Mindful Injury Recovery and learning to move without fear

This week’s blog is a little different, as I want to tell you about an interview I did recently with Maya Novak, an Injury Recovery Expert and Mindset Coach. The interview was part of her Mindful Injury Recovery World Summit, during which she interviewed 25 specialists in different fields from around the world, from doctors to physiotherapists to dietitians to… me!

Maya came to her field after a rock climbing accident in 2012. At first she hoped it was a bad sprain, but it turned out the ankle was broken, and doctors repeatedly told her that the injury would have debilitating and lasting effects.  


After nine months Maya was still in pain, and had become terrified that she would never fully recover. 

 However, this was not the case. In the end Maya completely recovered, and can now walk, run and move without pain. She was inspired by her experience to develop a Mindful Injury Recovery technique that she now uses to help other people recover from injury. 

During our eighty-minute interview, Maya and I covered many topics related to injury, recovery, and resolving chronic pain. The full interview is available to purchase either as a video or audio file here

 Below is an abridged excerpt from the interview, where Maya and I discuss pain medication. 

Maya: What do you say to someone who has had pain for, let’s say eight months, after a serious injury. Would you say that by then it’s essential to start looking into other things [such as Resolving Chronic Pain]? Or is it enough to wait for another few months and then maybe it will get better? 

Mags: One of the things about people coming to me is that sometimes they’ve gone to every person they can think of, but they have felt they’re not progressing, that they’re not healing.  I’m constantly taken aback by how people know themselves. It’s like a gut reaction: ‘This does not suit me. I’m not progressing here. I need to find a different route.’ So if someone had a serious injury, as you just stated, and they weren’t getting anywhere, doing this work on balancing the autonomic nervous system can do no harm. So they could do that alongside whatever else they were doing. 

Maya: Being in chronic pain, many people use medication. So when a person comes to you, and if they’re on pain medication, do you suggest they stop using it so that they can really start observing the body? Because pain medication is kind of numbing you, so you actually don’t know what is happening. What is your approach to this?

Mags:  I have a very open approach to pain medication. I feel I have to defend it on occasion because if someone is taking pain medication and it numbs the pain it allows them to move. 

One of the things I feel passionately about is that if I can restore someone’s confidence in moving, they will initiate a reduction in their pain medication when they are ready. But often health practitioners have suggested that movement should be restricted because of pain, and what that can do is perhaps make someone quite anxious and nervous about moving.  A lot of my experience of this is about low back pain with people explaining to me that their back is fragile, and I will reply ‘no, your spine is a robust bit of kit. It’s there to bend. If you look at the biomechanical structure of the spine, it’s designed to move, and it will support you.’ For someone to rediscover that that’s true, and then to be able to do gentle safe movement it can restore their faith in movement. If they manage to do that partly because of the pain medication, that’s actually fine because then they will find that they’ve got more confidence in their own body. That, to me is a great starting point.

Whose Life Are You Leading?

“Craig was a poster child for the post-Princeton urban-professional dream. He was getting an MBA and had a job as a vice president at Continental Bank, and he and [his partner] had bought a nice condo in Hyde Park. He wore tailored suits and had driven over for dinner in his red Porsche 944 Turbo.”

It sounds like a dream life, doesn’t it? A good job, a stable relationship, a nice place to live and money left over for expensive clothes and other luxuries. This is an extract from Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming, in which she describes her brother Craig in his early professional life.


But the next sentence reveals something else: “I didn’t know it then, but none of this made him happy.”

It might be surprising to some of you that this high-flying lifestyle wasn’t making Craig happy, but most likely you already knew that money doesn’t bring happiness. What surprised me about this sentence is actually the first part – Michelle had no idea that her brother was unhappy.

She was also unhappy at this time herself, as she describes: “I wasn’t happy with my job, or even with my chosen profession - that I was seriously unhappy, in fact […] I was desperate to make a major change but worried about not making enough money if I did.”

So why did neither brother or sister acknowledge their unhappiness and resolve to make changes?

“Knowing how thrilled our father was by what his kids had managed to accomplish, neither of us ever brought up our discontent over dinner.”

Both children were desperately unhappy with the versions of life they had pursued, but couldn’t bring themselves to say anything because of their father’s pride in those very versions of life.

This can happen to all of us. After all, if you love someone, a partner, a good friend, or a relative it is natural to consider their opinion. In particular parents can have tremendous influence, often far more than they intend, as in the above case of Michelle Obama. If they have given you a great or reasonable start in life to the best of their abilities, how could you not make sure that your life fits the image that will make them most proud?

Unfortunately, something is eventually bound to crack. As we are told by countless coming-of-age books and films, pursuing someone else’s dreams can only get you so far. Eventually there comes a point at which the unhappiness you buried in a bid to make someone proud bubbles up to the surface. This can be more injurious than disappointing a loved one ever could be.

Of course it’s tempting to try and make others proud: it’s a way of showing your love, gratitude or respect for them. And it may make them wonderfully happy in the short term. But in the long run, it has potential to cause more harm than good.

What we know deep down is that our lifestyle and chosen profession needs to align with our ambitions and principles. However, it's not easy. To follow your own path takes courage, and a leap of faith. Belief in yourself. Being true to your own aspirations, respecting what you feel, cultivating your own skills, and identifying values you want to adhere to. It means committing to your own moral compass. Perhaps those same people who love and care about you, whose opinion may have swayed you in the past, would be simply delighted to see you navigate your own route and thrive?  

What does exercise actually do for mental health?

A month ago in this blog I wrote about running a marathon, and the huge benefit I found that it had on my stress levels and overall well being. Thank you to all of you who have been in touch to share your own experiences of the effect of exercise on both physical well being and your mental health, and to those who have asked me more about the research surrounding this effect.


There have been a huge number of studies over the years, and I encourage you to do your own research and draw your own conclusions. That said, here are a few which I have found particularly striking in my own reading around the subject recently.

