Uncertainty Soup

Uncertainty Soup

I hate waiting, don’t you? I like to know what’s what.

Do you spend your whole life trying to rule out uncertainty and pin everything and everyone down? Are you unhappy until you have all the information at your fingertips and you can plan? I know the feeling. But sometimes we can’t plan. Sometimes we are dependent on the will of others, or the gods and doesn’t that feel all wrong? Uncertainty is so uncomfortable for our minds to live with that they begin running round in circles trying to bring it to an end by anticipating. They try to imagine the future in all its outcomes and prepare us for each of them. They try to have the experience in advance to get it out of the way.

Does this work? Not really and often something actually happens that we haven’t thought of anyway. Trying to anticipate the future like this is exhausting and there are some things out of our control.  We cannot bring the uncertainty to an end by sheer force of mental effort. Then we are left with the horrible feelings, the mental anguish. What to do then? Aargh!

Usually we don’t feel the feelings. We get a whiff that they might be in the air and we spend all our energy running away or trying to fix the world so that we don’t have them. When we only glimpse feelings out of the corner of our mental eye, they appear enormous, overwhelming, fatal like being chased by a man with an axe.

Try doing the counter-intuitive thing. When we stop running away from them, come right up close and shake those feelings by the hand, they turn out to be smaller than you thought. Yep, they sure are ugly and they don’t feel good (fear, anger, panic, no-one signed up for those). Can’t deny that. But hang on. They are not actually killing you after all. They are just horrible and unpleasant. That’s it. That’s all that’s happening. They are horrible and unpleasant. Are they really huge up close? Not so much.

Next time you’re waiting for that magical person to call you back, for the waiter to bring the glass of wine, that train to arrive, that bell to go, why not have a dip into those feelings. It’s good practice for when we are waiting for the more difficult things (the diagnosis, the interview, the exam). Make friends with those feelings, look them in the eye. What’s so scary? Boredom, yes it’s dull but so far you haven’t died of boredom after all. (Your mother was right. Again.) Frustration (is a polite word for anger) and it’s an energy in the body that feels like you will burst but actually you won’t. Just feel the energy and see how that goes.

While you’re waiting you can make use of the time and get a lot done! Clean out the cupboards. File those papers. Go for a run. Practise the piano. In fact you can live your life while you’re waiting. Imagine that!

Here is some soup you can make which is super healthy and a fabulous colour, like molten lava. It is chock full of beetroot and fresh turmeric which give it the outstanding radioactive colour and you can throw in any other vegetables you have to hand. The beetroot and turmeric and non-negotiable. After that it’s up to you. Carrots, courgettes, parsnips, turnip, potatoes, celeriac. When it’s done add some lemon juice to brighten up the taste and some cream or yoghurt to bring out the colour and soften the texture. Do not eat this soup off your best tablecloth. It’s a killer.

Uncertainty Soup (because you don’t know what’s in it)

IMG_1929At least two beetroots, peeled and halved (or more)

Three or four pieces of fresh turmeric, peeled and cut in four (remember latex gloves will protect your hands when dealing with the astonishing colour of raw turmeric and beetroot)

A bunch of carrots, peeled and halved

Two onions, peeled and halved

Garlic and ginger peeled and chopped (to taste)

Other root vegetables you have going spare (potatoes will make it much more calorific). Save your spinach and broccoli for a green soup otherwise you will muddy the colour.

The juice from one lemon or a tablespoon of lemon juice from a bottle

A tablespoon of olive oil (more if you are not trying to control calories)

 

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.
  2. Put all the prepared vegetables into a heavy roasting pan which you have brushed with olive oil and then brush the vegetables roughly with the rest of the olive oil. (If you’re trying to cut back on calories using a pastry brush is really helpful when dealing with olive oil). If calories are no concern then be generous with the olive oil.
  3. Season with salt and pepper
  4. Roast in the oven for an hour
  5. Let them cool and then liquidise with plenty of water. If you want a smooth soup you will need to be patient and do this in batches so you can add plenty of liquid.
  6. Pour back into the pan and check the seasoning.
  7. Add the lemon juice and check again
  8. Heat and serve with a dollop of Skyr, Greek yoghurt, sour cream or a drizzle of double cream

Life may be disappointing, soup never. And remember that every time you cook something for yourself from scratch you are building healthy self-esteem.

