Saturday, 31 December 2016

Getting perspective on 2016.

This is the extended* Wellbeing column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, December 13th 2016

What a year! A year that is likely to be remembered in history for a long time. A year of political upheavals, untimely deaths of prominent people, contentious US electioneering, immigration protests, starving children in war zones, Fidel Castro, new technology changing news reporting, President Trudeau of Canada, Mexicans causing trouble, Russia threatening neighbouring countries, Olympic success in the Americas and a change in the world order. 

Yes, 1968 was certainly a year of momentous events. How do I remember 1968? It was a year of teenage fun, friends, love and great music. I can remember the news stories, but overall I would say 1968 was a great year.

If you were to ask me about 1974, 1987, 1991 and 2013, I would say that they were not happy years, though I know there were many happy times in those years. You may recall them as being good ones for you. 

2016 will be memorable for many reasons, but all I read and hear, is what an awful year 2016 has been. Really? Will Andy Murray and all the Olympic medal winners in Rio think it’s been a terrible year? 

In January I wrote about the York floods and there’s no doubt that whatever 2015 had been like for those people whose homes were flooded, it finished traumatically for them. 2016 will have started badly, but I wonder how they will reflect on this year on New Years Eve. Will all 366 days have been bad ones? Will there be days when they can recall happier moments, however small? 

* Until fairly recently there appeared very little positive being written about 2016. It was all 'doom, doom, we're all doomed.' Then as the year end became hijacked by more celebrity deaths, it seems that people realised that good things did happen and some columnists are attempting to put 2016 into perspective. I am sure that while we all know people who have had a pretty awful year and that may include ourselves, we will also know people for whom 2016 has been a good year, if not a fantastic year. What about the Brexit/Trump supporters who have little interest in the Arts and social media and whose domestic lives were fairly untroubled this year?

* One columnist complained about the outpouring of grief over the deaths over Christmas, particularly George Michael. I felt a sadness for a talented song writer/singer and troubled soul who died alone and tears did come to my eyes, but they weren't for George Michael, they were for me and the past. I can enjoy his music, but there is one song that brings back a mass of memories from 1991. Just one song out of many, that I heard on the car radio on a journey home from work in London to home in Buckinghamshire. The words mean very little, I just love the tune and the memories are strong and bittersweet. The majority of people who are upset at the death of a celebrity are more sad for themselves, than the celebrity. 

*That has reminded me of a client whose driving phobia was associated with a panic attack she experienced when driving. It was then repeated many times before she saw me. The root?  We traced it to a song that came on the car radio, a song that had also been on the radio as she left the house some time before with paramedics, when she was having a miscarriage. 

*As Noel Coward wrote: "Strange how potent cheap music is." And how powerful and helpful it is proving to be with people with dementia.

It’s very easy to become dragged down by the doom merchants and negativity. It’s important to put events of this year into perspective. Reading a book about 1968 has helped me do this. 

A helpful exercise at the end of each day is to write down five simple pleasures to be thankful for. As we leave this interesting year behind, it will be beneficial for us all to recall those times of happiness and pleasure that we have experienced this year. There will be many more than five.

With my glass half full, I say ‘Cheers’ to you all. Bring on 2017. (Seat belts on!)


Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Who are you today?

This is the extended* Wellbeing column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, November 8th.

A recently bereaved friend, Laura and I were having a chat and the subject of her new and unwelcome title of ‘widow’ came up. Further discussion revealed that Laura had other titles. She was also a mum, step-mum, sister, grannie, aunt, neighbour, friend, golf partner and cousin, to name just a few she could claim. Titles can also be labels.

As we were talking, I reflected on a recently hectic two weeks away. Time had been spent being a wife, sister, sister-in-law, mum, mother-in-law, grannie, aunt, schoolfriend, college friend and acquaintance. At times I felt like the comedian and magician, Tommy Cooper in his act where he kept changing hats and voices. Remaining at home was neighbour, writer, colleague, friend, volunteer and ‘me’.

