Treatment, T cells and Walking in Nature.

I first wrote this blog exactly a year ago. I wanted to share something about my experience of having had breast cancer and how I chose to feel, think and what I chose to do. One year on and I’ve just celebrated what has become known in my family as my ‘cancerversary’ – June 16th, the date I was diagnosed. For many, this would be a date to dread, not one to celebrate, and yet for me, it’s my wake up call; when I began to take notice of what I was unconsciously doing to my health; to become conscious, to value my life and myself and to begin to heal.

Something significant seems to happen on 16th June each year and this year, on my 10th ‘cancerverary’ – the first part of my podcast with Dr Gayle Carson was released (link below) in which we discuss this very subject.

This year was supposed to be a big one. I didn’t celebrate my 5 year ‘cancerversay’ because, having gone through treatment with my dear friend Niki, we planned to party to both celebrate surviving 5 years together. Sadly, just before the summer of 2015, she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer and passed away early in 2016.

Now I was going to make up for it. Celebrate 10 years of life that feel so precious and to plan how I want to enjoy the next ten, like Niki would want me to. As a family we planned to go away for a long weekend to mark the occasion, especially as I had had a ‘scare’ back in January, when I had to go through the process of urgent referral, mammogram, ultra-sound and the seemingly endless wait in a sterile hospital waiting room for the results. The fear was overwhelming. And so was the relief when I was told there was no cancer – it was all clear.

However, the 10 years celebration didn’t happen as planned – no-one could have predicted we’d be in the middle of a global pandemic and on lock down. Being at home with my own thoughts, I realised how big a deal this was for me, and how personal. I felt upset that some of those close to me forgot or didn’t acknowledge it at all. I had to work hard at feeling grateful that day and get to a place where I accepted that it’s not a big deal for everyone and that you can only truly understand it when you’ve experienced it.

And so, I thought I’d republish this blog as a way of expressing how it was for me. Maybe it will help others to become more aware that, when you’ve been through something as scary as cancer, life is never the same. My memories are defined by ‘before’ and ‘after’. It doesn’t mean I think about it all the time – far from it. But it’s a turning point, an interruption of old ways and the beginning of doing things differently. Mostly, life is better and I now feel cancer was a gift that I’ve used well. However, having lost Niki and two other friends to breast cancer, I feel a mixture of gratitude and sadness and, at times, when I notice changes in my body, the fear rises up like a wild dog on the prowl and I need all my resources to free myself from it and get back a state of safety and calm.

The following is as I wrote it last year, followed by the podcast episodes. If you think they can help anyone, please share. They are accounts of my story, everyone is different as you’ll hear in the podcasts.

I’ve always been something of a rebel. Not in the ‘outrageous behaviour’ type of way. Just quietly refusing to conform, at times, when it’s felt like the right thing to do. Sometimes that has meant having real courage. The courage of my own convictions. Occasionally, it’s got me into trouble but mostly, it’s meant learning, growth as a person and maybe even a life-saver.

In the summer of 2010 I began the long process of recovery. The wonderful medical staff referred to this as my ‘treatment plan’. I called it ‘healing’, mind, body and soul.

The treatment plan involved surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and would take around nine months, followed by eight years of medication to rid my body of excess oestrogen to prevent the cancer returning.

The healing journey started on 16th June 2010, the day of my diagnosis…and is ongoing. It began with a question: why me? I’ve never believed things ‘just happen’ and so I soon realised that I’d been living with chronic stress for years. And that chronic stress down-regulates the immune system, and the result, for me, was breast cancer. So I chose to find out how I could change the things in my life that were creating it: my environment, the food I ate, the people I was around, and most importantly, the thoughts I had – about myself, other people and the world around me. I learned that the thoughts we have repeatedly trigger the release of chemicals in our body – and for those thoughts that don’t serve us well – those chemicals are stress hormones.

I did conform, at first. Too bloody terrified not to. In the summer of 2010 I had the surgery to remove the tumour. Afterwards, I went with my husband to our favourite Greek Island to relax, to swim in the Mediterranean sea and walk barefoot on the beach. I returned home calmer, stronger, tanned and ready for the next phase.

As Autumn crept closer, so did the chemo and the rebel in me began to stir. Grim-faced nurses informed me I would lose all my hair (everywhere!) and that I would be open to infection so I was to stay indoors on ‘bad’ weeks, not to do any gardening, and to keep warm.

Well, I did lose all of my hair, and it was devastating, yet from my first chemo session in September to my last on Christmas Eve I ignored most of the other advice. Sure, on days when vomiting was my main pastime, I stayed put and rested, but as soon as I stopped throwing up I began gardening. Pruning and weeding became my mission, getting rid of the old and dead, anything that stopped and stifled new growth. Just as I was doing with my mind. Being in nature felt instinctive. I didn’t know then that trees actually release chemicals that stimulate natural killer T cells – part of our immune response that not only kill viruses but cancer cells too.

As winter approached, so did the snow and ice as we experienced the worst November and December I could remember. On my ‘bad’ days I watched how beautiful the world looked, covered in white from my window. When I had the energy, I walked miles. I heaved on my red wellies and headed for the local nature reserve. There’s something really mindful about crunching through snow, something peaceful about watching a frozen lake and something magical about winter sunlight through the bare branches.

The new shoots of Spring 2011 had begun to emerge as the daily trek for radiotherapy became my new routine. New shoots were sprouting on my body too – my hair was starting to grow back! Radiotherapy left me very tired and yet the more time I spent in nature, the more energised and re-vitalised I felt, breathing in deeply, feeling a sense of gratitude for my life that I’d never known before.