 

Research supports the anti-panic measures

Research supports the anti-panic measures

I have written recently about the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise and the Strengthening Exercise devised by Captain Tom Bunn for nervous fliers and useful also in non-flying situations where the nervous system is challenged by fear. I thought you might like to hear about the research that supports the Strengthening Exercise so here is an excerpt from Captain Tom’s newsletter.

“When facing a challenge, an attuned and non-judgmental person can help us approach the situation with less anxiety. The parasympathetic nervous system (the system that calms by neutralizing stress hormones) is activated by the face, voice, and touch of such a friend – or by the memory of their face, voice, and touch. SOAR has helped countless people fly by linking the memory of being with a calming person to challenging moments of flight.

New research shows that having a calming friend in mind is as protective against stress as having the friend physically present. At the University of Arizona, 102 participants were put in a stressful situation. The participants, all of whom were in a committed romantic relationship, were split into three groups.

During stress, one group was asked to think about their day. A second group was asked to think about their romantic partner. The third group had their partner present. Both the second group and third group had lower blood pressure than the first group. Not only that, the researchers found no difference in the response of the second and the third group. One of the researchers, Kyle Bourassa, said “It appears that thinking about your partner as a source of support can be just as powerful as actually having them present.”

“Life is full of stress, and one critical way we can manage this stress is through our relationships — either with our partner directly or by calling on a mental image of that person,” Bourassa said. “There are many situations, including at work, with school exams or even during medical procedures, where we would benefit from limiting our degree of blood pressure reactivity, and these findings suggest that a relational approach to doing so can be quite powerful.”

As many readers know, in the SOAR program, we control high anxiety during flight by linking each challenging moment of flight to a person who, physically or psychologically present, activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

In day-to-day living, we can reduce stress by doing this three-step parasympathetic activating exercise:

When you notice stress,

  • Imagine you see a friend or a romantic partner come into the room.
  • Imagine hearing the person greet you.
  • Imagine the person comes over and gives you a friendly touch

By repeating this exercise each time you notice stress, you will establish a program in your unconscious procedural memory that will unconsciously calm you when stress arises.”

 

I hope so much that this will help others like me to cope better with daily challenges and to extraordinary challenges such as flying or other phobias. Please contact me direct if you would like to work on these issues with psychotherapeutic support.

Fear of Flying or Just Plain Fear

I wrote recently about the  5,4,3,2,1 exercise that Captain Tom Bunn describes in his book Soar and quite a few people have told me how they have successfully used it, not for flying but for other tricky experiences where our nerves can make life hell. Making Christmas Dinner under your mother-in-law’s critical eye. Driving on the motorway when you don’t like motorways. Waiting for an interview or an audition. Asking for a pay-rise. This simple exercise can interrupt the production of adrenaline which fear produces but which isn’t needed in those situations. Famously adrenaline is invaluable when you meet a tiger in the jungle. It give you the oomph to run away faster than you ever knew you could. However situations where no running away is going to be possible, all it does is wind you up, freeze your brain so you can’t answer simple questions and ruin your breath control so you can’t control your voice. Its effect is also cumulative. If the body cannot discharge or use up the adrenaline by direct action (shouting, running away, hitting someone) it builds up and the message gets through that there really is an emergency and more adrenaline is needed!

Today I have come back to tell you about Captain Tom’s other seminal exercise, designed for nervous flyers (read terrified) for whom other approaches have not worked. I can testify that this has brought my flying experience (six flights in the last 9 months and counting) well within the realm of bearable, sometimes even fun. It has also come into its own at the dentist’s and for you there may be other areas of your life where terror tends to win over common sense because the body is out of your control.

The second exercise is called the Strengthening Exercise and you need to practise it once or twice to learn it and then for a week or so before the challenging experience is coming up. (Incidentally you don’t need a week. I had two days and trust me, it works.) It is hard to believe that it will work for you but if you take a peek at the Fear of Flying website you will see hundreds of testimonials from people who didn’t believe it would work for them but did the exercise anyway (desperation is a great motivator) and now fly confidently.