These titles or labels, reveal the roles we have as life unfolds. It can be like a play with different scenes and actors who come and go, it certainly can border on a farce at times, tragedy at others. Or I like to think of a book with many chapters and characters, with each turn of the page providing the twists and turns in our story. Sometimes the focus can be on one role to the detriment of others. Perhaps it’s only temporary, but we need to remember the other roles we have. We can forget or have no time for ’me’, the narrator of our story. It’s not selfish to think of ones own needs and ‘me’ needs attention too, but in balance. Too little or too much ‘me’ leads to difficulties.

Illness and disability can be a title or label, especially if our needs are being met through playing this role. We should be careful of the role of victim. If played for too long, being a victim is ultimately psychologically and physically unhealthy. I was taught to ‘separate the person from the problem’. Saying, “I have an alcohol problem” rather than “I am an alcoholic” or ‘“I have episodes of depression”  rather than “I am a depressive’" can help people see that they are much more than their problem and therein will lie the solutions. 

*I have known people who have shared the same illness/disability, but the difference in managing their situation arises from their attitude. The people who live entirely in the role as a victim will not have as a fulfilled life, as the people to whom the illness/disability is only part of who they are.

Unhelpful labels that were given to us as children need to be challenged too.

* One of my first clients presented with anxiety problems. Almost immediately he explained that when he was a little boy, his mother used to introduce him to people they met as, "This is Peter, he's our anxious one." It had stuck with him all his life, but now he wanted to get rid of the label. Probably one of the most common labels from childhood, that adults can still feel attached to is, "you're stupid." It's so important to look at the context. Who said it? Why? What was going on? Is it really necessary to still keep that label now?  Throwaway comments made by parents, relatives, teachers and siblings can be extraordinarily unhelpful, if the child keeps them into adulthood. It can be a comment that hurt deeply, but as an adult with emotional maturity, we can see the fuller picture and see the comment for what it was. 

Unfortunately, we are given to recall the few negative words spoken in the millions we're heard over the years, rather than the positive ones. I'm reminded of an advertisement some years ago, with a cartoon demon character attempting to stop an adult taking a training course by whispering negative comments in her ear. It can happen to us every day and we need to blow raspberries at the demons and tell them to go away - strongly!

Meanwhile our story continues:
Let’s turn the page. I wonder what happens next?


Monday, 31 October 2016

Beginnings and endings

This is an extended* version of the Wellbeing column that was published in the York Press on Tuesday, October 4th 2016.

While January 1st is considered the beginning of a New Year in the Gregorian calendar, for many people, there is a feeling of new beginnings in Autumn. The start of a new academic year and all the ‘Back to School’ signs in shops, can bring back memories from decades ago, of new uniform, shoes, pens, bags, classrooms and teachers. 

In my own life, this autumn will see some new beginnings. A new routine at home, the start of a new writing project and new bulb planting in the garden. These are beginnings to look forward to. Autumn also reminds my family of a time three years ago, when the doctors and nurses at Scarborough Hospital saved my husband’s life, one month after my mother’s death and two weeks before the publication of my first book. There were many new beginnings that Autumn, not all of them were welcome. 

Beginnings often involve endings too. While some endings can bring relief, they can also bring feelings of loss. If the ending has been sudden, rather than planned, there is usually some shock and trauma to manage too.  It can be tempting to dwell too much on the endings, rather than look forward to the opportunities that new beginnings can bring. The past is familiar, but the future is unknown and we can dwell in what is familiar, even if it makes us unhappy.

*After this was published, I spent some days with my four grandchildren, who live in other parts of the UK and so changes can be more noticeable. The passing of years seemed more striking this year, in their size, milestones and growing maturity. It was surprising to feel more emotional than usual. With a little self analysis, I could recognise that it was the sands of time that appeared to be gathering speed and I didn't like it. It was sobering to recognise hints of the very same behaviour in myself that I had written about in October's column. I was quietly grieving for the past and it hurt.  