As Spring really came into it’s own, I turned 50, celebrated for weeks, danced, party’ed and then went back to my life. My other life, the one where I became a wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunty, teacher and friend. And yet it was not the same, never would be. Over the next three years I began to lose sight of those calm and healing moments in nature. Those moments of joy seemed to disappear as I mourned the old me, felt plagued with fear and tried to get to grips with who I was becoming. I was also struggling with the physical, mental and emotional effects of an enforced menopause, triggered by the drug tamoxifen.

It was then that the rebel in me reared up again and I stopped taking the drug. Within two days I began to feel better. And I made the decision to stay away from tamoxifen and any other drug I was offered in it’s place, for good. I would take my chances. I sought help from an amazing charity called Breast Cancer Haven and there I saw a nutritional therapist and medical herbalist. Patient, wise, kind and caring women who not only provided me with natural alternatives to the pills, they guided me towards change and courage. They helped me to find the new me, or maybe the real me. Someone who could see this life-changing event as a positive. I thought I would always live in fear after 2010, instead I’m learning (yes it’s ongoing) to live in the now, in gratitude and to always walk in nature.

Managing Stress: Why now is the perfect time to take control.

Right now, many of us are living lives very differently. We are experiencing changes that we never imagined. Whether we are working long hours in front line services, unemployed, furloughed, working from home, home schooling, caring for others, volunteering, being shielded or have been sick or bereaved, the changes have been sudden and in most cases, quite drastic. Change can feel liberating, exciting, peaceful but it can also be stressful as our bodies and minds deal with the new normal and process the thoughts feelings and emotions that these circumstances create.

Stress is a fact of life, it’s natural and it can be helpful and constructive in the short term but extremely harmful to our mental and physical health if it continues and becomes long term, or chronic. In this current health crisis, managing our levels of stress has never been more important, because chronic stress weakens the immune system. At this time, our immune system is the one amazing thing we have to fight this virus. Even those that are hospitalised and given oxygen and drugs to stabalise their condition are treated this way to give the immune system time to work, ultimately, it’s the body/mind that kills the virus, just like it does with many other pathogens. And we can do so much to allow the immune system to do it’s job well. What we eat, drink, how we move and sleep all affects the cells needed to do this incredible job. And so does how we manage stress. When we are stressed for long periods of time, the body cannot heal itself the way it was designed to do.

So, what happens when we’re stressed? When a stressful, worrying or anxious situation occurs, we activate the ‘fear centre’ in the brain that triggers a cascade of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodsteam that prepares our bodies to fight or flee. So, for those wonderful health and social care staff who are dealing with patients on the front line, stress hormones can be very useful and will give them the burst of energy, the concentration, clarity and speed needed to care, treat and make decisions. This is our natural defense that is a vital part of our survival in times of trouble. We used to use it to run away from saber-toothed tigers, now it’s helpful, not just for the key workers dealing with the pandemic, but also when we do a presentation, play sport, take an exam and so on.

However, when we don’t ‘switch off’ and we stay in a state of stress for long periods of time we become chronically stressed. In a state of chronic stress, we overwork the adrenal glands and the body becomes unable to function properly, mentally, physically and emotionally and we are less able to rest, digest and heal.

“…over time, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.” https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/effects-on-body#7

The good news is that we can learn to manage stress in a way that is helpful and empowering and good for our long term health and wellbeing. We can recognise when the hormones of stress are being released and learn how to switch them off, replacing them with a cocktail of chemicals that give us access to feelings of calm, contentment, peace, love, joy, compassion and so on. And it is in this state that our immune system gets repaired, renewed and stimulated, we are able to digest food effectively, think rationally and sleep well and therefore heal.

Here’s a few ideas of how we can manage stress and help build immunity:

