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tape-403591_1920It’s that time of year when we start to see the magazines and random “fitness gurus” telling us it’s time for a “New Year, New Body”, or to get a “bikini body”, whatever that is. After the celebrations of Christmas feasting, women (and men) are particularly vulnerable to this thinly-veiled attempt to make everyone feel inadequate and sign up to the latest fad diet or exercise regime.

If you’re struggling with your body image at this time of year, here’s some news for you that I’m not sure you know about. Your doctor doesn’t care about the way your body looks. We don’t care if you don’t have a six-pack, a flat tummy, and cellulite-free legs. We are aware of the dangers of body image problems – because most of us know the heart-sink feeling when someone walks in, hiding skin and bones under a baggy jumper, and we wonder how we are going to gently ask them if there is any possibility they have been restricting their food and/or exercising and have an abnormal appreciation of their body shape, i.e.. “Could you have Anorexia Nervosa?” We also see a lot of bulimics, both recovered and recovering.

So we don’t care about the way your body looks but we do care about how your body functions and what you are doing to help it work for as long as it should. Here are some of the things we do care about.

We do care about your weight, because excess weight can signal that you may develop high blood pressure, heart disease, and some cancers. If you’re overweight, we’ll help you with changing your diet and getting more active, and reducing other risk factors. We’ll measure your waist, because it’s an indication that you might get diabetes, and we don’t want you to develop blindness or kidney failure from this extremely common and devastating chronic illness. So we’ll put you on the scales and get the tape measure out. But not because you don’t measure up to looking like a fashion model. And we don’t need you to achieve perfection either. Losing just 5-10% of weight can have enormous positive changes to your health. 

We care about wrinkles because they can tell us you have sun-damaged skin, and we don’t want to be cutting out melanomas from your skin in the future, so we’ll remind you to slip, slop, slap.

We care if you come in looking sad, without that sparkle in your eye because it tells us you might be depressed, and we want to help you recover from this debilitating condition.

This New Year, how about making resolutions that don’t revolve around trying to look like a ridiculous teenage fashion model, especially with the revelations that the majority of photographs in glossy magazines are adulterated and don’t reflect what models really look like? Here are some resolutions that your doctor would be happy with.

I will eat five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit a day. 

I will aim to be active every day, for at least 30 minutes, and I will find enjoyable ways to lead a more active and less sedentary life. 

I will limit processed foods and refined carbohydrates. 

I will drink only in moderation (2 standard drinks for women, 4 for men a day) and have two alcohol free days a week. 

I will include legumes, nuts, olive oil, avocadoes, and other healthy fats in my diet. 

I will not eat excessive amounts of saturated fat (contained in some red meats, processed meats, full fat dairy products). 

I will limit or eliminate consumption of processed meats altogether. 

I will cultivate a healthy relationship with food. 

I will slip, slop, slap all the time, and will not sunbake (or should I say sunburn). 

I will not drink and drive. 

I will look after my mental health with enough sleep, practice of gratitude or mindfulness or similar, social connections, and regular exercise. 

I will make health a priority, and see my doctor for my preventive health checks

I will honour my body for what it is – an amazing creation, with arms that . can hug, hands that can make a meal and dress myself, and wipe my bottom, all functions that are taken for granted until they are gone. I’ll honour my legs that can take me from my bedroom to the world, on my own, without assistance. I’ll honour my brain, which helps me decide what is safe and what isn’t, remember who the members of my family are, and direct the rest of my body. I’ll honour my eyes, which allow me to gaze at sunsets and the beautiful faces of those I love. 

I’ll focus on what my body can do, not how it looks. And I’ll do everything to keep it ticking over just the way it should – without pain, without loss of function, with vitality. 

Happy New Year to all and feel free to add your health “resolutions” below. Wishing  you much health and happiness in 2017!

 

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Coffee. Coffee is the answer.

 

“I wanted to ask you how you manage to balance it so beautifully” she asked shyly. “Work, family…”

 

I felt like a fraud when the young PhD student said this to me. (Yes, I suffer from Impostor Syndrome at home too.) I don’t feel like I am balancing anything. Let alone beautifully.

