Category Archives: Mental Health

Mental Health - Smiley face

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Western society tends to view health in terms of single conditions and symptoms. Traditional Acupuncture considers people not conditions and therefore paints a bigger picture of individual health. Often, our patients are drawn to us because of this integration of physical health and mental health. This is especially so when they are suffering with longstanding conditions like chronic pain.

For new patients, moving to a different view of health can be unusual.  Usually they just want to know if we can help. To help we have written a series of articles that provide information on various health conditions. We hope that this makes it easier to follow.

Stress Free Zone - Signpost directing you to a stress free zone

Stress – 5 steps to help you manage

Stress free zone.  A signpost pointing the way

Stress Free zone – Photo by thornypup on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Stress seems to be a a 21st century epidemic and its not difficult to see why.  Everything in life moves so quickly we barely pause for breath.  Long hours at work, mortgages and bills to stay on top of, roads full of cars, trains crammed with people.  The potential for stress seems to sit round every corner.

Dissecting the finer details and complexities of stress is the basis of a deeper and more detailed story but there are some simple steps you can take to start taking a bit of control.  Becoming aware of stress levels is now part of my commitment to self care and when I feel them rising there are a few key places I look for some quick easy releases.

1. Turn the technology feeds off – Yep I’m talking all of them.  E-Mail, Social Media, News, Twitter.  Did you know that there are now more mobile devices than people in the world ?  There is increasing evidence that we are becoming addicted to technology.  People are absolutely bombarded with information and it sits right there at our fingertips, bonging away every five seconds on a smart phone.  Do you really need to instantaneously know that you mate just checked in at the gym or the Bank of England reduced the base rate by 0.25%?  Will your mates gym session go any better for you “liking” it?  No.  Thats not to say we shouldn’t enjoy our technology.  Just be more disciplined about when you use it.

2. Switch yourself off – When I ask people how they relax the most common response I get is “Watching TV”  Lets explore this.  Is TV designed to help us switch off?  No.  Switching off is the last thing the TV bosses want us to do.  What do you watch? X Factor? The News? Soap Opera’s?  Think about whats happening emotionally when you do this.  Excited? Angry? Jealous? Watching TV may be giving your body a rest but not your mind.  I recommend mindfulness as a way to regenerate the brain as its simple and accessible.  You can find a wealth of resources out there to help develop your technique but if you want to just give it a go why not try practising a breathing technique and focusing on the breath for a few minutes each day.  You will be surprised at just how busy your mind is!

3. Go for a walk – This has 2 benefits.  Firstly, you get some exercise. A lot of my patients don’t register walking as exercise because we seem to only register physical activity with going to the gym. Actually the traditional Chinese view of health would take quite a dim view of all that heaving straining and sweating.  Traditional exercises such as Tai-Chi are far more sedate but get the blood and energy flowing all the same.  The second advantage of walking is you get some natural light.   Studies of seasonal affective disorder suggest a clear link between natural light and mood so getting this into your daily routine is really important, particularly since so few of us now work outside, instead staring at manufactured light on computers all day.  Get outdoors and revel in all that fresh air!  If the suns out even better since sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D!

4.  Sit down and eat properly – This isn’t a diet lecture. There are a whole bundle of resources out there on what you should and shouldn’t eat, some good, some rubbish. I do give dietary advice but one of the most overlooked aspects about  food is how you eat it which is arguably as important as the food itself.  Buying a healthy lunch then shoving it down at your desk between meetings is a waste of good food.  Eat 3 times a day, every day, and take enough time to sit down and eat these meals properly, preferably at a table, but at least without distractions like TV, work and yes those retched smart phones again!  You will digest better and therefore feel better.  Less indigestion, more energy and who knows, you may even lose weight.  Once you’ve nailed that we can start thinking about what type of food we actually put in!

5.  Give yourself a break once in a while – One of things we struggle with in the West is this sense that one shower ruins the summer.  If we have a chocolate bar our whole diet is a failure.  Its a huge barrier to progress because rather than seeing it as a set back or a one off it becomes the end of the line.  Out comes the ice-cream, on goes the Shakira (Bridget Jones for those who missed the reference). What we miss is the massive triumph of the 1, 2, 10 days before. Life is for living and whilst having self discipline is a wonderful thing having fun is an essential part of life too.  If you fall off the wagon, remind yourself you’re human, applaud yourself for everything you’ve achieved AND for recognising your human limitations and start again tomorrow.

