Monday, 30 April 2018

Changing attitudes - would you be a friend to yourself?

This is the article that was published in the York Press on Tuesday, March 27th, 2019. It was not published online.

In the recent bad weather, we arrived at our favourite cafe for Saturday breakfast. The flood barriers had become stuck over the entrance and the staff couldn’t remove them. My husband helped and finally the job was done. I set out the tables and chairs, while the staff turned on the coffee machine and ovens. The fire was lit and soon we were able to eat a delicious breakfast.  All hands on deck, helping one another, during a time of exceptional weather. Community pulling together for the greater good, demonstrated all over the county, in the challenging weather conditions.

The following week we met with the usual early morning crowd. People were understanding about the previous week, except for one person who moaned and complained about the cafe opening late. They couldn’t have their breakfast exactly when they wanted it. Afterwards, it occurred to me that if their attitude had been different, they could have helped too.

Taking the opportunity arising from a cancelled meeting, I went to the cinema to see ‘The Darkest Hour’, with a mesmerising performance by Gary Oldham as Churchill. The venue is undergoing renovation and after the film I started to descend three flights of stairs with another woman. I commented on the improvement of lighting and other decor. Unfortunately she didn’t have anything good to say and moaned all the way down to the foyer, where a light-hearted comment from me about the weather outside, was met with further negativity. I felt quite drained and thought that I wouldn’t like to spend too much time in the woman’s company.

The subject of loneliness is mentioned regularly in the media. Circumstances can be difficult for many people, but there are those who do not help themselves by only complaining and speaking negatively. Sadly, this further alienates them, as friends, family and neighbours find being in their company draining and difficult, so visits become less often and shorter. A vicious circle is set up and generally, blame is apportioned elsewhere.  

A question we should all ask ourselves is, “would I want to visit me and spend time in my company?” If not, can we change our attitude? The answer is “Yes!” and then enjoy a more helpful outcome. 

* A man told me that he didn't have any friends. It was difficult for him to tell me why he thought this might be. I suggested he imagined that he was taking me into his local pub and as we walked in, we noticed him sitting at the bar. I suggested we go up and say hello. He immediately said strongly, "No"! I asked why we shouldn't say hello. His rely was immediate. "I pinch all my friends' girlfriends.". We were then able to have a discussion.

*It's called The Observing Self or as I prefer, our personal CCTV. Not always comfortable to view, but helpful if we look and learn.

If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Maya Angelou

©AlisonRRussell2018 

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Something extra - ground breaking BBC podcast on cancer and mental health.

Nine years ago I met a young woman called Rachael Hodges. She was working on a late night radio programme on BBC 5Live with Richard Bacon. At a challenging time in my life, which meant difficulty in sleeping, I became a regular listener to late night radio, especially the Richard Bacon Show. Rachael was the sidekick, keeping him in order and helping provide huge entertainment, especially for a small band of dedicated listeners at 12.30am. I'm asleep at that time these days.

Life moves on and there have been many changes for everyone. Rachael still sometimes works on late night radio, though at the moment she can be found on Drive Time at 17.00pm with Tony Livesey. Since 2009, Rachael has moved with BBC5Live to Salford, married Steve Bland, had a child called Freddie and developed a particularly complex type of breast cancer.

Since her diagnosis and using her journalistic and broadcast skills, Rachael has been writing an award winning Blog, 'Little Me, Big C'. After connecting with other bloggers with cancer, three of them have created some podcasts for Radio 5Live called, 'You, Me, Big C'. The podcasts were launched this week. They were motivated by finding that there was little out there for women in the 30s/40s with a cancer diagnosis.

I have listened to 'About the head' podcast today. In my opinion it is the most open, honest and helpful conversation that has been made by people experiencing cancer. No psychobabble, just raw honesty. I haven't been diagnosed with cancer, but have learnt a lot listening to three amazing women. Personally, I believe it to be groundbreaking and post it on here to help others, which is the whole purpose of this blog.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p060fcqm

©AlisonRRussell2018

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Who are you really? Is your childhood label past its sell-by date?