Exercise and Working Memory

A 2008 paper published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology details an experiment run by Sian Beilock and Ben Sibley into the effect of exercise on working memory. About 50 undergraduate students were asked to take a series of tests which evaluated their working memory. In one task, called Operation Span Task, students were instructed to solve a maths problem which appeared on a screen followed by a word. The students were to read aloud and solve each maths problem, then to read aloud the word and remember it. The sum and the word then disappeared from the screen. After a series of between three and five problems, students were asked to recall the words in the order they appeared. This was to test working memory: how well students could hold information in their memory while doing something else. After this initial test of working memory was completed, students were told to run on a treadmill for half an hour, at 60 to 80 percent of their maximum effort. The organisers then asked subjects to take part in another round of the test, and measured the change in working memory. They discovered that those who had showed the least amount of working memory to begin with experienced the greatest increase after exercise.

Exercise and Depression

A revolutionary study in 1999 by researchers at Duke University found that exercise is better than the SSRI drug sertraline at treating depression. In the study, called Standard Medical Intervention and Long-term Exercise and nicknamed SMILE for short, 156 patients were divided into three groups. Over a period of sixteen weeks, one group was prescribed sertraline, one group exercise, and one group a combination of the two. The exercise group took part in supervised walking or jogging at 70-85% effort for 30 minutes three times a week. Results showed that all three groups showed a drop in depression, with about half of each group in complete remission after sixteen weeks. The leader of the study concluded that in the short term exercise was as effective as the drug at treating depression. However, six months after the study finished, the researchers returned to the subjects to see how they were doing, and concluded that in the longer term exercise could be labelled as even better than the drug at treating depression. Only 30% of the exercise group still had symptoms of depression, compared to about 50% of both the medication group and the combined group.

Other Benefits

There has also been some research to suggest that exercise might be able to slow down the development of dementia, although this is not yet conclusive. Exercise has been shown to improve sleep – both in terms of falling asleep faster and sleeping longer and better.

The evidence for exercise as a benefit to mental wellbeing is overwhelming. It should be noted though that the benefits of exercise are increased when the subject enjoys the activity, and that too much exercise at too high an intensity can cause both physical and psychological harm. As with anything else, its best undertaken in healthy moderation, and under the advice of a doctor where necessary.

We'll look in more detail at physical well being and feeling good about your body through exercise later. For the time being I'm happy to say I didn't disgrace myself in the Edinburgh 10k a couple of weeks ago… although there is plenty of room for improvement!


The letter you will never send

Have you ever written a letter you never intended to send? A love-letter to the person you couldn’t reveal your feelings to, or a heat-of-the-moment scrawl letting out all the anger you felt towards someone who caused you pain?

Unsent letters are a widely-used tool for helping people to process emotions. They are one variation of a treatment method called expressive writing, which has been the subject of more than 200 academic studies. One particular researcher has produced a huge body of work on the subject: James Pennebaker, a social psychologist who is currently the Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas.


The beauty of writing unsent letters is that it allows you to vent all the frustration and anger you might feel towards a certain person or group, without causing any damage in cases where confronting the person in question would be unhelpful or harmful.

There are other forms of expressive writing: some involve writing down feelings about or memories of traumatic incidents, some just entail writing a paragraph about your day. ‘Journaling’, which has become increasingly popular of late, is also a form of expressive writing.

I often advise clients that they might find expressive writing exercises helpful. This can come in any form, but there are three key components which I advise. Firstly, the writing should be done by hand. This differentiates the activity from work, which many of us do on a laptop or computer. Not involving your phone will also help you to write with fewer interruptions, and have less of a negative impact on your sleep, if you choose to write before bed.

Secondly, you should destroy the piece of paper after writing on it. This doesn’t apply to all forms of expressive writing – journaling, for instance, relies on keeping the pages instead. But I find that writing and then destroying what you’ve written can be a wonderful aide to letting go of unhelpful thoughts, whether you scratch a line through the words on the page, crumple it into a ball, rip it up, throw it in the bin, or even burn it, if you have a safe method of doing so!

Finally, writing sessions should be regular. I don’t advise carrying a notebook around and jotting thoughts down as they occur to you throughout the day, rather the point of this exercise is that you set time aside regularly to do it. I find it best to dedicate a few minutes every day, which quickly forms a habit. It’s important to give yourself a time limit, of perhaps ten or twenty minutes – this encourages you to start writing immediately, and that way your thoughts are expressed without being filtered.

Good luck with your writing, and let us know how it goes in the comments!

What nobody told me about running a marathon

In 2014 I was involved with the back pain association BackCare UK. One day a colleague and I were in a meeting. “I need a volunteer” he said.

“A volunteer for what?” I asked, expecting to be pulled into some admin task or other.

“I need someone to run the London Marathon.” He replied.

It was January. The Marathon was in April. I had never run so much as a mile, let alone 26 of them. I kept myself fit – back then I was teaching Pilates in addition to my Resolving Chronic work, and I also loved swimming and going for long walks. But I had never tried running. Of course I couldn’t run the London Marathon.

“I’ll do it” I said.

What had I got myself into? The answer was, of course, a lot of running. I trained consistently for the three months until the marathon, exploring local trails and venturing further and further afield. I treated myself to some new running shoes, decided I preferred my old faithfuls, and soothed my aching muscles by taking baths sprinkled with Epsom salts.


April came around very quickly, and with it the London Marathon. To my great surprise (and that of my close friends and family), I managed to make it through the race. I no longer remember my time – it wasn’t something I was prepared to show off! I was never going win any awards for speed, but I finished the race after just a few months of training, and that was enough for me.

Training for a marathon in three months is a dramatic step, and if I hadn’t already had the fitness from my career as a Pilates teacher it would have been extremely foolish to put such pressure on my body. If you’re thinking about running a long distance make sure you consider what is right for you and your body, and don’t put yourself at risk!

In my case I was glad to have done the race. I noticed the effect it had on my body, and most of all, on my mind. My husband had recently changed jobs and was dealing with an increased workload and the stress of a new routine. We were also considering moving house, and my daughter was preparing for her school exams, the Leaving Certificate, with a lot of pressure on her to get the results needed for her university choice. ttha It was a stressful time for those around me, and as I was doing my best to support them it was a stressful time for me too.

Running helped me cope with that stress. The rhythm of my feet pounding the trail, the hours in which my body was so concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other that my mind could wander elsewhere… or go blank.

