Tag Archives: wellbeing

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Mens mental health – The challenges of encouraging men to seek help

In a slight deviation from my four pillars series I have decided to write a short piece on mens mental health, in part because I have been in the process of writing a response to this very question for someone else and felt my musings could be of value to the wider audience.  

Apparently in the UK, women are twice as likely to see a GP about their mental health than a man causing some to ask if the services we provide alienate men by being female centric.  

STIGMA

I would start by saying that in my opinion, the biggest problem men face is not at the point of service but before that.  Stigma is still the biggest issue standing between men and accessing mental health support in spite of significant efforts in recent times.  Many men either don’t want the label that accompanies diagnosis, or they are unaware of their mental health in the first place.

Head in Hands

Stigma has both social and practical consequences which challenge traditional views on masculinity and impact on areas of life like career.  Anecdotally I am aware of men who fund therapy privately because of the negative impact a disclosed mental health condition would have on their career.   

Anger

An example of where stigma may be contributing to misconceptions by men is the traditional portrayal of mental illness.  The “head in the hands” picture accompanying so much of the discussion often does not fit the male experience.  Many men may feel angry and frustrated as a result of mental illness but I rarely see this discussed or represented. It is highly plausible that many men simply do not understand that they are unwell and this is such a crucial part of the healing process.  I am asked all the time by people how they can help a loved one who doesn’t want help or doesn’t know they have a problem.  The simple answer is, you cant.  You can love them and support them, talk to them, educate them but you cannot impose your will upon them.  To heal from any condition there needs to be a degree of will and co-operation.  I also wonder how prepared society is for managing this face of the problem.  How do we reach out to angry people?  It is difficult to show compassion and empathy to someone who is angry and as a result society tends more often to alienate them.  

Male Stereotypes

Male soldier in desert patrol

Male representations in media could help but we must tread cautiously.  There is a tendency in my opinion to represent male mental illness through readily explainable conditions like PTSD, or through individuals who have experienced trauma or operate in high stress or highly psychologically challenging environments.  It is incredibly important to support those in society that we expose to the most difficult situations but we must also remember that mental illness is not all trauma based.  Many, in fact the majority, struggle like I do with common mental disorders through a combination of inherited, biological, psychological and lifestyle factors.  Over emphasising trauma as a cause of mental illness risks creating a hierarchy that causes those suffering outside of this model to question wether they are truly ill or indeed have a right to be ill.  

Challenges in Primary Care

Assuming that men, or anyone come to that, have managed to navigate the initial barrier of stigma, you must then overcome the practical considerations of accessing support.  The problems with seeing a GP are well documented.  You could pick up on any of the traditionally cited complaints, waiting times, being triaged, 10 minute appointments.  All of these are seen as problematic in health provision (by doctors themselves) but it becomes additionally complex when your condition is sensitive and one of your primary considerations is maintaining discretion. Reflecting on some of my own experience I have often pondered the irony that at a time when I had exhausted my emotional reserves I needed to muster every shred of fortitude I could, just to navigate the system.  

circle on a calendar with "doctor" written on it

In many areas you are able to self refer into psychological services.  Undoubtedly this helps but it is not always appropriate and is certainly not a substitute for face to face primary care.

My final observation, and one of my initial motivations for starting Talking FreEly, was the manner in which services are provided.  In my local area I found them to be almost entirely provided during standard working hours, both public and third sector provisions.  This automatically excludes anyone who is attempting to manage their illness discretely or in conjunction with holding down a job.

Summing Up

I am certain that, with regard to primary care, the current provision of services disadvantages anyone suffering with mental illness, regardless of gender. In the discussion about mens mental health however, the issue in my opinion is still one of getting men to the point that they identify with the need for help and feel confident in doing so.

Talking FreEly logo

We must be realistic about the challenges.  I have campaigned for better tolerance and understanding of mental illness for over 10 years now.  I didn’t sense any significant change in attitudes until the launch of Heads Together by Princes William and Harry.  Whilst this and other campaigns have helped the discussion no end, attitudes do not change overnight.  People dont open up about their mental health because we tell them to.  They open up about their mental health when they feel it is safe to do so and that is why organisations like Talking FreEly exist, to create those environments and communities that will bring about the change.

Tony Sigrist

Portrait of Tony Sigrist

Tony is a qualified acupuncturist with clinics across east Anglia. He is also the founder and a director of Talking FreEly, an organisation campaigning to break down the stigma of mental illness through honest and open conversations.

If you are interested in learning more about how Tony could help you to achieve your well being goals please get in touch or book an appointment at one of his clinics.

If you are interested in how Tony and his team can help your organisation to raise awareness of mental health and support your staff please email enquiries@talkingfreely.org 

piglets asleep together

CALM SLEEP – How to approach Sleep Hygiene for a better nights rest

Sleep is an essential part of our wellbeing. It helps our bodies to recover and regenerate and keeps us sharp and productive. Sleep deprivation is so detrimental to wellbeing that it was utilised in the 1600’s by self styled Witch Hunter General Matthew Hopkins as a means of eliciting confessions from accused witches. Its says something for the pain and torment of sleep that a confession to witchcraft would be seen as a preferable option!

According to the NHS, the average adult human needs around 7-9 hours of sleep per night. According to one survey however, an astonishing 30% of us have had insomnia at some point. There are a myriad of potential causes that lead to insomnia such as shift work, mental health conditions, pain etc.

Acknowledging that the underlying causes can be difficult to control, a common contributor to poor sleep is sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is not (as was once suggested to me) how often we clean our nightclothes. Its the routines and habits leading into our bedtime that can influence how we sleep. Addressing these, even if you think that sleeping is not a big problem for you, could ring in the benefits to your mental wellness.