  • Recognise the signs of stress, whether it’s a fast heart rate, feeling tense, exhausted, shaky, anxious, tearful, moody. angry or unable to sleep, eating too much or too little, having headaches or poor concentration. These are just some of the signs that you are still in fight or flight mode. When you become aware of how you feel, you can change it.
  • Take a deep breathe. This allows the mind a moment to pause while you consider all the things you can do to interrupt the pattern of stress and take a conscious decision to change it. You see it’s how you perceive and then react to any situation that determines whether you ‘switch off’ the state of stress or not. The mind doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined and so when you focus on the worst that could happen, go over and over something bad that has happened, you stay in a state of fear, even if the situation has passed or what might come could be better. So take a breath, focus on the present and make a decision and know that instead of allowing ‘it’ to happen to you, you can, in this moment, take responsibility for how you react to any situation. You have a choice to believe you can control your feelings or that you are at the mercy of them.
  • Physically move to distract the brain. When it’s 3.00 am and you’re wide awake, worries can seem far worse than during day but lying there trying to sleep won’t help, so get out of bed, stretch, make a warm drink (avoiding caffeine), read, or do something relaxing that will distract both your mind and body (avoid screen time though!) and get into the moment, telling yourself you are safe and warm right now. The same applies during the day, if you’re sitting, get up and move, and if you can get do some aerobic exercise, you’ll not only feel energised but the benefits to your mental health both in the long and short term are widely known. If you’re charging around in a state of stress, just stop what you’re doing, take a breath and find something else to look at, hear, do to distract yourself. It brings you into the present moment and gives you that time to choose to take control of your feelings.
  • Nature is where we are meant to be. We are part of it and studies prove that when we see, hear, smell and experience nature, we generate the release hormones such as dopamine and seretonin that help us to feel calm and at peace. And when we are releasing these feel good hormones, we cannot continue to be in a state of stress at the same time. So go for a walk in nature if you can. Just 20 minutes in nature can generate calmness that can last for up to seven hours. And did you know that trees breathe out chemicals that boost the immune system? How amazing is that! So you get more than just a feeling of calm when you’re able to breathe in nature. If you live in a city and don’t have access to a large green space right now, just being outside feeling the breeze and seeing the sky will still help. If you can’t get outside, open a window, listen to the birds, watch the trees or tend a pot plant! It’s still better than not acknowledging nature at all. “Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.” https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature
  • We all like a whinge, don’t we, and the occasional moan doesn’t hurt anyone. However, when this becomes a habit and you waste time and energy thinking or talking to others about what’s wrong with the world, how bad things are or how others are behaving badly, you’re just ramping up the stress. Remember, real or imagined, the body will respond to what you’re feeding it through the mind. The news and media can feed this negativity, the language of fear and devastation is used deliberately to sell stories, so switch off news alerts and be choosey about how, what and when you access news feeds. There’s nothing that is happening that you will need to know urgently, it can wait until a time of your choosing. There is both good and bad stuff happening without your influence so why focus on the bad? Ask yourself, can you do anything about the bad stuff? If not, forget it, it will happen with or without your disapproval. If you can do something about it, do it, help, educate, inform, support. All of these altruistic acts signal the release of feel good hormones, give you a sense of achievement and empowerment and might just help the world become a better place.
  • Write a very specific list of how you want to feel and what you can do to create those feelings. This might seem a bit much, but when you’re feeling stressed it’s hard to think of specific things that will help to make you feel better, it can seem overwhelming and we can get stuck with how we don’t want to feel, and what we don’t want to do and this just keeps the cycle of stress going. So having a go-to list is like getting some great advice from some wise person that loves you and is your best friend! Energy flows where focus goes, so focus on what you can do and how you want to feel instead. Naming those emotions is really important to train your brain to connect with what you want to feel. Language is the code to our thoughts and feelings and studies show that we use far more emotional words connected with worry, stress, anxiety than we do those that generate calm and happiness. You can consciously change this. https://www.tonyrobbins.com/mind-meaning/change-your-words-change-your-life/
  • Thinking about these things and feelings and writing them down is a start but unless you act on them, nothing will change in the long run so once you’ve made the list, decide which things can become part of your daily or weekly routine and which are there as a tool for when you need them.Those things that you’ve decided can help you to enjoy life and feel the way you want to could be incorporated into your life in whatever way works best for you. This helps to keep you consciously in control. When we feel in control, we feel empowered, when we feel empowered, we feel we have a sense of purpose (to keep well) and when we feel like this, we cannot stay in a state of chronic stress.
  • To truly feel those emotions you want and not just think about them you have to use strong ‘anchors’ – these are the triggers that allow you to experience them. For example, music has always been a powerful anchor for me. I have playlists for different moods – calming, uplifting, energising, joyful etc. If I’m finding it tricky to shift worry or stressful feelings, I have a place near where I live that I go to and put on a playlist that always starts with Peter Gabriel’s ‘The Book Of Love’ and I can literally feel my heart open, my energy change and I feel both calm and uplifted. So I’ve physically moved, walked amongst nature and anchored my senses to a song that triggers pure joy. Other anchors might be videos to make you laugh, images that remind you of good times, activities such as gardening, cleaning or exercising to give you energy or meditation, yoga, or a mantra to help you to feel calm and safe.
  • Whether you live alone or with a houseful of people, in these times of forced isolation, you may not be able to be with those that help you to feel better about life ‘in the flesh’ so making time to have a virtual catch up, even over coffee or dinner can help. If you have someone close to talk about how you feel then don’t be afraid to offload. When you acknowledge how you feel it can help to calm you and the feeling of being listened to is therapeutic. Sometimes it’s good just to get confirmation that what you are feeling is normal and that, if you then put into place some of the other suggestions here, it will pass. If it doesn’t, then it’s also OK to seek professional help. When you’re ready to change how you feel, consciously connect with those that create positive energy and make you smile and spend as little time as you need to with those that bring you down. This includes social media. Notice how it makes you feel when you scroll through your news feeds. If it doesn’t feel good, be more selective about what you access. Take time out to be alone if you live with others and nerves are beginning to fray. Explaining that you want time alone may actually be a relief to those around you too!
  • Drink plenty of water. This might sound obvious or may seem unrelated to stress and the immune system, however, most of us are dehydrated and some of the signs and symptoms are the same as those we feel when we’re stressed, such as fatigue, poor concentration and irritability so it’s worth eliminating this as a cause of how you’re feeling, plus, water helps to rid the body of toxins that create inflammation and stress within the body.
  • Eat well. When you’re stressed, you often crave foods that actually make it worse. It’s because the body is craving foods high in sugar to prepare you for running away from a saber-toothed tiger! As that’s unlikely, it just increases the amount of sugar in the blood, which disrupts the endocrine system and so increases stress. Sugar and processed foods are the ones to avoid, despite your cravings. Eating plenty of vegetables and foods containing B vitamins will support your central nervous system and bring your hormones back into balance. For more information on foods that support the immune system, take alook at my previous blog. https://alisonharriswellbeing.co.uk/2020/04/01/food-is-medicine-how-to-boost-your-immune-system/
  • And lastly, be kind to yourself, don’t beat yourself up for feeling stressed. We are living in strange times and so rememb that stress is natural, it’s designed to protect us, we just have to learn how to make it work for us instead of against us. And learning takes practice. So, practice self compassion and remind yourself of all you have to be thankful for right now. Wishing you peace, health and happiness.

Food is Medicine: How To Boost Your Immune System

So, at the time of writing, we are in a health crisis caused by a pandemic. We are having to live very differently, conform to rules that we don’t like but are for the greater good. Lives have been turned upside down, families are separated and jobs and finances have uncertain outcomes. This state of chaos can be scary and unpredictable and it can sometimes feel like we have no control.

