My conversation with the world...

New Year, New You? Or New Year, Same Old Same Old?

16 January 19

It's 16th January 2019, and Christmas and New Year celebrations already seem like ages ago.  So, are you the type to make new year's resolutions - and have you stuck to them thus far?

The new year is a great time to evaluate the year that has gone, assess old goals and targets, and set new challenges for the coming year.  Or is it?...

It is, providing that those goals are coming from a place of positivity and growth.

All too often, we set our new year's resolutions from a place of negativity or lack.  We set them from a place of being bad at something.  

How often do we look at ourselves and then criticise?  We might look at our body and say "I'm so fat" or pick a part of our body that we don't like... "My legs have so much cellulite..." and so on.  We then make new year's resolutions based around that.  "I'm going to lose weight because I'm so fat" or "I'm going to go to the gym because my legs are so ugly."  We also make resolutions based around guilt.  After over-indulging over Christmas and new year... I'm going to stop drinking... I'm going to stop eating chocolate...  We also look at habits we don't like... I'm going to stop smoking... The list is endless.

And for the first 3 weeks or so, the gyms are packed, people stop eating chocolate, they stop drinking alcohol and they stop smoking.  Marvellous!

All of these things are great, but they require willpower.  Willpower is just what we need when we decide to do something and need a boost to help us through.  However, willpower is contained within the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the part responsible for decision making and behaviour, but if you think of willpower as being a little bit like a muscle (although it isn't at all, it's a brain activity) excessive use can make it become fatigued, and then stop working altogether.  

Willpower is actually temporary.  Its purpose is to give us that boost we require at the beginning of an activity, to get us up and running, but once it wears off, we are left to our own devices, and all too often, as with new year's resolutions, that new behaviour falls by the wayside and is replaced by the old behaviour.  The very behaviour you wanted to change.  This can lead to even more misery as you berate yourself for being such a failure!

Does that sound like a Happy New Year?  No - it sounds rubbish!

If you set a goal to stop eating chocolate, or to stop drinking alcohol, your mind often interprets that as deprivation, and starts to crave that old familiar behaviour.  Familiarity makes the more primitive part of our brain feel safe and secure - even if that old familiar behaviour is something you want to change.  Our brains can be weird like that!

So, what's the answer?

The answer is to set realistic goals from a place of positivity.  Have a look at the year ahead and decide what is realistic for you.  What changes will help to enhance your life, rather than make you miserable because you feel deprived?

If you'd like to lose weight, you could try looking at the year ahead and implementing some small, manageable changes into your eating and exercise regime.  Those small changes aren't interpreted so fearfully by the brain and are more readily accepted.  The other thing, especially with weight, is to look at why you are overweight.  By doing this with a therapist, you can safely explore the drivers behind the behaviours you don't want. Once they are addressed, you will find that the weight often takes care of itself.  This can be said of lots of habits and behaviours you don't want.  Work on the reason behind the habit and you will often find that the habit stops - permanently.  That actually sounds like a much more beneficial gift to yourself than the gym membership you'll never use!

By setting realistic goals from a place of positivity, your mind will be in less conflict with itself, and less likely to go back to the old behaviours once the willpower has faded and Valentine's Day is upon us!

So why am I talking about new year's resolutions on 16th January?  Because I didn't make a new Year's Resolution to write this on 1st January, because I knew I wouldn't.  I decided to write it going into the third week of January, which is when the willpower begins to wear off, and we settle into our behaviours for the coming year.

Happy 2019 - I hope it is peaceful and prosperous, and that if you do choose to make changes to your life, that they are both challenging and beneficial, because challenge drives us forwards.  It helps us to develop and to learn, and that has to be beneficial, right?

The Day My Brain Broke...

26 November 18

I got a call out of the blue a couple of Sundays ago, from BBC Radio 5 Live, asking me if I had an opinion on an article that had been published that day, by Professor Dinesh Bhugra, entitled "Why I'm certain most PTSD cases are bogus."

I don't know if they were particularly interested in me because I'm a Hypnotherapist, or because I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in 2002.  Ten months after the day my brain broke.

