Now Felix Keep on Walking

Now Felix Keep on Walking

Before ‘Keep calm and carry on,’ there was Felix the Cat. From my mother I inherited the last surviving little plate of a 1920s doll’s tea set. Over the caption “Now Felix keep on walking,” Felix staunchly keeps going despite the frenzy of dogs barking and other cats panicking.

Mind you, Felix looks strapping enough to handle any setback; but the kind of resilience you need to take difficulties in your stride is more to do with size of attitude than physique. If you believe that you have, or can find, the resources you need to handle a situation, it becomes manageable. And every difficulty you deal with increases your ability to rise to the next challenge.

Conversely, every upset, shock or pressure that you don’t feel able to cope with will knock your confidence and deplete your energy, until just keeping up with day to day living can become overwhelming. And then any trivial setback tends to swell out of all proportion, while your well-being and self-respect become harder to maintain.

But confidence can be learned. It is not a matter of temperament, but a way of thinking. Disheartening thoughts disempower you. They do not prepare you to cope better when difficulties arise, as they inevitably will. Many people mistakenly feel safer dwelling on what could go wrong, than imagining a happy outcome; as if worrying in advance might somehow avert disaster, or as if expecting the worst will save you from being disappointed. But when you lack confidence, you can’t deal assertively with the problems that are always snapping at our heels.

Keeping going will bring you through a situation and to another place. It means not letting yourself be daunted or side-tracked by the growling of your own regrets or resentments, or frightened by uncertainties.

Confidence means ‘with trust’. This is not the kind of trust that shuts its eyes and crosses its fingers, like the ‘peril-sensitive’ sunglasses in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that go black in the presence of danger, so that you can’t see what you don’t want to. It is not the kind of trust that depends for its peace of mind on locks and alarms, belt and braces, insurance schemes and guarantees; or on rosy-tinted wishful thinking, either.

What you can trust is the extraordinary capacity we all have to regenerate, change, come up with new possibilities. You can trust that (like everyone else) you will make wrong decisions and be disappointed, ashamed, frustrated, like everyone else; but keep walking, and your view will change as you walk.

What is hypnosis, and how does it help?

What is hypnosis, and how does it help?

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Despite decades of scientific evidence of its therapeutic effectiveness, hypnosis is still thought of as a mysterious form of mind control, whereby a hypnotist exerts power over someone else and directs his or her actions. Movies and fiction wildly misrepresent the procedures and possibilities of hypnosis, generating some strange fears and fantasies about what it is and how it works. And this is especially ironic, as giving people more control over their fears and fantasies is what hypnosis does best.

Forget the clichés: the swinging watch, the intoned “Look into my eyes…” These are remnants of old-fashioned ways to help someone focus their attention, by giving them something to fix their gaze upon. You can do it yourself: keep staring up at a single point on the ceiling, or fixedly at your thumbnail, until you feel your mind subtly shift into another gear. This detached awareness, as though suspended in time, is a light state of hypnosis.

Forget the idea that to be able to do this readily is weak-willed or will put you in anyone’s power. On the contrary, it requires co-operation and concentration; and if you are not too hot on those, it has been shown that hypnotic ability improves with practice. Forget any fears of being brainwashed into doing something ridiculous, or of falling unconscious, or of having no memory afterwards of what has happened. We do these things to ourselves regularly – spending more than we mean to in the supermarket, sitting in a trance in front of a television or computer screen, drinking too much – but hypnosis cannot make you do any of them.

What hypnosis does is direct your attention inwards. The process combines simple routines, such as closing the eyes and relaxing the body, with paying more attention than usual to your inner experiences and sensations. The real mystery about hypnosis is the mystery of the brain itself: its flexible and ingenious power to join the dots, see things differently, and change its own mind.

In spite of, or perhaps thanks to its long history of controversy and its ambiguous reputation, hypnosis has been rigorously studied, changes in brain activity scanned, professional standards established, benefits officially recognised. Southampton University has been offering hypnotherapy to students since 2016, with a reported reduction in anxiety of 60% (The Times, 26/12/2018). New generations will take for granted approaches to mental and physical well-being that were regarded with suspicion and superstition in the past: what stands the test of time is what still works in time of need.

Something to smile about

Our wellbeing depends so much on getting on with other people. The friendly support of others makes us happier, more able to cope with pain and difficulties, even physically healthier. And it works the other way, too: doing things for others and expressing appreciation measurably lift our own spirits.

Yet it is so easy to forget to be nice to each other, to be more dissatisfied than grateful. There is a biological reason for this curmudgeonly inclination; psychologists call it the negative bias. Evolution taught us to be suspicious first and count our blessings later. Even now, when we are comparatively safe from predators – perhaps all the more because we expect comfort and convenience – we are more irked by what we don’t like than appreciative of what we have.

We are more upset to lose £10 than thrilled to gain it. We are more stricken by our failures than we are buoyed by our successes. We dismiss the compliments of friends and family as if they count for nothing, while one criticism can rankle for ever.

The negative bias is so strong that researchers have calculated it takes at least five compliments to soften the effect of one snarky comment. The world is full of people making mistakes, doing objectionable things, getting our way and needing (we think) to be put right. But there are better ways to make changes than by criticising (a topic for another day). And all of them begin with a smile rather than a frown – literally, or in your tone of voice, or the set of your shoulders, and in your state of mind.

See what happens to your relationships when you try giving anyone five compliments for every criticism. But what counts as a compliment? A rush of effusive praise is likely to make them suspicious (“You must want something…”); or sceptical, no longer trusting anything you say; or anxious, because praise can make us more afraid of being a disappointment the next time, and more anxious to please than to do something for its own sake.

Any sincere “Thank you!” or “I like how you…” or “Well done!” Any gesture of respect, any nod of acknowledgement; asking someone for their point of view, paying attention when they are speaking – looking at them, instead of at your phone or the television – is an effective way to counter your own and other people’s negative bias.

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” In the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, we can do much for our own happiness, and sustain our many and varied relationships, by actively looking for opportunities to express appreciation.

And the first form of compliment is a smile. Smiling is a universal human signal that is both a greeting and an offer of peace. It communicates friendliness instead of hostility. A genuine smile cannot be faked. It awakens wellbeing in both the smiler and the smiled at. It is the simplest and quickest way to affirm a positive bias and dispel that prevailing tendency to discontent.

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