Wonder Woman/Super Man – what’s so great about them anyway?

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This post is inspired by a patient I have, we’ll call her Jane. In reality the patient I met today is like so many that I have, and your doctor has, met before. It could easily be John, or Jenny, or Jeff.

Jane is in a cycle of trying to care for family members and hold everyone together, but the cracks are starting to show. The strain of being everything to everyone is leaving little time to tend to her own needs. Her stress levels are through the roof, she isn’t sleeping well at the moment, her appetite is a little off, she is struggling to focus at work and feels like she is on the verge of tears or anger most of the time. Sound familiar?

It’s not Jane’s fault, she is doing what she knows best. She is trying to support her family whilst being a productive colleague, a good friend, a good spouse… She’s trying to be Wonder Woman and she’s mad at herself because she is struggling. She berates herself for not being “strong enough” and that she “needs to snap out of it” but try as she might, she doesn’t see how she can.

I talked with Jane about imagining ourselves in a house. For any house you need a solid foundation, and that foundation is our sense of self.  The walls of the house our are natural defences to protect us from the storms of life. Repeated adverse life events or stressors, just like a real storm, can chip away at the walls of the house, they might even break the windows.

If our house is built on solid foundations, and we have developed coping strategies that are effective for us then we can weather those storms. If our defences are low – perhaps we have lots of stressful things happening at the same time which are rocking the walls of our house, or our foundations are built on shallow ground, then our house is going to start tumbling down.

Without the house to protect us, we are exposed to the harsh realities in life.

This is where I found Jane today. Her walls are tumbling in, she is trying desperately to barricade the doors and windows but she cannot keep up with the demands that life is throwing at her. Simply put, she cannot be everything to everyone. She is not Wonder Woman.

Fortifying our proverbial houses is tough, especially as we often have to try and fight these fires whilst carrying on with our normal lives.
The first step is acceptance. Accept that you cannot do everything.

“Serenity is accepting the things we cannot change,

courage to change the things I can and

wisdom to know the difference”. 

Acceptance does not mean berating yourself for weakness. It is not a flaw to accept that you need help or that you are struggling. It takes strength of character to stand up and say to someone you need some support.

Next comes rebuilding. For those in caring roles this can be especially challenging. As a carer your focus is inherently on those your care for. Shifting your focus back to you can be unsettling, upsetting and hard to do. However to care for another in the way you want to, you have to be able to care for yourself.

One of my favourite analogies (and I have plenty) relates to a broken leg. If you have a broken leg, society at large knows how to react. They can see the plaster cast and the crutches, they can mentally apportion the right amount of sympathy and understanding. Bones heal, the injury is visible, and it’s much easier for people to get their head around.

Stress, burn-out, depression and anxiety all have few outwards signs. Unfortunately a stigma can still exist around these problems and society can sometimes feel unsure about how to ‘handle’ someone who is suffering. But just because it isn’t visible, and just because it isn’t physical, doesn’t make the problem any less real or relevant.

To rebuild takes time. Patience. Support. Effort. It isn’t easy. Remember that a difficult path can sometimes lead to beautiful destinations.

Talking therapies such as counselling and CBT should never be overlooked or dismissed. Having someone else, impartial to your situation, help you to talk through your current troubles can be a real life saver – and can help to set you up for your future.

Some patients might need medication from their GP. I would always encourage anyone who is facing difficulties in their life that are starting to overwhelm them to speak with their doctor.

Part of rebuilding is learning about yourself. Really understanding yourself is the key to your success. What are your warning signs that things are getting too much? What can you do when those signs start to appear? What strategies to do have to protect that proverbial house?

Whatever it might be, find what re-centers you. It might be yoga or meditation, it might be catching up with an old friend, watching a favourite film, reading a book, going for a run or taking the dog for a walk.  As long as its a positive action – that doesn’t mean opening a bottle of wine or similar.

Exercise can be an incredibly powerful tool at boosting how we’re feeling when we’re struggling. Physical activity is not only good for our physical health but for our mental health too. Not only does it increase endorphins that help promote good feelings, but it also can help with issues such as insomnia.

