'Myself and my son meditate every morning' - former Fair City actress Fiona Brennan says society is hypnotised into being busy
A wandering childhood and an anxious adolescence left Fiona Brennan prone to panic attacks, she tells Sarah Caden. Her career as an actor left her empty, as she could never cure her characters of their distress. Her work as a clinical hypnotherapist helped her to reset her negative habits, and her latest book seeks to spread the positive habit far and wide
Every morning, Fiona Brennan, her husband, Ciaran, and her son, Luca (11), meditate.
That's every morning, not just the weekends. It's the weekday mornings, too, when most families are dashing around, rushing breakfast, looking for forgotten swimming bags, throwing together lunches, hustling to get out the door in time. There is often shouting, bickering, threats and imploring enticements to get up and out.
"Now, Luca might have a football magazine that he's looking at while the meditation is going on," Fiona laughs, "but he will still come into the room, and it is a quiet time and space for us. It could be 10 or 20 minutes, depending on what the morning is like, and Luca will look for it if he thinks we're going to miss it.
"It's a quiet space," she adds. "A quiet place of peace before the day gets started."
In her new book, The Positive Habit, Fiona offers a seven-minute morning ritual designed to be performed on waking, in order to set up a positive day. It should be the first thing you do on opening your eyes, she says, and if you can't find seven minutes, "then there's really something wrong".
In her work as a clinical hypnotherapist, working in particular with stress and anxiety, Fiona sees that there is a lot wrong with how a lot of us live. She is not simply standing in judgment, however. She understands it first hand.
Fiona is, she says, a person who flourishes where there is structure, routine and habit, but that's not always how she has lived her own life. Raised partly in Paros, Greece, where her parents moved from Dublin when she was two-and-a-half, "a lot of personal work" has taught Fiona that she was a child who craved rootedness as opposed to freewheeling.
She was an "angst-ridden" teen who became prone to panic attacks as an adult, and who all the same chose a career as an actress. It wasn't until her 30s, when she had ditched acting, tackled her own anxieties and availed of psychotherapy, that Fiona realised that what she wanted to do was help people. And by working towards that aim, she realised that hypnotherapy was for her.
"Society is already hypnotised into being busy, into being stressed and into achieving and proving themselves and striving all the time," Fiona says. "What hypnosis is, when used effectively, is a focused awareness. Right now, we're sitting here talking, but there are all these thoughts going through our minds at the same time. When you quiet that noise, you access the subconscious in a very calm, silenced way that is very effective when you use it to your greater good, rather than to your detriment, which is what many people are doing.
"What I see in my work more and more is that people are visualising the worst-case scenarios constantly," she continues. "And the body goes into a fear state, even though it's all in your mind."
That tendency, Fiona says, is habit. This "negativity bias" is merely a bad habit, and what she's offering is a means to training yourself into good ones.
The gospel according to Fiona is that life is about habits. Mostly, we are enslaved to the negative habits of our lives - stress, anxiety, worry about things that haven't even happened or happened long ago. Fiona is about retraining the habits into a zone of positivity, and she is an excellent ad for it.
Fiona Brennan was born in Dublin's Sandymount; she's three-and-a-half years younger than her only sibling, Orla. Her parents, Fiona says, were "bohemians", who believed that having a family shouldn't halt the adventure of life.
When Fiona was two-and-a-half, they upped sticks and moved the family to Paros, Greece, for two years.
"And it was an adventure, but for a two-and-a-half-year- old, it was quite hard," she says. "Orla had started school by the time they went. She did a year in a Greek school, which wasn't good, because she didn't have any Greek, and 1970s Greece was like Africa, and we were aliens.
"We were the real hippies," Fiona explains, "sleeping on beaches and waking up finding a horse eating my sleeping bag. It was very haphazard."
In time, the family rented a house, from "this very angry Greek man who would just turn up and take the fridge and things." Fiona's father, Rory, made the girls bunk beds out of bamboo, and he and her mother, Fionnuala, home-schooled them.
Fiona laughs heartily at many of the memories, and it's clear the stories are part of family lore by now. "The frustration levels [of home-schooling] were incredible, and they'd admit that," Fiona says of her parents. "They'd take it in turns to be in charge of the kids. So one day would be Mum's, and one Dad's, to mind us. That parent was totally responsible that day, but it didn't really work in reality. One person was trying to weave or write poetry or do pottery or go fishing, while the other was struggling with us.
