A “racial awakening” is the term used in The Psychologist this month to describe what is going on with Black Lives Matter (BLM) at the moment….it’s not just about the George Floyd incident – bad though that was – but also about the effect the coronavirus has had on the black communities and all the microaggressions that racism causes, which has an impact on people and can cause trauma in black people similar to PTSD. The BPS and the Cof E – both organisations that I am involved with have finally woken up to doing something about it…Obviously the UK is different from America – but we are certainly not innocent – look at the way the British press treated Meghan Markle…and despite the Macpherson enquiry in 1999, the British police are still institutionally racist too.
What can we do? – apart from setting up / helping diversity task forces within our organisations and affirmative action, I still think that making people aware of their unconscious biases is helpful too (despite the mixed evidence to support this). It certainly worked for me – I was trained in this when I was undergoing my teacher training in the 1980s and it has helped me to recognise my own prejudices and also to challenge other teachers and my clients when necessary. So reading around the subject can help, for example I have recently read “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo (which I would recommend despite it being v American).
You may wonder why, as a white woman, I think I can write about this, but for me it’s also personal, as my niece and nephew are mixed race…however I hope overcoming racism matters to all. Also I hope that any of my clients may feel free to talk to me about these issues and if they are black that they can feel free to challenge me on anything I might say or do that makes them feel uncomfortable.
So by writing this blog today I am risking going against some things that my professional body may advise, but I’m a woman before I am a psychologist…So am I a TERF? Well it seems to be used as a derogatory word for some women today in much the same way that calling women witches has been in the past. But let’s unpick the acronym: TE stands for Trans-Exclusionary, which means excluding all trans people – do I do that? Well I have no problems with men dressing up or wearing make-up – hence my photo here of Julian Clary; and I have enjoyed going to cabaret shows where men dress as women (and wonder why it’s funny when men dress as women but not so the other way round?) and two of my favourite films are “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” and “Kinky Boots”, but Julian and the characters in those films don’t’ try and pass themselves off as women in their everyday lives….The RF stands for Radical Feminist – well I would call myself a feminist in that I think that women deserve equal pay to men etc but I don’t always practise what I preach, as my husband and I often share some of the roles in our house in a traditional way….so I am not really radical.
However I very much agree with what Germaine Greer and JK Rowling say about the issue; e.g. men pretending to be women just suggests that women are an inferior sort of person to men – hence the humour? And yes there are probably now more girls wanting to be boys than the other way round, because we still live in a world where white men have better life opportunities…and I do think that in this day and age where we can pretty much wear what we want and apply for any job regardless of our gender, then why is there an issue? We all have a mixture of feminine and masculine within us and yes as we develop as children there will be some social construction going on, but why can’t we just embrace who we are as we are? That is after all part of my work as a therapist – to work with people who have any sort of dysphoria – but the answer isn’t give them what they ask for – otherwise we would be sending depressed people to dignitas!! And if we feel like we should be the opposite gender, then that is just a thought or a feeling and as a CBT therapist I teach people that decisions are not best made based on emotions alone…
So, yes I don’t think the NHS should be wasting it’s precious resources on gender reassignment surgery, I don’t think we should be stopping puberty in our adolescents, ladies toilets should just be for women only not trans, trans women should not be going to women’s’ prisons if they still have a penis, trans women should not be competing against women in their sports, trans issues are not the same as sexuality issues (so why bolt them together?); and if you can’t menstruate, fall pregnant or breastfeed then you are not a woman – biology doesn’t lie – it is in our DNA (and I am not including here intersex which is a separate more complex issue). So yes many people would call me a TERF – but do I care? No.
Coronaphobia is a new word around at the moment and a little of it is understandable, especially if you have seen those photos of seriously ill people in hospital or you have heard someone talk about their recovery etc. However for some people it can become a real problem, possibly leading to health anxiety or OCD or agoraphobia…and ways of recognising this are discovering that you have become obsessive about cleaning or you are not going out to places or to see people where it is probably safe…So here are 7 tips to help you deal with this type of anxiety:
Baby steps – make changes gradually, for example by initially going out for walks or to supermarkets at times when it’s not busy…. but don’t stay indoors unless your GP has told you to.
