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Stubborn stomach fat and the stress factor

June 18, 2014

Like many people, I battle with my weight.  Or rather, I battle with a very specific bit of weight – the wodge of flab around my middle that simply won’t budge, no matter what I do.  I eat a ludicrously healthy diet (and not that much of it) and exercise like a maniac.  I’ve tried every regime under the sun, including the most stringent fasts and the toughest bootcamps, but my tubby tummy stays put.

So I was intrigued to hear about the Body Retreat’s Stress Reset retreat.  Run by clinical hypnotherapist Juls Abernethy and fitness expert Julie Brealy, the aim is to equip you with tools and techniques to put stress back in its box. While it’s not billed specifically as a weight loss regime, losing pounds and inches is pretty much guaranteed.  ‘It’s not the emphasis of the retreat but it’s a nice by-product,’ says Juls.  ‘We have seen women lose four inches from their waist in just five days.’

I drive down a maze of tiny Somerset lanes to reach my home for the next four nights – a comfortable, stylish modern house set in the middle of fields. The silence is bewitching.  Groups are kept purposely small (no more than six) and, with our bedrooms all tagged with our names, it has the feel of a very luxurious boarding school.  Sitting on big sofas, sipping mugs of herbal tea, Juls explains that the programme revolves around four pillars – behaviour, exercise, nutrition and R&R (rest and relaxation). 

 

She explains that, while a certain amount of stress in life is fine, when stress becomes chronic our hormones fall out of balance.  For example, the stress hormone cortisol is naturally released throughout the day.  It should be at its highest in the mornings on waking – to help you wake up and get up, and should gradually taper off through the day so you can fall asleep at night.  However chronic stress not only increases overall cortisol levels but also disrupts the natural cortisol cycle with a whole series of knock-on effects, raising blood sugar levels, making you crave sugar, reducing your ability to burn fat, increasing the speed at which you store fat and causing other hormones and neurochemicals to fall out of sync.  Above all, this cascade of reactions causes fat to be stored around the abdomen – giving you the typical stress belly, but it also making your liver fatty. 

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So the retreat kicks off with a gentle detox to help support the liver.  Days start early, with a gentle knock on our bedroom doors, and a cheery ‘Good Morning’ (no stressy alarm calls required). We wander out, in our bath-robes, to take a mug of hot lemon before withdrawing to our rooms to sip our drinks and engage in a good session of body brushing (to help the detox effect). 

Then it’s downstairs where Julie puts us through a short sharp burst of circuit training.  She explains that although there is a lot of exercise here (about five hours a day) it’s all either low intensity (long walks out in the surrounding lanes and fields, yoga, Pilates) or concentrated bouts of higher intensity exercise.  My two-hour exercise frenzies are doing me no favours, she says.  More than 45 minutes of intense exercise spikes cortisol levels and panics the body into laying down abdominal fat. 

After our workout, there’s twenty minutes in the sauna (more detoxing) and a quick splash in the pool before breakfast. 

The food is delicious here and surprisingly plentiful.  It’s all about balancing hormones and blood sugar levels, so there are three main meals a day and three small snacks in between.  Portions are never exactly huge, but you don’t really feel hungry.

The penny starts to drop.  I’m eating too little and exercising too hard.

I’d expected hours of lounging around, chilling, but the days pass in a blur of activity and a slew of different classes from both Julie and visiting experts. The idea is that you aren’t left on your own to worry about your stress.  In between there are talks on nutrition, mindfulness and stress in general, including a visit from nutritional therapist Kate Delmar-Morgan.  When we do have the odd hour or two free, we all (without exception) fell asleep.  Mindfulness is another major component of the retreat with dedicated sessions teaching us how to focus on being in the now.  ‘It’s all about building new healthy habits,’ says Juls.  ‘Little changes accumulate.  I like to think about little steps leading to big changes.’

A session of bodywork is included (from superb local therapist Pippa Canney) and every day ends with a dedicated ‘sleep hypnotherapy’ session with Juls.  We get ready for bed and snuggle up in blankets on sofas and are guided into a deep state of relaxation during which Juls gently persuades us to focus on making healthy, helpful changes.  At the end of the session, we’re silently ushered off to our rooms and can fall straight into bed and deep restful sleep.  Good sleep is another vital factor in combating stress and weight gain.  Sleep deprivation also elevates cortisol levels and, just to make it worse, research has found that even one night of sleep loss can increase your appetite. 

I came to realise that, whenever I visit a spa or retreat, I find myself stressing about what I’m supposed to be doing or where I’m supposed to be, but that feeling vanished here.  Everything is organised for you, leaving you free to relax, totally.  It is a wonderful feeling.

My parting consultation with Julie was a revelation.  I’d lost an incredible eight pounds in weight; six inches in total from my hips, waist and chest and two percent body fat. My fellow retreaters lost equally impressive amounts (our average was seven pounds).  But, more importantly, we’d learned absolutely invaluable lessons about how to deal with stress and how to lose the bloat.

 

Losing stress and losing weight – the low-down and skinny…

As the retreat showed you can lose a lot of weight very swiftly.  But Juls points out that, to make real inroads into beating the stress bulge, you need to take a longer viewpoint. ‘Studies suggest that it can take up to six weeks to lose visceral fat while laid-down subcutaneous fat can take up to six months to shift.  But you can shift it.’  These are the Body Retreat’s top tips for shifting stress weight.

FACTOR ONE:  DIET

  • Reduce dairy, wheat and red meat which are hard for the body to digest.
  • Ideally cut out foods which stress the liver, such as alcohol, sugar and all processed food (or cut right down).
  • Cut out caffeine which stresses the adrenal glands.  Use herbal teas instead. 
  • Have regular ‘detoxes’ – allowing your internal organs the chance to rest and recover.
  • Keep your meals balanced – a sensible mix of vegetables, protein, low GL carbohydrates and ‘good’ fat.
  • Eating regularly throughout the day balances blood sugar levels. Think in terms of three balanced meals and three small snacks.
  • Keep hydrated. Water helps to dilute toxins, increases energy levels and mental clarity. It also helps you feel full so you don’t overeat. But drink water separately from meals as it dilutes digestive enzymes and stomach acid.