Being you is enough. You don’t need to be Super Man or Wonder Woman. Besides, they wore their pants over their clothes, and when you stop and think about it, what’s so great about that anyway?

 

 

 

Share Your Spare: Organ Donation

This week is Organ Donation Awareness week in the UK.

Transplanted organs save so many lives as medical science and surgical techniques advance, but the sad fact remains that that the number of people who need an organ outstrips the number of people who donate organs. It is thought that every day in the UK, three people die waiting for an organ.

 

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There have been some incredibly moving videos on social media lately – hearing the heartbeat of a deceased child beating strong in another person, meeting the recipient of your partners lung donation and so on. Emotive as they are, they do illustrate just how life changing organ donation can be to those who receive a transplant.

Talking about dying and organ donation can be really difficult, so it is understandable why we might shy away from thinking about it and talking to our loved ones about it. Somehow as if it’s almost tempting fate.

We can donate organs such as heart, lungs, kidneys, liver or pancreas, or we can donate tissues such as corneas (a clear layer of ‘skin’ at the front of the eye), heart valves, skin or bone.

Most people know about organ donation after death, however we can (in some circumstances) donate an organ whilst we are alive. The commonest situation would be to donate a kidney to another person in need, sometimes within our family. We have two kidneys but we can usually manage just fine with one. The brilliantly titled #ShareYourSpare is a social media campaign trying to raise awareness for living kidney donation.

Roughly 5000 people in the UK are waiting for a kidney transplant and as many as 250 patients died last year waiting for a kidney transplant – because they could not get a transplant in time.

Parts of the UK have different laws regarding consent for organ donation, and you should always check what the law is where you live.

In Wales there is an ‘opt-out’ system. This means that you can still voluntarily register to be an organ donor if you wish. However if you specifically do not want to be a donor, you need to register your intention not to donate. If you do nothing, it will be presumed that you do not object to donation.  For the rest of the UK, you still need to register your intention to donate your organs.

Regardless of your feelings or decisions about donation, it is important that you tell your next of kin or family. In the event that the worse happens, your family can help to share your wishes and make these known to the medical team looking after you. If they do not know you wanted to donate your organs, this could blind side them in an already very difficult time.

Talking about death and dying with our loved ones can be a difficult and painful process. As hard as these discussions are, having them sooner rather than later will ensure we’re all on the same page if the worse should happen. As we look to raise awareness of organ donation this week, try and take the opportunity to think about what you might want.

You can register as an organ donor or find out more about donation on the NHS donation website 

 

“If a migraine is just a headache, then Godzilla is just a lizard”

One in seven of us will suffer from migraines, so there is a good chance that someone you know suffers with migraines – it might even be you.

It is estimated that there are nearly 200,000 migraines every day in the UK. More common in women than in men, it can affect us at any age – even as children.  On average, a migraine sufferer will have 13 attacks a year, lasting up to 72 hours at a time.

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Migraine is a complex problem and the truth is that medical science isn’t entirely certain on its cause. Whilst many people with migraines will experience headaches (usually a severe, throbbing, one-sided headache), there are many other symptoms and features of a migraine, such as: flashing lights or visual changes or sensitivity to the light, sensitivity to sound or smells, nausea or vomiting, numbness or pins and needles, slurred speech, irritability or abdominal pain. Sometimes, someone with a migraine will not even have a headache.

Migraines are thought to occur in five stages: prodrome, aura, main attack, resolution, recovery.

The prodrome can be tricky to pick out from normal day-to-day life, but those who can recognise it will talk about feelings of lethargy or irritability, or just feeling a bit off.

For some this will be followed by an ‘aura’. This would typically happen up to an hour before the attack. Someone might notice flashing lights, changes to their vision or speech, or other neurological features such as tingling or numbness. Migraine aura’s do not happen with every migraine, and it is estimated around one-fifth of migraines are associated with an aura.

I suffer with migraines – thankfully very rare these days, but when I get one they wipe me out. I don’t usually suffer with an aura when I do have a migraine  – but it has happened. If I do get one, it will be flashing lights – strange flickering light towards the edge of my vision – just enough to make me wonder if I have seen it at all – and I get a bit muddled – almost as if my brain is suddenly wading through thick treacle and I feel I have to work hard just to think. 

