Like many of us during these strange locked down months I have had trouble sleeping; some nights my brain seems to light up like a pinball machine as soon as my head hits the pillow, fears, worries, plans and regrets competing for my bleary-eyed attention. I’ve suffered insomnia on and off for most of my adult life, mostly fuelled by anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
In the years BO (Before Ollie) I’d try every trick in the book, from hot milk before bed, to doomed attempts at meditating, to counting sheep (has this really ever worked for anyone?!) to ordering myself to "just sleep, for goodness sake". But all too often I’d still be wide awake as the alarm went off, and then spend the day feeling tired and battling brain fog.
Nowadays, however, I find a good chat helps me nod off - not with a bedmate, or online (although plenty of my equally sleep-deprived friends roam the corridors of Facebook in the small hours) but with whichever of my inner chorus of emotions happens to be shouting loudest. Last night Mr Ruminator - or Naggy Nigel as I like to call him - was especially vocal,
so we had a good heart to heart, side by side on my pillow, and came to a respectful agreement that life is much nicer when he pipes down and I get a good six hours shut-eye.
You may, after that last paragraph, have decided I’m completely round the twist, but bear with me because there is a solid and well supported basis for this approach.
A key tenet of the Ollie approach - and one of the most powerful and liberating - is that we are made up of lots of parts that work together as a team but every so often one or two get carried away and try to take control. These parts are emotions, or superpowers as we call them when we work with children (or indeed adults - who doesn’t like the thought of having our own team of superpowers to help us through the day?). Our emotions can include sadness, fear, excitement, disgust, joy, awe, calmness, and many others. None of our emotions are ‘bad’, even the ones that often make us feel awful, such as anxiety. They all have their part to play - usually trying to keep us safe and protect us. But when they get out of kilter and one, such as fear or anger (usually a by-product of another basic emotion, such as fear) becomes the dominant emotion, we can end up feeling anxious, depressed, struggling to sleep, and sometimes adopting unhelpful coping behaviours.
For me, and many others, such behaviours can become compulsive, as we try to control and quieten the recurring unpleasant thoughts (or ruminating) that clog our minds. I recently chatted with a fellow sufferer about our tendency to be hyper vigilant and on high alert for potential dangers, often so focused on staying safe and in control that we miss out on living life to the full. When insomnia is thrown into the mix - as it often is - it is unsurprising that those of us struggling with anxiety can feel constantly exhausted.
My own form of OCD doesn’t involve repetitive hand-washing or rearranging the tins in my cupboard in size order, but centres around a fear of buildings collapsing. As with many phobias, this was triggered by a traumatic childhood event, which led to a fear of loss and death that I was unable to talk about openly at the time, and so developed certain thoughts and controlling behaviours to try to protect myself and my loved ones. At home I became obsessed with the fear that the contents of the loft would be too heavy and the ceiling would collapse, that the joists and walls could not hold the weight of the roof, that wall-mounted cupboards were too heavy to stay aloft, that electrical sockets would burst into flames or the gas boiler would blow up or poison us with carbon monoxide. Any form of transport seemed a source of danger, and even a short cruise was marred by my constant fears that the vessel was simply too heavy to stay afloat. My mind was occupied with scanning buildings for weak spots - even the creak of floor boards would set off a flood of anxiety, and anything but the lightest and flimsiest furniture could cause a panic attack. I developed a habit of internally reciting mantras or prayers to ward off danger - but if I forgot to do so that in turn would add to the anxiety that I’d jinxed myself and calamity would follow. I therefore avoided buildings and transport as much as possible - pretty difficult! My anxiety was my mind’s way of keeping me safe, by spotting danger everywhere and warning me to stay clear - but in reality it was simply depriving me of rich life experiences. The severity of my condition has waxed and waned over the years, but these days, while I never take it for granted that it’s gone for good, I am able to control it, thanks in great part to the Ollie technique I’ll share with you now.
When one emotion - such as anxiety - gets too big it can feel overwhelming and all-consuming. Clients will often say "I am anxious" but in reality only a part of them is. And if we can isolate this part, find out what problem it is trying to help us with, and explore which of our other emotions might be more helpful, we can get back into a state of equilibrium. In other words, control our own emotions, rather than have them control us.
And so, as daft as you may at first feel, next time you are unable to sleep because anxiety, fear or restlessness is gnawing at your mind, you can follow these simple steps to stop it overwhelming you and dictating the way you feel and act.
- Make your emotion real - where can you feel it in your body: head, chest, big toe? Can you picture it? What colour/shape/size is it? Be as specific as possible - really see it in your mind’s eye. Maybe you can’t see it, but perhaps it has a specific sound (a screech? A whisper?), a smell or a feeling. In your imagination you are making it a real entity, not just a vague feeling.
- Pull it out. You can imagine doing this, or better still physically mime taking the part/emotion out of your body and holding this tiny little thing in your hand. Really see/imagine it cupped there, small and separate to you. Give it a name, if you like - the dafter the better! My anxious superpower, Naggy Nigel, feels pretty big when he’s shouting negative commentary in my head, but in my hand he’s a tiny pink marshmallow with a silly moustache!
- Talk kindly to the little friend in your hand (for they really don’t mean you any harm). Ask it what it is frightened of? What is it trying to protect you from? Naggy Nigel thinks that if he visualises all of the dangers and things that could go wrong I’ll be alert and on the lookout for them, so I can avoid disaster.
- Thank your emotion for trying to help you, but remind it that its team mates can do a better job. For instance, my Logic superpower, known as Scientist Steve, is far better at quelling my fears than Naggy Nigel by pointing out sensible facts and evidence. My Calm superpower (Chilled Out Clive) is the man for the job when I need to relax into a good sleep. Which of your emotions will be more helpful to you feeling better or being more effective?
- Pop your emotion back inside (by imagination or physically miming the action) to join its team-mates, your friendly emotional superpowers, who are now working together in a well balanced team.
By going through this process you now know something very important: that your emotions are not who or what you are, they are merely parts of you and are under your control. You are the boss. Have fun with this exercise; if an emotion feels huge and scary, make it look a bit daft - it’s hard to feel threatened by a tiny banana wearing a dress, or a gentle rose with fragile petals. If, on the other hand, your confidence feels small and helpless, make it appear huge and unbeatable, like a strongman effortlessly lifting heavy weights above his head, for instance. Give it a try!
Claire Robertson, Ollie Coach
Claire Robertson is an Ollie Coach and NLP practitioner with a degree in psychology. She runs a private practice in the West Midlands, in the heart of Shropshire, working with children, young people and adults. Claire is also a university lecturer specialising in business, marketing and supporting students, has two children, and enjoys reading, crafts and walking.
To get in contact with Claire, email Claire.firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to https://www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com/pages/about-us