Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Our senses are seven free gifts from nature. Seven? Yes...

Our senses are seven free gifts from nature. 

This is an extended* column from the York Press, Monday August 25th, 2014


What were you doing on Wednesday, August 11th 1999?

The date may mean little to most of you. But if I said that it was the day when a total solar eclipse could be seen in the UK, you may remember where you were when it happened. Perhaps you were in the south-west of England, where the total eclipse was seen? Perhaps you were in Yorkshire where it was only partial?

Did you experience the Tour de France cycle race in Yorkshire over the weekend of July 5th and 6th? I wonder if you’ll remember that date in fifteen years time?

I was fortunate to experience both events. One created by nature, one by man. The actual events, passed in seconds. It was ‘blink and you’ll miss it’. Or was it? The naysayers were heard, as usual. Those people for whom the experience was a purely visual one and who wondered what all the fuss was about. But for many, those using all their senses of sound, touch, taste and smell, as well as sight, the events were so much more. A full sensory experience that lasted for much longer than a few seconds. A few minutes, hours, maybe a day.

Our twelve-year old niece was staying with us in 1999. I decided to take her to the top of the White Horse on Sutton Bank. I shall never forget how slowly all around us became chilled and quiet. I was fascinated by how much light came from a tiny sliver of sun.

After the eclipse, a man wrote to the York Press, complaining about the ‘non-event’. As if it was something that had been organised by a human organisation. I had a response published. I wrote that it had been a full sensory experience, if one allowed it to be. Even more remarkable, it had been known about to the second, many centuries before and couldn’t be stopped by any human being, however important they thought they were. 

Silence can be uncomfortable and not something we’re used to in these times of 24/7 noise. It’s only in the last few years that I can fully appreciate the space to think, that silence can bring. 

*Living in the countryside, I'm surprised to find silence enjoyable, in a way that I could never before. The constant noise of city living can now feel an intrusion and I never thought I would feel like that.

*For many people, especially older people, the TV provides company and is on all day. When I was on my own, I had to have the radio on, generally with music. The radio is still my entertainment of choice with it's fantastic variety.  We have a radio in every room. I've always been used to background noise. But now the birdsong, wind in the trees and sheep provide the background soundtrack to many of my days.  

Using all our five senses, we can make those moments richer. A warning - using that time to misuse our imagination and ruminate on troubling thoughts can lead to depression and anxiety disorders.


Anything activity that slows down our breathing and helps us focus on the here and now, will help reduce emotional arousal and keep our minds calmer. Just five minutes will help. The latest activity is called Mindfulness. A useful, free technique, using simples resources we have been given as human beings.

Choose somewhere to be silent. Breath in and out slowly. Be aware of all your senses at or in that moment. Feel the difference.

Two other senses are important in life too. Common-sense and a sense of humour. Seven free gifts of nature. Often underused. Value them all.

* I took my ten-year old grandson to a seaside village last week. The tide was in and we couldn't do the walk along the beach that I'd hoped. We sat on a sea wall and used our senses. We each chose three things to see (easy), smell, hear, feel and taste. We managed it and it was a fun way of spending thirty minutes. I'd never before thought about all the different sounds waves make, as they roll into shore. We accept so much around us, without actually thinking about it. We were being mindful and living in that moment. Then the smell of a lunchtime chip fryer wafted our way...


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Looking on the bright side - Scaling and benchmarks.

This is the extended* Body, Mind, Soul column from York Press dated July 28th, 2014.


I woke up one Saturday morning, drank some water and nearly hit the ceiling. I had lost a filling overnight and the water hit a nerve. The immediate need to find a dentist took priority over a planned walk in the Dales.

The dentist’s surgery was in the neighbouring road. He saw me immediately on opening. By this time, I hadn’t eaten for fourteen hours, the anaesthetic caused me to feel woozy and I had to lie down in another room. Feeling better, I sat out in the waiting room again. Another patient looked concerned. I explained the circumstances and expressed how lucky I was that the dentist was nearby and available. He looked astonished. “ You’ve had all this happen and you think you’re lucky?”

That was when I realised that I tend to look for the positive in life. I’ve heard it called the Pollyanna Syndrome and being unrealistic. I don’t think so. All I know, is that it’s been a lifesaver on occasions. 

*My mother was a pessimist. I'm an optimist. She told me that she always thought the worst, because then when something nice happened, it came as a lovely surprise. My view is that while I've often thought the best and been disappointed, I've enjoyed thinking about the positive. If someone who is dealing with a sudden crisis, states, "I knew that would happen.", then it is likely they have been rehearsing the negative outcome in their mind. Then it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though, in some situations such as an interview or exam, the statement could arise from self-protection. 

*Is it nature or nurture? Interesting question, to which there is no definitive answer. Clients would sometimes say, "I'm a born worrier." I would counter that by saying that we could agree that they were born with their gender, colouring and some talents already in their DNA. I would then suggested that worrying was a learnt behaviour, rather than one they were born with. Easier to change too.  Certainly in practice, if I saw someone with an anxiety problem, there was always a parent or main carer who had a high level of anxiety. One client, whose anxiety had caused him some problems in life, told me that his mother was 'frightened of life.'   

When my husband was in hospital last year, he was initially bewildered as to why he was asked by the nurses and doctors to scale various matters from one to ten. I explained that it was a measuring tool. A benchmark. Was it is worse or better? Scaling can be helpful in helping us manage life’s difficulties and challenges too. I ask myself, “Is this the worst...... that I’ve ever experienced?” The worst physical pain, emotional pain, workplace problem, domestic situation, interview, journey, weather, meal etc: It not only helps put the matter into perspective, but can provide ideas for finding solutions. What did we do before? How did we get through a tough time? We survived.


Do you know someone who moans and complains all the time? It can be draining can’t it? All that negativity isn’t healthy. Either for the person complaining or the listener. Therapists are taught to protect themselves from listening to and possibly absorbing negativity. 

* Loneliness in the elderly is a problem being highlighted at the moment. From my experience, I would suggest that some people do not help themselves by only holding conversations that are mainly moaning and complaining. It does not encourage visitors. While they may have some valid reasons, I also know plenty of people laden with problems, who very rarely complain. It is possible to do.  I see people slowly cutting themselves off by their negativity. 

One client woke up with life’s problems crowding her brain before she got up. I suggested she thought of three simple things to be thankful for. Hot water in the shower, food to eat for breakfast, clean clothes to wear. It worked. She began to look at her life through a different lens.

At the moment, there is a similar task being sent around friends on social media. Think of three simple, positive things in your day for five days. Write them down and after five days pass the task on to others. People have expressed how helpful it has been to them. They have put their problems into perspective. To some, it’s felt like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Often, it’s the simple moments in life that can bring the greatest joy.