The main stage of the migraine is the ‘attack’ phase – this is when a headache (if present) will occur and can last up to 72 hours.

In the resolution and recovery phases, the headache and any other symptoms start to ebb away but patients will often say they feel particularly tired or wiped out, sometimes for a couple of days.

So if you suffer with migraines, what can you do about them? First off, it’s really important that if you are experiencing new, changing or worsening headaches you get these checked out by your doctor. If your doctor agrees that you are suffering with migraines you might then want to think about ‘triggers’.

Many migraine sufferers have triggers unique to them and there are so many possible triggers out there. To be able to start working out what might be setting your migraine off, a headache diary can be a great tool. You can download pre-set diaries or just use your calendar on your phone. Do this for a month or so and then look back over the information you have collected and see if any patterns jump out at you.  For me, it’s lack of sleep – every time!

Common triggers are: emotional upheaval whether that be happy or sad, worry or anger, poor sleep or over tiredness, changes to environment, periods for women (as well as contraceptive pills and the menopause), dehydration, citrus, caffeine, cheeses, chocolate, alcohol, pork and monosodium glutamate.

Treatments vary depending on the type of migraine, how often they happen and your medical history, Broadly speaking these can be divided into ‘acute’ treatments – ones you take when an attack is happening and ‘preventative’ treatments – ones to take to try and stop attacks from happening. Simple measures such as paracetamol, anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen and rest in a darkened, quiet room can be enough for some people. A word of warning about using codeine containing medications though – codeine and other opiates can can worsen or even cause headaches so should be avoided unless your doctor has advised you specifically to use them.

So if you’re one of the one in seven people in the UK who are thought to suffer from migraines, first off I feel for you and share your (head) pain. Secondly, don’t suffer in silence.

Migraines cannot be cured, but they can be managed. To talk about treatments that might help, speak with your doctor. As with so many medical conditions, there is a lot we can do to help ourselves – so why not consider keeping a headache diary and see what you can learn about your migraines.

18th Century teeth in the 21st Century

Today is World Oral Health Day. The main aim is to raise awareness of the impact that oral health can have on overall physical health and well being. Unfortunately for us, Britain seems to have given up on its dental health.

To be specific, successive governments appear to have decided that our dental health no longer has the same level of importance and slashed the availability of free dental care. Britain has one dentist for every 2000 people (WHO 2010) which sounds reasonable. However, seeing a dentist on the NHS has become something of a fabled miracle in many parts of the country.

 

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The NHS is happy to clean up your vomit if you get drunk every night, hold your hand if you inject yourself with too much heroin and help you cough up black phlegm if you spend your days chain smoking. If you don’t brush right though, the NHS is not necessarily your friend.

It is now almost impossible to find an NHS dentist. Even if you are lucky enough to secure one of the prized places, people are still charged up to 80 per cent of the cost of treatment. Being a child, being pregnant or being on social welfare and benefits are the main groups that are entitled to free treatment.

 

This has left us with a two-tier dental system. The upper tier pays to see a dentist privately and these patients have the unenviable privilege of paying the highest prices in Europe. The second tier scrambles for an NHS dentist and waits so long for partly subsidised treatment that their teeth can crumble or cause agony in the meantime. There is a third tier who have their own pliers and bits of string! Shockingly, more than one in 20 have said that they resort to DIY surgery.

 

Having bad teeth is not without consequences. For the young and middle aged, bad teeth can make it more difficult to find a good job or a successful relationship. It has been years since I’ve seen a TV presenter without a perfect set of white, straight teeth and as a country, we now spend £360 million on cosmetic dentistry a year.

For the elderly, poor dental health can leave them unable to eat properly or in pain. Gum disease also increases the risk of mouth cancer, and pancreatic cancer in men.