 

FACTOR TWO: EXERCISE

  • High intensity training is the most powerful tool for losing fat in general.  But think in terms of short sharp busts.  Two 8-10 minute sessions five days a week are ideal.  Investigate HIT or Tabata training. 
  • Also ensure you have at least 30 minutes of low intensity physical exercise every day. 

 

FACTOR THREE: BEHAVIOUR

  • Recognise that it’s okay to take the time and effort to respect and protect your body – it’s not selfish or a waste of time.  If you feel uncomfortable with this, maybe talk to a counsellor.
  • Start becoming mindful – even if it’s only for a few seconds every day. Practice mindful eating – being aware of each mouthful.
  • People who think they’re stressed, are stressed. Reinforce the thoughts, ‘I can cope. I have strategies that can help.’
  • Make sleep a priority.  Find behavioural patterns that work for you. Maybe having a bath with oils before bed, or listening to a relaxation track.

FACTOR FOUR: R&R

  • Work on building your relaxation reflex so you can switch it on whenever you feel stress.  Start by making time each week to do something you find relaxing (take a long walk in the park, a deep soak with aromatherapy oils, or have a massage).
  • Make time twice a day simply to take three long slow deep breaths (this relaxes the diaphragm and stills your mind just long enough to begin to build up your reflex).

 

Super smoothie

The Body Retreat loves smoothies.  ‘They take pressure off the digestive system and allow the nutrients to be easily used by the body,’ says Juls. But she warns that they need to be vegetable based – and keep them small in size.  This Super V8 smoothie is a stalwart of the Stress Reset retreat. Serves one.

4 sticks celery

1/2 cucumber

1/2 bag baby spinach

1 large handful parsley

1/2 baby gem lettuce

2 kale leaves

handful seedless grapes

1 heaped tsp of Matcha Powder (not essential but this give an extra boost of antioxidant power to your smoothie)

Blitz in a blender just before drinking. Sip it slowly and mindfully.

 

A Stress-reset retreat (4 nights) costs from £1,350 for a shared room in Somerset.  The Body Retreat also runs dedicated weight loss, fitness and detox retreats in the UK and Spain.  See www.thebodyretreat.co.uk for full details.

Jane Alexander is the author of The Detox Plan and The Detox PackThe Detox Plan is now updated and available for Kindle

 

This feature first appeared in Natural Health magazine.  (c) Jane Alexander

 

 

 

 

 

McTimoney Chiropractic – no pain, all gain

May 30, 2014

The first time I saw a chiropractor I thought I was going to die.  She took my head between her hands and, without warning, gave my neck a sharp twist.  It felt like the kind of movement a butcher would use to break a chicken’s neck: there was a ghastly crack, the blood rushed into my face and for several ghastly moments I thought my chips were down.  Both chiropractic and osteopathy are best known for their “bone-crunching” techniques – the high-velocity thrusts which cause the terrifying cracks and crunches.  Although nowadays many practitioners use far less invasive techniques, if you want a iron-clad guarantee that manipulation won’t hurt, search out a McTimoney chiropractor.

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The McTimoney method seems to offer all the benefits of traditional chiropractic and osteopathy without the trauma.  It’s a whole body form of manipulative treatment which uses a gentle technique to achieve harmony in the body.  Like conventional chiropractic it is superlative for any form of joint pain or back trauma but patients often find other problems, such as headaches, period pains and digestive ailments also tend to clear up.

John McTimoney, the originator of the system, started his working life as a silversmith and an illustrator.  However one day, in the 1950s, he fell from a ladder and lost the use of one arm.  He went to a standard chiropractor in Banbury called Mary Walker, received treatment and rapidly recovered.  Highly impressed by the cure, he willingly switched career, trained with Walker and swiftly turned into an extraordinary healer.  He loved the effects of chiropractic but considered that the system could be even better.  Firstly he was convinced that the whole person should be treated, rather than just the part that was causing problems and secondly he didn’t see why the treatment should be uncomfortable or stressful in any way.  By experimenting he found he could achieve the same, if not better results, by very gentle techniques and in 1972 he started teaching his form of chiropractic to students.  John McTimoney died in 1980 but his students took up the banner and in 1982 opened their own school to teach his work.  Now there are hundreds of practitioners in the UK alone.

McTimoney chiropractor Jacquie Thomas loves it because, as she puts it, “This way of working allows the body very much to direct the course of the healing, rather than the practitioner overriding it.”  As with many other systems of complementary medicine, McTimoney teaches that our bodies are always striving to regain their health, that they are always working towards healing.  The problem is that, over the years, we force our bodies into unnatural patterns.  We have falls or accidents,  wear crippling shoes, sit all day cramped over desks or slumped in a car seat.  Emotional factors take their toll too:  hurts and embarrassments, grief and anger can all be stored uncomfortably in the very physical structure of the body.  However, whatever strains and stresses we put on our bodies, they are always desperately trying to keep in a line with gravity. 

As Jacquie explains, “Say you always carry a heavy bag on one shoulder.  The shoulder moves up and the muscles will pull over.  However your head will move over so it still sits in the centre of gravity.  To compensate for that shift, your pelvis will shift the other way.”  Hence many of us are walking round with curves in our spines.  They are slight and unnoticeable to the untrained eye, but still enough of a curve to cause the odd twinges and pains.  The McTimoney chiropractor aims to release those old patterns of holding, to wipe out the bad habits that have been overlaid on our ideal structure so our bodies can return to their healthy blueprint.