So there they are.  5 simple steps on a long journey.  Thank you for reading and good luck.  Do remember to check in again for more health a wellness tips.

Written by Tony Sigrist

Tony is a qualified Acupuncturist with a lot of experience in managing mental health.  He is available for talks and presentations to businesses and groups and also has a private practise in Ely Cambridgeshire where he see’s patients for individual support across a full range of physical and mental health conditions.  Contact him today to discuss your individual needs.

Stepping back from the stress

Today I am travelling into London for a meeting, a journey that I made daily a few years back in a haze of numb misery.

Looking around me. the stress is palpable. Too many people, not enough space. Rubbing salt into the wounds, I look out of the window and the sun is shining, reflecting off rivers winding their way through green fields and trees. The train is full of people travelling to jobs that aren’t fulfilling and away from lives they’d rather be having, enjoying the simple pleasures that life has to offer us.

I only make the journey every few weeks these days and I enjoy the experience, not because I like the heat and bustle of an overcrowded train but because I can reflect on why I removed this from my life and indeed how fortunate I am.

At its most basic level, human existence has very few requirements. Eating, breathing, resting pretty much keeps us going. All of the other rules are created by humans and work on the basis that we consent to follow them. Some of these rules are positive and allow us to exist harmoniously together. In the main these rules are written. Some of the rules however are unwritten, the accepted norm that we follow because its what society expects of us like working 40 hours a week, having a mortgage etc. In fact these are not rules, they are choices and we have far more control of these rules than we think.

I doubt anyone really enjoys commuting to work but for some, the life it affords them outweighs the sacrifice. When this position is reversed and the sacrifice outweighs the benefit its time to step back and question what we could do differently.

The UK is currently in the grip of a mental health epidemic. Medically, the causes of mental illness are poorly understood, hypothesis rich, evidence poor. Genetics, biology and psychology can all be at play but the link with stress, when considered alongside the typical lifestyle in the west, would seem the most likely driver behind the recent surge of common mental disorders like depression and anxiety. Its also the one cause we have the most control over.

I broke the cycle 7 years ago now and whilst my life is not plain sailing I’m way happier than I was sitting on this train everyday. What I sacrificed in money and “stuff” was invested in the one thing that money simply cannot buy. Time.

Everyday Stigma of Mental Health

On Friday I was fortunate enough to attend a fascinating presentation on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a keen interest of mine, particularly as I have become more emerged in holistic wellbeing and the part that lifestyle has to play in our overall health.

For those not in the know, SAD is an illness which see’s sufferers mental health plummet at a particular point in the year, usually as the days become shorter.  I have written a more detailed piece on the condition which you can read by clicking here.

The event was attended by a broad cross section of peopled despite being a presentation from one of the world leading authorities became a well managed interactive exchange of perspectives.  One of the conversations had me particularly interested, an attendee who was interested in the potential of building light therapy into existing light sources as apposed to the existing methods which usually require a sufferer to sit in front of a light for up to 30 minutes.

To be clear, I think this is a great idea.  Anything that can help alleviate suffering without ingesting chemicals can only be a good thing.  What interested me however was some of the rationale that sat behind the market for such a product which was aptly summarised as, “people don’t have 30 minutes to sit in front of a light in the morning”.

What immediately struck me from this statement is the disparity with which mental health is held next to physical health.  So lets be clear, SAD is a serious mental illness.  Mental illness is a serious medical complaint that can lead to disabling symptoms and death.  In certain demographic groups, the mortality from mental illness exceeds that of any other illness.  Yet if we had a physical illness that necessitated 30 minutes of physical therapy a day, we would move heaven and earth to make sure that person received.  Would we see dialysis or chemotherapy as a choice?  Of course not, nor should we.  So why when the problem is a mental health one do we suddenly feel that we just “don’t have time” for a 30 minute treatment so it can hit the cutting room floor?

Theres the wider issue.  For me I wonder if one of the defining features of SAD is actually not lack of light or bodily changes, but the fact that we don’t adapt.  In some species, the behaviours of taking on more fuel (carbohydrate craving is an early symptom of SAD) and resting is part of their seasonal rhythm.  In humans however, our bodies start adapting and our modern instinct is in fact to resist and fight to maintain the same levels of productivity.