 

It’s the end of a very long year and school is not out yet. I’m barely hanging on by a thread in these final weeks of the year. I am just so tired of the struggle.

 

I struggle every day with my career. There is a real desperation, the way a starving person looks at food he simply cannot afford. The loneliness of being a postdoc, the crushing rejections that seem to happen on a weekly basis, have worn me down. I feel like I am trying to claw my way out of a deep well, with those at the top quite non-plussed at my inability to get out to where they are.

 

I struggle at home too – the daily battle to get socks and shoes on (their feet, not mine), to get food into little tummies, to get small people in and out of the bath and into bed. The PhD student doesn’t see me snap at my children. She doesn’t see how I spend too much time on Facebook at night  because I am too tired to do anything else. She hasn’t seen me cry all the way through a chapter on “Mistakes” in my “Mindful discipline” audiobook (a brilliant book, by the way) – tears streaming down my cheeks all the way on my commute home, thinking of the countless ways I have failed my children.

 

So, balance? I’m not that good at it. Work and life consume me and I am wrung out at this time of the year, with almost nothing left to give.

 

And yet, I can see that she sees something different. Perhaps she sees a part of me I am blind to. Perhaps I see the same thing in my role models – the hugely successful academic women who have raised children and do this well. Perhaps they, too, feel like balance is a load of bollocks. (Excuse the language).

 

Perhaps what she sees is someone who wakes up every day and shows up, who fights for the things she loves, who is determined to make it work despite it all. She sees the part of me that is organised, resilient, resourceful, and able to laugh at myself. She sees, somehow, that I seek ways to keep myself going during the week – a beachside run, some meditation practice, blogging on my smartphone in the car before picking my son up from daycare. She sees the gratitude that drives me, literally in my darkest moments – the way I linger in bed breathing in my sleeping children during those cold mornings when I face a pre-dawn commute. And she must see the times I am in flow at work, and when I say a silent prayer for being paid to do something that I love. Perhaps this is the true balancing act. The fierce determination to create a meaningful life, even if it’s no walk in the park; the ability to see the Yin and Yang of our full catastrophe.

 

Perhaps balance is all about resilience, the “bouncing back”. It’s about digging deep, but also knowing how to fill the cup again after it has run empty.

 

I am looking forward to bouncing back after the Christmas holidays. I have not had a proper break for more than 12 months. I have had sneaky little breaks here and there but they have been much too short for any lasting rejuvenation. I have both career and mummy burnout. But the end of the year is almost within reach.

 

Most of all I am looking forward to a few weeks of not having to explain to my children that they have to put their shoes and socks on every morning and hurry up because Mummy is late.

Wishing all my loyal followers a safe, happy, relaxing end of year break. Merry Christmas if that is what you celebrate. And a very happy and healthy New Year. x

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This guest post is written by Tara Heath, lifestyle and health journalist. Thanks Tara for providing a wonderful post that I think many people will find helpful!

There’s comes a time in every parent’s life when he or she realizes it’s time to start caring – and I mean really caring – for their health. For some, it’s a health scare in the family that puts the world on its head and moves things into perspective. For others, it’s feeling tired all the time, or perhaps feeling flat and unmotivated. And for others still, it’s a pair of jeans you once loved that just won’t zip.

Whatever the reason, nearly every parent who decides to kick start a fitness journey has the same question: HOW? After all, whether or not we are working at home or outside of the home, being a parent can feel like you barely have time to brush your teeth twice a day. Taking even thirty minutes to focus on our physical health seems nearly impossible. Plus, having childcare responsibilities mean it’s not as easy as it used to be to trot off to that after-work gym class. But it shouldn’t be impossible. You might need to get creative! I’ve got a few suggestions for you that will help you get back into a fitness routine. These tips work well for all parents (and childless people too!) but particularly for stay-at-home parents to take advantage of nap time.

