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Drive, drive, drive?

OK, I admit it! My Fitbit has ruled my life since it burst into my life two years ago on Christmas day. Maybe you don’t have a Fitbit, but could there be resonances here in your relationship, master or servant, with other aspects of the digital world?

During the first 2020 lockdown I roamed the springtime Down-land above my home, having curiously intimate conversations with strangers and delighting whenever a satisfying buzz congratulated me on the achievement of 10,000 steps. I have no doubt that wearing it - certainly to begin with - resulted in more frequent and longer walks. As time went on I learned to compare my monthly steps, competing with my own best scores.

Initially I avoided entering my weight until, inspired by having shed a few pounds, I embraced this enthusiastically. When the pound-shedding reversed into pound-piling, the entries became sporadic, but a dogged loyalty kept me going.

I took to wearing it overnight; fascinated by the reports of light, deep, or REM sleep and checking in the morning to see if I had had enough sleep. Sometimes it would wag its digital finger at me about keeping regular hours and the unhealthy habits it clearly suspected me of. While I sometimes asked myself whether it was raising my stress levels by indicating that I was ‘doing it wrong’, I was hooked by the little colour coded reports that arrived every morning. I even forgave its inability to distinguish between periods of sleep, meditation or watching TV.

‘Hooked’ is, indeed, the word. So, after a period of wavering, this month I have consigned the Fitbit to a drawer. Going for walks without adding to my recorded steps feels a little odd: “does this exercise still ‘count’?”

Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion-Focused Therapy, has named three emotional regulation systems that we inhabit: threat, drive and soothing modes. Picture a cat having just spotted a large, unfamiliar dog, her fur bristling and her back arched as she assesses whether to run, fight, or stay very still. This is threat mode. Later she is seen stalking one of the frogs near the pond; her senses alive and laser-focused on the object of her desire as she embodies drive mode. Later still, (we aren’t clear whether her hunt was successful), she relaxes in a warm spot - perhaps a lap - becoming a supreme guru of the soothing system. The threat system is all about survival - you probably wouldn’t still be alive to read this without it. The drive system is future and goal oriented, as we go after what we want from life in small and large ways. The soothing system is all about being here and now - perhaps a moment simply noticing a bird or sunrise, enjoying time with a friend or engaging in something for the simple pleasure of doing so.

In the Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living (MBCL) course, participants are encouraged to draw three circles of potentially different sizes, each representing one of these three modes and representing how dominant each system is in their life. During periods of high demand and high stress, the threat and drive circles often dwarf the soothing circle, an imbalance which can become an ongoing habit. Even without particular sources of stress, many of us have learned to push ourselves, subtly or brutally, and find it hard to let go of a mentality that says we should be achieving something at all times. Naturally we wish to pursue our goals, however research tells us that to be mentally and physically well, we also need times in the soothing system, also known as ‘being mode’, in which we can relax, restore and replenish our resources.

A participant on a recent MBCL course shared that he hadn’t achieved anything he had intended to do that week. He then broke into a smile with the unexpected words “it was great!” He was enjoying feeling freed up from the underlying pressure of drive mode. I was reminded that, reportedly, people on their death-beds do not generally regret the fact that they didn’t get more done from their ‘to-do’ list.

I felt a little similar, removing the Fitbit: as though something in my soul was released from the driven state which I have inhabited for so much of my life. I feel a softening in my chest and a sensation of moisture in my eyes as I write this. Putting oneself under continuous pressure to achieve something is not a happy or balanced way to live.

Even in terms of getting things done, being in an overly driven state often leads to diminishing returns as it makes us more vulnerable to stress and negative emotional reactions. Engagement in our actual, present-moment experience, as opposed to where we want to get to, often leads to better decisions and greater life-satisfaction.

One of the recommended practices for cultivating the soothing system from the MBCL course is the ‘pleasure walk’: a stroll for the simple enjoyment of moving one’s body, outdoors, taking in whatever is beautiful or interesting. While it may be possible to do this on a walk when we are going somewhere we need to be, especially when not in a rush, it is easier to be free of the drive mode when there is no ulterior motive beyond the pleasure of the stroll itself.

If I find that I have morphed into an unhealthy blob, perhaps I’ll decide to put it back on again, but for now, I’m enjoying my new-found freedom from being a slave to that little band on my wrist.

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