Initially, I was a bit apprehensive about going on the show, feeling as though I might somehow have to 'fight my corner' but upon reading the article, and listening to the Professor speak, I felt that he did have a point, PTSD probably is being mis-diagnosed, especially when diagnoses are being given within a couple of weeks of experiencing trauma.

Trauma is actually quite common; the evidence of which is being delivered into our sphere on a daily basis via the news and social media.  However, the symptoms of PTSD are very, very specific, and according to the NHS, include flashbacks, nightmares, repetitive and distressing images and physical sensations, such as pain, anxiety, profuse sweating, feeling sick or shaking.  These can lead to behavioural changes such as withdrawal from usual daily activities, avoidance and emotional numbing.  Emotional numbing can come in many ways, including depression, the increased intake of alcohol and the use of drugs, but can also include behaviours, such as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

Not everyone who develops PTSD will experience all of the symptoms, and of course, trauma is subjective, meaning that something I deem as traumatic might not be traumatic to the next person and vice versa.

Historically, PTSD has been largely associated with the military, and the way that exposure to death and the trauma of life-threatening situations has left soldiers with devastating mental health issues, but it is being increasingly diagnosed in situations which have nothing to do with the military.

PTSD can take time to develop, and can easily be mis-diagnosed as depression or anxiety, because some of the symptoms are similar, but the most important thing is to get a correct diagnosis, because the treatments available can be very different to those available for depression and anxiety. 

I also think that PTSD is currently becoming a fashionable diagnosis, and I noticed that a couple of celebrities in the Professor's article have recently been diagnosed.  Now, I don't know if those people have PTSD or if they don't, as little was mentioned about what was behind their diagnoses, and I'm not a medic, but I do know this... I wouldn't wish PTSD on anyone. 

PTSD fundamentally changes who you are.  Or, it did me, anyway.  When I was diagnosed, I was no longer functioning in the way I always had.  In fact, I found that I couldn't function at all in many ways.  I began to micro manage everything, to try and get some normality in my seemingly chaotic reality.  I was in a constant state of anxiety, having flashbacks and nightmares, yet in another sense, totally numb.  I had brain fog.  I couldn't watch certain things on the television, or have conversations around certain things without breaking into what I now know is a panic attack. It was like living in a nightmare as every shred of my normality had gone. 

For me, some of that stuff never came back.  I had to learn what was the new normal, which in itself brings a huge stack of difficulties, because I also had to grieve what was the old normal.  I was suffocating and couldn't see a way out. That's when thoughts of suicide began to creep in.

Fast forward to 2018 and I have a completely different life.  Life is good and I'm happy.  Sometimes, I get sad, but life is like that.  It is up and down.

I sometimes get asked when I got cured.  I don't know if I ever did.  I began talking about it, which was new, because I had hidden what was going on as much as I could, because I was ashamed and embarrassed that I couldn't function.  I started going to self-help groups, and I went back and talked to some of the people that were involved at the time, to try and get their take on it - to try and put it into perspective, and gradually, I started to live again.  Piece by piece, I started to create my new normal, and I'm still creating it.

I am a fundamentally different person now.  I'm much more sensitive, I become exhausted and overwhelmed much more quickly and I choose the situations I get involved in - the things I give my energy to, but in many ways, I'm a much better person.

I retrained as a Hypnotherapist, and through what I do, I'm able to empathise with other people's situations, and offer depth, perspective and support to the journey that each of my clients are on.

My firm belief is that everything we go through teaches us something that we need going forwards.  I guess that I had to go through what I went through to get to where I am now, and now, I'm in a great place. I'm an experienced and successful Hypnotherapist, Counsellor and Mind Coach, with the same obscure sense of humour I've always had, but I have made sense of my own sensitivity, knowledge and experience, and put it to good use. I specialise in areas of Anxiety, Fertility and Psychosexual Issues, and I'm always learning and developing.

I'm certainly not defined by the diagnosis of PTSD that I had once upon a time.  Would I say I still have it now?  I don't know - probably, in some form, but I ensure that I take care of myself, I notice how I'm feeling, I allow myself to have down days, knowing that when that has passed, I'll be back up and getting on with my life!