I spend a lot of time talking these things through with my patients so to make things easier I have created a simple mnemonic of sleep habits that could help you to streamline your bedtime. If you are struggling with sleep, or have poor energy that might be linked to quality of sleep, I recommend you try CALM SLEEP, a few simple rules and ideas that could tidy up your sleep hygiene and send you into a more blissful land of nod to help your body and mind recover from the rigours of life!

C – Comfort.
Woman lying on a comfortable bed

Going to bed should be a pleasure and making it comfortable is going to help this no end. To give a balanced view, some researcher in the 1950’s concluded that theres little difference in the amount of sleep time we get between sleeping on a board or sleeping on a sprung mattress. I’m going to be honest, I haven’t read the whole study because I am never going to recommend sleeping on a board. Perhaps the difference between a sprung mattress and a board wasn’t so great in the 1950’s. Whatever this study says, most of us would agree that being comfortable at night enhances our sleep. A decent mattress, bedding and pillows makes our bed a place we want to go to. I know it can run expensive but if we are getting the recommended amount of sleep most nights then we are spending a third of our lives in bed. This has to be worth the investment.

A – Avoid.

There are many avoids before bedtime to aid good sleep but the highlights are caffeine, alcohol and eating too late.

Theres a lot of conflicting advice about the effects of caffeine and alcohol on our general health. Barely a week goes by when I’m not picking up a news article that bestows the benefits or calamities of moderate to heavy consumption. One area of agreement however is the effect on sleep that even moderate consumption can have. With caffeine, as we know, it keeps us awake. The advice I give to maximise sleep is avoid caffeine in the afternoon completely and keep overall consumption moderate. beware also that we aren’t just talking coffee and tea. Unfortunately caffeine can also be found in other places like chocolate so be aware that your evening treat could be having an effect too.

With regard to eating, a full stomach before bed leaves our bodies with a world of work to do when we should be sleeping. You may recall from my last blog on diet the old proverb, “Eat breakfast like an emperor, lunch like a King and dinner like a pauper”. Supporting good sleep is another reason to look at this model of eating. If you can’t face switching your habits, at least make sure you give yourself a few hours between the last mouthfuls and counting the sheep!

L – Light Control.

This is a subject we are becoming moderately aware of but which I feel has a much greater part to play in our overall health. Our bodies respond to light by releasing or suppressing the release of a hormone called melatonin that aids sleep. Studies have found that blue light in particular mimicked daylight (something to do with the wavelength) and guess what? Blue light is emitted by phone, tablets and laptops. How many of us are sitting in bed on devices? This works at both ends of the day. Getting a bit of sunlight in the morning can help to switch off the melatonin and get the body moving.

One of the issues in the western world is that we don’t adapt top our natural environment. Work and school starts at 9 winter summer or fall yet the seasons change and our bodies want to change with it. I believe its a major reason behind Seasonal Affective Disorder as I detailed in an article on the subject some years ago. Regrettably the world is unlikely to change anytime soon so the best we can do in the meantime is to try an mould ourselves around it. Small investments like a natural light clock to wake up to in the morning could help as well as paying attention to getting things switched off at the other end of the day

M – Mellow.

I contemplated making this one meditate but I accept that not everyone has or is going to start this journey. What we can all do however is look at how we slow down in the evenings.

When I ask the question – “How do you relax” to my patients, the most popular answer by a country mile is watching TV. I always challenge this. When was the last time you watched something truly relaxing on TV? Its not designed for that. TV is meant to get its audience engaged, whatever your choice of programme. Documentaries get us thinking, soap operas draw us into the drama and don’t even get me started on the news. The only truly disengaging thing i can ever remember seeing on TV in the last 46 years was the test card and even that had an annoying high pitched noise accompanying it.

Our minds have got enough to do at night filing away a days worth of memories. Calming things down before we go to sleep is going to help avoid that tumultuous brain working overtime when we are trying to drop off. Try listening to relaxing music or reading if meditations not your thing but do try to avoid the Uber excitement at least an hour before lights out.

S – Schedule.

Following a routine is the first thing to look at with sleep. The body has a natural clock called the circadian rhythm which adapts according to our habits. Following a routine at night, especially with regard to the time we go to bed and the time we rise helps our body to take care of the natural functions that aid this such as releasing the sleep hormone melatonin.

L – Leave.

Woman clinging onto a large clockThis really belongs further down but then the mnemonic wouldn’t work! Leave is for those struggling to sleep and what it means is get up, remove yourself for the bedroom and go somewhere else if you cant sleep. The rationale behind this is that we start to develop negative associations with our bedroom and the insomnia cycle becomes self perpetuating. Experts advise going somewhere quiet, reading a book for a few minutes and then returning to your bed to try again.

E – Exercise.

The relationship between exercise and sleep is well made with the advice being that even moderate activity improves duration and quality of sleep. it also helps us to wake and get going.

I always understood there was a caveat to when you exercise because too vigorous too close to bed had an opposite effect. According to the sleep foundation however, recent studies suggest that this doesn’t apply to everyone so I guess its a case of what works for you.

E – Environment.

This is something I feel very strongly about. Now I’m not a Feng Shui expert by any manner or means but it makes complete sense to me that our bedrooms should reflect the peace and tranquility we would hope to associate with a good nights sleep. Lots of clutter cannot allow for a free flowing energy.

baby sleeping on someones armRemember, our bedrooms are places to sleep. They are not for watching TV, or evoking memories or anything else. I recommend tidying up, Marie Kondo the drawers and leave only a few calming objects or pictures out.

I’d also like to discuss the issue of mirrors. According to some traditional belief, our ethereal soul leaves the body at night to wander (it is further believed that if you dream about someone your ethereal souls have met!). If it sees a reflection in the mirror it becomes startled which in can cause us to have nightmares. I recommend draping something over the mirror at night or better still, just don’t have one in there.

P – Professionals.

If you’ve done all of this and you are still struggling it might be time to speak to the professionals. Sleep deprivation is linked to a number of physical and mental health disorders and we should suffer in silence.