That exercise is good for the body is by now a well-established fact. There are few who would dispute it and even though millions of people don’t get enough exercise, they are in the most part aware of this fact. But fewer people recognise that exercise is also fundamental for the health of the mind. Try it if you can, I promise it’ll be worth it!

Can the hand jive help you do mental maths?


At Resolving Chronic Pain we know that moving your body in any way is good for you, and that dancing is a particularly helpful activity. Studies have shown that dancing can increase certain cognitive skills including visual and spatial recognition, long-term memory and executive function. But could specific forms of dancing be applied to specific, real-world problems in order to achieve better results? Could doing the hand jive help you solve mental maths problems more quickly? Dance psychologist Dr Peter Lovatt believes it can.

Dr Lovatt has spent years researching the link between dancing and problem solving. A Reader in Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, Dr Lovatt set up a Dance Psychology Lab at the university in 2008. He had previously been a professional dancer, having trained at the Guildford School of Acting and Dancing and performing in musical theatre, ballet and tap. As a child he had experienced severe reading difficulties, and had found it easier to communicate through dance.

As well as showing that dancing can cause people to think and solve problems more quickly,  Dr Lovatt has done research into what specific kinds of dancing can best speed up different types of thinking.

Convergent problems are those with a correct answer - you might be trying to do mental maths, remember a specific date or solve a puzzle. According to Dr Lovatt’s research, performing structured, predictable dance moves can help you solve convergent problems more quickly. This could be a set dance routine, something like the Macarena, or even just a simple hand jive.

Conversely, divergent problems have more than one specific answer, and involve thinking about a range of ideas and solutions. This might be a brainstorm, or an answer to questions like ‘what should I do with my weekend’ or ‘how can I move my career forward.’ In order to solve these problems, Dr Lovatt recommends unpredictable dance. His research has shown that improvised, random dance moves can make someone solve divergent problems more quickly.

He told LSN global: “What we’ve found is that the way people move their body influences their ability to solve convergent thinking problems or divergent thinking problems. So very directly the way you move will influence how you think. And if you take that out of the lab, you can apply it in the real world [...] What we’ve shown is that when you get people to move their bodies, very easily, in different ways, it changes the way people think. And of course if you can get people to change the way they think, they can break away from their set patterns of thinking.”

Dr Lovatt has also done research into the power of dance to improve self esteem, and he told the Guardian that relaxed dancing without an emphasis on ‘doing it right’ is the best for improving self esteem. He suggests ceilidh dancing “where people smile, laugh and giggle, and they are adults and it’s absolutely fine. It’s wonderful.” He adds: “There have also been studies that have found that dancing in baggy “jazz” clothing is better than tight-fitting clothing for the dancer’s self-esteem.”

While I might not find myself doing the hand jive in the supermarket while adding up the bill anytime soon, it’s fascinating to think about how the way you move is deeply entwined with how you think and feel - sometimes in unexpected ways!

Sweating the small stuff

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a very common mantra for life, and it’s one we’re wholeheartedly in support of. It’s often dispensed along with advice not to worry about the myriad of minor problems thrown up by everyday life: the tiny mud flecks on your shoes that nobody will ever notice; the less-than-perfect email you send off to your boss at 5pm on a Friday rather than spending your weekend thinking about; or the dirty look you got from a stranger on the bus who was most likely thinking about something else.


But sometimes in life it is worth paying attention to the small stuff, as it can help us make hugely positive changes.

I remember a speech I watched a few years ago by a former US Navy SEAL who had written a book advising everyone to make their bed in the morning. “How simplistic!” I thought, not willing to believe that something as small as making your bed in the morning could have a meaningful effect on anybody’s life.

While I made my bed most days at that point, I can’t claim that it was every single day, and I didn’t always do it in the morning.

In his speech, to 8000 students graduating from the University of Texas, Admiral William McRaven said: “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another.”

The notion of a ‘sense of pride’ is important here. In no way should you begin to feel a lack of pride, or worse still a sense of failure, if you find yourself unable to take control of small things in your life. Some habits are easily formed, some take huge effort but render incredible reward. Some might be out of reach for the moment, and if that is the case then it important to recognise that.

Another small way to bring control back into your life could be through tidying. I’m not going to suggest that the way to a calmer life is through a tidy house, as this seems both obvious and unnecessary: who keeps their house messy out of choice? Of course you may have a pristine home already, and if so that’s all to the good! But personally I find that everything seems to get messy again just as soon as I’ve tidied it up, and I just don’t have the time to run around after other people, pets and guests to clear up their constant chaos. If this sounds familiar, it can feel overwhelming and dispiriting. One small way of regaining control is to claim one corner of the house as tidy, and take a couple of minutes every day to make it so. This could be one particular windowsill, cupboard or drawer - for me it’s the area where I keep my toothbrush.

An interesting study showed that prisoners who were given a plant which they were solely responsible for ended up feeling happier and more optimistic. The reason for this was the feeling of being in control of this one small aspect of their lives, as their actions (ie whether or not they watered the plant) had a tangible effect, causing the plant to either die or continue to thrive.

Life is full of things which are outside our control, some of them exciting and wonderful, some not so. While it’s easy to wish we could be in control of every area of life, this isn’t possible, and we need to find ways to manage and cope with that fact. If we can take control of a few small areas of life, it can make us feel more able to deal with the other things we are faced with.

The Road Not Taken

English teachers and poetry lovers often bemoan the misinterpretation of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken.’ The ending contains some of the most famous lines of poetry ever: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

The point made by English teachers is that many people take the last two lines as the most important, and interpret the poem as advice to take ‘the road less travelled,’ and to try and be a bit different from everyone else.

But what about the title? The title of the poem is ‘The Road Not Taken,’ so actually it seems Frost intended to highlight the path more travelled, the one he didn’t take. Instead of being about making different and unusual choices, the poem could be about regretting the options you didn’t choose. The narrator is ‘sorry’ he can’t travel both routes, and knows he will regret the choice for a long time: “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence.”


Regretting paths not taken is a fundamental part of our culture. “You only regret the things you didn’t do,” the saying goes. But as we noted in our last blog, there are always things you didn’t do. No matter who you are, or what your situation in life, you will invariably make choices that involve not doing something.