The Strengthening Exercise is based a moment in your history when you had a deep empathic connection with someone. You knew about the empathic connection because of the eye contact you had with them in that moment. You felt you were the only person in their world at that moment. Bringing this moment of deep empathic connection to bear on the feared experience dispels the terror. Technically the visualisation of that moment produces oxytocin in the body and adrenaline production is inhibited. Oxytocin gives us the courage to connect deeply with others and we feel completely unafraid. Oxytocin is the enemy of adrenaline. They cannot both be produced at the same time.

The moments which produce that magical oxytocin are many. When you were just about to make love for the first time and you looked into each other’s eyes, when you were feeding your new baby or exchanging a look with your child are likely to work. Simply catching the eye of someone who makes you feel in that moment that you are the centre of the universe is the moment we are looking for. It DOESN’T MATTER what happened next!  if the relationship went on to be a disaster or if the person has subsequently died you still have the benefit of that moment and you can use it today. What matters is getting in touch with that feeling the eye contact produced. If you can, find a person. If you can’t, you may remember a moment of deep eye connection with a pet. Use that. When you have identified such a moment or two or three, what next?

If it really is flying you are dealing with I recommend you buy the Soar book because it conveniently lists all the various stages of boarding an aeroplane, taking off, flying, landing etc. You are going to connect that oxytocin-producing moment to the stages of the experience in your mind so the first thing you need is a list of the stages. If it is, for instance, going to the dentist, this is what you do. Make a list of every minute stage of the experience starting with walking out of the dentist’s surgery with a big smile on your face because it’s all over. Then work backwards to making the appointment. Your list for having your tooth filled might look like this.

  1. Leaving the dentist’s surgery
  2. Paying the dentist’s bill and saying goodbye
  3. Putting your coat back on
  4. Getting up out of the surgery chair
  5. Having that final rinse
  6. Hearing and feeling the dentist take his hands and equipment out of your mouth for the last time
  7. Feeling the drill polishing up the new filling
  8. Feeling the dentist put the putty in your tooth
  9. Having another rinse
  10. Hearing the drill stop
  11. Hearing the drill start again and opening your mouth extra wide
  12. Hearing the drill stop and having a rinse
  13. Having the drill in your mouth
  14. Opening your mouth extra wide as the dentist leans over you to begin work
  15. Feeling that parts of your mouth have gone numb
  16. Resting while the anaesthetic takes effect. Chatting with the dentist
  17. Feeling the anaesthetic injection go in
  18. Opening your mouth extra wide for the injection
  19. Letting the dentist find the problem through examination. Telling him what has happened
  20. Having the bib put on by the nurse
  21. Sitting down in the chair
  22. Taking your coat off
  23. Being called through into the surgery
  24. Sitting in the waiting room
  25. Talking to the receptionist
  26. Entering the surgery building
  27. Travelling to the surgery
  28. Leaving the house
  29. Getting washed and dressed
  30. Getting up on the morning of the appointment
  31. Going to bed the night before
  32. Waiting for the appointment day to come
  33. Making the appointment
  34. Noticing you need to visit the dentist

 

You can add to this list as many stages as you like. The more the better. Make a small photo in your mind of the first stage of the experience and imagine that loved person is holding it next to their face as they make that fabulous eye contact with you. Make the photo black and white and small. Make the experience of the eye contact live in your whole body. Then move on to the next stage and so on right through to the very beginning where you are making the appointment or booking the flight.

If you lose track don’t worry. Start again.

If  imagining yourself in the chair or on the plane produces more fear than you can handle you can imagine your favourite cartoon character in the photo instead of you. Cartoon characters, you will have noticed, come out of every situation unscathed. Imagine Micky Mouse in the picture, or Spiderman or Pop-Eye. Put your whole mind into this as you go through the stages. You are retraining your amygdalae, desensitizing them, to accept the experience you are working on as routine, non-threatening, nothing to get excited about. You are sending the message that you are safe.

On the first day do the exercise two or three times and then fewer times over the subsequent days. Don’t worry about it in between. The magical effect on your body responses will show up when you begin the actual experience.

