Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Teens and mental health: a personal perspective

I have been very quiet on this page, in recent months, for a variety of reasons. Life has taken over, as it often does, with its ups and downs.
Whilst I have been doing some work as a mindfulness tutor and Connected Kids trainer, a lot of other stuff has been going on in my personal life, which has taken priority. 
One of these priorities has been this lovely young lady, in the picture. This is my daughter, who has given me full permission to write about our experiences. We are going to put together some information to help both teens and parents who might be experiencing similar challenges to those we have faced as a family, in order that we might help them. So, if you or a child in your family have been experiencing some mental health issues, please continue reading.
First of all, I want to explain that I don't claim to have all the answers; I am not perfect (who is?); I make mistakes and I learn from them; I practice what I teach.
My daughter has always been what her primary school head teacher called "a real live-wire" from as young as reception age. She is a very bright, feisty girl with an abundance of energy which was - and still is - often a bit of a challenge to manage - both for her, and for me as her mum. I have been teaching her a lot of meditation and mindfulness techniques from as young as three years old. Some of these techniques have helped her, others haven't. However, it seems that as we are in the midst of hormone fog and teenage boundary-pushing, things have turned a little bit pants at times. I often remind her to take some slow deep breaths, when she is starting to show signs that she is becoming out of control with her emotions, but my gently saying, "just notice your breath, take the next one deeper" - to be met with an infuriating daughter shouting "I AM BREATHING!" followed by tuts and strops. Sometimes I can't help but laugh, which sometimes diffuses the situation, but sometimes just makes it worse.
This beautiful girl has been struggling in the past few years with depressive symptoms, has dabbled in self-harm, is dark and withdrawn and has episodes of panic and anxiety. Still I work with her in learning to understand these feelings, emotions and moods which overcome her like a massive wave that sinks her momentarily. Still I teach her to work with it and use her meditation skills and methods to help find the anchor within. Sometimes she can, sometimes she can't see it, sometimes she kicks back at me in rebellion.
We are waiting for CAMHS to see her after her initial assessment, where we are waiting to see what the plan is. She seems to have a lot of features of ADHD, but until we have been seen by the consultant, we are hanging in mid-air, waiting to see what happens next: a mindful experience in itself.
So I do wonder if some out there are reading this and thinking, "she teaches kids meditation but her daughter has this going on - she can't be any good at her job, can she?" - but I see it differently: I believe that my daughter's mental health would be far worse if I hadn't taught her the techniques I have, over the last 10 years - this is backed up by a comment from a professional mental health specialist nurse who said my daughter would be in a much worse place without my expertise.
So as things have developed over the past year or so, I've concentrated more on helping my daughter, connecting with her as much as I am able to, and tried hard to access the care she needs from other professionals.
But as ever, this girl continues to be one of my greatest teachers, and I will continue to learn.
I'd be interested to hear from you about your experiences and shared knowledge - please do contribute - but bear in mind my daughter will read this, too, so try to keep comments encouraging and helpful to all.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Don't give Up Hope

All Is Not Lost
By taking one breath at a time
You have the courage to keep going
To put one foot in front of the other - 
Although it may seem ridiculous or sublime - 
On days when you're unsure you can face another
When you can't see the woods for the trees
Allow your life to gather love and meaning
Like a forest floor cradles its leaves
Because as each season changes everything
For what's lost, sometimes we grieve
And a cacophany of hormones, heart and mind reminds us that this
Can trigger such deep emotion
A nugget which has been mined
Plucked from the dark, with no trace of hope
It can feel like the soul has eloped
Away from the world, the everyday
Into blackened smog and velvety dread, so
Try to look for a twinkle somewhere each day
Even if you're not seeing it
The spark of light is there
Just because you can't see it
Don't think there aren't those around you who care
(Now read from the bottom to the top)
Nikki Harman

Call Samaritans (UK and ROI) on 116123 if you feel you want to take your own life

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Letting in the light, letting in the dark