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Find Your Own Personal Gym

 

You certainly don’t need a gym to get fit. People all over the world have been keeping in shape for hundreds of years without enormous gymnasiums to guide them. So don’t let your lack of gym membership hold you back – you don’t need to pay to get fit any more!

 

Squeeze in some calisthenics while your baby naps (ha ha) or between meetings at the office. The dining room chair can be great equipment for tricep dips or squats after dinner. Hit the living floor for crunches and push ups during commercial breaks of your favorite show (or perhaps during Peppa Pig).

 

With a lot of determination and ingenuity, you can transform your home into an exercise haven that helps you reach your fitness goals.

 

Check out YouTube Fitness Gurus

 

There is no doubt that Internet changed life as we knew it. A wealth of knowledge rests at our fingertips, and it’s up to us to uncover it. So why not plumb the depths of cyberspace for some exercises you can do at home? This is a tried and tested method for all people to get fit without even leaving the house. Plus, it’s free!

 

YouTube is particularly good for at-home workouts. There are so many channels that focus on different types of fitness, like pilates, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and hip-hop cardio. These mini-classes are great ways to try out a new exercise. They’re typically quick (usually under 30 minutes) so it’s an efficient way to use your baby’s nap time for fitness, even if you have a catnapper.

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Build Strength and Get Zen

 

If you’ve just had a baby, or even if it’s simply been a while since you’ve exercised, yoga is a wonderful way to ease back into a more active lifestyle. Yoga is low impact (great for people whose joints give them trouble with more high impact workouts) but it still builds strength in your core muscles (especially important for us mums). Plus, yoga encourages mindfulness and meditation, which can be very important when you’re a parent!

 

Yoga is also great for beginners – even a few seemingly simple poses can yield great results. This is a great gentle workout to try out while the baby naps. Who knows? By the time she wakes you might be in a calmer state of mind.

 

Get the Little One Involved

 

You might be thinking, “These are wonderful ideas for when my baby is sleeping. But what will happen when he just won’t nap?” Well, there are certainly ways to exercise even with your baby on your hip. Most of these exercises even give you precious bonding time with your baby. They may even end up becoming your favorites!

 

Lay on the floor with your baby on your belly (holding him securely, of course). Do a simple sit up, planting a kiss on his little cheek when you reach the top! Lift him over your head for a nice arm workout, or even hold him close while you walk around the room. While this may seem like normal “playtime” with the baby, the soreness in your arms the next day will tell you all you need to know.

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The decision to focus on your health and fitness is an important one, and will benefit both you and your family. Your children will also learn that mum or dad prioritises being active and healthy. So don’t let being a busy parent hold you back! Give these tips a try, and tweak them until you find what works for you.

 

Written by Tara Heath

 

 

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It’s RU OK day, a day to remind us of the importance of good mental health, a day to think about the people we love who might not be ok, who might be struggling with untold depression or even suicidal.

This post is written not for the people who have severe depression or significant mental health problems. If you are experiencing poor mental health to the point of not being able to cope with your daily routine (work, family, can’t even get out of bed to face the day…), are relying on substances to numb your pain, and/or are having thoughts of suicide, this post is not for you. What you need is to have a diagnosis by a trained health professional followed by the help that you need (for depression, this is intensive psychological therapies, antidepressants, sometimes hospitalisation). You must pick up the phone now and call someone. Get a friend or family member to come over, and stay with you until you can see a doctor or mental health nurse. Or call Lifeline on 131114.

This post is for people like me – we’re struggling to be adults. We get overwhelmed. We’re human. We get anxious from time to time. Some days, showing up is difficult, but we always do it. We’re tired.

Here are some things that can help us thrive instead of simply survive, and be the resilient, compassionate, calm versions of ourselves that we so very much want to be. Like many things on this blog, these have also been tried and tested by yours truly.

E-mental health

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There are a number of excellent, evidence-based, electronic resources designed to improve mental health. Here are some of the recommended e-mental health resources that you might find helpful. You can find a comprehensive list on the mindhealthconnect website.

