Let’s get physical!

During the time we have been in lockdown due to Covid-19, it has been fantastic to see so many people out and about, walking, running, or cycling, on their own or with family members. It seems the general population have realised the benefits of time spent being active in the great outdoors. I really hope that once life returns to some sort of normality, this continues. Here’s why…

In 2018, I was a fairly active 42 year old mum of 3 when I realised just how big an impact exercise had on my life. It became immediately apparent when my body began to fail me and I was unable to continue the physical activities I enjoyed. 

It wasn’t long before the effect on my mood became apparent; I plummeted into depression and soon found myself at my GP’s surgery using up the entire box of tissues on her desk! The weeks and months ahead were life-changing, but I learnt I great deal about myself and about the benefits of exercise, that until that point, I’d just taken for granted.

Exercise and Mood

There is a great deal of evidence out there that shows how physical activity has a positive impact on our mood. Researchers have found that  study participants feel more content, more awake and calmer after being physically active compared to after periods of inactivity and less than half an hour of exercise can increase focus and concentration. They have also discovered that the effect of physical activity on mood was greatest when mood was initially low.

Stress

When things happen in life,  that make us feel threatened or upset in some way, our body’s defences take over creating a stress response. This may make us feel a variety of uncomfortable physical symptoms and make us behave differently. You’ve probably heard of fight, flight or freeze response, and this is an example of this. During these events we might also experience emotions more intensely.

Common signs of stress include sleeping problems, increased sweating and loss of appetite. These can all be triggered by a sudden increase of stress hormones in our body. It is specifically the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline, which raise our blood pressure, increase our heart rate and increase the rate at which we sweat, in order to prepare us for an emergency response, allowing us to escape that uncomfortable situation.

They can also reduce blood flow to our skin and can reduce our stomach activity, while cortisol, another stress hormone, releases fat and sugar into the system to boost our energy. Inevitably, after the initial boom, where all these chemicals are suddenly flooding our bloodstream, comes the bust, when levels eventually crash.

Physical exercise can be very effective in relieving stress. Once again, research has shown that highly active individuals tend to have lower stress rates compared to individuals who are less active.

Self-esteem

Exercise not only has a positive impact on our physical health, but it can also increase our self-esteem – how we feel about ourselves and how we perceive our self-worth. It is a key indicator of our mental wellbeing and our ability to cope with the stresses of life.

Research studies have shown physical exercise has a positive influence on our self-esteem and self-worth. This has been found in both males and females of all ages.

Depression and anxiety

Physical activity can be an alternative treatment for depression, with far fewer side effects compared to antidepressants.

Exercise can reduce levels of anxiety in people with mild symptoms and may also be helpful for treating clinical anxiety. |It is a treatment option that is available to everyone for very little cost, if any.

What can you do?

If, like me, you don’t have the inclination to join a gym, you can start your own strength building sessions in the comfort of your own home, with nothing more than a couple of bottles of water, or a wall to lean against. Gym-less workouts are a whole other blog post, but in the meantime, there are many videos out there covering everything from HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) to yoga.

Check out Joe Wicks the Body Coach for a variety of different ability HIIT sessions, or Yoga with Adrienne, if you fancy something a little more relaxing. These are just a couple of examples, but there are many, many more out there.

You could just walk your dog, or just take yourself around the block, for 10 minutes of fresh air. Or perhaps you would rather stay in your own surroundings and do a spot of gardening?

All out takes is that decision to spend 10 minutes a day doing something that gets you moving.

I cannot begin to describe just how important exercise has become to me. It has been pointed out to me many times that physical activity has been key in my recovery.

Exercise has been a huge part of my life for many years. Not only has it helped me to become physically fitter and stronger, I now I find that by pushing my limits, by getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, I feel far better prepared to face whatever life throws my way.

So if you think your mental health and wellbeing is a bit low at the moment, why not commit do so something to change it for the better? Making that commitment to just 10 minutes of physical activity now can lead to so many benefits to our physical and mental health. Don’t put it off… Take that first step today. You really will thank yourself for it.

When your being is not so well…

It was around this time last year when my mental health was really beginning to take a downward turn.

Having gone through the ordeal of a brain tumour diagnosis, haemorrhage and life-changing surgery, I had put much of what I had been feeling to the back of my mind in order to try and focus on the here and now.

I thought that was a good thing to do. I mean, if I didn’t think about it would go away, right? Wrong.

You can only put a lid on those thoughts for so long before they come simmering back to the surface.

The first anniversary of my surgery came and went. Shortly after, my mood began to spiral. Neuro fatigue was continuing to be an issue no matter what I tried. Added to that, I would soon lose 2 good friends to cancer, then just before Christmas, another close friend to suicide. I began to feel incredibly guilty for still being here when others weren’t, and just getting through each day portraying business as usual was getting harder and harder.

Now had this been any other part of my body, I’m sure I would have asked for help sooner, and I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t, then those around me would have made me. Why is it, that because we can’t see what’s going on in our heads, we somehow feel it is somehow less important than any other ailment we might suffer? I mean, you wouldn’t continue to try walking around with your leg hanging off would you?