In my utopian world of optimal wellbeing, I would see people following a more seasonal approach to life.  I am however a realist and I know that the western world is going to be a long time bending to this ideal.  If however we continue to invent new ways of ignoring our bodies and circumnavigating basic needs, the mental health crisis thats slowly gripping society can only deepen.

Im glad to say that in the event I was at, the majority of attendees agreed that actually, we should be finding ways to secure 30 minutes of our day to attend to our mental health, not more ways of disregarding it.  That isn’t a sign for complacency however.  These small conversations and comments are symptomatic of a type of unintended stigma that, taken with ignorance and discrimination, is crippling the wellbeing of millions of people.

If you want to find out more about challenging the stigma of mental illness, please follow my new charity, Talking FreELY or get in touch with me.

Finally, if you are suffering from mental health problems, be assured, you are not alone and there is non judgmental help when you feel able to reach out for it.  Again, check us out at Talking FreELY

Mental Health – Strong for too long?

One of the things I see on social media a lot is this statement

“Depression isn’t a sign you are weak, its a sign you have been strong for too long”

Its a well intentioned way of re-framing how we perceive mental illness but what does it actually mean and is it accurate? For me the language creates some problems!

Firstly, its a bit of a sweeping statement because mental illness is completely arbitrary, affecting people from all walks of life and for any number of different reasons.

What it refers to more specifically is a commonly encountered cause of depression. The curse of modern western society. Stress!

The “strength” to which it refers describes the capacity of a person to cope with stress. In so called “strong” individuals, stress acts as a motivator, an impulse to push harder and harder to overcome the adversity and achieve. When the drive goes beyond the bodies limits there comes a point where it has to break, like any system that is overloaded. At that point depression takes hold.

If you are one of these individuals (its fine by the way, I’m a lot like that myself) you probably feel better knowing that in spite of your mental health, society views you in positive terms as a go-getter. In some cases, it may encourage the perception that mental illness is simply a consequence of normal life if you want to “get on”.

But what if you aren’t “strong”? By implication, if not in actual language, this statement suggests that the opposite, people who fold at the first sign of stress and therefore don’t push their body through the same level of trauma, are unlikely to suffer depression. Apart from this (of course) being absolute rubbish, the implication is that these types of people are “weak” (it is after all the opposite of strong), a term most of us would consider to be an insult. Society after all has little regard for this approach to life.

Am I over analysing? Well certainly if the message that we value strong over weak is not implicitly carried in this statement on mental health, it is one that is heavily implied and indeed replicated across society, particularly in the workplace where I have repeatedly encountered the attitude that “going the extra mile” is pretty much compulsory.

Of course the path you decide to follow in life is an entirely personal choice. Where it becomes problematic is when society guides these choices through negative stereotypes. When people push themselves because they feel that is what is expected, not what they want.

Can a statement intended to make people feel better about themselves really do this? I think it can. I think the stigma of mental illness is driven by thousands of stereotypes, cultural norms and poorly used language. In this example, you could as easily change strong and weak for stupid and wise and tip the entire statement on its head. Language is a powerful tool and tackling what has become accepted norm is a huge challenge. If however we ever hope to have a lasting impact on the merciless onslaught of mental illness its one we have to take on.

It all begins by talking which is why Talking FreELY invest so heavily in facilitating simple and honest conversations about mental health. Because it is these conversations that will drive change.

If you are struggling with mental health there are a number of useful links on the Talking FreELY website. If you want to know how you can help to keep the conversation, check us out on Facebook and Twitter

www.talkingfreely.org

Mental Health – Surviving or Thriving

The theme of 2017 Mental Health Awareness Week is, surviving or thriving.  When I first read this I was immediately drawn to the word thriving, a word that fills me with optimism and excitement about the potential the world has to offer. Immediately I cast aside survival as a negative message that I didn’t want to focus on.

Today I was reflecting as I often do and I realised that this is mental health awareness week, and Talking FreELY, a local mental health organisation I am involved with is about honest non judgemental conversation on metal illness.  I realised my natural instinct to try and fix things had perhaps led to me missing at least 50% of the awareness message.   Awareness is not about solutions, its about giving some insight and however hard those messages are to deliver it is surely my responsibility as a mental health ambassador to try and do so.  So I would like to talk a little about survival and what that means in terms of mental health.