Smiling Mind

Smiling Mind is a wonderful app that teaches you mindfulness meditation. The app take you through an introduction to mindfulness, with short guided meditations (some only a minute long!) followed by a number of modules. There are also programs for children, adolescents, schools and workplaces. The app builds on the growing body of research pointing to the many benefits of mindfulness including increased resilience and reduced stress. I’m listening to Smiling Mind daily at the moment and love it. A related app created by Smiling Mind is Mind the Bump, aimed at pregnant or new parents, with a range of superb guided meditations. I find that the guided meditations are just as useful for non-parents!

Reach Out Worry Time and Reach Out Breathe are two very practical little apps developed by the Reach Out program/website. Worry Time lets you set a reminder every day to write down all of your worries. This allows you to get on with the rest of your day because you know you have a set “worry time”! the Breathe app teaches you to slow down your breathing.

MoodGym was one of the earliest e-mental health websites developed in Australia and is still regarded as one of the best. MoodGym delivers online cognitive behavioural therapy, the kind that would usually be delivered by a psychologist face-to-face. Ideal if you cannot afford the time or money to visit a therapist on a regular basis.

MyCompass is a website developed by the Black Dog Institute that helps you track your moods, lifestyle habits, and stress levels, and provides you with a toolkit to deal with stress, anxiety and depression. The only downside is that you cannot access the toolkit when using a device – you must be using a computer.

Keeping a gratitude journal

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Like mindfulness, gratitude can seem like a buzzword when it comes to mental health, but there is increasing research that demonstrates the benefits of practising gratitude. The thing is, just thinking grateful thoughts or having an “attitude of gratitude” may not be enough to realise the benefits. Keeping a gratitude journal can be a more powerful way of practising gratitude. This does not need to be done every day – as little as two or three times as week seems to suffice. I have come to look forward to my pre-bedtime gratitude journal writing. Another tip I have read was to focus on being grateful for the people and relationships in your life rather than objects.

Banish fight-or-flight: get moving

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If you’re struggling with flat moods, low motivation, and low grade anxiety, try increasing the frequency and intensity of your exercise (or, try doing some altogether!!) This is a sure-fire way of getting a good dose of wellbeing and improving stress levels. Our bodies need to move, and our minds need our bodies to move. My worst days are when I spend too much time at the desk or computer, followed by slumping in bed at night. I know now from experience that I just need to move – my solution is to go for a run or if I can’t, a 25 minute kettle bell workout at home. Five days a week works much better than three, as the effects from exercise seem to abate after 24-28 hours.

I hope these suggestions help you! I’d love to hear what self-help techniques you find useful for managing stress and preventing anxiety and depression x

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hands-578917_1280I have a dark secret. Perhaps not a secret, as I do pour out my heart and soul in this blog. But here it is.

I’m not perfect.

I’m imperfect. Like those knobbly apples and pears that sell for $3 a kilo less because they have bumps, blemishes, and look funny. I’m not one of those smooth, symmetrical fruit that shine on the more expensive pile.

I have flaws. I know these very well, and for most of my life I either hidden them or “hustled for perfection” as though I can overcompensate somehow for not being flawless.

Inasmuch as I eschew a healthy lifestyle and do my hardest to practise what I preach, there are weeks when I struggle to get out for a run, when the rain, the cold, the school lunches, the deadlines, the commuting, and just life get on top of me.

As much as I try to practise being mindful and grateful, I am not always Deepak Chopra at home. I could very well me called a Momster at times. And I struggle with containing my moods, managing my anxiety, keeping depression at bay.

When I started on a journey to find the answers to health and happiness, I realised this wasn’t a straightforward journey. It meandered aimlessly and was full of obstacles. It’s thorny. But I’m making an authentic attempt to get to my destination. And I know I am not alone.

This is one of the “gifts of imperfection” that Brene Brown talks about in her amazing book. Connection. You’re not alone. The other gifts are courage and compassion, and these too have been unexpected and humbling gifts for me. But connection is the most profound, and it has helped me enormously as a person and also as a GP. The gift of being imperfect has been a deeper sense of connection, and compassion, in my relationships with my patients.

So to my patients who also struggle with anxiety and depression, I want to say, you are not alone.