I think the moral of this story is that if something doesn't feel right for you, go and get it checked out.  Go and ask for help.  There are no prizes for carrying on regardless.  You don't need to go in search of a diagnosis, just ask for some guidance.  Go and speak to your GP or a Therapist.  I know that in my Hypnotherapy and Counselling practice, I offer a free consultation, where I can listen to your story, and give you the benefit of my training and experience.  As Counsellors and Hypnotherapists, we are also people, with our own story to tell, and often, it is that story that helps to enhance and broaden our experience in order to support others on their own, very personal journey. 

Christmas in October? Ho! Ho! Ho! or No! No! No!

22 October 18

I got a call this morning, asking if I'd go onto the Sally Pepper show on BBC Radio Derby, to talk about Christmas.  But it's the 22nd October, I thought!  It seems that they were covering an article written last week about how hearing Christmas music too early can be detrimental to our mental health, and they wondered what my opinion was.

My opinion is that October 22nd is way too early for Christmas, but it seems that we just can't avoid it.  It's everywhere!  I went into Sainsbury's at the weekend, and noticed those tins of Quality Street.  I almost bought one, to 'get ahead' and then I thought against it, because they would just get eaten, and I'd end up buying another one, which would probably get eaten... and so on... so I didn't bother.

So why do some people get so excited about Christmas so far in advance?  Well, we all like something to look forward to.  That feeling of excitement and joy releases lovely, happy chemicals into our brain, and gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling.  But what if that is at the expense of something else?  What if we are getting excited about Christmas because the truth of our own reality isn't so warm and fuzzy?  What if you are in a job you hate, or a relationship that has gone stale?  

In those situations, you might be using those Christmas endorphins as an avoidance mechanism, to numb or dull the pain of your reality.  No one likes the uncomfortable feelings that come with those circumstances, but the best way to get through them is to confront them head on.  Start looking for another job, talk to your partner, start to change things.  Sometimes easier said than done, I know, but when you use Christmas to avoid how you actually feel, you might start spending more money than you can afford, because of the temporary high that shopping gives some people, and ultimately, you could find yourself in debt and feeling even more miserable come January.

Another way in which the thought of Christmas can be detrimental to our mental health is when you have a pretty stressful life, with lots going on, and the mere mention of the word Christmas fills you with dread.  Something else on top of an already overloaded schedule.  This can lead to feelings of overwhelm, panic and ultimately anxiety or depression.  My advice is stop.  Stop and take the time to notice how you feel.  We often avoid admitting to feeling a certain way if it is uncomfortable.  We want to feel happy all the time, of course we do, but life isn't like that.  Taking the time to notice how you feel and admit to yourself if you are struggling to cope with your feelings is already part of the way towards dealing with them.

There are of course people who love starting Christmas early because they love Christmas, and people who don't because they don't, and that's fine, but sometimes, the Christmas music can be a trigger within us.  Notice what that trigger does to you, and if it's something you don't like, try and understand why you don't like it.  What is it that's actually troubling you?  Then talk to someone.  Family, friends, counsellors and therapists will all help you through whatever it is that you are experiencing.

Christmas can be a very difficult time for the newly bereaved, and when I say newly bereaved, I mean those for whom this is the first Christmas without a loved one.  It may be a particularly tough time for them.  If you know someone in that situation, offering kindness can be an enormous source of support.  You can never go wrong with being kind.

So, as I told Sally Pepper on her show this morning, Christmas on 22nd October, for me, is a no, no, no, but wherever you are on the scale of Ho! Ho! Ho! to No! No! No! if it is right for you, then embrace it in whichever way you wish.

In the meantime, next week is Halloween... I'm off to dig out my broom stick...

Sex - How do you know if you're doing it wrong?

29 September 18

A recent news article reported that a couple in China had been trying to conceive, without success, for four years, when the doctor noticed something very interesting...

Difficulty getting pregnant is something I see every week in my Hypnotherapy practice, but what made this article stand out to me was the fact that even though the couple reported that they were having regular sex, upon examination, the doctor discovered that the female was a virgin.  