In 2008 Hillary Clinton lost the battle to be the Democrat candidate for US President, to Barack Obama. In a speech, she thanked her supporters for endorsing her and told them not to regret her defeat: “When you hear people saying or think to yourself, ‘if only’ or ‘what if’, I say, please, don’t go there. Every moment wasted looking back keeps us from moving forward. Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been. We have to work together for what still can be.”

We all know the old saying, “don’t look back, you’re not going that way!” We all know that dwelling on regret is not healthy. But it’s worth consciously reminding ourselves from time to time. It’s worth thinking about Clinton’s plea to ‘work for what still can be’ - in her case it was for democrat candidate Barack Obama to win the 2008 election. He did win, but even if he hadn’t done there would have been no point regretting the choice of him over Clinton, no point wondering what would have happened if she had run instead.

Choices, once made, cannot be undone. They can only be built upon. It’s important to recognise that regret is natural, and it’s a part of life for everyone whether they show it or not. It isn’t unique to the choice you made and you may have felt a twinge of regret whatever the outcome. It takes time and work to come to terms with some choices, but each one is now part of a past you can’t change, instead leading the way to a future you can.

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Choices, choices choices


I was recently shopping for jam. Standing in a huge supermarket aisle, looking at all the options available to me, I wondered did I want strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, blackcurrant, plum, damson, gooseberry or rhubarb? What about lemon curd or honey? What about marmalade? Thick cut or thin? And once I had made a choice about what flavour of sweet spread I desired, did I want the supermarket own brand, or did I want to pay a little more for a standard branded version? Or did I want to splash out and buy the most expensive, homemade-healthy-and-wholesome brand?

In the end I bought butter, and left it at that.

Too often in our lives we feel paralysed by choice. The wealth of options available to us in every area of our existence is utterly overwhelming, and it’s no surprise that in self-defence we sometimes shut down and refuse to make any decision at all. It reminds me of the stress response, fight, flight or freeze. We freeze. This paralysis induced by choice is an increasingly common phenomenon in developed countries, as our lives have become much easier and more affluent than they were a hundred or so years ago. We are lucky that most people have the luxury of choosing between many different options when deciding what to eat, what to wear, what to listen to or what book to read. But the flipside is that so much choice may not be healthy, and it can actually make us more unhappy than we would have been otherwise.

Barry Schwartz, American psychologist and celebrated author of The Paradox of Choice, believes that this abundance of choice makes us unhappy for a number of reasons. Firstly, according to him, as soon as we make a choice, we regret it, as undoubtedly the option we chose isn't perfect. If I chose raspberry jam, I might have felt, when spreading it on my toast at home, that really it wasn’t as nice as blackcurrant. Secondly, we feel as though we’re missing out on the options we didn’t choose - to think, I passed up the opportunity to eat blackcurrant jam! Thirdly, with so many options available to us, we develop higher expectations. With so many types of jam on offer, one of them must be perfect, right? And finally, we end up blaming ourselves for making a bad choice, when we are inevitably disappointed with the result. I had so many options, why can’t I even make good choices about jam?

The example of jam is of course a simplified one, but it’s true that we face an unnecessary amount of choice in almost every area of life. The above effects could apply to anything, from choosing food to choosing clothes, to more serious things like choosing a phone contract, a car, a house, a job, or even a partner.

To illustrate his point Schwartz uses the example of buying jeans. In the past, there was only one type of jeans available, and they didn’t quite fit anyone, but you put up with them because there was no alternative. Nowadays, there are more different types of jeans than it’s possible to count, as Schwartz found out when he went shopping for a new pair. He explains the concept of self-blame inspired by choice:

“One consequence of buying a bad-fitting pair of jeans when there is only one kind to buy is that when you are dissatisfied and you ask why? Who’s responsible? the answer is clear: the world is responsible. What could you do? But when there are hundreds of different styles of jeans available and you buy one that is disappointing, and you ask why? Who’s responsible? it is equally clear that the answer to the question is you. You could have done better. With a hundred different pairs of jeans on display, there is no excuse for failure. And so when people make decisions, and even when the results of the decisions are good, they feel disappointed about them, they blame themselves.”

You can watch this TED talk to find out more about Schwartz’ ideas. It’s several years old, so some of what he says is a bit outdated, but his key ideas haven’t changed. Even if you are already familiar with Schwartz’ work, it’s worth thinking about how the paradox of choice appears in your life. Could it be that there are decisions you are putting off making, for fear of making the wrong one? It is often the case that whatever decision you make, you feel some twinge of regret. Even if there’s no doubt you chose the right path, you may wonder what would have happened if you had chosen a different one. And if you are disappointed by your choice (which is not unlikely, as no choice is ever absolutely perfect), it is easy to imagine that you would not have been disappointed if you had only made a different one.

Schwartz highlights that some choice is usually better than no choice, but that too much choice can be a bad thing. The best scenario tends to be a limited amount of choice, defined within certain boundaries. That means using our beliefs, intuition, and value system to define boundaries, and making choices within those boundaries. In the end, I went home and made my own jam. I chose plum, as that was the only fruit we had!

Spring and new beginnings

This week’s blog is slightly different from previous instalments, as we have something very important remind you of.

You are enough. You, reading this blog post, wherever you are. You are enough.

We spend so much of our lives trying to reinvent ourselves - to be better, healthier, stronger, to have more skills or get that dream job or promotion. But the thing is, a goal like this is never the end goal. There’s always the temptation of another one behind it. Just as soon as you can run 5km you start aiming for 10km, just as soon as you get one promotion you set your sights on another.

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You may have dreams and goals and plans, and we hope you do, as there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious with your aspirations. But each goal has to be a building block, a milestone to be reached, rather than a stepping stone to reinvention. You are enough just as you are.

As Matt Haig writes in his book Notes on a Nervous Planet: “You were incredible from the day you were born. You were everything from the day you were born. No one looks at a newborn baby and thinks, oh dear, look at all that absence of stuff. They look at a baby and they feel like they are looking at perfection, untainted by the complexities and baggage of life yet to come. We come complete.”

As Haig points out, no ambition or goal will ever be the end ambition, or the end goal: “There is no future. Planning for the future is just planning for another present in which you will be planning for the future.”