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” Helen Keller
While getting my head around the changes in my own life, another quote has come to mind. 
“We live in the past or in the future; we are continually expecting the coming of some special moment when our life will unfold itself in its full significance. And we do not notice that life is flowing like water through our fingers.” Father Alexander Elchanov

I plan not to waste valuable time dwelling on what I can’t change or have no control over. I have time to make the most of each new day and see what tomorrow brings. There are always simple pleasures in each day, which can be appreciated. Seize the Day!

*I allowed myself to wallow for a short while, but knew there was only one healthy way forward. Onward!


Friday, 30 September 2016

We must not allow school to define us - Triumph over adversity

One afternoon last May, I was not only amazed, but also found a tear in my eye, when I received an e-mail from my old school. A school I attended in the 50s & 60s, but left with little to show for my education, other than numerous detentions and English and Geography 'O' levels that took me three attempts. Although, with a term and half to go before I left, someone had the bright idea of making me a sub-prefect. Poacher turned gamekeeper with alacrity.

Through social networking, the regular York Press column had reached school and I was asked to contribute to their  #mondaymotivation page. 

I wrote the following *1, though I was not surprised when it was edited to reflect my education in a better light. Their actual entry is posted afterwards *2. I then re-wrote it for the York Press column this month *3.

I attended PHS from1954 to 1966. It was not a glorious time either domestically or scholastically. The former, no doubt, having some effect on the latter, but life behind closed doors was not discussed and certainly not taken into account in school. There was no pastoral care in those days. The bonus was some wonderful life-long friends. 
I was a chatty, naughty girl, who like helping others rather than getting down to my own work. After hanging on to my place due to my mother’s pleading, I met the Headmistress, Miss Lockley, at a PHS reunion in my twenties. “I made good in the end’, I told her. “I knew you would”, she said with a smile, “you had spirit!”. Not particularly helpful, I thought. But she was right, and that ‘spirit’ has been my saviour. I was fortunate, I wobbled on the rails, but never fell off. 
My ‘spirited’ rebellion set in very early and while challenging authority led to years of problems at school, it also led me question authority all through my life. This has been invaluable. 
I only completed one year in the sixth form doing retakes fairly unsuccessfully. In the 1960s, the non academic were sent off to be secretaries or nurses. Lower down the scale was childcare and it was suggested that nanny training might suit me. It did and the NNEB qualification has been invaluable to me at various times through life, in a variety of workplaces, including at present, doing voluntary work on a Children’s ward. 
A spell in the 1980s led to up, down and up again, the retail management ladder with Waitrose. A staff appraisal revealed positive managerial skills. I was astonished. They were just behaviours that I did naturally, and were not anything in which I could have taken an exam. I also created a matrix for meal breaks, still used to this day, because “it can’t be improved on by modern technology.” I wasn't good enough to take Maths ‘O’ level. 
A move to Yorkshire in the 1990s and a return to nursery nursing led me to an acute psychiatric ward to help a mother with her baby. I worked on the ward for six years, but questioning, as always, I decided to retrain. There had to be something better in mental health care. Five years later I opened a psychotherapy practice in York, which I ran for ten years. I have also been a chocolate taster for Nestle for twenty years. I wish there had been an ‘O’ level in sensory perception. 
For the last ten years I’ve enjoyed writing and speaking on emotional health.The precis exercises in English lessons have proved invaluable. 
In 2013 I published a self-help book, using life experiences, using a pen name, Alison R Russell, ‘Are you Chasing Rainbows - a practical insight into emotional maturity and why adults sometimes behave like children’. £3000 has been raised for ChildLine from sales. 
Some life lessons. 
1. Life never turns out how you imagine it might. Be adaptable.
2. Choose degrees and courses that you want to do, not what you feel you should
do, which often leads to unhappiness.
3. Managing failure is important. Without it, we cannot learn.
4. You have skills which you may not be aware of yet.
5. Emotional intelligence is as important as academic intelligence.
6. School friendships can last a lifetime. Value them.

7. Between 50 and 70 can be the most productive times of life. 



Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Resilience - nature or nurture?

When the previous blog was posted on Facebook, there followed a few comments.

