Thursday, 8 February 2018

Wellbeing Basics: Breathing

The second in my Wellbeing Basics series. The first one on sleep can be found here.

Here's a blonde joke (disclaimer: as a blonde-ish person myself I feel I am allowed to make one…sort of) - A blonde walks into a beauty shop with a pair of headphones on. She asks for a haircut. The blonde is led to a chair and asked to sit down. "Make my hair look good, but whatever you do, don't take off the headphones", the blonde instructs. The blonde falls asleep during the haircut and the hair stylist thinks, "It’s really hard to cut with these headphones on". She takes them off, and the blonde dies. The stylist calls an ambulance and when they take the blonde away the intrigued stylist picks up the headphones and takes a listen. She hears a little voice saying "Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out..." So now you all know (if you hadn’t guessed already) that breathing is rather important – and you can actually be doing it wrong!


Why should I care about my breathing so much?

Apart from the obvious (see above), our breathing – or more importantly the way we breathe – can have a big impact on, not only our bodies, but also our emotions. Breathing is an automatic mechanism. It’s controlled by our autonomic nervous system and we don’t have to consciously think about breathing in and out. Because our bodies are incredibly clever, our autonomic nervous system adjusts our breathing to suit our body’s needs. If we are exerting ourselves, if we are anxious, if we are ill – our breathing changes as a result. This can be very helpful. However, it can also sometimes be unhelpful. Over-breathing (or hyperventilation) can upset our body’s chemistry and in turn result in negative physical and emotional symptoms. The opposite problem – hypoventilation (breathing too slowly) can result in too much carbon dioxide being in the blood and not enough oxygen. Studies have shown that there is a high correlation between ‘incorrect’ breathing and a number of illnesses, for example: heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, chronic inflammation, anxiety – to name but a few.

Someone told me I’m breathing from the wrong place – how is that possible?

We know that breathing too quickly or too slowly can be unhelpful, but it also matters where you’re breathing from. This may sound odd, but a lot of people breathe from the ‘wrong’ place.
Here’s a simple test to check: if you take a minute or so and concentrate on your breathing what part of your body is rising and falling? Are your chest and shoulders moving, or is your abdomen?
If your chest and shoulders are rising and falling, this probably means you aren’t using your diaphragm (a huge, dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the rib cage) to breathe. The diaphragm is the best place to breathe from. Chest breathing can mean you feel anxious a lot of the time, that you’re over-breathing and causing potential imbalances to your body chemistry. Disproportionate amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide can have a radical impact on your health – meaning you can feel fatigued, nervy or cross; while potentially doing yourself more serious damage in the long run.

I find the most helpful way to calm myself is to concentrate on my stomach and breathe from there. Think of your abdomen as a balloon that’s slowly filling up with air as you inhale and then slowly releasing the air (or deflating the balloon) as you exhale – try to do this without your chest or shoulders rising. Another option is to lie flat on the floor or your bed and place a book on your stomach, covering your belly button, and try to lift the book by breathing in and out – this can help focus your mind on exactly where you should be breathing from. Attempt to make your stomach bigger (vanity will have to be out aside!) – this way your body will learn to breathe from your diaphragm rather than your chest.

Many people can find it a slightly uncomfortable or strange experience to change their breathing pattern – but I would suggest you try it and keep persevering! You may feel sleepy at first, or get some funny flutterings in your diaphragm – these are all part of your body adapting to quite a significant change to its norm. It is, however, a positive change. If you can practice this technique for a couple of minutes a day, you will slowly start to breathe from your diaphragm reaping the rewards, both physically and emotionally, as a result.


Five tips to breathe in a healthier way:

·       Join a choir – you will learn all about breath control and diaphragmatic breathing, plus it can be a fun and rewarding activity!

·       Try 7/11 breathing for five to ten minutes every day – that’s inhaling for seven seconds and then exhaling for eleven seconds, this can help regulate your breathing and re-balance your body chemistry.

·       Be more mindful – we can unconsciously hold our breath when we are anxious, angry, concentrating or exerting ourselves; try to be more aware of your breath and how you are breathing – I talk a little about breathing in an old video of mine here (at about 9 and a half minutes in).

·       Practice yoga or Tai Chi – a lot of yoga and Tai Chi exercises include breathing techniques which may prove beneficial, plus you’re getting some exercise at the same time; it’s a win, win really!

