Tag Archives: health

Touch and Health

Physical contact has a large impact on people. Mammals are tactile. There are all kinds of benefits to touch, if you can do it comfortably. Not being touched can add a lot of stressors. How we are touched by other people affects our sense of self, and our self esteem. My own experience is that being touched by people I feel close to helps to ease pain and tension in my body.

One of my first responses to social distancing was the realisation that there are people who matter to me a lot who I will not be able to hug for some time. There’s the heartbreaking possibility that there may be people I never get to hug again. I cannot use my body to comfort people who are fearful or otherwise distressed. There are people I would very much like to be able to hug close right now, and reassure in the way that only a hug can. But, they are safer if I don’t see them.

I have a lot of issues around touch. I don’t do it lightly or casually. For me, any kind of physical contact represents a fair amount of considered trust.

I am dealing with this by doing small visualisations. In the visualisation, it is a gentle, sunny day and I am meeting a friend. It is safe to meet them, and safe to hug them. Both of us are well. I hug them. I’m finding that running these little visualisations is helping me deal with my own fear, and with the pre-emptive grief I’m feeling because of that fear.


Isolation and mental health

There are reasons we use prisons as punishment and solitary confinement is considered especially harsh. Most humans are social creatures and isolation is bad for us. However, we’re faced with a pandemic that requires us to at least do some social distancing, and that for some people means as much isolation as possible in the hopes of survival. Isolation is bad for mental health, and depression also kills so there is a lot to consider here.

I’ve had a lot of firsthand experience of isolation impacting on my mental health. Living with a few other people does not reliably offset it, and it puts a lot of pressure on those people to provide emotional support. They might not be well enough resourced to do that. Isolation can feed anxiety and depression because there’s not enough to counteract it. There’s not enough positive reinforcement, counter-narrative to the distress, or distraction from it. If you have mental health problems already, being isolated with your own thoughts is hell.

If you start out mentally well and are isolated, you may be ok at first. However, you can still end up feeling unable to leave the house after a while. Boredom can slide you into depression. Apathy can take over, with loss of motivation, loss of joy in life, you do less, you feel worse, you cycle into depression.

Our minds and bodies are not separate systems. Poor mental health is poor health. It can often lead to choices that further undermine health. The things we do for short term comfort may only make our situations worse. The process is likely to be slow and it may not be obvious what’s happening if you haven’t dealt with it before.

Here are some suggestions. Having a voice and a face to communicate with helps – use online tools, use your phone, get the emotional intimacy of talking directly. If you don’t feel able to ask for help with being isolated, contact someone else and ask how they are doing. Rescuing each other often works best.  If there’s no one you can talk to, I find the radio helpful – it’s immediate, and feels more personal than television.

Think about who might be unable to communicate. Consider older relatives who aren’t tech savy. Make sure you know who of your friends is vulnerable. Who is old enough to be at extra risk? Who has underlying health conditions and may need to totally isolate? Who already suffers from anxiety? Don’t wait for them to ask for help. The nature of a mental health crisis usually makes it very hard indeed to ask for help. After all, people are dying out there, how can you approach your friends and family – who no doubt have their own problems – and ask them to give you some time because you are overwhelmingly sad? Mental health conditions are good at persuading sufferers that they are making a fuss and/or don’t deserve help anyway. Make the first move.


The politics of illness

I’ve been struck by the massive and wide reaching political implications of the coronavirus. There’s a lot to think about here.

Governments that put people before profit are clearly going to take better care of their people. Leaders who believe experts and take science seriously are going to be an advantage to their populations. Societies that organise for mutual aid and protection will do better than anywhere dominated by rampant capitalism. This may change how we think about politics and politicians.

Good leadership will reduce panic and focus people on what they can usefully do. Good information will help us stay safer, slow infection rates and protect the most vulnerable. Governments that don’t do that will put their people at risk.

There are many things we’re now looking at that we could have had all along – working from home, conferencing and studying from a distance, cutting back on travel. These are things that would always have helped disabled people. There will be no excuse moving forward, for not being a good deal more inclusive – clearly we can do this. These measures also reduce the need for travel, which has huge environmental implications and again, we should have been taking this seriously already.

Western countries that have been so intolerant of people fleeing war, famine and climate crisis need to get some perspective. If we look at our own responses to this threat, we might see people in other kinds of crisis in a more compassionate light. Many people around the world suffer a lot more, with considerably more stoicism and sense than white and reasonably comfortable panic buyers around the world have been demonstrating recently.

If your healthcare is free at the point of delivery, sick people won’t be afraid to come forward. People who are identified and treated are less of a risk to others. State funded healthcare is in everyone’s interests.

