HELP! I need a flash course in OP­TI­MISM

After a life­time of calamity and chronic anx­i­ety, Liz Jones en­rolled on a course that claims to use neu­ro­science to re­pro­gramme the brain and heal the body

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - FIRST PERSON - IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS JA­SON FORD

“‘IT’S NOT MY FAULT,’ I SAY. ‘AW­FUL THINGS HAP­PEN TO ME’”

It’s Wed­nes­day morn­ing and I’m in an of­fice in Lon­don with six other women and our teacher, He­len Hard­ing. I’m here on a three­day Light­ning Process (LP) course, a pro­gramme de­vised 18 years ago by os­teopath Phil Parker and named for the speed at which it is said to work. The train­ing, a se­ries of move­ments, med­i­ta­tion-like tech­niques and men­tal ex­er­cises, has been suc­cess­fully used by suf­fer­ers of stress, de­pres­sion and auto-im­mune con­di­tions such as myal­gic en­cephalomyeli­tis (ME, or chronic fa­tigue syn­drome). Es­ther Rantzen, whose daugh­ter suf­fered with chronic fa­tigue, has pub­licly praised it, as have sev­eral ath­letes – though, like any al­ter­na­tive ther­apy, it has its crit­ics.

I’m here to tackle my al­most life­long crip­pling anx­i­ety, which is ap­pro­pri­ate, given that I am the most stressed I’ve been for months. He­len is ask­ing what pos­i­tive changes we’ve no­ticed so far (this is our third day). The other women – who var­i­ously suf­fer from ME, pain and low self-es­teem – say they had a good night: they ate din­ner and put away their phone, so were ‘in the mo­ment’. They vis­ited a friend or their mother; they slept well. He­len leaves me till last. ‘Liz, what hap­pened? We can feel the stress ra­di­at­ing out of you.’

So I tell them. That in the car on the way to din­ner last night I got an email from my boss, for­ward­ing a mes­sage from a hot­shot le­gal firm, which sent me into a spi­ral of stress. (It turned out some­one had been us­ing my name and old email ad­dress to get the dirt for a story.) Next, I got a text from a neigh­bour say­ing a pipe had burst at my home and the cel­lar was flood­ing. I tried to en­joy my meal, be present for it, no­tice tastes as I’d been taught, but was wor­ried I wouldn’t be able to pay the bill.

And then this morn­ing, to top it all, I was get­ting dressed in my ho­tel room when my worst night­mare hap­pened. I had let my two dogs out on the lawn out­side. They had be­haved per­fectly all week, but I heard barking and saw Gra­cie run­ning at a smart man who was wav­ing his bag at her. He was an­gry, point­ing at his leg, so I called her in, shout­ing, ‘I’m sorry!’ I then got a phone call. ‘Please come to re­cep­tion. A guest is say­ing your dog bit him.’ He had taken a photo of his Ver­sace trousers, show­ing a big hole in the leg. I had to leave my name and ad­dress, hav­ing of­fered to buy him a new suit, which I can ill af­ford.

And so here I am. I tell the class I couldn’t think about the tech­niques I’d been taught over the past cou­ple of days be­cause of the stress. I tell them the world is a hor­ren­dous place. That ev­ery­thing is dif­fi­cult. That I’m right to be scared: I’ve been made bank­rupt; I’ve lost my home; my mum died; my hus­band cheated on me; I’ve been sacked, twice. I know I’m suf­fer­ing from ‘stuck­ness’ (a word Parker uses to de­scribe be­ing fixed in a pat­tern of be­hav­iour), but I have no idea how to break free. I wake ev­ery day and my brain scrab­bles to find things to worry about. It’s my nat­u­ral state. ‘It’s not my fault,’ I tell He­len and the class. ‘Aw­ful things hap­pen to me, all the time. I’m a vic­tim!’