And yet, right now. we are being given the opportunity to stop what we’ve been doing and reflect, re-evaluate and reset our priorities, focus on what’s important to us, our loved ones, communities and the world at large. We have the chance to question the old and create the new and help to fix things that are broken.

Albert Einstein is believed to have said that “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again in the same way and expecting different results. We can do things differently and get better results. We can change the old ‘normal’ and think in ways we’ve never done before. Out of chaos will come calm, eventually, and with it a new ‘normal’ and we can choose what that will look like.

Our health and wellbeing could surely now be one of the things we choose to prioritise, to fix. And if we do this for ourselves, the effect on others and the world around us could be transformational.

We can choose to bring health and wellbeing back into our consciousness in a way we haven’t done for years. We have an amazing health service but haven’t we come to rely on it too heavily? Could we support it better by taking more responsibility for our own health and supporting those around us to do the same? If we were already doing this, would we be currently living in a society that is more obese, more medicated, more stressed than ever before?

This is not about blame. Over time, for many reasons, including our ‘busy’ lives, we’ve inadvertently lost our connection to how to be well. We’ve let it slip down our list of priorities and often felt powerless to do anything about it.

So, while we’re safe in our homes, we can do two really useful things: 1. Start to reconnect with our own wellbeing and 2. Boost our immune system. When we keep fit, stay calm, sleep well and eat well, we trigger a more effective immune response that does the healing for us.

And so, I’ve decided to share a series of blogs on various aspects of mindset and nutritional health. Information that I’ve not only learned through training and years of research, but practices that I live by. Those of you that know me, understand the impact this has had on me and therefore my passion for raising awareness and empowering others to do so too.

We can do so much to get our immune system into the best shape possible and one of the most powerful ways is through food. We would not have survived as a species without eating the right foods to support our bodies to fight disease and heal us. Deep down we already know this and we know which foods we need. The problem is we have forgotten to consciously connect to thoughts that remind us that food is one of the greatest medicines we have.

So, let me ask you a question: Why do you eat what you do? Now you may think, well that’s obvious – we eat because we’re hungry, to give us energy or something similar. And yet in reality, most of us choose to eat for so many other reasons. Maybe it’s taste, or cravings, boredom, convenience, social acceptability, a treat, because we’re upset, happy, it’s mealtime and so on. And therefore what and when we choose to eat isn’t necessarily what our bodies need. Our sophisticated brains mean we can choose so many reasons to eat, however, we’ve lost our belief in food as medicine, and that what we eat will nourish our minds and bodies and support us in the best way possible. How often do we consciously think about food being used to repair and renew those millions of cells, working together to keep us healthy.

Before we look at specific foods to help our immune system, let’s look at how we can reconnect with food as medicine. When I was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago, one of the first things I thought was, ‘how can I stop this happening again?’. Food was one of the areas of my life I began to change – initially out of fear, to help keep me healthy. Foods that would nourish me became my focus and reconnected me with healing. The good news is that you don’t have to get very sick in order to do this! You can start to believe that you have some control over your health, to consciously set an intention when you shop, cook and eat, to choose foods that will nourish you and your family and help keep you well, not just now, but in the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the food police. I too like the odd glass of wine, bit of chocolate and plate of fish and chips, and our bodies have the ability to deal with these less-than-healthy foods in small amounts but it’s when they become the everyday foods, without the majority of our diet being made up of the good stuff, that the damage is done. Processed food is one such group of foods that causes more harm than good. It’s either made from chemicals or it’s food that has been messed with and is therefore not in it’s natural state. Unnatural substances that the body does not recognise will create inflammation, the pre-cursor to disease. There is often hidden sugars and bad fats in processed food too and a serious lack of nutrients, even in those so-called ‘healthy’ snacks!

Added sugar is one of the most damaging substances that we eat, particularly in the quantities that we now consume. It has been linked to just about every common physical and mental disorder in today’s modern world, including cancer and depression. If it was a new substance created today, it could well be banned due to it’s toxicity. It’s often hidden in food we don’t expect so without realising we can consume more of it than we think.

Instead, getting back to basics and eating real food, in it’s natural form is what will help feed your immune system to function in the way it was designed to do. Eating a rainbow is something I often tell clients. When you look at your plate of food, what colours do you see? If you see all the colours of the rainbow, you are getting a wide variety of nutrients, particularly in vegetables as these are where many immune-boosting vitamins and minerals are found. To fill your plate half full with veg is really we want, forget five a day, that is nowhere near enough to maximise your health. It will also mean you are eating plenty of fibre to rid your body of toxins.

There are particular vitamins, minerals and foods that boost immunity so I’ll give you some foods that are rich in these to help you see where you may want to up your intake.

Let’s start with vitamin A – found in liver, cod liver oil, mackerel, salmon, tuna, cheese eggs, sweet potatoes, carrots, red peppers, kale, chard and spinach. Few of us eat liver and even oily fish these days, so if you don’t, eat a range of the other foods to ensure you’re getting enough.

Vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin which means the body doesn’t store it, and yet it’s vital for our immunity. It’s also destroyed by cooking and time so fresh, raw or frozen sources will mean we get more of it. Found in chillies, yellow peppers, blackcurrants, thyme, parsley, spinach, kale, tomatoes, papaya, strawberries and oranges.

Vitamin D is difficult to get from food and as the main source is sunlight, most people are lacking this one, particularly after a long winter. When we can get outside, exposing our skin safely, without sun cream for a few minutes at a time (without burning of course!) will help to get this from sunlight. Foods that do contain vitamin D are oily fish, egg yolks and mushrooms.

Zinc is a mineral and is found in shellfish, pumpkin seeds, whole grains, cashew and pecan nuts, cocoa, chickpeas, lentils, beans, mushrooms, and spinach.