So there you have it.  A summary of sleep in a neat little mnemonic.  Please bear in mind that as with everything, if we spend a lifetime developing bad habits, transforming to new ones and seeing the benefit won’t happen over night.  With tenacity however you will ring in the changes.

Tony is a qualified acupuncturist with clinics across east Anglia. He is also the founder and a director of Talking FreEly, an organisation campaigning to break down the stigma of mental illness through honest and open conversations.

If you are interested in learning more about how Tony could help you to achieve your well being goals please get in touch or book an appointment at one of his clinics.

Vegetables

Eating for Wellbeing – 5 non nutritional tips for improving Diet


Diet. The very word is enough to cast fear. Its one of those words that has gradually developed and links now to both nutrition and how we fuel our body and less positive associations with weight loss, body image and feelings of dissatisfaction about how we and others see ourselves. However you perceive the word diet, its rarely far from our thoughts and has become a multi million dollar industry.

In my previous post, The Four Pillars of Wellbeing, I discussed how diet stands alone and interacts as one of the pillars upon which our wellbeing stands. Many excesses or deficiencies in our diet can lead to chronic health problems which will affect both our physical and mental function. In fact, some studies have found a direct link between the food we eat and conditions such as depression.

Good wellbeing has to incorporate a discussion on food but I would like to start mine by saying very clearly that I am not a nutritionist. Furthermore, I have to confess that of my four pillars of wellbeing, it is the area I struggle with the most personally. My approach to diet in the context of wellbeing is not nutritional based. The world is awash with different nutritional models or diets which you may already be following for a specific outcome be it performance, weight loss, health management, ethical or religious principles etc. Motivation behind what we do or don’t eat is personal and I am not here to judge or opine on the benefits or otherwise of calories counting, carbs vs protein, vegan, vegetarian or any other permutation. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is rooted in an energetic model of health and food can influence the manner in which the bodies energy moves and balances. These energetic properties differ within specific food groups so it is usually possible to tailor an existing diet by swapping one food for another or adding in something to counteract another. This is where I confine my guidance.

What follows therefore is not a lecture or secret formula for killer abs. There are plenty of places that offer these promises if that’s what you are looking for. These are simply some guidelines that will help you build your wellbeing from the foundations you already have.

1. The manner in which food is eaten is as important as the food itself

This is probably the most common dietary transgression I see. Increasingly people have become more aware of what they eat but the habit of “grab it and go” seems more deeply ingrained. A sandwich in front of the computer, breakfast in the car, dinner by the TV all common 21st Century habits. Not only does eating in a hurried fashion like this affect the pleasure we derive from food but also the way we digest it.

Mindful EatingIn order to tackle this I recommend mindful eating. Mindfulness is another area of health I find commonly that we don’t find time for and combining these enhances both our digestion and our senses. Eat quietly, at a table taking time to focus on the taste and other senses associated with eating. I realise it is more time consuming but its important and if you really don’t feel you have time to do this you may benefit from taking a more holistic view of what is driving your life. My post on work-life balance may help.

2. Eat breakfast like an emperor

This is from an old proverb, Eat breakfast like an Emperor, lunch like a King and dinner like a pauper. Its in stark contrast to how the majority of us eat with the main meal coming later in the day. If any meal is going to hit the cutting room floor, it’s normally breakfast. But think about it for a minute, it doesn’t make sense. Firstly, we need the energy from our food during the day and secondly, we digest better when we are awake, not asleep. Why then would we load up just before bedtime? Some studies have shown that addressing when calories are consumed as oppose to how many can help to combat obesity.

Western lifestyle does not help us to follow this advice and most of us would baulking at the thought of getting up even earlier to prepare a proper meal in the morning. If however we can make even small progressions towards this it’s a step in the right direction. Firing your metabolism up in the morning should be an essential start to the day and skipping breakfast, a non option.

3. Cereal and toast are not compulsoryBowl of food

Building on tip 2, another issue for me personally (and one Ive heard echoed from my patients) is that the traditional mainstays of a (weekday) British breakfast is frankly unappealing. Some people love their toast and cereal but for others, like me, it just doesn’t do it. Now a fry up is something I can get excited about but lets face it, eating that every morning would get tedious eventually not to mention what it would do for the waistline.

My approach to breakfast is to eat what I fancy. I recently travelled to Myanmar where the traditional dish is Mohinger, a noodle soup. I have no problem digesting this first thing so frequently eat this type of dish or similar. The picture is a miso soup I knocked up in a matter of minutes with veg and poached egg.  The key for me is to eat something that appeals and remains basically healthy. Don’t be afraid to bend the rules. Stuck for inspiration? Why not take a look at what people eat around the world.

4. Food energetics can be altered within existing nutritional models

One of the challenges of using a traditional model of health in a modern world is that our goals may be in conflict with one another. Wellbeing in the 21st century is often closely aligned with personal goals like fitness which also place a nutritional demand on the body. We could argue about the virtues of different nutritional models or approaches to wellbeing but I find its far easier to seek the middle ground and find an approach in which our various lifestyle demands can coexist.

Within an energetic model of health, such as TCM, part of the “balancing” that forms the foundation of treatment is looking at the energetic properties of what we put in our bodies. The good news is that all foods have individual energetic properties that are independent of which nutritional group they belong to. Likewise, the manner in which food is prepared can also add to the energetic qualities. Refining your diet to achieve better balance should therefore usually be possible without compromising existing health models. For example, grapefruit and lemon are both citrus fruits but one is Yin and the other is Yang. These subtle differences can be found right across the supermarket so finding a compromise for all but the strictest or fussiest of eaters should be possible.

5. Be wary of the experts

I say this with the very best of intentions but the increased use of social media over the last few years has seen the emergence of a new generation of unregulated “expert”, the influencer. Sometimes they are subject matter experts who are well studied and informed. Sometimes they are people who have done something that worked for them and feel compelled to share this with the world. They may look great and speak with conviction but it doesn’t make them right.

