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I wonder, does anyone else have a fear of the words: ‘We’ll just have a quick icebreaker.’ Or: ‘Let’s go around the table and introduce ourselves.’
I have known my own name for well over forty years and yet, for some irrational reason, I am convinced that I will forget it, when introducing myself to a bunch of strangers. So much so that, in order to ensure that I don’t freeze when the facilitator smiles in my direction, I spend the time that I should be listening to others, mentally rehearsing my name, job title and why I am there.
Of course, this means I don’t then actually know anything about the people who have introduced themselves before me.
It also means that, when I have successfully given three very basic facts about myself, my brain releases a host of positive chemicals. Endorphins have already been busy, helping me to manage my anxiety. But now, I am awash with serotonin, the result of feeling happy, relieved, significant and important – yes world, I know who I am.
In recognition of my success, my dopamine levels have spiked, as my body gives a little ‘well done you’ reward to itself. In fact, I am flying so high that it’s only when the facilitator starts speaking again, I realise that I know nothing about the people who introduced themselves after me either.
To clarify, I have never forgotten my name, I have never introduced myself using someone else’s name, or made up a name (at least not in a professional capacity). Although I have struggled to recall other things when nervous.
For example, at the beginning of January, I went to an event where we had to introduce ourselves and say what our best Christmas present had been. My mind went blank, I couldn’t think of any present at all, let alone a favourite one. I couldn’t even think of a plausible lie – ‘I got a lion.’ ‘Yes, a real one.’ Eeek!
What is going on?
We all have irrational thoughts and fears. Even if we know and understand the neuroscience behind them, we’ll still have irrational thoughts. Some seem quite daft, others can be terrifying. Depending on what they are, these cannot only impact on ourselves, but they can have wider implications. For example, because a family member has a fear of flying, holidays for everyone else are limited to the shores of Britain, or involve a long car journey overseas.
Another example would be that of the head teacher, who has irrational thoughts about accidents happening on their watch. This may lead to them running a risk adverse school where conkers are banned, no one is allowed out in the snow and ‘health and safety has gone mad.’
If we slow our brains down, think about the facts, and remove the feelings from the situation, we can often identify that we are being irrational; we know that we have got into a negative mindset; we can even (sometimes) laugh at ourselves. But what happens the next time we are in a similar situation… ‘Yes, I said a lion.’
By habitually thinking the same way each time, we are strengthening the neural pathways. For us to think differently and effect change, new neural pathways have to be created.
This is a great film to demonstrate the point:
How then, do we rewire our brains?
- Be aware that our spoken language, our thoughts and our mind chatter all need to sing from the same rational hymn sheet. While saying positive things out loud is a great start, if we are still allowing our imagination to run irrationally wild, the effect will be minimal.
- Recognise when we are having unhelpful thoughts and strengthening the original neural pathways. Then think differently. Replace ‘I mustn’t worry that I’ll forget my name’ with ‘I know who I am, I know what I do and I know why I’m here.’
- Put things into perspective and be realistic. Just because we told everyone that we got a lion for Christmas last time, does not mean that we’ll do the same again. In fact, it’s 99% certain that we won’t.
- Notice when we are being feelings-led and take ourselves out of the moment by doing something that we enjoy. Watching a funny YouTube clip or singing along to an upbeat song are great distractions, which help us to refocus. Then, we can analyse the situation, looking only at the facts.
- Speak to others – but be careful who we choose. If we’ve had a tricky conversation with someone, it is likely that we will want to discuss this with a mate. Thinking that they are helping, our mate may choose to agree with us and fuel our irrational fire. It is much better to speak to someone who can give an alternative viewpoint and ask questions which make us rethink.
- Preempt situations that, in the past, have caused us to think and behave irrationally. In my case, writing down my name, job and reasons for being at meetings or training events would have helped.
- Address particular irrational thoughts that are limiting our life experiences and/ or causing us to be unhappy. For example, this might mean signing up for a fear of flying course.
- Recognise irrational thinking in others and help them to think more rationally. By working through the process with them, it will also help us.
- Know that it is human nature to think irrationally. We will always have irrational thoughts, but we can do something about them. It just takes time and practice. As Aldous Huxley, the writer and philosopher, once said: ‘We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.’
- And finally, if you feel that irrational thinking is affecting your well-being and mental health, you might choose to seek medical help. If it’s affecting your school, business or organisation, you could always contact me.
Sarah Creegan is a former head teacher who, for the past three years, has worked as an independent consultant.
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