A session always starts with a very full case history. Jacquie worked through several pages of questions, asking about past accidents and illnesses, operations and falls.  Had I had any breaks or fractures, sprains or strains?  Was I on any medication and did I have any current medical problems?  She also asked for the name and address of my GP.  Like standard chiropractors and osteopaths, McTimoney practitioners often work closely with orthodox doctors and consultants.  And, although McTimoney is not, sadly, available on the NHS many private healthcare insurance plans will now cover treatment.  The questioning didn’t stop at standard medical queries:  she also wanted to know about my sleep, my stress levels, my working conditions and my sleep patterns.  “We look at the body as a whole,” says Jacquie, “McTimoney looks at all aspects of health, not just the fact that you may have a back pain.”  She often sends her patients off with homework – postural exercises to correct bad habits and, if she feels it is necessary, she will refer patients to a nutritionist because, as she says, “there is no doubt that diet does affect some musculo-skeletal problems.”

While we talked, Jacquie was marking potential problem areas on a diagram of the human body.  In my case she pinpointed the neck, pelvis, knees and ankles but stressed that although she would focus on these areas she would be checking me from “your skull right down to your toes.” 

Before I even moved onto the couch she explained precisely how McTimoney works.  The main technique used is called the toggle recoil.  Basically this involves the practitioner using one hand as a nail and the other as a hammer.  The hands are held over the precise joint that needs treating and the “hammer” is brought down sharply on the “nail” with a slight twist.  “It’s a bit like spinning a top and flicking it at the same time to set it moving,” says Jacquie.  The effect is to change the tension surrounding the joint that has been “toggled”.  For a split second the joint is freed:  the adjustment is so fast that it outwits the surrounding muscle which doesn’t have time to clamp fast into a protective spasm.  The result is that the muscles are able to relax and then take up a more normal tension.  Because many of our holding patterns have been in place for years, most people tend to see practitioners around six times to allow the joints to settle back permanently into their natural balance.

Theory over, it’s time for the bodywork.  Jacquie asked me to strip to underwear, remove any jewellery and to sit on the couch for a preliminary scan over my spine.  Then I lay on my left side for the first adjustment.  Working just behind my ear, I felt her hands come down on my skin with a clapping sound.  It didn’t hurt at all – it felt rather like being lightly swatted.  

She moved on over my neck and then the pelvis – the two extremes of the spine are always worked first.  Then she worked down to the knees, ankles and toes, then up to the arms.  McTimoney has special techniques to ease problems like RSI, tennis elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome – my overworked fingers were pulled and stretched and felt quite liberated.  Then she moved onto my collarbone where one of the costal cartilages (which attaches the rib to the sternum) had popped free – Jacquie simply popped it back, again totally painlessly.  Then she finished off by checking my face and skull.  Treatments end with a swift rubbing down to bring you back to earth and, as I sat up, Jacquie appraised me once more.  A couple more toggles – a bit like an artist adding the final finishing touches to a painting – and I was allowed to dress. 

Some people apparently find the McTimoney touch too gentle; almost as if “if it doesn’t hurt, it can’t be working”.  As I walked out, I could certainly feel that something had happened to my body – it felt more relaxed, easier in itself.  No pain, no gain?  Give me the gentle touch every time.

 

For further information on McTimoney and to find a local practitioner click here.

Watsu – water shiatsu that takes you back to childhood

April 29, 2014

Watsu is a deep, powerful and curious form of bodywork.  A long, intense, intimate session of massage and manipulation techniques, carried out while you float in (or even under) a warm pool, watsu promises to heal you in mind, body and spirit.  Fans claim it has remarkable regenerative qualities; that it can release stress, muscle tension and pain like no other treatment.  They also say that it can equally release emotional anguish, giving you back a sense of childhood innocence and joy.

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Watsu was the brainchild of Harold Dull, an American poet who became fascinated with shiatsu, the Japanese acupressure massage and stretching therapy.  Having studied in San Francisco and Japan in the 70s he wanted to combine the therapeutic effects of shiatsu with the healing properties of water.  At first he tried giving massage on a padded board set up in a hot tub but when he moved to Harbin Hot Springs in California he soon realised that he could achieve far better, far deeper effects by floating his client in water, working on their body while cradling the head above water.  His watsu techniques had such good results that they were taken up by the Timpany Center in San Jose where the therapy is still used to help people who are severely mentally, emotionally and physically disabled.

In its native California watsu is generally performed naked.  But elsewhere it’s more common to wear swimsuits.  You get changed and before you enter the pool, the practitioner will ask you a series of questions. Having completed the health check you descend into the pool.  The practitioner takes your head in his or her hands and asks you to lie back, relax and float.  Throughout a watsu session you are encouraged to breath deeply and evenly, using your mouth alone, and to keep your eyes gently closed. The breathing can feel a little unnatural to begin with and  some people find it strange and even a little embarrassing being cradled in water by a virtual stranger.  But the feeling generally passes and many people find that time vanishes. Because the water is so supportive your body can be stretched much further than would be possible on dry land.  There is a wonderful sense of release came as you are stretched, rocked and manipulated.  Sometimes, however, watsu can be quite painful as stubborn tension is unknotted.

Many people find that when they leave the pool they are far more flexible and can bend far further than normal.  It’s also quite common to feel emotionally moved and even quite tearful.  Being held so closely, particularly by a stranger, is simply not part of our culture.

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Research has shown watsu to have a host of benefits.  Water takes the weight off the vertebrae and relaxes the muscles so the practitioner can move the spine in ways that would be impossible on land.  The effect is far greater freedom and mobility in the body. Tests have also shown watsu influences the body in other ways too:  it decreases muscular tension, increases superficial circulation and lymphatic function; strengthens the immune system and can aid digestion and respiratory difficulties.  “It’s excellent for the later stages of pregnancy,” says watsu practitioner Hilary Austin, “because it’s so relaxing and water is so supportive.”