Be rational – for example if you are a young white woman, with no underlying health conditions, the probability that you will get ill from coronavirus is exceedingly slim. Remember that thoughts are not facts….
Don’t watch/listen to too much news!
Do something good for somebody else that will make them happy – to take away the focus from yourself and your body…
Work out what it is you value in life and give those values more priority than your anxieties.
Invite in the positive emotions like hope and gratitude instead of focussing on the negative ones.
If you feel your anxieties are getting out of control, get expert help from a health professional e.g. your GP or a therapist.
This Venn diagram can help prevent or beat depression! It’s called ACE-ing it….i.e. if you can have the following three areas covered in your life, you are going to be doing OK and one of the reasons that people get depressed is because they stop focusing on them and instead just try and do the mundane stuff, which may seem important at the time, but is not as important as ACE: (this is provided you are in good physical health);
A is for achievement i.e.something to do and this can include your work, but also hobbies, exercise etc.
C is for connections i.e. someone to love – this doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic love and can include friends as well as family, or just making connections with people that you meet in your everyday life.
E is for enjoyment i.e. somewhere to go, but that is not easy at the moment in the present times, however there are plenty of things you can do that are enjoyable at home e.g. reading, listening to music etc.
And if none of that works, then it maybe that you need to have some CBT therapy to change your thinking styles.
Many of my friends and family and some of my clients will know that on Easter Monday I was taken into hospital with extreme pain as a result of suspected gallstones…and these are caused by fat in the diet that hasn’t been processed properly by the gallbladder….and women over 40 who have had children are more susceptible! So I am now on a low fat diet and the last time I was on a low fat diet was probably about 20 years ago.. This is because I had gradually been misled by the media into thinking that sugar was the real enemy…Even though, as a health psychologist, I knew that a balanced diet without too much fat or sugar was really the way to go. So I was blithely eating eggs for breakfast or lunch when I felt like it and having fatty cuts of meat such as lamb or duck etc…not any more…This just shows how pervasive the zeitgeist can be! So if you want to be healthy, avoid eating too much sugar AND avoid eating too much fat.
In the last year or so I have regained a love of poetry – I used to love reading and writing poems when I was a child and an adolescent, but it has taken the menopause for me to rediscover this quiet love…. As a child I used to love reading the poems at school that we were asked to learn and as an adolescent I used to like writing poetry as a way of addressing mental health issues, although I didn’t know that was what I was doing at the time, I just knew it worked.
The psychologist and researcher Pennebaker devoted most of his working life to researching how writing down our emotions not only helps our mental health, but also our physical health too! And I am not the only middle-aged woman to find nurture in this type of literature. My friend Tracey also started writing moems on Facebook and Instagram recently, which are poems which can include a bit of moaning about the recent crisis. However I have most recently found solace in a poet called Gideon Heugh who works for Tearfund. Here is one of his recent ones:
We’d been locked down for as long as we could remember, trapped behind the bars of our
ambition, our busyness,
our need to be productive.
We’d been driven mad by the isolation, stuck in the cells of our selves, emaciated by comfort, powerless against the claustrophobia of a world obsessed with more.
Who knew it would take an outbreak to break us out? Who knew it would take keeping our distance for us to see how closely we’re connected? Who knew it would take having nothing to do for us to know the importance of doing nothing?
Who knew that it would take a tragedy for us to rediscover joy? Who knew it would take all this despair for us to hold more tightly to hope? Who knew it would take being so close to death for us to come back to life?
Who knew it would take the loss of our freedom for love to be set free?
Many pregnant women may be anxious at the moment, as they have been told to isolate/practise extreme social distancing, even though there is no evidence as yet on whether they are vulnerable or not…Being isolated when you are feeling anxious or depressed is not helpful and added to that these women will of course be more worried than usual about their unborn baby.. So even though it is a long time since I was pregnant, I do know about anxiety as a professional, so here goes with some tips that might help if you are feeling anxious :
Follow the advice of your GP / obstetrician / midwife and only look at reputable sources of information online.
Continue with antenatal appointments, even if they have to be done remotely?
Ask for support whenever you need it – don’t forget pregnant women are not super women…
Indulge in creativity when the nesting instinct happens – more fun than housework!