In response to this somewhat strident statement, Haig offers some advice: “Try to want less. A want is a hole. A want is a lack. That is part of the definition. When the poet Byron wrote ‘I want a hero’ he meant that he didn’t have one. The act of wanting things we don’t need makes us feel a lack we didn’t have. Everything you need is here. A human being is complete just being human. We are our own destination.”

It’s always a good idea to use Spring as an incentive for new beginnings, inspired by the freshness in the air and the sprouting of daffodils. But Spring should be about renewal, not reinvention, as there is no need to reinvent what is already enough.

The magic of doing nothing at all

“What I like doing best is Nothing.”

This is one of my favourite quotes from the children’s stories about Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. It’s said by Christopher Robin, a human child who has adventures with his toy animal friends, Piglet, Tigger, Kanga, Eeyore and others, as well as with a bear called Winnie the Pooh.


In this exchange it’s Winnie the Pooh he’s speaking to, and Pooh asks how it’s possible to do nothing.

Christopher Robin explains: “Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it. It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

What an excellent description!

As adults, we very rarely take the time to ‘do nothing’, and when we do, it’s more often than not accompanied by feelings of guilt, or worry that there’s something else we should be doing instead.

I don’t mean just taking time off - although that is very important too! But we have a tendency to fill time off from work or chores with other things - activities, events, dinners or coffee meetups, enjoyable things that nevertheless still require energy, whether physical or emotional.

Sometimes it can be utterly liberating to just do nothing at all. It can also mean that the body switches on the relaxation mode of the Autonomic Nervous System, essential for healing and repair.

Doing nothing could come in many forms, depending on your own situation and lifestyle. My favourite way of doing nothing is like Christopher Robin’s - I love to go for walks, listening to the birds and the sound of the sea, and not worrying about where I’m going or how quickly I’m going to get there.

I could walk faster, or even run, to maximise the exercise I’m getting. I could listen to podcasts or audiobooks to increase my learning and awareness.

But I don’t, I just do nothing. And while it may be difficult to forgive yourself for ‘wasting’ time, to let precious moments away from work escape without making any progress in a book, television series or other activity, the reward is that those few minutes of doing nothing make the rest of my days calmer and happier.

As Christopher Robin says, “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.”

Admitting mistakes and making changes

In our last blog we explored why New Year’s Resolutions often falter. We personally find that every year we begin January with ambitious and outlandish plans, only to find that we’re wrestling with feelings of failure if they fall through.

You may feel the same – and in fact, it’s likely that everyone does at some point or other. No matter their success or status in life, everyone goes through tough times, or feels at some point as though they are failing in their efforts.

Even Barack Obama, former president of the United States, at times found it difficult to manage the ambitious political goals he had set himself in the early years before running for president. When he was in his late 30s and early 40s he was representing the 13th district in the Illinois Senate, teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, and sowing the initial seeds for his future campaign for election to the US Senate in 2004. He also had two young children, Malia and Sasha.

Barack Michelle Obama.jpg

Barack was a committed, loving husband and father, and yet in time he couldn’t keep pace with the demands of the job and his other responsibilities.

Michelle writes about the challenges the couple faced during this period in her memoir, Becoming: “At home, our frustrations began to rear up often and intensely. Barack and I loved each other deeply, but it was as if at the center of our relationship there was suddenly a knot we couldn’t loosen. I was thirty-eight years old and had seen other marriages come undone in a way that made me feel protective of ours.”

Something was clearly wrong. Even the most successful of us struggle at times, and it’s humbling to know that Michelle felt she could share these previously-unknown details of the family’s difficulties in her memoir.

“Barack and I had been through five campaigns in eleven years already,” she writes, “and each one had forced me to fight a bit harder to hang on to my own priorities. Each one had put a little dent in my soul and also in our marriage.”

In interviews about her memoir, Michelle said she wanted to share the less glamorous details to teach young people that not everything is easy, and that the marriage between the two Obamas, which so many people aspire to as #RelationshipGoals, has not always been perfect.

Barack initially did not want to seek professional help to address the situation.

“He was accustomed to throwing his mind at complicated problems and reasoning them out on his own,” Michelle explains. “Sitting down in front of a stranger struck him as uncomfortable, if not a tad dramatic. Couldn’t he just run over to Borders and buy some relationship books? Weren’t there discussions we could have on our own? But I wanted to really talk, and to really listen, and not to do it late at night or during hours we could be together with the girls.”

However, the couple did face up to their challenges and try out couples counselling. They talked, really, talked, over the course of many sessions facilitated by a counsellor. By the end of the course of sessions, they had come up with some new strategies for dealing with the stresses of their work and the challenges of raising two young children.

New strategies included Michelle and the girls not waiting for Barack to come home before they had dinner, and Michelle making time in her day for exercise.

As she told interviewers, the experience made her and her husband realise that neither of them were perfect. She wanted to share this story with the world to emphasise the fact that imperfection is commonplace, wrestling with feelings of failure is normal, and that even the most successful of us struggle at times. We think it’s a very encouraging lesson.

Hopefully your new year’s resolutions are going swimmingly, however, maybe there’s something you’ve been wrestling with recently that you could approach differently?

Why do my New Year’s Resolutions falter?

Chronic pain relief

How many times have you made New Year’s Resolutions? And how many of them have faltered or already fallen by the wayside?

If you’re anything like the majority of the population, the New Year’s Resolutions you made at the beginning of January may already have been abandoned.

Every year we make plans with the very best of intentions: to be more active, to take up a new hobby, learn a new language or finally finish that book which has been gathering dust on the bedside table since August.

And yet, our New Year’s Resolutions rarely work. Why is that?

Every year companies make millions out of our good intentions, as gym memberships momentarily make us feel better then lay dormant, evening classes are abandoned, and new books or exercise equipment goes unused.

According to Lissa Rankin MD, this is because New Year’s Resolutions are made by your conscious mind, and do not affect your unconscious mind. The problem is, neither your body nor your unconscious mind has any idea what day of the year it is. You may decide to wholly revolutionise your life, but your body isn’t necessarily going to be able to keep up with you just because it’s January 1st.

