Sep 23, 2012

Anxiety, my old friend

This week I’ve been anxious. Next week I’ll be away, to a big conference. I’ll have some work there, including an oral presentation. In moments like these, anxiety, my old friend, returns to tease me. I’ve been trying to look at this experience in a positive light but, I must confess, it hasn’t been easy. Sometimes anxiety is just like a constant punch in the stomach!

Anyway, I’ve been applying some strategies that have helped, and I would like to share them with you. Even though anxiety is still with me, with these strategies it isn’t so overwhelming.

- Don’t let anxiety freeze you. Keep busy with your normal daily activities. These activities help you take your mind off the worrying thoughts.

- Get enough sleep. This really helps keeping your balance.

- If you feel you can’t handle it alone, talk with someone you trust about your worries. The other person will have a fresher perspective on what is worrying you, and this may really help.

- Keep bringing yourself to the present moment. It’s much easier to deal with one moment at a time.   

- Take a break. Get away from everything that may be worrying you. For example, go for a walk, spend some time with a friend, or take a nap. When you return, you’ll refreshed and calmer.

- Think about how in a year, for example, what worries you now will be an unimportant event, lost in the past.

- Plan and prepare yourself, in order to feel more confident.

So… See you, in a week.

Wish me luck! ;)

Sep 18, 2012


Today I returned to Sia.

How deeply touching is her 'Lullaby'?...

Sep 16, 2012

Happiness is...

(Alentejo Coast, Portugal)

Accepting the mini-challenge proposed by Tammy Strobel, in RowdyKittens, I've created my own list of 10 activities that make me happy :)

Happiness is...

- Reading the first words of a new book

- Sleeping like a baby

- Listening to music that makes my heart dance

- Receiving a kind word from a friend

- Taking a weekend off with my boyfriend

- Sitting in the garden, in a sunny afternoon

- Saving a lost and starving baby kitten

- Being close to my wonderful family

- Singing with all my heart (and breath!)

- Eating a delicious home baked cake

I loved creating this list (it was very spontaneous) because it reminded me of all the amazing simple things I already have in my life. It’s an exercise worth repeating!

And you... What makes you happy?

Sep 12, 2012

Procrastination tip: focus on choice

In life, and despite our efforts to spend time doing only the things we love, there are almost always unpleasant tasks that we 'have to' do. These can be, for example, going to the dentist, writing a letter of complaint, doing boring house chores, making a difficult phone call, or something a little bit bigger, like writing a PhD thesis :P

In our minds these are heavy/tedious/painful/difficult/draining tasks that the world is forcing upon us, and so we create a lot of inner resistance towards them. A conflict is born, as we are torn between fulfilling the 'obligation' and running away from it. We feel stuck, and we procrastinate for as long as we can. But, in the end, we feel like we don't really have a choice.

What we probably don't realize is that we do have a choice... We can choose not to make the difficult phone call or, for that matter, we can choose not to write the thesis! But of course, like with all choices, we must accept the responsibility that comes from deciding not to do these things. This is something that I only realized recently…

While doing my PhD, I was constantly resisting it. I felt trapped, and somehow I was waiting for some kind of miraculous solution. I guess I was waiting to wake up one day, and find out that the thesis had written itself. Or that the PhD had just been a nightmare - a dark figment of my imagination! :P

What I mean is that I hadn’t really made a choice about it. I didn’t want to continue with the PhD but, simultaneously, I didn’t want to give up. So… I really had to make a choice.

I then realized that finishing the PhD was stronger. I didn’t want to live with the consequences of not finishing it, which would be to disappoint myself, my teachers, and my parents - but mainly myself. Next, I thought about the (positive) reasons why I was deciding to finish the PhD. And these are:

- To share the knowledge that I created with my research, which I actually consider important;
- To be able to feel that I fulfilled my duty (I’ve actually been paid to do this, with a scholarship indirectly funded by Portuguese taxpayers);
- To show myself that I managed to overcome the challenge, however difficult it was, and in this way increase my confidence;
- And, at last, to free myself from this project, and then be able to focus my time and energy on projects and tasks that I really love.

After doing this exercise, my choice was clear, and I stopped dwelling on inner conflicts and negativity. I am going to finish it. Period.

I believe focusing on choice can be helpful with other things too. Instead of thinking: ‘I have to make this difficult phone call, but I don’t want to’, now I think: ‘I choose to make this difficult phone call, because_________ (fill in the blank)’.