Developing good eating habits will undoubtedly benefit our wellbeing but if you have specific needs relating to your food you should seek the advice of someone who has the time to understand your individual needs and is properly qualified to offer an opinion.

 

Tony is a qualified acupuncturist with clinics across east Anglia. He is also the founder and a director of Talking FreEly, an organisation campaigning to break down the stigma of mental illness through honest and open conversations.

If you are interested in learning more about how tony could help you to achieve your well being goals please get in touch or book an appointment at one of his clinics.

Family In the park

7 Tips for improving Mental Health

In the last couple of years the world has had a serious mental health wake up call. Barely a day passes now without a news article or social media post drawing attention to a problem that has existed since time began but has gone largely unnoticed.

Let’s make no mistake. Mental Illness has been a big problem for a number of years. What is driving the change in attitudes now is likely a greater awareness brought about because some very high profile individuals have spoken out and a greater understanding of the financial and personal costs of poor mental health. Regardless of the reasons, a greater awareness of our mental wellness and willingness to discuss it more openly can only be a positive thing in terms of wellbeing.

Mental Health or Mental illness?

I do think however that it is very important to make a distinction between mental illness and mental health. We tend not to use the word mental illness because it is surrounded by Stigma, substituting it for “mental health problems”. Unfortunately this muddies the water a little so let me set out how I see the language.

Mental health is something we all have. It is part of our overall health, separated at some point in time in medical terms, and governs how we think and feel about ourselves. The homeostatic place for our mental capacity is that we fluctuate gently between a range of emotions in a socially accepted response to a range of stimulus from the outside world. If for whatever reason the homeostasis is disrupted and a particular emotion starts to predominate we may start to behave in a way that is not considered socially normal or acceptable (I use this definition because, after all, who defines what normal is!). We may become irrational, withdrawn or even psychotic. At this point we are becoming mentally ill.

Mental health and Physical health

Like physical health, there are aspects of your mental health that are utterly beyond your control. Equally there are aspects of mental health that are influenced by lifestyle and adopting a healthier approach can reap benefits.

Of all the pillars of wellbeing, mental health is the one I have spent the most time contemplating, researching and engaging with. My understanding and opinion is ever changing but one of the things I feel most confident in asserting is that time spent figuring out what makes you tick is rarely time wasted.

What follows therefore is not a rule book or magic formula for zen level contentment. It is simply a collection of ideas that may help you to develop positive mental health.

1. Understand your own mental health

cup of coffee and open books

I am a firm believer that self awareness is the most important aspect of changing your mental health.  For many of us, the first time we will become aware of our mental health is when it becomes a problem.  Taking time to think about what makes you tick first however could help you to identify where your possible triggers may lie and help you to avoid them in the first place.  This may seem like quite an overwhelming task but there are plenty of resources out there that can help.  In his book, The Chimp Paradox, professor Steve Peters discusses the relationships between various parts of our brain that govern emotional and rationality thinking and how these develop in response to our experiences.  I found it an extremely useful way to explore and understand my own psychology as the basis of my mental health.  

Without understanding, your efforts at training are potentially shots in the dark.  When we first visit a gym, we may have no idea of where our strengths and weaknesses lie.  Once we’ve pumped a bit of weight or stepped out on the treadmill we will have a clearer idea and this can help to focus our training.  

As a side note, I’m not sponsored to promote anyone’s work or product. I happened to find this book particularly useful but I acknowledge it may not be for everyone and there are a raft of other resources out there that may be equally useful.  

2. Balance activity with rest

Any athlete will tell you that the harder you train, the more rest you require.  Its a simple balance of Yin and Yang.  When it comes to resting mentally I find people are generally less aware of what constitutes rest. TV for example is rarely relaxing.  It is usually emotive or stimulating.  After all, it is designed to entertain.  We could be lulled into thinking we are resting because our bodies aren’t moving however all  the while however our brains are ticking away, processing the information.

In my humble opinion, 21st century human beings are over stimulated. Information is fired at us left right and centre and for many, we have simply lost the art of being still.  Because of this I strongly recommend developing a mindfulness practise.  Mindfulness is a form of meditation that allows us to focus on what is happening right now as oppose to past or future events.  It sounds simple enough but once you engage in a mindful practise you will be astonished at how much time is spent thinking in either past or future terms.  If you need anymore convincing the mainstream media are frequently bestowing its benefits as seen in this well balanced article.

Mindfulness can help us to give the mind a break and in time that will become more than just something we do for ten minutes a day.  It becomes a skill to manage some of the more difficult aspects of life.

3. Don’t expect overnight results

This is another casualty of our modern world where we no longer have to wait for anything.  Our expectations have moved, often unrealistically.  If I want to develop 32” biceps its going to take time.  If I am recovering from a shoulder injury, its going to take even longer.  Patience is the key.  Its harder because we struggle to see the results however in time, if we stick with it we will start to feel the results.

Brain Training

4. Consider how the other pillars of wellbeing influence your mental health

This really harks back to my first post introducing the four pillars of wellbeing.  Ultimately, wellness is not held up by one aspect of health.  If we want to be resilient we will want to stand our wellbeing on four Saturday pillars, each of which is helping the load of the other.  It can help us to consider our health in individual terms but there is plenty of cross over.  For example, how we eat can have an effect on our mental health as seen in this link from MIND.

Mental health can affect sleep and sleep can affect mental health.  The best way to approach your mental health is to sit down with a piece of paper and think about various aspects of lifestyle and how they may be affecting you.  A few key areas to think about could be sleep routine, social media use, alcohol and caffeine consumption.  This is by no means exhaustive but is a nice starting point.

