Straight Talk: Dancing To Distraction
Written By Stella Nicholls
Late at night, lying in bed about to doze off when suddenly something grips you, causing your mind to shoot into high alert, adrenaline pumps as your eyes pop open in fear. You would be right in presuming that I’m describing an unwanted encounter, that something scary has entered the room and disturbed the peace, a sleep thief. You would be wrong if you thought that ‘something’ was an external presence. It isn’t, my sleep depriver is my mind. Worrying. And once it starts, it’s so difficult to switch it off. Visits to the kitchen at 2am to make a cup of herbal tea ensue in the hope that somehow, like a magic charm, it will woo me to sleep.
In a month where Grow’s theme is health and wellbeing, I thought that I’d turn the topic on its head and tackle something that I’m sure many of us suffer with and, which I’ve found, has a tendency to not only steal my sleep but my health too. And I’ve found that it’s not something that can be easily remedied, the anxiety monster lurks on the edge of my waking thoughts. Always. And it often sweeps on to the centre stage of my mind when I least expect it.
I have even been known to worry about ‘not having anything to worry about’, strange as that may seem. If I feel in a state of relative bliss, the little ‘niggler’ aka my anxiety monster, starts whispering to me. ‘You know when you are feeling this happy that something bad is going to happen’, I hear it say. It’s true that life has taught me, through first-hand experience, that bad things do happen when we least expect them, but does that mean that I need to live in a constant state of suspense?
Corrie Ten Boom once said,
“Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its troubles, it empties today of its strength.”
A truth that anyone who is a fellow worrier knows to be true but how do we turn ourselves from worriers into warriors?
I suspect that there are no hard and fast rules, no ‘one remedy fits all’ as ‘us humans’ are all different, but below I have listed a few things that help me. Even though it remains a daily challenge and is potentially a lifelong journey, where I constantly batten down the hatches on rising waves of worry, I have set myself habits that help me to remain positive and powerful.
At this point of my writing, I got up and danced around the office to a track called ‘Run’ by Tiggs Da Author, a song that one of my colleagues was playing and, I found, is almost impossible to listen to, without moving. It was late in the afternoon and there weren’t too many of us ‘Growsters’ still in the office (so I didn’t feel too much of a spectacle). Why dance? Well, I find it such a release, and if you choose the right song can feel invigorating and ‘freeing’. Exercise increases serotonin, endorphins and other ‘feel-good’ chemicals in the brain which help lower cortisol (the stress hormone) plus it tends to be good for the waistline. I’ve danced through some of the toughest times of my life, always trying to make sure that I held on to my music collection when all else was crumbling around me, as it evokes such a feeling of joyfulness. And you don’t have to be a ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ pro, I’m not, but all limbs are engaged in my dance to distraction.
Mindfulness. Worriers tend to confuse actual reality with their perceived reality, so it can be helpful to focus on physical sensory experiences to distract the mind. The focus is shifted from the mind’s thoughts to breathing, a mantra, or the five senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. A distraction for a worried mind and the deep breaths help send more oxygen to the brain, calming the feelings of stress. I tried becoming mindful of my breathing before a Doctor’s appointment recently, taking deeper breaths than normal and focusing my mind on being grateful. My personal ‘mantra’ is prayer and trying to live by faith and not fear. I was a little sceptical, at first, as to whether this would have an impact on my physical well-being but was pleasantly surprised that my blood pressure was normal. Usually, the doctor tells me that my blood pressure is higher than it should be, probably brought on by the stress of visiting the doctor.
Distraction is also a powerful tool to help combat anxiety. Keeping our minds busy on a project, a hobby, reading a good book or learning something new can definitely replace worrying. One way I recently occupied my mind with something else, was to go paintballing with my family as a birthday ‘treat’ for my future son-in-law. Not the most conventional distraction (and not for the faint-hearted), but dodging paintballs, after experiencing the pain to my kneecap from being shot at fairly close range, definitely became my priority for the rest of the day.
I’ve also found that being thankful helps in overcoming worries too. I have a natural tendency to wake up in the morning and feel grumpy, moaning about things like, ‘who left the toilet seat up?’ or ‘why do I have to get up so early?’ But taking time to think of the positives, the many things that I have to be grateful for seems to turn that feeling around and banishes ‘Grumpy’ to the back. In fact, gratitude also releases dopamine in the brain, so it makes sense to focus on the good things in life. Sitting at my desk – cup of coffee close by, amazing ‘Grow’ colleagues tapping away at their keyboards, Exeter – a great city to live in, enough food in my tummy, the sun is shining (well it was a second ago), ‘Neighbours’ is on today – yes I’m a fan of most Australian TV, my ‘children’ are healthy well-adjusted adults, my husband is my best friend……you get the picture, that’s my list just off the top of my head.
In her book, ‘The Hiding Place’ Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsie are prisoners in a German concentration camp during the Second World War and are great examples of being thankful in all circumstances. When her sister Betsie was thankful for fleas, she couldn’t see the logic in it, at first, until she realised that it was the very fleas which she had despised that served as a protection from the cruel guards. The guards never came into their barracks for fear of being infested by the fleas, so they were left alone.
Research showing that our brains have the ability to re-organise themselves by forming new neural connections (neuroplasticity), means that we could potentially ‘rewire’ the way our brains respond, which will help to combat anxiety. The ability, through repetition, for the brain to learn to react differently to a given circumstance may mean that there is hope for us ‘worriers’, to break the cycle.
So, the next time I find myself unable to sleep, I may just grab that new novel I’ve been wanting to read, to distract myself. (Dancing around the lounge, music thumping, at 2 am may be a little too stressful for my sleeping family, after all.)
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