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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.

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

Everyday Stigma of Mental Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mental Health – Strong for too long?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.talkingfreely.org

Mental Health – Surviving or Thriving

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

MENtal Health – Look out for your friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 time to do what they want to do.  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, conformity with an ingrained culture, 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 every day and see my kids both in the morning and the afternoon.  I spend Monday and Friday at 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.  When I reflect back on my own journey to work-life balance it happened over three distinct phases, all of which were symbolised by an event or metaphor.  I believe that by adopting this three phase approach you too can get the life you want so I have summarised each with the lesson I learned below.

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

Step 1 – Challenge your relationship with money

Everyone needs money to get by in life but it is entirely fair to say that western lifestyle is driven less by need as by desire. 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.

For most of us, work-life balance means making some financial sacrifices so one of the first tasks is to get a better understanding of your own relationship with money.

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 when instead I was travelling to work to earn money to spend in the supermarket on inferior quality produce because I was too busy earning the said money to spend any amount of meaningful time growing my own!

You may want to read that again a few times to get your head around it but in summary, by my reckoning, the lost income from trimming my working hours could have paid for itself in better quality home grown food.  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.

Now I should point out, 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 it was this simple 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.  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.

I could buy 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.  I half jumped and was half pushed when we were spinning pretty fast.  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!  That said my fall became part of my toolkit.  I got up, fixed myself and here I am now sharing the experience to spare 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 or corporate presentations/events.  Details of how to contact him are given here.