Category Archives: Alexander Technique

SHOULD WE STOP TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH?

SHOULD WE STOP TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH?

There is a national realisation that mental ill-health is on the increase and needs our attention. This is true. But should we be talking about Mental Health per se? Here is why I am asking the question:

A new University student who is perhaps introverted and does not enjoy drunkenness may sit alone in her room feeling lonely and anxious. Another may go out ‘socialising’ each night and binge drink. Does it mean that the mental health of the first student is more in question than that of the second? What about the work colleague who has started to come in a bit late sometimes or isn’t paying so much attention to her appearance? Do we equate this to laziness or to mental health? Are we truly paying attention to ourselves and to those around us?

Up until recently if you went to the doctor with an ache or pain, and the diagnosis was ‘psychosomatic’, the underlying assumption was that it wasn’t real. Nowadays there is a much greater understanding of the interaction of mind, body and emotions. The physical pain is extremely real, although caused or aggravated by psychological factors. Psychosomatic is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress’ and ‘relating to the interaction of mind and body’.

I trained to teach the Alexander Technique (AT), which is based on the premise that the use of the whole self (body, mind and emotions) affects function. It is taught using gentle manual guidance with verbal instruction to help the person understand and work with unhelpful habits, be those physical, mental or emotional.

I have been working as an Associate at The University of York for six years now but prior to this I worked for several years in the NHS at the practice of a forward thinking GP, Dr Gavin Young. The doctors would often refer the patients with physical ailments who were not responding to conventional treatment. I discovered that many of the patients whom they had referred with intractable neck pain had lost a parent in the preceding year. This was a surprise to them, though not to me.

In the nearly 30 years that I have worked with AT, I have seen time and again, that people who suppress or repress mental and emotional pain, often manifest psychological issues in physical symptoms. The English are well known for their stiff upper lip and ‘keep calm and carry on approach’. It is easier to call in sick because you have excruciating neck pain and headaches than to tell your manager that you can’t come in to work because you are grieving the death of your mother.

I worked with another person at the GP surgery who was in great physical pain, but described herself as a hugely positive person. Over a period of months, we worked physically to relieve the pain, with little success, and at the same time, I probed gently into the incongruencies of positivity and pain. Eventually this person was able to tell me something she had never been able to share before, or even truly admit to herself, that she had been abused.

Once she was able to access and acknowledge this memory, true healing was able to begin, both in her body, and through counselling support offered by the GP practice. It is my contention that purely physical therapy alone would never have worked for this patient, because her pain was so deeply rooted in emotional trauma. However, I very much doubt that she would have been able to acknowledge the abuse without the body work and gentle questioning, for the simple reason that she could only acknowledge the physical pain, and was not presenting with a ‘mental health’ problem.

Professor Nickolaas Tinbergen was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1973. He devoted half of his acceptance speech to extolling the virtues of the Alexander Technique and its impact on his life. He said ‘this story of perceptiveness, intelligence and persistence shown by a man without medical training [Frederick Alexander’s], is one of the great epics of medical research and practice.’ He described how he and his family had decided to test some of the seemingly fantastical claims. They found, after only a few months, ‘striking improvements in such diverse things as oedema due to high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures and also in such a refined skill as playing a stringed instrument.’

Interestingly, 45 years on, terms such as mental alertness and resilience are widely used in discussion and approaches to mental health.

Tinbergen confirmed from personal experience that ‘many types of underperformance and even ailments, both mental and physical, can be alleviated, sometimes to a surprising extent, by teaching the body musculature to function differently.’ Advances in neuroscience since this time have elucidated further how the brain and body interact positively in this process to explain the ‘surprising extent’ of these improvements. My practice has reflected Tinbergen’s experience. Follow-up questionnaires, immediately after a 10 week treatment plan and 1 year post-treatment, indicated that the majority of patients from my work in the GP surgery found AT to be of ‘considerable help’ or ‘totally sorted’ their problems. Anecdotally, most patients reported to me that if it had not sorted their original presenting problem, it had helped them manage their lives more effectively.

As a result of this work, I realised that what I was doing via AT could also be understood to include, what is now called, Life Coaching. I trained in Relational Dynamic Life Coaching, and have found this to be a powerful synthesis with AT. (Relational Dynamics- the art of interaction with self and others www.relationaldynamics.co.uk)

My understanding based on experience is that the mind and body either act to support or to destabilise the other. Changing thoughts and beliefs can have a powerful effect on the body, just as releasing physical tension and improving physical functioning can free up the mind and give self-empowerment. Being able to work with people via these two techniques has enabled me to enhance overall well-being, not just ‘mental health’ or ‘physical health’. We can approach well-being via either working with the body (physical therapies) or mind (psychological ‘talking’ therapies). My conviction is that a combination of the two can be most powerful.