If you have good laws around work and sickness, people don’t have to work when sick. All diseases, coronavirus included, won’t spread as much when ill people are allowed to take time off to recover and not infect others. Flu kills a lot of people every year – there’s a lot we could do to reduce misery and suffering if we had a better work-health culture in the first place.

If we had universal basic income it would be really easy to shut down all non-essential work for a few weeks to reduce transmission.

The more structures, networks, systems etc your country has in place for taking care of people, the easier it is to respond to an emergency. If we focus on profit and efficiency, we pay for it in terms of resilience.

Coronavirus at its worst affects breathing. It is known to hit smokers hard. Clearly, air pollution will also create increased vulnerability. Our polluted commons make us much more vulnerable to diseases. We need to recognise that human health and planet health are the same thing.

Perhaps some good can come out of all of this. Perhaps we can start recognising how much we depend on each other. Health needs to be a collective concern. It needs to be framed within the health of our world as a whole. The politics of profit and growth are killing us, and this is just another example of that playing out. We need to change how we think, and stop treating people as expendable, and economic growth as a master to be served in all possible ways.


Making it all about you

“You’re making it all about you!” It’s an interesting accusation and one I’ve been on the wrong end of a few times in recent years. From my perspective, it tends to happen when I am unable to be a good resource for someone in the way that I have been. Now, most people if that happens, come back concerned about whatever’s knocked me about – because usually it means I’m ill. I hate letting people down, and I will push through as much as I can, but sometimes that’s not an option.

Sometimes I do indeed take the decision to make it all about me. Usually I do this when not doing so runs the risk of pushing me into serious dysfunction with either bodily health, or mental health. I do it to avoid burnout, to avoid spiralling towards suicidal thoughts, to deal with massive triggering experiences and suchlike. These are times when I think I should be entitled to make it all about me.

So usually when someone accuses me of making it all about me the answer is yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing and need to do. You might want more or better from me, but if I can’t afford it, I’m not giving it. If a person has ever claimed friendship, then I expect that to matter. It might be bloody inconvenient and they might have every reason to feel grumpy and let down, but friends do not ask friends to burn out for them. Of course sometimes it may be a failure to recognise that the situation is that serious and I may have done a bad job of explaining – because, you know… ill…

What’s the intended effect of saying ‘you are making it all about you?’ Is it to punish someone emotionally for not doing the things? Is it to try and get them to back down? I know in some circumstances this would have meant a grovelling apology was called for followed by jumping to do the things no matter what the cost. I don’t want to live like that, and I don’t want to deal with people who will not allow me to make it all about me now and then.

I have, in recent years, become a lot more suspicious of the people who get angry with me for being in difficulty. I’ve stopped assuming this is just because I am a terrible person and everyone is entitled to be cross with me. This is a consequence of spending most of my time with people who genuinely care about me, want me to be well, would be horrified if I broke myself running around after them, and who, if I express myself badly because I’m in trouble, will give me the space to come back and do a better job of that later. I’ve said no to friends a lot this year, and they’ve reminded me that they care, and that they hope I feel better soon, and to yell if there’s anything they can do. It’s not the highest set bar in the world.


Understanding the mechanics

One of my key coping mechanisms is to try and understand how things work for me. It’s the approach I take any time I’m digging into areas of dysfunction. Why am I like this? How did I get here? Why am I responding in these ways? What can be changed? Once I’ve figured the mechanisms for something, I often blog about it in the hopes someone else will find that useful.

I’ve used these approaches to unpick beliefs and assumptions. I’ve dealt to some degree with an abuse legacy this way. I’ve pulled myself out of patterns of self-harm and self hate. It’s not easy work, but it definitely gets stuff done.

I try it with my body issues too, with varying degrees of effect. By experimenting on myself and paying attention, I’ve identified that I need to keep an eye on my iodine intake. I need to watch for electrolytes when my gut packs up. My gut packs up less often now I’m vegetarian – being an omnivore didn’t suit me. I can’t eat a lot of refined grains or my gut malfunctions. I can’t ingest cloves. I’ve got coping mechanisms in place for my cranky lymphs, and for the things that leave my body stiff and sore. So long as I pay careful attention to a lot of different factors I can, for much of the time, feel more in control of myself.

And then there are days like today, when many of the things that can go wrong have gone wrong. I can’t pin down any triggers. There are problems with conflicting solutions. I’m exhausted and need to rest. My lymphs are cranky and I need to get on the trampoline. My muscles are painfully sore anyway. I’ve got crazy hormone stuff going on. All of this has mental health implications. There’s no winning here.