To those who feel overwhelmed by the exhaustion of life, you are not alone.

To the new mum I saw walking down the street, tiny baby strapped to her chest, holding on to a takeaway coffee cup with a mix of tenacity and desperation, you are not alone.

Even if I do not live your struggle (and thank heaven I have relatively few struggles) this experience of owning my imperfections tells me that whatever happens to us, we can be assured that we are not alone. Although each experience, each tragedy, each challenge is unique to the individual, the struggle to make sense of it, and to build resilience, makes us one human race.

One of the true gifts of this connection borne of shared suffering is that support groups can offer great comfort and strength. Here are some support groups that can help people with mental health issues.

There is always help, always someone willing to listen to your story. Your GP, a counsellor, a phone line, a friend. There is always somebody to talk to.

Because when you realise you’re not alone, you somehow have the courage to face what it is that you are facing, with someone at your side, battling it out too. You just have to reach out. There is always someone next to you, willing to hold your hand, even if only for a moment’s connection.

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Freshwater Beach. Gotta love a multi-beach run.
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Leaving Melbourne for Sydney may seem like a small move, a mere 963km, but it was a enormous upheaval for me. I felt like a tree that had dug very deep and comfortable roots that were suddenly and painfully ripped out.

We are now putting down new roots, waiting for them to get deeper, take hold, and keep us stable when the storms hit, as they do from time to time.

The first few weeks were particularly difficult. One of my priorities, apart from settling everyone into their new routines, was to find a new running route to replace my beloved and well-worn track, the iconic “‘Tan” in Melbourne. Three or four times a week I escaped to this haven, to hear the crunch of gravel under my trainers, breathe the crisp fresh air, pass fellow runners and mums walking their prams, and just disappear into my spiritual home, the place where I felt strong, safe, relaxed, confident, renewed.

My last run around the Tan, or Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, day before we moved out
My last run around the Tan, or Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, day before we moved out

When we got to Sydney I explored different running routes. I was completely underwhelmed with running around my suburb, pleasant as it is, but pounding pavement next to family homes is not my thing. The Spit to Manly trail was interesting, but too isolated to warrant solo running as a vulnerable female. I ran to the surrounding suburbs and while I found the hills challenging enough, I just didn’t feel it in my heart. My heart and soul needed to soar, and I needed to return a stronger, happier woman, especially when it sometimes felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. I returned sweaty, but something wasn’t right. Until I found this place.

The start of my run - the gorgeous Shelly Beach.
The start of my run – the gorgeous Shelly Beach.

It’s not like I didn’t know about Shelly – but I decided to jump in the car and drive there to start my runs, and then I ran along this place.

Iconic Manly beach.
Iconic Manly beach.

And then, ending up in this place, which means going up and down and impressive hill, and then back again to Shelly, for a nice heart-pumping 7 or 8K with hill training in between.

Freshwater Beach. Gotta love a multi-beach run.
Freshwater Beach. Gotta love a multi-beach run.

And as I ran along the beach(es), with the waves pounding (or sometimes just lapping), the salty air in my face, the kids riding their scooters and surfers racing towards the water with their boards, the ocean swimmers in their swim caps, the tourists taking it all in, I felt something familiar. I felt a lifting of my heart, a singing in my ears, a smile on my face, and a sense of flow, of everything being perfect in that moment. I had found my new spiritual running home.

I wish I could say that I have been here religiously every week. Actually, I have for most weeks, but it’s harder to get here now because it’s a car ride away. But I do know that my soul longs to be there, to drink in the sea air, that my ears need to hear the sounds of the surf, that my feet need to pound that pavement. So I go, as often as I can, even if it’s only for twenty minutes, just so that I can keep on going.

Because sometimes putting down new roots means finding new routes.

Post Script. Recently, an extraordinary storm hit Manly and the walkway between Manly and Shelly Beach was destroyed. I wish all of those who experienced storm damage the very best in their rebuilding and look forward to seeing this very special walkway rebuilt soon. 

