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Have we become too clean?

Have we become too clean?

There are a few ideas I’ve been toying with to do with how overt cleanliness is more closely linked with anxiety or desire for control and the effect this is having on our physical and mental health.  It’s an extremely complicated area and there are so many variables at play that it is certainly difficult to unravel them from one another – so why unravel?  Let’s look at the whole mess and see where we end up!
 
We live in a society that values cleanliness – I mean, we’ve all heard that “cleanliness is next to godliness”, right? There is also the obsession with ‘clean’ eating (which is not strictly the same kind of clean, but funnily enough also ties into the same areas of anxiety, desire for control and need to eliminate all ‘bad’ things from ones life).  So why is it that we are living longer, yet the quality of our lives (especially in the last few decades) is plummeting?  Increased rates of allergies and intolerances are certainly popping up in my clinic, but is it all down to better diagnostic techniques or is there something more to it?
Where antimicrobial gels and sanitisers were once only used in hospitals and labs, they are now staples in many handbags, nappy bags and backpacks.  In Australian society, showering morning and night (or even more often!) using surprisingly harsh products is widely accepted, despite the massive amount of water used and detergent run-off damaging our water systems – those who shower less often or with minimal detergents are seen as inherently dirty and somehow even unvirtuous.  The use of bleach or ammonia based cleaning products is standard in many homes, yet we still seem to be getting sicker.
Is the obsession with super-clean homes and bodies starting to kill us?  Not only are we avoiding useful triggers in building a healthy immune system, increasing rates of allergies and adverse reactions to innocuous triggers (the hygiene hypothesis of allergy), but the massive rise in the use of chemically based anti-microbials in cleaning supplies and personal care products (as opposed to primarily mechanical cleaning using plain soap and water) is not only wiping out the bacteria in your home, but also on your skin and potentially in your gut.
 
Why is this important?
 
Coupled with the overuse of antibiotics, we are losing our most important companions – our bacteria. The bacteria that we have in our gut and throughout our bodies are essential for so many processes, from aiding digestion to producing Vit K to even modulating mental health.  By destroying the delicate balance of microbes in and around us, we are perhaps doing far more harm than good.  ‘Fixing’ a broken microbiome is not a quick and easy task, taking months or years to repair damage to a multitude of systems.  Perhaps minimising the damage in the first place would be a far better (and more sustainable) option.
Set yourself up for success

Set yourself up for success

This month I had a conversation with a patient about vacuum cleaners and how they only work if you use them, rather than just leave them in the middle of the room.  It got me thinking about a new vacuum I bought for the clinic last year (or so I told myself…)

The new little vacuum didn’t even make it into the clinic!  I brought it home and there it’s stayed…

The old vacuum is certainly effective, but it is big, cumbersome and lives in a cupboard, while the new one is cordless, light and slots onto a little stand for recharging.  You can simply pick it up, vacuum up what you need cleaned up and pop it back with absolutely zero fuss. Since this little vacuum entered my home, I think I vacuum at least ten times as much as before!  Why?  Because it’s fuss free, it requires so much less effort to use and (most importantly) it’s visible!

This is one example of how small changes to your surroundings can change your behaviours (and even your thoughts about particular situations).  In this case, I’m still the same person, but my behaviour changed purely because it was now easier for me to complete the task.  Previously, once I actually dragged out the old vacuum I was often surprised about how quickly and easily I completed the task and wondered why I put it off for so long, but then proceeded to follow exactly the same pattern of thoughts and procrastination each and every time.

I broke that pattern by changing something, Any change, however small, can lead to a breaking an unhelpful pattern of thoughts and it’s these small changes that play a part in setting yourself up for successes, rather than repeated failures.

I’ve always advocated for enabling small successes through small changes that lead to big successes and big changes.  In general, if something takes more effort then you are less likely to do it, and if it takes less effort then you are more likely to do it.  These small changes can be as simple:

– If you have more racing thoughts at night, then keep your journal by your bed rather than in a different room.

– If you are struggling with snacking on sweets at work, keep them off your desk and away in a cupboard – having to walk to your cupboard can be hard compared to reaching into a drawer at your desk!

– If you are finding that time escapes you, take a minute to make a plan and schedule time for yourself.  Even committing to paper (and no one else!) can be enough to make it real.