Eventually, I reached out by email to Andrea, my skull base nurse at Salford Royal. I really just wanted someone to understand how I was feeling, as so many of those around just don’t get it. I explained that I felt I was just falling further and further into a bit of a black hole, where nothing seemed to work anymore. I didn’t feel like I was recovering anymore. Quite the opposite in fact. I felt like any progress I had made was unravelling.

Exercise, that had always been a bit of a coping mechanism for me, was becoming impossible as I was just so tired all the time. My already compromised balance seemed to get worse. I struggled to do two jobs and then find the time and energy to be there for others, and for a little self care.  I wasn’t in a good place. I felt totally alone.

Together, we thought it would be good for me to speak to a neuropsychologist and so a referral was made to my local Acquired Brain Injury team.

It wasn’t long until I met with the case manager, to discuss what kind of help they could offer; it wasn’t long until all those thoughts and feelings I’d tried to keep a lid on bubbled to the surface.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, for the last six months or so, I have been meeting regularly with the ABI team. They have taught me a number of strategies for managing fatigue, and we have also talked through lots of other things that have been an issue for me. It has been a really helpful experience and I have learnt a lot from it. If you ever feel this way, you really should talk to someone.

Now, I want to share with you something simple that has really helped me with those racing thoughts. Mindfulness. It might seem airy-fairy to some of you, but it really isn’t. It’s a technique that takes time to master.

You see, I thought actually dealing with my feelings was wrong; that they were best swept under the carpet. Those thoughts and feelings are real though. Those things really did happen to me, so they should be accepted and validated. Mindfulness practice is a way of doing this, accepting them as they pop into your head, and then moving on.

Whether or not you need mindfulness for the reasons I do, or just as a means of relaxation, merely taking a few minutes out of your day has been proven to have real benefits to our health and wellbeing.

Mindfulness improves well-being. Increasing your capacity for mindfulness supports many attitudes that contribute to a satisfied life. Being mindful makes it easier to enjoy the pleasures in life as they occur, helps you become fully engaged in activities, and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events. By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, are less preoccupied with concerns about success and self-esteem, and are better able to form deep connections with others.

Mindfulness improves physical health. If greater well-being isn’t enough of an incentive, scientists have discovered that mindfulness techniques can help improve our physical health in a variety of ways. Mindfulness helps to relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain,  improve sleep (another issue of mine!), and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties.

Mindfulness improves mental health. In recent years, psychotherapists have began to consider mindfulness practice as an important element in the treatment of a number of problems, including depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Some believe that mindfulness works by helping people to accept their experiences, including those painful ones, rather than avoiding them.

Mindfulness techniques

There is more than one way to practice mindfulness, but the goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment.

Basic mindfulness meditation – Sit quietly and focus on your natural breathing or on a word or “mantra” that you repeat silently. Allow thoughts to come and go without judgment and return to your focus on breath or mantra.

Body sensations – Notice subtle body sensations such as an itch or tingling without judgment and let them pass. Notice each part of your body in succession from head to toe.

Sensory – Notice sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. Name them “sight,” “sound,” “smell,” “taste,” or “touch” without judgment and let them go.

Emotions – Allow emotions to be present without judgment. Practice a steady and relaxed naming of emotions: “joy,” “anger,” “frustration.” Accept the presence of the emotions without judgment and let them go.

Urge surfing – It helps you to cope with cravings (for addictive substances, behaviours or even food!) and allow them to pass. Notice how your body feels as the craving enters. Replace the wish for the craving to go away with the certain knowledge that it will subside.

Mindfulness can be developed through developing a systematic method of focusing your attention. You can learn these techniques on your own, following instructions in books or online videos or apps. You may prefer to learn as part of a teacher-led group. If you do, then look for someone using meditation in a way compatible with your beliefs and goals.

If you have a medical condition, you may prefer a medically oriented program that incorporates meditation. Ask your GP surgery or hospital about local groups.

Getting started on your own

Mindfulness meditation builds upon your ability to remain focussed. Here’s how it works:

Go with the flow. In mindfulness meditation, once you establish concentration, you observe the flow of inner thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without dismissing them, judging them as good or bad.

Pay attention. You may also notice external sounds, sights, and touch that make up your moment-to-moment experience. The challenge is not to latch onto a particular idea, emotion, or sensation, or to get caught in thinking about the past or the future. Instead, you watch what comes and goes in your mind and discover which mental habits produce a feeling of well-being or suffering.

Stay with it. At times, this process may not seem relaxing at all, but over time it provides a key to greater happiness and self-awareness as you become comfortable with a wider and wider range of your experiences.

Above all, mindfulness practice involves accepting whatever arises in your awareness at each moment. It involves being kind and forgiving toward yourself.

If your mind wanders into planning, daydreaming, or criticism, notice where it has gone and gently redirect it to sensations in the present.

By practicing accepting your experience during meditation, it becomes easier to accept whatever comes your way during the rest of your day.

Eventually, you can learn to develop and apply mindfulness to many everyday activities. This might be whilst eating, or even during exercise.

Mindfulness running has become an important part of my weekly sessions and the results of this seem to be paying off, with me more able to focus on pace, without feeling the urge to outrun everyone else I might come across!

So there it is. Spend a few moments each day being mindful, and see what benefits it brings to your life.

I have found the app Headspace to be really useful, but there many other resources out there. Have a look around and see what works for you.

