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Stress. Is our ability to cope inherited or learned?

As you’ve probably guessed, our ability to handle stress depends on both genes and learning–not on just the one or the other. Fortunately, the genetic contribution is easy to understand, and the learned bit can be changed, so in truth, you have lots of control over how well you can handle stress.

Let’s start with genetics. Most personality traits–the qualities that guide our behaviour–are primarily learned. However, there are two dimensions of personality that are so heavily determined by our genetic makeup, and have so little to do with what we learn, that it’s better simply to accept them and work with them rather than to try to change them. These two dimensions are introversion-extroversion and impulsivity-reflectivity.

If you’re an introvert, you’ll be extremely sensitive to environmental ‘noise’. For you, big crowds, loud parties, lots of commotion, and impositions such as tight deadlines will feel incredibly stressful. Therefore, if you’re an introvert, it’s perfectly OK–in fact, a good idea–to turn down invitations to loud, crowded events, spend time more calmly on your own or with just one or two good friends. It’s also a good idea whenever you’re set a deadline, to create your own deadline in advance of that one so you feel more in control again.

If you’re an extrovert, on the other hand, you will be happier seeking out the crowds, the big parties, and the open plan offices that your introvert friends are working to avoid. You can also welcome imposed deadlines, knowing that you need them to kick start you into action.

The other genetically loaded dimension is impulsivity-reflectivity. If you’re the impulsive sort, you’ll often find yourself regretting that you reacted too quickly, that all too frequently, you started doing before you took the time to think things through. You may make more mistakes than your reflective counterpart, but you’ll also enjoy more opportunities because you jump in fast and find yourself first in the queue. Jobs and hobbies that require lots of energy and quick thinking are the best choices for you.

If on the other hand you’re reflective, then whenever you’re given an opportunity, you’ll want time to consider all options before you make a decision. You–unlike the impulsive individual–will miss some opportunities because you spend too long deciding whether to go for it. However, whenever you do make a decision it’s likely to be the right one. For you, jobs and hobbies that require careful thought and consideration, ones where speed is less important than accuracy, will suit you best.

Once you understand your personality a bit better, and you start making sure that whenever possible, you put yourself in situations where you can use your introversion or extroversion and your impulsiveness or ability to reflect to best advantage, you will begin to feel less stressed.

However, if after making all those changes to your lifestyle, you still feel frequently stressed, then you can be pretty sure that you have some bad habits that need changing. Habits are learned behaviours, and anything you’ve learned you can relearn. You simply need to replace them with better habits.

The first step is to find some good role models. Who do you know who seems to handle the situations you find stressful coolly and calmly? How exactly do they do that? Observe them, and also ask them how they manage so well. Then in small steps–that is, changing something you feel you can really change within one week–start adapting the way you behave so that it becomes more like the behaviour of your chosen role models.

Keep taking these small but positive steps, until you feel your stress levels have become easily manageable, almost all the time.

Mindfulness? Learn it from your children

Mindfulness means paying attention completely to the present moment. It means being fully absorbed in what’s going on right now–without judging or criticising. Just being here, right now, fully awake and aware–that’s mindfulness.

And that’s children. The younger the child, the more often he or she is mindful. Children become completely absorbed by whatever they’re doing, so much so that sometimes it’s hard to get their attention! But that intense and complete focus is lovely to watch.

If you want to know how to be mindful, rather than following complicated instructions, ploughing through manuals, or taking courses, I suggest that you observe a young child who is enjoying play time. You, too, once spent time in that way, fully engaged and fulfilled. You can do it again.

A good way to start is to begin each day in mindful awareness. This will balance your body chemistry and set you up for a more focused, calmer day.

Set your alarm for three minutes earlier than you would normally wake. Sit up in bed, choose an object in your bedroom, and begin breathing slowly and steadily, in through your nose and out through your mouth. For 30 slow breaths, describe that object to yourself in the smallest detail. Then get up and start your normal daily routine–and notice how you feel. Your thinking will be clearer, and you’ll feel calm and balanced.

Why It’s Not a Good Idea to ‘Practice’ Mindfulness

Mindfulness is everywhere. There are workshops, seminars, and courses on mindfulness at every turn, not to mention a steadily growing number of self help books on the subject.

However, unless you are introduced to mindfulness properly, you may well end up feeling more stressed when you try it, rather than less!

Why is this?

Mindfulness as it is meant to be should not be yet another ‘doing’, another practice session or course you have to attend. Mindfulness is a way of being, a way of living the life you already live, but in a richer and more fulfilling way. You don’t need to ‘do’ mindfulness. Instead, simply endeavour to ‘be’ mindful whenever you can. You shouldn’t feel the need to set aside time to practice! Nor should you wonder whether you’re doing it ‘right’, or getting ‘better’. Every time you are mindful will simply be different from every other time you are mindful–neither better nor worse. And every time you are mindful, your life will seem richer, more fulfilling and more interesting than it would have been had you spent that time in unawareness, worry, or regret.

So please, forget about mindfulness practice sessions, or required time outs for guided meditations or whatever–unless of course, you’d love to spend time in that way.

To be truly mindful, simply follow theses guidelines:

Whenever you remember, check out how you are breathing. The best way to breathe is slowly and steadily, in through your nose and out through your mouth.