Remember, we are all individuals

This reminds me of my favourite line in life of Brian where the entire crowd repeat this sentence.  There is a tendency to think of our health in a one size fits all model.  My training and career as a holistic therapist has taught me that no two people are truly alike.  We all bring subtle differences so whilst I very much advocate open and honest conversation about mental health with the sharing of ideas, we never the less should be aware that what worked for one may not work for another.  This doesn’t mean it or you have failed, just that you have different needs and should try something else.

Reach out for help if you need it

This is where our old friend stigma comes in again.  I’m afraid it is also an opportunity for me to use another physical health analogy (yes repetitive but unapologetic, it gets the message across). My local green has someone training under the watchful eye of a personal trainer nearly every day at some point in time.  Most of the people in my social circle engage in some type of regular physical activity under the watchful eye of a trainer, coach or professional.  In my family it is Karate.  In others it is Yoga or Pilates or whatever.  For those who run or cycle the help may be less formal, working instead in pairs or small groups.  When we take a bump we will ask someone to put a plaster on or give the area a rub.  If the injury is more serious we usually seek professional help.  What I’m saying is that we all understand that our physical needs are usually better met under guidance or with support.

Consultation

Why then are we so reluctant to seek help for our mental health?  Stigma.  Its a tired line but in my opinion it cant be said enough.  reaching out for help with mental health is not a sign of weakness or failure.  It is a sign of common sense that you have recognised the limit of your own capabilities and need some help to either fix things or take you to the next level.  Mental health support can take many forms.  CBT, Counselling, Complementary therapy, Talking informally in groups like Talking FreEly  What is important is that we feel able to reach out when we need it

Be mindful of the end goal

A few months ago I posted a blog on Happiness.  To say it was highly controversial would be an overstatement but suffice to say it was divisive, some disagreeing with my assertion that we should not be striving for happiness.

I haven’t shifted my thinking here.  If you see the epitome of mental health as perpetual joy you are going to be disappointed.  Life can be hard.  Its a series of obstacles and challenges, some pleasing, others not.  Very few people navigate through life on a steady straight zen line.  We are always moving between highs and lows.  Its a natural process of life to experience a range of emotions according to what life presents us.  Instead the goal should be improving our capacity to cope or recover from the knocks and equally, not to get too carried away with the highs

Contact

Tony is a qualified acupuncturist with clinics across east Anglia. He is also the founder and a director of Talking FreEly, an organisation campaigning to break down the stigma of mental illness through honest and open conversations.

If you are interested in learning more about how Tony could help you or your organisation please get in touch or book an appointment at one of his clinics.

Work life balance – 3 Steps to changing your life

work-life-balance

Photo Credit: Work Life Balance, by NY – http://nyphotographic.com/. Supplied by http://www.picserver.org under Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0

I remember the days quite clearly. Standing on the platform at about 5am, shattered, waiting for the train into work with several other miserable people all of us slaves to the wage.

My story is probably familiar. Job in London, moved out when I had kids so I could afford a decent house, longer commute as a result. To minimise the impact I had condensed my hours so instead of working 5 days a week I worked 4 longer ones. As a result I got an extra day at home on the weekend but the trade off was leaving the house at 4.45am and getting in at 7.30pm on a good day. If there was a delay, which there frequently was, it could be 9, 10 o’clock or dossing down with my in-laws because I couldn’t get home at all.  It was a grind and although I still believe it was the right thing to do at that time, I never the less longed for a better life.

I’m not alone in challenging the status quo.  In a recent survey  60% of respondents admitted they have a hard time maintaining a good work-life balance and most of the people I speak to would prefer to have more control over their time.  But is it really what we want and if it is, whats actually standing in the way? I suspect we will all resonate with the same thoughts: Fear of the unknown, conforming to the norm, lack of appreciation of our own self worth.  Yet if we can overcome, the rewards are priceless.

These days I work for myself.  My acupuncture clinic is about a mile from my home in the shadow of Ely Cathedral and I’ve structured my days so that I can do the school run most days and see my kids both in the morning and the evening.  I preserve Mondays and Fridays to work from home, catching up with paperwork and all of the other unspoken responsibilities of a small business owner. I don’t drive a flash car or live in a flash house but I live comfortably within my means.  Most importantly the 5am train journeys to London lie firmly in my past.

What convinced me to change?  There were various epiphanies in my transformation but I think that the process of change happened broadly speaking in three steps.  Ultimately the only barrier that truly stands between us and a better work life balance are the ones we place their ourselves.  Breaking down these barriers happens by challenging your thought processes and these three steps will help you to do that.  Ultimately you may read this and decide that the sacrifice is too great.  That’s fine too, its all about choice.

Step 1 – Challenge your relationship with money
442965594_dd26a5c01c_o

Photo by Jeremy Shultz on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license

Everyone needs money to get by in life but western lifestyle is driven more by desire than  by need. In my lifetime alone we have added mobile phones, broadband and cable or satellite TV to the typical household budget.  Stretch back a generation and the list wouldn’t even have included a TV.  Undoubtedly we have become more dependant on mod cons and technology but when you strip it right back, our existence doesn’t actually depend on them.  In fact we only need 2 things to survive, food and sleep (I’d accept a third absolute need of clothing if living in a variable climate like the UK)  Everything beyond this basic need is a choice.  Once we can understand this in this highly simplistic way we can start thinking more honestly about the things in our life that are important to us and why.

An why is this important?  because for most of us, work-life balance is about compromises.  A lifestyle that involves us enjoying time with the family in luxurious surroundings without the interference of our office is called a holiday or retirement.   Work life balance however is exactly that, a trade off of priorities to make the very best from your personal circumstances.  That means sacrifices and as most of life is driven by economy, financial sacrifices are likely to sit at the middle of your decision making.

I first started to think about money differently when I moved to Ely where the train station is sandwiched between a large Tesco supermarket on one side and countryside on the other amongst which is nestled the Bridge Fen allotments.