Pam Young Great piece .. Is an explanation just an excuse? Sometimes the 'back story' does explain the behaviour and eg for trauma this can be unconscious. At work I heard so many horrendous back stories I stopped judging ..
Rita Leaman Thanks Pam. Is an explanation a reason that could be used as an excuse? It has always fascinated me that while there will always be awful back stories, which can provide reasons for behaviours, what is it that stops some people using those back storie...See more
Pam Young You're the best person to answer that Rita - but u clearly didn't feel helpless ! Your mum sounded tough? Education? Absence of poverty? Who knows but resilience is the greatest asset! X x
Rita Leaman Nature v nurture again. Was bloody-minded from a very early age and disliked being told what to do. Stood me in good stead in the end as I question most things! Re: education, see next column!!
LikeReply231 July at 21:04
Luke Ryan The only way to truly learn, is to question.
LikeReply11 August at 08:01

This has been a matter for discussion for decades and will continue to be so. It was timely when this article appeared online a few days later by Pam Ramsden

Why do traumatic experiences haunt some people while making others more resilient?

I wrote about Resilience in the book, 'Are you Chasing Rainbows?'. This is from Chapter 4.

On a training course, some shop managers took a question and answer session. One of the questions was: “What qualities do you need to be a good manager?” One of the managers answered: “Resilience. You need to be like a Weeble [a famous children’s toy] – they always wobble but they don’t fall down.”
I couldn’t work out what he was talking about. I found out two years later, the hard way. I had risen up the management ladder and was considered to be doing well. I was moved to a shop in a nearby town, but couldn’t believe how different the working environment could be. It wasn’t a happy time: I struggled and, in a dramatic fit of pique on one afternoon some six months later, I wrote my resignation. It was accepted.
Now I was in a mess: I needed a job and my status had fallen to zero. I had just thrown away the best company I would ever work for. I drove home, past my old shop. I parked and went back there: goodness knows what a sight I must have been. The
manager was on the shopfloor. I begged him to take me back as a straightforward shop floor assistant. He was concerned that I would have trouble making the transition backwards – he need not have worried; I was in a state of shock.
A couple of weeks later, when the tears wouldn’t stop coming, even on the shop floor, I was given some time off. It was a horrible time. I returned rested and ready to move up the ladder again, steadily and more slowly this time. It took a year, but I did it.
It gave me the biggest learning experience of my life. The actor and director Ben Affleck, who stood up at the Oscars to receive the Best Picture award in 2013 for Argo – 15 years after his first Oscar and through the highs and lows of film-making – said the following words:
“I want to thank them and I want to thank what they taught me, which is that you have to work harder than you think you possibly can. You can’t hold grudges. It’s hard but you can’t hold grudges – and it doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life, because that’s going to happen. All that matters is you gotta get up.”
I understood completely. 


Sunday, 31 July 2016

Actions, consequenses and Brexit.

This is the Wellbeing Column published in the York Press on Tuesday, July 26th, 2016.

When writing last month’s column on managing our emotions after life events, little did I realise how prescient I was being. Within days, the English football supporters were grieving their loss, quickly followed by the result of the Referendum, which appeared to cause collective shock worldwide.  Before the Referendum and with a regular call for ‘facts’, I had light-heartily supplied some facts on my Facebook page. They included, that within months, we would hear, “I didn’t think that would happen.” In fact, those words were being expressed within hours of the result.

The words, “I didn’t think that would happen…” transported me to childhood. After yet another misdemeanour, I would try to explain my actions to my furious mother. No sooner had the words, “I didn’t think…(that would happen)”, been uttered, my mother would return the words, “That’s right, you didn’t think.”  

At what age children know right from wrong is a continual point for debate. What we do know, is that the ability to fully comprehend that consequences arise from actions, doesn’t occur until the emotional brain has matured later in life. EQ stands for Emotional Intelligence and has little to do with IQ (Intelligence Quotient.) Hence, when intelligent adults are sometimes emotionally immature, their behaviour is difficult to understand and challenging to work and live with. It is being generated in a different part of their brain from their logical thinking.