Many people find watsu helps insomnia and anxiety, that it can release deeply-held stress and improve posture.  In California it has been used successfully to help people with addictions and, paradoxically, it can even help people get over a fear of water.  It has profound effects on an emotional level – particularly for people who have intimacy issues.  Harold Dull insists that the close contact between practitioner and client is an essential aspect of the therapy; that it allows for the deep emotional healing that can take place. UK practitioner Elaine Artney says that many people find that the close, nurturing touch, brings up old memories – sometimes good, sometimes bad.  She also notes that watsu can be very helpful for people who are already undergoing psychotherapy or personal development work:  “It works as a catalyst,” she says, “it speeds up the process.”  Watsu has been used with great success on sufferers of abuse.

Scottish practitioner Mari MacRitchie has used the therapy very successfully with children who have physical or mental disabilities.  “It’s a wonderful experience for children who are otherwise confined to a wheelchair,” she says.

Watsu can be used safely on most people (whatever their age or size) but practitioners need to know whether clients are pregnant (certain moves aren’t used) or have spinal problems, implants or any serious health or psychological problems.  Some people who suffer from motion sickness find watsu uncomfortable and it cannot be used when there are open wounds, skin conditions or infectious diseases.

Sessions usually last one or two hours.  There is no set number of sessions:  some people have just one, others a course.

For more information, see the website www.watsu.com

 

Images from beta.soulscode.com and dukecityfix.com

 

Trager – maximum effortlessness and freedom from pain

April 29, 2014

Trager ® or Trager Psychophysical Integration (to give it its full name) is a gentle system of bodywork whose predominant goal is to make life easier, more comfortable, more pleasurable.  It helps you build up deep stores of energy and vitality and yet keeps you calm and centred.  In a typical session you receive several thousand light, rhythmical touches and come off the couch feeling like a child that’s been rocked in its mother’s arms.

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The history of this deeper-than-deep relaxation treatment started back in the 1930s.  Milton Trager was a young boxer and acrobat, living in Miami and training his super-athletic body.  He was always pushing himself to the limits, aiming to jump the highest, the farthest, the best.  Then one day he suddenly had a completely different thought.  “How can I land softer?” he pondered.  Then, “How could I land the softest?”  His whole philosophy changed overnight – from aiming for maximum effort he sought instead maximum effortlessness, how to become ever lighter and easier and softer and freer.   He discovered he could introduce the same feeling of ease and comfort to others by means of gentle rocking and stretching – it became his life work.

Over the next forty years he perfected Trager.  Keen to put his ideas on a firm scientific footing, he trained and qualified as a medical doctor.  However even throughout his training he was tending people and was given his own clinic where he treated those with polio and other neuro-muscular problems with near-miraculous results.

Basically Trager is a form of bodywork which involves gentle stretching, rocking, rolling, bouncing and “shimmering” – a swift but soft stroking movement over the body. “It’s extremely soothing for the central nervous system,” says practitioner Jill Dunley, “the rocking movements take people into a comfort zone, into a very deep state of relaxation.”

Nothing is forced with Trager, nothing hurts, nothing is remotely uncomfortable or embarrassing. “Rather than trying to go in and fix problems, we try to show the body how it could be more comfortable, more flexible, more easy,” says practitioner Agni Eckroyd, “it’s like talking to the mind within the body.”

Before a Trager session you will be asked a few questions about your general health. Then you will be asked to lie on a couch wearing whatever makes you feel comfortable.  Most people eventually end up in underwear but practitioners will happily work with you fully clothed. The first movements cradle your head and neck, gently rocking, stretching and flexing.  Within minutes you might find the vertebrae of your neck popping themselves into position quite naturally and painlessly.  The session generally floats by like a delicious dream.  Trager is very different from any other form of bodywork.  It does not use the oils or long strokes of aromatherapy; it does not press into the connective tissue as do Rolfing, Hellerwork or Looyenwork; it does not manipulate the skeletal system as do osteopathy and chiropractic.  But, although it is so very soft and gentle, it is not simply healing either.  “Trager is not a straight-on approach,” says Agni, “it’s a little like boxing.  You go round the side and air-box a little and then go in from a different angle.”  So, if an area is painful, the last thing a Trager practitioner would do would be to press or prod.  “If you encounter pain or tension you back off,” adds Jill, “you try another approach.”

Once you get off the couch, you are taught a few simple “exercises” or “Mentastics” as they are known.  Nothing arduous or remotely resembling physical jerks, these are simply little reminders of how to sit, stand and move with ease – a way of continuing your Trager session into everyday life.

Despite the “softly softly” approach, Trager has quite definite physiological effects.  It can ease pain and often help to eliminate headaches; it also promotes greater joint flexibility.  The reverberations of the rocking movements echo right through the body and actually massage the internal organs and deep muscles.  It can help digestion because it tones the abdominal muscles. Equally beneficial is the effect on the blood circulation, lymph drainage and on the respiratory system.   On an emotional level it battles against stress, eases insomnia and can help you cope with the strain of modern living.  Regulars users say it gives them a sense of ease and peace combined with a charge of energy and vitality.

There are few contraindications for Trager as it is so gentle but practitioners don’t work with fresh injuries or for three months after surgery; are very careful during pregnancy and would not suggest the treatment in cases of advanced arthritis.  However they can adapt the treatment for most conditions and can even work on people in wheelchairs.

Training is rigorous and all practitioners are checked every year before having their certificates renewed.

Sessions usually last an hour or an hour and a half – but if someone is very weak, shorter sessions of 45 minutes are recommended.  Acute problems can often be eased in one session but chronic complaints benefit from a series of sessions – ideally once a week for six weeks.