I often pondered the irony of looking out longingly at the allotments, wishing I could be out in the fresh air growing my own food for my family.  Instead I was travelling to work to earn money to spend in the supermarket on inferior quality produce.  The reason?  I was too busy earning the said money to spend any amount of meaningful time growing my own vegetables.

You may want to read that again a few times to get your head around it!

I am realistic.  Giving up work to grow vegetables was not going to even things out.  The money I earned in “veg growing time” paid for more than just groceries.  It was however a good example of one area where I was making an unpalatable compromise.  Looking even more laterally at the savings, I could have most likely cancelled out my monthly gym subscription too on the natural exercise I would get maintaining an allotment.

I haven’t changed my life by growing veg (though it still sits at the back of my mind in the “to-do” pile) but this was my first observation that set me to changing my whole way of thinking.  Once I broadened this simple perspective I started looking at how I spend all of my money and asking hard questions about want over need.   Entertainment subscription or time to get out into the fresh air and kick a ball around?  Takeaway at the weekends or time to cook something?  Do I need an expensive house?  Do I need an expensive car?  What can I get by on?  If I don’t want to get by, how much will it all cost?

This isn’t to say I live a frugal existence.  There are many “wants” amongst my expenditures, the luxuries I feel give me the right balances in life, but what I did, and what I advocate for those who want to change their lives, is to really analyse expenditure,  challenge your thought processes and in doing so set out your priorities.  Do I need it, will I use it, will it make me happy? Cant afford your mortgage? Sell your house and buy a cheaper one. Already on the first rung of the property ladder? Sell and rent, move abroad, live in a caravan.  I know it sounds drastic but you really need to get to the bottom of what drives you.  Our society is very good at telling you what you need but its important to understand that it is not need, it is choice.

I could live in a bigger house.  I chose not to because it gives me the freedom to work less hours and spend time with my kids.  The point is that financial freedom is an option for most of us once you peel away your manufactured barriers.

Step 2 – Find the right role in life
Photo by Carmela Nava on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license

Photo by Carmela Nava on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license

Actually this came to me last but Ive put it here in the chronology because (for reasons that become clear later) my own experience suggests that it’s a better fit sooner in the process.

For some people, the pathway to work life balance is going to be easier than for others.  Some jobs lend themselves to part-time hours or flexible working.  Others can make an easy transition to consultancy or agency work.  But what about those of us who don’t have an easy transition or who are looking for a complete change?

For many years I had longed for the freedom of working for myself.  Trouble is, I’m risk adverse.  My dad lost heavily in a business venture back in the 80s and as a result growing up was hard.  Jumping into the unknown and potentially investing speculatively on a business terrifies me and no matter how miserable I was the safety of my situation took priority over my happiness.  It didn’t stop me dreaming though and I spent days and weeks in contemplation and conversation with family and friends trying to find the perfect plan.  I got nowhere except frustrated.

My inspiration came from an unlikely source, a discarded newspaper on the train that I’d have normally ignored.  This day however I picked it up and chanced upon an article about a person who had won a slimming title after losing a phenomenal amount of weight.  I wasn’t really interested in the story and almost put it down but just at the end I saw a short sentence which read – “now works as a slimming consultant”.  The simple idea of using your own experience to coach and inspire others made complete sense and as I thought it through I realised there were other examples. Reformed drug addicts working in rehabilitation, former gang members working with inner city youth’s and many more where life experience translated to work.  From that moment I set my future career path on doing the same thing.

It was an exciting moment because I knew that this was a safe bet.  I was investing in myself and as such had as much control over the investment as its possible to have.  But what did I have that people wanted?  The answer was simpler that I’d have thought.  I’d stepped back from the world and looked at it from a different view point and when I looked around, realised that lots of other people are striving to do just that.  I was going to change my life and in doing so improve my health and then I was going to help others who were stuck! I walked down a couple of dead ends before I decided that Acupuncture would be the vehicle for delivering my aims but once I’d decided what my “purpose” was the rest became simply about getting the right tools for the job.

Now it may well be that you have a clear idea of what you want to do.  Braver people than me may chose to really go for it. If however you are like me and struggling to see what you have to offer the world my advice is to look a bit closer to home.  The answer may be a lot closer than you think.

Step 3 – Step off the merry-go-round
Photo Credit: Merry go round, The Hoppings, Newcastle upon Tyne, by Ian Britton. Supplied by FreeFoto.com under Creative Commons License

Photo Credit: Merry go round, The Hoppings, Newcastle upon Tyne, by Ian Britton. Supplied by FreeFoto.com under Creative Commons

Of course all of this insight and self realisation is just the preparation.  You can buy the best parachute, get the best training and lay out the softest landing but whichever way you sugar coat it, you will eventually have to jump and that takes either courage or an almighty shove.

My encouragement came from a good friend who used to listen with good grace to my daily moans and complaints, crazy business ideas and mad-cap plans for a future that was apparently getting no closer.  He would simply say to me, “Tony, you need to step off the merry-go-round”.  And you know what, this metaphor encapsulates the whole experience of change so beautifully I cant think of any better way to put it! I wouldn’t however recommend getting off the same way as me.  It was spinning pretty quickly and I was half jump half push .  I failed to hit the ground running and as a result fell flat and hard.  You can spare yourself some pain by slowing the merry-go-round down and having a few steps planned before you jump!  Never the less my fall became part of my toolkit.  I got up, fixed myself and here I am now sharing the experience to help others so I guess it wasn’t all that bad!

Bringing it all together

Embracing a work-life balance isn’t an easy task and there are times when it feels the world is against you.  Society embraces quantitive success where achievements are measured in pounds and pence and it takes a brave person to challenge this and live their life to qualitative values.

What I can say, from personal experience, is if you can embrace the change a happier healthier life is almost certainly awaiting .  Most people will secretly hanker after everything you have gained and actually, far from mocking will probably applaud you.

Good luck with your journey.

