Thursday, 29 June 2017


Food bank use is on the increase. The 2016-17 report from The Trussell Trust, a charity which run projects in communities which aim to reduce poverty, gave out 1,182,954 three-day emergency food parcels last year, a rise of 6% on 2015-16, and of which 436,938 went to children. The Trust's data shows that low income, changes to benefits and delays are cited as the main reasons for referrals to a foodbank. Other reasons include homelessness, debt, school holiday meals and domestic abuse. Go here for the key findings of the report.
In my local town of Swanage, Dorset, a quaint little Victorian town, the local foodbank is run by the Churches Together. I contacted the organisation today and spoke to Katrina, one of the volunteers. She spoke about how they help people from all walks of life; that they tend to use once, are very grateful for the food that is distributed; some needlessly feel a sense of shame about needing to use a foodbank.

As the school summer holidays approach, I am mindful that there are going to be children who will be going hungry, because they won't be receiving their free school meals entitlement. So I am launching #foodforthought - a campaign around food donations to local foodbanks around the United Kingdom.

#foodforthought asks that you add a tin or dried food item to your supermarket foodbank collection each week, or get in touch with your local foodbank to donate, in the next few weeks leading up to the start of the school summer holidays. In Scotland, some of the schools have already started their holidays. Donating something extra to your foodbank whilst you do your regular shop will help to manage the increasing need for access to support.

I've spoken in the past about how I experienced homelessness as a child; my birthday was at the end of April, so I asked for friends, family and people who follow my pages on twitter and facebook to consider putting some food into their local foodbank as a present for me. I'm pleased that a fair number of people did do this! One of my memories of homelessness was how hungry I was during school holidays when I didn't have access to food during the day, and where living in a seaside town, surrounded by cafes, ice-cream parlours, and fish and chip shops made me notice just how hungry I was.
Please help wherever you can, and share the #foodforthought idea to reach as many as possible, to help as many foodbank users as possible.

Thank you.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

All I need is the air that I breathe...

Mindfulness incorporates the breath into a lot of the act of being present. It is the anchor to "the now", and is a perfect example of the present, the past and the future. Each breath we take is a new batch of air, a fresh moment which comes to us whether we control it or not; each breath we exhale is taking away what we no longer need, as our body does its bit to use the air inhaled, take it around the body, sweep up the tail-end of the waste-products of respiration, and release it. Breathing is a natural act, governed by the pons, part of the brain stem and sympathetic nervous system, is largely automatic (in the sense that that one breath will naturally follow the next, although we can influence how deep and rapid it is), and will happen whether we control it, or not, unless something interrupts the process. 
The breath is a perfect tool for helping us to keep present, not just as a reminder to keep within the moment, but because physiologically, the breath can affect our emotions and our feeling of control. If we are stressed, our breathing rate increases. This then sends a clear signal to the brain to initiate the "flight or fight" response, so hormones like Cortisol and Adrenalin are released which increase the heart rate, blood pressure and the respiratory rate. The body becomes flooded with stress hormones, which is great for:
a) running away from the threats of impending death in Neanderthal days gone by

 but not so great for:

b) the forthcoming driving test
c) dental extraction 
d) job interview
 e) you and your overtired-and-wired toddler desperately searching for their one and only essential, most favourite, number one teddy and comfort snug, which, unless it is within sniffing distance of your delightful bundle of squishy loveliness, will result in a night of horrific sleepless woe, comparable to everyone's worst nightmare - before you realise it has been left at your friend's house three hours drive away (This will only happen once, for it is a steep and painful learning curve for all). 
This stress response can be a good thing, though, as in short-term moments it can boost performance, improve memory and be a great motivator, but it can become harmful when it is prolonged, causing effects on sleep, performance and concentration. It's all about balance.