For more information on Trager and to find practitioners see:  www.trager.com

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Bodywork image from vaihtoehtohoidot.fi

Simple ways to gain confidence

April 10, 2014

Confidence is the greatest gift under the sun.  When your confidence is high you can conquer the world.  You can take control of your life in every way: work goes swimmingly; relationships become more straightforward.  The world simply feels like a friendlier place.  Yet few of us have unlimited stores of self-confidence.   We are far more likely to suffer self-doubt and self-criticism than revel in self-adoration.  Why?  Generally it goes back to childhood when we picked up all those negative messages from a host of concerned grown-ups both at home and at school.  They told us it was a dangerous world out there; to be careful; to be prepared for the worst so we wouldn’t be too disappointed when it happened.  No wonder we grew up doubting ourselves.  But it’s never too late to learn new tricks to foster self-confidence.  The following methods can help anyone feel happier and more at ease in life.  Try them – you just might change your whole life.

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THE POWER OF POSITIVE THOUGHT:  “It’s a peculiar quirk of human nature to focus on failure,” says hypnotherapist Wendy Grant, author of Are You in Control (Element) who insists that the more we focus on our failures, the more likely we are to create them over and over again.  The key is to boost your self-image.  Focus on the things you do well and the things you have achieved, however small they might seem.  Write a list of everything you have achieved in your life – from learning to ride a bike to having a child.  It should be a pretty long list.   Remember, above all, says Wendy, that you are an individual:  “No one else can feel as you do; no one else has your sense of humour or your way of seeing things; no one else can even write your name exactly as you do.”  So stop comparing yourself to other people and live your life.

OILS TO BOOST YOUR SELF-ESTEEM:  Aromatherapy oils have powerful effects on your emotions as well as your physical body.  Some are particularly good at helping you feel better about yourself, more confident and more in control.  Aromatherapist Gabriel Mojay, author of Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit (Gaia) says, “One of the most effective aromatics for boosting self-confidence is rosemary oil…it warms and invigorates both the body and mind, uplifting the spirit and instilling inspiration.”

He also suggests laurel for low self-esteem; it’s great if you feel you’re not clever enough.   For low morale, Gabriel suggests thyme:  it helps overcome feelings of self-doubt and defeatism.  If you feel overwhelmed by an oppressive environment (perhaps at work) check out pine and hyssop oils.  If poor health has dented your confidence try tea tree.   Use a few drops of your chosen oil in a carrier oil for massage or an uplifting bath.  Alternatively put oils in a special burner and let the scent drift around you all day.  If you need to use the oils more subtly, pop a few drops on a tissue and sniff it throughout the day.

FLOWER REMEDIES – SUBTLE HEALERS:  Flower essences do not work on the physical body but on an energetic level, soothing emotions, invigorating and balancing our psyches.  The Bach remedies are the great-grandfather of flower essences, emerging around sixty years ago.  The classic Bach remedy for lack of self-confidence is Larch.  However many other remedies can help including Gentian (for despondency and discouragement); Cerato (doubting your self-judgment); Pine (for guilt and self-blame); Centaury (if you are timid and subservient).

The Australian Bush Flower remedies are also worth investigating.  Naturopath Ian White who developed the essences believes that the remedies can go right to the core of modern dilemmas such as lack of confidence and dislike of self.  Five Corners is perhaps the supreme confidence-booster, a wonderful remedy for low self-esteem, particularly if you have a bad body image or dislike yourself:  it teaches love and acceptance of self.  Dog Rose is useful if you are shy, insecure and apprehensive with other people; Flame Tree for people who constantly feel rejected; Red Grevillea if you depend too much on other people and are over-sensitive to criticism.  Sturt Desert Rose gives people the strength to be true to themselves and can ease guilt and low self-esteem.   Sunshine Wattle is superb for those who feel stuck in the past and always expect the worst from the future. 

VISUALISE SUCCESS:  Use the power of your own mind to help you become a new, confident person.  Ask yourself:  “What would happen if I were confident?”  Wendy Grant points out that you might have good reasons for staying the way you are – you might be afraid of losing friends, of being seen as bossy or self-opinionated.  Now start to imagine how you would be if you were supremely confident.  What would you do?  What would you wear?  What would you say?  Where would you be?  Imagine it in as much detail as you can.  If you find it hard to see yourself like that at this point, Wendy Grant suggests you create a picture of someone you know who demonstrates the confidence you admire.  “Imagine him or her doing something you would like to be able to do,” she suggests, “How do they approach it?  What body posture do they use?  What expression do you see on their face?  How do you think they are feeling at that moment?  Now imagine that you could slip inside their skin and experience doing that thing the way they do.  How does it feel?  After a while step outside, and with that new knowledge see yourself approaching the same task, challenge or goal.  You can do it!”

THE MIRACLE OF MASSAGE:   We actively need to be touched.  Research has found that massage can actually reduce depression and increase feelings of self-worth and self-esteem.  And it feels great too.  There’s no excuse for not having massage – if you can’t afford to see a professional, go to workshops or buy a video and learn the basic techniques yourself.  Get your partner or a friend to learn too and then swap massages.  There are any number of techniques – from the gentle strokes of aromatherapy massage (try the oils already mentioned) to the deep stretches of shiatsu.  Massage isn’t just a pampering session – it helps you feel good about your body, can release tension and is the best stress-buster going.  Professional bodyworkers also find that quite often old memories and the origins of self-doubt and lack of confidence can surface when they work on the body.  So massage can have a strong psychological effect, releasing old traumas and resolving unfinished business.  It doesn’t always happen – don’t automatically expect to relive your birth trauma at your next massage – but it’s quite possible.

SELF-HYPNOSIS – HARNESS YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS:  Wendy Grant suggests the following self-hypnosis exercise to build confidence.

a) Make yourself comfortable and relax.  Focus on something in front of you (a picture, lamp, mark on the wall) and begin counting backwards from 500 to yourself.  Continue counting until your eyes feel tired and want to close. Let them go and stop counting. Check you are totally relaxed right through your body. 

b)  Choose something you would like to be able to do, if only you had the confidence.  Make sure it is something you really want to happen.

c)  Place it to one side for now and think instead of something you know you do really well – it might be baking cakes, gardening, ironing a shirt, cleaning the car.  Imagine doing that task now and notice exactly how you are feeling as you do it…perhaps you are so relaxed you hardly have to think about it.  Imagine completing the task and experience how good you feel when it’s done.

d) Now, taking your new goal, picture yourself doing it in the same way, easily, successfully.  Use the same expression, the same easy, relaxed attitude, the same calm assurance.  Picture it now….

e) Say quietly to yourself:  “This is how I am going to …..[insert your goal].  I can do it.  I am confident.  I will succeed.”  Take your time and enjoy the sense of achievement.

f)  Count slowly backwards from five to one, open your eyes and come back to normal consciousness with a wonderful feeling of confidence in your own ability.

g)  Repeat this exercise daily until you get the results you want. Remind yourself often of your own achievements and goals.