Tony is a former Metropolitan police sergeant now working as an acupuncturist in Ely, East Cambridgeshire and is available for private appointments and public speaking.  Details of how to contact him are given here.

The four pillars of wellbeing

The Four Pillars of Wellbeing

Wellbeing.  Its a word we hear a lot about these days. Used a lot by the health and fitness industries it describes an all encompassing state of existence that we would all aspire to achieve.  The dictionary defines well being as “the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy” (see my post on Happiness here).  Taken literally it is two words, being and well.  

You could be forgiven for thinking that wellbeing is in fact a goal, something we must work towards.  Many people who claim to have good ‘wellbeing” will present their own successes as the key to unlocking your own pathway to wellbeing.  For some this can be very alienating.  Being physically fit is often portrayed as the key to wellbeing (this post has an interesting view here ) but what about people who suffer from life restricting disabilities?  Can they then not achieve wellbeing?  Of course they can because our sense of wellness is not based on someone else’s.  Nor is built upon a “one size fits all” model that focuses on a one aspect of life.  In the same way that a good building spreads its load accross a strong foundation, so our sense of wellness should be equally supported.

In fact wellbeing is a subjective sense that is built on our own values and priorities.  Furthermore, its an ever changing landscape. For example my priorities as a father of a young family are different to those I had as a 20 year old man.

The four pillars of wellbeing

In my clinical work I tackle wellbeing by looking at four areas of life.  Mental health, physical health, diet and sleep.  I call these the pillars of wellbeing and they have a few precepts

Everyone has their own pillars

Ive mentioned this already but to reiterate.  An 80 year old person may be very physically fit relative to their age but they cannot build their health in the same ways as a 20 year old athlete.  Its cruel perhaps but its a fact.  

Human beings broadly share the same anatomy but that is where the similarity ends.  This to me is where modern medicine and science with all of its immense knowledge and intelligence fundamentally falls over.  It relies too heavily on people behaving and reacting in the same way.  I do not practise acupuncture like this and nor do I consider wellbeing to work this way.  Good practise and shared ideas yes but every person treated as the individual they are.

The pillars must share the load

A building cant have one side and wellbeing cannot balance on one pillar. 

No one pillar stands more importantly than the others.  Lets look for example at someone who has identified their pathway to wellbeing through being extremely fit.  Diet will naturally need to adjust to cater for extra calories or protein.  Your sleep however, a frequently overlooked health priority, is equally important because that is the time the body recovers.  

Each pillar is made out of many rocks

Another curse of the western world is a tendency to throw our hat into one aspect of life and the expense of all others.  Gym people will be only too familiar with the “no legs day” physique. Massive upper body, tiny legs.  Pillars of wellbeing contain many building blocks in their own right, not just the ones on the outside that people see.

For example, sticking with the pillar of physical health it is also important not to focus entirely on the part that relies on moving. Rest, as with sleep, is also important as may be remedial therapy like acupuncture or massage to deal with the extra demands you are placing on your body.  Professional footballers for example spend a lot of time resting to stay fit.

And then theres the all to oftenly neglected mental aspect.  How do we switch off.  TV? Is that really relaxing us?

In this example we can see that each pillar carries its own appropriate mix and adjustments, not just a relationship to the others. This ensures it remains strong in its own right.

The pillars must hold their own weight

At first look, it seems my rules contradict one another.  Support each other but stand alone?  Bear with me.

What I am saying by this is that although a building will derive its best strength from spreading its load, it can still be built in such a way that it is capable of standing if one of the supports fails.

Sticking with the athlete example, a question I always ask clients who have a strong reliance on physical fitness is “what is your plan for injury, or your body slowing down”. Often there isn’t one and I can tell you from experience, if fitness is propping up mental health it will start to crumble when its no longer supported.

A pillar can build its strength from another pillar, even carry a little less weight itself, but it cannot lean on another and expect to stand if it falls. I highlight mental health because in my experience this is where we focus least but if it helps try to envisage it with one of the other pillars, diet for example.  Where do your 5,000 calories a day go once you stop training?

Any building will become weakened or shaken if one of its supporting structures develops a stress, or worse fails completely. If the building is well built however there is no reason that it should fall over.  Wellbeing is the same.

How to build your own wellbeing

This is always the million dollar question. In clinic I work individually with my patients to focus on the areas we decide may be vulnerable.  This isn’t a radical “do or die” process but a collaboration of ideas and adjustments.  It helps to reinforce the pillars that are belong held up by the others.  I usually look at slower aspects of life like rest and sleep and frequently there can be easy wins here.  Likewise I work a lot with mental health, encouraging periods of time when we focus on using our brains more slowly or indeed not at all.  In patients who are looking to be more active we talk through achievable sustainable goals rather than big changes that risk being passing fads.

Contact

If you are looking for support on your own journey to wellbeing get in touch today.  My details can be found on the contact page. Alternatively drop me an email via the contact form and I’ll get back to you.

Happiness

Happiness – Why this should not be our wellbeing goal

I realise and acknowledge that this headline may not grab you as something your want to read.  I would like to assure you from the outset that I am not against happiness or spreading joy. Happiness is great, I love being happy.  Ive also had long periods of time when I wasn’t.  

The reason I feel compelled to write about this is that its very easy to get caught up in the drive of positivity online thats working furiously to counteract the equally negative world.  The problem with both of these stances is that they stand at the extremes of the spectrum as polar opposites and life just isn’t like that.  Ask any acupuncturist.  Life needs Yin and Yang!  

In my working and personal lives I have encountered unhappiness that is driven by unavoidable circumstances.  Tragedy, mental illness, relationships, all examples of the obstacles life throws at us often without warning. Sometimes its all we can do to survive (see my post on thrive v survive). 

This blog is not intended to trash happiness but to raise our awareness of how it fits into our emotional health.  I believe this awareness can help us to achieve a better sense of wellbeing.

