Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Emotional health comes before mental health.

This is the extended* article, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, November 21st, 2017.

On Friday November 10th, I attended the Yorkshire Soroptimists’ Safeguarding Conference in Leeds.  I had been asked to speak on emotional health. That's not quite correct. I had been asked to speak on mental health. I changed the wording. The organisers had hoped to have a speaker from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Unfortunately the service is under resourced and couldn't spare anyone.  It was sad to hear that this is still the situation in 2017 and well publicised as a nationwide problem. 

It was due to the waiting times for help, that led me to open the York Practice in 2001. *A mother with a teenage child in Cumbria, had telephoned my training institute in Sussex for help. Her child had made an unsuccessful suicide attempt and there was no immediate support or help available. My tutor contacted me and newly qualified I was initially reluctant to help, especially as it was a long way to go from York. In the end I made several visits to Cumbria and a little later, they visited me in York at the practice I had then opened. Recovery took time and I didn't hear anything for many years. I'm pleased to report that I was contacted after the book was published and they were doing well.  

Having passed the practice to colleagues in 2010, I contacted them to find out whether the situation had improved from 2001. Sadly not. I was told that desperate parents are still seeking private help for their distressed children, due to the long waiting times for CAMHS. Another colleague from the West Midlands, who works for the NSPCC, also told me that due to the lack of resources from CAMHS, the local NSPCC are piloting a project for adults, "to provide better pastoral support for kids languishing on CAMHS waiting lists."

One of the conference speakers was from a West Yorkshire Multi-Agency Safeguarding Unit. She agreed with me, when I said that the majority of mental health problems start as emotional health problems and if not managed in their initial stages, can become mental health problems. We agreed that there was a stigma attached to the word 'mental', but not so much to 'emotional'. Then I heard something shocking. If the agencies do not use the word 'mental' to describe a problem, only ‘emotional’, there is no help available. The door is closed, often with challenging *and life-threatening consequences. If a problem has been diagnosed as a Mental Health problem, it is easier for it to become medicalised and medicated.

* I spoke to a charity director last Saturday from Snowdrop Project. The charity mainly works with girls who have been trafficked into sex work, domestic slavery, cannabis growing and other abusive practices. She also agreed that the word 'mental health' has to be used, to enable access to other services, although in many cases, it's the emotional needs which need addressing.  

The writer Daniel Goleman coined the expression, ‘Emotional Hijack’ when writing on Emotional Intelligence in the 1990s. It’s a perfect description of those times when our emotions rise to a level that inhibits clear thinking and there is an emotional hijack of our thoughts and behaviours.  At the root of the majority of depressive thinking, anxiety problems and addictive behaviours is an ‘emotional hijack’. Emotional maturity brings the ability to take control, not lose it. We can learn to understand our emotions, what has triggered them and our subsequent thinking, perhaps with help from a professional listener.  We can help ourselves take control of situations before they become out of control and an ‘emotional health’ problem develops into a ‘mental health’ problem. This approach is the basis of Cognitive Behavioural Therapeutic approaches.

‘Control your emotions or they will control you’ A Chinese proverb.


Monday, 23 October 2017

Nature shows us we all need another chance.

This is the article first published in the York Press on Tuesday, October 17th, 2017.

Autumn in the garden can be a time for reflecting on the successes and failures in the plant world. A surprise for us in the garden this year has been the sweet peas. We plant them annually and they always produce a good show. This year they flourished in early summer, grew tall and produced long stems with buds. Then, nothing. Ninety-five percent of the flowers heads were blind. A mystery. It had never happened before. I treated the non-existent stems as ones that had flowered and picked them all. As a result, for the last six weeks there has been a steady show of flagrant blooms. A second chance and they flourished.

Gardening often teaches us life lessons. A couple of favourites are that beautiful roses thrive after being covered with manure and the frailest snowdrop pushes through the coldest ground. The sweet peas led to reflecting on my own life. There were a couple of times when I may have appeared to be blossoming, but it didn’t last long. Much later and after longer germination, better nourishment and the right conditions, I flourished. From schooldays, we are encouraged to pursue blossoming in our twenties and thirties and can often feel ‘not good enough’ if that hasn’t occurred.

This autumn, it hasn’t only been the garden which has made me think of second chances. I belong to a Women’s Service Organisation, Soroptimist International.  The Yorkshire Region has annual themes for the twenty-three clubs, which they use to create projects helping women and children. The next theme will be ‘ The Power of the Second Chance.’, a theme the local York, Selby and Scarborough clubs will be fully supporting. In therapeutic practice, I saw many people gave up too early, believing they were failures and ‘not good enough’. We should all give ourselves a second chance, even a third or fourth chance, be it with work, leisure activities, hobbies, education, relationships and health problems.