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Bliss balls
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My daughter started school this year and so began the routine of scratching my head for a “morning tea” snack every day. If I ever had grandiose ideas about packing lovingly hand-baked goods accompanied with sweet hand-written notes every day in her school bag, they were dashed very early on into the school term. She’s lucky if she gets a packet of brown rice cakes (at least they are brown!!) thrown hastily in there.

One thing I can whip up easily are these date, oat and seed bliss balls which I have modified from Cooking From Busy Mums’ recipe.  I didn’t have sultanas so I substituted with half a cup of extra dates, and half a cup of sunflower seeds, and I also added chia seeds. Really, you could throw in any seeds you like which would add extra fibre and protein into the bliss balls. They are nut free and free from refined sugar although the dates are extremely high in “natural” sugars. However, there’s also plenty of fibre in there which will slow down the absorption of sugar. My kids helped me roll the balls so it was very quick work with no baking and minimal mess. Enjoy!

Date, Oat and Seed Bliss Balls

1 1/2 cups dates

1/2 cup desiccated coconut

1/2 cup oats

1/2 cup pumpkin, chia or sunflower seeds – anything you like, really

1/4 cup cocoa (or cacao, if you wish)

3 tbsp water or enough so that it isn’t dry and holds together well

Extra desiccated coconut for rolling in

 

Just throw everything into a blender or food processor and process until smooth. 

Kids love rolling these so enlist their help in rolling small amounts into balls (about 1 heaped teaspoon is good) and roll in desiccated coconut. 

They will freeze well for 3 months.

Enjoy in moderation!

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Hello there. It’s been a long time. I wanted to say that I’m all right. It’s been a tough few months of transition but I’m doing okay.

I’ve been practising mindfulness. I wish I could say I am doing some actual meditation, like sitting on a cushion and breathing. I am not. But I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s amazing book “Mindfulness for Beginners” and it was an eye-opener. And I’ve tried my best to transplant his wisdom straight into my daily life. I wanted to share with you some of the insights I’ve gained recently. It’s not like my life is suddenly, immediately, amazingly and 110% better. I have my ups and downs. But slowly, I feel like I’m making inroads.

Let me share with you the reason I picked up that book. I’m a full time working mother. Despite my best efforts, I was spending the most part of the day:

(1) Stressing about the million things I had to get done (grant application, commute to work, meetings, job applications, writing papers, prove myself to the world, exercise, make lunches, connect with my children, make nutritious food, remember the note for the excursion, do my Business Activity Statement, groceries… you get the picture),  and

( 2) Spending every evening wishing my children were in bed already. This second part made me stop suddenly and think, this is not a way to be living. To wish my children away, because I am so overwhelmed I just need some space on my own. And Number 1 made me feel like a “human doing” as JKZ says, not a “human being“.

Yes I can outsource, I can delegate, I can take shortcuts, I can reduce my expectations, I can do all those things that working mothers are blithely advised to do. It wouldn’t solve my problems. My problems are all in my head.

Here is the first part of my journey. I’ll share more as I go along. I hope these will help you too. It’s not unique to working mothers – I think everyone can relate. But I struggle daily with the demands of work and home, so my aim is to thrive and experience every moment without any regrets and without having wished these years away.

1. I learned that thoughts are not real. They’re things I have made up.

That’s right – thoughts are not reality. When I realised that I don’t actually have to think quite so much, it was such a relief I almost cried. Even now when I remind myself of this, I feel my brain suddenly relax and give out a huge sigh. What? I don’t need to obsess and think all the time? It’s not real? Life will go on if I stop going around in circles in my head with my endless to do list? Wow.

2. You cannot get rid of your thoughts. But you don’t have to get carried away by them.

This was another revelation. I always thought I had clear my mind and not have thoughts. Once I accepted that they would always be there, bubbling up from the surface like a simmering stew, I could accept them and let them go. They are just my brain cells firing after all – if I didn’t have thoughts I may very well be in a coma! But I don’t have to grab on to the endless thoughts that pop up in my head and end up in hopeless rumination. It’s like sitting next to rapids and watching sticks bob around and flow down the river. As long as you stay on the banks, and don’t jump in, nothing will happen to you. (The sticks are like thoughts, obviously). But the moment you dive in and grab on to a stick… good luck to you. In the words of Queen Elsa – Let It GO!