Today in the northern hemisphere, it's the winter solstice - the shortest day, the longest night. As I write it's just after 4pm: where I live, the sky is a milky gloom above muddy fields and a chalky blue, calm sea.
We are being enveloped in a velvety darkness which can be both of comfort and of a heaviness, resting upon the shoulders of those who feel its burden; or feeling wrapped in a blanket of peace and restfulness. Regardless of how you see it, the winter solstice offers us all the opportunity to go within ourselves and visit the shadows, to experience the darker side of ourselves. We can reflect on our year, looking at the difficulties we have faced, what we have learned from them, how we take these experiences forward in our lives. Then we can lighten those burdens by accepting those difficulties and learning to let go. Take some time to sit in silence, meditating on these, or by writing them down. When you do so, invite yourself to let go either by taking some deep, abdominal breaths to release tension in your body where you may have been holding on to stuff in your body and mind. You can either then visualise breathing out the tension and as you breathe in, taking in bright colours of light around your body; or burn your piece of paper. In both cases, sit with the intention of gratitude for the experiences you have faced and let go of the sense of difficulty.
If you've had your best year yet, and you have much to celebrate, sit in reflection and feel that pride and joy within you and around you. Share that light to cast away those shadows. You can embrace the other side of the solstice, the other half of our selves: summer solstice, for those in the southern hemisphere, who will be celebrating the longest day, tomorrow. Here in winter time, from tomorrow the days become longer, the nights become shorter. We can begin to look at what we can plant and grow in the coming months, to look forward to those vibrant days where the sunlight warms our bones and fills us with a different energy.This is a day for reflecting on the seeds sown, reaping rewards and the warmth and brilliance of the light, which helps us grow.
In either case, gratitude invites acceptance and offers happiness and satisfaction. As hard as it may be to do so, even a tiny glimmer of positivity can offer hope, not just for yourself, but to others.
Where we have hope, we can invite peace into our hearts, into our lives and can grow and share this with others. If we all do so, we have a chance to bring in Peace On Earth.

Nikki Harman is a mindfulness coach, Connected Kids™ tutor and trainer, and a registered nurse working within the NHS.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Mindful Kids

Sometimes, when I talk to people about mindfulness and meditation, they believe it to be mostly about sitting still, clearing the mind and breathing. Whilst there is a fair amount of this type of activity involved, there is a greater, far more rewarding experience to be had by learning a range of mindful and meditative techniques.
Teaching kids mindfulness is great fun and incredibly rewarding, especially with younger children: they tend to be naturally brilliant at living in the present, as many a parent will tell you when they're in a hurry and their 6 year old is walking painfully slowly, taking their time and whole happy selves to experience the teeny, tiny baby snail making its way along the wall, leaving its thin slimy silvery trail as it goes; or the twenty zillion cracks in the pavement that they absolutely must NOT step on otherwise they'll marry a rat; the spectacularly beautiful stone (that, which looks to the grown-up like it might be a piece of cement that's crumbled out of a brick wall) that they must take home with them as it is so precious and magical - does this sound familiar to you? How much time do you indulge in your child to experience this, even if you're in a hurry? How often do you tell your child to walk sensibly - instead of allowing them to tip-toe along the pavement, to prevent their prophesy of impending marital doom? Think of it another way - by doing so, it could be that they're saving you the heartache of waving them off to the wedded-stress of marrying someone with rodent behavioural tendencies...
I've been teaching mindfulness to children for 4 or 5 years now, and have found many different activities which promote the important neuroplasticity and cognitive changes over a period of time. Young children often benefit from physical activities as a way of burning off excess energy, to release stress and anxieties, and can often make some space in their present moment for focusing on their thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, using a range of child-friendly techniques. One of my preferred ways of helping my own children is through cooking, because it is great for mindfully considering food provenance, how the food is metabolised by their body, marvelling at the wonder of how their body does this without them even noticing; it also fosters the all-important connection with my children, as we have fun together, learn together, help each other, and give space for them to share their feelings, worries, concerns. It's also really good for developing collaborative working, sharing responsibility, growth mindset, and more. Making pasta, as shown in the photo above, was experimental, funny, annoying and tasty, but more than this they fully experienced their senses, mindfully working through the process. A very mindful process, we even synched our breath with the turning of the handle to press the pasta through to see if we could make our breath as long as our pasta - which got longer each time! Of course it was almost impossible to do, but it was a way of allowing the children to be aware of their breath and how they could change the length of the breath in and out.
So if you're keen to teach your child meditation, try different ways in which you can experiment with the activities you choose. Remember to practise meditation yourself, so that you can feel the benefits, too.

Nikki Harman is a Connected Kids™ mindfulness tutor and trainer; and also teaches adults mindfulness. Nikki is a member of the International Meditation Teacher Association (IMTA) as an approved trainer provider; and is also a registered nurse working within the NHS.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Choose Love

One of my favourite running T shirts - because people smile at me and talk to me when I wear this! As part of the help for refugees campaign, designed by Katharine Hamnett.

I'm sure you have noticed that there is some particularly difficult stuff going on around the planet, at the moment. I don't know about you, but over the past few weeks I've been feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the negativity that's been present in the news, online, and in general. There seems to be a strong presence of...well, to be perfectly blunt: shit - hitting some enormous fan and spreading it outwards, to the point where no place is left clear of the stuff. It's almost impossible to read, hear or watch news coverage without feeling a sense of enormity of some kind of emotion, whether it's anger, sadness, loss, bewilderment, frustration, stress, fear...hate?  
And doesn't it all seem to be familiar? Are we living in some sort of twisted loop of déjà vu? Why is it that we are hearing the same thing, over and over? War-famine-disease-natural disaster-massacre-world leader losing grip on reality. The same merry-go-round of awfulness which just keeps cycling over and over. 