If you suffer anticipatory anxiety, use the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise to dispel it as often as you need to. On the day use both exercises.

This is the kindest way to help yourself with fear and it builds on itself so that it gets easier. Gritting your teeth and giving yourself a good talking to is unkind and the fear does not go away.

I’d love to know how you get on.

The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

Everyone else in my autograph book was related to me or lived within walking distance but the highlights were shyly proffering it to Morecambe and Wise after the pantomime and Frankie Vaughan (you may well ask) when he opened the youth club. The smack of their living and breathing reality was a shock after the safe distance of the black and white TV screen. Their autographs were hot currency. Even adults wanted to look.

Back in the dark ages when an autograph book was something a child might have each adult was expected to have ready a little witticism or pebble of wisdom to add, in addition to a signature. Neighbours and relatives signed in copperplate Quink ink. The coalman, the milkman or the window cleaner for whom I had lain in wait behind the garage, visited from the exotic reaches of the outside world where you were allowed to sign in loopy biro. And so I accrued what passed for wisdom. ‘Look before you leap’, ‘Pride comes before a fall’, ‘A change is as good as a rest’ and other ‘I-told-you-so’ s. I got the picture even if I didn’t like it. The meanings were transparent.

But there were a couple of sayings that had me stumped. ‘Be good, sweet maid and let who will be clever’ was the injunction from the great aunt who had given me the book and kicked off the first page. This little homily defeated me at seven. ‘Let who will ...’ what did that mean? She had signed the page Elizabeth Hand as if she had forgotten her name was Aunty Cis. I didn’t know any maids except the ones in Upstairs Downstairs (forerunner of Downton Abbey). The whole thing was a mystery. and I was sure I was supposed to understand it so it never occurred to me to ask. When I eventually penetrated the grammar a few years later and the meaning was revealed I felt uneasy and then cross. I felt someone I had trusted was having a go. From the safe haven of old age my relative was sniping at youthful voyagers who might fall foul of Scylla and Charybdis or wanting to be right and wanting to impress. 

‘Enough is as good as a feast’ was another one that left me blank. As a young person with unlimited appetite and, of course, the incomparable bounty of being immortal, it was a conundrum. Back then there was nothing like enough of things I wanted, let alone a feast. Things look different now. These particular sayings, the ones I couldn’t make head or tail of were (of course!) the very ones with something to teach me.

I am not a girl for holding back or abstinence even today as you will have observed, but the quiet and urgent desire for a boiled egg is creeping up on me after the feasting of Christmas and God help us it is only Boxing Day. (NB ‘Enough is as good as a feast’ does not claim that enough is better than feast.) A spot of brown bread and butter and a boiled egg would be just as good as the several more days of feasting to come, beginning tomorrow and stretching ahead to New Year’s Eve.

Next year, no really, I will plan it differently and serve some plainer food in the days leading up to Christmas. Fewer cakes might be a kindness. Fewer bottles of wine. Start later in the season and finish a little earlier maybe? Enough is as good as a feast but what is enough for a feast? Maybe that’s the tricky bit.

Meanwhile … I am recycling my Christmas tips because I’ve just benefitted all over again from implementing them.

Christmas Tips from a pro.

  1. Hire an extra fridge if you can find an undercover spot outside to house it.
  2. Hire a hot cupboard if you have room.
  3. Make the gravy ahead of time and freeze it. This is a new one. It has changed my Christmas dinner experience from frantic to festive.

The peace of mind that comes from knowing you are not going poison anyone with left-overs that have gone off for want of fridge space is well worth the price of an extra turkey which is what 4 days’ hire of the fridge cost me. The hot cupboard gives you much more leeway with cooking times and similarly relieves the brain. The gravy is a no-brainer but it has taken me forty years to get it.

