When Was the Last Time You Read a Book for an Hour?

An audio version of this article is available HERE

Have you noticed how fragmented your attention has become? Are you aware of how difficult it is to sit down and read a book for an hour? When was the last time you focused on anything for an hour without checking the news, your email or social media? Be honest with yourself. There is a war being fought for our attention and most of us are losing it. We have become attention lapdogs to the Silicon Valley tech gurus.

Have you seen people staggering around with their smartphones? Look up once in a while in any public space and pay attention to what most people are doing. I walk my dog for two hours every day through fields in the middle of nowhere and occasionally I come across another dog walker or rambler. Even in this environment many of the people I see have their heads down looking at a screen.

Endless access to new information pushes us to cognitive overload, raises our stress levels, and reduces our ability to learn and be creative. Do you find that your mind is full of the voices of those you follow on social media, constantly swirling around your head? Are you party to arguments between others that don’t concern you and engrossed in problems you can do nothing about? Are you overloaded with so much information that you can’t process it all?

If you have lost your ability to focus on anything for a length of time, you won’t learn to gain your attention back by accident. In the past we thought that people who engaged in physical training in order to improve their physical health were a little strange. Now we know it works and we are at least aware of how we can better look after our bodies. Mental training is just as beneficial for the mind. We can learn to be aware of our thoughts and more in control of our attention.

Start by planning how you want to spend your time and where you want to direct your attention. Consider practising mindfulness to help you become aware of your thought patterns and where your attention is being directed. Begin to practise slowly building your ability to focus your attention on activities for increasing lengths of time - ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, forty minutes, 50 minutes, one hour.

Read more:

Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier

Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology by Cal Newport

My books: Overcome Anxiety and Overcome Social Anxiety and Shyness are available on Amazon in the U.K. and the U.S.A.

Overcome Anxiety - YOU CAN GET THE AUDIO BOOK FOR FREE with an Audible UK 30 day free trial by clicking here (UK). You can keep the audio book for free even if you cancel after the free trial. This is the link if you live USA: click here

Overcome Social Anxiety - YOU CAN GET THE AUDIO BOOK FOR FREE with an Audible 30 day free trial by clicking here (UK). You can keep the audio book for free even if you cancel after the free trial. This is the link if you live USA: click here

My Online Course: Overcome Anxiety and Panic Attacks — A Self Help Workbook Course for Anxiety Relief and Panic Attacks is available at a discounted price on Udemy by using this link

How to Build Genuine Confidence That Lasts (Part Two - Visualisation)

Before introducing visualisation, I want to make it clear that when attempting to overcome anxiety and build confidence in specific activities, tasks, or areas of life, there is no substitute for real life practice, as outlined in the confidence cycle in part one of this series on confidence. However, visualisation can be a very powerful additional tool when used correctly.

Visualisation is sometimes called imagery, mental rehearsal, or mental practice, and it refers to the creating or recreating of an experience in the mind. The process involves constructing or recalling from memory, pieces of information stored from experience, and shaping these pieces into meaningful images.

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How to Develop Genuine Confidence That Lasts (Part One - The Confidence Cycle)

As a university lecturer I was responsible for the personal guidance of a large number of students. Many of them would come to talk to me about their hopes and fears, and as I mentioned at the beginning of the book, quite a few of them shared their personal struggles with anxiety with me. However, there was always one type of task that seemed to strike fear into nearly all students, even the most capable and seemingly confident ones – the dreaded class presentation. Any task or assessment that involved standing up in front of the class and presenting, be it as individual, or part of a group, caused high levels of panic amongst many in the class.

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Seven Ways to Look After Your Mental Health at University: A Guide for Students and Parents

Six weeks into the beginning of his first year at university, Christopher* started struggling. His mood was plummeting, his motivation disappeared, his feeling of isolation grew, and he started missing lectures. He approached me - his Guidance Tutor -  and I referred him to both his GP and the university counselling service. His pattern of behaviour– low mood, crushing anxiety, lack of concentration and difficulty sleeping–led to a diagnosis of General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Depression.