While the ceremony and social scrutiny of a New Year’s Resolution may be enough motivation for some people to make meaningful positive changes, most of us need a bit more help. Studies have shown that successfully implementing New Year’s Resolutions is much less about the time of year, and more about the formation of habits.

Lissa Rankin says: “The power of the subconscious mind explains why positive thinking only gets you so far. How many times have you read self-help books, taken workshops, made New Year’s resolutions, and vowed to improve your life, only to realise a year later that your life is no better? Since the conscious mind is only functioning 5 percent of the time, it has little power to overcome the weighty influence of the subconscious mind. To effect lasting changes in belief, you must change your beliefs not just at the level of the conscious mind, but in the subconscious mind.”(1)

So instead of resolving to make a complete and sudden change, just because it’s New Year, why not try implementing smaller, more manageable changes? Changes that are important to you whatever the time of year.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because you ‘failed’ at your New Year’s resolution, there’s no point trying again until next January. Is that really true? If you didn’t manage to hit your target of, say, going for a walk every day in January, why not trying getting out once a week in February? And then two or three times a week in March?

Small changes can lead to sound habit formation and incalculable success. Taking time to make changes to your life and routine means you can bring your unconscious mind along too, and those New Year’s Resolutions will flourish!

(1): Rankin, L. 2013. Mind over Medicine. London: Hay House UK.

Body Language and Confidence

I love the first autumn classes of the year, as they are still infused with a sense of the holidays. It's a lovely atmosphere: the studio is warm from the natural sunlight pouring through the skylights, the windows are open and the farm animals in the field behind often serenade us!

Today we had a wonderful session centered around the theme of confidence and lifting your breast bone (sternum, the bone at the front of your rib cage, connecting both sides). If you'd like to try it, place a fingertip on the top or near the top of your sternum, feel a little light pressure where your finger is. Meanwhile place your other hand to the side of your waist, that is between the bottom of your rib cage and the top of your pelvis. Focusing on the spot under your finger lift your sternum. You will feel your ribcage lengthen away from your pelvis, your shoulder blades softly drop a little and ease apart and your head will feel as if it has been centered and placed on the top of your spinal column.

Have you ever felt under pressure or intensely purposeful, or watched someone with those traits? When this happens it's almost like your body follows your head. The head is forward and may even be tipped forward with the chin close to your chest, so your sternum sinks slightly, the body can give the impression of scuttling behind to keep up!

The social psychologist Amy Cuddy used five poses – all essentially lifting the sternum - to test her research hypothesis that 'opening' your breast bone can increase confidence. Her team's research concluded that these poses did increase confidence. She also concluded that the opposite movements - allowing the sternum to sink back and the head to drop slightly forward - induced a feeling of powerlessness and a lack of confidence.  Lifting the sternum enables you to easily project a poised, enthusiastic confidence. This self-assured enthusiasm is an impressively useful predictor of success according to Ref Lakshmi's research. Fearfully holding back activates the sympathetic nervous system, your fight or flight mechanism, or stress response. It indicates that you are not willing to be fully present in the moment, and people can tell.

We all respond to non-verbal communication all the time so when your sternum is lifted and you are present, that is attentive to what is happening around you, people respond. When the sternum is lifted and the head is sitting on top of your spinal column you inadvertently become compelling. To begin with you may find it a little odd, your body may not be used to this position, it will become more natural with repetition, little incremental changes. What we now know though is that you can self-induce presence by allowing the body to lead the mind.

It's liberating, I have changed so much from the subtle physical changes you've helped me make Mags. Increasingly I suffered from balance issues before coming to you, I always used to walk with my eyes lowered, with my mind in a whirl. Now, I make an effort to lift my breast bone and notice what's going on more, it helps me to feel in control both physically and mentally. As a consequence my life is more enjoyable, to me it's about having more confidence. -Catherine, July 2016

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Confidence and Chronic Pain

Presence stems from believing in and trusting yourself – your real honest feelings, values, and abilities.
— Amy Cuddy
Amy Cuddy developed the 'power pose'

Amy Cuddy developed the 'power pose'

Do you sometimes think that the fear of not knowing how or when you might be better is the worst thing about experiencing chronic pain? It seems that chronic pain somehow diminishes our sense of Presence. The above quote is from a new book recently published by Amy Cuddy[ii].  Presence refers to paying attention in the moment, an enhanced self-awareness. When talking with members of Chronic Pain Ireland at a speaking engagement recently I noticed that sometimes we fold in on ourselves to be smaller, more accepted. In a recent study children identified the figures with limbs astride, arms and legs wide apart, taking up lots of space as boys, and the figures that held themselves neatly as girls. Perhaps this suggests we believe ourselves to be more acceptable if we take up less space? Many of us are parents, or will have held responsible jobs, or significant roles in our communities. Yet still the onslaught of long term pain can seriously affect our confidence and sense of self. A diagnosis of Neurophysiologic Disorder or TMS can help us to understand how the autonomic nervous system is out of balance. It's possible to find a practitioner to help identify what to do about that imbalance. This can help to address the pain. It is a slow but sure way to establish or re build our confidence. It will take time, be rewarding and so worthwhile, however, in the meantime we can give ourselves a quick confidence boost that will rewire our neural pathways over time.

This rewiring is easy, practical, quick to do, it requires a little bit of time and courage, but no equipment, no other people, no financial cost and it’s fun!

Too good to be true?

The 'power pose' developed by Amy Cuddy can transform how we feel about ourselves and how others feel about us. Let me explain - one of the reasons you might feel better after walking, a swim or Pilates, is that you have changed how you hold your body through exercise.

How we hold our body has an impact on our mind, the neural pathways stimulated by lifting our chest just a fraction can give us confidence.  If we are fearful, powerlessness can creep into us affecting what we believe, think, and feel.

The changes we encounter simply by searching for an explanation for our pain can stimulate a fearful response. If we are not informed, the changes are often unpredictable, it is disconcerting, our sense of who we are and our sense of being in control are challenged. These changes can even alienate us from ourselves. What we know is that everyone has an individual response to pain. In fact that is true of most things, invariably one size does not fit all. To invoke the relaxation response to balance the nervous system you may practice mindfulness, meditation or adult colouring. As you feel more in control so your body might need a nudge to improve your confidence. 