GET PHYSICAL:  Feeling good in your body is one of the key steps to feeling confident.  Few of us are perfect with the face of a model and a drop-dead gorgeous body but we can learn to love our physical selves nonetheless.  If you don’t already exercise think about starting a regime:  you could join a gym, sign up for exercise classes or simply start a walking or swimming programme.  Start small and slowly build up – if you do half an hour of exercise three times a week you will see a world of difference within six weeks.  If you hate regular exercise take up dancing, yoga, t’ai chi or a martial art.  Martial arts in particular will give you an enormous sense of self-worth and a huge dose of confidence as you start to realise you can take care of yourself in any situation.  You’ll be amazed how quickly you turn from super-wimp into wonderwoman.

USE AFFIRMATIONS TO ACHIEVE SUCCESS:  Dr Herbert Benson, a leading doctor at Harvard University Medical School in the USA, has found that our thoughts produce actual physical reactions in the body.  We are what we think.  Many new age teachers like Louise Hay and Sondra Ray have been saying the same thing for years.  They use affirmations to create new states of confidence and success.  The process is really simple.  Pick a statement that expresses what you want to achieve.   It has to be totally positive and include your name.  So, for instance, it might read “I Jane, now choose to be supremely confident.”   Write out the phrase twenty times every day for at least ten days.  Each time you write the phrase think about what you have written and scribble down your response, your gut reaction to the phrase.  So you might find yourself writing.  “What rubbish.”  or “I’m hopeless when I meet new people.”  As you keep going you may find you get fresh insights into why you aren’t confident or where your confidence has been battered in the past.  Persist with the exercise and you should notice surprising results.

 

BECOME ASSERTIVE:  “To succeed in life, to get things done, to prevent people walking all over us, it is sometimes necessary to be assertive,” says Wendy Grant.  Becoming assertive, even in the tiniest ways, can really boost your self-esteem and hence your confidence.  Wendy suggests that you start to become assertive in everyday situations.  “Ask yourself, if you were in the position of the other person, would you want someone to tell you?” she says, “If you had sold inferior goods, would you rather the customer brought them back or lose that customer?  If something you had said (or done) was causing anger or hurt, would you not want that person to tell you so that the situation could be resolved.”  Start seeing being assertive as something really positive – for other people as well as for yourself.

FIND YOUR VOICE:  When we’re nervous or shy our voices tend to shrink, to become high and squeaky.  We stutter and stammer and lose our words.  Finding your true voice and learning how to use it to its full potential has a subtle yet powerful effect:  when you use your voice fully, you immediately sound more forceful and important.  People start to treat you with more respect and that, in turn, boosts your sense of self-esteem. So spend some time with your voice.  Voice trainers and sound therapists often give workshops but you can do a lot on your own.  Start singing:  join in with the radio or a favourite download.  Find what pitch you feel happy with and really belt out the songs.  As you continue you’ll find you start to breathe more fully and deeply – you have to or you won’t be able to sustain the notes.  Use this natural, slow, deep breathing when you talk too.  If you feel anxious or nervous practice humming – just sit quietly and let the hum resonate through your body.  It’s very soothing.  You can sing your affirmations too:  try short daft ones like “I’m great, I’m great, I’m utterly utterly great.”  Or “Listen to me, listen to me, I’ve got a right to be heard.”  Belt them out as if you were on The Voice.

 (c) Jane Alexander

 

The Natural Year begins…living in tune with the seasons

February 27, 2014

ImageI loved writing The Natural Year. The aim was to produce a book that would act as a friend throughout the year, not badgering or hectoring, but offering suggestions, inspiration, helpful ideas. Whether you want to overhaul your entire life, or just tweak it here and there, the book will hopefully provide a springboard for shift.  It’s a bit of a smorgasbord really, with tips and techniques culled from traditions all around the world, from the myriad teachers and guides I met when I was writing a weekly column for the Daily Mail on natural health.  

Anyhow, here’s a section from the beginning of the book.  Although you can start the book at any point in the year, I kicked off in March, at the start of spring. To my mind, each season has a different focus and, for me, spring is…

THE SEASON OF THE BODY

KEY FOCUS:  Getting in touch with your body, playing with your relationship with your physical self.

SECONDARY FOCUS:  Starting to think about your life.

CHALLENGES:  Introducing a healthy diet; starting to exercise; cleansing, toning the body, boosting the lymphatic system, becoming more flexible.

QUESTIONS:  How mind I like to live my life? How do I want to treat my body? Am I willing to take responsibility for my health?

CHALLENGES:   Dare to pamper yourself; dance to discover your emotions; try seemingly irrational exercises!

FESTIVALS AND CELEBRATIONS:  Spring Equinox, Easter, Beltane

Everything seems possible in spring.  This is the young year, the growing year, the season of buds and blossom, of lambs and all young things.  It is, to my mind, the perfect time to turn over a fresh leaf, to start anew.  Spring is the season of hope, of fresh life and new beginnings.  It’s as if each year we get another stab at getting it right or, at least, getting it better. 

