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 SMOKING NOW! (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!
I used to be a bit of a head banger when I was an adolescent and apparently I still am! I don’t listen to heavy metal music anymore (except for the occasional Whitesnake track) but I did bang my head as a result of a fall the other day…So I am not talking about a little whack of the head when you hit it against a beam, but a heavy fall against a stone pillar, with – as the paramedics put it – a lot of claret (and I am not talking about falling because of booze!) This resulted in mild concussion which is also called a minor head injury and just because you don’t pass out and/or vomit or seem confused, it doesn’t mean you are not concussed…Often as a result of a minor head injury you can get post-concussion syndrome, which can last from a couple of weeks to 3 months… And as this is quite common, I thought it would be helpful to list some of the symptoms here:
- some mild cognitive impairments such as forgetfulness / slow processing speeds / problems concentrating
- tiredness / drowsiness / problems sleeping
- sensitivity to noise and/or light
- feeling tearful
- mild PTSD
- fear of going out
A psychologist would be able to help you cope with any of these symptoms, even if they are not a neuropsychologist, or you can go to the Headway website where there are helpful leaflets to download and/or a helpline to ring…Headway suggest that in the first few days afterwards you don’t drink alcohol or drive long distances or play contact sport, but if the symptoms get worse and the headaches don’t respond to painkillers, then you should get checked out by your GP or go to A&E.
So a slightly different blog this time about my present work as a psychologist and what it involves – without of course breaking confidentiality…I trained as a health psychologist and I am chartered with the British Psychological Society (also registered with the Health Care Professionals Council); both of which involve responsibilities i.e acting ethically and keeping up my professional development (see below). The reason I am writing about this is because quite often you hear people say to those who are living with difficulties-“why don’t you go and have a little chat with a psychologist?” Warning – never use the word “chat” when referring to talking therapies! One of my old colleagues said those chats can be expensive! Also because I am self-employed it seems to me that some other people – including the people at my church, think I just spend a few hours a week chatting to people and that is all my work entails!!
At present I work as a psychotherapist (not the same as a counsellor when a psychologist is doing it- see my previous blog!) I work with adults, adolescents and children. I mainly use CBT, but also other concepts/ideas/approaches too. And yes I do talk to my clients, but very little of that is chat – some of it is psychoeducation, some of it is Socratic dialogue and the rest is working collaboratively with people in getting them to change/accept their thoughts and behaviour. However the work I do is not just the time I spend with my clients….I have to continue with my professional development and this includes: reading, reflecting, attending workshops/conferences etc. I also see my supervisor once a month… I have to send out invoices, write reports, market myself, read through notes and prepare session content, as well as responding to emails and chasing up clients who don’t contact you when they should…On top of that it is a sedentary job and also one that takes an emotional toll, so I sometimes feel drained and can have impostor syndrome! Therefore I have to look after my own physical and mental health through exercise and finding time to relax etc. Despite all that I do enjoy my work; I don’t earn much, but I love being my own boss and I like working with my clients…
The researchers at CAR UWE (the centre for appearance research at the University of the West of England) recently published a podcast on body hair, but it was over 30 minutes long and most people don’t want to spend that long listening, so I’ll summarise it here and some. As well as making some hair-raising jokes, they made three main points (that they had found from looking at the literature) none of which are really surprising:
- Women are more likely to remove body hair than men.
- Gay men are more likely to remove body hair than straight men.
- Younger women tend to remove more body hair than older women.
- There are cultural variables.
In fact it seems that many young women remove body hair from the neck downwards, including pubic hair – not just the bikini line, but the whole lot (and yet there are a minority of women, including a couple of celebrities who are”embracing” their body hair). And this seems to be because modern day porn shows women with no pubic hair and so young men are coming to expect that…..!!!! I remember when I grew up in the 70s and 80s that any man who wanted a woman to remove all her pubic hair was considered to be a pervert….after all pubic hair is a sign of sexual maturity…
One area that they didn’t discuss was the relevance to oral sex – they didn’t go there, so….Nobody likes that feeling of having a hair stuck at the back of the throat, so maybe this is another reason why some men prefer women to go bald….however they are not going to do that themselves – no doubt they would argue that the penis sticks out further than the clitoris and therefore it isn’t necessary for men to do that! LOL… But what is sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose and I would also argue that if women are going to shave their armpits then men could do so too!
I have had quite a few clients where drink has been a problem and I am not talking about alcoholism…rather the sort of dependency on drink which shows itself when someone can go all day without a drink, but once they open that bottle of wine they are unable to stop; and because they are drinking pretty much every day, they are having way over the recommended average weekly limit of 14 units… Often it can also make anxiety worse the next day too and/or exacerbate depression… Some of my clients work on this with me (as a health psychologist) successfully, but others can’t manage it and then drop out of therapy.
My closest family members would laugh if they read this blog, as they know I like a drink, but I probably have 3-4 dry days a week and the weeks I drink 20 units are balanced by the weeks I drink only 8. Also I find it more difficult when someone else is pouring/buying, so I have now devised this system when on an evening out I will wear a set number of bracelets and whenever I have a drink I take one off – once my arm is bare I have to stop – simple! This helps, because we all have a limited amount of willpower and sometimes that “muscle” is worn out by the evening, so action planning helps. This is related to the research literature on implementation intentions and devising if-then plans e.g. if there is no alcohol in the house then you will be less likely to drink! etc. etc. For the Psychologists out there, there are a few good articles on alcohol in our monthly magazine, including the low-down on digital interventions which can help some people.
So if you can practice controlled drinking, your mental health and physical health will benefit… Also you are less likely to get to that place where the alcohol controls your life and the only answer would be then to give it all up for good! And I don’t know about you, but on a Friday night in the Summer I am looking forward to that first glass of cold white wine!