Neil Hughes: A New Plan for Anxious Feelings – Escape the Custard! (Transcript)


Neil Hughes

Here is the full transcript of Neil Hughes’ TEDx Talk: A new plan for anxious feelings: escape the custard! at TEDxLeamingtonSpa conference. 

Neil Hughes: Fear. It’s not very nice, really But, apparently, that’s not enough for a TEDx talk, and I’m supposed to say some more things.

So fear normally pops up when we’re doing something scary: jumping from planes, running from bulls, going clothes shopping. But, sometimes, our fear response gets out of control and we end up spending a disproportionate amount of time feeling afraid, and we call this “anxiety”. Language is limiting, and it’s sort of frustrating that we use the same word, “anxiety,” for both reasonably worrying about a job interview and also a crippling terror that prevents me from leaving the house. It’s like having the same word for all-out nuclear war and also playful tickle fight.

Like, it’s a spectrum, and the associations each of us has with the word might not be shared with anyone else who’s using it. For me, I’ve always been more at the unpleasant end of the spectrum. As a child, I was deeply worried about mortgages, for some reason. And then, as I grew up, it became obvious that worrying was my main way of relating to the world. Whatever I had to do I’d worry about.

Then I’d worry about the next thing and the next thing, until eventually this endless conveyor belt of worry got out of control, and I ended up living with quite horrible anxiety. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t enjoy life at all. And unfortunately my reaction was to worry about it, which just made it worse. At points, I felt so trapped I even wondered if suicide was the only way out.

Now, as you can tell from this high-definition photo that I drew, I wasn’t very open about this. If you’d have met at the time, I’d have given a fairly convincing impression of having things mostly together. I was putting up an image, and that was bad. It was bad for me because I didn’t get to share my problems with anybody else, but it was bad for others too because they didn’t get to see the truth. If we all put up an image, then everyone struggles alone. So, I’m trying to be more open about these things.

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Hence, I’m giving this talk, although quite a lot of people would say this is probably taking it too far. I want to ask the question: how do we live less anxiously? And I’m sure it won’t surprise you in the slightest to learn that the answer lies in advanced fluid dynamics. Now, I know you’re all probably extremely familiar with these equations. So, we’re just just going to brush over them. As you know, this describes the motion of liquids.

And, like I said, we’re not going to worry about the maths. Instead, we’ll just divide all the liquids in the world into two groups. It’s quite a fun game to play if you’ve got a lot of liquid and nothing better to do with your time. The two groups we’re interested in are Newtonian fluids and non-Newtonian fluids. This distinction describes how liquids behave when they’re subjected to an outside force.

In other words, we’re answering the classic scientific question: “What happens if I hit it?” If we hit a Newtonian fluid, like for example, water, we know what happens: it splashes, going all over the place and soaking everything in sight. In Germany, I got politely asked to leave for causing an unnecessary disturbance.

But a non-Newtonian fluid like for example popular pudding sauce, custard, behaves differently. Instead of splashing apart, it clumps up together when you hit it, hardening temporarily hello. Well, that’s carnage, isn’t it? Basically, you get to the point where it hardens temporarily, before relaxing back to a previous state.

In other words, if I punch custard for my own personal reasons, then it hardens. Now, as you might have guessed, there is a pedantic disclaimer alert: this does depend on the exact nature of the custard. But really, who cares? This means we can do really awesome things like fill a swimming pool with custard and walk on it. Look, I’m walking on custard. I mean, go with me here, it’s obviously not real custard.

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It’s like a biblical miracle, except even more sugary. Like, how fun is this! But the problem is the more we thought about the walking on custard – and I thought about it way more than anyone probably should – the more I realized how exhausting it would be. Like, once I start, I can’t stop. Every time my foot hits the surface, it hardens underneath me, but I can’t pause to enjoy it, I have to keep going. If I stop, then I’m going to sink and drown in custard, which is definitely in the top three most embarrassing ways to die that there is.

Years after I first learned about this, I was in the middle of a terribly anxious period, and this image of walking on custard came to my mind, and I realized it described my anxiety perfectly. I was running, and running, and running on the spot, exhausted, unable to stop, and with this constant fear of drowning in my own life. And the more I spoke to people, the more I realized how common this is, this feeling of exhaustion, of not being able to rest, of not getting anywhere.

It’s like we’re all mentally walking on custard in some way, and I wondered what it would mean to stop, not stop on the custard where we’d drown. What would it mean to make it to solid ground, somewhere where we can rest, somewhere where we can be at peace, without anxiously struggling, somewhere where we can live? So, I made it my number-one priority to figure out what this custard was for me, what is this anxiety, and to figure out how to get to solid ground.

And I learned a whole load of things, but the idea that I want to share with you today is what I came to think of as custard traps, unhelpful mental habits which were causing my anxiety or making it worse. And I think of them as traps because, at times, I’d be going along quite happily and then, suddenly, I’m having a panic attack, I’ve fallen into a custard trap.

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At other points, it was more like a vast sea of custard, and I was trudging exhausted for months, before finally getting to somewhere. I could rest. Some people have told me that this image resonates with them, but for them, the custard doesn’t fell like anxiety; it feels like shame, or depression, or some other emotion. But whatever it feels like, and whether it’s a temporary custard trap or a vast sea of custard, these custard traps, these mental habits, share a number of features.

Firstly, they appear invisible. Everything we do becomes normal. Our brains are amazing at normalizing things. There’s this guy, George Stratton – that’s not a real photo, by the way. He wore glasses that flipped his vision upside down, and after a few days, it made everything start to look the right way up again.

Then, a few days later, when he took the glasses off, things appeared upside down when he wasn’t wearing them. His brain had adapted to the new information. And we do this all the time. If we change something in our homes, paint it, move it around, adopt a vicious angry bear to come live in the hall, then, after a few days, we don’t even notice anymore. It just fades into the background and becomes normal.

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