3. Mindfulness allows you to see things as they really are.

It’s not that I don’t have thoughts, but I can challenge negative ones a bit better. And then I have really useful thoughts, you know, the ones like “Maybe I should ask so and so to be on my team at work, that would be really helpful!” And mindfulness helps me refocus, to get out of my head so to speak. It’s a bit like zooming out of a shot and seeing the entire ocean or forest or beautiful landscape in front of you instead of focussing on one tiny leaf that has been magnified hundreds of times. I honestly feel as though my head, which sometimes feels enormous from so much over-thinking, suddenly shrinks to a normal size, and I become a normal person again. I suddenly remember my place in the world, and that there are billions of people with problems, and that mine aren’t particularly special, or difficult, and that the sky is blue right now, the leaves are moving gently with the breeze, sounds of the outside world suddenly reach my ears, and I notice people, cars, trees, flowers, clouds again when before I was just existing in a maelstrom in my head.

There are more insights from the book which I’ll save for another post. The link is an affiliate link which means Amazon pays me a dollar if you buy the book after clicking on my link. But that’s not the reason I wrote this post at all. I just wanted to share what it’s brought to my life, and I’ve been sharing it with many of my patients. I hope it helps you x

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sunset-1207326_960_720I made a New Year’s Resolution to practise mindfulness and gratitude this year.

As with many things, life has made this good intention rather challenging to put into place.

Our New Year was marked with a goodbye to our old home and resettling into a new city, with new jobs, new childcare centres, and new schools to navigate. In the upheaval, I lost a number of my usual coping mechanisms, and became understandably sad (from the grief of letting go) and anxious (from worries about the future. How will I perform in my new role? How will we cope with school? How will I not fall apart?)

All the while, I tried very hard to practise mindfulness. I paid attention to sounds, sights, tastes, smells. I tried to live every moment. And I found out one thing. It’s very hard to be mindful when you are sad and anxious, because you become so aware of how very sad and how very anxious you are. You become aware of the heaviness in your heart, the constriction in your throat, the tears pricking at your eyelids. You become aware of the way you have been holding your breath for what seems like two weeks, of the tightness in your shoulders, the stabbing headaches. You become aware of just how overwhelmed you are right now, and even though you tell yourself “It’s ok to be sad“, “This is just a transition“, “Everything is going to be ok“, you still feel… sad. And very anxious.

Mindfulness has been hailed as the answer to so many ailments, and has been trialled for people with a history of depression. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy has been developed to help depressed patients. But I do not know if mindfulness is meant to help people who are just intensely sad after a loss or transition.

Perhaps, though, despite the weeks of feeling like I was a failure at practising mindfulness, I may have learned something from the practice after all. I am now no longer sitting with the feelings of sadness, or worry, but I am simply learning to be alive. That is all. When I return to the breath, it now reminds me that I am alive, and also that I am only alive in this very moment. Just focussing on being alive, rather than being sad, or worried, brings me some relief. Perhaps I am also a lot less sad and anxious as time goes on, as we start to grow tentative roots in our new community, as the unfamiliar becomes a little bit more familiar every day. Who knows.

Right now, I am grateful, that I am alive in this moment, just alive, nothing more. The knowledge that I am breathing, and being, and living, also reminds me that there is so much potential in this moment, and the next, and the next. And that helps me carry on.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “moment to moment awareness, without judgement”. I would re-define this as “moment to moment awareness of being alive, without judgement”. And that is how I think we could be mindful, even in the midst of emotional turmoil.

x

 

PS. Other ways to cope with sadness are talking to people, and exercise. If you are struggling with anxiety and/or depression, speak to a professional x

 

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I look back on my PhD with a misty-eyed fondness, as I enter the brave new world of post-docness. I find myself making glib statements to fellow students like “I would do it all again in a heartbeat!” (much to their annoyance). I all but convince mothers to do PhDs, and PhD students to become mothers. This is all I knew for the past five years, of course, and I can honestly say it was a beautiful five years. Perhaps I am forgetting the heartbreak, the hard slog, the disappointments, the mid-PhD slump, the struggle with “the beast” that was my thesis. “The beast” is now prettily packaged up in a pdf, and is on its way to two hapless, anonymous academics who will read it late at night on the weekend, or perhaps while sitting in the bath. (The latter hopefully not, if they are reading a digital version). But I digress, again.

