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(Part 2) Changing our thoughts to improve our health

(..a continuation of the blog post ‘The undeniable impact of our environment and beliefs on our health’)

As a society, we have been programmed to believe that we are victims and that we have no control over many areas of our life, particularly our health.

We’re also programmed from birth with our parents’ beliefs. For example, when we are sick, we are told by our parents that we need to go to the doctor because the doctor is the authority concerning our health. We are all given the message throughout childhood that the medical profession is the authority on health and that there are many areas of our life over which we have no control. The irony, however, is that people often get better while waiting to see their doctor. That’s when the innate ability for self-healing kicks in, another example of the placebo effect.

Reclaiming our power over our health can help us heal and doing so is, in fact, necessary for us to truly heal. Yet simply ‘thinking positively’ and reciting affirmations for hours on end doesn’t always bring about the results that self-help books promise. 

This is because positive thoughts come from the conscious mind, while contradictory negative thoughts are usually programmed in the more powerful subconscious mind.

The problem is that we are aware of our conscious beliefs and behaviours, but unaware of our subconscious ones. Our subconscious mind is far more powerful than our conscious mind, meaning that we operate around 95% from our subconscious beliefs and programmes. These are working either for or against us, and our subconscious mind will always supersede our conscious control.

Therefore, just telling ourselves that we are healthy isn’t good enough – if there is an invisible subconscious programme that is sabotaging us.

The power of the subconscious mind is revealed in a fascinating way in Multiple Personality Disorder (now referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)) where, for example an individual may be allergic to a certain fruit when occupying the mind-set of one personality, while happily eating the same fruit without consequence in the mind-set of another personality.

So, how do we change the negative thoughts and programmes in our subconscious mind?

We first need to let go of guilt and self-blame – after all, we were downloaded with these limiting programmes in our childhood without being consciously aware of them.

We must also recognize that we are the driver in the direction our life is taking, and that we are responsible for our own health.

  • To change our beliefs, we have to be as honest as possible with what they are in the first place. This involves becoming adept at catching our thoughts.

Whenever we start to feel upset or uncomfortable in a situation, we need to make it a habit to turn our attention to what our thoughts are. The core beliefs we need to work on will be hidden behind our negative thinking patterns.

Tools that help:

  • Journaling daily
  • Pausing every hour or so to notice what we are thinking
  • Mindfulness – this is one of the best tools there is for learning to hear our thoughts
  • Breaking thoughts down to beliefs.

If we can work to recognise what thought is upsetting us, we can then ask ourselves ‘Is this true?’, and then try to uncover what the belief behind the thought is.

A great way to do this is to ask ourselves ‘If this thought is true, what does it mean?’ By repeating this question to ourselves we often experience a wave of emotion, or an ‘aha’ feeling.

This will inevitably be the core belief.

For example, say that the thought is “nobody at work likes me”. The process might look like this:

“If it’s true that nobody at work likes me, it means there is something wrong with me. If it’s true there is something wrong with me, it means I am flawed. If that’s true, it means I’m never going to be as good as my colleagues. If that’s true, it means I am the worst. If I’m the worst, it means I’m worthless. Oh goodness that feels like a punch to the gut. That’s my core belief – that I’m worthless.” (https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/how-to-change-your-core-beliefs.html)

  •  Try to change perspective

This means we take the core belief we’ve discovered and see it from a completely different angle. For example ‘If I asked my colleague if he/she thought I was worthless, what would they say’? Or, ‘Who gave me the idea that I was worthless? Was it because they felt this way about themselves and were projecting this thought on me?’

The point of doing this is to notice how changeable, and therefore not factual, beliefs really are.

It also enables us to consider ‘what might be a better thought?’

  • Experiment

This involves acting out a belief to see if we can prove it to be correct. The brain loves to think it has ‘proof’.
We think of a belief we want to challenge. We then think of a few small actions we can take to test if this belief is true. Then we write down all the things we assume will happen when we do these actions. We carry out those actions and write down what actually happened. What was the difference was between the reality and our belief?

What new beliefs might our actions actually show us?

  •  Learn belief triggers

If we have a particular core belief that we find really hard to shake off, it can help to learn what triggers it most and then find ways to respond differently to the trigger. It can help to ask:

Who are we with when this belief tends to rise up? Where are we? What are we doing? How are we feeling?

For example, does the core belief trigger most often when we visit a member of family? Could we set some boundaries around how often we visit that person, or how long each visit lasts? Could we try to respond differently to them or take some time out during the visit?

In addition to the above, various techniques are now available if you would prefer to see a trained therapist. These include (and are not limited to):

  • hypnosis
  • the use of affirmations
  • mindfulness
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)
  • Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)
  • Intensive Short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP)

By rewiring the subconscious thoughts that negatively impact our cells, we have a far greater chance of healing.