The first time I heard thrive or survive was on Chanel 4’s “The Island” with Bear Grylls.  12 contestants marooned on a desert island with nothing but basic tools and the clothes on their backs.  The challenge, not just to get through, but to actually enjoy it. To eat well, to create a comfortable living environment and a happy community.  I was watching this programme last night when the tail end of a hurricane hit the island dumping inch after inch of miserable battering rain on them.  No proper shelter, no proper clothing, unable to go and hunt for food, barely able to keep a fire going and worst perhaps, inaccessible even by the rescue teams.  It was utterly miserable and in that real life moment, any thought of thriving was lost and it became a single battle to get through that bad time.  It is a great example of how life is, and how mental health can be.

My own mental health is an ever changing landscape.  There are times when I do indeed thrive.  During these times I can really rip into life and live each day to its fullest potential,  laughing, joking, getting things done, the life, soul and energy of the party.  But its not always like that.  Several times a year, every year for as long as I can remember, my mental health will slump and the cloud of depression will loom overhead.  In these times its often all I can do to get out of bed in the morning.  I retreat from the world and everything from washing my face to taking the kids to school becomes a struggle.  As I’ve grown in my awareness I find I have an increasing number of strategies that can help me to predict and manage these bouts.  I lean more heavily on relationships, try where I can to get out more, stay off social media.  These interventions help but they aren’t about thriving or “snapping” myself out of it.  Surviving in these moments isn’t a choice under my conscious control.  I don’t chose to be depressed or anxious any more than those poor people on the island chose to be battered by relentless rain.  Its what life throws at me, and I do what I need to get through until the time passes and the sun comes out again.  Some people may come out of it and never get hit by a hurricane again.  For others, who live in their shadow, its about rebuilding and trying to be better prepared for the next time.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for focusing on thriving.  The reality of survival isn’t that cheerful and who wants to be seen as the harbinger of doom?  We all want to hear the positive messages. But this is mental health AWARENESS, not mental health utopia.  In amongst the positivity we should perhaps, quietly acknowledge that a lot of people are just surviving and in fact may not need a bundle of ideas just now to get them thriving.  Lets celebrate the successes but remember that the bigger task is in supporting the ever increasing number of people who are suffering from a mental health issue.  How you survive is what empowers and enables you to thrive.

If you are suffering from mental health problems and need help, please follow this link for details of support organisations – HELP

 

MENtal Health – Look out for your friends

The Time to Change charity have recently released a short film encouraging men to look for the signs of mental illness in each other and offer some support.  It sounds obvious but the campaign identifies that only a third of men feel comfortable talking openly about their feelings.

A number of social stigma’s prevented me from accepting I was mentally ill for years.  Fear of losing my job and my dignity, fears of tarnishing my future with a permanent label, fear of accepting the obvious and looking weak.  Of course I risked destroying all of these with mental illness anyway but never the less I resisted facing up to the facts for years.  Were my fears unfounded?  Sadly I think not.  Stigma and discrimination towards mental illness does exist but things are definitely changing.  One of the things that surprised me when I first opened up about my mental health problems was how many people had been there (or were there).  One in four will actually suffer a mental illness at some point in their life but that statistic means virtually all of us will encounter it and be affected in some ways.  When I started up the Metropolitan Police Mental Health network, we were deliberately open about who we were trying to support.  As such our membership grew not only with those suffering mental illness, but from those who were supporting family and friends, or who simply wanted to make a difference.

Thankfully I had mates in my corner who kindly but firmly encouraged me to face up to my illness and seek help.

I would encourage everyone to watch this video and think about how you can support the battle to end Stigma.  It will help to save lives.

If you are interested in how acupuncture could help with your mental health please email me here

If you need urgent help for a mental health problem you can contact the Samaritans here

For more information on Time to change and how you can be involved click here

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

AutumnTheres a lot to be grateful for at this time of year.  Abundant freshly harvested food, a cacophony of colours as autumn takes its hold, cosy nights in front of a roaring fire as the nights close in.  For some people the joy is overshadowed by low mood that may have no tangible origin, but simply sits there, like a cloud over their head until the seasons start to tip once again and the longer days draw in.  For those who feel like that, they could well be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a form of depression that follows a seasonal pattern with sufferers experiencing a change in mood depending on the time of year.  The usual onset is in Autumn and Winter when the daylight hours are shorter.  Less commonly this is reversed.