Nature shows us that to fail or not blossom the first time, doesn’t mean that a plant is doomed or a write-off for the rest of its life.

“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1 


Friday, 29 September 2017

Frightened into self preservation.

This is the extended* article first published in the York Press on Tuesday, September 12th, 2017.

Regular readers may recall that in August 2015, I was astonished by my ability to complete the Dalby Forest Go Ape course with my grandsons.  When I returned this year, I left the long, high course for my son and boys, while I took my granddaughter on the shorter, lower, Go Ape Junior. This time though, I wasn’t astonished when I completed it. I was shocked, even a little fearful. Why?

The muscle strength in my legs had noticeably deteriorated. When my son finished the long course, he wondered how I had managed to complete it at all. I wondered too, but didn’t tell him about the shock I felt, at now, finding the short course challenging.

I complete 10,000 steps around five times a week, but even so, some muscles have lost strength. * On mentioning this to the Pilates teacher, she said that the leg muscles lose strength first. I think anyone who has been incapacitated for any length of time would recognise that fact. My father walked regularly and proudly walked up seventeen steps to his flat well into his eighties. Once a year around his birthday, he did a long walk along the same route, his benchmark walk of three miles. He could feel how his body was managing the increasing years. *When he started to feel breathless, he sought attention immediately and his subsequent heart valve replacement was not the cause of his death some fifteen years later.   I felt that I had been given a benchmark on the Go Ape course.

I had two options. To problem solve and do something or to ignore it, even denying that there was a problem at all. We are faced with those two options many times through our lives, particularly with problems of health (*I notice denial is particularly evident in people with diabetes, suspect moles and hearing loss), work, home, family and relationships.  Fear can be arresting or motivating, as in ‘fight or flight’. If I didn’t do something soon, not only would my leg muscles deteriorate further, but doing something about it, would become more difficult.  With a gym only a twenty minutes walk away and having the time to go off peak, I had no excuse. I have now visited twice a week since August, doing cardio work and  specific leg work. I can already feel the difference, though it’s not my favourite pastime. I tell myself it’s short-term pain for long-term gain. * Truthfully, I really have to push myself to go. My motivation is solely the vision of the future having not doing anything to improve the present situation. It's a powerful vision.

I have been given a timely reminder of ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it.’ Have you? Are you ignoring it or facing up to it? 


Thursday, 31 August 2017

Do chores ruin a happy childhood?

This is the extended* article, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, August 8th, 2017.

I was reading an article about large families and how working mothers manage their time. In three of the four families mentioned, the children did ‘chores’. Sometimes the children were paid and sometimes they were unpaid and the chores were just part of family routine. In one family the children did not do any chores and the mother’s reason for this was, “I want my children to have a happy childhood.” 

*I despaired. So often this and other variations comes from a parent's own childhood when they were made to do something they didn't like. However 'rosy' we may wish to make childrens' childhood, one day they will be faced with a real life with domestic responsibilities. Grown-ups having tantrums is not life or relationship enhancing for anyone.

Fortunately society has moved a long way from children being sent up chimneys and down mines, but reading the article, I did wonder how realistic it is to allow a child to grow up without taking their turn with chores, paid or unpaid. I was reminded of someone who told me that the reason they were unable to cope with some challenging life events was that, “my parents made my childhood too happy.” My grandchildren are staying with us again. They have happy times, but their stays always include chores. Some are paid, some are done with love.

* I recall hearing about the problem being a too happy childhood and knew then that if we wants to find blame, we can find it in anything. By that time I'd heard every variety of reasons for blaming others in the past for a present predicament. For as long as we puts the blame on something or someone else, which isn't going to change, it makes changing our own attitude more challenging and extends any healing time.

Taking workshops, I used to ask the participants to recall a time when they were up against it, but didn’t give up. The example I loved was a woman describing her altercation with a jammed photocopier, “I wasn’t going to let it beat me.” I then suggested that her attitude could be used in other situations where she may feel beaten. It can be helpful if we look at past experiences for ideas as to how we can manage present challenges.

No-one has an easy ride through life and no-one knows exactly what goes on behind closed doors. My school friends certainly didn’t know about my life anymore than I knew about theirs and it’s only much later that we discovered that it wasn’t all fun.  I don’t wish difficulties on anyone, but on reflection it’s the harder and challenging life events that gave me life-saving resilience, as well as hope. Is making childhood too comfortable and without responsibilities, leading to having unrealistic expectations in adulthood? If chores are part of growing up, as well as playing, then I believe children should learn that life is about helping each other and that, certainly, ‘life isn’t fair’. 


Saturday, 29 July 2017

Needs first, wants later...with extra salt.