"I suppose they were ultimately trying to carve out time for themselves, and they were hanging on to the possibility of that for dear life," Fiona says, with the understanding of one who is now a parent herself.
The idea was that in Greece, the Brennans wouldn't need much money to live on, not like in Dublin, so they wouldn't have the same pressure to earn, and they could explore their creativity. They also had rent from their house back in Dublin 4, so the hippies weren't that dippy.
"And we didn't need much money to have a life in Paros," Fiona says. "We ate out all the time for hardly anything; there were great parties; they had a great social life. They found kindred spirits. There weren't many, but everyone was very close. But they did integrate, and my mum learned Greek."
Later, Fiona's mother wrote a book called On a Greek Island.
When Fiona became of school-going age, the family returned to Sandymount. Orla returned to her old school, and Fiona joined her there. Fiona's son, Luca, is now in fifth class in the same school, and her parents still live in the family home, though they spend almost half of every year in Paros.
They bought a ruined bakery with no roof "in a decrepit" village before leaving Paros and returning to Ireland, Fiona explains.
"They were very positive about coming back here, and I think they saw it was necessary and that we needed it," she says. "I really needed that structure and stability. But I think they bought the house because they knew that if they didn't keep that link, they'd lose it."
When Fiona was a child, the family returned to Paros regularly, and the old bakery is now a "rustic but gorgeous" retreat.
Looking back, Fiona sees that she began to suffer from anxiety as a teen, and thinks that some of it comes from the early feeling of uprootedness. "The kind of craziness of it all," she says. "It was exciting, but not really for my type of personality, where I flourish in safety and structure. I have learned this from all my therapy work on myself."
Fiona recalls how she left primary school very academic and quite innocent, and then became swallowed up by that adolescent desire to fit in and be grown-up.
"I started secondary in my peach jumper with the helicopter on it, and within six months, I was a different child. I became this very angst-ridden teenager and, at that time, I also lost my grandmother, who was like a second mother to me. That threw me a lot, and I didn't even understand it. You're just in the throes of life and trying to be cool. I suffered a lot."
How did it show, I ask Fiona.
"Oh, it showed," she exclaims with a laugh. "I was very verbal. Angry. Emotional. Dramatic. Packing Dunnes Stores plastic bags and running away. Writing notes. Really dark stuff."
Her parents tried to intervene and sent her to a counsellor, but she was so ashamed to be in therapy and so scared that anyone would find out, that she refused to engage. What did help was that her parents moved her from a quite left-field school to a much more conventional place. She thrived on the new sense of structure.
Fiona laughs when I point out the irony of her decision to study acting after school, given that is a life that is precarious, unstructured and tough. Clearly, though, there was something of her parents' drive to be creative in her.
In her early 20s, Fiona set up her own theatre company, Serendipity, and they had years of successful productions in the Andrew's Lane Theatre, in particular. The company worked intermittently, however, as Fiona travelled a lot with her now-husband, Ciaran Hyde, whom she met when she was 19 in his native Edinburgh, when she performed at the festival there. They lived in Prague for some time, and also gave Thailand a go, but eventually she realised that she needed to put down roots at home.
Fiona continued with Serendipity until her early 30s, also appearing in The Clinic and Fair City on RTE. She was 31 when she realised, in a blinding flash during a performance of Look Back in Anger, that she didn't want to act any more.
"The characters I played were always so sad, and I always wanted to fix them," Fiona says. "It always left me with a feeling that things were unfinished, that I had left them not well.
"I had this desire to improve, to make people better, and that's led me to where I am now, which is with this incredible honour that is the ability to help."
Fiona's mother had always been into mindfulness and meditation, and her father gave up smoking through hypnotherapy, and Fiona could remember the sound of his tapes playing as she went to sleep at night, but that was the limit of her awareness of it. When Fiona discovered hypnotherapy, though, it felt right.
"It's very like acting," Fiona explains, "in that you use the voice and the imagination."
She qualified as a clinical hypnotherapist in 2012, and now has such a large client base that she launched an online course three years ago, through her website, also called The Positive Habit. This six-month online course is "the next best thing" to sitting in front of her, Fiona says, and is her way of answering the huge demand for help with anxiety that exists today.