So conversely, taking deeper, slower breaths stimulates a nerve called the Vagus nerve, a companion of the parasympathetic nervous system, which runs from the brain-stem through the trunk of the body down to the lower abdomen. This nerve, when stimulated, sends messages back to the brain to reduce heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure, resulting in the "stand-down" of the stress hormones, which then evokes that sense of calm back into balance, again. Meditation and yoga, in which deep breathing exercises are involved, can stimulate the vagus nerve, increasing "vagal tone". You can also see the examples of this in babies and children, just watch them as they fall asleep and they are taking lovely deep relaxed breaths to their abdomen. Practice it for yourself at bedtime - if you're having trouble dropping off, just take the breaths down to your abdomen and feel it rise as you breathe in, and notice how it changes your state of awareness.
As a nurse I often teach the patients in acute pain with whom I'm working with to focus on their breathing as part of my clinical toolkit, to help them manage their pain, helping as a distraction but also to physiologically manage the stress hormone response. As a Connected Kids™ meditation tutor I teach children of all ages how to use their breath to help them with worries, to help focus, and for relaxation. It is a very effective, accessible tool to use at any time.

So as an asthmatic with a passion for running, I am at a stage where I'm at a loss as to where to go from here, to manage my symptoms. I am increasingly frustrated with the way in which my body is reacting to my attempts to keep healthy and fit - it's almost akin to the rebellious teenager who is fighting the adult in getting out of the house and getting some fresh air on a bright sunny day.

I first began running about 8 years ago, but struggled beyond 200m or so before wanting to collapse in a heap on the pavement. I gradually overcame it and have been running mid to long distances ever since, including a marathon, which as an asthmatic, I consider to be one of my greatest achievements. However, the problem is that I cannot get my asthma under enough control to be symptom-free whilst I run. I hate the first 20 minutes or so, as I struggle with bronchospasm, which feels a little bit like someone is squeezing my bronchi and trachea with a pair of red-hot hands. No matter what I do, how I manage my treatment or organise my timing of taking preventer and reliever inhalers, I still feel this for every run, or sudden burst of activity such as a fast pace up one of the many hills in the town where I live, or when I'm running after the ice-cream van (actually that never happens, I just put it there to see if you're still reading this article and paying attention).
I have a diploma in asthma management, so I'm quite up on treatment plans and managing my symptoms as a patient. But I am very dismayed that I am now taking all this medication to try to control my symptoms. The latest addition is pretty much the end of the line for me, I honestly don't know what else to do if this doesn't work. I am experimentally trying to improve my lung capacity by singing whilst running. I doubt it's helping my asthma, but I am able to hold a note for a bit longer, these days! I'm also not particularly happy about the hoarse quality to my voice, which is a result of the steroid inhalers - I sometimes sound quite alluring, but at other times it is annoying, to say the least! Still, I can't allow this to stop me from taking the medication, as I clearly need it, at the moment.

Giving up exercise is not an option, neither is moving somewhere where hills do not exist, and I won't ever stop in my quest for the enjoyment of ice cream (which, incidentally, also provokes bronchospasm).

So what do I do, other than take the concoction of medication you see in my picture, just to be able to get me into my trainers and out of the front door, for a liberating, beautiful trail run in deepest, rural Dorset, whilst mindfully breathing and working through the agony of asthmatic apices? And it's not just my lungs that are affected: my shoulders and neck compensate for the pain and difficulty in breathing, too, so I am having to work mindfully on these areas, as well. I am lucky in the sense that it could be so bad I wouldn't be able to run at all, but personally I'd rather not have to suffer any of this, or comply with impending polypharmacy as an otherwise healthy adult in my 40's. Hmph.

If anyone out there - especially the elite athletes with asthma, can suggest anything, I would be very grateful. Not that I consider myself to be an elite sportswoman - a fast shuffle around the hills and fields of Purbeck is as good as it gets for me - but I would really love to be able to run without feeling impeded by this.