Although a little anxious before arriving at university, he didn’t have any previous serious mental health symptoms. However, in the changing circumstances he found himself struggling as his anxiety spiralled out of control. I couldn’t help thinking if he had come to see me sooner, we may have avoided his later severe symptoms.

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4 Practical Exercises to Help Manage Uncomfortable Thoughts and Anxious Thinking

One of the most effective ways we can manage unhelpful thoughts and feelings is by using a psychological tool called ‘defusion’, a technique from a mindfulness based approach to helping anxiety called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  In this article I will describe what defusion is and then outline four practical defusion exercises that can help you to manage anxiety, and more specifically anxious thoughts.

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How to Use Intentions to Change Your Life

When working with individuals who want to improve their confidence or stop anxiety from holding them back, I often talk about the power of intentions. Although often overlooked, the intentions we choose at the start of the day can lead to major changes, forming or reinforcing mental habits that impact on our lives. We can use intentions to change the way others perceive us, decide how we will treat others, and shape our actions in specific situations.

In this post I will explain two different types of intentions and take you through an exercise that can dramatically change the way others see you. This exercise can bring positive results for everyone, but will be particularly helpful for those who struggle with social anxiety.

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Lessons in Kindness and Humanity from a Legal Sex Worker

I often talk about the power of setting daily intentions to help shape our attitudes and behaviour for the day ahead. Although often overlooked, the intentions we choose at the start of the day can lead to major changes, forming or reinforcing mental habits that positively impact on our lives over time. We can use intentions to change the way others perceive us, decide how we are going to treat others, and shape our actions in specific situations. 

One of the daily intentions that I set is to be present and kind with the people I meet. I don’t always succeed with everyone everyday, but I have found that it’s opened up life in ways that I never expected and also helps to reduce my stress and anxiety. I also keep in mind that not everyone I meet will be kind towards me. I’m not living in cloud-cuckoo-land. When people are rude, angry, or selfish, I remind myself that I have no idea what is happening in their world, let it go, and silently wish them well anyway. When this happens I’ve taught myself to pause and ask myself, “What happened to this person?" We are all a sum of our genetics and experiences. The small gap of awareness this gives you is enough to appreciate that we can’t control how other people react to us and makes it easier to let it go. 

So what has this got to do with a legal sex worker?

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Trying to 'Fix' Your Social Anxiety? You Could Be Making It Worse

When we’re looking to overcome our social anxiety, we often focus intensely on ourselves as we try to find a solution. This is understandable as anxiety is an individual state. When feeling anxious it seems reasonable to think we should focus our attention inwards in order to ‘work’ on ourselves and assess how effective the strategies and exercises are in helping us. However, while some self-evaluation is necessary — we do need to know what’s working after all — intense self-focus has also been shown to be harmful to wellbeing.

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How to Influence the Way Other People See You

This is an exercise that I used to regularly do with students entering their first year of university, but it can work for people of all ages.

Students often worry about how they are perceived by the large numbers of new people they meet when they first arrive. Indeed, a large part of their self-identity is wrapped up in the the way they think others view them and this can cause considerable social anxiety.

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Coping with Anxiety Caused by a Terror Attack

Western Europe has again been hit by a major terror attack, and in the ever shrinking global village that we live in, the ripples of fear spread far and wide. Even when the attack does not happen in their local area or country, many people still find that the events leave them feeling anxious. So, how should we cope with our feelings in the days and weeks following a terror attack that we didn’t personally experience?

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How to Stop the News Making You Anxious While Staying Informed

Our human negativity bias, a survival strategy inherited from our early ancestors, who lived in very dangerous environments, naturally draws our attention to negative news stories. This is why negative stories dominate the media and why we feel compelled to watch, listen and read. So it’s natural to want to follow updates of political turmoil, terrorist events, violence, shootings, and war, both on television and social media. However, repeated exposure to trauma by the media can have as similar an impact as experiencing the event first-hand. So what do we need to be aware about when assessing our media diet?