Sources:

https://www.brucelipton.com/resource/article/epigenetics https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/chronic-unpredictable-stress
https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/how-to-change-your-core-beliefs.html

The undeniable impact of our environment and beliefs on our health (part 1).

Our environment, and how we respond to it, plus the toxins around us and the trauma we face affect the health of our bodies down to a cellular level. When we change our environment (or how we respond to it), free ourselves from toxins, and process the trauma we have faced or are facing, we improve our health and our bodies can heal.

As stem cell biologist Bruce Lipton demonstrated, the fate of our cells is not determined by our genes – it is determined by our environment. So if cells are in a healthy environment, they are healthy. If they’re in an unhealthy environment, they get sick.

The Western medical model tends to view our bodies as machines, much like a car mechanic views a car. When a part of our body appears to be failing, the parts are blamed and treated (through drugs, physical therapy etc), removed or replaced (through transplantation, joint replacement etc). Sometimes this is necessary, but oftentimes not. What we fail to acknowledge is that our body has a driver. The new science of epigenetics reveals that the vehicles—or the genes—aren’t responsible for the breakdown. It’s the driver.

According to Dr Lipton, “In essence, if you don’t know how to drive, you’re going to mess up the vehicle. In the simplest translation, we can agree that lifestyle is the key to taking care of ourselves. Think well, eat well, and exercise, and your body won’t break down and need new parts”.

It has been shown that conventional cardiovascular patients, when provided with important lifestyle insights (better diet, stress-reduction techniques, and so on) were able to resolve their cardiovascular disease without drugs. If the same results were obtained through a drug, every doctor would be prescribing it.

But can the same be said for cancer? Even the strictest lifestyle changes don’t cure cancer in everyone. What about genetic predispositions to getting the disease? It used to be that we thought a mutant gene caused cancer,” Lipton admitted, but with epigenetics, all of that has changed.”

What is epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off, It affects how genes are read by cells and what, ultimately, becomes of those cells.

Bruce Lipton carried out a fascinating experiment to reveal the science of epigenetics, which made sense even to a lay person such as myself!

“I placed one stem cell into a culture dish, and it divided every ten hours. After two weeks, there were thousands of cells in the dish, and they were all genetically identical, having been derived from the same parent cell. I divided the cell population and inoculated them in three different culture dishes.

“Next, I manipulated the culture medium—the cell’s equivalent of the environment—in each dish. In one dish, the cells became bone, in another, muscle, and in the last dish, fat. This demonstrated that the genes didn’t determine the fate of the cells because they all had the exact same genes. The environment determined the fate of the cells, not the genetic pattern. So if cells are in a healthy environment, they are healthy. If they’re in an unhealthy environment, they get sick.”

He discovered that, with fifty trillion cells in our body, the human body is the equivalent of skin-covered petri dish. When we move from one environment to another we change the composition of our ‘culture medium,’ the blood.

“The chemistry of the body’s culture medium determines the nature of the cell’s environment within you. The blood’s chemistry is largely impacted by the chemicals emitted from your brain. Brain chemistry adjusts the composition of the blood based upon your perceptions of life. So this means that your perception of any given thing, at any given moment, can influence the brain chemistry, which, in turn, affects the environment where your cells reside and controls their fate. In other words, your thoughts and perceptions have a direct and overwhelmingly significant effect on cells.”

This teaches us that our mind can and does contribute to both the cause and healing of whatever illness we experience — including cancer.

The two other factors impacting the fate of cells are toxins and trauma. All three factors have been associated with the onset of cancer.

So what does this mean for me and my health?

Our perceptions are reflected in the chemistry of our body, so we can literally change the fate of our cells by changing our thoughts! Our beliefs create our reality, as we have thoughts and then take actions to reflect those beliefs. For example, if have been told we have two months to live and we believe this to be true, we will most likely die in two months as our minds work to connect our beliefs with the reality we experience.

Nocebo vs Placebo effect

Nocebo: Latin for ‘I shall harm’. For example, a doctor telling us we have two months to live.

Placebo: Latin for “I shall please”. For example, a doctor telling us that they are confident we will fully recover from our illness.

Can you read in this the power of belief? In the nocebo scenario, even if our conscious mind believes it doesn’t want to die, if our subconscious mind believes that we will (based on the doctor’s words) the body will conform to the dominant belief. As the subconscious controls 95% percent of our lives, it wins.

Compare that to the placebo scenario, in which the doctor is confident we will recover. If we also believe that we will recover, the conscious and subconscious mind are in harmony and our body has a far better chance of healing.

So, how do we change our thoughts? Part 2 coming soon!

What is somatic tracking and how can it help my pain ?

somatic – affecting or characteristic of the body as opposed to the mind or spirit

We are often so good at attending to others that we forget to attend to ourselves. This subtle neglect can have emotional and physical consequences.

