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On getting ill, Vulnerability and Taking Stock

  There is nothing like getting ill for raising the feeling of Vulnerability when you’re self employed! Especially when it comes out of nowhere and you think your immune system is rock solid.

The interesting thing about this week of not working and not feeling up to much though, is that it has made me think about one of my favourite enemies – SHOULD.

It’s a word I ban in my teaching room, yet being solitary and incapable made me realise just how much space I still allow it in my own life, and particularly since my daughter left for University.

I think any big change in life circumstances calls us to take stock, and with good reason, but here is (some of) my list of ‘shoulds’ that have been sharing my bed and head since she left and I have reviewed the 7 years since we came to York:

I SHOULD HAVE …..

  • worked harder
  • studied more
  • made more money
  • been more successful
  • recycled more
  • cooked better food
  • taken more care of the planet
  • kept the house tidier
  • been a better role model to my daughter
  • dared to try and have another relationship
  • practised the piano more
  • helped her practise her music
  • encouraged her to play more sport
  • encouraged her to act
  • helped the needy
  • volunteered more
  • complained less about poor service in restaurants (🙄 really??)

OMG no wonder my immune system was under attack with all that lot going on.  And what a relief to have to let go of it all and just sleep, and almost feed myself and definitely not tidy the house! Talk about physician heal thyself! Because of course it became blindingly obvious to me that I much preferred being with this gentler, more tolerant me than the me with the big stick and long list, and for sure the big stick didn’t make me achieve very much more, just made me and I bet my poor daughter, fearful and miserable and bowed down and unwilling to try, to take risks, or as my wise Safari guide friend says, to Dance with Life.

 

One of my other wise friends asked how I was doing with vulnerability because he didn’t think I was going to make much progress until I was willing to embrace it a bit more.  Interestingly I couldn’t really answer the question, because I have been so busy hiding from it that it hadn’t really come up!

Of course I have had the excuse of having to make a living in a small place where everyone knows pretty much everything and I couldn’t afford to make mistakes because it cost cost my reputation and my job, etc etc. Doesn’t mean I have managed to avoid making mistakes anyway, interestingly- just haven’t deliberately put myself in their way.

So now I find myself looking back on 7 years where I started out enthusiastically with high hopes thinking I could crack this and make a wonderful new life for me and my daughter, and realising that 7 years have gone by, and I have done some stuff, and we’re still afloat, which is something, considering, but in the major life choices department, I have not danced with my life, more like hobbled on crutches, and then I have got angry with myself for hobbling, and knocked the crutches out of my hands….

Hmmmmm. …..Old habits die hard, and as I regain my strength, I can see that the voice of SHOULD is waiting for air time and the slightest opportunity.

 

So this next little while is going to be interesting as I see if I can find a different way of being with myself, talking to myself, and flexing the muscles of compassion  instead of self judgment….

 

 

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

Advice to my Daughter after two weeks at University

” Think of it like the sea – there will always be another wave and another high tide – sometimes you just have to wait”
When I was growing up in Africa, we used to go on holiday to the seaside for 3-6 weeks. Apart from anything else, it used to take a week of 8 hour a day driving to get there and back, so it didn’t seem worth it to go for less!
My brother and I were avid body surfers, and we spent hours and hours in the ocean, much of it waiting for the next perfect wave to surf
The first ‘wave’ of excitement is over, exhaustion has set in, and the real hard work of study has begun. It’s easy to feel discouraged, homesick and missing one’s special friends. But the next wave will come if you are patient….

THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX AND CARPE DIEM!

I stopped at one of the services on the M4 on last, wet, grey Sunday morning en route to taking my daughter to Uni in Bristol.

The queue at Costa Coffee was 11 deep, but I noticed that there was another Costa coffee round the corner.  Taking the decision that the queue round the corner was likely to be shorter, I slipped out of my place in the queue and found myself behind just one man, who looked strangely familiar…

My Facebook friends will know that the Carpe Diem bit of this story was to sidle up and ask if I was talking to a Stanley Tucci lookalike or the real deal. It was the real deal (‘A’ List Hollywood movie star), and turns out he was also taking his daughter to University and we had a convivial chat. My daughter was dead impressed and will carry that as a particular memory of her trip to Uni.

Now I realise this is all terribly shallow, but I think there are two important lessons I took away from the encounter.

1. THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX

If I wasn’t keeping my mind and eyes open, I would not have spotted that there was an alternative to the queue I was standing in, nor taken the decision to move

2. CARPE DIEM

I could have been backwards in coming forwards, and missed an opportunity to create a fun and unique memory for my daughter.

Although the outcome of taking these decisions in this case was not earth shattering, like many simple principles, these are profound in their possibilities.

In my life, some of the biggest changes have come about because I was prepared to do one or both of the above. Sometimes the risks have been much greater than they were here, and yet often the rewards way outweigh the risks we are asked to take in living life more fully, whatever that may mean to each of us….

I would love to hear about your ‘Carpe Diem’ moments, seized or lost!

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!

 

TRANSITIONS & NEW BEGINNINGS – NAVIGATING CHOPPY WATERS

It is the time of year for transitions and new beginnings – new class, new school, new University. A time for looking forward to the new and letting go of the old.

For some, it will be exciting, and for others terrifying, and for most of us, a mixture of the two.

For me it is a time of contemplating the opportunities and sadness that comes with an emptying nest, as my daughter makes her way to a new beginning at University.

This last summer I took her for the first time, back to my roots – to Zimbabwe, where one of our adventures was to raft the mighty Zambezi – the toughest one day white water in the world.

I’ve  done it before and know what can go wrong, which actually only makes it doubly terrifying! Coupled with that, my daughter’s father had sent me a news clip of a woman being taken by a crocodile not so long ago on the same venture. He was  convinced I was taking my daughter to her death…..

We  survived, but the pictures show how rough it was, how I came out  of the boat in the roughest rapid, but managed to cling on…unlike the Ozzie in the neighbouring raft, which flipped, and he got sucked into a whirlpool and nearly drowned..

The unknown is so often scary, and these days it is always possible to find horror stories of the dangers that lie ahead. I have been anxious, contemplating this next phase of my life, even though I know it could be a great adventure.

I have been grateful to a friend who has sent me good thoughts each morning and I thought that for the rest of this month I will do a short ‘thought for the day’. Maybe it will help some of you who are navigating new and possibly choppy waters. At least it will set me daily on a positive path

So here is my thought for today:

“It is not required that we know all of the details about every stretch of the river. Indeed, were we to know, it would not be an adventure, and I wonder if there would be much point in the journey.”
Jeffrey R. Anderson

 

 

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