But, to return to my title, should we even be talking about mental health? In making a distinction between mental health and other health issues, we risk falsely attributing some issues to the purely mental sphere, and the stigma which is commonly associated with mental ill-health. We are all people comprised of bodies and minds, which are deeply affected by our emotions. Are we not missing a trick by failing to approach health as a synthesis of body and mind states?

If we understand that health and ill-health is a matter of the whole person, we can better identify these people and offer appropriate help. But if we separate the ‘mental’ from the ‘physical’ we are likely only to treat the symptoms and not the cause, or at the very least a contributing factor. In this I think we are failing to provide healthcare that meets the needs of the population.

We need a healthcare service that acknowledges how the body and mind impact each other and makes better use of the whole of ourselves to prevent and treat ill-health.

In my opinion, this means dropping the ‘mental health’ label and ensuring our conversations, concerns and treatments are about Health.

Julie Parker BSc, MSTAT
ILM level 7 equivalent accredited Coach
Www.creativetransformation.org.uk
https://www.facebook.com/creativetransformationuk/

Disclaimer: These are my personal views and do not represent the views of any organisation

YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW WHY THINGS WENT WRONG – YOU JUST NEED TO KNOW HOW TO FIX THEM

Last week I went rowing after nearly a whole summer off.

Our new ‘head’ of our Rowing group, who knows how my mind works, kindly offered to take me out in a double, so I could ease back into things without stressing that I was holding others up because I had got unfit.

We soon realised that I was causing us to row to the right. I was dropping my right shoulder and doing something that created more power on my left. Neither of us were quite sure exactly what it was I was doing, or why – it could be that I think my let leg is longer than my right so it was putting down more power, or it could be that I am left handed, though interestingly I use my right hand for most things that require power rather than dexterity (like tennis).

The point is though, that I knew how to sort it out, using my Alexander Technique Principles:

1. I needed to make sure I had my competitive ‘power at any price’ switch in my brain switched off.

2. I needed to use Conscious Mental Instruction to tell my body what I wanted from it, which was this:

  • Upright stance
  • Relaxed neck
  • Balanced head
  • Centred body and shoulders
  • Maintaining this stance throughout the drive of the stroke

I was able to achieve this fairly easily! One of the reasons being that I have practised for many years giving my body conscious instructions, and the other that my rowing partner gave me permission to ease off on the power so I could concentrate on technique. So I had no pressure of expectation, or particular fear, both of which generally override any conscious instruction I might give myself.

These principles of changing attitude/thinking, combined with relaxation and conscious thinking, can be applied to all sorts of problem solving!

And PS, thanks Darren for being such a great rowing partner and understanding coach!

And PPS no it’s not that cold yet – these are photos from last winter!

 

The 3 Illusions on which many of us build our lives

Many years ago I came across the book ‘The Heart Aroused’ by David Whyte – a book about bringing Heart into the Business world and found it inspiring.

Last week I came across one of his talks, where he propounded the theory of my title. These are the 3 illusions of which he speaks:

  1. That we can somehow construct a life where we are not vulnerable
  2. That we can somehow construct a life where our hearts do not get broken
  3. That we wish to see to the end of our life from where we stand right now

1. He talked of how we hope to avoid the pain of loss and illness. Yet just as nature is cyclical – an unavoidable cycle of birth, growth, decay and death, so too are many aspects of our lives. In wishing to only relate to the first half of that cycle, we find ourselves at war with ourselves and nature for 50% of the time.

That struck a chord. I am no lover of vulnerability, and have spent a great deal of time and energy from time to time, attempting to avoid it. Yet as Brené Brown so succinctly puts it:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

Oh heck……

2. It goes without saying then, that if we are going to live a life imbued with any of these qualities, that at some point, we will get our hearts broken. David Whyte argues that if we love the work we do, we will get our hearts broken professionally as well as personally.

Rock and a hard place then, folks. It’s that full cycle thing again. Most of us (all of us?) want to love, to belong, to experience joy and to connect. So apparently the choice is, allow yourself to be heartbroken at some point, to feel pain, sadness, rejection, or be alone, disconnected, numb and half dead while alive.

Oh heck…..

3. The recent spate of terrorist attacks on innocent people eating in restaurants or walking across the wrong bridge at the wrong moment, and the floods sweeping Africa, Asia and America are a stark reminder that we have no guarantee of safety in this lifetime. (Interestingly, reports of Hurricane Harvey flood my newsfeed – 9 dead, 30,000 homeless. I have to search harder to find the 1,200 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless in the recent monsoons, but that is a rant for another time).