Remember the last time someone asked how you were. Didn’t it feel wonderful just to be checked in on?

Somatic tracking is about checking in how we’re feeling in our bodies. Find a comfortable seat and try it now. Are you aware of any physical sensations in your body? Perhaps in your chest, tummy, back or shoulders?

How would you describe this sensation? Is it:

  • a tingling, a tightness, a clenching?
  • sharp, dull or achey?
  • warm or hot?
  • unpleasant or pleasant?
  • in one area, or multiple?

And when you pay attention to the sensation what happens? Does it:

  • intensify or subside?
  • expand or contract?
  • move from side to side or up and down?

Whatever it does, it’s OK. You’re not fighting the sensation, and you’re not frightened by it. You’re not trying to make it go away; you’re just observing it, with curiosity and no judgement.

By doing this you are attending to your internal state, treating yourself with love and giving your brain the message that it’s safe.

Somatic tracking works because it teaches our brain to reinterpret signals from our body through a lens of safety, thus deactivating the pain.

Neuroscientists have found that paying attention to our bodily sensations mindfully (on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally) can actually shrink the ‘fight or flight’ centre of our brains – the amygdala.

You don’t need to set aside hours of your day to carry out this practice. The goal is to attend to yourself on a moment-to-moment basis: while you’re working, while you’re reading, or while you’re lying down in bed – any moment during which you can simply stop, observe and give yourself a little love and attention.

The following is a ‘Somatic Tracking Exercise’ from the BCH Center for Mind Body Medicine.

Somatic Tracking Exercise

(Source: BCH Center for Mind Body Medecine)

Remember that pain (or anxiety, nausea, or dizziness) is your brain’s alarm signal. When you do this exercise mindfully, it is teaching your brain that the pain or distress is not dangerous to you, and that you are safe and in control of the situation. By simply examining the painful sensations without emotion, your brain is learning that the pain or discomfort is nothing to be afraid of, and without the fear, the pain loses its power. The goal of the exercise is not to get rid of the pain. In fact, the more you try to get rid of the pain, the more you are telling your danger-alarm mechanism that you are in trouble, and the more likely it is to continue to run the alarm pathway of pain, anxiety, or discomfort. The goal of the exercise is to teach your brain that it is safe and in no danger, but you don’t care whether the pain changes, or gets better or worse while you are tracking it.

When should I do this exercise?

Practice this exercise when pain, distress or negative sensations or thoughts happen any time during the day. When you find yourself using your normal avoidance strategies to get away from the pain or distress you are feeling, take just 2-3 minutes and do a somatic tracking exercise to mindfully explore and examine your pain or discomfort. (You can then go ahead and do your avoidance strategy if needed.)

Directions

When you notice pain, distress, or other negative thoughts, take two minutes (or more if you like):

1. Notice it with interest, maybe even with a little curiosity, but with no emotional reactivity. Almost like a hiker who reached the top of a ridge and is just looking at the landscape on the other side with interest. Pay attention to how the pain moves around or changes in quality but do so without emotion.

2. Accept it as happening right now but realize that this thought or body sensation is transient and caused by the brain. Say to yourself “It’s just a thought, a sensation, or neurons firing.”

3. Remind yourself that since these are just sensations, they are not in any way threatening to you. These sensations are not dangerous and cannot harm you.

4. Tell yourself “I don’t need to do anything about this right now because this is not harmful, and it will pass.”

5. Tell yourself: “I’m okay. I’ll be fine. There is actually nothing wrong with my [back/head/stomach/chest] because I am healthy and strong.” Or say “I am safe, and there is no danger from these nerve impulses. I am safe. I am not in danger.”

The podcast by Curable, hosted by Alan Gordon, LCSW (Founder of the Pain Psychology Center) and Alon Ziv

Here is a useful 11-minute somatic tracking guided meditation from the app Insight Timer.

How to write your way out of chronic pain

What is journaling?

There are many forms of journaling, but the one I found the most effective in dealing with my own chronic pain was ‘therapeutic journaling’.

Therapeutic journaling is a simple and effective way of releasing the pressure valve on our own internal pressure cooker – which, for sufferers of chronic pain, is often close to bursting, since they are the most likely to repress their emotions so as not to cause a fuss or upset anyone. They are often people pleasers, goodists, stoics and perfectionists, making it harder for them to express the silent rage, resentment, distress, pain, frustration, fear or worry they are experiencing. They would prefer to be the sounding board for another person’s worries than ‘burden’ another with their own.

This is why therapeutic journaling can be such an effective outlet for their unexpressed thoughts and emotions. It allows them to free themselves of pent up emotion, see an issue objectively and gain a sense of perspective.

Put simply, therapeutic journaling involves writing down all your thoughts and feelings without censorship, judgement or the fear of anyone else reading your words. It’s an honest outpouring of emotions.