People all have an opinion about what is "right" and what "should" be done. People who think they are right and have the answers. In one personal example recently, a post from someone in Australia appeared on my Facebook newsfeed, which she had shared from someone who had decided that Australia should be given back to the original Australians - the ones that arrived a couple of hundred years ago - and that everyone else should disappear back to whichever country they came from. Have these Australians forgotten that there is a whole indigenous population, a nation who had been happily living there for thousands of years before the "Australians" turned up?! 
 Have members of UKIP ever looked at their ancestry? Have any of the Brits whom are so convinced they are so very British ever looked back beyond a few generations in their family? Because I am fairly sure that British doesn't truly exist in the "purest" forms these folk imagine. I know in my own  family I have ancestors from St. Lucia. I also have ancestors from various parts of Eastern Europe, as well as Ireland (I burn in the sun, rather than tan, so I guess I know which genes are dominant!). Again, in Australia, they have been voting in the same-sex marriage referendum. I find it hard to believe that it is still an issue, and yet here we are, a world which is beginning to choose love over hate, a world which is collectively beginning to rise up against the fear, the hate, the anger; nations of people who are standing up for the rights to be heard, for equality, for basic human rights; individuals who are questioning the status quo more than ever before. 

So what can you do in these times? 
How are you faring? Are you OK? Are you anxious? Are you worried? Are you living in fear? Or are you riding along in the moment? Are you being proactive or reactive? 

As someone who practises meditation daily, I am finding these to be bumpy times. Personally, I'm quite sensitive to the news. I can only listen in short bursts. I can only look at social media in small doses. I actively seek out silliness to avoid the horrors. I work in a high-pressure environment in my nursing world, so I tend to minimise watching programmes that are terribly sad, harrowing or scary. I watch comedy more than anything else, because frankly, I need to laugh every day. I also run a lot, because it gets me out of the house and into rural green and coastal areas where I often mingle only with sheep, cows, view the occasional pods of dolphins and a lot of seagulls, as well as the occasional walker, whom I startle with my earphone karaoke. 
But when things are really getting me down, I do two things. 1) I clean my kitchen. It looks gleaming on the gloomiest news days. A sad reflection of current affairs. 2) I sit in the stillness of my mind, my heart and my observation of life from a peaceful standpoint. And when I ask a question of "why" to each atrocity I hear about; when I ask "how" to heal the troubles we are facing; when I ask "what" can I do as an individual to make  a difference, what whispers quietly to me? What slowly reaches my ears, in deference to these questions I ask? 
Choose Love.
I have been explaining this to clients and friends for a number of years. I have been telling myself and trying to heed to this mantra for even more. It is hard. It is difficult to understand how to choose love over anger when there is so much hate being displayed in the world, right now. But there has always been hate, and this hate, in its many forms, has been fought with hate and anger and produced only more hate and anguish. Love is the seedling which grows slowly yet persistently and will gradually transform the fields of fear and hatred - but it has to be nurtured, it has to be heard, it has to be whispered and shouted and sung and played; it has to be praised like a child learning to speak and listened to with open ears; it has to be heard over and over. Choose Love. Anger is not working. Love takes on many forms, it doesn't have to be a passive role. Love is precipitated by passion - so stand up for what you believe in, but come from your heart, open your heart to the truth of what we all crave, which is to be loved. Nobody is born to hate. We are taught to hate, but we can be taught to love, to share, to nurture the goodness in life. Note that I am not asking you to ignore the horrible stuff going on in the world. I am not asking you to pretend bad things aren't happening. I am asking you to invite a different perspective into your world, if you are not doing this already - if you want to make changes in the world, start with yourself and then gradually move outwards. If this sense of love allows you to spend time raising money for refugees, for example, let this guide you and see where it takes you. You may not be able to stop terrible things from happening in the world, but you can influence your own life and those around you in positive ways.
I ask you to sit quietly once a day, just for a few minutes, and take yourself to a place in your heart which holds love. When you arrive there, be still there for a while, then imagine that sense of love growing within you and spreading outwards. Practice it each day, and notice how it makes you feel, as well as if it influences those around you. I'm not offering this as a hippy, dewy-eyed view of life, nor as a holier-than-thou answer to the world's problems - this is just a perspective I am offering you, the reader, to consider.
Choose Love.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Reiki: Stuff and nonsense?

I know that some of my NHS colleagues regard me as "weird" because I practice reiki. To some, it's seen as a sham therapy, it's nonsense, it probably doesn't work, it has no scientific basis and it's a waste of money. 

As a nurse, I work on evidence-based care. I use facts and data to support my work, I analyse information to help gain a clinical picture. 