Confidence brings the opportunity to believe and trust in yourself, your true feelings, values and abilities. This is important because if we trust ourselves then others can trust us. It is a chance to find peace with being who we are.

Many studies suggest that non-verbal behaviour can signal something more powerful than words. Self-assurance, poise, enthusiasm and confidence, all project a presence that demands that we take notice. Likewise when we hold back, perhaps through fear, we stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as the Stress response. It is not a permanent state of being. Stressful situations that make us feel powerless and distracted can be improved by feeling present. When we feel present our speech, facial expressions, postures and movements align. We are being ourselves.

Cuddy describes it as internal convergence, harmony. Palpable and resonant, it makes us compelling. It comes about with incremental change. We can induce a sense of presence by allowing the body to lead the mind.

If you want to try it, take yourself somewhere private, stand with your legs apart, and raise your arms to make an X. Hold this power pose for a while, up to 2 minutes if you like. As you stand in the power pose your brain is receiving a message that you are confident! Repeat this as often as you wish and gradually your brain will believe your body. It's amazing! It works. I have seen the evidence that this works, as has Amy Cuddy. Have a go, let me know how you get on, I'd love to hear from you.

Presence comes from believing and trusting your story – your feelings, beliefs, values, and abilities.

This post was originally published in My Second Spring. 


 Amy Cuddy 2012 TED Talk 

[ii] Presence Bringing your BOLDEST SELF to your BIGGEST CHALLENGES by Amy Cuddy.

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Five reasons to keep your phone out of the bedroom

Can your mobile phone really disrupt your sleep? Well, yes frankly it can. “But I can't live without it!” I hear you cry, and there's this thing called 'Nomophobia -' isn't that a good enough reason to keep our phones close at all times?

Nomophobia is the fear of being out of contact by phone. No wait, stop: this is a classified phobia really? Yes, it appears that it is.

Well actually that's quite helpful because we can treat it like other phobias. Arachnophobia is the fear of spiders and there is plenty of support available to help reduce fear and anxiety about spiders.

So maybe we can devise a plan to gradually wean ourselves off bringing the phone into our bedroom? First of all let's remind ourselves why we don't want to have a phone in the bedroom in the first place:

  • The bedroom is designed to be restful, without any sources of stress or stimulation as they can be disruptive
  • In general it is easiest to sleep in a quiet place, with no unexpected noise
  • A cosy, warm, carefully lit bedroom is conducive to a good night's sleep
  • The bedroom is an intimate space for sleeping and sex
  • Relaxation before you sleep is vital

Convincing a Senior Executive of a mobile phone company to give up his phone

Here's a story about how the Director of an Irish Mobile Phone company changed his habits recently; if he can do this I'm sure we can. My advice to him was to begin with trying a night with the phone present but on silent, then an evening or so later putting it outside the bedroom door, he then choose to leave his phone downstairs and has continued to do that ever since. Not only is he sleeping better but in general his long term low back pain has resolved itself, though it occasionally returns when triggered by stress. There is lots of evidence that we need to re-balance our autonomic nervous system and relax more. This leads to better overall health as it allows the body's natural healing mechanisms to work properly.

Sleep is an investment to enable us to live well and enjoy ourselves, it also makes us feel and look better! To relax we need to empower ourselves and take control of our bedroom environment.  Actual or anticipated messages and calls can trigger a low grade stress response that may disrupt our sleep. 

So, in our Second Spring let's call time on 24/7 availability, with the exception of children and partners. Or maybe without exception, perhaps our children could learn to knock on the bedroom door before bursting in? Speaking personally, that would be terrific!

This post was originally published in My Second Spring. 

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Body Mind or Mind Body Connection?

Mind Body

Mind Body Medicine (MBM), which is also be referred to as Stress Illness, is an emerging discipline with roots in Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS) and Psychophysiologic Disorders (PPD). MBM refers to the power the mind has to affect physical changes in our body. Many examples can be drawn on to illustrate MBM, an obvious one is a red face or 'flush' when we are embarrassed or have feelings of arousal if we are attracted to someone.

Body Mind

What if we were to flip the way we see this and consider the sequence of what happens for a minute? It is true to say that sometimes we feel the heat on our face and realise that we are embarrassed or feel aroused and realise we find someone attractive. This is body mind connection.

Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen has developed a way of working called 'Body Mind Centering'. The premise of her work is to raise body awareness, to sense, feel and act, and her wonderful book is called 'Sensing, Feeling, Action'. Movement Therapists work on reconnecting their patients with their bodies. Somatic coaches do something similar. In each case body awareness is improved, and confidence in the body significantly enhanced. People experiencing chronic pain often feel disconnected to their bodies and sometimes, they feel let down by their bodies. It can be so liberating to feel flexible and confident physically.

Mind Body or Body Mind?

Does this mean that strictly Mind Body Medicine could also be called Body Mind Medicine? Yes, I suppose it does, but I think that would be quite confusing and possibly divisive. It is however, important to recognise that increased body awareness can play a significant role in a healthy life and help us to heal if we are experiencing chronic pain.

Neurophysiologic Disorder

Neurophysiologic Disorder (NPD) seems to me to offer recognition of the information exchange between body and mind. NPD recognises that thoughts can directly affect your nervous system creating a physiological response. If this response is pain then the body is telling the mind something is wrong. Equally, we can send a positive message from the body to the mind through neural pathways.

The experience of chronic pain often means that we leave the body and retreat into the mind described by Popova as 'that ever-calculating, seething cauldron of thoughts, predictions, anxieties, judgements, and incessant meta-experiences about experience itself.' Many patients I teach associate their recovery with a re-connection with their body, as if whilst they were experiencing chronic pain they were disconnected from their body.

Amy Cuddy has published research to confirm that this positive message can be sent from the body to the mind, she calls it allowing your body to lead your mind. The premise is body awareness, and in her TED talk (2012) and in her book 'Presence' (2016) she specifically refers to a power pose that can positively affect our mind and how we think. The power pose is essentially being open across the chest rather than closed or concave; a lifting of the breast bone, or puffing out of the chest if you will. It's like a shot of self-confidence, an injection of self-belief or self-worth. This message is sent from our body to mind and interestingly it can also send a non-verbal message to other people. What is seen by others is a self-confident stance and invariably an assumption is made that the person is self-confident as Amy Cuddy says in her TED talk, 'Don't fake it till you make it, fake it until you believe it'.