Her book, The Positive Habit, is also an answer to that need. In it, Fiona gives clear and understandable explanations of the adaptability and plasticity of the brain, and also how we are drawn towards a comfort zone of negative thoughts and habits.
On a practical level, then, the book offers practices to build better habits. The book has a password that gives you access to an app designed by Fiona's "wonderful husband" Ciaran, and this allows you to keep on your phone her two daily rituals, one for morning, one for bedtime. Both are nominally seven minutes long, and while the night-time ritual is really 23 minutes, Fiona says you should be asleep within seven.
"The idea is that the first seven minutes in the morning and the last seven minutes at night are the most malleable for the elasticity of the brain to change and shift.
"You try to get down to it straight away in the morning, in that state when you're just waking. You know, most people wake up and they reach for the phone and they check their emails, but this trains you not to do that. It's notifications off, and just press the morning ritual and let yourself into the day. You're setting up your intentions for the day, and visualising how you want it to be."
At night, it's about filling your head with positive emotions, which are designed to take root in sleep and become habitual.
"There's a backlash against postivity and that it's all Pollyanna, and I get that," Fiona says. "But it's important to know that it's positive to have negative emotions, but it's very negative to fight them. Or, even worse, to suppress them.
"Positivity is the ability to be with whatever is," she explains. "To be yourself, to sit with anxiety, to grieve when it comes. That's incredibly powerful. The habit or skill of being present in your life is what matters."
Fiona's book offers an evaluation after every module, so that the reader can see progress, and this is crucial, she says. And then, when a positive habit is formed, life is about maintenance, which never stops. As Fiona herself knows only too well, as she continues to live by her own positive habits.
"A friend said to me recently, 'You're relentlessly positive," says Fiona, fully aware of a slight sting in the comment.
"And I said, "Yeah, I am. Sorry,'" she recalls, laughing and sounding not a bit sorry at all.
Photography by Ruth Medjber
10 good habits for happiness
1 If you feel negative, remember the 90-second rule. Neuroscience shows that if we sit with an emotion, it will pass after 90 seconds. We are trained to shut off emotions such as anxiety and anger, but repression is highly toxic for our physical and mental health. Find the courage to sit with uncomfortable emotions. We need to dispel the myth that positivity is rose-tinted naivety.
2 The first seven minutes in the morning and last thing at night are when your subconscious mind is most malleable and suggestible. Use this time to programme your subconscious to self-generate the six supreme positive emotions of love, calmness, confidence, gratitude, hope, and happiness.
3 Start each day afresh with a mindful shower. While in the shower, imagine washing away any stress, tension and anxiety. Feel the water on your skin. Breathe.
4 Try affirmational teeth-brushing. For example, as you brush, repeat, "I am calm with the kids", or "I am confident in all situations I find myself in." Use this time to take control of the areas of your life that can feel out of your control. Tying an existing habit into an already established one makes it more likely to become set in your neural pathways.
5 If you feel stress or anxiety mounting, ask yourself: "Is this situation within or beyond my control?" If it is beyond your control, accept it and focus on responding to it, rather than reacting. If it is within your control, choose to do something that makes it better for yourself and everyone around you. Move from resistance to acceptance.
6 Transform everyday moments of frustration into 'mindful me moments'. Take seven deep belly breaths to stop and breathe in situations that cause frustration. If you're waiting at a traffic light or a standing in a queue at the bank, turn these moments into opportunities to close your eyes and breathe.
7 Don't take anything personally. Even if it feels so personal, it is not. What people say or do speaks volumes about them and nothing about you.
8 Power pose for confidence. Do it every day, or before an important event such as a presentation or interview. When you change your posture, you change the neural networks in your brain.
9 Use your attention and intention combined to achieve what you wish for. Stay focused on one thing and avoid multi-tasking. Acknowledge all your progress, no matter how small.
10 Love yourself as you would your own child, a parent, a sibling, a friend. Treat yourself with the respect that you deserve, and everything will flow from there. Be gentle and kind to yourself always, and especially if you make a mistake. Show extra compassion to yourself in difficult times. Let tears come if they need to, always; crying is a very positive thing.
'The Positive Habit' by Fiona Brennan is published by Gill. It is available to pre-order in Eason and Dubray shops, or see thebookdepository.com. See thepositivehabit.com
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