Tag Archives: Stress

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

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

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

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

STIGMA

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

Head in Hands

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

Anger

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

Male Stereotypes

Male soldier in desert patrol

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

Challenges in Primary Care

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

circle on a calendar with "doctor" written on it

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

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

Summing Up

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

Talking FreEly logo

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

Tony Sigrist

Portrait of Tony Sigrist

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

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

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

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.

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

Stress – 5 steps to help you manage

Stress free zone.  A signpost pointing the way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Tony Sigrist

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

Stepping back from the stress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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