Just another day?

Lying in bed wide awake again!. Exactly 2 years ago I did the grand tour of northwest hospitals. The scary reality was that I had survived a life threatening brain haemorrhage caused by my tumour, but at that time I hadn’t realised just what a close call it was. To be honest, I have never experienced pain like it and back then couldn’t have cared less. I am forever grateful to the incredible NHS staff who fixed me.

For many of you, today is just another day. For me, it marks another anniversary and I don’t think that will ever change… It still scares me to think how very different things could have been. I now live with the knowledge that life can change in an instant. I’m ok with that though; I guess when you’ve had such a close call you look at life very differently.

An experience like that changes you, changes your perspective. You have a great appreciation and deep sense of gratitude for the most insignificant things. You realise what really matters and what doesn’t. It has made me determined to make every single day count.

Although I’ve been left with various physical and mental challenges, with the support of my family I know this won’t get the better of me.

Recovery from any brain injury can at times feel like a neverending and at times a lonely journey, but I’ve always enjoyed a challenge and that’s exactly what this journey has become.

The last year especially has had a few low points, but there have also been some incredible highs. I look forward to seeing how much further I can go and just how much I’m capable of.

So please, live everyday like it’s your last. That something you’ve always wanted to do, go ahead and do it (or at least make plans to) because none of us know what lies ahead. Control of your life along with everything you cherish could be taken from you in an instant. 💕

Let it go…

The COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on life is unprecedented. It’s natural to feel anxious, after all, we have no previous reference point for this, we don’t know how we should react at this time — and maybe this makes us feel a bit panicked.  But keeping your emotions in check is more important than ever right now.

One thing that do I have is some experience in surviving and possibly even thriving in dicey situations.

After a 15-year career in special needs education which abrupt ended with the diagnosis of a brain tumour, subsequent haemorrhage and life-changing surgery, I’ve learned that, in stressful situations, the most dangerous thing you can do is lose control of your emotions, or let your emotions take over your decision-making cycle.

To overcome the impulse to make decisions based on your emotions, for example pulling out of the stock market or panic-buying toilet paper, focus your time and energy on what you can actually control.

You have to learn to surrender the emotional and mental energy on the things that you can’t control and only focus on the things that you can, which is specifically yourself.

You can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you react to what happens to you. Being scared, allowing that to affect the decision-making process for you, is what gets people in considerable trouble.

Think about an archery target. There’s a small circle (the bull’s-eye) and a big circle (the one around the bull’s-eye). 


The big circle is your circle of concern and the small circle is your circle of influence. People spend a whole lot of time in the big circle, worrying about things they don’t have control over, like what’s going on in social media or what’s happening in the news.

The only thing that you should spend your time, energy and effort working on are the things directly inside of your circle of influence, which are the things that come out of your mouth, how you behave… the way that you communicate.

“You have to learn to surrender the emotional and mental energy on the things that you can’t control and only focus on the things that you can, which is specifically yourself.”

If you focus on those things, you’re going to get through stressful situations much easier.

That’s easier said than done I know, but there are strategies to quell anxieties during these times and shift your focus away from the circle of concern. Try limiting your exposure to the news and your time on social media, sticking to a routine, practising mindfulness and taking regular exercise.

Exercise is a natural and effective treatment for anxiety.

Try your best to remain as objective as possible. Remember, if you see people freaking out, that doesn’t mean that you need to freak out.

When plans have to change…

It often appears that no goal is ever possible without meeting with a ton of obstacles and challenges along the way.

I’ve read about many people who’ve had a dream, but whose plans were thrown into chaos.

It seems to me that adopting a positive attitude toward failed plans is an important quality; successful people fail more often than unsuccessful people, but they treat each failure as a learning experience that takes them closer to success.

Thomas Eddison, inventor of the light bulb famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Imagine just how different life could have been today, if he hadn’t tried that 10,001st time? It’s hard to imagine isn’t it? Yet this is what it took for him to have that successful attempt at inventing the light bulb. He stuck with his goal, his dream.

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In October 2018, 5 months after a pretty life-changing brain surgery, we went back to the Alps. It is one of the places I love to go back to and we have enjoyed every trip we ever took there; the spectacular mountains, the stunning panoramic views of the Mont Blanc Massif, the variety of terrain and of course the weather.

It was a memorable trip for many reasons. It was great because I never thought I’d be able to go back there any time soon. But equally, it went down as one of the worst trips I’d ever taken for a number of reasons which you’ll hear more about in my book, but one particularly bad memory of that trip was our day out mountain biking.

After spending the previous day hiking, I was looking forward to some time on two wheels exploring the forests. We picked our bikes up early that morning, and heading off in the direction of the the River Arve that runs through the valley.

Our plan had been to make our way to the trails, explore the forest and then head back into town at the end of the day, but I felt so awful I just couldn’t wait to go back and hand the bike back in at the shop. I struggled with so much of that day. The inclines were impossible as due to my speed slowing, I lost momentum and I didn’t have the balance or energy to keep going. I fell off more than a few times. Going downhill, I felt completely out of control. It felt as though my brain couldn’t process what I was doing quick enough and again, I would fall off. I think I spent more time pushing my bike than cycling. And the nausea, it was on another level. At one point I dismounted and threw my bike to the ground.

