Ten Top Tips To Try

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I’ve heard the process of recovery compared to the progress of the first rocket to the moon which was only on track for 2% of the time. 98% of the time it was making adjustments. Those adjustments are how we look after ourselves.

The incomparable Toni Bernhard, whose writing you can read here, suggested that we ask ourselves a deceptively simple question: What can I do best now to care for myself? I’ve asked myself that question repeatedly, especially when I know I’m veering off a healthy path. One such time was last night and here are the ten thoughts that came immediately to mind:

1. Limit screen time. I’m such a hypocrite, forever lecturing my children about the perils of such while doing the same myself. It’s not difficult to understand why this is. Particularly when I’m exhausted, my brain screams at me to be entertained and stimulated. Television, Twitter, blogs etc. provide this instantly no matter how flat you need to lie in bed. This creates further exhaustion, boredom and, on occasion, distress.
2. Persist with this blog. It’s both a creative outlet and a method of charting my thoughts and progress that I can look back on. I also hope it’s of use to other folk who might be in a similar position.
3. Keep additional commitments/activities to a minimum and have days where there are none. Under-estimate my capabilities. This week I had visits on three consecutive days, each hugely enjoyable but took a cumulative toll.
4. Ingrain extended daily relaxation practices. These sessions have multiple benefits and, as I’ve said before, are the key tools in my self-repair kit.
5. Stop fretting about events outwith my control. Specifically, the fact that my house refuses to sell.
6. Continue juicing vegetables. I’ve been making a concoction consisting of spinach, celery, cucumber, green apple, lime and ginger. It’s a bit of an acquired taste but I know the concentrated micronutrient content will aid my recovery.
7. Don’t allow myself to become overwhelmed and consumed by the behaviour/reactions of other people. I need to target my energy for healing.
8. Simplify life in every way possible. Have shopping delivered, children help with household tasks, accept that good enough is, well, good enough.
9. Try some gentle stretching. My body can’t cope with much physical activity yet but keeping mobile is important too.
10. Get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Sleep a long, soft sleep and wake refreshed.

I daresay that list will be different the next time I ask myself the question. What would you list right now as the key elements that allow you to live a more comfortable life and/or promote recovery?

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Resilience

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In the past week alone I’ve had a fair smattering of life’s slings and arrows. I can’t go into much detail as they involve other peoples’ business but suffice to say that a couple were notice of serious ongoing issues, a couple involved poor behaviour on the part of folk, one or two were reminders of just how ill I am, and another was quite amusing.

If I’m honest I think that these events would have taxed the capabilities of someone who was fully fit. When, however, you are ill finding the resilience to deal with what feels like a tsunami of problems, irritations and slights is hard. Particularly with this kind of illness which interprets problems as an attack and ramps up my already dysfunctional nervous system to deal with them.

This creates an unhealthy cycle. Horrid event——-> worry/concern/debate/self-doubt——–> physical reaction: symptoms are increased, functionality decreased——-> anticipation of the next awful incident——–> greater sensitivity and decreased ability to withstand the next horrid event. When, as happened this week, there are more than a few of these in a short space, with little recovery time in between, my health suffers badly.

Resilience is a key component of good health. Upsetting events happen all the time; they are a normal part of life. How can I build the necessary resilience when I feel fragile?

Ideally, it would be good to get off the world for a bit! Given that this isn’t likely to happen, what else can I do?

• Firstly, be as kind to myself as possible. Recognise that it is ok to feel bad when bad things happen.
• Try to minimise the age-old patterns of worry, self-recrimination and doubt. Make a decision and let the situation rest. Don’t use precious energy going over and over the events.
• Rest properly using mindfulness and relaxation techniques to give my body the space and time it needs to do its healing work.
• Simplify life as much as possible; take the easiest routes where the harder would be the automatic response.
• Be open, curious and non-judgemental about horrid events; by assigning them a level of horridness I’m building in a level of reaction which, at a physical level, will translate into a huge over-reaction. Tone it all down.
• Look for help and support.
• Concentrate energy on the good stuff that is also happening. Find something to make me smile or laugh.

In other words, there is much about my external environment I cannot change so I need to adapt my internal environment to allow me to withstand life’s knocks without them, in turn, making me more ill. It is a tough and ongoing process but absolutely vital to the recovery of my strength and wellbeing.

Mind your Head

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‘Work within your capabilities’ was the sage advice I received from my cardiologist when I was discharged from his care. I was then on my own trying to work out exactly how to do that. Only I didn’t know what my capabilities were any more nor what work it would be safe to do. I think this dilemma is a familiar one for many of us.

I can’t remember now at what point meditation was suggested. I’m sure I would have been fairly sceptical, associating such with Eastern mysticism. I looked into it though and found a fairly confusing world with different terms and suggestions, books, audio, visualisation, body scans, self-hypnosis and so on. Lots of folk punting their wares!

I like simplicity so the following is my distillation of the essence of what I’ve found, experienced and the benefits. I hope it helps anyone who might be considering trying these practices or, like me, finds it all a little confusing.