I have written before of some tips and tricks on combining a PhD with raising small children. Both are incredibly demanding on their own. Both require a certain degree of insanity to embark upon. But let me tell you why two insane things make a beautiful, chaotic and authentic experience, one that is incredibly satisfying, and one that I will never regret.

It starts with the juxtaposition of the two events in question. One is gloriously messy and unpredictable. The other is a bit less messy and a bit less unpredictable, and can be a form of pure escapism. Fleeing the family home, littered with dirty dishes and unfolded laundry, with food still stuck on the table, and toys scattered on the floor, to a shining haven of academic journals all neatly filed in Endnote (ha ha!), perhaps a pleasant little writing task or two, some re-formatting of tables, a cup of tea and a chat with one’s supervisor? This was my little haven and my escape for five years. At the end of this self-imposed exile, I returned home with aching eyes and eager heart, ready for that most wonderful time of day – two small, enthusiastic, filthy, warm and delicious children flinging themselves into my arms.

Yes, life was beautiful. 

At the tail end of my PhD, I was drowning in the terrible anxiety of trying to move our family interstate, amidst the unknowns of not having a home to go to, grief at selling the family home, grief at saying goodbye to our loved ones, and general disgustingness of having to move house (the packing, the home inspections, the new home negotiations, the mortgages…) My supervisor was always extremely concerned at the dire state of affairs I was in. How on earth was I coping? Would I be able to finish the PhD on time? Was the PhD becoming too stressful? (I wisely – NOT! – chose to submit my PhD at the same time as moving. I do not recommend this part, at all). I think that every time we met, her brain would implode at how overwhelmed I was. This is what I said to her. The PhD is my solace. It’s the only thing I feel I can control. It’s the one beautiful, constant thing in my life amongst the chaos. 

Talk about having a different perspective on things when you’re super stressed about life.

And this is my point (yes this rambling post has a point, apparently, apart from also being my therapy today). Having children does not insure you against life happening to you. Stuff happens and it will be hard to deal with. You might worry about your finances. Loved ones become sick. Your relationship with your partner might deteriorate. Yet people run marathons after having children. They climb mountains. They do whatever it is that their heart and soul leads them to. And it is the doing of these things (the stuff of your dreams) that can insulate you against life. It can become your solace instead of your burden. It can carry you through the difficult years, the losses, the grief, the uncertainties. It’s a form of regaining some control.

I’m not saying it wasn’t hard at times, that there weren’t times when I struggled, or wanted to give up. There were times when I was bored, unmotivated, and so sick of my thesis I developed “thesis nausea” (I truly believe this is a real medical syndrome. Hey, I’m a doctor.) But being a parent gave me a huge advantage. I had grit. I knew how to stick it out. I had survived months, no years, of living on 3 hours sleep a night. Thesis? Ha! Easy peasy compared to that.

But combining a PhD with motherhood has incredible benefits, such as the flexibility of work/study arrangements. Yes, it is possible (it is even possible to submit on time, without needing an extension). You need courage, coffee, and good friends. You need to take breaks. You need to be patient. Most of all, you need to take life by the hands, and say To hell with it, I’m doing this insane thing, I’m going to do it well and I’m going to finish it. Because that’s kind of what you did when you first became a parent. And at the end of the difficult years, you say the same thing about both.

I would do it all again. In a heartbeat. 

 

x

I’d love to hear from you. Have you had a different experience combining academia and motherhood? (I am aware of the fact that everyone’s experience is unique). or have you loved it just as much as I did? 

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