Magnesium rich foods are leafy greens, almonds, fish, beans and pulses, whole grains, avocados, bananas, figs and dark cocoa.

A group of foods I must mention are mushrooms! These beauties have so many benefits I could do a whole blog on them. They are powerful immune-boosters that help kill viruses, bacteria and yeast. Different mushrooms have different properties so try shitake, reishi, maitake, cordyceps and oyster too. They can be bought fresh, dried and powdered for soups, stews and sauces.

A healthy gut means that the nutrients that we do eat, get to where they are needed so eating pre-biotic foods will help maintain gut health. These are bitter foods such as artichokes, chicory, garlic and onions as well as asparagus, oats, apples, cocoa and flaxseeds.

We use herbs and spices to flavour our food but how often do we think of the goodness in them? They are concentrated nutrients and have powerful, healing properties – ask any herbalist. Common ones particularly helpful for the immune system are sage, rosemary, thyme, garlic, ginger and turmeric.

As many of us have more time on our hands right now, why not try something new, experiment with foods that maybe you haven’t tried before. If you’ve got children at home, get them involved, make it fun and laugh about it if it doesn’t go according to plan. Start to get the next generation connecting with healing food. Google some recipes or try out those from my other blogs such as home made hummus, lentil soup and coleslaw (more on the way).

Let’s stop outsourcing our health. Apart from the social distancing, isolation and hand-washing, we can do something empowering. We can boost our immune system by providing the nutrients to repair and renew those wonderful white blood cells that help us to get well from any illness, not just this one. These cells are our defence, they attack viruses and destroy them. That’s what they do, all the time, most of the time without us realising it’s happening and when we do feel unwell, e.g. feel achey or have a fever, it’s our immune system that’s doing it’s job. How amazing is that.

How to have a better day.

I’ll be honest, I’m not feeling at my best today. As a wellbeing coach, it’s often hard to admit this. Aren’t I supposed to have all the answers and be able to both think and eat my way to perfect health??

I wish. Instead, I’m sat at home feeling ‘under the weather’ – what a strange expression that is. Anyway, I’m feeling a bit crap and taking my own advice of rest, fluids and good food. I’ve also just had a delivery of some new flooring (living the dream😂), which has prompted me to write this instead of doing my accounts, to enhance my emotional and mental state (I know, just procrastinating really!)

So back to the flooring, when I answered the door to the delivery man, he took one look at me, sighed, shook his head and asked if there was someone to help him unload it (clearly I didn’t fit the bill.)

When I said no, just me, he huffed and puffed and mumbled something about should’ve been told there wasn’t someone with a lifting mechanism or something I couldn’t quite hear. I told him I just ordered the stuff and it wasn’t my problem, to which he reluctantly agreed.

Anyway, after some persuasion he began moving the flooring into the garage whilst telling me what a bad day he was having, how his previous customer had been out and how he’d wasted so much time already. There were several pauses in his comments, with a glance in my direction, hoping, I think, for some sympathy. He did’t get any.

In a last-ditch attempt he began to pour out his story of how he had a leak in his house LAST CHRISTMAS and how he was still battling with insurers! How he’d had to move out for a while, start from scratch…and so on. While he was telling me, he kept pausing, looking me in the eye, waiting for me to offer some crumbs of comfort, understanding and attention for his sorry tale.

I don’t think he liked my reply much. I said how lucky he was to at least be safe, warm and dry and back in his home now. He did a double take, gave me a look of confusion like I was speaking some strange and ancient code and then said, grudgingly ‘I suppose so.’ There’s not a lot you can do when someone speaks a language you don’t understand or know what to do with, so it drew our encounter to a close, which I was glad about as I was bloody freezing, aware of managing my state and taking care of myself like a good coach should.

You see this man was not only having a bad day, but a bad life. His story was one of ‘poor me’ and he’d learned unconsciously to feel more important/loved/wanted or something similar by telling his story of everything that was wrong in his life. And in focusing all his thoughts and energy on that, he was living in a state of unhappiness, a victim of circumstances and he didn’t know that he was doing it or that he could do anything about it because it was unconscious, such a ‘normal’ way for life for him, that he hadn’t considered an alternative.

He didn’t know that he could choose to feel better/more important/loved/wanted by smiling, engaging positively with his customers, employers, insurers or whoever and that he could learn to value himself and change the limiting beliefs he holds unconsciously by noticing his thoughts and language.

We can all become a self-detective. We can discover what’s going on in our unconscious mind by listening, noticing, watching what we say and what we think. That will give us clues as to what’s going on up there. And if it leaves you feeling uncomfortable, change it. Then, we can stop believing the bad stuff and start to believe in something better. Just because we believe something, it doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s usually learned beliefs from childhood. Still doesn’t mean it’s true.

Now I’m not saying it’s always easy. Today, I’m not at my best so I’m having to dig deep so that I don’t feel too sorry for myself and end up thoroughly miserable as well as having some sort of cold virus.

And I’m not making light or being flippant about mental health issues either. For some, the story they tell themselves is so deep and damaging that professional help is needed to be able to move forward. The point I’m trying to make is that with or without help, we all have the ability to make changes and to put ourselves at cause, not effect, in our lives. To take ownership of what we think, how we respond and what we do with the kind of things that happen to all of us at times, like having a water leak or getting a cold, and even death, divorce and destruction. To be able to move on after a period of sadness, grief, upset, anger or just a mild annoyance when something bad happens is what determines whether you have mostly good days or bad days. The choice is yours.

Stress, Me and the Honey Bee

In his book ‘Becoming Supernatural’, Joe Dispenza likens living in a state of chronic stress to driving with one foot on the break, the other on the accelerator. Well, I’ve never actually tried it but when I read this I knew how it felt. It perfectly described how life used to be for me. Living in a state of stress had become ‘normal’. So much so, I had no idea there was anything wrong. Until, of course, to continue the metaphor, the damn wheels came off.