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After the darkness of winter, the days start to get longer and this change in light triggers a deep shift in nature – everything begins to come back to life and vigour.  Catkins appear on hazel trees and pussy willow, bluebells cast a hazy sheen through dappled woods, primroses cling to steep mossy banks and larks soar and fall over the ploughed fields.  Even within towns and cities, the onrush of spring can be seen in the bright cheery faces of daffodils and other spring bulbs and the frenzied nest-building of sparrows, pigeons and their other city friends.  You don’t even need to see visible signs of spring:  just stop and sniff the air, there’s something fresh about it, a new energy has arrived into the year.

Spring is pure physicality – it’s the season of the body and the perfect time to start a program to bring you into peak fitness.  Take it slowly, one step at a time, and you can alter forever the way you look and feel.  Spring is the time when we need to cleanse and detoxify our bodies, to clear out the debris that has accumulated during the relative inactivity of winter.  It’s a time to start looking closely at how we feed our bodies; a time to decide on changes that will help our bodies serve us better.  You can lose weight now but it’s not the best time of year to launch into a fully-fledged weight-loss regime.  Your body has just come out of its winter hibernation and needs to be cleansed and then fortified, tonified.   Far better to spend spring easing yourself into good, honest healthy eating, to cut out toxins and junk food and then launch into weight loss proper (if that is what you truly need) in the summer.

Equally, although spring might seem like the perfect time to change your entire life, it’s not a good idea to overturn it right now.  Spring is great for deciding upon your focus for the year but it is not necessarily the best moment to kick in your job on whim or to make sweeping life changes.  It’s the time to start thinking about what you want from life; to consider what you might need to change.  But leave the implementation of those changes until that other dynamic season, autumn. 

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How would you like to see your body?  How would you like to feel in your body?  Really think about it.  Do you know, in your heart of hearts, that you eat the wrong food, too much food, too much junk food, too little food, too little fruit and veg and fibre?  Think about what you’re putting in your body.  Think about how all your internal organs, all your bodily systems, pounce on the food you put inside you and try to obtain the nutrients they need to make you function properly.  Do you give them a fair chance?  Or are they scrabbling around trying to keep you going on a pile of empty calories, a sickly wodge of sugar and a dead weight of salt?   This spring the aim is to make friends with your body so the least you can do is give it the bare essentials it needs.  Try to follow the healthy eating guidelines given in the book.

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What about exercise?  Think about the muscles of your body – not just your pecs and biceps but your heart and your lungs.  Exercise on a regular basis strengthens the whole body.  Think about it. 

What changes could you make right now?  What changes do you want to make over the following year?  Make a list of everything you would like to improve or change and give yourself a time scale.  Also write down how you would do it.  For example if you want to start exercising your list might read:

GOAL:  improve physical fitness.  Be able to run for the bus without gasping.  Be able to play netball and go jogging again.

HOW?  RIGHT NOW:  walk up escalator every day on way to work.  Look up gyms and sports centres in yellow pages and check out membership/facilities.

OVER THE NEXT MONTH:  join gym and start regular workouts. 

WHEN THE WEATHER IMPROVES:  fix bike and start cycling to work.  Get outside in lunch-hour – maybe start walking or jogging.

IN THREE MONTHS TIME/WHEN FITNESS LEVELS IMPROVE:  join team for netball.

Again, don’t try to do it all at once.  But do do it.

THE SEASON OF WOOD AND THE EVIL WIND

In the Chinese system spring is the season of the element wood and it is filled with the expansive, explosive energy of young yang.  Young yang is boundless energy but can be reckless, impulsive, impatient.  It is like an adolescent, straining at the bit, wanting to race out and make a mark in the world but not quite sure of his or her own limits.  Wood makes us feel that we need free expression, to find our own way, to try new things and meet new people.  It is open and energetic and can lead to great enthusiasm and new endeavors.  However it can also become out of control and can lead to the feeling of “spring fever”, obsessive, undisciplined mania.  It’s unpredictable – think of mad March hares, April showers, sudden heatwaves that vanish equally suddenly in squalls and sleeting rain, the sneaky frost that can devastate your garden overnight.   Spring is also, quite naturally, the season of sex and sexuality.  It is the season of procreation in the natural world and, just because we can mate at any time of the year does not mean we are not moved by the primal seasonal urges.  Lust rises in spring – it is the time for starting relationships or recommitting to old ones.

The colour associated with wood is, unsurprisingly, green.  The  direction that governs the spring is east which also rules the beginning of the day, the morning.  The secondary element the Chinese associate with spring is wind.  Wind is the fresh air of spring, that whisks away the old and sweeps in the new.  But too much wind can be harmful and the Chinese say that the great danger of spring comes from the wind “evil”.  If we are balanced and healthy then the wind can do us no harm.  However if our energy is low or stagnant then we might not be able to cope with the fluctuation in the external energies of wind and wood – the troublesome wind can invade the body and throw yin and yang into even more imbalance.  The result is that we go down with colds and flus, coughs and snuffles, hot sweats or even more serious ailments.  Some practitioners of TCM say that the wind evil is allowed free rein in our modern world through central heating and air conditioning because they shock our bodies and don’t allow them to adapt to the outside conditions.  Microwaves and radiation equally come under attack but then no-one would suggest that radiation is particularly healthy. 

Avoiding any of these evils is pretty difficult nowadays, unless you live in a cave up an isolated hill.  But there are ways to minimize the damage:

*  Fortify your body with good clean food.  Avoid sweets, soft drinks and snacks made from refined sugar and steer clear of junk food, deep-fried food and over-processed foods.

*  Take a daily good quality multi-vitamin and mineral supplement.

*  As far as possible don’t shock your body by plunging from extreme heat to extreme cold.  Wear a sweater or a vest rather than turning the heat up high.

*  Install an ionizer in your home and office – particularly if you live in a large town or city.

*  Keep a window open, especially at night.  If you can avoid sleeping with air conditioners or central heating do so.  Try using a fan to generate cool air.  Time your heating so it comes on an hour before you get up rather than being on all night.