I go round this repeatedly, studying the mechanics of my body, gaining some ground, managing better. And then, sooner or later, I get hit by a combination of things I didn’t manage to guard against and can’t easily fix, and then there can be some very tough days.

I find it difficult to accept that there might not be a solution. I suspect one of the kindest things I could do for myself would be to accept that there might not be a solution. There might not be a way of avoiding this. There might not be some perfect combination of foods avoided, exercises done, supplements taken, relaxation practices and so forth. It may be that this is what happens to me.

Talking about it is difficult because there’s usually someone who wants to tell me what they think I should change. That I should be gluten free, or not eating anything from the tomato family, or that I need to take something, or not take something, do more or less of something. I find this exhausting. I find the assumption that I would be well if only I did the thing depressing. I do try really hard with this stuff, all the time. I pay attention, I experiment. There’s only so much control I’ve ever been able to get.

No doubt, offering advice feels like being a good and helpful person. But, for the person who is struggling, it can be just one more thing to have to carry, or fend off. It’s a way of saying yes, this is your body and you live with it day to day but I reckon my two minutes of thinking about it means I understand it better than you do. That’s demoralising at best. Unsolicited, unwanted ‘help’ can have the effect of grinding a person down. And if you don’t know all the details and aren’t a qualified medical person, the ‘help’ can do more harm than good.

It would be more helpful to me to have affirmation that it is not my fault that sometimes my body malfunctions. What I do find helpful is the emotional support to take things gently. The encouragement to not blame myself. Permission to just have some time off and not have to be all the things. Kindness is good. And letting me be the one to say ‘no, there’s nothing I can do with this today’ is far more empowering than trying to fix me.


Finding more energy

I’ve had energy problems since my teens. Aged fourteen, my Doctor told me that ME didn’t exist, that it was probably psychosomatic or because I wanted to get out of doing PE. Oddly enough, I didn’t find that helpful. I figured out a lot of things on my own which have allowed me to manage my body a lot better.

I’m hypermobile, which apparently means everything is going to take me more effort than it does most people. Not a lot I can do about that, but knowing helps. It particularly helps in not blaming myself and telling myself I’m just being lazy and not trying hard enough. This in turn helps me rest when I need to and that’s improved my energy levels.

It may be the hypermobility impacting on my gut, it may be some other technical thing, but my digestive system has never been very reliable. I’ve eliminated the foods that make me ill – I can’t do meat, I can’t have too much refined anything, and I do better when I eat large quantities of fruit and veg. But, if my gut packs up, I mess up with the electrolytes and this in turn messes up my blood pressure leaving me feeling weak and useless. It took me a while to figure this because I get stressed by doctors so I don’t show up in tests as having low blood pressure!

By my early teens I was anxious about my weight, and went many rounds trying to starve myself. I’ve never been able to control my weight through any kind of dieting. In recent years I’ve focused on making sure I have the energy to be physically active. This works better for me, and having the energy from my food to do the things I want to do make a lot of odds. Investing in my diet helps with the aforementioned electrolytes issues. Having enough oil has helped reduce pain. I try to maintain good blood sugar because when low blood sugar and depression collide, energy disappears.

I’ve got the best energy levels and concentration I’ve had in a long time, and it’s more reliable than it’s ever been. I still get days when, for no reason I can identify, it’s like someone has coated my bones in lead, put old-style deep sea diving boots on my feet and sent me to walk through rivers of treacle. I don’t know what causes those days. I don’t push hard against them anymore, and I rest up as much as I can.

What this has taught me, over the years, is that my body is a really complicated thing, with many different factors involved (not all of which I have mentioned in this post). Simple, miracle cures have never cured me. Trying to work out things like how sleep, activity, stress, diet and body mechanics interact with each other is difficult, and those balances shift all the time. I’ve had to accept that I can’t totally fix myself and it’s not some kind of personal failing to have to work around some of this. Some of it is clearly genetic and I know something of the history of that in my family. Not everyone can cure all their stuff, and I’ve become very resistant to people who are adamant that a bit more magnesium and positive thinking (or whatever it is this week) would make me perfectly ok.

I’ve learned not to waste precious energy on people who are insistent about their miracle solutions. What I do know is that if a problem in your body was easily fixed, it was never that complicated a problem and it isn’t indicative of what will happen for anyone who has a whole mess of things going on.


Self care for the self-employed

This blog is prompted by seeing an author on twitter mention that they’d become unable to write decent sentences and then realised they’d missed lunch and had low blood sugar. It’s all too easy around self-employment to romanticise this sort of thing, treat is as heroic, desirable, necessary. The ten hour days with no breaks. The seven day weeks. The missed meals. It doesn’t make for a good life, and sooner or later it will damage not just your concentration, but also your health – mental and physical.