Last December my father, though 88 and suffering from dementia, was hale and hearty. I stood in the shower one Saturday morning and suddenly remembered my passport was about to expire and I would not be allowed into South Africa until I had renewed it. That lunchtime I had a text from my mother to say my father had fallen and was in hospital, but seemed OK. He died at 4am the following morning…

I mentioned at the beginning of this month that the blogs I would write were a way of reflecting on issues that troubled me. If they help anyone else, great, but at bottom I am finding ways of pausing to consider the ramifications of the choices that I make in my life, to think consciously about them, and to try and change them if I find them unhelpful. The principles espoused in this last sentence are of course also the basic tenets of the Alexander Technique. They say you teach best what you most need to learn…..

http://www.davidwhyte.com/

REFLECTIONS ON MOTHERS’ DAY

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REFLECTIONS ON MOTHERS DAY

My parents, though British, have lived all my life in Africa. I am the divorced mother of an only daughter. Her father’s family have always got together at Christmas and celebrated lavishly. If I loved my daughter, it seemed obvious to let her spend Christmas Day with them, and I learned to hold the day lightly, and to celebrate whenever I was able to get together with what family I had here in the UK. But I also learned to dread the familiar question (as early as September) –‘What are you doing for Christmas?’

Today, having the gift of a daughter here, but a mother on the other side of the world, I have been aware both of the joy of having a child, and the sadness of those who do not have, or are not able to be, a mother; of those who have had a child but no longer are with them for whatever reason, for those who are not able to be with their mothers.

These days of supposed celebration, much touted by the media, are often for many, a reason to feel disenfranchised, on the periphery, lonely and not part of something which feels important.

Because I know that pain, I wanted to write something to let those people know that they are being thought of, and reached out to, even if only in writing.

My training in Alexander Technique taught me the importance of peripheral vision. On days like this, this translates for me into being aware of those of our friends and acquaintances who may be feeling isolated, and finding ways to connect with them.

As someone who faced the very real threat of losing a child in the process of divorce, I also wish to encourage everyone who knows of someone in that situation to do as much as they can for any parent (mother or father) to help them bear that excruciating loss, and further to help prevent it if at all possible.

I have been pondering what it means to be a mother:
• Motherhood is a lifelong commitment, whether one outlives one’s offspring or not
• It is a gift that demands one’s utmost – in creativity, resolve, patience, selflessness, energy, time, fierceness, and longevity of commitment.
• It is way of loving which transcends dislike, exhaustion, frustration and pain
• One can leave country, city, town, village, job, lover or husband, but for me the bond with my daughter is the one constant that it would be unthinkable or impossible to sever. Even as I write this, I am aware that for some, because of fear, illness, pain, or addiction, this may not be true, and the children of those mothers carry the excruciating pain of rejection – whether or not that rejection was deliberate or unconscious.

And those who have not been granted the gift of motherhood have to find other ways to express their creativity, resolve, patience, energy, time and commitment without the daily reminder that children offer. It is therefore a harder task, and I honour those who manage it.
So while I rejoice in this ‘Mothers’ Day, for what it is worth, I send love and good wishes to all those women for whom this day would otherwise be one of sadness, loss or isolation. And to those who have chosen otherwise, I wish them a very happy ‘in-Mothers’ Day!

Top Tips for Managing Stress

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TOP TIPS FOR DEALING WITH STRESS

USING ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE AND COACHING PRINCIPLES AS STRATEGIES FOR STRESS MANAGEMENT.

Alexander Technique principles are very simple, yet very profound when diligently applied.

The Principles in Everyday Language are these:

  1. INCREASE AWARENESS (FORM A CLEAR INTENTION TO DO THIS!)
  2. PAUSE
  3. USE CONSCIOUS DIRECTION/INTENTION
  4. PAY ATTENTION TO THE PROCESS
  5. REPEAT UNTIL NEW HABIT IS FORMED.

INTENTION

 INTENTION is my all time favourite word! Learn to develop a clear intention for your life, for your term, for your week, for your day. Then when you get discombobulated, you can remind yourself of your intention about anything in general or specific. You can notice whether what you are thinking or doing aligns with your intention, and the stronger you can hold your intention, the easier it becomes to align your actions. Truly powerful people, I believe, are those whose actions are most closely aligned with their intentions. Scarily, that applies in the negative sense as well as the positive, so take care in developing your intention!

 BREATHE!