This is the *extended Wellbeing Column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/16044808.COLUMN__Time_to_ditch_the_childhood_tags_that_hold_us_back/

I have been reading and thoroughly enjoying, an autobiography by the actor, Stephen McGann. At present, he can been seen playing the doctor of ‘Call the Midwife’, a BBC TV series written by his wife, Heidi Thomas. The book is titled ‘Flesh and Blood: A history of my family in seven sicknesses.’ *Personally I think it's one of the best non-fiction books I've read (listened to).

Stephen’s life story has been beautifully written and in an unusual style. With a degree in medical science, Stephen has written his life story and that of his family, through the eyes of seven medical diagnosis that affected his family through one hundred and fifty years.  Seven chapters full of medical, family, social and cultural history. As I ‘listen’ to books, I also have the bonus of hearing Stephen McGann voice.

*Fascinating, when through his wife's discovery, he finds a great uncle and ship's fireman, mentioned as a survivor on the Titanic in 1912.
Horrifying, as it becomes clear that he and one of his brothers were part of the crowd at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
Movingly poignant, when reading about his wife's illness in 1998, which touched on my own personal experience with my husband.

Why do I think the book is worth mentioning in this column?

Stephen is the youngest of four brothers with a younger sister. The McGann brothers are all well known actors. As he was growing up, Stephen was ‘the sick one’, or ‘the weak one’. A quieter child with respiratory problems which gave him his family identity. Certainly not a child destined for a career on the the stage. But he refused to give in to his medical problems and fought against living up to his place in the family as the sickly one.

As I listened, I was reminded of adult man with anxiety problems, who through childhood, was used to his mother introducing him as. “This is Peter, our anxious one.” Now grown-up, he was reinventing himself and due a suggestion made by Dr Robert Winston on a TV programme, had made a list of all the positive characteristics he knew he truly was and kept it as a reminder in his wallet. 

Oliver, the youngest boy of four children, was experiencing an apparent school phobia and wouldn’t leave his mother at home alone. There was no phobia, but a fear of leaving his mother, who said on a daily basis, “I won’t be able to manage without him.” One reassuring conversation between his mother and the boy changed everything in a day. * I was making home visits to Oliver's mother, when I realised what was happening. I suggested that she spoke to Oliver about how she was looking forward to him going to school and reassuring him that she would be okay. Later that day, he went out in the car with his siblings and father to the shops. Something he wouldn't do before the conversation with his mother.

*I was 'the naughty one', with it's own consequences.  In the majority of cases, I don't agree in blaming our own troublesome actions on other people and thus negating adult personal responsibility. It is used as an excuse when losing control over a situation.  I do think there are reasons behind our problematic actions. Recognise a reason, do not use it as an excuse and then take control. Too many adults with mental health problems are having internal dialogues as the children they were labelled.

Are you still believing an unhelpful identity given to you in childhood? It’s time to stop. If we think like the children we once were, we may well behave as we once did. Is your family label past it's sell-by date?

‘Careful the things you say
Children will listen’
From Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim 


©AlisonRRussell2018

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Intense 'hits' can become addictive.

This is the *extended York Press Wellbeing column, first published on Tuesday, January 30th  2018.

http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/15900435.COLUMN__Home_truths_about_sweet_cravings/


I was feeling fed up and my thoughts turned to chocolate. My thoughts nearly always turn to chocolate when feeling fed up. If not chocolate, something sweet. I won’t be alone and if it’s not something sweet to manage a negative mood, many people will turn to either shopping, drinking, drugs, gambling, sex, or even inexplicably to most people, self-harm. Something to distract one from accepting uncomfortable feelings and working through them. Compensation or a reward which quickly ‘hits the spot’.


*Self-harm presents images of scars, blood and burns and is certainly used to provide an intense hit, instead of managing uncomfortable or distressing emotions. But much of our everyday behaviour could be called self-harm couldn't it? If we've been diagnosed with something which could be helped by a change in our lifestyle, how many of us carry on as before, perhaps taking medication rather than changing lifestyle behaviours?  When we ignore the signs and make in choices and engage in behaviours that could be harmful, isn't that self-harm?