This is the extended* article first published in the York Press on Tuesday, July 4th 2017.

Last year I was having a check-up with a cardiologist, having had some tests after experiencing a blackout. I joked that having concussion for six weeks had kept me from drinking alcohol and I was looking forward to resuming my one glass of wine, four days a week. Hardly extreme. “Why?”, he responded. “Do you need it?" 

The answer is, of course, “No, I don’t need it.” Though, thinking of those stressful, not party times, when I’ve used alcohol to ‘fuzzy the edges', the difference between need and want could sometimes appear borderline.

I have been reminded of the doctor’s words in recent times, particularly the Grenfell Tower tragedy. People have had to find out in terrible ways, that it’s an individual’s needs that must be met before turning to their wants. Within minutes of tragedy unfolding, the basic needs of shelter, food, water, clothing and money became urgent for hundreds of people. The need for security, community and friendship became obvious too. Personally, I would be distressed to lose family memorabilia, as would most people, but none would matter if I hadn’t got my basic needs met. It’s a thought-provoking exercise to seriously look at everything one owns and reflect on what one would actually need in an emergency. This is something I done a couple of times in life and it’s sobering when realising that very little we surround ourselves with, actually matters when lives and sanity are at risk.  

Another need is a sense of control and it must be unsettling to feel that events have temporarily taken personal control away. Other critical needs to enable an individual to thrive, are being stretched and a sense of achievement. When helping people with emotional problems, an audit of the client’s needs and resources was always made. Sometimes the root of a problem was in the present day, though often it could be traced to a lack or perceived lack, of a need being met in childhood. 

* There are studies which show that if a person's needs are met, then the possibility of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are lessened. I recall this being shown strongly after the London bombs on July 7th 2005. Some of the injured and affected victims were living on their own and did not belong to a community. They were more vulnerable to PTSD than others.  The sense of community is enormous at the Grenfell Tower site, which is good, but as the weeks pass, the loss of control and security in the  resident's lives is causing increasing distress.  It's not just at the Grenfell Tower site either, as more tower blocks all over the UK need attention.

Returning to the Cardiologist. He was correct in that I didn’t need wine to live healthily. What I did need was more plain water and salt and I have increased my daily intake of both. I also enjoy a glass of wine four times a week.
..............             ..............           .............          ............

* By the time I had an appointment with a Cardiologist in 2016, which was only at my insistence, I had experienced 'funny turns' since 2008, which I knew were somehow stress related. (Fifty-four in 2009 and now only one or two a year.) The only diagnosis I had received was from a Neurologist, who after many tests said, "We don't know, so it must be pre-epilepsy and take this medication." In 2016, another Neurologist said it definitely wasn't epilepsy.

*As the medication was anti-psychotics and I was pretty sure the epilepsy wasn't the root cause, I didn't take the medication and I'm here to tell the tale. If simple questions about water and salt intake had been asked, then Vasovagel Syncope could have been diagnosed earlier and I could have avoided two head injuries. The Cardiologist even told me to look up the diagnosis on Google to see if I agreed. I was astonished. I did look it up and agreed with him at the follow-up appointment.

*It's interesting that in the last few weeks, the medics are questioning whether 6grams of salt a day is too little. It probably is.  When I was in hospital, the staff nurse mentioned that patients being admitted due to falls had spiked in recent times for no particular reason. A friend who worked for a food agency on the traffic light system on food wrapping, said that when the salt limit was announced some years ago, she and her boss said that it was too little and there would be problems. She could be right.

* A handy hint. Be careful how you describe your symptoms. I used the word, 'deja-vu', which proved my undoing. I changed it to 'visual disturbance'. 

*If you should know anyone from the services or related to service personnel, active or retired, who may be experiencing PTSD, I can highly recommend this charity.


Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Turning molehills into mountains - Toxic Thinking.

This *extended column was first published in the York Press on Tuesday, May 30th 2017.

It was a great gathering, everyone was happy and everything went well. There was a small incident. Did I sense a slight insult? If I did, it was unintentional and easily explained. Nobody said anything and the incident went to the back of my mind while we all continued to enjoy ourselves.

Except some people thought that it was insensitive and discussed it together. A few hours later it was mentioned to me. I didn’t feel a discussion would be helpful, but started to feel emotional. I begun to replay the incident, over and over. The tears weren’t far away. My imagination got going and I started to build up various negative scenarios. Little was based on facts, just my imaginings.

A day passed and it was all I could think about. Now, not only did I feel hurt, bewildered, embarrassed, but angry too. The tears seemed permanently lodged behind my eyes. I desperately tried to put it out of my mind, but I had become emotionally hijacked and the memory was on replay. The molehill had become a mountain. I wanted it to stop and reminded myself that ‘if you pick it, it won’t get better’. As a therapist I know that picked over memories can become toxic and do great damage to oneself and others and I didn’t want that. In the end I decided to just let the tears flow. Alone, I bawled my eyes out. The dam of emotion had burst and I felt better, which slightly surprised me. I haven’t felt upset since.