We were out in the middle of nowhere, so we took the decision to change our planned route, and stay low level and flat. We made our way to a small hamlet, and picked up a quiet road that took us most of the way back to Chamonix.

We got back to our hotel mid afternoon – much earlier than planned and I slept for hours. I realise now this was due to the physical demands the cycling had taken on my vestibular system, you see, my body now has to put in twice as much effort and energy to stay upright. I was completely and utterly exhausted, and so angry with myself. I hadn’t even given a thought to the fact that 5 months earlier I couldn’t even walk…

As I write this, it is almost two years since my surgery. I have learnt the hard way that from time to time I need to cut myself a little slack, and that’s ok.

Last October, in another attempt to physically and mentally challenge myself, I entered my first ever ultra marathon due to take place in June this year. With the help of Jon Fearne of E3Coach.com, I started training in early January. What a difference it has made having someone who actually knows what they’re doing putting the training plans in place.

Over Christmas and New Year I wasn’t in a great place, and to be honest, the thought of having someone coach me was a little daunting; I know how hard it is to train and battle fatigue, would he understand how debilitating it can be? I had no idea how I would train for a 100km hilly ultra, but Jon reassured me that it was entirely possible and this gave me more faith in my own abilities.

Fatigue still hits when least expected.

Training has given me renewed focus; I really look forward to receiving each week’s plan, but on the odd occasion I have been completely floored with neuro-fatigue, sometimes with no fathomable cause.

The first time this happened, I felt really bad sending that email to say I just couldn’t move that day. I was reassured that listening to my body was a good thing, and taking the decision to change my plans that week was the sensible thing to do. Being patient doesn’t come naturally to me and is something I’ve had to work on.

Thankfully, with sensible training, this has only happened a couple of times since, and I realise now that I have to flexible in my plans in order to achieve my big goal of completing the ultra. It might be annoying at the time, but it’s really no big deal.

By far the biggest challenge for me though, came earlier this week when thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, my goal was cancelled.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to realise that the goal hadn’t necessarily changed. My aim was to run 100km. That was still entirely possible.  The only change was the place I was supposed to do it.

As things stand, it is still entirely possible. My training continues and I still aim for the goal of completing 100km by June. I have had my moment of being upset, cheated and angry about it, but I’ve moved on from that now. Things might change again between now and then, but I’ll cross that bridge if and when I get to it.

If I’ve learnt one thing over the last couple of years, it’s how to be adaptable and accustomed to change. It’s not always been something that I wanted to do, but I’ve discovered that by carefully choosing how I react to certain situations, I can remain calm and in control and so make rational decisions about how best to keep moving forward.

In these unprecedented times, all of us face the possibility that we need to make changes. Getting worked up over it is counter-productive though, and achieves very little. Use this time to study how you react to situations beyond your control. If you’re like me, someone who likes to be in control, learn to be patient, take a breath and reassess things in a calm, methodical way and then adjust your plans as necessary. But whatever you do, just don’t give up on your goals and dreams.

“If the plan doesn’t work, change the plan but never change the goal”

When life gives you lemons… or a pandemic!

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to share my thoughts in this blog. I was hoping to recount my experiences in order, but feel this is a good time to drop in a random post, which actually calls on a lot of my previous experiences. So I guess these coping mechanisms have become transferable skills…

I recently gave an interview to a certain running magazine (more to follow on that at a later date), and was asked for 3 tips for staying positive during a health crisis. I actually managed to come up with a few more, so I thought now might be a good time to share them with you.

1.Keep Yourself Occupied!

Find something to do. Exercise is great for boosting your mood. Run or walk outdoors if you can. If not, adapt. Try a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout, general strength and conditioning – work on your core, or get outside in the garden and try skipping or jogging on the spot. Be creative.

There really is no better time to work on your general health and fitness. Give yourself the best chance of recovery should you become ill, you deserve it. If your health isn’t great, or you have limited mobility, there is still plenty you can do. There are a whole load of yoga poses that can be done without the need to stand on your head or become a contortionist. There are lots of exercises you can do whilst sat in a sturdy chair.

Keep yourselves moving! Physical activity is a natural antidepressant, breaks up the day and keeps you healthy.

Check out YouTube for ideas. There are lots of videos you can follow with everything from armchair yoga to HIIT sessions.

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2. Get back to nature!

Whenever you can, spend time outdoors. Fresh air and sunshine always lift your mood. So even if it’s just 5 minutes with a coffee in the back garden, go for it. Listen to the birds, see what insects you can spot, look at the new growth. You’ll be glad you did.

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3. Keep in contact with friends and family.

Staying in contact with those close to you reduces feelings of isolation we might be feeling if we are socially distancing or self-isolating.

Set up a regular time to Skype or Facetime each other. If you don’t have access to these, or if you’re just a bit of a technophobe like me, then just pick up the phone.

Make it a part of your daily routine. Share what you have been doing that day, what your plans are. That brings me on to the next point…

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4. Make post apocalypse plans

Many of us have had our short term plans kicked to the curb. Whilst we cannot put a timescale on how long this unexpected pandemic will last, that doesn’t stop us from making plans for the future. Set aside a little time each day to focus on setting achievable short term goals, and bigger goals for the year ahead.