I’ve been writing a magazine article for Tidings magazine, a publication of Colostomy UK, about my reactions when my husband was suddenly taken seriously ill four years ago (happily he is fully recovered). Leaving the hospital at 10am in a state of shock and my mind all over the place, I craved chocolate and red wine. I could acknowledge that the wine was to ‘fuzzy the edges’ and was unwise, as I had to drive later in the day, but chocolate was an easy solution. My favoured chocolate is 90% dark chocolate, but that wasn't going to do. I needed something sweeter and more intense and turned to a Twirl bar with ‘An intense chocolate hit’ written on the side. It certainly does that, though it’s probably an intense sugar hit too. Another one and I was feeling better. Deep down I didn’t really want to eat all that chocolate, I just wanted something to take the uncomfortable emotions away. Twirl bars became my comfort food for a month and even now, when most days I can ignore the blue and yellow packaging, sometimes I give in. 

I’ve thought back to the earliest feelings of eating something sweet to make me feel better and up pops childhood experiences. *I can recall a 'stolen' digestive biscuit in an aunt's house, when I was bored and a sneaky lemon puff biscuit when I was stuck indoors unwell. 

I observe the behaviours still being played out today when I’m out and about. A crying child, a carer and instant gratification to “make it feel better”, usually food based. Most of us have done that and the message is absorbed at an early age. To make us feel better we need a treat and it’s often something sweet. 

* If the memories are not of something sweet, they may be of something that was fun. I recall a man with a gambling addiction. His childhood memories were of his mother having fun with him at seaside fruit machines. 
The need to do something 'to make us feel better' is connected with feelings of not feeling good enough, the driving force of multiple psychological problems rooted in childhood.

Cravings and planning the next ‘hit’ can be symptoms of addictive behaviour. If it’s getting out of control, seek help. Short-term gain, long-term pain.

©AlisonRRussell2018


Sunday, 31 December 2017

A Childish or Childlike Christmas time?

This is the article that should have been published in the York Press on Tuesday, December 26th, 2017. Unfortunately Christmas printing dates meant that it was missed and it was printed on January 2nd 2018.

http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/15804463.COLUMN__Is_your_behaviour_childish_or_childlike_/

Standing at a bus terminus has its advantages, especially if you’re one of the first to get on the bus. With a little excitement, I climbed the stairs and claimed a front seat. There followed, over an hour of a leisurely ride through London to Kings Cross Station. The number 10 route covers many London landmarks and before Christmas there was even more than usual to look at. Left, right, and straight ahead were Christmas decorations and shop windows to enjoy. My appreciation felt childlike. Then the idea of making that feeling the topic of this column fell into place. What’s the difference between childish and childlike behaviours? This question became the basis of my therapeutic work, as I realised I was working with many adults who were displaying unhelpful emotions based in childhood. It fascinated me. Why was this happening?

What do I suggest is the difference?

On the top of the bus I felt childlike moments. These can be treasured at any age and include moments of joy, fun, wonderment, innocent curiosity and simple pleasure. We can still behave as an adult and remain in control. These moments are delightful, uplifting, fun and enjoyable for all, such as, a visit to the seaside, receiving gifts, playing games with children, having harmless fun. They are unlikely to cause distress to anyone.

Behaviour described as childish is a pain for all involved. It can be demonstrated by sulking, tantrums, being disruptive, lying, manipulation and possessiveness. The person behaving childishly is unhappy and emotionally immature “Oh grow up” is the response many people would like to use confronted with such behaviours. Childish behaviours cause distress to others too.

Christmastime is especially a time of year when both childlike and childish behaviours can be experienced. Plenty of articles have been written on families coming together and the dynamic played out in the present day is one that arose in childhood. The adult children often default to their younger roles. If it’s fun it’s okay, but if unhappiness is involved, it is not.


I wish you all moments of love, kindness and joy over Christmas and New Year. 

©AlisonRRussell2018

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.

http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/15668617.COLUMN__Control_your_emotions_or_they_will_control_you/

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.  snowdropproject.co.uk 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.

©AlisonRRussell2017

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.
http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/15596191.COLUMN__Everyone_deserves_a_second_chance/

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. www.sigbi.org  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 

©RitaLeaman2017