Now it’s a different story. I am much more aware, and know how to return my mind and body to a state of calm and when I do, I also get to experience joy, gratitude, love and just feeling pretty good about life. These emotions cannot be truly felt when we’re chronically stressed as the mix of chemicals that get released into the bloodstream when we’re stressed are very different to those that are triggered by higher emotions. And they can’t all be there at the same time.

That’s not to say it’s always easy. My old stress-inducing habits can creep up on me because sometimes, I still don’t think I’m good enough. Being aware though, means I can change my state at will. One day last week, I got some help from an unexpected source.

Sitting in my conservatory, I was doing some admin work on my website and social media (not my favourite job). I could feel my stress levels rising and knew my thoughts of lack of self-belief were intruding and threatening to overwhelm me. I stopped what I was doing, took a deep breath and glanced down at the floor. There, crawling in front of my foot was a honey bee and he looked in a bad way. He’d obviously been trapped in there all night and was literally, on his last legs.

Now wild honey bees are a rare and beautiful thing so I knew I had to get him outside pretty quickly. I scooped him onto a piece of paper and tossed him gently out of the window. No sooner had I let him go, I realised he’d landed in a thick, sticky spider’s web. I was horrified! I couldn’t just sit and watch the poor thing struggle to his demise.

So it began, operation bee rescue. I went outside, plucked him from the web and brought him back into the house. His body was wrapped tightly in the viscous strands and he was barely moving. I went to get my tweezers and nail file and set to work. Piece by piece I began by holding him down with the nail file and untangling him with the tweezers, freeing one leg and each wing at a time.

He was lying on his side, very still, so when I’d done all I could to remove the web, I mixed together a honey and water solution, put a small drop on a saucer and laid the bee gently next to it, propping it up on it’s crumpled legs. To my relief, he started drinking down the sugary nourishment.

They say bees get drunk on nectar, and I reckon that’s what happened. When he’d had his fill, he began thrashing around, unable to walk. He kept falling over and finally fell into the honey and water. This seemed to be going from bad to worse.

For a moment I thought he’d OD’ed! Maybe he’d just passed out, he was certainly very still. As a last ditch attempt to save him, I scooped him back onto a piece of paper, placed him in the sunlight to warm up and dry off (or maybe sleep it off!). Anyway, I watched him closely, looking for signs of life. I noticed he was breathing, and within a few minutes he began to stretch his wings, laying them out to catch the sun’s rays. Gradually, he started to move his wobbly legs and finally grooming his head, body, legs and wings to remove every last trace of web, honey and anything else that shouldn’t have been there.

He took his time until, gathering strength and energy and with all the grace and magnificence of his species, he rose triumphantly into the air. I managed to coax him outside and I can’t tell you how bloody great I felt as I watched him fly off into the garden to live his life.

Now, what’s that got to do with stress?

After nearly killing him, I had two choices, leave him, feel bad and go back to telling myself how useless I am at social media or interrupt my thinking, change my focus and do my best to help, feel compassion and work calmly and mindfully at trying to save him.

I had no idea if I’d succeed or not, only that I could try. The outcome wasn’t really in my control, but the process was. And the process was about being in the moment and it changed my state. By the time that bee had flown away, I was feeling a whole range of positive emotions. And when you feel calmness, compassion, empathy, joy, gratitude and downright chuffed, there’s no room for stress.

I hope the little fella is still out there somewhere, getting drunk on nectar, doing other bee things and keeping out of conservatories!

Thanks to my good friend Charlotte Kessler for allowing me to use her beautiful Honey Bee artwork in this blog.

https://www.charlottejanekessler.co.uk/

HRT – Is it really worth the risk?

So, this week has seen the publication of a comprehensive world-wide study by Oxford University about the link between breast cancer and Hormone Replacement Therapy. And, shock-horror, they’ve found that the risk is greater than previously thought.

This isn’t new though, is it. The link between these two has been known about since the turn of this century. Since then, there has been so many conflicting studies, it’s not surprising women are confused and anxious about whether or not to use this method of alleviating symptoms of the menopause.

It’s no secret that my view is that there are many natural ways of dealing with the likes of hot flushes, brain fog, anxiety and so on, but of course the choice is up to the individual.

However, I’ve been so dismayed by the reporting of this latest finding, the down-playing, dismissing and miss-informing that’s going on, I’ve felt compelled to rant a little, and offer a balance of alternatives.

In one news report, I read that HRT was worth the risk because having breast cancer was hardly the death sentence it used to be! Really??? Tell that to the families of the two beautiful friends that I’ve lost in the last 5 years. Friends diagnosed with early stage 1 and 2 breast cancer in their 40’s – both with a better prognosis than me, both who dutifully took the drug tamoxifen that was the ‘gold standard highly researched’ drug that was supposed to help prevent it metastasizing. It didn’t.

Although rates are improving, in the UK, around 11,500 people die from breast cancer a year and 1 in 7 will be diagnosed with the condition in their lifetime. When I was diagnosed 9 years ago, that number was 1 in 10. That’s a rapid increase. Oh, and by the way, TREATMENT IS BLOODY AWFUL! It’s cruel, scary, debilitating and can be soul-destroying. So don’t let breast cancer be ‘normalised’. Just because it’s common and the ‘middle class cancer’ and is therefore high profile, it isn’t OK. You do not want to have to go through this.

Anyway, back to HRT. Marilyn Glenville PhD states in her book ‘Natural Solutions To Menopause’, ‘I believe that the menopause is a natural phase in every woman’s life and should not be medicalised by replacing hormones that should not be there at that stage’.