Once you’ve breathed in this manner for five breaths, look around you. What’s going on? What can you see? hear? taste? smell? feel? Observe anything and everything–right here, right now, in your mind as well as in your environment. Don’t judge what you’re experiencing. Instead, simply describe it to yourself–without comparing, criticising, regretting or anticipating. Simply know it.

Relieving yourself of judging and criticising, and balancing your body by healthful breathing will allow you to feel calmer and more focused, for however long you exist in this way. You’re also likely to remember what’s happening better (because you’re focusing on it properly, rather than planning and/or reminiscing at the same time) and enjoy whatever it is more (because you’ve taken a break from judging and criticising and have instead simply accepted).

The more you live in this way–this mindful way of being–the calmer and more fulfilled you’ll be.

Enjoy!

Is love hard work?

The Daily Telegraph has published an article today about Cheryl Cole’s engagement, exploring whether it is wise to commit after knowing someone only briefly.

This is a great opportunity for me to begin a series of blogs using my favourite book, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. In this book, villagers pose 26 questions to their Prophet, each one concerning a vital aspect of our lives.

From now on, whenever it seems interesting and helpful, I will quote for you the relevant question from this book, and then see if I can apply it to today’s world and the problems we face now.

Today’s Daily Telegraph article is a great start, because it’s about the first question in the book, when the Prophet is asked about love. Here (in part) is what he says:

‘When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning….’

So what is the Prophet trying to say? Love doesn’t look like much fun from his description, does it?! He seems to be suggesting that love is hard work. He’s right. But we don’t much like to hear that these days…

There are two main problems why we so often feel disappointed when we look for love.

The first is that we want instant satisfaction. If you meet someone and it doesn’t instantly feel right and stay perfect, you may well be encouraged to ‘move on’, to ‘find the right person’–as if there is someone waiting ‘out there’ in the world who is perfect for you.

The second belief we hold is that once you find this (mythical!) perfect person, everything will be happy ever after. You won’t ever need to work on the relationship–it’s already perfect.

But these ideas are both false, and they lead only to more disappointment! That’s because, first of all, there is no ‘perfect’ in life. Life is a work in progress, and although we have moments that feel absolutely perfect, those moments never last because things are constantly changing. After all, that’s what being alive means! If something never changes, it’s not alive.

Furthermore, you’ll never find lasting satisfaction if you expect to find it outside of yourself, somewhere out in the world waiting for you. You have to create situations and relationships that provide you with the satisfaction you’re seeking, and you do this through hard work, optimism and determination. What the Prophet says is true–love’s ways are truly ‘hard and steep’!

One of the reasons why we feel so often disappointed in love is that we confuse ‘lust’ and ‘love’. Lust is what you feel when you’re sexually attracted to someone. Did you know that it’s based on scent?! Unconsciously, we are attracted to people whose immune systems best match our own. This is a mechanism in our biological makeup, to encourage us to mate with a person whose immune system, together with our own, will produce the healthiest and strongest children. Lust is really powerful!–it can surprise you, even feel like it’s come out of the blue. We have very little conscious control over lust, and sadly, it doesn’t often last long. Feelings of lust may fade after just one night, or a few weeks or months. Lust is definitely not the same thing as love!

Love is a completely different concept. Love is something we can create, and the harder we work at it, the more delicious it feels. Love, if I may borrow and modify M. Scott Peck’s definition, means considering your partner’s needs to be at least as important as your own, if not more so. It means giving up things you want to do sometimes, so you can serve the best interests of your partner. The great thing about love is that, although it takes a great deal of effort to nurture, the harder and longer you work at it, the better it gets. Love never needs to grow stale or old.

Dartington Literary Festival

Literary festivals offer a great chance to take a break from the digital world and return to reading books. It’s also a wonderful way to meet people and exchange ideas.

However, some literary festivals create a more intimate and inviting atmosphere than do others. The Dartington Literary Festival is, in my opinion, the best of the lot. This year I was lucky enough to be invited to Dartington, to speak about The Key to Calm.

The speakers I listened to were well prepared, and everyone finished in good time to allow for questions. Members of the audience are treated with respect, and anyone who wished to express a viewpoint was given the opportunity to do so–there was no sense of hurry.

There was a generous and leisurely feel to each day. Talks were never scheduled ‘back to back’: instead, there was always plenty of time between each talk to permit book signing and an opportunity for audience members to talk with the author who had just spoken.

Then there’s the setting. Devon is already beautiful! But this particular estate, located near the River Dart in rolling green unspoiled countryside, is perfect for taking walks or going for a swim (if you don’t mind cold water!)

The food was delicious: fresh, beautifully prepared and cheerfully served. If you chose to stay overnight (I did), the accommodation offered on the site is top quality–clean, spacious and tastefully decorated.

I don’t know anywhere else where you can feel so relaxed, comfortable and welcomed, and at the same time learn so much about such a wide range of fascinating subjects.

I’d encourage anyone wanting to reawaken their desire to learn and to love to learn to attend one of the Ways Words Literary Festivals–Dartington, Southwold or Keswick.

I’m off now to read one of several books I couldn’t resist bringing back with me!