Shakespeare gave some wise words to Hamlet in Act 2, Scene 2.

“…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”

Emperor Marcus Aurelius lived centuries before Shakespeare. He should have an entire therapeutic approach to life built around his many insightful quotes.  

“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” 

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” 

(*Look for the book 'Meditations' - the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.) 

To bring it up to date, I will finish with a quote from Disney: “Let it go!”

* Since the column was published, the memory has come back a couple of times and tried to make mischief in my mind. Being busy  and using diversionary tactics, I have been able to 'let it go' or push the mischief maker away. In the past I have been known to shout very loud and very rudely at an intrusive negative thought. It somehow can break the trance state of introspection and works. I choose a suitable time and place, just in case I'm overheard!

In my practice, I made a poster of one Marcus Aurelius quote. 

2000 Years Ago

"Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous, being but creatures of your fancy, you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region letting your thoughts sweep over the entire universe."

Stop imagining the worst and look at the bigger picture


Sunday, 30 April 2017

Setting and pushing boundaries.

This is the extended* Wellbeing Column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, April 25th, 2017.

It has been like the BBC TV programme, ‘Springwatch' in our back garden recently. As well as a tuneful variety of bird life, the bird feeders and garden have encouraged other visitors too. Squirrels, rabbits, deer, a stoat, pheasants, hedgehogs, bees, butterflies and even a pair of ducks have appeared near the house for the first time.

One morning we looked out of the window and were shocked. There was a scene of wanton vandalism. Hanging feeders lay on the ground, broken and empty. A baton of wood was snapped in two. Due to the height of the feeders, we blamed deer, but out of curiosity, we erected a night time camera.

The next morning, a similar scene met us. We looked at the camera and were amazed. A badger was the culprit. We know how fortunate we are to have such a wonderful selection of wildlife on our doorstep and we encourage it, despite the downside of nibbled flowers and shrubs. But it is wild life. Life that knows few boundaries.

Recently I heard a retired headteacher talk to a group of NSPCC supporters, about her years in charge of a primary school, in a tough area. She talked of children growing up ‘wild’ and how much they responded to the boundaries set at school. “They knew where they were and what was expected of them.” People need boundaries. When we’re younger, we have to be told and guided, learning about taking personal responsibility and that actions bring consequences. We push at them, question them, sometimes break through them, but need them for a healthy society. As we grow up and our brains mature, we can set boundaries for ourselves.

* Taken from the book, 'Are you Chasing Rainbows?' 

Peter, in his fifties, was an only child and close to his mother, who idolised him. He held a prestigious academic position in a university. He regularly had tantrums in the workplace, generally shouting, screaming, banging the table and walking out of meetings. Most of the time he succeeded in getting his own way.
I would suggest that while he had a high IQ, his EQ (emotional intelligence) did not match: he presented as a man/boy. He had grown up getting his own way by having tantrums, and was indulged by staff members. Unless someone was able to draw boundaries and be consistent in their non- acceptance of his behaviour, it was likely to continue. 

If animals, both domestic and wild, are kept inside boundaries and those boundaries are too restrictive, they will not thrive and usually display disturbed behaviour. The same can be observed with children. It’s not easy for parents and carers, especially with teenagers. Boundaries which are too restrictive can lead to as many problems as too few boundaries. 

*There is general acceptance now that praise and encouragement are helpful, and that filling a child with a sense of failure is unhelpful. The problem is that teaching is tipping the balance into giving a child unrealistic expectations. We praise a baby when it picks up a toy, but when do we stop? If we continue to praise a child for doing something that comes easily, the praise will be devalued. As adults, we need to move the boundaries of praise, along with the expectation of success. For example, a young child can be praised for a drawing: if that drawing doesn’t get much better and the praise continues, the child will know that the praise is empty. Either that or they will not try to stretch themselves because they will be praised anyway. What I suggest is that the effort should be praised instead.
Sometimes, as adults we set ourselves inflexible and unnecessary boundaries - a comfort zone. Perhaps 2017 is the year to step outside and explore the unknown?

* There are many reasons for preferring to stay within our comfort zone, but a major reason for may people, especially as they grow older, is not to wanting to fail. An adult can often be reminded of uncomfortable, even horrible, childhood experiences. The childhood emotion can 'hijack' the adult thinking and they stay in their comfort zone. That can be a shame and a loss of personal development.

"Failure is success, if we learn from it." Malcolm Forbes.