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So far in this series I have told you lots of reasons why western medicine has failed to make you feel better, and why you might not be convinced that there might be a better alternative. I suppose that it’s about time that I did something to convince you.
Seeing is believing. If we are ever going to buy into a concept we need to start seeing some positive results. As I have said the road to good health and happiness is a long and difficult journey. There is no quick fix. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t start seeing some immediate benefits. We don’t have to feel amazing to feel better, and if we start to feel a little bit better, to see some gradual improvement, this can give us the encouragement and motivation that we need to continue with the work we need to do.
There four key areas that I believe we need to focus on if we want to be healthy.
mindfulness and meditation.
Psychotherapy and thought work.
I have put these 4 areas in this order for a reason. We need to start with number 1 and work towards number 4. As a society we tend to do things in reverse order. We start with western medicine, then think about lifestyle, and leave the social and emotional factors until right at the end, as an afterthought, if we even consider them at all. I think this is the reason I have often felt in the past that I was doing my patients a disservice and failing to truly help them. If we want to learn how to be healthy, we need to build a solid foundation to start from. We need to work from the ground up. In this episode I’m going to try to explain why positive change must always start with our thoughts, and to suggest some practical tools to start the work right now, to start to feel better.
Everybody knows the lifestyle advice doctors and other health professionals give. Healthy diets, regular exercise, avoiding alcohol and smoking. My patients always tell me they know they “shouldn’t smoke” or know “they need to lose some weight”.
But there is a difference between knowing and believing. If we are not living a healthy life there must be a reason for this. Either we do not believe that our lifestyle is truly responsible for how we feel, that even if we changed it we still would not feel well, so why bother. Or we do not believe we are capable of making a change. We may believe ourselves to be fundamentally unhealthy people. That this is part of our personality and identity. Or we may think that our other commitments, work, family or friends make it impossible to be heathy, due to lack of time or opportunity.
If we truly believed our lifestyles could make us healthy, and that we had the power to make healthy choices, then we would choose them. After all who doesn’t want to be healthy and happy? Who wouldn’t choose to be healthy if they really believed that they had the power to make this choice?
The lack of belief in our own ability to choose the life we want to live, to choose a healthy life, is the fundamental root cause of all ill health. Not just because of the life we lead as a result, but also because of the impact of the thoughts themselves on our wellbeing. Not truly understanding that you are in control of your own life and destiny, in itself has a negative impact on health, wellbeing and happiness.
I have said several times before that the body and mind cannot be separated. They are absolutely and intricately related. One does not exist without the other. It makes little sense to talk about mental health or physical health in isolation of each other, you cannot have one without the other. That is why I always like to talk about wellbeing. Our bodies and minds must be in harmony if we are to be well. It is for these reasons that good health always starts with our thoughts. In order to be peaceful and content, in order to be motivated towards positive life choices, we must first think good thoughts. We must love ourselves and be motivated purely by this love.
The problem with giving lifestyle advice is it tends to make people feel bad about themselves. If your GP tells you, or even if you tell yourself, to lose some weight, it tends to come with a value judgement – “you are fat, and you shouldn’t be fat”. The motivation to lose weight is therefore coming from shame or hatred of oneself– for being fat- rather than from love.
If somebody is motivated by shame or hate they are unlikely to succeed. Every time they think about the diet, they will recall the shame. If they miss a run because they worked late and it’s raining, or eat some cake to be polite at a birthday party, they will beat themselves up even more. Dieting will be an emotionally painful and upsetting experience and will inevitably be abandoned, only to be chalked up as further evidence of failure and lack of worth. Worse than this, the fear of future failure, of facing the shame once more, may well stop us from even starting the diet at all. We may mask this shame by refusing to believe that we are capable of change or denying that the weight is responsible for our ill health. The brain always wants to protect itself from negative emotion and will construct all kinds of stories and realities to avoid feelings like shame and hate.
Fear of failure seriously interferes with self-growth. It is one of the main reasons we are reluctant or unwilling to try. Often it is not actually the failure itself that we fear, but rather the thoughts we have about ourselves because we have failed. It is not that we didn’t get the thing we were aiming for that distresses us, but what we make this mean about us. That’s why I can feel bad if I get unmatched on Tinder by someone who I really wasn’t that into, or never had any intention of meeting. I don’t feel bad because I have lost out on a possible loving relationship, its because I make this mean that I am fundamentally unlovable.
If you come from a place of love, if you tell yourself not that you should lose some weight, but rather that you would like to lose some weight, for example, so that you can play for longer with your grandchildren, because of love for yourself and your family you are far more likely to succeed. The word “should” is nearly always unhelpful, and we should always try to avoid it. (How ironic).
The thoughts we have about ourselves and the world are the key to how we feel and what we do. In order to be healthy we need to think good thoughts about ourselves and about the world, so that we can be peaceful in our bodies and minds and live well. Good health always starts with our thoughts. In order to manage our health, we must first manage our minds.
Telling yourself or other people what to do; to stop smoking, go on a diet, lose weight or eat more greens is never going to be helpful unless it is motivated from love. If we want to make positive change, we must first understand ourselves and love ourselves. We need to be clear in our minds where we are now, where we want to be, why we want it, and how we are going to get there, before we can make any meaningful change.
Sadly, most of us do not truly love ourselves, and what’s more, we don’t even realise it. Not only do we not truly love ourselves, we are actually pretty mean to ourselves a lot of the time. Most of us tend to naturally think negative thoughts about ourselves far more often than we think positive ones.
