In the description for this podcast I said that I would not tell you what to do. Nobody likes being told what to do. But at the same time if we are feeling unwell what we are currently doing is clearly not working for us, and so if we want to feel better, we need to change what we are doing.
A significant proportion of our ill health is directly related to our lifestyles. Many of the physical and mental symptoms we experience are the result of a fundamental lack of wellbeing. An imbalance in or bodies and minds. These are rarely related to just one thing, but are far more likely to be due to a combination of lots of small things, that together are causing a significance imbalance.
The key to improving our health lies in making sustained small changes across multiple aspects of our day to day lives. Whilst this always starts with our thoughts, with managing our minds, we must translate this into action if we are to regain our balance.
However, it may not always be immediately obvious to us which patterns of thinking, behaviours and actions are causing us harm, and my hope going forwards is that these podcasts can help to guide you in the right direction, so that you can experiment and play to find your own harmony and balance. Its no-good managing our minds if we deliberately change negative thought patterns and habits into different but equally harmful ones.
There is no right answer to this, and each person’s harmony is unique to them. That’s why telling people what to do is so often unhelpful. I read a meme of Facebook that said; “Never in the history of calming down, has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down”. I like this. Its funny because its true. But actually, it is kind of helpful advice. When we become emotionally distressed and irrational it would benefit us hugely to calm down, to recognise that we have suffered a momentary lapse of reason, and to take a few deep breaths. But someone telling us this just makes us angrier. We do not like to be told what to do. Because of this we must all find our own balance for ourselves, through experiment, trial and error.
But as much as we are all different and unique, humans are also remarkably similar. Before I trained to be a doctor I studied philosophy. The most surprising thing to me was how little human concerns and thought patterns, joys and fears have changed over the past two and a half thousand years. Despite huge technological advances, the basic human condition was more or less the same in Socrates time as it is today. People had the same basic human emotions, virtues and vices. Concepts of love, joy, family, friendship, hatred and jealousy have remained unchanged throughout the ages. Since most humans think and behave in much the same way it is possible to give some helpful guidance on the types of thought patterns that are likely to be harmful to us, and the varieties of behaviours that have the potential to cause harm. Not everything will suit everybody, but we won’t know until we try.
So, instead of telling you what to do, I am going to make a variety of suggestions that you can experiment with, to see if they are helpful to you. I will also try to highlight some common pitfalls. Obstructive patterns of thinking, that I like to call thought errors, and harmful coping strategies or “games” we employ to try to deal with our pain, but which inadvertently impair our growth and cause us harm.
All of us have room for improvement across multiple areas of our lives, but we can sometimes be resistant to this. When I first approach a discussion with patients about what I call “the big picture” the natural instinct is to defend their current position. Even if we are feeling unwell, and are seeking advice on how to feel better, we automatically resent the implication that we are responsible in any way for how we are currently feeling. When explaining lack of balance and poor wellbeing, and the multiple symptoms and far-reaching consequences of this, I often list a few examples of areas where we might be able to make some adjustments in our lives. Sleep quality and quantity, regular exercise, reducing stress, thinking about our diets. And no matter how I try to phrase this, how gently I approach it, it is not uncommon to get a defensive response. “I sleep very well, thank you, and I have very little stress. I go to the gym 3 times a week and I take 3 vitamins a day – So its not that!” And I receive a look that is a mixture of defiance, self-righteousness and loathing. And I feel a little bit sad, as I glance at the clock to see that I am already running 30 minutes late and have 4 patients waiting in the waiting room, and I think to myself, “how am I going to help you.” Out of time, out of energy and out of ideas I order a battery of blood tests that I suspect are going to be normal and that I know won’t have any impact on how the patient is feeling. Doing a test is not a treatment. And the cycle repeats with the next GP.
I hope that you won’t fall in to this trap. If you do you will struggle to get better. If you are feeling unwell, your thoughts and your lifestyle are part of the problem, and will play a major role in the solution, even if you also have a disease.
There are hundreds of areas where we can start to make improvements in our lives. Countless areas that could be producing a lack of balance and causing our bodies and minds not to run as they should. How and when we sleep, what we eat and how we move. Our relationships with partners, family, friends, work colleagues, and above all with ourselves. Being part of a community, feeling respected and valued. Having a sense of purpose and direction in both work and home life. Having time to do the things we enjoy, to laugh and play. Avoiding the harmful coping strategy of excess, be that with food, alcohol, smoking, Netflix or social media. Being in touch with our humanity and spirituality, being happy with who we are, where we are now and where we are going. All these things make up aspects of our lives that can easily get out of balance. If you have truly reached perfection in all of these areas and are still feeling unwell, I don’t know if you are exceptionally lucky, or exceptionally unlucky.