Your journaling time is private and is your opportunity to let it all out. No holds barred. You can be as angry, hurt or upset as you wish. Use foul language if it helps and don’t even think about spelling errors or grammatical correctness (this can be somewhat challenging to the ‘Type T’ personality).

It can help to imagine yourself as a 5-year-old having an enormous tantrum. Use phrases like ‘I feel angry/sad/hurt/mad because……….’ Don’t hold back and don’t be frightened or ashamed of what comes up.

Write, offload, then delete, throw away or burn. It will feel liberating. Any anger, resentment or shame you feel will lighten and the pressure will release. You will often physically sense the tension leaving your body.

How does journaling help?

Creating an awareness of your thoughts, good or bad, separates you from them. When you can detach yourself from your thoughts you are able to look at them in a more objective manner and gain a different, more positive, perspective on them.

Scientifically proven to do you good..

Clinical studies have shown that journaling can:

  • Reduce pain
  • Allow healthier emotional reactions
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Improve sleep quality and duration
  • Reduce symptoms of depression
  • Reduce stress reactions in relation to a traumatic event
  • Reduce and regulate heart rate

Could journaling be upsetting?

If you have experienced particularly traumatic events in your life, you may initially find journaling too direct or upsetting. This is not to say that journaling should be avoided, rather that other strategies or treatments may be necessary first in order for you to reach the point of feeling safe to journal. Please do seek help from a professional counsellor or therapist if you feel this would be beneficial.

Getting started

Find a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed. First thing in the morning, when others are still asleep, or not requiring you attention, is a good time to write. Take a few deep, calming breaths and make sure you have something comfortable to sit on. Don’t overthink things, and don’t plan what you will write.

Choose your preferred style (you can alternate depending on your needs):

1)      Unsent letters to people who have upset you (past or present). This has two possible benefits: you get to tell the person what you think of them without fearing their reaction, and the act of forgiveness is very healing. Of course, you can always just be bold and tell them to their face! Realistically though, good, kind, conflict-avoiding people pleasers often find this very hard to do.

2)      Exploring emotions in the here and now, and gently inquiring into the thoughts that led to those emotions. Was it really the spilt milk on the floor that upset you, or was it the many small but challenging events leading up to that minor incident that resulted in your angry outburst?

3)      Exploring a traumatic or upsetting event in the past and writing to shed light on how this is bringing up emotions in the present.

Any of the above can take more than one attempt, in order to work through the layers of emotion we hold onto and repress – often likened to the layers of an onion. The goal is to be able to put these thoughts into perspective, reframe them and move on. Please don’t attempt to move onto the next stages before first really allowing yourself to feel the feelings and express them fully, without judgement or criticism. Be a passive observer of your thoughts.

The following guide, written by Georgie Oldfield, founder of SIRPA (https://www.sirpa.org/) in the UK, contains some really useful information on journaling, including the helpfulness of visualization techniques at the end of your journaling, and expressing gratitude for what is going well in your life https://www.sirpa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/7-Tips-for-successful-Therapeutic-Journaling.pdf. Georgie has also written a very helpful eBook called ‘Journaling for Health’ https://www.sirpa.org/product/journaling-for-health-ebook/

Sometimes, you may feel the need to search around a little when you begin to write, so try asking yourself the following to help get things going: Am I annoyed, upset, angry, frustrated or disappointed about anything or with anyone?

How long should I write?

How long is a piece of string? Don’t overdo it (journaling can sometimes feel a little emotionally draining), but allow yourself sufficient time to release the thoughts and associated tension you’re holding onto. Nicole Sachs, creator of JournalSpeak™, recommends 20 minutes of journaling, followed by 10 minutes of meditation. This could be in the form of a relaxing guided meditation, or a silent meditation where you observe the thoughts and feelings that arise from the journaling. Allow them to wash over you without judgment or attachment.

It can also be helpful to ask yourself ‘what have I learned?’, ‘has anything good come of this?’ or ‘how can I reframe this?’

Reframing means changing your perspective on a given situation to give it a more positive or beneficial meaning to you.

Then destroy your writing! Rip it up, burn it, delete it.

As Nicole Sachs (https://www.thecureforchronicpain.com/) says ‘Repressed emotions are only powerful in creating pain if they don’t have a voice. Nobody needs to hear this voice but you’.

(I hope journaling will help you, as it did me. This is no longer a daily practice for me, but I find it useful as one of my tools to occasionally return to if I feel any symptoms returning).

A little poem I wrote….

It’s been a while since my last post, and this is merely a reflection on how life is at the moment; I’m human too and, like everyone, I have many things that occupy my mind. I love to write, but I need to be in the right mood for the words to flow.

I started to journal this morning – I’ve been a little remiss lately and thought it might help – but after a few minutes in my private ‘pity party’, a feeling of calm came over me and a poem began to formulate. Now I wouldn’t consider myself a poet, so I seized the moment and let it flow!