Monday, 5 June 2017

paying it forward, gratitude and the NHS: how lucky we are

I am a nurse, working in an A&E. I am also a tutor of meditation and a Connected Kids™ tutor and trainer. I am a parent. I spend a lot of my life giving up time, energy, listening, helping, teaching...sometimes swearing under my breath or occasionally stamping my feet on the ground, folding my arms, scowling and grumpily declaring "Not Fair!". 
Recently I've become a patient, relying on the NHS to help me out. I have had a health scare, which involved me being fast-tracked for investigations to rule out something that may have been rather sinister. Today I got to sample the hospital where I work from the other side of the fence. I arrived an hour in advance of my appointment, because I knew it was going to be a waiting game for a parking space (If it wasn't for the fact I live 30 miles away, public transport would have been an easier option). I scampered off to the canteen for a coronation chicken sandwich and wolfed it down in the waiting room, making a jolly mess, actually. But I didn't care, because I had a paper towel and some alcohol rub to clean my hands and erase all evidence of my gorging on coronation chicken in a half-full waiting room on a rainy Monday afternoon. A sandwich where I'd been able to get a staff discount, as I'd remembered to bring my ID badge with me. Well, there have to be some perks to working for the fifth largest employer in the world, doesn't there? My appointment was 50 minutes later than scheduled. But I actually didn't mind. Why? Because I worked a night and a day shift in a quick turnaround (my choice - albeit reluctant - to make up my contracted hours to fit around the social life of my ex-husband and the subsequent parental responsibility arrangements). So I got to doze off in the waiting room. Peace, quiet, no expectations upon me to Do Anything. Just to Be. How lovely! There are only ever two things which worry me about falling asleep in a public place:

1. The snoring. It's a Thing. 
2. The drool. I have no idea how I can cure this. But it's not a good look.

But the allure of soporific background noise in amongst a slightly uncomfortable plastic-covered static chair was too much for my tired body and mind to stay awake. I was just dozing off, heading into some bizarre world where coronation chicken met the subconscious mind of underlying anxiety mixed with the familiarity of being on home turf as a patient, and where the lingering scent of alcohol hand rub was at risk of being ignited with the underlying strands of mild fear which were wrapping themselves around my consciousness, when I heard my name being called. I jumped up in a hurry, pretending that I was awake the whole time. Which I clearly was. Otherwise, how would I have heard my name (maybe it was because they called me Nichola. I always feel like I'm being told off when I'm referred to as a Nichola). 
Anyway. After a consultation, some tests in which one involved a colleague I'd never met but had signed a piece of paper saying I had passed some training to do something (it's always nice to put a face to a name, but on this occasion I felt it was not appropriate to begin a conversation in that regard), I was reassured that although I and my GP had been absolutely right to get checked, the great news is that I am perfect. Sorry - I mean, perfectly well. 
Thank Fuck For That.

(I make no apology for the swear word).

I instantly felt the stress and worry melting away. It's been a tricky 10 days of wondering and worrying, albeit mindfully accepting my fears, worries and thoughts. To be told all is well is fantastic. But I also knew that of the 4 of us who were in the waiting room and had been handed the same pre-consultation questionnaire, one in two of us will, at some point, be given a diagnosis of cancer. As I left the department I couldn't help but wonder if the other women who had been there will have had further invasive tests and an anxious wait for answers, before being given the life-changing diagnosis of cancer. 

I walked back to my car in the pouring rain, feeling drained and exhausted, but relieved. I began to feel so grateful for the NHS, marvelling at its efficiency and ability to work despite everything that is being done to systematically dismantle it (my own view, obviously). 
Then on my way home, as I experienced the gratitude,  I had this voice in my heart, asking me to pay it forward. 
So I stopped at a petrol station, checked my tyre pressures, then went into the shop. I randomly picked a petrol pump, then asked to pay for that person's fuel. The assistant was surprised but played along with me - I didn't want the man who had just filled his car to know that it was me who had paid for his fuel. I just felt so grateful: to know that I was clear of something that could have been dramatically and catastrophically life-changing for me (as a single parent I am forever aware that I have to be well, fit, healthy and able to care for my children. Being unwell is simply not an option for me). On the receipt I wrote, "Have a good day. Pay it forward. From Nikki".
The look on the man's face as I saw him pull away out of the station was a picture. I loved this: the thrill of making a difference to someone else warmed my bones. Random acts of kindness bring about physiological and psychological effects, and being kind has benefits which can be far-reaching, especially if they are paid forward. In light of the tragic events that have been happening recently, I want to encourage as many people as possible to #payitforward in order to share these feelings and experiences. I paid that person's fuel bill to help him, request that he do something to help someone else, to spread the love (oxytocin), and in gratitude of our marvellous, amazing NHS. 
T h a n k   Y o u