Choices, choices choices

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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.

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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.

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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. 

References:

 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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Let's not focus on the pain, shall we?

                         Image: Vincent AF

                         Image: Vincent AF

Let's not focus on the pain, shall we?

So many patients are upset that they can't get a medical practitioner to give them a reason for their pain. The expectation is that every pain has a biomedical explanation. In fact this may be true, however, the biomedical function of the autonomic nervous system is often overlooked. The questions and answers below might help you to further explore this:

Might it help to change the way we look at chronic pain?

The premise behind Resolving Chronic Pain (in line with TMS / PPD*) is the neurophysiology of chronic pain. The aim is to recognise neural pathways that are not helpful to you and with the help of the Resolving Chronic Pain programme create new, more constructive neural pathways.

What is the neurophysiology of chronic pain?

The neurophysiology of chronic pain is about recognising the importance of the parasympathetic nervous system. It's ability to heal the body, and how this 'self healing' is obstructed by low grade stress. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system stimulating adrenalin and cortisol to be produced and priming the body for 'fight or flight' synonymous with the stress response. When the body is in the stress response it cannot self heal and therefore the natural resolution of acute pain is delayed.

Stress and Fear

It turns out that the chronic pain may also be linked with fear, a close companion to stress. A key understanding of PPD is that issues the mind is reluctant to contemplate or might be deeply angry about, are expressed through pain in the body. 

Chronic Pain is difficult to pin down

“Pain has always been a bit of a puzzle” says Ben Seymour, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge. “Hearing or vision can be traced from sensory organs to distinct brain regions, but pain is more complex, and incorporates thoughts and emotions. For example, studies have linked depression and anxiety to the development of pain conditions, and volunteers put in bad moods have a lower tolerance for pain”.

Depression and Pain

The stress response can lead to depression in a cyclic way, negative thoughts activating the sympathetic nervous system. The chemical reaction of the stress response leading to too much cortisol, depleting noradrenaline and dopamine levels so energy is depressed, replaced by apathy and negative thoughts.

The autonomic nervous system is invisible

About a quarter of those with chronic pain who contact UK charity 'Action on Pain say that their doctors don't believe them. “The problem is that chronic pain is invisible,” says chairman Ian Semmons. It is understandable that someone in chronic pain might feel upset, and therefore have negative thoughts if they think their Doctor disbelieves them.

Biomedical Solution

A balanced nervous system may be the biomedical solution that both doctor and patient are looking for.

 

*Glossary of terms: TMS Tension Myositis Syndrome, PPD Psychophysiological Disorders

Reference: Brain signature of emotion-linked pain is uncovered Jessica Hamzelou, January 2015

Please see Mags Clark-Smith's CPI article explaining how the autonomic nervous system works

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Chronic Pain: To suppress, manage or cure?

One of the most exciting speaking engagements for me this year was organised by Georgie Oldfield with support from SIRPA's executive board: Chronic Pain – To Suppress, manage or Cure?

All the speakers were health practitioners – doctors, researchers, psychotherapists - interested in the work of Dr John Sarno, a spine surgeon who identified TMS (also known as PPD) as a condition responsible for many cases of chronic back pain. John Sarno's daughter Christina attended the research meeting and the conference. She felt that her father would be thrilled that the work he started over 40 years ago is gathering pace.

The outcomes of this conference include plans for another gathering  at the Royal Society of Medicine in November 2016, many more health professionals engaged in understanding the neurophysiology of chronic pain, a TMS research group formed by all the interested speakers and a hardship fund set up by SIRPA.

My personal guest was John Lindsay, chair of Chronic Pain Ireland. Here is what he wrote after the event:

“My congratulations on a great event.... I was really impressed by your speakers and as a result of attending the event I am going to re-evaluate our approach to Self Management of Chronic Pain. My sincere thanks for the 'guest' invitation.”

More information about what the speakers said in our forthcoming Blogs!

