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

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

We’re like, “Don’t worry about it. That’s just Steve.” And we do this with our mental habits too. The number-one reason I didn’t do anything about my anxiety for so long is that I wasn’t aware of all the habits I was doing internally that fed it. They were invisible to me.

And the solution to this was observation, self-observation, getting to know ourselves. Now, this idea annoyed and offended me the first hundred times I heard it “You’ve got to get to know yourself.” It’s so patronizing and irritating, but it’s unfortunately true. Self-knowledge doesn’t just magically appear.

There’s no process that’s monitoring our mental habits and letting us know that, “Maybe you could change those around a little bit and you’d be happier.” We have to do the work ourselves to understand what’s going on inside us. I’m going to give you an example.

Imagine I’m walking away from a group of my friends, and maybe a thought pops into my head, something proportional, rational and reasonable like, “Oh, Neil, you said goodbye a little bit awkwardly there. Maybe all of your friends now hate you.”

If I’m not paying attention and that thought pops up, then I’ll have an emotional reaction. I’m going to feel bad, I’m going to be thinking, “Oh, that was a bit awkward, now I think about it. And all my friends think I’m super cool, of course. But what if this is the moment they realize I’m not? This could be the end, I’m going to die alone!” And I’m on the custard, having a bad time over nothing. If I’m paying attention when that thought pops up, I can choose my reaction to it; I’ll notice it and can choose.

Maybe I’ll choose to have an emotional freak-out, but maybe, instead, I’ll choose to react to it more rationally, recognizing what’s going on inside. This self-observation is crucial to making these custard traps visible, so we can deal with them in the first place.

The second key feature of custard traps is that they’re self-reinforcing. The traps themselves remove our ability to escape the trap. They’re quite devious like that.

Incidentally, “Devious Custard” is the name of my rapper alter ego, but that’s not actually important right now. Yes, they’re self-reinforcing. Anxiety, for example, it protects itself by tiring us out. It is exhausting being anxious. It sucks up all of our energy and leaves very little energy to deal with the root of the problem.

It’s self-reinforcing, and this self-reinforcing aspect of the custard traps often appears in the form of a cycle. Sorry, my apologies. It often appears in the form of a cycle.

So, for example, again, sticking with anxiety is a broad example. Being anxious takes a toll on our bodies, which can make us feel ill, and then we can be anxious about being ill, which feeds itself, and the cycle gets stronger. Or perfectionism. I have perfectionist tendencies, so I beat myself up for every mistake. Then, I beat myself up for beating myself up because a perfect person wouldn’t do that either.

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And again, the cycle continues. It’s so easy to get stuck in these loops, and the solution is to do something different oh, hello… to do something different. Lots of previews are coming up here. This is based on the very simple idea that clearly whatever I’m doing isn’t working.

My natural impulse is to do the next step in this cycle. I’m stuck in. That’s what makes it a cycle. So, if my instinct is to sit and dwell on some mental movie of something terrible I’m convinced is about to happen, instead, maybe I should stand up and sing the Danish national anthem. I mean, it won’t help, not least because I don’t know the Danish national anthem, but it’ll break me out of the loop. I’m in, it’s something different, it’s not me resisting the urge to continue this unpleasant cycle. And if whatever I choose to do isn’t helpful, that’s fine.

Next time I’ll choose something different, and over time, I’ll learn some things I can do. There are useful ways of getting out of these loops, these traps.

The third key feature of custard traps, you may have guessed, is that they’re habitual. So, they’re difficult to escape in the moment, but we keep falling into them in the first place because they’re habits. Now, I’m no brain scientist, but I do know that our brains are constantly forming physical pathways, they are essentially rewiring themselves all the time, and this makes us prone to habits.

So, it becomes instinct for me to go from, “Oh, there’s a slight pain on my left leg,” to, “That’s definitely a blood clot! I’m on the verge of death!” This link between these two concepts has been strengthened in my brain through habitual repetition. And, therefore, what we need to do is to have a really long-term outlook.

Oh, my goodness! We need to learn to replace these habits in the long term, and this is about learning what it feels like to dip our toes in the custard, what it feels like just as we’re entering a custard trap. For me, there are physical sensations. I get a stab in the chest, a fizz in the brain. There are also situational triggers. I know everything involving my health is likely to send me into one of these anxious traps.

For other people, maybe it’s social situations, fear of contamination, any of a million different things. But once we’ve learned what these triggers are for us and what it feels like to be getting stuck into one of these loops, we can use that itself as a trigger to do something positive.

So, as I feel myself falling into a trap, that reminds me to take some positive action, something really quick and easy. Maybe I’ll drink a glass of water or phone a friend, meditate for ten seconds or relive a sporting triumph. I mean, not one of mine, obviously; just one I’ve seen.

But the point is to associate something positive with what was formerly negative, and, over time, this can replace the habit. It’s like laying a foundation over the custard and transforming it into solid ground. Did this sound a bit too easy? It probably should. It’s good to be suspicious of easy answers to tough problems, and anxiety is a really tough problem. I’ve only touched the surface of the mind management aspects of it today, but there are also chemical aspects, social aspects, situational aspects.

Mind management is a really good one to focus on because we can always take more control over what’s happening in our minds. But it is difficult, and I’ve actually got a highly scientific graph here of exactly how difficult it is. In the beginning, things might be quite tough. And then we make a decision to stop doing something about it, to make it to solid ground, and for a while, things actually get worse. It’s because previously we were using all of our energy just staying afloat; now we’re putting extra energy seeking out solid ground and making our way towards it.

It’s harder for a bit, but there’s a payoff as we learn to start getting better at understanding ourselves, at replacing our habits, at breaking all of these unpleasant cycles. Eventually we start to spend a little more time on solid ground and a bit less time anxiously struggling on the custard. I don’t know if we can ever make it to the bottom of the graph where all is wonderful all the time; I doubt it, but it’d be nice.

But I do believe we can learn to spend more time at peace. I’d love to be able to give you personally the actions that you need to individually take to be less anxious, but these things are so unique to us.

We’ve spent years developing our own individual mental habits, our own personal custard traps, and only we can put in the effort required to escape them. But it’s my hope that, if we’re all a little bit more open and honest about these difficult personal experiences, these tough solo journeys across the custard to solid ground are journeys that we can all make together.

Thank you very much.

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