If you’re doing anything for the long haul, it is vitally important to take good care of yourself. Burnout is not efficient. Being too sick to work is not efficient. If you can’t take care of yourself from a place of feeling worth it, do it because that way you’ll be able to work longer.

You probably know what you should be doing – eating well, moving about, taking breaks from screens, not giving yourself a repetitive strain injury with excessive typing, not getting editor’s bottom from bad seating, not becoming agoraphobic through long term inability to go outside… those things and all the other things like them. You probably know. The reasons people fail at self care often have less to do with knowing stuff, and more to do with how we perceive ourselves, our relative value, the value of our work, and the heroism culture around working yourself to death.

The culture of heroically working yourself to death is hard to resist when it seems like everyone else is doing it. If your social media feed is full of people who sound strong, impressive, dedicated and whatnot because they hurt themselves routinely for their art, or their job, it’s hard to push the other way. The comics industry has been really bad for this, with seven hour days, back pain and poor diets treated as normal, and part of what it means to do the job. It shouldn’t be normal, and it shouldn’t be necessary.

Some of this is about pushing for decent hourly rates. Some of this is the politics of poverty and what you end up doing when you’re desperate and afraid. Not all of this can be dealt with at a personal level, but if you can, then do it and speak up. No one should feel obliged to work themselves to death.

If you’re looking for the Pagan angle here – it exists. Over work and overconsumption are intertwined. Poverty and planet-damage are profoundly connected. When we take better care of ourselves we are likely to move in directions that take better care of the planet, too. It’s an issue around diet, especially. No one makes a profit from your time off, and we need to be less obsessed with profit if we’re going to avoid killing ourselves as a species. A gentler life is a more planet friendly life, and self care is a radical act of pushback against exploitative capitalism. Practice self care where you can, and do what you can to enable other people to have that as well.

You can take better care of self employed people by sticking to the terms you agreed, not shifting the goalposts mid project, not demanding freebie extras or creating more work because you didn’t explain things properly in the first place. You can take better care of self employed people by paying fairly for what they do. You can respect that people need time off and not send them queries out of hours and expect instant responses, and so on, and so forth.


Life after cars

I’ve been cheered over the last month or so to see more people online talking about how we are going to have to cut back on car use. The only way to deal with congestion, is if more people drive less. I’m so glad to see growing recognition that building roads does not solve this problem. We need to tackle our dire air pollution – which is killing people. We need to square up to the way driving impacts on climate chaos. We also can’t simply replace current cars with electric ones, because there are rare earths currently needed for electric cars and the planet can’t afford us over-consuming those, either.

What needs to happen next is that we need to start getting excited about the implications of a mass cutback on car travel. So, here are some benefits to contemplate.

Reduced noise pollution. How much nicer and less stressful human environments are when we aren’t bombarded by car noise!

Less air pollution – which will help with respiratory diseases, and maybe make colds a bit less awful, and improve our life expectancies.

Less time wasted commuting. How much time does a person who sits in traffic squander in a state of frustration as they breathe in the toxins from the other cars around them? Think how much quality of life could be improved by reclaiming that time!

Being bodily and mentally healthier – getting about on foot or on a bike helps reduce stress and keeps us fit. This is a great life improver, and with fewer cars on the road, walking and cycling will become safer and nicer to do.

It’s more social – if you’re on public transport or on foot, you meet people. You might even talk to them in passing and make friends with them. Loneliness is a modern western epidemic and cars don’t help us with that.

If you don’t drive to work and for leisure, you have to be more involved with your local community. People are often less willing to shit where they eat, and being more involved with the people around us builds communities and gives us better lives. If we go over to car sharing or other, more communal systems, this also requires us to be more co-operative, which is good. We’d have to restructure so that accessing key resources was less car dependent. This would be good, and would inject life and opportunities back into small towns and villages.

It saves money. Cars cost money to buy, fuel and maintain. How many people are pushed into sudden debt because of an unexpected car expense?

Being safer. Every year many people are killed and injured through car use. Think of the pain, stress, misery and grief we could end if we got more people out of their cars.

Get people off the roads, and driving will be less stressful and dangerous for those few who really need to do it. It’ll be easier to move emergency vehicles around at need as well.


The joys of walking for transport

I’ve never driven a car, and I’ve not lived in a household with a car since my mid twenties. I’ve walked to shop, and carried groceries home. I’ve used trains and buses, and occasionally I get lifts, but mostly I’ve walked, or cycled. I don’t really enjoy cycling so these days I mostly get places by walking to them. Where I live was picked out with that in mind.