Unimagined consequences can continue to occur for months and years from the initial action. It’s called ‘the ripple effect.’ The last few weeks have provided us all with a profound illustration of this effect. Personal comprehension of actions and consequences, usually arrives along with learning to take personal responsibility instead of blaming others.  “It’s not my fault’ is a childish expression, spoken by too many adults. It was only when I was eighteen, that I stopped some anti-social behaviour which had been part of my life for ten years. I suddenly ‘grew up’ and saw the possible consequences of my actions.  To blame domestic circumstances would have been easy, but not helpful in taking me through adult life. 

There are always reasons behind our behaviours, but making them excuses is giving away personal control to change and make a difference. 

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”  Andy Warhol


Monday, 27 June 2016

When life events makes you stop and think.

On Tuesday, June 21st 2016, this column was published in the York Press. I did not write it with the Referendum or the European Cup in my mind at all. But it was perhaps prescient.

In the circumstances, I have added to it.*

It had been a good week. I was feeling fit and healthy as I walked to my volunteer work in the hospital. Before going on the ward I visited the cafe. Then I had a blackout and became a patient, rather than a helper. A week later, I went to the GP to report symptoms of post concussion. We agreed that recovery would be 50% psychological. So it has proved.

There are some life events that make you stop and have to reassess future plans. Sometimes we have a warning of them and have some control over our reactions. At other times they are sudden and we have little control. In many situations there will be sense of loss as we adjust to new circumstances and we will grieve for the past. It can be a loss anything, such as, a person, job, relationship, home, freedom, appearance, money, abilities. Our emotional brain needs to work through the process of grief.

* Are there stages or processes of grief? There is much debate and some controversy over the suggestion. These are the suggested stages: shock, denial, anger, blame, acceptance. Some people dislike the fact that the brain processes shock and grief in a natural way over a period of time. They feel as if it negates their own experience. A period of healing and each person will have their own personal timeline. They feel that their own experience is different and not a process or anything else that sounds manufactured.  From my personal and professional experience, I believe the framework is a good one to work with. Ill health can arise from any of the stages and certainly people can get 'stuck' in one stage before moving to the next, if they ever do. Time can heal, but only if you allow it to. If you think that is wrong, reflect on your own experiences and of those you have come into contact with.

In only the three days since the result of the Referendum, I can observe people who have moved on past the initial shock and denial and now working through anger and blame. 

Returning to the column

What have I learnt?

Treat yourself kindly:  A physical injury often means that we are forced to stop for a while and give the injury time to heal. An emotional injury also takes time to recover from, but we can rush the healing time.

Time to think: When the certainties of life are thrown up in the air, the brain can feel as if it’s in a spin-dryer. We need time for the brain confusion to settle down and to think logically over future choices, perhaps sharing our thoughts with someone else.

Share your feelings and fears: Any sort of illness can set the imagination going.  However strong a person we are, it is healthier to share our feelings and fears, rather than dwell on possibilities on our own. Even health professionals need to share and cry.

Replacement activities: If the loss means we have to stop doing something, then we need to find something else to replace it. We need to concentrate on what we do have and can do, not on what we don’t have and can’t do.

Accept change. This is challenging and takes time.

Count blessings and live day by day. There is much to be thankful for on a daily basis. 

“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” Hippocrates


Friday, 17 June 2016

Like plants, we will thrive if our needs are met.

This is the *extended Wellbeing column published in the York Press on Tuesday May 24th, 2016.

The sun is shining at last and the garden beckons. Like all gardeners, I have been looking at the flower beds and pots to observe what has survived over the past few months. Also attempting to get to the weeds and slugs before they take over.

It really doesn’t matter what the weather conditions have been, some plants will have thrived and others will have not. The same species of plant will have done better in one part of the garden than in another.

I loved furnishing the practice rooms in York, which naturally included plants. I bought two identical cuttings from a plant I had at home. One pot I put in the front, sunny room and the other pot I placed in another room, near a large window, but in the shade all day.