Think about those things you really want to do, trips you want to take, parties you want to plan, sports events you’d like to go to. Get your plans written down on paper, and revisit your list regularly to make sure you’re on track.

There may be times when your plans may have to change, that doesn’t mean the goals have to.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

5. Find inspiration!

We are lucky to live in an age when we have so much accessible to us.

However, in this age of social media and 24/7 news reports, we can easily find ourselves overwhelmed with negative stories. To counter this, make sure that you fill a small part of your day with positivity.

Listen to music that makes you feel good. Listen to motivational speakers, podcasts, inspiring audiobooks. Personally, I love TED talks! Check out YouTube, Audible, Spotify. There many other sources out there too.

6. Learn something new

There are online courses that you can access free of charge. Use the time you now have to learn more about something that interests you. Check out OpenLearn with the Open University. They have a variety of free courses from An Introduction To Child Psychology, to Learning Languages, Translation, Improving Aerobic Fitness and even Infection and Immunity (quite appropriate at the moment!).

If you don’t fancy going back to the books, take up a new hobby. We might not be able to venture to the shops as much as we would like, but we can still find arts and crafts resources online, or maybe there’s a new mexican recipe you would like to try out.

7. Rest

Make sure you get plenty of rest, and adequate sleep. The amount of sleep we get has a massive impact on our immune system and overall health. It is well documented that certain bodily processes (healing in particular) only happen during certain sleep cycles. You need to be asleep long enough to enter these cycles.

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8. Create Routine

During my time of illness, I went from being incredibly active, to spending weeks, if not months, cooped up at home.

Normal life is dictated to us by routines, going to work, taking the kids to clubs, training schedules etc.

If you find that has seemingly gone out of the window, make a routine now. Get it written down and stick to it. Divide your work up into work (if home working), rest, exercise, meals, hobbies etc. Do this for your children too.

Routine can be an anchor. No matter what’s going on in our day, knowing that we will be having our evening meal around 6 pm, and going to bed around 10pm, can be a real comfort. The certainty of our routine can help us to manage the uncertainty that life can throw up. Coping with unpredictable periods of time can feel more doable when we have a little structure in place to look to.

Having a daily routine can help to reduce our stress levels. Routine can take the guesswork and uncertainty out of bits of our day, which can allow us to feel more in control and less stressed.

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What things would you include in your routine?

9. Remember to switch off and breathe!

Whenever we are experiencing a health crisis, whether individually or collectively, we can easily find ourselves being bombarded with all sorts of information.

Make time each day to switch off from this. Turn off your phone or tv and find somewhere quiet for a few moments each day. Being in our own space is important, especially if we are at home with others.

Mindfulness is the art of focussing on the present moment and doing it intentionally and without judgement.

Typical mindfulness activities include:

  • Mindful non-judgmental awareness of breath, body, feelings, emotions and/or thoughts (in sitting meditation practice or throughout the day)
  • Mindful walking meditation
  • Mindful eating
  • Mindful body scan whilst sitting or lying down.

There are many known benefits, but mindfulness is considered a key element to fighting stress, increasing immune function, improving focus and most importantly lowering stress to name just a few.

There are many online resources that can teach you the benefits of mindfulness.

You can find more information and resources on the Mind website.

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I hope these ideas help you over the days/weeks/months ahead. If you have any of your own suggestions for overcoming a health crisis, I would love to hear them!

Reach for the skies…

14th October 2019… It was a wet, windy, cloudy morning after the night that Storm Callum had battered parts of the UK. As we travelled north on the motorway, there were plenty of flooded fields to be seen, but no nerves. There was no way that this would go ahead in this weather.

I had called the Black Knights Parachute School earlier that morning to check before we wasted our time driving up there, and was told that they were expecting the weather to improve that afternoon and to turn up as planned. I wish I’d shared their optimism.

The skies were dark and ominous, and it was still quite windy.

It was back in July, just a couple of months after my surgery, that the advert for a skydive popped up on my Facebook newsfeed.

It had been something I’d had on my bucket list since forever, and when I was told I needed surgery it was one of the first things I instantly regretted not having done already. I mean, surely you’d never be able to do things like that with a hole in your head that was filled with fat from your stomach? Or could you?

At my 6 week check up, I’d asked my surgeons if they thought I’d be able to do activities, like hiking at high altitude, and the answer was “Yes”.

I paid the £50 to register, set up my JustGiving page, and began my fundraising for Northwest Air Ambulance. I had wanted to give back something to the medical community and jumped at the chance to be able to raise funds for such a worthwhile cause.

A few weeks later, whilst sunning myself on a Greek island, I received a call from Linda, the fundraising lady at NWAA…

“Hi, I’ve looked at your fundraising page, and I see you’ve had a few medical issues… you have had permission to skydive from your consultant?”

Busted! “Of course” I replied.

Frantically, I scrolled through my inbox until I came across my registration email – along with the attached medical consent form, and quickly (with everything crossed!) drafted an email to my consultant!

Never have I been so relieved to receive a letter from his clinic!

On that cold, damp, miserable October morning, there were no nerves. In fact, I’d not been nervous at all in the run up to that day, as the weather had been abysmal the whole week, with storm force winds and heavy rain.