Our thoughts are like a running commentary in our brains that we carry around with us everywhere we go. This running commentary is pervasive, and for a lot of us it pretty much runs insentiently throughout our waking hours. As we experience the world day to day, we continually produce thoughts about our experiences, about the way the world is, the way other people are, and the way we are. These are not just thoughts, mostly they are also judgments. We tend to but a value on the things we experience. As we go about our day, we are constantly assessing if it is good or bad, what we like and dislike about it and in particular about ourselves. More than this we also tend to predict other people’s thoughts about us, we project our judgements onto them. Not only do we think we were too loud at the party, we also believe that everyone else thought we were too loud.
If you stop and take the time to notice your commentary you may realise just how nasty it can be. So often we go around telling ourselves mean stuff about ourselves all the time. We tell ourselves things about ourselves that we would never dream of saying to our friends. We always judge ourselves far more harshly than we would somebody else. We tell ourselves that we talked to fast during our presentation, or we are always late picking up our kids. We project these negative thoughts onto other people, believing and worrying that our neighbours think the garden is a mess, or our parents aren’t proud of us.
Think about how much easier it is to give kind loving advice to a friend compared to giving the same advice to yourself. If a friend came to you feeling insecure about a new partner you would never say “well they probably will leave you and probably no one will ever find you attractive and you will die alone”, and yet we are instantly willing to say this kind of thing to ourselves. Not only wouldn’t you say this, but you also wouldn’t believe it. You would know that your friend is a beautiful person with so much to offer the world, why then do we struggle so much to believe this of ourselves?
Now here’s an interesting thing. If we go around saying horrible, negative things about ourselves all the time, it doesn’t tend to make us feel that great about ourselves, or the world. It doesn’t tend to motivate us to lead healthy, fulfilling lives. This should be obvious. If you constantly berated somebody, a child, a parent or a friend; if you constantly criticised and undermined them, constantly told them they shouldn’t try, because they would fail, constantly suggested that everyone thought the same, and no one really liked them for who they were; that person would struggle to be happy. They would struggle to live a healthy fulfilling life. But this is exactly what so many of us do to ourselves. Not only that but we must carry it around with us all the time, all our waking hours.
This constant commentary, our stories about who we are and the way the world is, pervades all aspects of our lives. It determines how we feel and what we do. It is the root cause of whether we are happy or sad, if our actions are productive or destructive, if we are health or unhealthy.
At the beginning of this episode I said it was about time we saw some positive results, that unless you start to feel a bit better these Podcasts are not much good. If you are still listening, I’m sure your thinking, “Well thank you Dr Bostock. Now I feel just great!” But its not all doom and gloom. Thinking about the cause of why we are feeling unwell can sometimes be distressing and painful, but it is also the first step to doing something about it, to start feeling a bit better.
I want to suggest a simple way that you can start feeling a bit better right away. Something you can do immediately after listening to this podcast to convince your brain that you are on to a good thing. To convince you that the work we are just starting together is the first step to a fresh start, a bush-whack through the undergrowth from the rocky road you have been on up until now to a clearer path ahead.
I want you to start meditating.
Some of you may have done some meditation and mindfulness in the past, and if so, that is fantastic, but I want you to start incorporating it into your everyday schedule. If you have never meditated before, or you think that meditation is not for you that’s even better, because you are about to discover something truly beautiful, truly game changing. Actually, I think pretty much everybody has done some kind of meditation previously even without realising it. A lot of hobbies such as Gardening, knitting and DIY are actually forms of meditation. For me it was riding my mountain bike, but I didn’t realise it. A few years ago, I definitely thought meditation was not for me, but now I try to meditate every day.
When we meditate effectively what we are doing is temporarily switching off our running commentary. We are giving ourselves a wakeful break from our stories about ourselves and the world. When we experience what it is like to just be in the world without the influence of our incessant commentary and judgements, we realise that it is a calm and tranquil place. It is our thoughts about it that make it hectic, stressful, frightening or hostile. Learning how to simply switch off our thoughts is the first step towards making positive change in our lives.
I think that’s all I want to say about it for now. As we have said seeing is believing. I want you to experience the feeling for yourselves of being free from your thoughts. To experience the calm of simply existing and experiencing the world as it is.
Now there is a very easy way to start meditating, and that is with a meditation App that you can download on your phone. There are several different Apps available, the leading ones are probably Calm and Headspace. Personally, I prefer Headspace. It is free to download, and you get 10 free sessions, but you can do the free sessions as many times as you like. I did the free ones over and over for about a year. If you do subscribe to the App it is quite expensive, but it does unlock a huge library of material, with meditations targeted to specific problems, including some really good meditations for sleep.
Currently I am using Calm, mostly because they gave me a 1 year free subscription. It was very kind of them, but honestly I think Headspace is better, but it is just personal preference. There is a promo code for a free 1 month trial of Calm at the top of this article. I will post it on my facebook page, so if you follow me on Facebook @cambridgeprogressivemedicine you can access it there. You could maybe do the 10 free Headspace ones until you have had enough of those, and then do the 1 month trial of Calm.
Patients sometimes tell me that they don’t have time to meditate. All the Apps are based on 10 minute sessions, and it is not too difficult to find a spare 10 minutes in your schedule, it is really worth it. It helps if you can find a regular time in your schedule to squeeze it in. For me it is in between my morning and afternoon surgery. If I miss a day because I’m “too busy” I find I don’t consult as well in the afternoon. There is a Buddhist proverb; “everyone should meditate for 20 minutes a day, unless you don’t have time, in which case you should meditated for an hour a day”.
So right now, this minute, I want you to go download Headspace and start your journey towards good health today. Try meditating every day for a week, and if you feel better join me next week for episode 8 where we are going to build on what we have learnt so far and introduce the concept of thought work. If you can feel so much better simply by turning off your commentary, imagine how good you can feel if instead of thinking bad thoughts about yourself and the world you can learn to choose positive ones.