate others' practices, but to extend and communicate any experience by association.  The replication of grammatical rules and understood vocabulary enables language to bear meaningful discussion.  Without it, we would have to reinvent the world every day; we would have the cultural equivalent of Alzheimer's.

However.  And it is a big however.  We need, I think, to be more open about what copying we are asking for.  Enough of education which pretends to be high-proportion critical thinking, but is in fact high-proportion regurgitation.  Let's be honest.  Let's say clearly 'Yes, much of our education is in fact a practice which rewards the replication of a set knowledge base.'  Let's not pretend to be more creative than we are.

And when we vote, let's be aware how much we are copying the cultural practices of our friends, or our heroes.  Let's not pretend that we have thought our way, personally, to our own views about everything.

The public and media have reacted with something approaching horror to revelations that some companies make it their business to manipulate our views, and control the knowledge we access.  Well, if we are copying beings, what do we expect?  If we pretend we live in a critical nirvana, where our thoughts are pure and individually-made, then yes, we will react with horror to the thought that our perfection might be tainted.  However, if we admit that our whole lives are soaked in copying; that we copied our language, our politics, our style, our material existences, from others, with only limited modification by us... if we admit this, then we have a chance of better allowing for companies that manipulate.

The social media debate just makes more obvious something that happens all the time: we copy others.  A large part of us is built to swallow what people say wholesale.  That's why and how we can enter the world of a film or a book - we are built that way.  Even Stockholm syndrome is not a surprise when we think about it this way - we are so easily manipulated because we are constantly looking for world-views to assimilate and swallow pretty much whole.

I have focused on copying.  But there are plenty of other ways of thinking.  In particular, there is critical thinking, in which we learn to take apart, and stand at a distance from, what we see.  There is also strategic thinking, in which we begin to choose exactly what we copy, and how.

But let's, at first, start where we are: the human race is a race of flagrant copiers, swallowing pretty much whole each other's ways of life, words, languages, styles, practices.  Let's stop pretending we are so original.

Once we admit that we are, to a great extent, queue-ers-up in an existential queue, learning to be what others already are, waiting to be initiated, then we can begin to have a purchase on our existence.  Without this admission, we are deceiving ourselves about our own originality.

All this is not to say originality and creativity do not exist.  But I am arguing that, unless we stop and realise exactly how much we are uncreative and unoriginal... unless we do that every day... then we will not begin to be truly original and creative.  We will simply think we are, and go about regurgitating the same things, applauded by those who think the same things, not realising that we are just repeating, repeating.

When was the last time you rewarded someone for doing something different?  Honestly, are you more likely to reward your friends if they take you into new territory, or if they simply reassure you about a copied truth you don't want to let go of.

I remember a tutor once telling her class to think critically at all costs.  I remember that same tutor, the following week, telling a student that their critical thinking was simply resistance to the traditional truth.  You can't have it both ways.

I'm not suggesting we do anything differently.  Only that, perhaps, we could become more aware of exactly how much of a role copying plays, even in adult life.  Then we might better understand group-think, politics, social media, and many other aspects of behaviour.  In my psychology training, copying was, as I see it, vastly underplayed.  It was as though the tutors and textbooks were ashamed that things could be that simple.  After all, it's creativity that makes us human... isn't it?  I wonder.  I really wonder.

Humans are natural copiers.  But we pretend we are not.  We pretend that we have reasons for everything we do, when often we have simply copied what others do.  Recent interactions between politics and social media have presented us with a frightening truth about how manipulable we are.  And yet we can't quite accept that this is how we function.  Perhaps we should be more honest with ourselves, and admit that most of our lives are copied.  Perhaps, only then, can we engage our critical and strategic brains effectively.  First, we need to realise exactly how far our urge to copy extends.

So I challenge you.  I say you are not original.  And if you think you are... how are you going to prove me wrong?