He­len tells me I’m a ge­nius – at be­ing anx­ious. I am gold-medal-win­ning at be­ing fear­ful be­cause, like an ath­lete, I have prac­tised and prac­tised. She tells me it’s not my fault I’m anx­ious, but that I am ‘dû-ing’ anx­i­ety. This is an­other Parker word, a variation of ‘do­ing’: recog­nis­ing that I have a sub­con­scious in­volve­ment in what I ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s not our fault that we are ex­hausted, in pain or fear­ful, but we need to take some re­spon­si­bil­ity for what­ever ails us in or­der to fix it. ‘You need to change how you re­act to the world. Bad things hap­pen, we can’t change that. But if you re­main calm, you will be able to deal with them bet­ter.’

I tell the group I hate calm peo­ple. They are au­toma­tons. A boyfriend who never gets up­set about any­thing drives me nuts. Calm peo­ple in a serene bub­ble never get any­thing done. I do an im­pres­sion of my now ex-hus­band, whom I had forced to phone Bri­tish Gas and com­plain: he’d said in a tiny voice, ‘That’s OK, don’t worry, ➤

thanks very much. Bye, bye.’ Every­one laughs. I’d read a study just days be­fore sug­gest­ing that each trau­matic event, such as be­ing fired or get­ting di­vorced, ages the brain by four years and leaves us more likely to suf­fer from Alzheimer’s in later life. I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced a stag­ger­ing 11 of the 27 trau­mas listed, mean­ing my brain is now 100 years old, so it’s a sur­prise I’m even func­tion­ing. (I am du­bi­ous about all these warn­ings, though. My mum was the calmest, sweet­est per­son, al­ways ac­tive, never up­set or stressed, and she had de­men­tia for the last decade of her life.)

I learn that my work ethic has been af­fected by my anx­i­ety. I feel noth­ing is ever good enough. I never switch off my phone, I reread what I write a mil­lion times and when I fi­nally file my copy, I’m ter­ri­fied it’s not good enough, even after 30 years of do­ing this job. ‘You have to learn that per­fec­tion doesn’t ex­ist,’ says He­len. She ex­plains the 80/20 Pareto prin­ci­ple, that ‘80 per cent of the re­sults come from 20 per cent of the ef­fort’. The rule is based on the idea of di­min­ish­ing re­turns: the more you keep work­ing on some­thing, the fewer re­sults you get. ‘And if you give off anger,’ one of my class­mates tells me, ‘that is what you get back.’ I ask what she would like to be able to do after the course. ‘Have a so­cial life, climb stairs, get a job.’

It’s com­fort­ing to be in a room with women of all ages (65 per cent of LP grad­u­ates are fe­male) who, like me, get home and worry they will fail, won­der if hav­ing a bath and do­ing the wash­ing-up is re­ally worth the bother, and stare at their phone while watch­ing TV or eat­ing. Even He­len has her is­sues: now 49, she has been made re­dun­dant from jobs in the past and suf­fered low self-es­teem, which is why she be­came in­ter­ested in LP in the first place. She also uses the Process to ease her osteoarthritis.

I dis­cover I like group train­ing more than the nu­mer­ous one-to-one ses­sions I’ve tried in the past, from hyp­nother­apy to neu­ro­feed­back. It’s not all about me: I’m so bored of me. We each tell our sto­ries and are given ex­er­cises. We are asked to look for red ob­jects in the room, close our eyes and say how many we can re­mem­ber. Then we are asked, with­out open­ing our eyes again, to list any­thing green. We can re­mem­ber red ob­jects, but noth­ing green, which il­lus­trates how if we look for bad things in life we will find them, blot­ting out ev­ery­thing else.

He­len then un­furls a mat with the words ‘present’, ‘stop’, ‘choice’ and ‘coach’ printed on it. Ta-da! This is the start of putting LP into prac­tice. He­len stands on the ‘present’ and feels, per­haps, pain, or fa­tigue. She steps on to ‘stop’, mak­ing a hand ges­ture and say­ing the word out loud: this ar­rests the adrenalin loop that floods our bod­ies with stress hor­mones. She steps on to ‘choice’. ‘Now,’ she says, ‘do I want to stay in the pit or do I want the life I love? I choose life!’ She steps on to the ‘coach’ square and asks her­self, ‘How will I do that?’ She steps back on to ‘present’: ‘By clos­ing my eyes and vi­su­al­is­ing the life I want.’