Glossary of terms:

SIRPA: Stress Illness Recovery Practitioners Association

TMS: Tension Myositis Syndrome

PPD: Psychophysiological Disorders

The executive board of SIRPA at the conference on 26th April 2015

The executive board of SIRPA at the conference on 26th April 2015

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Does it matter what we believe?

Research suggests that 95% of the time our mind reverts to the beliefs we hold in our subconscious, laid down before we were seven.

Pain can be caused by the body expressing a disconnection between those beliefs and what we consciously believe now.

We particularly revert to these long held beliefs in times of stress or when we are under pressure. It appears that during childhood we learn our belief system from the 'significant' others around us - be it our parents, older siblings, other family members, neighbours, friends or teachers. We observe how they deal with adversity, joy, money, relationships, in fact every aspect of living and we adopt their beliefs almost by osmosis. These form our 'core' beliefs.

'Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man'

St Frances Xavier

Jesuits recognised that a child learns without discrimination until the age of about seven, and neuroplasticity of the brain research supports this now.

Later in life as adults many of these 'core' beliefs are no longer part of our belief system on a conscious level. However, under stress or otherwise we might automatically revert to them as a gauge against which we measure ourselves and others. Joseph Pilates famously said it takes 10,000 repeats to change a movement pattern, and a similar number of repeats are required to change a 'core' belief. It is as if they are instilled within us, logically we can disown them but when under pressure they can come back into play.

Many people who have successfully resolved their chronic pain have addressed their beliefs and bravely 'reprogrammed' their core beliefs to suit their present lifestyle. Brave, because it might require digging deep, churning up a few things and then doggedly sticking with the repeats to establish fresh self selected beliefs. This may need expert support and the use of specific tools.

So it seems it does matter what we believe, as chronic pain can be the body's expression to the brain that our beliefs are not true to who we are now.

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Presentation in Westport, Ireland on Sunday 19th April

 

There was an enthusiastic audience of therapists at the TASK conference in Westport, Co Mayo in the beautiful west of Ireland this Sunday 19th April. Mags gave a presentation based on four case studies illustrating the nature of Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS) within a Whole Health Medicine Institute (WHMI) framework.

Mags will also giving a presentation this forthcoming Sunday 26th April 2015 at The Royal Society of Medicine in London: The ‘Suppress, Manage or Cure’ SIRPA conference is the first TMS conference in Europe. It’s very exciting with several key speakers from USA – Dr. David Clarke, Dr. Howard Schubiner to name just two.

In Westport, there was also great excitement celebrating 20 years of TASK Ireland and a fabulous practical session covering elemental postural techniques and abdominal muscle work. Mags developed a physical social network and individuals, duets and groups discussed their ‘take away’ key points from the presentation. 

Here are some of the take away points:

·       Respecting individual perspectives.

·       Valuing Active Listening.

·       Nurturing gentle physical movement.

·       Therapeutic relationship potential.

·      Appreciation that each practitioner has a unique blend of skills to offer.

What skills do you think are important to resolving chronic pain? We would love to hear your views please comment below!

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Praise for RCP Virtual Programme

'A breath of fresh air' – the Virtual Programme from Mags and Siobhán

Chronic pain, defined as lasting more than three months, is not normal and it is not something that patients should have to bear. In these teleclasses, Mags and Siobhán will guide you through their approach to dealing with chronic pain in a warm and engaging way. The classes are an interactive opportunity to engage with your pain and to learn more about how to resolve it. 

A single purchase gives you unlimited access to all six teleclasses, meaning that you can pause, rewind and reply the class at your leisure. There is no pressure to advance through them quickly, giving you the time you need to absorb new information and reflect upon what has been said. 

Mags and Siobhán take the listener through a clear and logical six step process, inviting them to examine their limiting beliefs and attitude to pain. There are many exercises and extra resources suggested along the way, empowering you to chose how much or how little extra research you would like to do. 

The content has been praised by patients as it is 'positive and encouraging. But it is realistic and shows a deep and sympathetic understanding of the difficulties of patients suffering from, chronic pain. Patients are encouraged to help themselves in a practical way, and difficult issues such as past emotionally charged experiences are acknowledged but not dwelt on.'

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