So how can we make sure we care for our teeth? Here are our top tips for a healthy smile:

 

  1. Brush your teeth twice a day with toothpaste that contains fluoride, this will prevent tooth decay, gum disease and bad breath. Brush your teeth for two minutes each time. Some electric toothbrushes now have timers and apps to help make sure we are covering all our teeth for long enough.
  2. Teach children at young age about healthy oral hygiene habits and supervise them until around the age of seven. The earlier this becomes part of their life, the more likely it is to become an engrained routine that will stay with them. Children should start seeing a dentist when their baby (milk) teeth first appear. Baby teeth are thinning and less able to withstand the bacteria that cause tooth decay. Decaying baby teeth can have a negative impact on adult teeth and needing extractions (removal of teeth) can lead to problematic adult teeth.
  3. Health diets which minimise sugars will minimise oral health problems. Fruit juices can be deliciously refreshing but can be high in sugars, try to get into a habit of reading your food labels.
  4. See your dentist! This might sound a bit obvious but just we get an MOT and service on our car by an expert mechanic, it’s also important to have an MOT on your mouth. Your dentist will advise you on how often you need to be seen, it can vary depending on your dental health.
  5. Flossing. Using floss or the small interdental brushes can get to the edges of the teeth that brushing can’t. Think about the last time you washed your car, you wouldn’t get wash the bonnet and the boot (trunk) and leave the doors dirty would you?

Healthy teeth used to be a marker of a modern first world society. If Britain doesn’t make changes soon, our lack of investment in dental care will leave us with 18th century teeth.

Your sense of self: the magic five.

Self Confidence.

Self Esteem.

Self Worth.

Self Belief.

Self Respect.

All priceless. All fragile. All unique.

Our sense of self is intricately tied to our personalities, experiences, belief systems and the bubble we find ourselves in. It can take a life time to build and a second to shatter.

 

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On the face of it, the five S’s may all seem similar concepts but each one is a like a snowflake – outwardly uniform but subtly different to the next.

In today’s society when we are so often judged on how well we do our job, how many exams we passed, how productive we are, what material possessions we have or don’t have, it can be easy to conflate our self-confidence by listing our many achievements. However to face and accept our flaws and weaknesses takes real strength. It’s our self-esteem that allows us to look at these facets of our character and not be lessened by them. A robust sense of self esteem enables to us own our flaws, learn from them, use them, grow from them.
Alexander Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism in 1709 and told us “To err is human, to forgive is devine”. Whether you have faith in a higher power is immaterial, and whilst Pope may have been talking about literary critics, his words ring true when considering self-esteem.

Mistakes, flaws and errors are part of what makes us human. Being able to forgive ourselves is part of our ongoing development. We need to acknowledge and accept these to be able to move forwards.

Valuing what we can offer our friends, our family, our colleagues, the wider community or, more importantly, ourselves helps to re-affirm our sense of worth and place in the world. We all have a place.

What we do with that place, to a greater or lesser extent, has much to do with our self-belief. Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If we never change what we put in to something, how can we ever expect a different result?

At a couple of stages in my professional life I have had attacks of “Imposter Syndrome”, a pervasive feeling that at some point I would be uncovered as a fraud. I lacked the confidence and belief in myself and my abilities. The first was immediately after medical school. For years as I rotated through my house officer (residency) jobs, I kept all my old med school notes and textbooks – just in case the university called to tell me they had made a mistake and I hadn’t actually passed my finals!

The second time was shortly after I qualified as a GP. I worried all the time that I would be “found out” and that I wasn’t really “good enough” to do my job. Thankfully with time, supportive colleagues and a helpful husband, I learned to settle in my work. I still have moments when doubt starts to creep in, but using strategies I have developed over time to refocus my self-belief and confidence, I can pick myself back up.

Having a goal – whether it be in your work, your home life, weight loss or fitness goals – and the effort and drive it takes to reach it – all relies on your self-belief. That intense faith you place in yourself that you will reach your target. This one (as they all are) is tricky. It’s vulnerable to knocks along the way and this can lead you to deviate from your goals.