I didn’t want to look forward to the jump, as I knew I’d be totally disappointed when it was cancelled, and so late in the year it would be unlikely I’d have another opportunity until next year.

We made our way, under dark skies, to Lancaster. As we left the motorway, there was a tiny slither of blue sky in the distance, just peeking through the clouds. Maybe, just maybe, I would get to jump after all.

By the time we reached the centre, the leaves were no longer blowing from the trees, and that slither of blue had grown quite considerably.

As I looked out, in the distance I spotted bright colours in the sky… They were jumping, along with the butterflies in my stomach.

I weighed in, attended the safety briefing, and decided that rather than go from the planned 11,000ft, I would jump from 15,000ft, the highest possible skydive in the UK. I mean, what’s in another 4,000ft? You still have to get out of the door!

A short time later, I met my instructor who I would be tandem with.

Ben was just great. He asked if I was nervous. To be honest, the only thing I was nervous about was not being able to hear him above the noise of the plane, and the wind once we were out.

He did all his safety checks and introduced me to our cameraman Leroy, who would be filming the whole thing, and then made our way across the tarmac, over to the aircraft.

I couldn’t join in the chatter that was going on inside the plane, as thanks to my stupid deaf ear I couldn’t hear a word that was being said, and so there were quite a few hand gestures flying around.

Once we got to 7,000ft, Ben began the last minute checks of our harnesses and before I realised what was happening, the door was rolled open and people were leaving the plane.

It was strange. One moment they were there, the next they were gone.

We slid our way along the benches and onto the floor, stopping at the door. Leroy, our cameraman was outside, just hanging on. It seemed totally surreal seeing him there!

As Ben had explained earlier, we sat on the edge of the door, took a breath and made sure my legs were tucked under the plane. He told me to be bent like a banana!

And before I knew what was happening we were out, free-falling at around 125mph, the wind roaring down my ear.

It was just perfect. The stormy skies had cleared, and I could clearly see the ground below. It was kind of an analogy of my life at that moment in time.

Falling through the air gave me the feeling of complete and utter freedom, and once our chute was deployed, there was total silence.

Knowing of my concerns of not hearing instructions, Ben went over our landing procedure a couple of times, until I was happy. We drifted around, taking in the fabulous views of the Lancaster canal, and the coastline, Blackpool Tower just visible glistening in the distance. It was so serene, I just wanted to stay up there taking it in forever…

There were no nerves, because when you get the opportunity to do something you thought you would never be able to do, you grab it and you enjoy every last second. I couldn’t stop smiling.

I realised from this, that fear is just something we create. It only has power over us if we allow it to. Because I really didn’t think it would be going ahead I hadn’t created that fear and allowed it to control my actions and emotions. I mean, who the hell throws themselves out of a perfectly good aircraft for the sake of it?

I also realised that we shouldn’t keep putting things off until tomorrow. None of us know what lies around the next corner. I was lucky. I was told I had “the best of the worst”, and despite the haemorrhage and the toll that weeks of sickness and subsequent surgery had taken on me, I’d been fortunate in my recovery.

This experience was just one such moment of clarity and learning I’ve had on this brain tumour journey, and there would be many more to come.

So, whatever it is you have on your bucket list, what are you waiting for? Getting ticking them off.

And if you have a head for heights, you can watch my whole skydive experience by clicking the link below!

Enjoy The Journey

It was around 3 weeks after my surgery. Another beautifully sunny afternoon. Another day of me missing out on doing the things I loved, as Neil had gone out on a club bike ride and I was stay in the garden, resting…

When he got home, Neil left his bike in the garden, and I gazed at it, thinking back to how I used to enjoy us both heading out on the local cycle paths and greenways, stopping off to grab a coffee and cake.

I had been told that riding a bike would be very difficult, if not impossible after surgery due to my vestibular nerve being sacrificed in order to have better access to the tumour and lessen the risk of permanent damage to my facial nerve.

But I couldn’t help but wonder, what if…? What if I could I could ride it? What would it feel like now I have no balance? I walked over to the bike.

I don’t quite remember how the conversation went, but it ended with Neil lowering the seat on his bike was low as it would go. I sat on the seat and tried to find my balance.

It was strange. Just like that first time I got out of bed and tried to walk, it felt like I’d never ridden a bike before.

Gripping onto the handlebars, I pushed myself along, not even venturing near the pedals. And then, as I began to get used to the feel of the bike, I put one foot on a pedal, then the other.

I was off. I spent about 20 minutes riding slowly up and down the patio. It felt weird and unnatural, but I was doing that which a few months earlier I didn’t think I’d be able to do ever again, and certainly not this soon!

The following week we took the bikes to a quiet track and again, with the seat as low as it would go, we rode up and down. This was far more challenging, as the surface was broken up and uneven, and the hedgerows at either side overgrown with nettles and brambles, a visible enemy waiting to pounce during a moment of weakness.

But this worked to my advantage. The thought of a prickly, stingy landing was just the encouragement I needed to stay in the saddle!

For half an hour, I cycled up and down that track. It still felt alien to me, and didn’t come naturally at all, as it once had before this.

I am determined not to be defined by what has happened to me though, at least not in a negative away, and so despite the difficulties and the fatigue I kept going.