Here’s what arose:

The Ship

Life has its own course
So relax your tight grip of the wheel
You were heading that way anyway
What you have sailed through is gone
Take the good memories, but leave the rest behind where it belongs
What you have yet to navigate is ahead of you
and cannot be mapped
Waves will come and go
Some will be frightening, others gentle
Allow yourself to be carried up and over them
Release the need to control them and push through them
Better to rise and fall together with them
In calmer seas, direct your ship to the destination you desire
Enjoy the ride
In stormy seas, don’t fight the current
Nor try to control the wind that fills your sails
They will lead you where you need to go
Even if you didn’t know it was part of your plan
Life has a way of teaching us what we need to know
Don’t fight it
Accept the course you are destined to take
Weather the storms as best you can
Be present, admire the view
See the stars above you and the ever-flowing water beneath you
Smell the air around you and what is carried on the breeze
Feel the wind on your cheeks and the deck at your toes
Let go of the need to control everything
Your ship will arrive when it is ready
It can’t be hurried nor slowed
Your shore will come into view if you will just let go and be

I hope you can learn to let go of the things in your own life that you cannot control, and accept that life has a plan for you all on its own.

How to turn off the stress response

In my last post ‘Could my personality be contributing to my chronic pain?’ I mentioned that, after recognising myself in many of the ‘Type T’ character traits, I started to ask myself what I was really feeling and what I wasn’t allowing to surface. I felt it was this repression of my emotions that was causing my body to remain in a stressed, over-adrenalized, anxious state and was responsible for my chronic lower back pain.

What is the stress response, also known as the ‘fight-flight response’?

The body has a natural way of protecting itself when faced with a threat or danger, though the ‘fight-flight response’. Walter Cannon (1871-1945), an American physiologist, first coined this phrase when he observed the common reactions of animals to danger. Once the danger was over, the animals returned to homeostasis – the body’s attempt to stabilize itself by internal corrective mechanisms when its equilibrium has been disturbed. When this is reached, ‘rest and repair’ can occur.

When the human brain perceives us to be in a danger, the hypothalamus in the brain stimulates the pituitary gland, which in turn signals the adrenal glands to produce what are commonly called “stress hormones.” The most familiar of these hormones are epinephrine (adrenalin), norepinephrine, and cortisol (a natural steroid similar to cortisone).

How does the body respond to the stress response?

Our pulse quickens, pupils dilate, digestion stops as the blood supply is sent to the muscles rather than the stomach and intestines, heart rate and blood pressure increase, muscles tense, thinking quickens, we have a surge of energy as fats are released into the bloodstream as emergency fuel, and the thyroid increases our metabolic rate.

The problem is that this stress response can be triggered by both real and imaginary threats. The brain doesn’t know the difference.

Nowadays, despite all our modern conveniences, our lives are often stressful – or at least we perceive them as stressful – and many people live in a perpetual state of fight of flight stress response. This means our bodies cannot rest and repair, and the relaxation response (the opposite of the stress response) is not activated.

What happens to our bodies when the stress response doesn’t switch off?

Eventually extended cortisol release results in:

Increased blood sugar levels, weight gain, bone loss, elevated blood pressure, digestive problems, adrenal fatigue, obesity, sleep deprivation, decreased sexual drive, anxiety and a weakened autoimmune system making the body more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections, and allergies.

Eventually serious physical problems develop as adaptive resources are depleted and the body goes into stress ‘overload’. The effects of this are:

Weight gain, autoimmune dysfunction, extended illnesses, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, thyroid depletion, inflammatory disorders, heightened allergies, coronary complications, and insomnia.

Worry and anger keep the body in this state of emergency, and so ‘feeling our feelings’ and expressing our thoughts becomes paramount.

Who suffers and who doesn’t?

Generally speaking, Type T personalities (as discussed in Part 1) suffer more as they are the most likely to repress their emotions. They don’t want to ‘rock the boat’ as they are often people pleasers and goodists. They can be fearful and anxious, often worrying about what others will think about them if they speak their mind.

Anxiety and fear activates the stress response as the brain cannot distinguish between a real or perceived threat. Our brain is just trying to protect us.

Non-Type T personalities suffer less as they are more able to express frustration, fear or anger in the moment, rather than repressing these feelings. They worry less about how people perceive them and so are more able to release their stress quickly and effectively.

Type T personalities tend to bottle up their thoughts and emotions. As a result, their minds and bodies very easily revert back to the stress response in an act of self-preservation.

Have you ever cried or ‘snapped’ because you or someone else spilt a drink on the floor? Was it really about the mess on the floor, or was it just the final straw – the one that broke the camel’s back? The reality is that you were already feeling stressed and it just took one small thing to tip you over the edge.

Type T personalities, who often repress their feelings, are much more likely to suffer from the aforementioned effects of being in stress overload. In my personal experience, this came in the form as chronic back pain, and prior to that, debilitating neck, shoulder and hip pain.