This is actually a simple practice, but one that allows us to take better ownership of our choices and, consequently, of our life. Perhaps we will choose not to do some of the things that weigh us down, or perhaps we will gain new and more positive perspectives on these things, and actually embrace them…

I’ll end by acknowledging that I learned this important lesson from the book ‘The Now Habit’, by Neil Fiore, which, in my opinion, is filled with wonderful resources for anyone who struggles with procrastination.

Sep 8, 2012

Brainstorming part-time work ideas

As promised here I am to report my progress on objective no. 1 :)
So... What did I accomplish?
- I began with a brainstorm which I'm (partially) pasting here:
Alternative 1: part-time work, from home
1 - Etsy shop
How: adding more items, and investing more time creating and divulgating the shop;
Advantages: this is work I love;
Disadvantages: from my experience, it’s hard to generate a reasonable and regular income with this work.
2 - Blogging/writing
How: applying to the countless blogging/writing job ads that can be found throughout the internet;
Advantages: I love writing!
Disadvantages: English is not my native tongue, and this (highly) reduces my odds of being picked for this kind of job; all my currently published material is scientific and technical, and so I almost don’t have other kind of written material to show off  (Note: Portuguese job ads of this kind are very scarce).
3 - Tutor students in math
How: distribute ads in the nearby schools;
Advantages: I have the skills and the knowledge; this is a well paid work; and the probability of getting a small ‘class’ of students is actually high;
Disadvantages: I don’t really enjoy teaching maths…
4 - To correct the Portuguese of college essays and thesis, or to translate them to English.
How: distribute ads in nearby colleges and place ads on the internet;
Advantages: this is something I believe I’m good at;
Disadvantages: this is pretty much the kind of work I’m already doing (writing my thesis), so my days will be filled with the same kind of work, which will be tiresome.
5 - To create a sewing workshop for beginners.
How: place ads on the internet;
Advantages: I believe there will be people interested;
Disadvantages: my level of knowledge is not far above the beginner level, so I don’t feel very confident or even entitled to do this.
Alternative 2: part-time work, working as an employee
6 - To work in (almost) anything that shows up, including something that doesn’t require specific skills (like at a store).
How: search for ads in the internet; search for available jobs by making a ‘tour’ through stores and other businesses nearby;
Advantages: this will generate regular income, which is welcome;
Disadvantages: since this is a part-time, the work will have to be close to my home, otherwise I’ll be spending almost all the salary in travelling and meals; it’s not easy to find a job nearby, because this is a rural area, and also due to the crisis the country is going thorough.
- On Tuesday, and curious about the kind of opportunities for paid writing/blogging that may be out there, I spent some time looking at writing ads. One, in particular, caught my attention - it was asking for people who have had counseling/psychotherapy experience, to write about how it has worked for them. It seemed particularly crafted for me, so I didn't think twice and immediately applied :) Of course, this is a small work, but any help is welcome.
- On Wednesday, I had my psychotherapy session and, among other things, I communicated this new objective, and asked for support, and we discussed many of the options that I had brainstormed.
So… What conclusions did I come up with?
The ideas that will more probably generate reasonable income are ideas number 3 and 6. In the next week I will begin searching for working opportunities nearby, and I’ll also write my tutoring ads and decide where I’m going to place them. Meanwhile, and because school hasn’t even began, I’ll also be dedicating myself to options number 1 and 2, which are the ones that would make me happier.
What didn't work out as nicely was my intention to work on this objective in the mornings... I must confess – I’m a night owl, but because I've been reading such wonderful benefits of waking up early, I've been trying to change this, without success. So I guess I'll leave this habit alone, for now. I'll keep dedicating myself to this after the PhD work, i.e., at late evenings. Of course, there are always things (like actually going to work interviews) I'll have to do during the day, but that's ok :)
If anyone reading this has other ideas on how to generate honest income working from home, I would love to hear from you in the comments section!

Sep 6, 2012

Are you a Highly Sensitive Person?

Is it just me?...
Many of us have felt fundamentally different, and perhaps weaker, from an early age. People around us may have made a point of actually telling us that. 'You're too quiet!' 'You worry too much!' 'You're too sensitive!' 'You analyze everything too much! Please, just relax...' 'You’re at a party… Why don't you get up and dance, like everyone else?' Does this ring some kind of bell with you?

Elaine Aron, author of ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’, has felt different her entire life. As she puts it, she felt as if she carried some kind of 'fatal flaw'. In therapy, she was introduced, for the first time, to her 'sensitivity'. Her therapist was aware that some people seem to be 'highly sensitive', even though she had not given much conscious thought to the concept. Elaine, on the other hand, began a journey to understand what this 'sensitivity' exactly might mean.

