Writing about writing

Writing has always been part of the journey to health, except in the past its benefits weren’t really recognised or appreciated.   It certainly didn’t have the current title journaling, which in my world is still just writing (or in my younger world, was called Dear Diary and generally came with a padlock – perhaps you had one of those too?)

Whether you call it jounaling or writing, by doing it you can start figuring out the triggers that affect you emotionally, the ones that unleash upset or resentment, or a funky mood. Or the triggers to physical symptoms, to your bloating or nausea, your headaches or joint aches.  Just as you can write down triggers for your happiness and well being.  More about that later.
Writing can organise endless mental lists and tidy up an overwhelmed mind because it gives you an accessible way of untangling it all.

Case in point: the next time you wake in the dead of night with niggles circling your mind, write them down straight away with that pen & paper by your bed – and the smallest beam of torch so as to not rock your melatonin levels.  This way you can corrall the mental noise into neat lines of penned words, logged and sorted for you to look at in the clear light of morning.

The same with gratitude lists, or whatever you wish to call them.  That happiness and well-being I mentioned above.
When life’s feeling great it’s invaluable – uplifting! – to think about, and then write down, what’s actually making life feel so good.  A gratitude list can come into its own again when life’s slinging mud at you.  Writing down, and thus reliving, the good in your life can diffuse the intensity of harder times.   It’s not easy when you’re in the thick of it, when those mud-slung quagmires are so sticky.  However, by zooming out of the crabby moments and opening up the wider picture of what’s going well for you and who’s there to support you,  there are new neuronal connections being made, new parts of your brain being fired.  The result is that you feel better.

My gratitude list often starts off as a photo, maybe with a one liner floating in my head; a good to be alive moment when I catch dawn’s pinking sky or see lambs in the neighbour’s field.   At some point those feelings make it onto paper, either as a diary note, or part of a blog or a letter to a friend.

Asking clients to write a food diary is part and parcel of my work.  I email a basic formatted chart asking my client to record a week of meals, snacks, drinks and any symptoms.  It’s necessary because memories can be short or skewed.  There can be an aspect of denial involved, for instance, a piece of chocolate quickly scoffed might be forgotten a moment late.  Just like that morning biscuit which happened to come with the cafe’s coffee, or the bag of crisps with your drink (such a small bag, does it even count, a client joked last week).

Writing about your daily foods and habits can throw up patterns.  Perhaps you’re eating bread or rolls or crackers and pasta every day.  Or eating more fruit than you realize – that fructose sweet hit you think is healthy unfortunately still translates in your body to sugar).
Or perhaps you’re eating the same vegetables every night, all good for you, but not the variety that’s going to give your microbiome a diverse and immuno-supercharged microbial population.

It can be hard recognising your own eating patterns, that’s almost a given.  Food is linked to habits and memories, to comfort and love, as well as to sleep, hormones and whatever else is going on in your life, body and mind that very day, that very moment.   When clients email me the completed week’s food diary I often see: “I didn’t realize how many coffees I was drinking,” or “I don’t normally eat this many snacks.” (Hmmm, but maybe you do…)
Writing is your truthkeeper.

I can’t ignore the obvious act of writing which pops up at this time of year.  New Year Resolutions. For some reason I came across a lot of podcast and media commentaries about how we shouldn’t make resolutions because invariably they fail.
I think this is dependant on how realistic you make them…

I’m not a big fan of  writing a formal list, are you?  The page header alone:  New Year Resolutions, puts me off writing things down.  Just too concrete, too much pressure for a year that hasn’t even begun.  Saying that, I do like to ponder the year ahead, especially during the week between Christmas and New year when there’s a lot of pondering time to be had.

Perhaps I don’t usually make a written list of resolutions aka dreams aka intentions because I don’t have that many to remember (or forget).

This year, however, I did think of a few, all do-able and realistic for me.  And that is key.  It’s a simple thought to share with clients when we talk about changing diets and life patterns, or when clients say they want to lose x amount of body fat by spring, or do x number of hours training each week, or want to give up biscuits (chocolate/cakes/alcohol, take your pick). Make it simple.  Be kind to yourself and start  realistically, start small.  That way you’ll likely stick to it.

As Dr Rangan Chatterjee recommends on his podcast and in his books, build a new habit into your day, into an existing routine, and it’ll be sustainable.

One of my new year non-resolutions – let’s call it an intention – is to do a new walk every week.  But even as that intention popped into my head and I scribbled it down here I’m adding that I’d be happy if it turned into a new-walk-a-month rather than a week.  I know that work and life can get in the way.
Am I backing out?  I’d rather think I’m being realistic, but I’ll let you decide.