So how do we move from the stress reponse to the relaxation response?

  • Exercise

Exercise is a simple and effective way of calming the nervous system. It not only uses up the energy created in the body from the fight-flight response, it also breaks down stress hormones. Lower stress hormones mean a calmer body and mind. Just 5 minutes of intensive movement will start to break down excess stress hormones: Shake it out! Dance to your favourite tune, do a few star jumps, run up the stairs, dash around the garden. Most importantly, find something you enjoy. Doing an activity you loathe may only increase your stress through any resentment you feel towards it! I love running, but I know it’s not for everyone. Longer exercise obviously benefits your health and well-being, but 5-minute bursts are surprisingly effective. Exercise also increases endorphins, the feel-good hormones, so it’s a win-win situation!

  • Express yourself!

This is particularly helpful for those of us who find it challenging to express our thoughts and feelings openly, but that is certainly worth exploring too!

Expressive writing, or journaling, is scientifically proven to help reduce stress. It helps us to put distance between ourselves and our thoughts. After all, our thoughts are just that – thoughts. They are not necessarily true and are often not. Thoughts lead to feelings, feelings lead to actions and actions lead to results. When we can separate from our negative, self-destructive thoughts we can then rationalise them and question them. Try journaling for 20 minutes a day. Write as though you were a 5-year-old having an enormous tantrum. Don’t hold back! Don’t mind your language or your spelling. Just let it flow. It will feel like the pressure valve has been released. Get it all out, then throw the paper away (or delete the file). This is for your eyes only, and your opportunity to get all your frustration, resentment, anger or sadness out, rather than put a lid on it, only for that lid to blow at some point when you, and those around you, are least expecting it.

Find something relaxing to do after this. Expressive writing can often bring up trauma from the past when we start to connect our present feelings to things that have happened to us in the past. It can be very draining, but that reservoir of emotions will only spill its banks if we don’t get out those thoughts and feelings somehow.

  • Know you are safe

The fear we feel is based on our own perception of a situation, otherwise we would all be scared of rollercoasters and spiders. Telling yourself you are safe stops the message to the brain that we need to activate the stress response. The more we say, ‘I can take care of myself’ instead of ‘I’ll never be able to cope’, or ‘I can handle this’ instead of ‘I can’t deal with this’ the more our confidence increases and our worry decreases.

If we want to feel safe, we need to believe we can handle life’s ups and downs. To start, try increasing your motivational self-talk and decreasing the negative self-talk. Louise Hay (1926-2017) was an American motivational speaker and the founder of Hay House, and is famous around the world for her positive affirmations, including:

All is well. Everything is working out for my highest good. Out of this situation only good will come. I am safe.

  • Be Present

We need the present to feel good and safe. Depression, nostalgia and regret live in the past, and anxiety and fear need a future (and are often fuelled by the past). Living in the present moment, the ‘Now’ as Eckhart Tolle refers to in his bestselling book ‘The Power of Now’, allows us to enjoy what we are experiencing as it happens, rather than worrying about what has happened, or what might happen. We spend so much of our time either living in the past or imagining the future. The future is not guaranteed, and so the present is all we ever have. Take a moment to breathe calmly and deeply and notice the sounds, smells and sights around you. Use all four senses by touching something to help you feel more grounded to the moment.

Thoughts will come and go. Allow them to pass by and acknowledge them without judgement. Notice them but don’t react to them or embody them. We have 50-70,000 thoughts a day. Most of them are repeated and many of them are not true. Don’t associate with your thoughts, and if you do question whether they are really true.

The acronym I created for doing this is CARE:

Catch the thoughts as they arise
Acknowledge them rather than repressing them
Reframe the thoughts by looking at them from a different, more positive perspective
Experience the change in your thought patterns

  • Have fun!

Learn how to distract yourself from things you find stressful: play your favourite music and sing to it – singing releases endorphins and improves sleep. Meet friends and family – this helps boost our mental health and improve our quality of life. Eat something you enjoy, watch a funny film, read a good book……..the list is endless!

And most of all, educate yourself on the mind body connection. It is your key to healing.

Could my personality be contributing to my chronic pain?

Almost a year ago, I developed lower back pain. At first I thought I had pulled a muscle ducking under a tree branch while out running with a friend. I took it easy for a few days and the pain seemed to subside. But then it came back, and with a vengeance. It remained with me on and off for a year and was often so severe that I had to hold onto pieces of furniture to support myself when rising from a chair or my bed, or when brushing my teeth.

I’m a runner and, when my pain first appeared, I was training for my first 50km ultra run. Thankfully I was able to complete this, and felt no pain during that special day (this became a very important piece of ‘evidence’ for me to refer back to once I began my healing journey).