Most of the time, walking for transport is a joy. I get outside, I get exercise, I see wildlife, I meet people. While I’m walking, I get time to process ideas and feelings and come up with ideas. If I’m walking to work or to meetings, I get time to ready myself. I arrive calm and mentally prepared and I am never held up by traffic. At the end, I get to do my digesting on the way home, and I usually arrive home calm and on top of things.

I do not have to do radical things to feel adventurous. Every now and then I end up having to walk in adverse weather conditions – in snow, and ice and heavy rain. I have the kit for this, although as downpours increase in violence, I get soaked through more often. I do not need to seek out mountains to feel a bit heroic. Some weeks, all I have to do is handle the regular shopping in the conditions around me. I do not have to challenge myself with grand gestures to feel alive. I feel alive every time I’m going somewhere.

Often, the green answers are presented as losses. Could you give up your car? Could you do without it? As though the car makes us better off, and poverty is what we get in its absence. I’ve spent enough mornings walking past lines of traffic, seeing the faces of people stuck in their cars. None of them are smiling. I’ve got stress free easy movement, peace of mind, lower expenses and a healthier body because I walk. Every time I walk past a traffic queue I am reminded of the riches inherent in my choices.

There is so much freedom and independence to be had if you can set of from your own door and head out into the world on your own two feet. We could leave the roads for those who need them – for those who do not have the privilege of being able to walk, for the emergency services, for the movement of stuff too heavy to carry about on shoulders. We could empty our roads and fill our pavements, and put calmer human interactions into our days. We could improve our air quality and our personal health. It remains a mystery to me why more people don’t see the freedom and wealth inherent in walking as more desirable than the cost and stress of being in traffic.


Learning to be selfish

Nearly 18 months ago it became apparent that if my mental and physical health didn’t make it to the priority list, I was, sooner or later, going to break irretrievably. About a year ago, I started looking at what was going on with my creative work and identified a similar problem – if I was going to not give up, my work was going to have to be on the list of things that mattered.

It is in part about asking other people to give me time, space and other resources. It is about asking other people to take my needs seriously. But, I won’t do that if I’m not taking my needs seriously. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life feeling like stuff for me was never the most important thing. It so easily becomes a self-fulfilling thing as well. I don’t make much money from my creativity, so in terms of looking after my household, my creativity cannot be a priority and so I don’t invest in it and it doesn’t bring much in and round we go again.

In the last year or so, I’ve started asking what’s in it for me? I’ve stopped making what other people want the most important consideration. I’ve not really had a lot of choice – for the last five months or so, I’ve moved from one disease to another. Time, energy and personal resources are at a serious low. I cannot run round after many people. I truly don’t have much I can afford to give. Prioritising has become a matter of survival. It’s led me to saying no to people, to not showing up, not offering, not responding to stuff on social media. I allow myself to scroll on past if I don’t feel like I have the resources to spare to help.

Sometimes, that makes me feel like a cold and heartless sort of person.

However, I’ve managed to keep working all the time I’ve been ill. I’ve managed to honour my most important commitments. I’ve managed to be helpful sometimes, because I’ve focused on what I can most effectively do. I’ve mostly hung on, just on the right side of things. Bouts of crumbling into despair, into weeping that I cannot keep going, cannot do the things, have been few in what has been a very tough five months. Probably better to say no early on rather than try and fail and take things down with me, I feel.

I’ve decided I can choose who and what I am going to responsible for, rather than having it chosen for me. I’ve not put much energy into explain things to people where I’ve had to pull back – they don’t have to keep holding any space for me, they can write me off as a bad loss, that’s fine. But, I’m not doing drama, and I’m not investing energy in justifying myself and that has really helped. I keep reminding myself that I am not obliged to meet other people’s needs for my time, attention and energy – no matter how entitled they think they are, I am not obligated. To be honest, this still feels really weird, but I can see it working, and life has been easier as a consequence.

One of the curious lessons in all of this, is that it was never the people most in need who were sapping me the most. People with small problems and a big sense of entitlement are a lot more exhausting to deal with. People who wanted results from me but also wanted to control how I was going to deliver that have, with hindsight, been a massive problem. I’ve put a hand up for some larger projects recently and noticed how much easier it is when people just let me do what I do. When I’m trusted to know what I’m doing. When the people who want my help don’t then require me to fight them so that I can help in a way that actually works.

If I can work on my own terms, then I can work happily, and when it comes to ‘what’s in it for me?’ that’s a really important factor.