A week later (5 weeks post op I think), I rode 10 miles to the small cafe I used to enjoy riding to do much.

The following week, having informed my somewhat surprised consultants at my 6 week check up of my progress on two wheels, I cycled 30 miles, once again with coffee and cake being my motivating factors!

Everything can seem impossible until it’s done. However, if you can learn to keep a positive mindset, and focus not only on your goal or destination, but each tiny bit of progress you make along the way and just keep building on it, then absolutely anything is possible.

The “Other” Diagnosis

Those first few weeks were a mix of doing whatever I could do work on my balance, and sleeping.

I was still very much reliant on others, as I my vision wasn’t recovered enough to drive, and mum was still coming round to help with housework and cooking.

It was about 3 weeks after my surgery when I was called by the respiratory consultant at my local hospital in Chester. He wanted to check where I was… I kind of got the feeling he actually wanted to check I was still alive. He made an appointment for me to attend, to discuss once again my scan results, and ruling out anything untoward.

With everything else going on, I had pushed all thoughts of this to the back of my mind. The thought of having another battle on my hands didn’t appeal one little bit.

At our meeting with the consultant, we looked over the x-ray and CT images of my lungs, and an urgent appointment was made for me to attend for an “EBUS”, or endoscopic bronchial ultrasound procedure. It would be performed under local anaesthetic. I admit, I had my reservations.

X-ray image showing “hilar prominence”.

I arrived at the hospital a couple of days later. I was shown to a waiting room full of other people undergoing similar procedures and one by one we were taken to a side room to have a cannula inserted and our obs checked, and then sent back to wait our turn.

Eventually, I was called through to a room that looked a little like an operating theatre, but more like a dental surgery.

The procedure was explained to me again as I lay down, once again surrounded by medical staff.

I was connected up to various monitors as the consultant sprayed the back of my throat with local anaesthetic.

Within moments I began to feel the effects of this; I told the doc that I couldn’t swallow, and he tried to reassure me that this was perfectly normal, that I was in fact swallowing, just unable to feel it.

He then placed what I can only describe as I gag in my mouth, so it was held open and I was unable to speak. I was also given an injection, through the front of my neck, into my throat. This was not pleasant at all, and it was only at this point that I was given sedative.

The two consultants then began to insert the various pieces of equipment into my windpipe, and into my lungs.

Image of an EBUS procedure taking place.

At this point I had this involuntary urge to cough like I had never coughed before. My lungs clearly didn’t like being poked about…

I really struggled to lay flat as I was coughing so violently, and so I had 3 nurses holding me still as the doctors struggled to take biopsies. Once again, I worried about the pressure this would put in my head, and again the high risk of CSF leak.

I could hear the pulse metre picking up its pace, and then my blood pressure followed suit. I was still feeling no effects from the sedative, and I heard the doctor telling the nurse to give me another shot. I waited to drift into a deep sleep, but nothing…

I felt as though I was drowning. It seemed like an eternity until they got the samples they needed and pulled the equipment out of my protesting lungs.

I can only describe this as the most barbaric experience I’ve ever been through. My craniotomy, by comparison, was a walk in the park.

It was a week later before I received my results. I was told that the biopsies had shown that the lymphadenopathy in my lungs was in fact caused by Sarcoidosis. I informed the doctor that should I ever need that procedure again, it would only be under general anaesthesia.

Sarcoidosis is a disease characterized by the growth of tiny collections of inflammatory cells (granulomas) in any part of your body — most commonly the lungs and lymph nodes. But it can also affect the eyes, skin, heart and other organs.

The cause of sarcoidosis is unknown, but experts think it results from the body’s immune system responding to an unknown substance. Some research suggests that infectious agents, chemicals, dust and a potential abnormal reaction to the body’s own proteins (self-proteins) could be responsible for the formation of granulomas in people who are genetically predisposed.

There is no cure for sarcoidosis, but most people do very well with no treatment or only modest treatment. In some cases, sarcoidosis goes away on its own. However, sarcoidosis may last for years and may cause organ damage.

Doctors don’t know the exact cause of sarcoidosis. Some people appear to have a genetic predisposition to develop the disease, which may be triggered by bacteria, viruses, dust or chemicals.

This triggers an overreaction of your immune system, and immune cells begin to collect in a pattern of inflammation called granulomas. As granulomas build up in an organ, the function of that organ can be affected.

Thankfully, it was felt that as I didn’t seem to be suffering any physical effects of the sarcoidosis, apart from the joint pain and rashes that had been some of the first symptoms of my demise into this mess (and which had since cleared up), I wouldn’t be given any treatment, and it would hopefully just run its course.

I will fight another day, but each morning I wake knowing that someone, somewhere will be receiving quite different test results.

Have I been lucky? Fortunate even? Each time I hear of a case of someone being diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour, or other life-threatening condition, I feel physically pained.

Whilst my tumour was low grade, I know what it is to live with that intruder. I know what the effects of it are. I know how life-changing going through a craniotomy can be, the fatigue, the sickness, the weightloss, the having to relearn so much, the being reliant on others, the mental battle that rages in your head every single day.

It’s no joke. Mostly, I feel an overbearing guilt that I have survived that which will beat others, and I wish I could take that pain away from them.