·       Download a breathing app – it may sound very close to the blonde joke I opened with, but they can be very useful as a guide if you need to quickly regulate your breathing or calm down – I’ve been using Breathing Zone, but there are lots of free options which I am sure are just as helpful. I talked a bit about Breathing Zone in this video here.


Do you breathe using your diaphragm? What are some things you find helpful to regulate your breathing?

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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Month In Review: JANUARY 2018




Word/quote of the month: "Just do it"

So, I may have stolen this off a well-known sports brand, but it definitely feels an appropriate misappropriation for this month.

There are lots of occasions in life where you feel hesitant or reticent - but sometimes (read: all the time) it can be life-enhancing to ignore the natural fear - and just do it.

This month I have embraced this motto in many parts of my life - both personally and in my work/study life - and it has been working for me. Not every occasion where I have 'just done it' has worked out the way I thought, or been successful - but I would much rather have tried and 'just done it', than not.

So, if I could make a prescription to you - try saying "just do it" to yourself a bit more than, "what if...". It's highly recommended.

Healthy/meal food of the month: Homemade smoothies/juices.

I have been getting back into the habit of making a quick smoothie in the morning. I pack mine with goodies like spinach, oats, bananas, a green powder and then whizz up with some orange juice and a splash of dairy-free milk. This makes sure that I never miss breakfast on days where I am up too early to eat or am rushing from place to place. I'm not one of those people who can go without food, but I struggle to eat a lot really early in the morning before leaving for uni/work. I am also hopeless without a full stomach, so I always have something mid-morning if I've only had a smoothie to start.

I may do a blog-post on my favourite smoothie recipes, so if that's something you want to read - let me know.

Lesson of the month: It's never good to avoid or suppress things.

Fairly obvious lesson really. And while it has been a fantastic month, it's also been a very emotional one. I've cried three times today (very unlike me) - and I think that's not going to remain just three by the end of today. But that's okay. When sadness or upset bubbles up, it's good to feel that emotion. The same goes for if you feel angry or happy. It can often happen when someone asks you how you are or says "you don't seem yourself", and suddenly you realise you've been feeling upset, or bottling up emotions and then 'boom' - you're getting a bit teary in the middle of a meeting, or by a coffee machine, or in a stairwell, or on Waterloo Bridge and having to be shown photos of puppies and kittens to cheer you up because you are hosting a lunch in less than fifteen minutes...or some other entirely fictional scenario...
It's sometimes only when people who know you ask "how are you?" and want to know the true answer that you realise you haven't asked yourself that, or been making sure you are okay.

There have been highs and lows this month - my last ever hospital appointment being an example of both. What I think is important is that, especially when you are going through a period of significant life change or dealing with difficulties (like I currently am) - it's important to allow yourself to process all of that. It doesn't help you or anyone to just keep going and pretending nothing is happening. Or distracting yourself with other people's problems, and ignoring your own.

Confronting an issue, or an obstacle is really healthy and means that you can hopefully reach a resolution and some inner peace. Self-compassion is key - and learning to allow yourself to grieve, get angry, cry, shout, stomp your feet, laugh hysterically or all the above is vital. I also think it can send a really positive message to yourself if you recognise that your emotions matter just as much as other peoples. If you are feeling upset, it isn't silly - as I found myself saying to a couple of friends today. It's important to care for yourself and not devalue your reactions to things.

Healthy thing(s) to do: Being honest, congruent and bold.

This would be one of the points, if I had been filming the Month In Review as I used to, when I would rabbit on for a solid ten minutes. Instead - I want to leave the healthy things to do simple:

Being honest (to the best of your ability) with yourself and others is one of life's essentials - for me anyway. Telling the truth, and confronting the reality of life can feel scary, and sometimes you have to be brave and just be honest (see a parallel above with my quote of the month...). There's nothing worse than being lied to or lying to yourself.

Being congruent creates peace and harmony, not only within yourself, but in your relationships with others.

Being bold feels freeing and empowering - feelings that are pretty magical in combination.

Goal for the next month: Feel more centred, do some more exercise and keep on being bold.

How has January gone for you? What are your goals for February?

How to get in touch (and all that social media stuff)

Friday, 19 January 2018

Life In Recovery: No More Hospital

I started Life In Recovery with the sole aim to help people find hope and help if they (or their loved ones) were struggling with a long-term illness. I have been quite careful (and conscious) that I use my own experiences to that end, while not making this corner of the internet about me. That is why I have never said my name, nor shared a lot of intimate detail about my past, present or future life; I have always felt that would get in the way of providing help and hope, and it isn't something I find comfortable. However, there have been times when I have shared some of my more personal moments; for example, my anniversary posts (check out year one, year two, year three, and year four if you've missed them). This week marked another big moment in my recovery, and I wanted to share some of the words I wrote to friends and family members on here too - as you, and this blog, have also been part of the story.