Thereafter, the pain became more permanent and, like most people, I followed the traditional medical model of treatment: Xrays, MRIs, osteopaths, chiropractors and physiotherapists, but nobody was able to ‘heal’ me. It was only later on that I realised I was capable of healing myself.

I often left an appointment feeling worse than I’d felt going in. Each practitioner offered me a new nugget of negativity: I was diagnosed with hip arthritis, disc generation, flat back syndrome, lumbar sciatica, convex left inflection, discopathy of L4-L5 and L5-S1 with a trapped nerve and a 9mm pelvic imbalance, meaning that sexy wiggle wasn’t so sexy after all! The MRI showed arthritis in the lumbar region, some swelling at the vertebral endplates and a trapped nerve around L4-L5. It all sounded pretty scary, and I’ll admit to shedding tears in my car on a few occasions. I was advised to stop running by everyone I encountered, including my aerobics teacher at my once-weekly class. For a while, I listened to them. They were the experts after all, weren’t they?

Then I got fed up of not being able to run. After running for twenty years, I felt it had become part of my identity and who I was. It was a form of stress relief, gave me a sense of freedom and empowerment, was my only social activity and made me feel strong and motivated to cope with life’s challenges. Besides I didn’t suffer symptoms whilst I was running, something that should have been a significant clue that the cause wasn’t a physical one.

Acute pain or chronic pain?

The body naturally heals tears, breaks and other musculoskeletal injuries in around 12 weeks or 3 months. After this point, what started as acute pain becomes what is termed ‘chronic pain’. It was frightening for me to identify with this category. I later discovered how fear would fuel the pain fire.

A book that would change my life

After months of desperately searching for someone to ‘fix’ me, feeling frustrated and close to desperation, I came across a podcast that mentioned a book, credited with healing someone of their lower back pain. It was called, Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno, Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine and attending physician at the New York University Medical Center. I was filled with hope for the first time in months.

I read the book, and although I didn’t have a ‘book cure’ as some people have claimed to have experienced, Dr Sarno’s words completely resonated with me, and I saw myself on every page.

Dr Sarno explained that the terrible terms I had been diagnosed with were part of the normal ageing process. They were what he termed ‘normal abnormalities’. It shocked me to learn that the spine degenerates from the age of 20 and that if anyone my age (I’m 46) were to have an Xray or MRI they would almost certainly be found to have some form of degeneration in their spine too.

The fact that these ‘normal abnormalities’ could be present in the body without causing any pain was a revelation to me! This discovery became an important part of my journey towards becoming pain free. The second impactful discovery for me was the notion that certain personality traits made it more likely for some people to suffer from chronic pain.

According to Steve Ozanich, in his book ‘The Great Pain Deception’, there is a Type-T personality. The T stands for Tension and is taken from ‘Tension Myositis Syndrome’ (TMS), also known as tension myoneural syndrome or mind body syndrome – the name given by Dr. John Sarno to the numerous psychosomatic (relating to the interaction of mind and body) musculoskeletal and nerve symptoms and conditions, most notably back pain, but also tendonitis, fibromyalgia, plantar fasciitis, coccydynia (pain in the coccyx), gastric conditions, neck and shoulder pain and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Type-T personality traits

  • Perfectionism – Does every project or task you undertake need to be perfect and do you ignore your own needs and feelings to accomplish a task?
  • Goodism/People-pleasing – Do you put the needs and desires of others before your own? Do you play peacemaker in a dispute and do you keep your thoughts to yourself, even if you disagree strongly with someone?
  • Legalist – Unlike perfectionists who seek to do the right thing, legalists seek to be right. Responsibility and upholding their commitments are common among legalists. Legalists also hold themselves to extremely high standards that can breed feelings of unworthiness and self-hatred.
  • Stoic – Do you find it awkward or difficult to express your emotions? If people saw you express your emotions, do you think they would think of you negatively?
  • Anxiety and Fear – Do you think that if you are honest with people they will reject you? When your family members go somewhere, do you worry that something terrible might happen to them?
  • Low Self-Esteem – Do you feel that other people know more than you or are usually better at things than you are? Do you question your ability to do things?
  • Hostility and Aggression – Do you sometimes overreact to an issue or event or do you place your frustration onto something less severe and less difficult to talk about than an underlying issue? Do you have deep issues you avoid discussing that are associated with fear or shame?
  • Dependency – When making plans do you prefer if other people take the lead? People with this trait often choose careers that have security yet lack any sense of challenge or reward.

Source: TMS Wiki site https://www.tmswiki.org/ppd/TMS_Personality_Traits)

If you can relate to the above character traits, there is a strong chance you are repressing your true feelings, and that the subconscious resentment you have over this will be felt in the body as pain.

This was a turning point for me, as I realised that the pain I was experiencing was merely a very natural way of my body telling me ‘you’re repressing your feelings to please other people and I’m trying to let you know’.