So what was happening?  

It seemed that the couple had been 'doing it wrong' and actually having anal sex, and whilst that isn't wrong per se, it certainly isn't baby making sex!  The story was picked up by the British press, but the original article was in the Guiyang Evening Post.  The wife revealed that the experience was 'unusually painful' each time, but that she endured the pain in the hope that she would conceive.  

This actually makes me really sad, because I see what couples go through when they are trying for a baby, so for this lady to have been experiencing physical pain as well as the disappointment, month upon month, of the negative pregnancy tests, must have been truly devastating.

I also feel very sad because the couple said that 'the family was giving them a lot of stress about it,' so along with feeling physical pain and disappointment, the couple were experiencing mental and emotional difficulty with very little or no support.

Although the report I read did say that couples so lacking in general knowledge are very rare, it led me onto thinking about sex education, and how we find out 'how to do it!'  

These days, so much information is accessible via the internet, but how do we know that what our children are accessing is what we want them to learn about relationships, sex and love?  We really don't.

A lot of our earliest knowledge about sex comes from the playground.  Rumours and gossip with little substance.  Our parents might tell us about 'The birds and the bees' but equally, they might not!  We might have sex education at school, but this is sometimes delivered by teachers who lack knowledge and confidence in the delivery, and feel embarrassed themselves, in front of classrooms filled with awkward teenagers sniggering or looking at the floor.  In fact, it is well documented that actress Helen Mirren decided to remain childless after watching a sex education film at school where a baby was being delivered.  She found it so distressing that she developed an extreme fear of childbirth, known as Tokophobia, which can affect both women and men.

Learning often comes from experiences, but what if those experiences aren't helpful, as in the case with Helen Mirren, or if our experience is with a person whose expectation of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable is very different to ours? These things can change the way we think about sex forever.  If we are shocked or frightened, or if something embarrasses us, it can affect the way we behave sexually, and sometimes, these things can be difficult to change, largely because it's such a taboo subject. 

So who actually knows what is right and what is wrong, when it comes to sex?  Well obviously, anal sex isn't going to lead to conception, but that is a very extreme example.  I see men and women for sex therapy, and people's knowledge and expectation vary massively. 

Talking to a therapist can help enormously, and although it might feel a little embarrassing at the start, that quickly passes.  The key is to remember that it is normal to feel a little embarrassed, because problems with sex are often not openly discussed.  The other thing to remember is that issues you are experiencing will be issues that the therapist has talked about many times before.  

Men experiencing problems achieving or maintaining an erection often don't feel that they can discuss this with their family or friends, and often find that because of this, the problem gets worse.  The same with premature or early ejaculation (which are different things) - the more a man worries about it, the worse the problem is likely to become.  This can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and even the breakdown of a relationship.

Women might experience pain during intercourse.  This pain might lead to her becoming tense before penetration, so increasing the pain, which might in turn lead to her rejecting sex.  Again, this can lead to tension in relationships, along with stress, anxiety and possible depression.

What if you're gay, and you've hidden it all your life, or been led to believe that it is wrong?  You may have spent years in heterosexual relationships and feel ready to leave that behind you, but you have no idea what to expect from same sex sex!

Working with a therapist can be enormously beneficial, to work through the emotional and psychological issues, but it is important to ensure that everything is physically fine.  I always ask the men and women I see if they have seen their GP, and would always encourage this, to rule out any physical issues.  

I then work with my clients to understand what is happening for them, what they would like to be happening for them, and importantly, what they expect to be happening for them.  This helps me to build a picture of them, based on their experiences and knowledge, as I create a therapy plan for them, going forwards.

The Chinese couple at the start of this blog took away a text book and some verbal instructions from their doctor, and within a few months did conceive.  So who is to say if what you are doing is right, wrong or somewhere in between?  What is right for one person might be wildly wrong for another.  If you are unsure, uncomfortable or unhappy, in any aspect of your sex life, there is help out there. 