So I sometimes find it annoying that I practice reiki. I know that sounds weird, too; but the thing is, I often find myself sitting on the fence in contentious issues, because I can see both sides. I often wish I could be more certain, more definite. 
Here's where I am on the reiki fence: One leg either side of it. 
On one side, I see reiki as an unproven modality with little rigorously-tested research to prove that it does (or does not) work. As a critical thinker, I could say that as there is little conclusive evidence, I shouldn't practice it any more.

On the other side of the fence, I have tested it anecdotally and found that reiki has made a difference. An example of me seeing it work in practice is based on a situation where I was asked to give reiki to a patient many years ago, when I worked in an intensive care unit. The patient had suffered a catastrophic head injury. Brain scans revealed that his brain had been irreversibly damaged. Tests on his brain stem, the part of the brain that controls breathing, heart rate, blood pressure - all the basics for survival - had been irreversibly damaged. Tragically, there was no hope for this man. The family, who were devastated, were reaching out for any sign that their loved one could survive, as well as accepting that his life had come to an abrupt end. They were worried that he was in pain. They were told by one of my colleagues that I practised reiki, so asked me to give him some. I was initially reluctant to do so, but they really wanted to give him some comfort, knowing that he was unconscious, on life supporting machines and medicines to keep him alive. I asked the family if it would be acceptable for me to check his observations at the beginning and at the end of the therapy, to see if there were any changes, to which they agreed.
I asked a colleague to do a full set of observations, which included:
  •  blood pressure (which was being continuously measured through an invasive line in his artery, and visible on a monitor next to the patient's bed);
  • heart rate 
  • oxygen levels.
  • The patient's breathing was being controlled entirely by a machine called a ventilator, which was artificially inflating his lungs to deliver oxygen into his body. 
  • My colleague also checked his neurological status, which included:  
  1. pupil reaction to light (his eyes did not react), 
  2. movement (he was unconscious and not making purposeful movement)
  3. response to painful stimuli (he had an abnormal response to pain, showing grossly abnormal brain function). 
She wrote everything down and completed the patient's ICU chart, which had been recording all of these vital signs hourly for the past 2 days. Without looking at her results, I repeated a full set of observations and then began giving the reiki therapy for half an hour (free of charge of course, and with permission from the nurse in charge at the time).
At the end of the session I asked the same colleague to repeat the full set of observations and I did the same. What we discovered was that the heart rate, although still abnormally high, had reduced; the blood pressure had also reduced, despite remaining high; oxygen saturations had improved by 1%; and although the neurological observations were still abnormal, the overall score had improved by 1 point. All of these observations marked a noticeable difference in the data we had in that time-frame. The family were comforted by this, although we knew that the patient was not going to survive.
For me it raised a whole number of questions about how it worked (or was a coincidental finding); how to repeat the test again, whether it would be possible to do further research, and also blew the placebo theory out of the water, because the patient was unconscious and apparently unaware of the fact that he had just received half an hour of therapeutic touch. Although the data was measured and the findings could have implied that something had affected the measurements, there was still no hard evidence to support the theory that reiki therapy had made a difference to the patient.
To this day, I question that situation. For the most part, I believe that the patient benefited from the therapy. I would be interested in conducting further research. Reiki is being offered to cancer patients around the UK, with projects such as the Sam Buxton Sunflower Healing Trust working within the NHS. 
The other interesting thing to note is that recently I was asked by a friend to give some reiki to him. I did so, and picked up a very specific medical side-effect of some treatment he'd been having. I'd had no idea at all from him that this side-effect had occurred, but I had discovered it during the session. I don't do guess-work,  and I don't do cold-readings. But I was spot-on about what I'd picked up. How? I dunno!
Whenever I treat a client, I take a full history, using assessments akin to my nursing work, I write notes and keep them confidentially locked away. I take confidentiality very seriously, adhering to ethics and respect at all times. I never claim to be able to cure anyone of anything. If you ever visit a reiki therapist who makes these kind of claims, walk away from them immediately.
Finally, and importantly, is the subject of money. I don't always charge people. I am often asked by friends and family to give reiki - if I do it's free or at a greatly reduced rate for close friends. For clients I  often under-charge, not because I don't value my work, but because I feel inclined to do so if I know they cannot afford to pay me. For others I combine my work as a mindfulness coach with the session to help the client in a broader sense, encouraging them to take on an interactive role in their own healing. After all, it's their body, they know how they feel. I facilitate the process of being able to tune in to themselves mindfully and work on self-care.
So does reiki work? Not, it would seem, for everyone - some of those I have treated have reported no effects whatsoever. Others have felt amazing results from the treatments. All I can say, is that although I am on the fence, I am leaning more to one side than the other, with the label of weirdness a factor in my leanings. But then again, what's wrong about being weird?!

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.