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Panicking About Panic: How to reduce the power of panic attacks and eliminate future episodes

Panic attacks can last from anywhere between thirty seconds to thirty minutes and can be so distressing sufferers sometimes have the feeling they are losing control or about to die. The experience can be one of extreme agitation, terror, fury, or immobilisation, accompanied by extreme symptoms of the fight, flight, or freeze response; racing heart, rapid breathing, trembling, shaking, nausea, numbness, tight chest, difficulty swallowing, and hot flushes or chills. Episodes can return in waves, are frightening and often exhausting.

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Feeling Anxious? Don’t Calm Down, Get Excited

The student sitting outside my office was shaking like a leaf, breathing quickly, and stuttering over her words. She was due to make a presentation in 15 minutes to lecture theatre packed with students. To add to the pressure, the presentation was being assessed and marked by her tutor, and would contribute to her final degree grade.

She was surrounded by a number of well meaning friends who were telling her to ‘calm down.’ Unfortunately, telling someone to ‘calm down’ when they are feeling anxious is about the worst thing you can say to them. It just reminds them of how calm they are not, which can escalate their anxiety even further.

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How To Make Meditation a Daily Habit When You’ve Failed Before

There are very few people I know of who manage to meditate on a regular basis. This even includes people who teach and write about meditation. I had the same problem, I’d have days, and sometimes weeks, when I didn’t meditate, despite wanting to and being all too aware of the benefits.

So how do you make the practice of meditation so compelling that it is self-sustaining? I’d suggest that every day you plan to do less than you can. So do less formal practice than you are capable of.

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The Most Popular Exercise I Taught at University

As part of a health psychology module in the undergraduate degree at the university where I taught, we covered positive psychology, mindfulness and acceptance. One of the most powerful workshops we used to do with the students was the experiential practice of meditating on others.

I‘m routinely met with cynicism from students about meditation and in particular this type of loving kindness meditation. They were mainly sports students, predominantly interested in what they could gain for their own performances from the more traditional types of sport psychology like mental toughness, confidence and a cultivating a winning mindset (don’t worry we taught them about that too!). However, I used to get more response from students about the following practice than I did from any other exercise that we taught, many of them surprised by the difference it has made to their lives.

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Don't Let Anxiety Stop You Doing The Things You Value

A lecture theatre of around 200 students were staring at me in awkward silence. They’d stopped mumbling to each other and were no longer taking sneaky glances at their phones hidden away from view. I was standing before them in the middle of a panic attack.

It had been a busy day and I’d taken a glance at my lecture notes earlier, feeling reasonably confident about the lecture I was going to deliver. I’d done it a few times before, and I thought I had a good handle on the new research that I’d added to this semester’s session.

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Why Well-Being Programmes Often Don’t Work in Big Business

I walked on the ground floor of the eight story building and watched banks of human beings wearing headsets, glued to their chairs, staring at computer screens, answering call after call.

“Good morning, you’re speaking to Adam. How can I help you?”

“Good morning, you’re speaking to Sarah. How can I help you?”

“Good morning, you’re speaking to Melissa. How can I help you?”

“Good morning, you’re speaking to Mark. How can I help you?”

“Good morning, you’re speaking to Amy. How can I help you?”

The room was well lit but almost completely devoid of natural light. “The problem”, one of the managers told me, “is that they are taking calls from stressed, angry, upset, and often aggressive people all day long. We’re finding that after a while they become anxious, stressed, unhappy and then leave. Our turnover rate is just too high. We have good facilities, drinks and snack machines, kitchens on each floor, and a staff canteen, but it doesn’t make any difference. We need to increase their resilience, help them to become mentally stronger, and stop them from leaving. That’s where you come in.”

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Medicating Anxiety: Should I take Anxiety Pills? Pros, Cons, Side Effects, and Consequences

Medication can play an important role in overcoming anxiety, particularly in helping to cope with the symptoms of anxiety. The approach this book has suggested is that we should face our anxiety and fears in order to change the structure and function of the brain, along with our thinking and behaviour. Build a solid foundation, calm the mind, deal with action thoughts and feelings, and take action.  Avoiding situations or tasks that make us anxious keeps us stuck in old patterns. When we do this life can become a vicious circle of anxiety-based thinking behaviour.  Medication can help us to cope at times, but it isn’t designed to change our brain, the way we think, or what actions we take. It is normally used to remove or reduce severe suffering in the short-term.  

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