Use worry time i.e. restrict yourself on how much news you watch etc and find a time in the day (e.g. 3pm?) when you can worry as much as you like for 15 minutes and then stop!
If worrying thoughts enter your mind at other times of the day, use mindfulness to just note them and let them go; either by using an app like Headspace or just grounding yourself in the present moment with 3 / 5 of your physical senses.
Remember thoughts / opinions do not equal facts…
Continue to get fresh air and exercise.
Learn deep rhythmic breathing (4 seconds to breathe in and 6 seconds to breathe out); if you find this difficult there may well be instructions on Youtube…
Stick to a regular routine with sleep and meal times etc. and if you nap in the afternoon don’t nap for too long…
Focus not on how bad the situation is at the moment, but on how lucky you are to be bringing a new life into the world – it gives you a purpose…
Use this time to get engrossed in music / good books / dramas on TV/ films via Netflix etc – as you won’t be able to do this when the baby comes!
When the baby does come make sure you breastfeed, as that will help with the baby’s immunity and you may still be able to contact breastfeeding counsellors over the phone if you need help – persevere with it if you haven’t had a previous child – don’t expect it to be easy, but it is worth it…
If the baby blues become something worse like postnatal depression – contact your GP straight away…
Talk to your partner and if they are not good listeners find someone else who is!
Many private therapists are still working, albeit mainly by Skype/Zoom, so there is still help out there for your anxiety even if it’s not readily available on the NHS…
This year no smoking day (11th March) didn’t get mentioned in the media, as the media have been too busy whipping up hysteria about coronavirus. And yet nobody seems to have stated the obvious: i.e. if you want to improve your immune system and therefore reduce any impact the virus may have on your respiratory system, then STOP SMOKINGNOW! (And if you’re struggling ask a friendly health psychologist to help…)
I spoke about change at a talk in cafe church last Sunday and obviously that was mainly about spiritual changes, but it is also a good topic for this blog….Changes that are thrust upon us, such as job loss, bereavement and house moves are often the most difficult ones to cope with. Yet changes we choose can be tricky too, such as giving up smoking, losing weight and improving our mental health; a CBT therapist can help with the latter and a health psychologist with the former…However CBT is often like learning a new language – it takes time and practise for our brains to learn new ways of thinking, so no magic wand is available!
Physical health changes are difficult too; not all health psychologists are in the correct BMI range…During my training I learnt about many different theories and models of behaviour change, which I have lectured on for two hours when I was working at UWE…And one of the main predictors of future behaviour is past behaviour! One of my favourites was “implementation intentions” which is about putting specific action plans in place to achieve a goal once the intention is decided upon; a bit like SMART goals…However when I was working at the University of Bath we found that targeting people who are undergoing a life transition ( in this case leaving school) were ripe for behaviour change, as past behavior had less of a hold on them and new habits could be formed – ideally healthy ones; and the people in our study lost an inch off their waist in 2-3 months just by increasing their exercise and making one realistic change to their diet.
Personally I don’t plan to retire anytime soon, as I enjoy my work, I am in good health and I still have spare time to do other things I enjoy too…However at some point in the future I will have to….The funny thing is Google is only interested in telling you how to make financial plans for retirement, whereas plans for your wellbeing are just as important, if not more so. Hence the reason why The Psychologist has a leaflet about retirement in their magazine this month – with 10 points – five of which I will summarise here:
Replace lost roles to enhance a sense of meaning or purpose, such as volunteering.
Be creative: take part in activities such as painting or singing and engage with culture through museums and the theatre etc. Also if you can, learn a language or a musical instrument to help reduce the risk of getting dementia.
Don’t stop exercising! Or start if you haven’t done so through your working life – it’s never too late…just walking outside or doing a Pilates class etc to keep cardiovascular health well and to keep muscles strong. Also good for mental health as well as physical.
Be sociable: travelling and also finding local opportunities to connect with others e.g.through your church…and socialising through technology too.
It’s a major life transition, so be kind to yourself by responding to difficulties with self-compassion and remembering that many others will be meeting similar challenges….Having psychological flexibility is very important – CBT / ACT therapists can help with this!