According to the famous 13th century Persian poet Rumi:

For the first time for a very long time I started to ask myself what I was really feeling and what I wasn’t allowing to surface. It was this repression of my emotions that was causing my body to remain in a stressed, over-adrenalized, anxious state.

The brain cannot distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat, and my own unexpressed thoughts, desires and fears were manifesting as chronic pain in my body.

I needed to learn how to turn off this stress response.

Part 2 ‘How to Turn off the Stress Response’ to follow….

Forgetting ourselves to suit others

We so often dress ourselves in ill-fitting suits to please others. We twist ourselves in knots and become ‘pleaser pretzels’, trying to look and act like what we think others expect of us: our parents, our boss, our partners and even our friends and children. We distort ourselves, and forget our true selves, to fit a mould that someone else created for us.

I was inspired to write this post by a Tara Brach podcast and the fable of Zumbach’s suits (as told by Ram Dass). It’s a story of a highly respected village tailor, who creates custom-made suits from the finest fabric. One day a man, who has recently succeeded in business, goes to see the tailor, to be fitted for an expensive suit. When the man returns to try on, and pay for, the suit it doesn’t fit. One sleeve is much longer than the other. The tailor, who does not like backtalk from his customers, tells him, ‘Nonsense! It’s the way you are standing‘. He pushes the man’s shoulder hard until the sleeves appear even. But then the material bunches at the back and creates a bulge in the fabric. The man explains that his wife doesn’t like to see him in a suit that doesn’t fit well across the back. So, the tailor shoves the man’s head forward until the suit appears to fit. The man leaves the tailors confused, but pays for the suit in full.

Later that day, the same man, standing with shoulders hunched and his head strained forward, encounters someone who admires his fine suit. The stranger asks, ‘Who made your beautiful suit? Was it Zumbach?’. The man replies in surprise, ‘Yes, but how did you know?’. The stranger answers:

Only a tailor as brilliant as Zumbach could outfit a body as crippled as yours‘.

There was never anything wrong with the man’s body. He was perfect as he was, yet he had contorted and changed himself to please another.

When we are truly accepted for who we are, those who love us love us as we are and don’t try to change us. When we truly love ourselves, we love and accept every element of ourselves, even if it doesn’t appear to fit with society’s standards of ‘acceptable‘ or ‘normal‘. When we deny ourselves, we live in constant conflict between our true selves and the outside world.

Be yourself and expand into, and enjoy, the unique and special mould you were born with.

Exercising out of love not fear

How many of us listen to music or watch TV when we are exercising? The answer: most of us. We are thinking about what we are hearing or seeing – an external stimulus – and not about the movement and feel of our bodies. The mind and body are disconnected.

Many of us exercise out of fear, rather than love. When we exercise from a place of fear we are exercising to: lose weight, stay in our current dress size, look like the ‘perfect’ being we’ve just seen on Instagram, beat our previous time or distance, keep up with up our perceived competition, brag to our friends or burn off the extra calories we feel guilty about. It may seem to come from a positive place, but it is borne of fear: fear of feeling inadequate and less than those we are comparing ourselves to, or of being rejected by our parents, friends or society.

When we exercise from a place of love, we exercise to: take care of ourselves and boost our mood through ‘happy hormones’ (dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin). When we exercise out of love for ourselves, we lose the fear that keeps us stuck where we are and can ultimately make us sick. Love and fear cannot coexist. When we exercise out of love for ourselves and our bodies, our mind and body are connected. There is no conflict between what the mind is thinking and the body is doing. We are whole and can truly appreciate what our bodies can do for us.

So, the next time you are exercising, try to lose the fear and just ‘be‘ in your body and appreciate what an incredible vessel it is. Exercise out of love for yourself and try to just enjoy it for how it makes you feel and the amazing health benefits it offers you.

And if you are suffering from chronic pain, know that:

the endorphins you are producing are your body’s natural pain reliever

the dopamine you produce helps with your motor system function

the serotonin you produce helps you to sleep better

and the oxytocin you produce helps promote trust and bonding in your relationships

Above all, don’t forget: Your body is not broken. It is strong, and so are you.

Don’t leave yourself behind

When we give everything of ourselves to others, we neglect our own needs and values. We lose who we are in the pursuit of other people’s happiness. We forget ourselves and our own needs, putting others first – to the point that we lose sight or ourselves, our own needs and values.

Why? Because it seems selfish to act on our own needs and because we worry that spending time on ourselves means we are neglecting someone else. We are being neglectful – but only of ourselves. Why is neglecting ourselves OK, when we go out of our way to protect others from experiencing this?

Acting out of self-love is not selfish. In fact, until you truly love yourself, you cannot truly love another. When you love yourself you attract people who love, respect and appreciate your energy. It’s OK to give yourself the same love and kindness you give to others. You are worthy of love and kindness too.