I hope you find some writing form that suits you, and wish you all a happy new year!



Mindfulness, what’s in a word?

I’d like to find another word for mindfulness.  Not that it isn’t apt, on the contrary, being mindful in our lives can be life changing, mind blowing.  But we’re hearing the word used so much these days, a little like the hackneyed terms ‘life changing and mind blowing’,  that it can end up falling on deaf ears or meaning nothing at all to some people.

A male client on zoom yesterday rolled his eyes when I mentioned mindfulness.  “No, that whacky stuff’s not for me,” he said.
There’s not much whacky about it; pretty straight forward in fact.  Mindfulness is about tapping into something that was commonplace for our grandparents:  taking each day, each moment, as it came; not having to juggle deadlines, childcare, finances, nights out and traffic holdups.  These days there’s not a lot of Living each Moment, and therein lies a big part of our global chronic health crisis. The speed and stress of daily life is throwing us out of kilter, making many of us sick.

However, saying all that, I get what this client meant.  Even though he hasn’t tried it, he said it sounded too vague, that ‘mindfulness’ didn’t explain enough of what it was about or how to do it.  For him the name seemed to be a big part of why he hadn’t tried it. Hence my search for another word, a new title.

‘Being in the moment,’ or ‘living in the present’ may say more about what it is, but clients have told me they don’t think it’ll work for them, or, like this man, it sounds too ‘out there’.  Someone once told me she was already being careful and didn’t need to do a course on it.
For others it doesn’t sound medical enough, doesn’t carry enough gravitas.  I can’t help wondering if these people are still hanging out for the ‘one thing fixes all’ remedy.  The trouble here is that we’re not living in a one-pill-fixes-all world. Our current chronic diseases are too complex for monotherapies.

The compelling science behind how mindfulness works – how it can kick in a relaxation response that lowers stress & anxiety, how it can lessen gut pain, even body inflammation, and that it’s something that can alter the microbiome and, amazingly, gene expression – all this information seems to only reach those interested in health or lifestyle therapies, and not the ones who might need it the most.  It’s not on their radar until ill health has exhausted conventional medical routes and they somehow find a book or hear about cognitive therapy or an MBCT class (mindfulness based stress reduction), or they start working with a functional nutritionist, like me, who encourages it for helping with anxiety or IBS symptoms.

The thing about starting mindfulness is that we’re already doing it, this living in the present.  Some of us are just not doing it as consciously as we should.  And even though mindfulness is about developing a daily practice that will grow into something bigger and more sustained, into a higher awareness of our days, and of the many ‘present moments’, the key to starting it is to begin small, to keep it do-able.

I’m not a mindfulness expert or teacher, however the weekly mindfulness classes I went to about eight, maybe more?, years ago opened my eyes to the possibility of having a mindful practice in my daily life.
I remember during one of the early classes we were told to walk barefoot in the grass and listen carefully to the sounds around us, and then try doing it at home every day for any length of time we could manage.  It was a lightbulb moment for me, realizing it could be something enjoyable, something I could easily do inbetween work.  Also that I wouldn’t have to sit cross-legged for an hour cancelling all thoughts and finding a higher plane (which of course was my misinterpretation of meditation!)

Slowing down my daily pace in some way, at some point in the day, was key for me when I began (I’m speaking from the perspective of a busy person with a busy mind who likes to pack in lots).

In those early days, the more I read about mindfulness, the more I realized there was no rule about timing, no rule about what mindful practice I should do.  Listening to the breath is often a starting point, and it can be the exclusive daily practice for many.  I love it, all the more so since reading James Nestor’s book, Breath.  However, I’ve met clients over the years who hate it, who say they get anxious listening to their breath, so it really is very individual.
An hour of sewing or gardening might be mindful time for one but torture for another.  Examining pebbles on the beach for an hour might bore most people to tears except me.  Sitting still to watch the day slowly shift from twilight to sunset might be your daily quiet time but only a holiday treat for another. Closing your eyes for ten or more minutes, listening to your breath might be a huge leap of faith.

When I talk about mindfulness to clients I suggest they try whatever they enjoy, something that will slow them down into the Now moment.  Start their practice in small increments and take it from there, not beating themselves up if they need more time to get into a daily routine.  This was the sustaining advice I was given when I was first introduced to mindfulness.  After that, there’s a whole world of excellent books and qualfied teachers out there.

Now back to my first thought.  Is there another word you can think of for Mindfulness, something that might reinject it with oomph, or explain it better?  Something to describe this mindful awareness of our daily moments?  If so, I’d really love to hear from you. x