Julia Child

Not a good time to start delving into traditional classic French cookery when you’re up to your eyes in a war over mince pies.  (Buy? make? make from scratch? use bought pastry? Me and my super ego are having a head to head over this.) Thing is I found I hadn’t yet got to grips with Julia Child’s cookbooks that I was given last Christmas and shame overwhelmed me. More presents coming my way any day now and I haven’t … oh you know. Fill in the gaps. So I read her autobiography in the Autumn and now I am delightfully sucked into the two volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child, an American living in France just after the war made it her life’s work to translate into a working English-language cookbook all she learned at the Cordon Bleu school and much more besides. Here are the master recipes for the whole of French cuisine and if you feel like it you can still see her demonstrate on Youtube.

I started simple. I was certain that using these books, bursting with French culinary wisdom of centuries, I could learn to cook poached eggs which I adore. I have wasted the labours of countless hens by failing to cook them well and I was sure, this time it would be different! With Julia’s help I failed once more but in a time-consuming way. Brilliant. And still not a mince pie in sight and it’s the 20th December. I mean, come on! But nil desperandum . I am now in the grip of French cuisine and I moved on to Julia’s matchless instructions for a remoulade of celeriac in an eye-watering mustard sauce-cum-mayonnaise – one of my favourite dishes as a student in Paris when it often constituted dinner along with a stick of French bread. It was staggeringly satisfying.

But we’re not done yet.  Tonight Julia really comes into her own : an absolute triumph of a Blanc de Poulet. Well it’s chicken in a white sauce to you and me but if you do it properly I can tell you every pan and spoon in the kitchen is employed; the tiny onions added at the end are poached in their own special stock with their own bouquet garni for heaven’s sake. Vermouth, cream, egg yolks and a decent slug of Cognac are also in the frame. And by gosh what a difference they make! As food has improved beyond measure in England and France has suffered from the spread of universal cuisine the gap between them has shrunk. I had in fact forgotten what France used to taste like and now here it is nestling in a big casserole waiting for me to arrange it on some rice (white rice, thank you, none of your self-flagellating will this ever cook brown) with a few slim whole carrots and maybe a little chard. It brings back to me early trips to France when the flavours and textures were such as simply did not exist back home.

Now I can’t eat like this every day with impunity so I shall soon be back on the fruit salad and white fish but it is fun to read recipes that have no shortcuts, no alternative ingredients, just clear and imperious instructions. Salad dressing? Don’t even think about shaking stuff in a jar a la Jamie, get out your special sized whisk and beat the oil into the vinegar, lemon juice, salt and mustard one drop at a time. It actually makes an entirely different fluid, a true emulsion that coats each leaf as a dressing should.

If you don’t feel like cooking you can always watch the peerless Meryl Streep playing Julia in the film Julie and Julia. Or maybe, unlike me, you can poach yourself an egg.

 

5,4,3,2,1 Don’t Panic

5,4,3,2,1 Don’t Panic

I have started flying again after an airline free 15 years or so as I have learned to manage my fear response which was before overwhelming. I wanted to share one of the remarkable techniques for doing this I have learned from Captain Tom Bunn’s book Soar and from a session with Captain Tom himself. The technique is good for all situations where you may panic, not just flying.

The 5,4,3,2,1 technique is an easy-to-learn and easy-to-do exercise which can be used in any situation where you can feel fear getting the better of your body no matter what your mind does. This simple process brings you right into the present moment and interrupts the production of adrenaline and the general unhelpful kicking off of the amygdala. It is the part of the brain called the amygdala which produces all those unpleasant physical symptoms – racing heart, sweating, churning stomach, breathlessness, hot and cold – which accompany extreme anxiety and can lead to a complete panic attack as they overload the body.

If you would like to understand all the physiology I can’t recommend Captain Tom’s book highly enough. Here I’m going to concentrate on how to do the exercise. The 5,4,3,2,1 technique interrupts the production of adrenaline so that there is no build-up. It can be used effectively whenever there is anticipatory anxiety that your mind cannot quell. It works just as well for a trip to the dentist or a big exam as it does for flying. Any event or imagined event which frightens you can cause that build up and that feeling of dread in the stomach. Mostly we try to distract ourselves but when we can’t, a panic attack can result. And if your fear is about an imagined heart attack (for example) all that adrenaline will be very difficult to distinguish from the real thing. Heart attacks and plane crashes do happen but rarely and by and large we will get through the day without either. We just need to teach the amygdala to calm down.