HRT also does not replace like with like either. The hormones in these drugs are synthetic and trigger oestrogen receptor sites in the breast, ovaries and womb – places these should not be triggered at this time. Hence the increased risk to, not only breast but ovarian and womb cancers too.

Other side effects have also been linked to HRT, e.g. weight gain/loss, bloating, depression, high blood pressure, skin rashes, hair loss… to name a few.

My friends that take HRT tell me how much better they feel – and maybe they do. There is no doubt that many symptoms can be alleviated by it and I would never judge anyone for choosing this path. My only advise to them, and anyone thinking of taking it is this – please think carefully. Is it really worth the risk? Are your symptoms SO unbearable? Have you tried other ways?

I guess it comes down to individual choice and there’s no doubt that for those experiencing early menopause, then HRT may be the right choice. But for those going through it at the right time of life, or like me, medically induced (and the right time!), you could choose to make changes to lifestyle, exercise, diet and mindset. All of these can make a huge difference, not just to the menopause but to life beyond it.

I’m now 58. My menopause experience was awful, it cost me my job and nearly my sanity. However, I gradually learned how to get my life back and have made changes that have drastically reduced my symptoms. Not only that, I am not on any medication. My BP, cholesterol and bones are fine. I don’t have any regular aches and pains and I feel calmer and happier than I’ve ever done.

I can’t blame HRT for my breast cancer experience – I was never on it (although I was on the Pill – another story). I believe that there are many factors that lead to any disease. Stress and mindset play a huge part. For me, it’s like pieces of a jigsaw being put together, and when all the pieces of lifestyle factors and mindset join up, disease (or dis-ease) is created. HRT is just a piece of the jigsaw – how significant, no one really knows, everyone’s jigsaw is different. That’s why the side-effects, including breast cancer are ‘risk factors’, not certainties.

So, lets end on a positive. Here are a few tips for natural ways to help with symptoms I mentioned in the podcast I did a few weeks ago.

  • Hydrate – drink plenty of water, especially in the morning. Symptoms of de-hydration are VERY similar to many menopausal ones.
  • Eat phytoestrogens such as lentils, beans, fermented soy, nuts and seeds (especially flaxseed) as part of a balanced diet
  • Adopt a traditional Mediterranean diet to balance hormones and protect bones, joints and heart.
  • Exercise every day. I’m no gym bunny but I walk miles – it’s what we’re meant to do.
  • Change your limiting beliefs about ageing and begin a gratitude journal to interrupt those negative thoughts that keep you grumbling.
  • Reduce stress by changing how you react to people and situations (you have a choice) and limit time with toxic people/in toxic environments and try a stress relieving routine such as meditation, yoga, gardening.
  • Get outside, be in nature and re-connect as often as you can, even in Winter.
  • Love yourself – and be thankful we live long enough to experience this phase of life!

Coming through the menopause: My Story.

When Irene from One Dream One Vision approached me in July and asked if I’d tell the story of my menopause experience in a podcast interview, I was delighted. I’d never done a podcast before but had enjoyed listening to many. I like the feeling of listening in to a conversation that is both entertaining and informative.

So, here was my chance to ‘go public’ with what happened to me during my enforced menopause, due to cancer treatment.

In the podcast I share my journey of discovery. From struggling with anxiety, losing my confidence, almost my sanity and walking away from a 22 year teaching career, to understanding that it doesn’t have to be that way and to a new and rewarding lifestyle.

Take a listen to how I made changes to nutrition and mindset to overcome many of the debilitating symptoms brought on by a combination of drugs, fear and imbalances in hormones. How I realised that although the menopause is a natural phase of life, the way we live it often isn’t! I learned that food really is medicine from nutritional experts such as Dr Marilyn Glenville https://www.marilynglenville.com/ and I learned to listen to my body and go with what it needed rather than fighting it and above all, I changed my mind.

I chose to come off and stay off medication, to find new habits, to stick to my core values and beliefs around health and to take action to change how I felt about myself, to nourish my mind and body and to enjoy this amazing and precious gift of life I have.

One word can change how we feel.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes, when a well-meaning friend, loved one, boss, colleague or whoever is giving you advice, you are left feeling tense, anxious or even angry? Not the intended outcome at all.

I recently had this experience when someone I love very dearly was trying to help me with something. As he spoke I could feel my heart beginning to beat faster and I began to feel overwhelmed and in the end I just asked him to stop talking!

Being NLP trained, I understand language patterns. In fact it’s what I listen for in my coaching sessions and I use specific language to question and challenge limiting beliefs to help people to move forward.

So, although I didn’t respond to my ‘adviser’ in a measured, ‘coachy’ way (it’s not so easy when you love ’em:), I was able to understand how the advice I was being given was having such a negative impact on me. The one word being used over and over again was ‘should’. When we tell someone what they should or shouldn’t do, we’re not really giving advice at all. We’re giving judgement, giving orders, giving criticism and telling someone else what we would do in their shoes. The problem is, we can only wear our own shoes, no-one else’s really fit.

Another unhelpful phrase that seems to be appearing more frequently, particularly online is ‘need to’. It was a phrase used endlessly in emails from solicitors in our recent house move. ‘Need to’ has a bullying tone and when it’s used in the process of buying and selling a house, it just ramps up the stress levels!

So what can we use instead? One simple word changes the whole meaning. and therefore the feeling. That word is ‘could’. It gives us choice, power and allows us time to ponder before action. It allows our brain to use different neural pathways and consider possibilities, as the one we’re being offered may not be right for us. When we replace ‘should’, ‘need to’, ‘ought to’ and ‘must’ with ‘could’ we are giving guidance and support, suggestions and possibilities. When it’s a request, it’s also good manners. ‘Could you please complete the form…’ Instead of ‘You need to…’ is far less aggressive and much more conducive to any relationship.