"I bet you all thought you'd got away without another of these streams of consciousness until my next anniversary post in August, but no...
Today marks a big moment in my recovery; my last hospital appointment. I told my doctor I felt I was ready to stop attending appointments back in May, and it's taken eight months to get to this point. After years of meetings and treatment since my discharge as an inpatient in August 2013, to say that the relationship my doctor and I built during the past four years (a momentous period of my life) became a very important one, is an understatement. Finishing that chapter, and leaving that relationship, has been a big step; but one that I chose and feel ready for. Today I said goodbye to my doctor (with smiles, tears and big hugs), today I was able to try and thank my doctor, today I moved into a new phase of my life, today I reflected on how far I've come and today I was made to realise just how far that is. If you're reading this, it means you've been part of the story so far (even if it's just been in the last chapter, or the latest page), and it means you'll be part of the rest of my onward (and hospital-less) life. For that I thank you, and I'm so excited to see where life takes us all. It's been an incredibly emotional day; I've been through stacks of tissues...but now it's time to dry my eyes and look forward. Anyway, here ends the thought-vomit, it just leaves me to say how grateful I feel to be where I am in my life, and to say a very heartfelt and extra-special thank you to those of you who helped me get here - I couldn't have done it without you. "

This is how I felt on Wednesday afternoon. I do, however, want to write up how I am feeling now - a couple of days later - and also see how I feel in a couple of weeks, so there will be another blog post on that in the next month or so. 
Also, keep your eyes out for a separate piece coming very soon about how I said goodbye to that doctor/patient relationship and my thoughts on how important that relationship can be...

Have their been therapeutic relationships you've found hard to let go?

How to get in touch (and all that social media stuff)

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Wellbeing Basics: Sleeping

“Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together” said Thomas Dekker, a writer in the Elizabethan times. And boy, was he right! Sleep (or lack thereof) is such a hot topic. Recently, the world has started waking up (pun intended) to the fact that getting good quality sleep is one of the foundations of a healthy life. This article will try to answer a few of the most common questions about sleep and hopefully help you to get a better night’s rest - one of the basics of wellbeing, and my first piece in the series.


Why is sleep so important anyway?

Sleep improves not only your physical health, but your emotional health too. Studies have shown that adequate sleep can help aid memory, reduce inflammation, improve our immune system, boost our ability to learn, improve mood and so much more. Chronic sleep deprivation (regularly getting less sleep than you need) is becoming a global issue. The impact of not getting the optimum amount of sleep can be serious. One study has found that not getting enough sleep is more dangerous to your health than smoking, having high blood pressure or heart disease. While this may sound like scare-mongering, lack of sleep (or sleep debt) can seriously impact your quality of life.  For example, you may find that you put on weight, are less able to focus, feel anxious or get ill more often if you are in a state of sleep debt.

What are the different phases of sleep; what do they mean for me?

There has been a lot of research into sleep and the theories are still developing, but the general consensus is that there are a few different stages of sleep.

One of these is REM (Rapid Eye Movement). This type of sleep is the most ‘active’ part of your sleep – this is thought to be the stage where you dream. In REM sleep, your brain can be as active as it is when you are awake. Your brain is not only processing the events of the day, but also doing a bit of ‘waste management’ by clearing away toxins and strengthening/weakening connections in our brain.

Another kind of sleep is NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement). This can be further broken down into four stages. Essentially, the last two stages of NREM are the deepest parts of your sleep. This is when your body heals and restores itself. Hormones are released which build muscle, energy is replenished, tissues are healed, blood pressure and heart rate drops.

Hopefully this shows you that, far from being a waste of time, sleep is a key component in rebuilding, renewing and maintaining a healthy and happy life.

Why is eight hours considered the ‘magic’ number?


There is a theory (much touted) that eight hours is the perfect amount of sleep to have. However, this theory is being challenged. Some people seem to need less, some more. There is such a thing as sleeping too much; this can actually be as harmful as not getting enough sleep.

How much sleep we need can depend on many things such as our age, life events, and illness. I think the answer to this question lies with the individual. Ask yourself if you feel at your best with five…seven…ten hours of sleep. If your answer is different from the amount you usually get, then something needs to change for you to get your optimum amount of sleep.