And here’s how. Sit or stand and focus your eyes on an object in front of you. Now name five things you can see out of the corner of your eye. Next name five things you can hear. Then name five things you can feel. Now repeat by naming four things you can see, four things you can hear, four things you can feel. Then repeat with three, with two and with one. By the time you have finished your body has dealt with the adrenaline that was making you panic. If it starts up again, repeat the exercise again immediately. Repeat the exercise as often as you feel the panic start. Each time your body and mind will have a brief holiday from the panic and it will be scaling down rather than building up.

A word about the naming : you can repeat things as needed if you are short of things to name. Make the things you can feel things like feeling your feet on the floor or the wind on your face. Do not include the internal body feelings right now. You may need to do this exercise every two minutes when you begin but gradually you can spread the incidences apart as your body learns there is no emergency. As you get good at it you will be able to do it walking in a busy street or invisibly at the dinner table with your family. It really works.

As I’ve had cause to say before, it is hard to trust that something easy and free that we can do for ourselves can really help us with overwhelmingly horrible feelings like terror. The feelings feel too important for that. But I am here to tell you it can and the secret is, it is the only thing that can.

Long Time No See

Long Time No See

Oh my gosh, where has the time gone? I can only apologise for the long silence but such a lot has been happening. So for now just a little catch up on this summer.

Over the summer I was enjoying the beach in Italy and the Venice Film Festival where I caught Some Like It Hot on the big screen. There was a trip to Sicily and !!FLASHING LIGHTS!! the temples at Agrigento. Do not die without going to Agrigento. In fact, go now! This is one of the most blessed spots in the world. I have been there three times : at twenty something, at forty something and now at sixty something. Maybe the next visit needs to be a little sooner … So I lingered in the baking heat with the setting sun turning the temples bright gold and lizards hanging out under the olive trees and the sea as blue as a promise in the distance. I clambered over stones that were trodden by those ancient Greeks who very sensibly made their home in Sicily. In 1980 there was no fence around the temples, no ticketing system, no nothing, just the temples themselves standing neglected in the valley half an hour’s walk from the town. I went at daybreak and at sunset, entranced by the ancient stones and the freedom with which I was allowed to walk, sit and climb on them. A few German tourists came and went but mostly you could pretend you were a few thousand years ago. All that changed and it got very tacky with tickets and barbed wire. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and as you would expect it has been done with no expense spared and extremely tastefully. Shady paths wind between the temples and discreet wooden barriers prevent the hordes (for there are now hordes) climbing on the temples themselves. They have planted a wonderful orange and lemon grove down near the river where they grow bergamot lemons and sell marmalade of the same. The combination of taste and perfume is intoxicating.

Sicily has roads that haven’t been mended since the last little earthquake so it was an interesting drive around the island with quite a lot of reversing out of impassable situations and a certain amount of bickering between driver and map reader. But the food was out of this world. We had the best ever breakfasts in a fabulous little B & B Raffo (agriturismo) about forty minutes outside Agrigento. The owner drove to the local town each morning to buy croissants and tiny, deep-fried envelopes of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta and blitzed pistacchio nuts. They were so fresh they practically shook hands. Ricotta and pistacchio nuts are BIG in Sicily and we never got tired of them.

In Taormina with a huge silvery moon gazing down on our little table by the sea we ate the delicately flavoured pasta with pistacchio pesto and prawns that had been mooching about in the sea earlier in the day. Further along the coast in Menfi at Da Vittorio’s we ate an indecent amount of astonishing pasta with seafood and spices as we watched the sea lapping nearby. Near Menfi we stayed at a rather grand winery called La Foresteria where the food was delicious and the wine had travelled all the way from the vineyard outside. As you see, the theme that’s emerging is local food. Local food is such a buzz term now but in Italy it is just what they eat. Some of it was grand. Some of it was very unassuming. It was all melt in the mouth and yes, I came back two sizes larger.

But a major thing has happened this summer which I tell you about in due course – I have begun to fly again, having had a gap of many years. It has been a big journey and one with psychological implications well worth the telling. For now, mix yourself a Campari Spritz, enjoy the photos of Agrigento and remember the hot hot summer.

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