There. It’s that sim­ple. She then asks each of us to take our turn. Of course, me be­ing me, I be­come ner­vous about stand­ing up in front of every­one. I am last to go. I stand on ‘present’ and ask my­self out loud, ‘Do I want to live the rest of my life fear­ing ev­ery­thing from the post­man to my in­box?’ No. So I say, ‘Stop’. I then be­come my own life coach. ‘I don’t like the words on the Pow­erpoint screen,’ I tell He­len. ‘I don’t want to say, “Well done, you are on track.”’ ‘OK, just say what you want.’ So I do. ‘You don’t de­serve this, to feel this way. Don’t waste your life.’

He­len ex­plains, too, how say­ing neg­a­tive words out loud (‘I’m fat’ or ‘I’m tired’) af­fects our bod­ies at a cel­lu­lar level – the prin­ci­ple is sim­i­lar to neuro-lin­guis­tic pro­gram­ming. She says we have pro­grammed our brains to think in a cer­tain way and ex­plains the the­ory be­hind neu­ro­plas­tic­ity, the abil­ity of the brain to form new path­ways, even­tu­ally mak­ing a more pos­i­tive way of think­ing au­to­matic to us. It takes prac­tice, which means we might be do­ing the Process 50 times a day, but ‘that will get less over time’, says He­len.

I leave my new friends that evening and my boyfriend picks me up. We set off for Devon for a short break. The next day, I don’t look at my phone and I try to en­joy lunch, then a walk on the beach. The old me would never have wanted to leave the ho­tel room. I find my­self say­ing things like, ‘I’m sure it will stop rain­ing!’ and use the elas­tic band He­len gave me to snap my­self on the wrist if ever I find my­self in a thought bog. On our last night, my boyfriend wakes me up swear­ing when he comes to bed be­cause my dogs are on his pil­low and he can’t get in. He throws him­self on to the sofa, huff­ing and puff­ing. ‘I’m sup­posed to be the up­tight, volatile half of this re­la­tion­ship,’ I say, turn­ing over and go­ing straight to sleep. His tem­per flies over my head; the old me would have thrown him out.

A week later, He­len calls to fol­low up. ‘What changes have you no­ticed?’ And I tell her. I have lis­tened to my voice­mail for the first time in years. I have been mak­ing plans. Check­ing out of the ho­tel in Devon, handed a bill twice what I was ex­pect­ing due to my boyfriend shar­ing the room, I didn’t fly into a rage or panic. I sim­ply told them that he could set­tle the dif­fer­ence. I no longer rush, afraid I will be late. My state of panic stems from work­ing to daily dead­lines for 30 years, and I re­alise this has made my life un­ten­able. I have cre­ated a morn­ing rou­tine – cof­fee, break­fast, dog walk, shower, a read of all the pa­pers – that no one is al­lowed to dis­turb. I have told every­one close to me that I can­not have neg­a­tiv­ity around me; if they can’t hack it, they can b ***** off. I re­alise my fear en­gen­dered a need to shower peo­ple in gifts as I felt unlov­able, and also meant I never con­fronted things, so I al­lowed my down­fall to hap­pen; it wasn’t en­tirely done to me.

I hadn’t ex­pected LP to help, but for me it was al­most in­stan­ta­neous; oth­ers will find it takes hard work and time. I might fall off the wagon, but I’ve laughed twice in the past week: a record. I’ve opened en­velopes, vir­tual and real. I have be­come my own life coach, be­cause I’m the only per­son who can change me. I’ve been in the pit for al­most 55 years, since my first day at school, when I was too ter­ri­fied to cross the play­ground, so Mum took me home again. And if Ver­sace man gets in touch, I will deal with him. I’m not go­ing into a down­ward spi­ral again. I will say, ‘stop’, do my LP dance, buy him a new pair of trousers and move on. n light­ning­pro­cess.com

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