An analogy I often use with patients when we talk about goal setting is to imagine climbing a mountain. When you are in the foothills looking at the summit, it can seem an awful long way up. It’s easy to think of at least ten reasons not to start the journey – it’s a long way, it’ll be hard, I’m not prepared… But if you think of that same journey as a series of shorter journeys, perhaps from the foothills to base camp. From base camp to the next rest stop, and then to the next and so on until you reach the summit. Then at each rest stop allowing time to gather yourself and evaluate your progress. Whilst the journey might still seem a challenge, breaking it down to smaller chunks makes it more manageable.

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A buzz phrase in medicine, and education generally, is SMART. A tool for setting goals, it tells us that goals should be:

Specific (what are you going to achieve)

Measurable (how will you know when you achieve it)

Achievable (is it within your ability – if your idea of art is drawing is limited to stick people it might not be achievable to think you’ll open at the Tate Modern or MOMA in twelve months time)

Realistic (perhaps you are a great artist but accept it might take ten years for an opening in prestigious galleries) and

Time Specific (when are you going to achieve it by)

Either way to get to our goal takes self-confidence to learn our strengths, self-esteem to accept our weaknesses, self -worth to believe we have value and the right to dream and self-belief to push on and achieve it.

Which leaves the toughest one of all, self-respect.

Underpinning all of these is the respect we have for ourselves. Our esteem, worth, belief and confidence are, in general, internal concepts. They are what we think. Our respect is generally what we do to ourselves in the physical sense. Self-respect doesn’t care what happened in the past, it’s about what you are doing right now.

If the other four S’s are talking the talk, your self-respect is walking the walk.

No one, in any shape or sphere can or should take your self-respect. The only person who has any right to your self-respect is you. If you have a bad day, or week, or even a bad month your esteem, confidence, worth or belief might take a beating, but it’s your self-respect that will build you back up.

Self-respect is lifetime work. There will always be critical voices and adverse life events ready to knock you. However if you can ensure you respect you for you, you’ll make it through. Imagine your self-respect as a small seed, planted in the ground. To grow, it needs to be nourished and fed to flourish, ignore it and it will risk withering and decaying.

Having respect for yourself means taking care of your body, your mind and your actions. Be proud of you. Don’t settle for something that is less than you deserve. Forgive yourself, we have all done things we are not proud of, but berating yourself for these for the rest of your life won’t get you anywhere. Surround yourself with positive people and influences. Take care of your body – you only get the one. Don’t compare yourselves to others. Theodore Roosevelt told us that “Comparison is the thief of joy”. Treat others with respect but do not allow others to disrespect you.

“Self-respect cannot be hunted. It cannot be purchased. It is never for sale. It cannot be fabricated out of public relations. It comes to us when we are alone, in quiet moments, in quiet places, when we suddenly realize that, knowing the good, we have done it; knowing the beautiful, we have served it; knowing the truth, we have spoken it” Alfred Whitney Grisworld

 

–Alex

 

 

World Glaucoma Week: Shining a light on glaucoma

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By 2020, the number of people in the world with glaucoma is expected to reach 76.0 million. That is more than the entire population of the UK. Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness in the world. Fortunately, it is highly treatable with the right medications and intervention if detected early.

This week is the 7th World Glaucoma Week. This was launched back in 2010 and the aim has been to increase awareness of the disease. The key to managing glaucoma is early diagnosis. Glaucoma generally involves high intraocular pressure (high pressure within the eye) which causes damage to the optic nerve. This is the main nerve that helps us to see.

Your optician can check the pressure in your eye with a simple painless test. By looking in your eyes they can also look for signs of damage to the optic nerve caused by glaucoma. As with high blood pressure which damages our blood vessels, the aim is to keep the pressure down. Early detection allows use of appropriate eye drops which reduce the eye pressure and minimise/stop damage to the optic nerve.

This year, the particular aims are to get national health authorities across the world (such as the NHS) to design strategies to combat glaucoma blindness. Educational materials about glaucoma should be delivered to those people at risk via all mediums including social networks. Resources should be focussed on those patients least likely to access eye care.

Thousands offer their time for free to support World Glaucoma Week and much has been achieved by the previous years. The aim is now to build on this work and reduce the effects of this potentially blinding disease. You can find out more on at the  World Glaucoma Week website.

–Nitin