Of course, it may be that it’s not someone else that is using this language. Much of the time we are using it in our own self-talk. Take notice of the voice in your head, listen to the language you are using. Is it full of ‘should’s’? We are often more critical of ourselves than we ever would be with someone else. And if we choose to use any one of these stress-inducing words or phrases repeatedly, we are putting pressure on ourselves, judging, condemning and even self-bullying. And when we do, we release a cocktail of stress hormones that might be useful on a temporary basis if we’re about to do a skydive or run away from someone wielding a knife but if we are continually in a state of stress, we are down-grading our immune system, a precursor to dis-ease.

Noticing the language we use in our heads and changing ‘should’ to ‘could’ is just one simple way we can begin to reduce stress and anxiety. So, next time someone else tells you that ‘you should apply for this job, it’s made for you!’, try replying with ‘I could do, or I could look elsewhere, stick with what I’m doing now or something else…the possibilities are endless’ and see how good it feels!

Nanna’s Beliefs.

Last year I had to do a presentation for my NLP Train the Trainer course. Inspired by another mind-blowing book I had just read, The Biology of Belief By Professor Bruce Lipton, I decided to focus on beliefs and how powerful they can be, in creating thoughts, that generate feelings, that lead to actions and reactions…that reinforce our beliefs. Bruce Lipton’s research shows how strongly held beliefs can not only affect our body’s trillions of cells, but actually change our DNA. I told you it was mind-blowing!

Anyway, as with all good NLP presentations, I began with a story. It happens to be true, although whether you believe it or not, is of course, up to you.

I was very lucky to have two amazingly warm and wonderful Nannas in my life. The lovely lady above is my Nanna Gladys. and the story is about her. Now, as Nanna Gladys got older, she would repeatedly get phone calls, letters and messages from her GP’s surgery, asking her to make an appointment with the nurse to have a flu jab. Nanna’s response was always the same. ‘No thank you, I don’t need it. I don’t get the flu’. As each new winter season came about, the requests got more demanding. ‘You must have the flu jab, at your age, flu could be dangerous, even fatal’, would be the plea from nurses, receptionists and GPs alike.

Now Nanna, like Rosa Parks when she sat on that bus and refused to get up and give her seat to white folk, was a tiny, polite, quiet, unassuming lady. She didn’t want to make a fuss, she just didn’t believe she needed the flu jab.

You see, Nanna had a secret weapon.

At the first sign of a sniffle, sneeze, headache or any other minor aliment she felt was ‘coming on’, she would take a ‘Beechman’s powder’ before bed, knowing she would wake the next morning as right as ninepence. Now for those too young to know, Beechman’s (she often got her words a bit muddled, you know what she meant!), used to come in powder form, in little paper packets (I know, sounds dodgy but go with me on this). Nanna would take the powder with a little cold milk like a magical elixir, on a teaspoon, with a knowing smile.

My beautiful Nanna Gladys lived for 101 years. She never took statins or blood pressure pills. She looked after the old folk in her neighbourhood until she was well into her 80’s and lived independently until after her 100th birthday. She rarely got colds…she never had a flu jab. And she never got the flu.

Beliefs. Powerful things.

#biologyofbelief #mindbodyconnection #mindset

Unconditional Gifts

I’ve recently had a birthday and was asked by several friends what I’d got, and I know that they meant gifts that I’d received, bought, wrapped and presented in a package. Although I’d been lucky enough to get plenty of these type of gifts, I wanted to reply that I’d received precious time with loved ones, a good belly laugh with friends, sharing new experiences and playing. I know this all sounds like a cliché but for me, each birthday is marked with gratitude for still being in this life and being able to feel emotions that these moments bring.

So this got me thinking. What do we think when we’re giving a gift to others? Do you think of gifts as the material kind or do you acknowledge that these come in many forms. Do you give it unconditionally? Or do thoughts attach themselves to the giving, such as, ‘I hope she appreciates it’, ‘if I give this, I’ll get that’, ‘I’ve got to buy her something so this will do’ and what about those unconscious thoughts of, ‘this will show her how much I’m worth’, or ‘this will tell him I’m the most important person in his life’ and how about when we play the martyr, ‘I’m always the one giving and get little in return’.

Many of us have these unconscious thoughts and are therefore left feeling hollow when we give and wonder why. When we give for reasons of duty, self-sacrifice, resentment, wanting something in return, we’re not really giving at all. We’re taking, we’re choosing to be needy, to suffer. By uncovering what we’re really thinking, as uncomfortable as it might be, we can choose to let go of them and focus instead on just giving for pleasure, to help and from a place of love.

And gifts don’t have to be wrapped in fancy paper and cost a penny. We don’t even have to know the person we’re giving to. Have you ever smiled at a stranger and see their face light up when you do? That’s your gift in that moment. When did you last send a message to someone out of the blue, just to say you’re thinking of them or sending them best wishes, without any expectation of anything in return?

When I was in Edinburgh last week I met a lady and we got talking. In the middle of our conversation she mentioned the book ‘Dying To Be Me’ by Anita Moorjani. She asked if I’d read it and when I said no, she said she thought I’d love it. How did she know? What made her say that? We’d only just met. The book was lying on the table of the book sales, later that day so I bought a copy.

I read it in two days and found it inspiring, thought-provoking, emotional and beautiful and it has touched me in so many ways.

So although the lady that told me about it didn’t actually buy it for me, her gift was clear. She told me because she thought it would give me pleasure, mean something to me. And she wanted nothing in return.

Notice these small and subtle gifts in your life. They are all around you, just waiting for you to accept them. Be mindful of their impact on you and you will feel as grateful for these as the gifts that come in boxes.