The problem is poorly understood but several theories exist.  From the physiological perspective hormonal anomalies in sufferers may provide some explanation.  Melatonin is a hormone that the body secretes to induce sleep.  Scientific studies, though not yet conclusive, have examined levels of melatonin in SAD sufferers and have found it to be higher during winter months.  Likewise Seratonin, the “feel good hormone” is likely to be found in lower levels.
pexels-photo

It is not known why some people are affected in this way but one theory is that the reduction of daylight during winter months is responsible for the altered hormonal levels.  This is supported by data.  If you live nearer the equator, where daylight hours remain more constant through the year, you are far less likely to suffer from SAD.  This theory carries weight.  In our increasingly evolving world, far less of us work outdoors these days, instead sitting in front of computers staring at false light all day before going home in the dark.  But perhaps the bigger problem is not the amount of light we work in, but the fact that we don’t adapt.  Compare us with certain other mammals who would retreat to hibernation during the winter months.  As the colder months draw in, their bodies tell them its time to slow down and recuperate so they do exactly this.  Humans however continue at the same speed and pace making no changes at all.  If anything on the approach to Christmas we speed up, desperately trying to cram everything in before the end of the year.  In this theory, the adjustment in hormones is in fact entirely normal.  The development of symptoms happens because we don’t respond, the emotional equivalent of running on an already sprained ankle.

The solution in this instance is of course simple.  Hibernate.  If only.  Unfortunately, very few of us are in a position to work less hours during the shorter days so practically speaking, SAD becomes a condition to treat rather than a change we must manage.  So what can we do.

handsWell, firstly, I still recommend getting more rest and slowing down where possible.  Holistically, the key is to treat the source of the problem.  Acupuncture is more than an answer to aches and pains and a number of people seek treatment for a range of health issues including emotional support.  It is also worth considering light therapy for which more scientific evidence is emerging.  This is a simple and relatively cost effective therapy you can control yourself and would work well in support of other treatments.  Its worth researching the subject properly however as the science is quite specific.  Medical evidence has suggested that lights need to emit 10000 lux to be effective.  The light units that conform to this are registered correctly as medical devices.

If you would like to talk to me about how acupuncture could help with your health and well being please email me info@sigristacupuncture.co.uk or call 01353 360 633.  I may be in clinic but if you leave a message I’ll get straight back to you.

If you are considering buying a light therapy box please read do your research.  The SAD.org website provides good clear guidance with appropriate links.  Alternatively, get in touch with me.  www.SAD.org.uk

For more information on SAD including a downloadable leaflet, please follow this link to the MIND website.  www.mind.org.uk

Thank you for reading

Burnt out Brits struggle with stress

Burnt out

The nation’s stress levels are on the increase and we are risking our health by turning to sugary food, takeaways and alcohol to help cope with modern life a new survey has revealed.

The brand new study by the British Acupuncture Council to mark ‘Acupuncture Awareness Week’ (2nd-8th March 2015) shows that over half of the UK residents surveyed are more stressed now than ten years ago and turn to junk food and booze in a bid to feel better.  The study of 5,000 adults found that a third of us admit to comfort eating when stressed, a quarter confess to drinking alcohol and as a result 1 in 5 admit they put on weight.

Despite 70% saying they are aware prolonged periods of stress can have a long-term impact on their health, almost half of people admit they just put up with it with two thirds saying stress is totally unavoidable in their life. A lack of time (41%), wanting to have it all (25%) and difficulty switching off from work (24%) were cited as the top reasons for the rise of burnt out Brits.

There are many symptoms associated with stress including anxiety, nausea, insomnia, headaches and stomach pains.  So how can we de-stress our lives, surely depriving ourselves of our junk food and alcoholic cravings just adds more pressure?

According to Tamzin Freeman, a qualified member of the British Acupuncture Council reaching for your favourite foods or treating yourself to that bottle of wine after a hectic day may feel good in the moment but won’t tackle the root cause of the problem. Traditional acupuncture is an effective, evidence based therapy that can be a positive step for anyone wanting to get their stress levels back under control.

Although traditional acupuncture has been an integral part of Chinese medicine for nearly two thousand years, particularly as treatment for stress – just 4% of the UK have tried it.

 

Original article by BAcC http://www.acupuncture.org.uk/public-content/public-pr-press-releases/4344-burnt-out-brits-struggle-with-stress.html