Happiness isn’t always a selfless and wholesome thing that makes the world a better place

Happiness means different things to different people.  A wellbeing professional will understand the wholesome messages they are trying to portray but in the modern world, driven by consumerism happiness as is frequently wrapped up with the acquisition of goods. 

There are other extremes too. For example, some people feel happiness when they are driving a vehicle at break neck speeds or from stealing other peoples possessions.

These are not really measures of happiness but examples of quick highs or easy fixes.  They are of short duration and need constantly replacing.  They demonstrate that happiness in itself is not an exclusively virtuous or wholesome pathway.  It is by no means an absolute right to feel happy if there is a cost to others.

Spreading happiness won’t help everyone to feel better

Its nice to read positive stories to motivate us to fill our lives with joy.  All over the world, thousands of people will feel the benefit and I’m not knocking this.

We should be aware though that there is another side.  For some people, happiness is simply not within their grasp.  Problems like repression, life events and mental illness can be absolute barriers to happiness. The problem with flooding their world with happiness is that it simply reinforces their unhappiness. We see this particularly at Christmas time, when our community feels an overwhelming pressure to feel joyful. Its well documented that those suffering from depression, loneliness or isolation will feel the effects particularly at this time of year.

Happiness is not a permanent state of mind

Happiness is one of many emotions human beings feel and express.  Because its the one that makes us feel good its natural to think that we should aim to feel like that all the time.  There are reasons this is flawed.

Firstly, its probably unachievable.  If someone is unhappy, no amount of tom foolery or coercion is going to make them happy.  Telling someone to be happy is far more likely to make them feel miserable.

Secondly, its not appropriate.  The human mind is adapted to feel and express several different emotions in response to the situations we find ourselves in. For example, we feel fear when faced with danger. This is entirely appropriate and triggers a hormonal response in our bodies that alters how we function in preparation for responding to the threat. The natural expression of a broad range of emotions is normal, healthy and part of living a well balanced life. It becomes a problem when these emotions cant be switched off or become overly expressed. Happiness is no different. It would be highly inappropriate to feel happy when faced with a dangerous situation or grief.

This all sounds a bit pedantic.  Aren’t you just playing with words?

Maybe but life is littered with arguments about words and language.  Humans are evolving intellectually very quickly and our language has developed enormously in recent years. The addition of new words into our vocabulary and the change in culture have affected how we interpret language. We have a duty to take care over the choice of words we use and at very least to discuss and rationalise how we interpret themes. This isn’t judging something as right or wrong, simply opening the opportunity to broaden our discussions and consider different perspectives. 

How else do we measure wellbeing if not through happiness

Lets be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be happy or to spread positive news.  What I am saying is we should be respectful of the complexity of human emotion.  Not everyone strives to be or can be happy and we shouldn’t take it personally when people dont feel like smiling or joining in the fun.

People should express all emotions freely and appropriately without fear of judgement or ridicule and perhaps a more achievable goal for wellbeing is to embrace this. 

Working towards “happiness” is fundamentally flawed as a life goal.  I advocate a values based approach, working to the best of our ability to do what we feel is right and aligns with the person we truly want to be. This would include self compassion and compassion for others.  If we follow this path, happiness may reward us along the way but we will achieve an overall sense of contentment and personal wellbeing.  In my opinion this is a more wholesome, achievable and sustainable goal.

I’m sure people will disagree with me. This is what makes us develop as human beings and I welcome the variety of opinion that supports or contradicts my own. That is after all what keeps the conversation going and the human mind developing. I hope you have enjoyed reading this and if so, or if not, please comment.

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.

Mental Health – Adapting to the Environment

Many people who are aware of their Mental Health will notice that certain environmental changes can trigger their symptoms.

I recently attended a fascinating presentation on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a keen interest of mine.  Some of the discussion was interesting because it highlighted how different attitudes towards mental and physical health.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

For those not in the know, SAD is an illness where mental health plummets 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 presented by one of the worlds leading authorities on the subject but became a well managed exchange of experience and views.  One of the attendee’s was interested in the potential of building light therapy into existing light sources.  Light therapy currently requires 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 concerned me was some of the rationale that was offered for “needing” this type of product.  “People don’t have 30 minutes to sit in front of a light in the morning”.

Different attitudes

What immediately struck me from this statement is the disparity with which mental health is held next to physical health.  Lets be clear, SAD is not a choice, its a serious debilitating mental illness.  Mental illness is a serious medical complaint.  In certain demographic groups, the mortality from mental illness exceeds that of any other illness.  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 it.  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?

This sense that we “don’t have time” is right at the centre of why so many of us struggle with our mental health.  We just don’t take time to care for ourselves.

Sunlight

Adapting to the Environment

I also think we should consider why we flood our world with artificial light as soon as it gets dark.  I believe that in many cases (not all) SAD is not a problem with lack of light but a problem with trying to continue life at the same frantic pace all year round.  Our bodies tell us to slow down but 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 to change and our instinct is to resist and fight.  We follow the same routines year round to maintain the same levels of productivity.

In an ideal world 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 the majority of attendees at the event agreed. We should be finding ways to secure 30 minutes of our day to attend to our mental health, not more ways of disregarding it.

Where to find help

If you are suffering from mental health problems be assured, you are not alone. There is non judgmental help when you feel able to reach out for it.

To find out more about challenging the stigma of mental illness take a look at Talking FreELY or get in touch with me.

Logo for Talking FreEly, Mental Health Organisation

If you are suffering from mental health problems, be assured, you are not alone. There is non judgmental help when you feel able to reach out for it.

If you are in crisis please consider the following advice from MIND

  • Go to any Accident & Emergency (A&E) department.
  • Call 999 and ask for an ambulance to take you to A&E.
  • Ask someone else to call 999 for you or take you to A&E.

If you need urgent support but don’t want to go to A&E, you could:

  • call Samaritans on freephone 116 123 – they’re always open and are there to listen
  • Call NHS Direct on 111.