In one sense, breathing is an enormously complex activity, in that once again, it often reflects anxieties, fears and difficulties – and research has shown that this also includes difficulties that your mother had in pregnancy! That explains why we don’t always find it easy to breathe freely and deeply. However, once again we can go back to the word INTENTION, and have the intention to breathe deeply and freely (even when we encounter our deep/old fears, which can sometimes be the cause for the feelings of faintness when we begin to release tension and breathe).

So have the intention to notice your breathing, and how, very often, when you are concentrating hard, or you are tense/anxious, you will find you are hardly breathing. It is impossible to breathe deeply when you holding extreme tension in your body, but equally, it is impossible to retain that tension when breathing deeply. So noticing shallow breath/held breath and deciding to breathe deeply (and freely) at each point of your noticing, helps break the cycle of tension and allows something different to happen, even if momentarily. Over time, this can make a huge difference in your level of pain or tension.

So the answer is to FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY. Don’t repress your pain/fear/anger, but keep breathing, and breathe into that pain and through it. Amazing what this ‘simple’ thing can achieve!

AWARENESS – BODILY AND OTHERWISE

Learn to use your awareness as you would use peripheral vision. So make that an intention, and then see if you can allow yourself to be more aware of your body while doing other things. I believe that the body doesn’t lie, and it can become your best friend. When you are confused as to what you are thinking/feeling, your body will usually hold the answer. If you try and repress/suppress your feelings, your body will usually at some stage flag up what you are repressing by demonstrating to you your emotional pain in some physical way that makes you stop and pay attention.

CHOOSING YOUR THOUGHTS/ DEALING WITH OBSESSIVE THOUGHTS 

We have +/- 40,000 thoughts a day and how many are under our control? Not very many is often the answer! This is the problem of the Pink Elephant – the more you tell yourself not to think of it, the bigger the image becomes in your mind! So we need to choose our thoughts, and once again we come back to the work INTENTION. If you have the intention to truly take care of yourself, then you will be more able to choose what to think, if you know that your obsessive thinking is not helping you.

PRACTICAL STRATEGIES FOR ACHIEVING THIS:

1.  Bring your attention to your body by simply placing a hand/hands on your centre of gravity (few fingers below your navel). Remind yourself of your stability and strength and

2. Breathe!

3. Keep taking your attention outside yourself  – I find it hugely helpful to notice nature – light, colour, water, wind, and particularly combining walking with noticing nature.

4. Create Boundaries. Notice whether talking about problems makes you feel better/feeds the obsession/makes you feel tense. Choose carefully to whom you speak/interact so that again, your INTENTION is to support yourself. Try and create time boundaries for dealing with/thinking about/talking about your problem, and if you are struggling with that, ask the other person to hold the time boundary for you. This way, you will still get to feel heard, which is very important, but will not be tempted to obsess.

5. Gratitude Diary – your Homework, should you choose to accept it.

Find at least 3 things each day, for which you are grateful.

The danger is that difficult issues can consume you, and of course there is so much else in your life about which you can choose to think and to which you can give your energy, which will nourish you, bring you joy and also support your INTENTION  for a full and happy life. Our thoughts create a DIRECTION for our lives, and to some extent, create our life itself, so what we choose to focus on, and to think about, is HUGELY important. Have the INTENTION to bring to mind one or more of those things for which you are grateful, whenever you start feeling anxious/angry.

I fully realise that while all these things are pretty simple, that is not to say that they are easy.

Neuroscience research tells us it takes 3,000 repetitions(!) to break old neural pathways, so this will not be sorted in a day, and can seem tedious if you feel that you are getting somewhere with it, and then the old thoughts and habits kick in.

Again, INTENTION will help you stick with it

Neuroscientists also tell us that our thoughts create our reality – we are processing a staggering 400 billion actions per second in our brain, and every thought that we build actually changes the structure of the brain and impacts on the health of the body. (Dr Caroline Leaf, Neuroscientist).

So Science is now able to confirm the basis of the Alexander Technique, where we use conscious thoughts, intentions and directions to alter the way we respond to our everyday situations. And we can better understand that even if our situation does not change, we can alter our reality by our response to that situation, and choose health and well being over stress.

APPENDIX

Most people do not really relate to the Language used by Alexander Technique, particularly as it was developed in the late 1800s! Hence my initial translation into everyday language.

But for those who do know the language, and who want to see how I arrived at my ‘version’, here it is!