A knowledgeable, non-judgemental therapist will gently guide and coach you, and with increased knowledge and understanding, along with therapy and emotional healing, you will be able to enjoy a much more fulfilling sex life.

Too Busy Caring to Care?

18 August 18

I volunteer at a local Carer's group, and one thing I've noticed is how much everyone cares!  That might sound obvious, but I have seen time and time and time again that these people put everything related to their cared-for before themselves.  Of course you do - it's human nature.

Fine...but what about the Carer?  What about you? 

If you care for someone, whether it is an elderly relative, a spouse, a child or a neighbour, the chances are that you've experienced some feelings that you didn't like.  Perhaps feelings that you were uncomfortable with, and often, you might have tried to hide these feelings, because you don't think that you should be having them.

The thing with feelings is that you can't help it.  You can't decide what to feel - you just feel it.

Caring is not like a 9 to 5 job.  Caring is very often a 24 hour - 7 day a week job, and the sheer relentlessness can be exhausting.  Exhaustion can lead to feelings of frustration and anger.  I hear this a lot when people admit to feeling angry because this isn't what they signed up for.  

When you were growing up and making plans, perhaps to get married and have children, you don't think that one day you might not be able to leave the house alone, or even sit down and have a cup of tea because you have to care for your loved one because they can no longer care for themselves.  You don't think that you might have to wash, feed and dress the person you got married to, and you certainly don't think that you will have to clean up the vomit and toileting accidents of the person that you were once intimate with.

These feelings are 'taboo' and can become compounded if they are not released in a healthy way, and often, when you are feeling exhausted, the very last thing you are thinking about doing is releasing your difficult emotions in a healthy way!

This can lead to feelings of isolation, again leading to anger and frustration, and because these feelings are uncomfortable, and very often not talked about, we also pile guilt on the top - just for good measure!

So you squash the feelings down and press on.  You carry on caring, whilst feeling angry, frustrated, guilty, sad...

Sadness is a feeling lots of Carers experience.  They feel sad that their loved one is no longer the person they were, they feel sad that they can no longer do the things with their loved one that they used to do, and they feel sad that their life is very much controlled by their situation.  

As a Carer, these sad feelings can be similar to the feelings experienced after a bereavement.  You are grieving the loss of the person you love, yet they are still living, and so the feelings of grief often goes unacknowledged.  This, along with all of the other feelings I've already mentioned, as well as exhaustion, can lead to bouts of depression or other, physical ailments.

So what can you do to help yourself?  First of all, you can admit to the feelings.  Admit to the feelings and tell yourself that it's ok to feel like this.  That is your first step to releasing those feelings.  Next, start to look for any help that might be out there.  The Carer's Group I volunteer at is full of people just like you, who felt isolated and alone, and as they've become part of a group, they now feel more connected and supported.  

Also, take a look at your diet.  Are you just grabbing what you can, in the few moments spare that you have, or are you taking in the vitamins and minerals that you need in order to function at your best?  Try and increase your fruit and vegetable intake, in order to give you the energy and vitality you need.  And drink plenty of water, as this helps your brain to function.  You are important!

There are also lots of helpful websites out there, with forums which you can contribute to, by asking questions, or answering someone's question that is going through something that you may have already experienced.  This will give you feelings of hope and fulfilment, knowing that you are part of something and communicating with like-minded people - people who know what you are going through.  These sites can also signpost you to other areas of help, such as assessments and allowances. One site that many of my clients find useful is www.carersuk.org but I'm sure that there are lots of others out there.

If you are in a position where you can leave your loved one for a while, perhaps someone else can step in and help, or perhaps there is a group they can attend to give you some respite, plan how you will use that time.  Don't fill that time doing chores at home - they will keep!  Perhaps use the time by taking a walk, or getting a massage or having some counselling.  Use that time entirely for you.  These things will all support your mental and physical health, and in order to carry on with the amazing job of caring that you do, you need to be at your mental and physical best.

What you do is incredible.  Please tell yourself that at least once a day.  Your loved one might not be able to tell you that, but what you are giving to them is a precious, valuable and unique gift.  The gift of caring.  The gift of love.