Tag Archives: Health

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

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’

5 Steps to Creating New Habits

FIVE STEPS TO CHANGING HABITS

 Changing habits can be simple, but unfortunately simple does not mean easy! However, by following these five steps, you WILL  achieve change!

1. INTENTION

 Form and maintain a clear of intention of the outcome you wish to achieve. This intention will provide the energy and direction required to proceed, and to overcome apparent obstacles.

 In order to really ‘see’ the obstacles in our path, we must be willing to truly look, and this can sometimes be a challenge to the ego, which feels less threatened by ignorance!

 

  1. AWARENESS

 Awaken, sharpen and refine your awareness of your habits. The tricky thing here is that habits are by their very nature subconscious. So you need an accurate ‘mirror’ or feedback system to highlight what is currently hidden. Engage your creativity, ingenuity, and all your senses to find ways of increasing the multi-sensory information you are giving yourself in order to improve this awareness.

 If you were walking in the mountains with a map, but were lost, the map would be useless unless you could first locate y

our current position. The same is true of ourselves and our habits.

 Proprioception (/ˌproʊpri.ɵˈsɛpʃən/ pro-pree-o-sep-shən), from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”, “individual” and perception, is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.

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 The cerebellum is largely responsible for coordinating the unconscious aspects of proprioception.

 Because of the unconscious nature of habit, it is most useful at the outset to enlist the assistance of an objective third party(teacher) who can give both accurate feedback, and hopefully (if correctly trained) assist you to achieve the desired outcome.

In the absence of such a teacher, or in between teaching sessions, video can be a useful tool. Proprioceptive senses are challenged to engage in a process without immediate visual feedback, and then this is checked against the visual and auditory feedback provided by the (good quality) video.

 A mirror is a poor third best, as it does not develop the proprioceptive sense.

 If you are dealing with a mental or emotional habit, then it is helpful to understand the triggers to that habit. Again, ideally with trained assistance, or without if it is possible, you can use your ingenuity and creativity to recreate those triggers in a safe environment so that you can practise becoming aware of your responses. Body and breath are useful tools here, as it is often said that ‘The Body speaks the Mind’.

Many responses to an ‘emotional’ trigger will show up in your physicality, for example anxiety producing sweaty palms, shortening of breath and tightening of the the stomach muscles.

For those of you interested in the neuroscience of why?, the following link about the amygdala may be of interest.

The Amygdala in 5 Minutes | Joseph LeDoux | Big Think

We begin to understand that we are indivisible ‘selves’. So as our awareness expands, we often notice that our habits we would term ‘physical’ , for instance a tightening of the breath in singing, can have ‘emotional’ triggers or components, eg fear of failure.

In order to have accurate awareness we need to keep reconnecting to our INTENTION. WIthout accurate awareness, we can just practise different, unhelpful habits! Without connecting to our INTENTION, we can create further pressure, which then creates further tension, and undermines our best efforts for change!

 

  1. PAUSE

 In order to change a response to a stimulus, we need to make the unconscious, conscious. In order to do this, it is usually imperative to create a pause, be it ever so infinitesimal, in order to prevent the unconscious, habitual response from occurring.

Breath is often a very useful first port of call. I have found it to be true that it is impossible to breathe freely while maintaining tension, and conversely, to maintain tension while breathing freely. As much (though not all) of our inappropriate response to stimulus involves excessive tension, awareness of breath, and use of conscious breath, can be a very helpful way of creating this pause.

  1. CONSCIOUS INSTRUCTIONS/INVITATIONS/DIRECTIONS

Having succeeded in becoming aware of our unhelpful habit or response to stimulus, and created the pause necessary to prevent responding in our habitual way, we use our conscious mind to give an instruction/invitation to the body and mind to respond in a new and chosen way. The efficacy of this new instruction will depend to some extent on the effect and depth of the old habit. Neuroscience teaches us that it takes 300 repetitions to create a new neural pathway (in other words, to allow a new habit to become unconscious), but 3000 repetitions to break an old habit!

Which leads us to the fifth step –

  1. REPEAT!

We need to repeat this entire process. We maintain our intention, engage our awareness, create a pause between the stimulus and response, and continue to give the conscious instruction to ourselves which creates the new habit.

FM Alexander (founder of the Alexander Technique – a powerful method for changing unhelpful habits) said that ‘If we stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing will do itself. Sounds simple and it is, but that doesn’t mean it is easy!

Very often, our desire to achieve a particular result can make us forget the steps necessary to achieve it. This creates a pressure which usually involves more tension, and undermines the process necessary to achieve the result!

 POST SCRIPT FROM MY EXPERIENCE

We humans are complicated! While we may outwardly assert that we wish to change a particular habit, we may notice that when it comes down to it, we strenuously resist taking the steps which our logical minds know we require to make those changes. In such instances, we may need help to delve more deeply into why we are resisting. In my experience, it is almost inevitably a result of some fear that we have not yet recognised or acknowledged. It may take considerable patience and compassion for ourselves as well as courage, to uncover the fear which limits our ability to perform and to connect with others as we would wish. It is also still true I believe, that by applying these five steps to the different layers of the problem, we can find a way to change!

Acknowledgement:

This article was inspired by a workshop given by Alex Ashworth at York University.

Alongside a flourishing career as a soloist, Alex is currently Professor of Singing at the Royal Academy of Music and visiting professor at various (unpronounceable) institutions in Iceland in addition to teaching singing in the Music Department at York University.

Alexander Ashworth Baritone – Home