In ‘Alexander Technique Language’ these would be expressed as follows:

  1. REALISE YOU HAVE FAULTY SENSORY AWARENESS
  2. INHIBIT
  3. USE CONSCIOUS CONTROL TO PROJECT NEW DIRECTIONS
  4. PREVENT END GAINING AND PAY ATTENTION TO THE MEANS WHEREBY
  5. REPEAT UNTIL OLD UNHELPFUL HABIT IS REPLACED BY NEW HABIT

 In ‘Coaching Language’ these would be expressed as follows:

  1. BECOME MORE AWARE SO THAT ‘CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE’ BECOMES ‘CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE’
  2. PRACTICE NEW HABITS TO CHANGE ‘CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE’ TO ‘CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE’
  3. REPEAT UNTIL ‘CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE’ BECOMES ‘UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE’

Positive Thoughts for the Day/Alexander Technique Tips for the Novice Rower

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A calm September morning full of the promise of a glorious early Autumn day..

I stopped at the park on the way to York Rowing Club to do some stretching and Qi Gong. As my breathing slowed and deepened, I drank in the glowing golds and russets of the first Autumn leaves and quietened my irrational fear of getting out on the river in a single scull for only the third time ever, but the first time in four months.

I had just started rowing at the beginning of summer (and getting back to tennis, swimming and Ceroc), when I was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, and several operations put paid to any form of exercise for a while.

It’s September, and a challenging month for me. After a couple of years in York, I am beginning to build a reputation for my work, but my main source of income is still York University Music Department, and for the students, it is still summer vacation.

For everyone else, it is a new year and subscriptions are due and I am having a mental argument with myself about doing things that take time and cost money, rather than that earn it.

I chose self belief, and to follow the advice I had read recently:

“If you want to double your income, treble your learning”

As well as something I learned years ago:

“It’s not the things you do that you regret, it’s the things you don’t do” – actually that has also got me into all sorts of trouble, so not necessarily to be followed slavishly, but it seemed reasonable to apply it under these circumstances!

I have had an absolutely wonderful morning on the river. I have exercised by cycling and rowing, I have returned home feeling the elation of  both exercise and the completion of a new and challenging task. I am sure that I will accomplish as much this afternoon as I would have done had I given myself the whole day for development, planning and administration of my business.

So here are my positive life thoughts from my morning:

1.  Feel the Fear and do it Anyway.

I don’t know why I felt so anxious about rowing today. I have spent a reasonable amount of time in my life in various boats/kayaks/canoes/sailing dinghies and I love swimming (though not in the Ouse River, preferably). Something to do with expectation maybe, as I had done well in my first two times out on the river, but was not feeling confident of being able to reproduce that today.

I countered this by making sure I was in the best shape for success – stretching, meditative movement, breathing, and a practise session on the rowing machine.

Then I showed up, felt the fear and did it anyway, and of course, guess what? As soon as I was on the water, using my Alexander Principles (tips to follow), I felt fine! Exactly the same thing happened when I went back to skiing after six years, only that time I put it off for a day, and felt physically ill by the time I got myself onto the slopes – then had to deal with the frustration of wasting an afternoon’s skiing for no good reason…. sound familiar? If not, you’re lucky!

2. If you are feeling down, get out of the house and exercise/meet people for a boundaried amount of time in order to shift gear mentally and return to your tasks reinvigorated.

I appreciate this may not apply universally or all the time. But as I have to motivate my entire life and work myself, I found after moving here that it did me the power of good to get out and make sure I knew the world was carrying on around me, to breathe in the balm of nature and the river.  And when occasionally I wonder if I am going to be able to keep making this all work by myself,  I find it’s a sound strategy to employ.

3. Say yes to life.

It’s amazing how simple this is – and how powerful. So when there is a choice – just say yes and see what happens.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”  Goethe

ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE TIPS FOR THE NOVICE ROWER

1. As with many practical skills, the first key to success is your mind. Was going to use the term mindset, but it is flexibility of thought that translates into flexibility of action.

2.Keep flexibility of eyes. Fixed vision often translates directly into fixed musculature. Maintaining the use of peripheral vision (check out my other blogs if you don’t know what this is!) maintains fluidity that is essential for smooth sculling.

3. Maintaining a constant relationship of head neck and back (Primary control in Alexander Technique Jargon) contributes positively to a smooth rowing action. In other words, don’t stiffen your neck, and conversely don’t let your neck bend backwards as you throw your hands and move forward in the seat. (Apologies to any serious rowers if my rowing jargon is not yet up to speed!)

4. BREATHE! This may seem obvious, but in my many years of working with people, I find that most people who are anxious hold their breath, only allowing minimal respiration. Of course, once you are rowing well, and competitively, you will have to breathe, but when starting out, and being tentative, it is not such an obvious requirement.

I have found it true that if one is tense it is impossible to breathe freely, and the corollary, if one is breathing freely, it is impossible to tense!

5. Be Brave!