Over the years the plants grew. The plant in the front room flourished. It grew tall and bushy with glossy leaves. The other plant had stunted growth and wrinkled leaves. Both plants were looked after with the same care, but their environments were different. One plant thrived and the other did not. I took photos of them and used the pictures to illustrate presentations on how a human being will thrive if their needs are met in healthy ways. 

In therapy sessions, I used a Needs Audit with the clients. For some people, basic needs should be addressed. Those of food, shelter, clothing, warmth and money. Then there are  the emotional needs of security, a sense of control, social interaction, friendship, sense of community, meaning and purpose and being stretched. Are they being met? Healthily or unhealthily?

A change of circumstances should lead to a reassessment. For example, retirement,  a chronic health condition, relocation, empty nest and unemployment. As well as checking on unmet needs, the audit can also show where someone’s needs are being met, but in unhealthy or unhelpful ways. For instance, in addictive behaviours.

I was pleased to see that the organisation Victim Support has changed its focus in the twenty years since I last worked with them. There is a form to fill in on visits, about the person’s needs and if they are being met. Solution-focused problem solving. 

I like it.

As a reminder of the emotional needs: 
  • Love – loving and being loved
  • Attention – giving and receiving attention
  • Personal value – feeling good enough
  • Privacy – having one’s own space
  • Safety – feeling secure
  • Control – feeling a sense of control
  • Achievement – succeeding while being stretched
  • Friends – for fun and friendship
  • Social group – being part of one 

As a therapist I observed that the majority of clients had felt 'not good enough' at some time in their younger life. I adapted the adult audit I was given in training. 
How well were your innate emotional needs met as a young person? 

Nature has programmed all of us with physical and emotional needs. These are the ‘human givens’ that cannot be avoided. How stressed we are now, can sometimes depend on how well we felt our needs were being met as a young person. This can be real or perceived.  Rate, in your judgement, how well the following emotional needs were met in your younger life, on a scale of one to seven (where 1 means not met at all, and 7 means being very well met).

Did you feel secure in all major areas of your life                    0........................................................................7
(such as your home, school, environment)? 

Did you feel you received enough attention?                           0.........................................................................7

Did you think you gave other people enough attention?        0..........................................................................7

Did you feel in control of your life most of the time?            0..........................................................................7

Did you feel part of the wider community?                            0..........................................................................7

Were you able to obtain privacy when you needed to?       0..............................................................................7

Did you have an intimate relationship in your life?           0...............................................................................7
(one where you are totally physically and emotionally 
accepted for who you are by at least one person, this 
could be a close friend)? 

Did you feel an emotional connection to others?                0..............................................................................7 

Did you feel you have status that was acknowledged?       0..............................................................................7

Did you complete tasks and show a skill or gift in at least 
one area of your life?                                                          0..............................................................................7

Were you mentally and/or physically stretched in ways 
which gave you a sense of meaning and purpose?              0..............................................................................7

If your scores are mostly low, you are more likely to be suffering stress symptoms. 
If any need is scored 3 or less this is likely to be a major stressor for you. 
Even if only one need is marked very low it can be enough of a problem to seriously effect your mental and emotional stability. 

Stress, anxiety, anger, depression and addiction are the result of our innate needs not being met, either due to environmental factors, harmful conditioning or a misuse of imagination (worrying). 
People do not have mental health problems when their innate needs are being met in balanced, healthy ways. By highlighting areas in your life where your essential needs aren’t being met as 
well as they could be, you can use this questionnaire to help you think constructively about how your life could be improved. 
*(Adapted from training material

*Did you ever have feelings of ‘not being good enough‘ as a young person?                            Yes/No

If yes, how old were you? .............

What particular area of your life? ......................................................

Do those feelings affect your life now? Yes or No

If so, how?..........................................................................................

Perhaps your adult age is sometimes hijacked by the emotional brain of a younger person? If it is and the resulting behaviour is ultimately unhelpful, then you can change it.

A client once left the practice and on the doorstep on to the street said, "I came in here like a boy and now I'm going out like a man." I was thankful no-one was passing who might have misunderstood!