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A Raft of Ducks

Have you ever heard someone describe themselves as a duck? This describes a person who is calm and unruffled on the surface, but paddling like crazy beneath the surface just to stay afloat and move in some sort of direction. It’s a great description that I think we can all relate to, to some extent.

We have a tendency to view the calm-on-the-surface impression other people give as an indication that we are the only ones who feel directionless, tense, and paddling in ever decreasing circles. Feeling stressed and pressured is something we all experience. Some of us manage to hide the pressure we are feeling, others wear it right out there on their sleeves for all to see. So, are we all simply paddling like a frantic raft of ducks (yep, this is the collective noun for ducks on water, I looked it up), or are some people out there truly as cool and unruffled as they appear?

When I was 18

In another century, when I finished high school, I followed my enjoyment of coaching sports teams and signed up to teachers’ college. It seemed a good idea, other people told me it was what I wanted to do. While studying, at least once during each semester, a lecturer would call me into their office and tell me, “You can’t afford to just cruise.” In truth, I was 18 years old, in a new city, and having to adult for the first time in my life. I was in over my head, confused and bumbling my way through each day with no real direction. All I really wanted to do was sleep until it was time to play sport, the one thing that made sense to me at this time. Cruising was the opposite of what I was feeling, but these “can-I-see-you-in-my-office” moments happened often enough to make me realise that what was perceived by others was very different to what I was actually feeling.

The question

This experience led to me asking a couple of questions: What is wrong with cruising along through life’s stresses? This sounds wonderful! If this was what I was doing, why wouldn’t people want to follow my cruisy example, rather than telling me I’m doing it wrong?

The question I want to address here, however, is: How can we learn to live on the inside the unruffled life we show on the surface?

The answer – Take notice

For me, the answer to this involves taking notice. We need to notice the negative automatic thoughts we have about our ability to cope when we are under a lot of pressure, or feeling stressed and anxious. We also need to take notice of our everyday successes, and the bigger life successes. This is all about gathering evidence that challenges the negative thoughts.

When you are getting into the overwhelmed state that you want to change, try to take notice of all the words banging around in your head that are creating this downward spiral of negativity and panic. Sometimes there is so much going on that it can turn into white noise. If you can, write down some of the things that are on your mind so you can address them one at a time. This process allows us to challenge the negative thought to allow us to put the issues into perspective. Once you have narrowed down the hot thought that is driving the anxiety, analyse the thought with the evidence you have gained by noticing your successes.


When working with young people, the most common feeling that I see is overwhelmed. There is a lot of society pressure to be the best at everything. When we recognise the negative automatic thoughts associated with this, it is often as simple as “I can’t do this.” This could be associated with an exam, a social occasion, an important sports match, or an artistic performance. I’ll ask the young person to tell me about the last time they were in a similar situation, and what happened. Most of the time the past situation worked well, and they have evidence that contradicts the negative thought. We can all use this technique, no matter what age we are, to challenge and change the negative thinking that drives anxiety.

Regain control

At times, you may catch yourself catastrophising a situation. This is when we become clairvoyant, and predict all the things that are going to go wrong with a situation, often to the point of avoiding the situation completely, even when we have no strong evidence for the myriad of catastrophes we are certain will happen. Here is how you can regain control of yourself when you find that you are avoiding situations because the negative thinking has blown things out of all proportion. Step 1, Think of the absolute worst case scenario for the situation. Step 2, make a plan for what you can do if this worst case actually happens. Step 3, carry on with the new knowledge that you have a plan for the worst case, so you can handle any other situation that may arise.

Picture someone a couple of weeks out from their wedding and beginning to show Bride/Groomzilla-esk qualities. Have we chosen the right flowers for the décor of the building? Will the vintage cars break down on the way to the venue? Will the outfits we measured for a few months ago still fit? What if Uncle Dave and Cousin Dave get into a drunken fight?… and so it goes. Pick the biggest problem, let’s say, the vintage car breaks down. What will you do if this happens? When you can step back from the situation, it is easy to see a few possible solutions to the problem, but when you are in it, it can be tricky to separate yourself that much.

The difficult part

The most difficult part of this whole equation is catching yourself in a catastrophising moment. Often at times like these our reality is – all that can go wrong will go wrong. It takes a lot of self-awareness to take a moment, re-evaluate, and move forward with everything in a more evidence-based perspective. Take notice of your trusted friends and family if they tell you that you need to take a moment, or that you are making things bigger than they need to be. So, once again, this is about taking notice of how your internal dialogue is affecting your experience in any situation so you can challenge the negative internal voices that are driving the overwhelming anxiety.

When we put together the strategies of challenging negativity with evidence from similar experiences, and planning responses for the worst-case scenario, we have a technique that helps us to live as calm and unruffled underneath as we are showing on the surface.

Feel free to contact me with any questions or make an appointment, text/phone 021 99 00 54 or email [email protected]

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