For most of us the structure of our society and lifestyles makes it incredibly difficult to maintain balance in our lives without significant effort.
Wherever possible, I will be exploring things on the Podcast that I have had personal experience with, techniques that I have found to be hugely beneficial in my own personal journey. When consulting with my patients I find that I am far more effective when I can speak from first-hand experience. Obviously no single person can ever experience all the difficulties that life can present. No one ever really knows what it is like to live the life of somebody else; and I don’t presume to know or understand anybody else’s personal struggle or pain.
But I have had personal experience of loss and grief. I know how it feels to reach a personal “ground zero,” and to try to rebuild a life from the wreckage. But I also know that I am by no means alone in this. Because of my profession I have had the privilege to have been present, in a small way, at times of great distress in the lives of countless people. Every day people share with me their inner most pain and fears.
Where I don’t always have personal experience, I have professional experiences of a wide range of traumatic life events and situations. I have seen sickness, disability and death. I have seen violence, poverty and addiction. I have seen pain, psychosis and dementia. I have seen desperation, darkness and despair. But I have also seen love. I have seen humanity, beauty and hope. I have seen people get better and move on. I have seen treatments and strategies that work, but I have also seen many that don’t.
Life is hard, but ultimately it is worth the struggle. Humans are surprisingly resilient and robust, with a remarkable capability for growth and repair. We also have a seemingly limitless capacity for love, compassion, laughter and joy, although sometimes we can forget how to access it. I truly believe that this capacity always remains, just as the blue skies are always present above the storm clouds. By actively choosing the way we want to think and live, by accepting advice and guidance with an open mind, by committing to our own personal journey of growth and discovery, we can discover what works for us, and what doesn’t. We can clear the storm clouds and learn to laugh and love again, to find our personal spirituality and humanity.
I have touched on spirituality several times in this series. I want to have a very brief discussion about this now, because I am aware that it could be off putting for some people. I say this because it would have definitely put me off in the past. It is only very recently that I started to think about and understand spirituality. I previously thought that spirituality meant religion. And I thought religion meant believing in a God. That simply isn’t true. Everyone has a religion regardless of whether they believe in God. Atheism is a religion, and science is a religion.
When I talk about spirituality I am not talking about religion and God in the traditional sense, although it may involve these things for some people. Personally, I am not “religious” in this way, but I have been learning to recognise and nurture my spirituality. In the same way that everyone has a religion irrespective of their belief in God, everyone has spirituality, it is part of being human. It’s just that in our secular society with its strong religion of science, technology, truth and facts we have lost touch with it. In fact, often we mock it as outdated, outmoded and defunct. As risible in the face of scientific progress. We have largely forgotten how to talk about our spirituality, and instead replaced it, unsuccessfully, with emojis and social media “likes”.
For me the loss of spirituality as a central theme in our social ethos is responsible for much of the imbalance and subsequent ill health that we experience. Many of the issues that people come to see me about as their GP are things that in other cultures would be the remit of a clergyman or elder, rather than a physician. Many people no longer have a clergyman or elder to visit, there is nobody offering us spiritual guidance, and so instead we go to see our GPs. Unfortunately, your GP was primarily trained to recognise and treat heart attacks, strokes and appendicitis. The quality of the spiritual guidance you will receive in your 10-minute consult is somewhat of a lottery; largely dependent on the personality, personal experience and outlook of the doctor on duty, rather than their formal training. I will be doing a whole episode about spirituality later.
All humans are beautiful, just through the fact of being human, because humanity is a beautiful thing. Life is beautiful. It is energy and animation and vitality. That’s why all baby things are cute – even baby crocodiles. They represent new birth and life.
Your homework today is to go and look at some pictures of baby animals, and really concentrate on the feelings they produce in you. Try not to make the “Ahhh” noise, that’s a socially derived construct that detracts from the primal emotion. If you make the noise you won’t feel the feeling as strongly. If you don’t believe me, try it both ways. Focus on the experience, on the sensation in your body. These feelings are the echoes of your spirituality and humanity. It is the universe telling you that life is beautiful.