*  Practice the techniques of good breathing.  The Chinese recommend qi gong breathing exercises be carried out every day and say that twenty minutes of qi gong will re-establish your energy levels, enrich your blood, soothe the nervous system and the endocrine system and put your autonomous nervous system into the calming, restful parasympathetic mode.  Practitioners of yoga would say the same for their practice of pranayama, which teaches the art of good breathing.  There are plenty of vid clips on YouTube or, for best results, join a yoga or qi gong class and learn how to do it in absolutely the right way.

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Read more in The Natural Year - now updated and available in Kindle format. 

I also post seasonal tips and recipes on my Pinterest board here.

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What the breast cancer survivors advise…

February 26, 2014

Some things the doctors and websites simply won’t tell you.  In the course of writing a feature for the Irish Daily Mail, I talked to several breast cancer survivors for their honest, straight-from-the-hip advice on what to do, what to avoid and what to look out for if you get a diagnosis of breast cancer.  This is what they said…

  1. Look abroad.  Foreign medical websites are often better than homegrown ones for up-to date information .  Breast Cancer Online (www.bco.org) is aimed at healthcare professionals – ignore the bit that says it’s ‘not suitable for nonprofessional readers’ – why shouldn’t you read what the doctors are reading?  Breast Cancer Network Australia www.bcna.org.au is a patient website but it has good resources and is not as cloying as many sites. Their Messages of Hope and Inspiration download is great.
  2. Prepare for lymphoedema. It’s pretty common after surgery or radiation treatment and if treated early can be better contained and controlled. Ensure someone who knows that they’re doing measures the volume of both your arms before surgery and records the results (keep a record yourself too).  It’s done by measuring at 4cm intervals from wrist to armpit. Some hospitals do this routinely but some don’t.
  3. Move. Advice on movement after surgery has changed. Use minimal movement for the first week to aid healing and then start gentle physio exercises.
  4. Check out MLD.  MLD (manual lymphatic drainage) can be of enormous help if you do get lymphoedema. A trained practitioner can also teach you how to do it yourself .  See www.mldireland.com
  5. Do exercise. Exercise is great for breast cancer because it helps you sleep, it cheers you up, it helps control your weight and it gets you into a new exercise habit after your life has been disrupted. They used to say you shouldn’t do much exercise – and certainly not lift weights – but that’s now been overturned.
  6. Kinesiotaping is amazing.  You may have seen athletes wearing strange brightly coloured bands on shoulders or legs –it’s known as kinesiotape and can be of enormous help if you develop lymphoedema following radiation or breast removal.  www.kinesiotaping.co.uk can put you in touch with practitioners.
  7. Think ahead. Make sure your hospital keeps the cancerous tissue they extract from you. As treatments are developed and refined for specific genetic versions of breast cancer, in the future you may need to know precisely which type you had to get tailored treatment.
  8. Keep records. Insist on keeping copies of all your test results and notes. Many hospitals are still poor at record keeping and important information could get lost.
  9. Check your tests. If you go private for your care, make sure they aren’t doing unnecessary tests and treatments (they’re like the garage – will do everything, even if you don’t need it). If you’re in the state system, check the opposite – that you aren’t missing out on the best or latest treatments.
  10. Watch your immune system. Chemo destroys your immune system. There is a very expensive drug called Neulasta (Pegfilgrastim) which (if given after each chemo) protects you from infection.  Make sure you’re offered it.  Bear in mind that many cancer patients on chemo die from ‘underlying medical conditions’ if there’s an outbreak of flu or legionella.
  11. Invest in soft front fastening bras. They are easy to put on, comfortable and great when you’re not moving much.  But once you start exercising, get a very good sports bra. Run Ireland (www.runireland.com) has good choices.
  12. Crop it. Chemo inevitably means hair loss (within the first three weeks of treatment). It’s much easier if you get your hair cropped very short before it starts to fall.
  13. Be wig-aware. Wigs are a waste of time if not properly fitted. Theatrical wigmakers are better at this than orthotics suppliers (who are not real hairdressers).  Real hair wigs are very expensive and you will need two – bear in mind they need as much styling and washing as your real hair. Theatrical wigmakers recommend acrylic wigs with a monofilament area to make the wig look more natural.
  14. Go a bit crazy.  Buy them longer than you need and have them cut and styled on you. Don’t buy it when your hair is long – it won’t fit when you’re bald.  Either buy two wigs the same or choose one that’s a bit wild – in colour or style. Breast cancer gives you the chance to be a crazy cancer lady if you want!
  15. Choose caps and scarves. Chemo makes you feel very hot and if you have breast cancer before your menopause the sudden loss of ovarian function (chemo kills them) will give you raging hot flushes. So find alternatives to wigs for those times (plus exercising and at night – heads get cold at night).  Muslim shops online sell great cotton caps or invest in a range of pretty scarves.  Turbans are another option but you may need to use padding underneath to make them look okay.
  16. Bald heads burn. It may be tempting to just bare your head to the world but bear in mind that chemo makes skin photosensitive so you can burn easily. Up the SPF.
  17. Ask for Als. The majority of breast cancers are hormone positive – either oestrogen (ER) or progesterone (PR). After surgery and sometimes after chemo and/or radio you will be offered anti-oestrogen drugs to prevent recurrence.  These tend to be Tamoxifem and Als (aromatase inhibitors). Tamoxifem can cause other cancers. Als are very effective but do have side effects – joint pains, UTIs and vaginal atrophy and hair thinning.  It wrecks your sex life!
  18. Demand silicon. You can get burns during radiotherapy and you should demand Mepitel silicon dressings. They make a massive difference to pain levels burns cause and how well the skin heals.
  19. Invest in Bio Oil.  Bio Oil is brilliant for scars.  Chemists stock it or buy online from www.inhealth.ie  MLD can also reduce scarring.
  20. Don’t blame yourself.  So many women beat themselves up if they get breast cancer. They feel guilty; like they’d done something wrong.  Yes, there are things that increase your risk but mostly it’s just down to luck. Shit happens.
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