Mindfulness or Mindsight

This is about cultivating awareness of the contents of your mind, body and world, and that of others. I think of it as being aware of the awareness of your own awareness! It is done by observation with openness and objectivity. You will pay close attention to thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, information and also their inter-connectedness and causation. For example, you may be having worrying thoughts which cause your muscles to tense which causes a headache which causes pain which causes a worrying thought or low feeling. You may also notice that you are not any one of these elements–you are not a pain, or a thought or a feeling–and that it is possible not to be dragged down or overwhelmed by such.

Dr Daniel Siegel wrote a book called Mindsight and I urge you to consider reading it. I found it fascinating and also very comforting.

Meditation

This is about sitting or lying still focusing your attention solely on an object, image, audio, mantra, prayer or your own breath. When your mind moves away from the object of your attention, you bring it back repeatedly, with gentleness and kindness.

Mindfulness Practice

This is about sitting or lying still and paying close attention to your mind, body and world. You can do this in a number of ways. Simply watch what arises in your mind, or choose an area on which you might like to focus. For example, by conducting a body scan which involves going through your body systematically, paying attention to how each bit is feeling. Or you can choose to pay attention to your thoughts or emotions or anything at all.

I used a form of this practice when I travelled to and from work on the train. In the morning I would sit still (if I was lucky enough to get a seat!) and mentally prepare myself for the day ahead systematically going through my to-do list. On the way home I thought about each of my children, other family members, household tasks that needed to be done and so on.

There are a huge number of aids to mindfulness on the market. If you want to get started, listen to a lovely example called the Wheel of Awareness meditation. Devised by Daniel Siegel and read by Dr Bob Leckridge here. Incidentally, I could never picture a wheel, always a vase of daffodils!

Relaxation Practice

I view this as a meditation practice that involves first mindfulness then an intervention to change what you find. During a body scan you consciously relax your tense muscles, soothe any unhelpful thought patterns and create a sense of ease.

You can do this in many ways but I find following a relaxation audio to be most helpful. In particular I have enjoyed Andrew Johnson’s Relax and Deep Sleep.

Self-hypnosis

I’ve encountered this is the form of Paul McKenna’s Instant Calm audio. What happens is you lie still and count back from 300, returning your mind to this when you lose track, while Paul speaks to your unconscious mind, saying some powerful and soothing words.

Heartmath

This involves sitting or lying still and consciously re-creating feelings of joy, ease and contentment. It is best done at the end of a successful meditation or relaxation session when your mind is still and best able to. This causes your brain to create stress-relieving chemicals, smooths out your heart rhythm and engenders a feeling of well-being. For a fuller explanation of how to do this and its benefits read here.

BENEFITS

I’ll preface my remarks here by saying that these practices are not easy and, often, I’ve been too ill to make them work for me. If this happens, then don’t force yourself. Instead, give yourself a break and return to them when you feel the time is right but I think it’s worth giving any of them another go, bearing in mind that there is nor right or wrong way to do any of them,  because when they do work, this is what happens:

1. Your muscles, mind and brain relax. The washing machine of swishing thoughts is switched off or at least calmed. You might even drift off to much-needed sleep.
2. You feel a sense of ease, peace and contentment.
3. You make better choices from a mind which is calmer, enabling you to pause, reflect and choose your response to any situation.
4. You get more done when your mind isn’t using up precious energy in whizzing thought patterns, or tensing muscles, or reacting unconsciously to urges.
5. You take the pressure off your exhausted brain, allowing it the space to do its healing, recuperative work on your body.
6. You sleep better as your brain waves are soothed from high alert mode to relaxed.
7. Your heart rate and blood pressure are decreased and heart rhythm improved.
8. In the long term, you change the architecture of your brain, creating useful, relaxed patterns of thoughts, emotions and behaviour and, above all, proper bodily regulation through a properly functioning autonomic nervous system.

These practices are the key tools in my self-repair kit. Nothing else I’ve found comes close to inducing the conditions that will allow my body to return to a state of homeostasis, strength, vitality and resilience.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on what works for you: any tips, recommendations or resources you feel are useful to help me work within and expand my capabilities.

Credo

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I believe that, given the right environment, internal and external, my body is capable of healing itself, returning to a state of homeostasis and affording me health that is characterised by vitality and resilience.

This is my belief. It is not a fanciful notion, fond wish or vague desire. It is a belief that underpins my thoughts, words and deeds where my illness is concerned.

For me, the alternatives are unthinkable.

What are they?

Either that I cede responsibility to an outside agency to fix me, or that I will never be well, ever. The former is highly unlikely given the current state of knowledge and engagement of the medical and scientific communities, and the latter would destroy my soul.

I am strengthened in my belief by my own experience. I have been well, in relative terms, during the course of this illness and will be so again, only better this time: recovered.

How will I achieve that?

The short answer is by taking care of myself. Nurturing mind, body and spirit.

But there is no simple answer. There is no right or wrong answer. There is only a willingness to listen, understand and engage with approaches that will lead me to health.

In future posts I'll explore those approaches, sharing my gratitude for the many people and resources I am blessed to have encountered.