– If you always have a bag of frozen vegetables in your freezer, you’re more likely to add them to meals rather than avoid spending time prepping fresh ones.

It’s human nature to do what is easiest – it’s not a moral failing or character flaw! Your environment can significantly impact your choices, your behaviours and your thoughts – so set yourself up for success and make that environment one that works in your favour rather than against you.

Add a little woo and stir…

Add a little woo and stir…

Everyone knows me as a straight-laced, by-the-book, evidence-based health practitioner.  In fact, I’m known for my extensive knowledge of rather boring facts that I can recall about almost any topic at will, but did you know I dabble in something softer, more esoteric…?

Yes, I dabble in mindfulness and self examination!

Every now and again I’m reminded that I have majors in both psychology AND philosophy (focusing on epistemology and metaphysics).  I often forget about that second one because I focus so much on the clinical aspects of my profession.  This month, I had a little reminder…

Growing up, I’d had a book on fortune telling that fascinated me and I was particularly interested in cards.  I had a theory in my early adolescent mind that while the cards were face down in the stack the top card was simultaneously all the cards and none of them – that the card ‘became’ itself upon being flipped over and viewed.  Later on, I learned about uncertainty principles, observer effects and the beauty of both physics and metaphysics in how we try to understand those ideas.

On a whim, I purchased a set of “Angel Cards” purely because I thought they were pretty and reminded me of the artworks of some of my favourite neoclassicist painters, such as Adolphe William Bouguereau.  Reading the booklet that came with them made me laugh because I didn’t feel any connection like that described within – I just liked the art!  Still, on a particularly stressful day (just before taking my 4yo son for a surgical consult regarding his recently broken nose) I decided to lay some cards down and do a reading for myself.

As always, the thought that the top card both existed already in that place and didn’t exist until I viewed it popped into my mind, but I completed a layout and read my cards.  My cards indicated Strength for upcoming changes, Nature for inspiration and Claircognisance for guidance (that last one added to my collection of random facts because I had to look up what it meant!).  I had a giggle and moved on with my day of taking my boy to hospital without giving it much more thought.

During the hours of waiting, however, I had some time to reflect on those cards.  I had time to quietly contemplate and assess what those words mean, how they enter my life and the various aspects of my life that could stand to have a little more strength, nature or claircognisance (go on, look it up!).  I found that I fixated on those words quite a lot that day and found them to be an effective focus when it was all too noisy, too bright and too hectic around me.

The cards themselves were not particularly special, but I was able to take the exercise of the reading and use it as a calming focus for myself when I needed it.  This was a practice of mindfulness and self examination in a place that is usually not conducive to introspective thought, but it was calming and soothing at a time when I needed it most.  Some people flip open a book to read a random passage and others look for patterns around them – anything can work as a focus if you are open to letting your mind have a play.

I’m not sure if I’ll do more readings, but the cards are just there, ready to prompt some new words to focus on at any time.

Festive season? Not for everyone

Festive season? Not for everyone

Who’s noticed the Christmas decorations popping up already?  Some places jump in early and start putting them up in November, whilst others like to really get a head start and have Christmas items available in October!  Whilst this doesn’t bother me one way or another, it does serve as a sign that the next couple of weeks are likely going to get tougher for many people.

Much like the archways and carpets of purple jacaranda trees in bloom were a reminder that it was really time to knuckle down and study because exams were only weeks away (I know, I know… I was one of those students!), the emergence of Christmas decoration is a signal that those who are already struggling are about to be struggling even more.

Those who are in a financial bind find this time of year particularly difficult with lower working hours and higher expenses, especially if they rely on childcare during school holidays.  Those in situations of family violence or abuse often find this time of year an even greater risk to their safety as tempers (and often alcohol) run over.  Those who struggle with addiction (substance, food or habit) can find this time of year to be an even greater challenge than the rest of the year as the words ‘treat yourself’ become more visible with each day.  Those who are affected by physical or mental conditions often find their symptoms are exacerbated towards the end of the year by stress, fewer available treatment appointments and a sense of exhaustion.  Those who are already in fragile mental states through depression, grief or anxiety can find their balance is tipped from managing their condition to not coping well at all.