Having a degree in Psychology, she actually decided to develop her PhD on the subject. Starting from the concept of introversion, and drawing, among other sources, on the work of Carl Jung, she arrived to the concept of the ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ (HSP). The scientific and more complicated term for this trait, by the way, is ‘Sensory Processing Sensitivity’. Her study was based in the interview of hundreds of people, and lately her research has been backed up by the study of HSP’s neural responses to stimuli.

What a HSP is not
By now, some of you may be getting a little bit offended. 'Ok, but if I'm not a HSP, does that mean I'm a less sensitive, considerate and empathic person?' No, it doesn’t mean that! The 'sensitivity' I am talking about is not the kind of 'sensitivity' you are thinking about.

What is a HSP?
Ok, so what exactly is a HSP? Actually, Elaine created a test with 27 questions to evaluate the trait. This test asks you questions like: 
- Are you easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input?
- Do other people's moods affect you?
- Do you have a rich, complex inner life?
- Are you conscientious?
- Do you startle easily?
- Do you find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once?
- When you were a child, did your parents or teachers seem to see you as sensitive or shy?

Essentially, a HSP is a person who possesses the innate trait of high psychological sensitivity.  HSPs have a different nervous system, which processes stimulation more profoundly and thoroughly. This stimulation can have its origin from the outside (such as noise or bright lights), or from the inside (such as thoughts or feelings). And HSPs are not as rare as it may seem. In fact, they constitute about 20% of the population!

Why does it matter?
But why does this matter, in the first place? I believe that for someone who has clearly identified with the trait, the advantages will be more or less obvious. First of all, there is the 'Ah-ha' moment, when many aspects of your life experience suddenly seem to make sense... And then there is this ‘conscious forgiving light’ in which you can finally bathe many of your painful past memories. And lastly, with the support of some good advice, you can learn to better rearrange your life, so that your sensitivity can work for you, instead of working against you…

Further reading
This has just been a first peek at the HSP thematic. If you are interested, there is a lot of great information on the topic. I can, for example, recommend the following books:
- 'The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You' by Elaine Aron;
- 'The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You' by Elaine Aron;
- 'The Highly Sensitive Person's Companion: Daily Exercises for Calming Your Senses in an Overstimulating World' by Ted Zeff.

And you can also visit Elaine’s website, filled with valuable information.

Take a dive into the subject, and you may discover some wonderful things about yourself that have been stubbornly hidden. Until now...

Sep 5, 2012

The armor

Lately I've been realizing something of which I'm not very proud. And to write about it, I need to go back to the past for a little while...

In my early adolescence I developed a severe social phobia, as a result of an event which I interpreted as traumatic. I only overcame many of my fears in my early/mid twenties, with the help of some good therapy. In the present I would say that I still have low to moderate social anxiety, the severity of which depends a lot on the particular circumstances. And I have an introverted nature, which opens up to those few with whom I connect and feel comfortable.

I can say, by experience, that social phobia is a very dark place to be in. You desperately both want and not want to socialize. You feel very lonely, and you tend to put others in a pedestal. In your eyes, others are relaxed, confident, full of interesting things to say, and with very exciting lives. How can you possibly not feel anxious around others, when you're so fragile and uninteresting? One paradoxical and dangerous consequence of this idolization is that you tend to forget that others are human and fragile too. They too seek love and understanding. And sometimes they're as frightened as you are. And they're not like bad cops whose only function while interacting with you is to judge and punish you for your incompetence in life. But, in a way, this is how I've been unconsciously looking at the majority of people who are not a part of my small 'circle of trust'. I keep this armor, trying to protect myself at all costs. But I guess this implies, to anyone who tries to reach me, that I'm expecting the worst of them. By default, I do not trust them. I expect them to judge, criticize and reject me. I never thought about how that could be hurtful and perhaps even offensive to the other person.

This really hit me when, recently, I met a person from my past (with whom I've never been really close) and she was all nice and effusive, while I kept very stiff and tried to say goodbye as quickly as possible. When she was gone, I was sad. Why did I act this way? Somehow my brain regarded her as a threat. But objectively there was no reason for that... I know this is very related with my social anxiety, but this event really motivated me to try to be more open, and to learn to expect, by default, the best of each human being, and not the opposite.

Awareness is supposed to be the first step towards change. I hope this can be my first of many steps to become more open and trustful towards the outer world :)

Sep 3, 2012

Procrastination tip: work in timed bursts

(S. João da Madeira park, Portugal)
I've been trying to motivate myself to keep going and finish my PhD. To help myself, I've been reading about procrastination - about what may cause it, and what strategies we may apply to motivate ourselves and procrastinate less. And I've also tested many of these strategies, eventually letting go of some, and keeping others.
I thought it would be interesting to share some of these strategies here. So I'll be dedicating some of my posts to sharing tips on how to beat procrastination. Some of these strategies will be more or less well known, but I'll still present them, trying to express how I found them particularly helpful. Of course (and this is very important) what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for another. I guess the secret lies in testing different strategies, and then keeping the ones that fit us best.