Dream Believe Achieve

Whilst the rest of the country was watching Harry and Megan’s royal wedding, I was sat in the treatment room of our local hospital having my stitches and staples removed.

I thought that it might have been painful, but actually having a head that was half numb on this occasion had its benefits.

Having the staples removed from my stomach wasn’t quite as painless, but I could now safely say I’ve been through far worse and survived.

This was the first time I’d seen the wound from where the fat was harvested for my head. I’m not really sure what I was expecting to be honest, but I was upset by the visible dint and scarring that seemed far worse than that from where I’d had a c-section some 19 years ago. The nurse told me that both wounds were very ‘neat’. As far as my stomach went I disagreed, and hoped that it was just the swelling that made it look so awful.

My hands and arms were also badly bruised from the numerous cannulas that had been drip feeding me over the previous week. Now I was home I felt physically and mentally battered by recent events.

Those first few days at home consisted of mostly sleeping. My single sided deafness had its benefits in that I could sleep soundly without being disturbed. My US friends had trained me well in the art of looking for the ‘silver linings’ and this was one of them.

I tried as much as possible to keep moving. My brain had to learn to compensate for my lack of balance, and the only way to speed this process of neuroplasticity was to repeatedly do those things which I found difficult.

I very quickly discovered my limitations though and it was frustrating. Prior to my surgery, up until the point at which I couldn’t get out of bed without being sick, I had tried to remain active. I had worked on yoga poses that challenged my balance, so mountain pose, tree pose etc. These were now impossible.

In my mind I wanted to keep myself busy, but my body just couldn’t do it. Even a conversation was exhausting.

Each morning, my mum would help with chores around the house and then go home and cook for us. Each afternoon my children would go and collect it from her house. I should be doing these things but I couldn’t. I didn’t have the energy too, and I’d been told to do absolutely nothing, for 6 weeks. This was going to drive me insane.

I reached my second goal of going back to school for Les’s retirement assembly. Neil drove me to school, and as he parked up outside the gates I sat in the car and cried. This was my first ‘public engagement’ and I really didn’t think I could do it. I felt so overwhelmed, anxious and scared. I really didn’t think that I could bring myself to walk through the doors I had walked through hundreds, if not thousands of times before. I was scared of seeing people again, what they’d think of me, and I was terrified of the overwhelming noise that is part and parcel of a primary school

Just then Helen, who had recently left but had also been invited back for this event, arrived. I seized the opportunity to try and override the battle that was going on in my head and got out of the car to walk in with her.

There were a few hugs from Irene the assistant head, and Darryl, the headteacher, and a few more tears from me. Irene took my arm and led me into the hall allowing me to sit where I felt comfortable. I’m not sure that I would have felt comfortable anywhere that day. It was the one place I had really wanted to get to, and yet at that moment in time it was the place I least wanted to be.

Despite really struggling with the noise, and having my finger stuck in my good ear to shut it out, the afternoon went well; it was lovely to see everyone. Those who had completely ignored me on the previous occasion I had visited, continued to ignore me for reasons that I still don’t understand to this day. At the end of the day Di drove me home, via a the local pub where we sat outside in the sunshine, having a catch up.

By the end of that week I was starting to go a bit crazy, but I just didn’t have the energy to do anything much at all. I thought I could perhaps get on my bike which was on a static trainer in the conservatory, but Neil said I shouldn’t as the rise blood pressure might put pressure on my wound and cause a leak. And besides, my balance was so bad I could barely get on it without help.

So instead I decided to work on the yoga poses again. Neil put my yoga mat out with a chair for support, and I focussed all my frustrations on trying to improve my yoga, choosing poses that wouldn’t involve lowering my head in any way.

It was incredibly difficult. But, with perseverance I was able to find and hold the position for just a few, wobbly seconds. And those few seconds before I had to grab hold of the chair again gave me just a little glimmer of hope that the old me was still there somewhere.

My face too had also shown a big improvement. It sounds stupid writing this now, but since the day of my surgery I had been willing the muscles in my face to remember what to do. Each time I looked in the mirror I willed them to move, and would get excited with each little twitch.

By the second week, my mouth looked more normal, although that half of my head, face and mouth was still completely numb. There was absolutely no sensation. My eye still wouldn’t close properly and needed drops regualarly to keep it moist, and my ear was still sticking out of the side of my head. Once again I found myself contemplating hairstyles that would cover up this side of my face.

I was on a rollercoaster of finding myself celebrating the tiniest of improvements and achievements one moment, then crying about just how much I couldn’t do the next and worrying that I would never be able to do anything I used to. Then I would be angry that I couldn’t even cry properly.

With my energy at a premium though, I realised I couldn’t keep this up. Getting upset was a complete and utter waste of time and energy that could be better spent.

I focussed on setting my next goal. That weekend I was going to walk 1km. So, that sunny Saturday morning, we got up, I put on my Garmin (which had been put away in a drawer due to the utter frustration each time I’d looked at it as it was a reminder I’d not been able to do anything!), and drove the short distance to a quiet track.

With our dog Hugo in tow, we walked slowly. It was tiring and I was wobbly, but we clocked up 1 kilometre. I felt good though, and so we carried on. We walked another 2 before we returned to the car and drove home, where I slept.

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