I can’t get to sleep – how do I sort this out?

Our modern day lives are not allowing us to get enough sleep, but they also are damaging our ability to ‘wind down’ and switch off. Sleep hygiene is a new-ish concept and I made a video talking about some simple habits to help improve sleep here.

With our addiction to the internet and smart phones it’s incredibly easy to remain hyper-active and alert during the hour or so before bedtime. We bring TVs and phones into our bedrooms which, I believe, are one of the main causes of not being able to get to sleep. Screens emit blue light which cause our body’s circadian rhythm (our body clock) to malfunction. Blue light can interfere with the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. If you don’t feel tired, the chances are that you’ve been late-night texting or watching your favourite series on Netflix in the wee hours. If you need to use your screens in the evening, you can download f.lux – free software that adjusts the light levels on your screen and helps reduce the impact of blue light.

Eating a sensible meal before bed can also help a lot. Avoid fatty, starchy, sugary foods and make sure you eat enough. If you feel peckish in the night – get up and eat something like a banana.

Regular exercise is important in helping you sleep. Just don’t exercise too near bedtime as this can stimulate you and interfere with your body clock. If you want to do some exercise near bedtime, I would recommend light stretching or yoga, as this isn’t too strenuous and can prove relaxing.

Worry and stress can certainly play a big role in being ready for sleep. While there are a lot of things that can help you relax, one of the best things to do is to have a pad of paper and a pen by your bed. If something is really exercising your mind, write it down, get it out of your head and address it in the morning. This way you shouldn’t have to spend all night ruminating over it, or worrying you’ll forget something.

If I only did three things to help sleep better what would they be?

  • Set yourself a cut-off time for electronics – e.g. "from 10pm I won’t look at my phone until the morning or watch TV."
  • Have a relaxing routine at the end of your day: take a bath; make a cup of herb tea; read a chapter of a book; have a chat to a loved one. This creates a lovely ritual and can help you wind down and relax, meaning it’s easier for you to settle at bedtime.
  • Keep your bedroom clutter-free, calm and cool as your bedroom has to be conducive to sleep. Having a messy and chaotic room can result in you feeling the same way!

How much sleep do you get a night? Have you got any tips that mean you get your forty winks?


How to get in touch (and all that social media stuff)

Friday, 5 January 2018

2018: What to expect from Life In Recovery

I'm not normally one for making New Year's Resolutions (the reasons why can be found here in a post I wrote in 2014) but...this year, I feel it would be good to set out some aims for this blog. Creating goals (and making them public) can help you re-focus and achieve; and I think this blog needs a little tweaking and for you, dear audience, to know what to expect from 2018 and this little corner of the internet.


What you will be seeing:


  • Month In Review pieces will be posted every month with the same categories. However, they will normally be word-based, unlike previous ones in video format. Life has been getting in the way of me filming, editing and uploading!
  • Videos - I will be continuing to film videos and post them on YouTube, as and when ideas come to me. As always video requests are very welcome.
  • Recipes - there were a bunch of new recipes posted in 2017, and I want to continue that. There will be healthy, nutritious and delicious new ideas for your table and tummy throughout 2018.
  • Instagram - I am aiming to build more of a community on Instagram. Come and join me!
  • Wellbeing Basics - I will be launching a new series called 'Wellbeing Basics' which provides tips and resources on how to achieve (and maintain) good health and a happy life. I think we can often neglect our most basic needs, and sometimes need a little reminder to sleep, exercise, eat and rest well.
  • YOUR REQUESTS - I filmed a few request videos in 2017 and I loved doing it, knowing what you wanted to see and then providing the information. I would love to do that a little more often. So if you have any burning questions, need help on something specific, want me to research a topic or just have a general idea - please let me know. That way, I spend my time making content you really want, and that will make a difference to you and hopefully help.
  • My 2018 life lessons and favourites published at the end of the year - one of my favourite things to write, and you seem to love reading them. If you missed 2017's the favourites are here, and the life lessons are here


What you won't be seeing:


  • Twitter use - while I am not ditching Twitter for good (it's definitely one of the best ways you and I interact with each other), I have become a little disillusioned with the medium for a number of reasons - you may have noticed I've been a bit absent. So while you won't see so many streams of consciousness or random conversations, my account will be re-focused on the blog - it's original goal. Please don't stop chatting to me on Twitter though - I love hearing from you, and all 600+ of you who follow Life In Recovery on Twitter.
What are some of your goals for 2018? 


How to get in touch (and all that social media stuff)