I hope this can be of use to anyone who stops by :)

So, here's my Procrastination tip no. 1: Work in timed bursts.

The length:

Some recommend 30 minutes of uninterrupted and focused work, others 40 minutes, others tell you to pick the time length that fits you and the task best. From my experience, the flexible approach is the best. I would say that 45 minutes is my 'ideal'. However, and before deciding the length of my timed burst, I analyse how I'm feeling towards the particular task at hand. If I'm resisting it a lot, then 45 minutes is too much. I will feel that there's no way I'll be able to be with the task for that amount of time. So I pick a number, starting from 5 minutes, with which I feel comfortable. Sometimes my mood is so low, and I'm resisting the task so much, that I can only bear the idea of working 5 minutes. Then, after the 5 minutes have passed, I ask myself: 'Can I work another 5 (or 10, or 15) minutes?' Many times, eventually, I actually work the 45 minutes.

In between:

Ok... But how do I organize these timed bursts? How much time do I leave in between them? And what do I do in between them? This can vary too, of course. The trick is to let myself feel as comfortable as possible with the 'working time vs. resting time' ratio. As an example, this could be my (flexible to change) daily working plan:

45 minutes of work
15 minutes pause*
45 minutes of work
Big pause**
45 minutes of work
15 minutes pause*
45 minutes of work
Big pause**
45 minutes of work
15 minutes pause*
45 minutes of work**

* For example: to stretch, do some quick house chore, refill my bottle of water (which I always keep at hand), sew a little, go chat a bit with my mother, go outside and enjoy the garden and the fresh air, do a mindfulness exercise, etc.
** For example: to lunch/dinner/snack, exercise, go for a walk, spend some time with a friend or with my boyfriend, take a nap, etc.

This makes a 4h30min working day of focused and uninterrupted work. Since I work 6 days per week, I believe this is a fair amount of working time. Anyway, it is just an example. Generally it won't be as perfectly structured, but this kind of scheme has helped me a lot.

The benefits:

- When you're working in timed bursts you've created yourself a mini deadline. You know when you'll stop, and so you won't be unconsciously dreading to be indefinitely stuck with your task. You can see the resting and refreshing period in front of you. I believe this way the work at hand feels a bit lighter and easier to deal with.

- Your pause periods work as rewards. And your brain loves rewards, and tends to reinforce the behaviors that get rewarded (more on creating rewarding systems on a later post).

So, I believe this is a simple strategy worth trying.

And you? Do you work in timed bursts? How does it work for you? I would love to hear about your personal experience regarding this tip in the comments section.

See you soon :)

Sep 1, 2012

My objective no. 1

I've decided that, among other things, I'll use this blog to help me implement new habits, and to accomplish certain objectives. By sharing my intentions and strategies, I believe I'll be better able to think things through, and to boost my motivation to keep going :) And maybe sharing this process can be somewhat helpful to anyone who reads my words...
I'm a big fan of 'Zen Habits' for several years now, and one of the things Leo Babauta keeps recommending is to not try to change several habits simultaneously, but to focus on a single habit at a time. I believe Leo is right, and I've seen this same recommendation given by many respectable others, like M.J. Ryan, whose book 'This year I will' I find very inspiring. So, that's what I'll humbly do :P
And what will be my first habit/objective to work on? Well, one of the main reasons of my current depressive state is my almost total lack of income. Which means that since my research scholarship ended I've been living in my parents house and cruelly harvesting my savings... Eventually I would get to the bottom of the well -which I just did... So, it's time to shake this inertia up, and to face some avoided fears... I must find an honest way to generate reasonable income, to support myself while I finish my dear PhD.
Objective no. 1:
Find an honest way to generate reasonable income, to support myself while I finish my PhD.
I'll be looking at part-time job ads, exploring freelance possibilities, brainstorming, and applying to the opportunities that come my way.
I'm giving myself the next 2 months to work on this (while still dedicating myself to the PhD, of course). I'll be doing this in the mornings, and leave the afternoons and evenings to the PhD. And I'll report my progress here in the blog once a week.
This will not be my dream job. I just need to support myself. Working towards my meaningful work will come after PhD...  I'll be starting next Monday (September 3), because this weekend my brother is getting married and I'll be happily enjoying the celebrations!
See you soon ;)