Information exchange between body and mind

To listen to the body or to develop body awareness actively through movement or Body Mind Centering, for example, opens up the opportunity to add another dimension to Mind Body Medicine. In my experience it appears that for some people the Body Mind connection is the key to their healing process and a healthy life.

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Illness Beliefs and Highly Sensitive People

Image: Robert Pittman

Image: Robert Pittman

One of the most difficult hurdles for people experiencing chronic pain is recognising that the 'illness beliefs' we assume everyone shares may in fact be particular to just us or our own family.  Working with nurses recently, I became very aware of how difficult it is to come to terms with the fact that we don't all share the same beliefs about illness. It seems that our childhood family unit can play a big part in how we view illness when we are adults.

Our childhood family values about illness may also trigger a reaction in us as adults for another reason. We may be what the researcher Elaine Aron calls ''a highly sensitive person'' (HSP) and the more people I meet recovering from chronic conditions the more relevant Aron's work seems to be.

Highly Sensitive people notice the world in finer detail -  they notice faint smells, the feel of a fabric, the volume of voices, and pick up on other subtle nuances embedded in life that others may overlook. This is a good thing: every group can benefit from a HSP to notice subtle communication, or suggest adjustments to an environment that might make it more comfortable. HSP can think and act slightly differently to the majority in a group, which means they may sometimes feel uncomfortable or not sure if they belong. If the group has a strong identity that relies on conformity the HSP may feel out of place.

If the HSP is aware of their sensitivity then it may not be an issue, particularly if they value and take pleasure in having a slightly different perspective.

When it comes to beliefs about illness and other things, most of us,  including highly sensitive people, might assume that everyone shares the same beliefs. This is not the case, and now as adults our childhood illness beliefs may need a review, bearing in mind our sensitivity, as there can be a link between the attributes of a HSP and the personality trait of perfectionism.

A child with the perfectionist trait of wanting to 'get it right' would have paid close attention to the subtle nuances of family illness beliefs. These beliefs will be strongly held, often throughout adulthood as well. Hence, it might come as rather a shock when we discover different illness beliefs to the ones we grew up with, and face the challenge of re-evaluating  our convictions. 

What do you believe about health, happiness and self regulation?

Is it time to take a look at the beliefs that support you?

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You're never too old to move!

The other day a family friend’s legs buckled underneath him after walking only five metres. When I asked him what was wrong, he explained that his legs are so weak now that he can’t walk.

He has recently had to undergo an official business audit which had to be completed within six weeks, and so was exceptionally stressful. He risked losing his license to practise as an Estate Agent in France if it was not completed on time or to the required standard. His accountant worked alongside him, and together they managed to submit the audit on time.

Immediately, my friend took to his bed and stayed there for five days, exhausted and unable to move. When I saw him he seemed convinced that he would never be able to walk properly again. "I’m 67 years old, I’m overweight, I have diabetes. This is it, I know I will be spending more and more time in bed."

We stopped, and I asked him to hold the wall beside him and lift one leg in order to rotate the ankle. I did it too, and showed him. He lifted his leg while telling me he would "keel over". He didn’t. He told me his ankle was "too old to rotate". It wasn’t. We did the same thing on the other side. I asked him to do that 3-5 times a day. He told me he was old and his knees couldn’t stand it and he would be in his bed tomorrow.

The next day I received an email:

"Oh Mags oh Mags, I went for a WALK this morning, amazing how much better my legs feel.’"

Now my friend knows he can effect positive change in his body. To celebrate his success, I went for a 24km hike up into the mountains. The view was breathtaking. It seems even the smallest exercise makes a difference to how we feel, and what I am increasingly amazed by is that what we think and believe has a part to play in our general health too.


Such a beautiful view... definitely worth the hike!

Such a beautiful view... definitely worth the hike!

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Can how you breathe really affect your level of pain?

Image: Shawn Rossi

Image: Shawn Rossi

When someone arrives in my studio with chronic pain, they are assessed to see what movement range they have. Part of my work as a movement specialist is to teach gentle Pilates-based movement, using adapted exercises to strengthen muscles that may have been neglected and free up the body where it has restrictions The intention is to improve confidence in moving and to extend the range of pain-free movement. At the same time, I introduce deep breathing techniques to stimulate the intercostal muscles in the ribcage. Significantly, most people experiencing chronic pain can breathe in for only two, or maybe three, seconds. Over time it becomes more normal for them to breathe in for up to five seconds. As each person is different, they set their breathing goal according to their preference, for any number of seconds up to eight. Apart from activating and strengthening the ribcage muscles, deep breathing can stimulate self-healing activity in the body through the parasympathetic nervous system. The 2009 NICE report  recommends deep breathing as a way of reducing chronic low back pain, referencing plenty of evidence.

It's important that clients are medically screened to rule out serious problems, but if no issues are found then it is possible there may be a neurophysiological explanation. This means that the autonomic nervous system is out of balance. In simple terms, the autonomic nervous system has two modes of operation, and if they are not in balance the body may not produce the right environment in which to heal itself. The balance of the autonomic nervous system can be affected by many things - in particular stress. As the nervous system is operated unconsciously, it may require a different approach from the conventional biomedical one to re-balance it, and deep breathing may play a part.

In order to rebalance the autonomic nervous system, we need to understand the neurophysiology of chronic pain and how to recognise triggers that might perpetuate symptoms associated with it. This will help with pain resolution as well as improving stress resilience, which can lead to life changing results. Pain cannot be seen; it is experienced. The medical definition of chronic pain is pain that has persisted within the body for over 3 months, as opposed to pain evident for less than 3 months which is referred to as 'acute'. We expect the body to heal itself naturally in the short term. Appropriate medical intervention such as painkillers, or in some cases, surgery may be required, but in every case a balanced autonomic nervous system will help the healing process. Deep breathing can actively assist the body to achieve that balance.

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