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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.

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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.

Pain

alone-62253_1920Any conversation about acupuncture will usually start involve pain.  Despite the wide spectrum of holistic clinical applications for acupuncture, it is still the most common problem that presents in my clinic.  It is probably what acupuncture is best known for and indeed the most explored and explained condition scientifically.

What is Pain?

The widely accepted definition was developed by a taxonomy task force of the International Association for the Study of Pain: “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that is associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in such terms.”  Importantly, this definition highlights the fact that it is a subjective sensation.  In other words expressions such as “it can’t be that bad” say more about the frustration of the person saying it than the person suffering.  One persons intolerable discomfort may be very different to the next.  Indeed it may be very different according to a number of external factors like temperature, time of day, mood etc.  In my clinic, it is whatever the patient says it is.

There are a number of ways in which to classify pain but I particularly like those described by Professor G. F. Gebhart who separates into protective and non protective of acute or chronic duration.

_DSC0099Protective pain

This could be likened to my old career as a police officer.  Nobody likes it much but actually its doing an essential job.  In this simplest form, pain is a protective response from our body to prevent more serious injury.  For example, the pain one experiences when touching something hot is a warning shot that prevents a more serious burn.  Without this we’d be in big trouble.  When we injure ourselves and it hurts to move in a particular way its usually to stop us moving and causing more damage. Basically, we need pain.

Non protective pain

By comparison this pain serves no obvious protective function, for example the ongoing discomfort experienced after a nerve injury.

Chronic and Acute

The terms chronic and acute can be ascribed to either of the above classifications and describe the duration of the pain.  The NHS consider pain to be chronic or persistent if it has been suffered for 3 months or more and has failed to respond to standard medical treatment.  This persistent condition is poorly understood. It is believed that in at least some cases, there has been a breakdown in the way in which our complex nervous system processes information.

Alarmingly its not an unusual condition.  The Chronic Pain Policy Coalition in a recent publication reported around 14 million people in the UK living with this condition, 25% of whom have lost their jobs.  This is a significant number of people.

How does acupuncture work?

Picture of acupuncture needlesScientific research for acupuncture is very complex and is much debated (a subject better covered in my talks).  A number of theories are suggested for the mechanism behind acupuncture treatment.  Some studies have found that certain hormones released by the body for anaglesia in response to pain are released in greater quantities during electro-acupucture treatment.  Another explanation is the micro trauma theory which suggests that causing a very small injury in the region of existing trauma re-activates the bodies healing mechanism, “waking it up” so to speak.  All of the current theories/explanations are interesting and plausible but it is fair to say that the exact science is not fully understood.  Never the less, in certain conditions such as migraine, the results of using even very basic acupuncture treatment is so positive that it is recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Traditional Acupuncture

In chronic pain I find it useful to consider the problem in the Traditional Chinese Medicine paradigm.  In basic terms this holds that the usual smooth flow of the bodies energy force, Qi, is disrupted which causes a blockage or stagnation.  This in turn causes pain.  Acupuncture at certain points on the body can get the energy moving in the right way again.

Of course moving Qi is just one part of the problem.  The is to work out why the energy is stagnating in the first place.  In a post trauma injury this may be easy to work out but in long term chronic issues any number of physical and emotional factors could be at work in isolation, or in collusion with one another.  Looking at the wider aspects of your health and wellbeing both physically and mentally helps me to get a clearer picture of your health.  Treatment is then tailored to your specific “holistic” needs.

Help with pain

If you would like more information about how acupuncture could help please contact me to discuss – Contact Details

For more information follow this link to the NHS pain management self help leaflet – Pain Toolkit

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
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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.

Acupuncture treatment

How does Acupuncture Work?

How does acupuncture work, this question is again best answered by looking at the two predominant theories.

Traditional Theory

Traditional acupuncture has many different styles but all have the central theory that the body is covered in channels of Qi (pronounced chee). Qi translates as energy or life force that guides all of the bodies functions.  There are twelve primary channels in the body which pass through the main organ systems.  They are responsible for bodily functions.  In health, the flow of Qi through these channels is smooth and seamless.  In ill health there is a problem, either a blockage, a deficiency or some other disruption to the smooth flow.  Acupuncture needles at certain points of the body can manipulate the flow of Qi, either nourishing and encouraging it or calming and sedating.  In doing so, health is restored.

Medical Theory

Scientific theory on the mechanism behind acupuncture is rich and varied.  In summary it is believed to act on the central nervous system.  Studies, predominantly focused on pain mechanisms, have noted changes in the release of certain neuropeptides and “significant modulatory effects at widespread cerebrocerebellar brain regions” (Bia, 2013). 

How the two come together

In the face of the highly intelligent and frankly daunting language of science it is easy to feel that traditional theory has no place in modern acupuncture.  In fact, the emergence of a scientific basis for acupuncture in my opinion places even more validity on traditional practises.

Firstly, we must remember that language behind traditional medicine is primitive.  It was developed centuries before scientific knowledge and reflects observation on the human body and its interaction with variations in emotion, the environment and disease. 

For example, if the weather was cold and people started to experience stiff joints the assumption was that the body had experienced an invasion of cold which disrupted the normal function of the body.  We may find the concept difficult to equate but I’m sure we can grasp the sentiment behind it.  Cold invasion in this context describes the nature of symptoms and offers a potential explanation for how the problem arises.  The treatment may include warming the area.  Setting aside the language, applying heat to joint pain remains a valid treatment across a range of medical disciplines.   Much can be taken from the traditional theory of medicine if we take time to contextualise the language.  

Secondly, we must also consider what scientific research has discovered.  Medical Acupuncture is not a new invention, rather an investigation into an existing practise to explain if, why and how it works.  The two practises may focus differently but much of the practise is similar.  For example, whilst medical acupuncture is less specific about the choice of acupuncture point in comparison to traditional acupuncture many of its practitioners never the less use traditional acupuncture points because they assume they probably give the best stimulation of the nervous system (AIM, 2009). In other words, traditional acupuncturists may needle a point because it moves stagnation, medical acupuncturists may needle because it activates the central nervous system.  Both are needling the point to treat pain.

References

Bai, L., & Lao, L. (2013). Neurobiological foundations of acupuncture: the relevance and future prospect based on neuroimaging evidence. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2013, 812568.

Western medical acupuncture: a definition Acupuncture in Medicine 2009;27:33-35.

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.

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.

Traditional Acupuncture and the Menopause

 

If you would like more information from the British Acupuncture Council on menopause please click here

If you would like to discuss how acupuncture could help with your goals, please contact me via one of the methods here

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.

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