It is important to remember that if you are not one of these people, it is very likely that others close to you are.  They may not wish to advertise their struggles, but their struggles will still be very real.  Try to look beyond your immediate needs and be aware of who may be having a particularly hard time – offer them support, kindness and gentleness.  It may well be the most important gift they receive this year.

Alone together

Alone together

Despite not planning it, I have ended up primarily working in womens’ health and most of my patients are mothers, ranging from the very new to those with decades of experience.  As a result, I tend to see the same issues presenting over and over and over again.  I see the exhaustion from excessively long ‘to-do’ lists, sleep deprivation from broken nights or too early mornings, and malnutrition from skipping meals or ‘forgetting’ to eat something fresh and from the ground.  I see the conditions that have gone for far too long because there was always something else that needed to be dealt with that had higher priority – for many women, then don’t even remember when they because the least important person in their lives (more on that another time…)

But more than that – I see the loneliness.  These women are connected to others in a myriad of ways – social media, work, school, family, friends – but they are essentially all lonely.  Despite never actually being alone, they feel constantly alone.  Within the struggle of balancing the various hats they wear – wife, mother, daughter, sister, worker, friend – the balance is lost, often to the point that ‘self’ is also lost along the way.

Many of these women have people they consider friends, but they are kept at a distance (emotional or physical) for a variety of reasons. I wonder if this new definition of friend is beneficial, because the relationships described as friendships by these women would barely pass as acquaintances.  So many of these strong, intelligent women describe having many friends, but no one close at all, and they give a dazzling array of reasons as to why it has to be that way.  Some of these include self protections (because you can’t be hurt if no one gets close), comfort (because even the idea of organising a catch up is too much), circumstance (moving frequently can disrupt even the best intentioned relationships) or even just societal expectation (the idea that women are natural nurturers and should be self sufficient without needing to rely on others).

The last one is the one that sticks with me most – women are burning out because they think they are supposed to do it all, all the time, flawlessly.

So many women are so set in their way of thinking that they MUST be able to do everything perfectly without assistance that even the smallest change to let go becomes incredibly difficult.  We have forgotten that in the past women were not alone in raising children – there were extended families, neighbours, friends who had done, were doing or would be doing the same thing.  Just as most women today have never seen a normal birth instead of the sanitised and unrealistic movie-births (yet more false expectations on women), many women of my generation have never seen a village raising a child – only the smallest units who are encouraged to stand alone and showcase show easy and wonderful it is to do it all!

When asked “Are you lonely?”  they respond that of course they’re not lonely!  They have 250 friends on social media and share inspiration boards with 150 more!  There’s not time to be lonely!  Yet they all describe, in exquisitely painful detail, exactly how lonely they really are before sometimes realising just how alone they feel.

Change takes time and effort.  Not everyone is ready at any given time to attempt to change their mindset, their surroundings or their approach.  For some it can take months or even years, and some never really manage it at all.  Societal change takes even longer, but it is heartening to see there is more being discussed out in the open on the loneliness of mothers today, no matter how connected they may be in the digital world.

Most importantly, you don’t have to attempt anything it on your own.

You’re not alone.

Stepping stones

Stepping stones

By now, we’ve all read about the benefits of gratitude in terms of positive mental health and even improvements to physical health.  There is plenty written about how gratitude is good for you and there is a booming market in gratitude journals, apps and playlists.  (Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade have a look here, here, here and here for a starting point on the benefits of gratitude!)

I was very pleased to heard some nice words from two patients in the last month within days of one another – one wanted to touch base and ask my opinion on an activity she was interested in trying, the other had turned his world view around significantly in recent months.

Both said ‘thank you for being my stepping stone’.

Those. Exact. Words.

I found this to be both a tremendous honour, incredibly humbling and, at the same time, powerfully uplifting.  Here were two people who came to me for vastly different issues (although both were physical rather than psychological worries), but who came away feeling so much more empowered to change their lives for the better.  They were always capable of doing so, but just needed that first step in the right direction to be guided by someone else.

It’s a very humbling experience to be the person who can hold someone’s hand as they take that step in the right direction which leads them to change their entire lifestyle or world view and to watch them bloom into their new self – happier, healthier and better able to continue to grow.

I think I’ll keep being a stepping stone for a little while longer 😉