Personal perspective: 12 tips for physical and mental health and well-being.
Co-authored by Catriona Harrison-Harvey.
Photo by Vivek Kumar on Unsplash
Catriona and I met in 2018 when I joined the paediatric rehabilitation centre where she worked. I saw her as a highly skilled, compassionate Occupational Therapist, and Mum of three children aged 4 and 8, including twins. “How did she thrive and manage to juggle everything?” I wondered.
Catriona’s mother sadly died suddenly in 2017. I (Cat) was still in the depths of grief and felt like no-one really understood. I could see that Esther was different; she genuinely cared and showed great empathy towards me.
Esther’s Illness: A few months after we met, I was hospitalised many times for a range of abdominal symptoms and pain all over my body. My kidney function was dropping and, to my horror, a biopsy revealed a rare condition affecting the kidney filters. I was unable to work and thought my much-loved career, as a Clinical Psychologist, was over.
With two small children to look after, I could barely move or go out. A Professor of Nephrology told me in the lockdown summer of 2020, after having my third baby, that I would be placed on a kidney waiting list, which was very traumatic. I thought I would be heading for dialysis.
I had been pushing myself to work, alongside co-editing a book (Jim & Cole, 2019). That four-year project started when my first-born was a toddler in 2015. By the time of the book launch, having been in bed the whole day, I did not know I was expecting our third child — but I was feeling a tiny bit better each week.
Catriona’s Illness: I was diagnosed with psoriasis in childhood and hospitalised many times. It is an auto-immune skin disease affecting my joints that can make me feel very fatigued. Over the years, I have learnt to manage it, but dealing with the physical and psychological impact has not been easy. After my mother’s death, I was also diagnosed with a hole in my heart. This came as a big shock and I thought I would not be around to see my children grow up. However, just like psoriasis, I see it as another condition to manage and keep monitoring. As I get older, I am more conscious that I need to make the most of my time.
How to deal with earth-shattering health news as a working parent
1. Embrace Flexible Working. It is important to negotiate hours that work for you, your family, and your health and well-being. People may believe that more time spent at work equates to greater productivity, but if people are burnt out, it is unlikely they will be as productive. Work from home, avoiding lengthy commutes, and work the hours that dovetail better with childcare. Time your leave for when it will be most restorative. Do not feel guilty: take all the leave accrued during sickness, maternity or paternity leave, or for working extra hours.
2. Learn to say “No." Defer. Delegate. Delete. These are three methods to carve out time boundaries at home and work, to avoid overwhelm. There are the same number of hours in a day, and more things to do now that we are parents and have our health to manage; it is unrealistic to expect yourself to do everything, as the tasks mount up.
3. Resources and Support. Ask for help from friends, family, or colleagues or, if you have a budget, pay for the help. Expecting to do it all every day, on top of your paid work — cleaner, cook, nurse, taxi, teacher, laundrette, etc. — is not realistic, and seeking help is not a sign of weakness.
4. Try Herbal and Natural Remedies. One of the best decisions I (Esther) made, was to consult with a Functional Medicine Practitioner. She revolutionised my diet and gave me herbal treatments to remedy my symptoms naturally. We go to our doctors, but traditional medicine is about fighting disease in a compartmentalised way, organ by organ, and less about replenishing your whole body in a holistic way.
To our dismay, the NHS is also a postcode lottery. After almost 3 years, a locum GP in a different borough discovered that I (Esther) had an underactive thyroid. Treatment of this, within a matter of weeks, meant I could work again!
5. Check Your ‘Window of Tolerance'. The Window of Tolerance is the body’s way of telling us that we are safe or can make connections (the parasympathetic nervous system), or if we need to enter into a ‘fight or flight’ state (the sympathetic nervous system), because we are scared or angry. At other times, our bodies may withdraw into a dissociative state in which we are numb and depressed. Therefore, it is important to ‘listen’ to our bodies when they send us these signals to warn us.
6. Beware of Burnout. Read the early warning signs of burnout. Stress impacts the immune system and then your body can be exposed to any number of infections. Our bodies also remember trauma, tension, and pain which can create extra layers of vulnerability in the context of a full or overwhelming workload.
7. Take 7 Different Types of Rest. We initially only knew about physical rest when we became unwell. We did not know there were 6 other types:
Be sure to read up on them and get a variety of rest in your schedule!
8. Carve Out Time. It is natural to dedicate most waking hours to work, the children, and hospital appointments. If we do not carve out even one hour of the day for activities, rest, or things we enjoy, it quickly leads to burnout and exhaustion. Likewise, relationships can suffer if time is not carved out for them.
9. Step Back from Your Thinking. Our negative thoughts do not have to define us. Think about your thinking and realise that thoughts are not facts; they are not always true. I (Esther) believed I was heading for a transplant but, in reality, I had my third child and my kidney function has been stable ever since. We do not know what is going to happen in the future. Diagnosis does not always equal the same prognosis for everyone. Furthermore, there can be factors outside our control that impact our recovery. For example, there is research suggesting that the stem cells of an unborn child can migrate to the mother’s damaged tissue and repair it (Dawe et al., 2007).
10. Get 'In The Zone'. It is important to do activities that you enjoy, value, and that give your life meaning (Miralles & Garcia, 2017). For me (Catriona), being “in the zone” or in a flow state when I draw and paint means that time stands still. I am truly present without being consumed by hundreds of thoughts. Having fun with my kids are some of my (Esther) best moments of flow. Studies have shown that experiencing flow can help guard against depression and burn-out.
11. Choose Positive People. I (Esther) was unsure how I would earn a living when I was so sick. In the early days, I sent referrals to friends and colleagues. This is how my practice started — as a one-woman band — and is now a growing team of therapists. In my personal life, as hard as it may be, I try not to spend too much time with people who send off negative vibes. They are drains, so surround yourself with radiators. If you are made to feel bad at the same time you are helping someone, consider running for the hills.
12. Plan for the Future. The worst-case scenario is always frightening. In the early days, before you adjust to a diagnosis, you expect the worst. We are naturally scared of death and of leaving our loved ones behind. However, it is important to know that that this is only one of a myriad of possibilities we can conceive of for the future. Embrace every moment you can now with happiness and joy.
Jim, J. & Cole, E. (2019). Psychological Therapy for Paediatric Acquired Brain Injury: Innovations for Children, Young People and Families. London: Routledge.
Dawe, G., Tan, X. & Xiao, Z. (2007). 'Cell Migration from Baby to Mother' Cell Adh Migr, 1 (1) 19-27.
Miralles, F & Garcia, H. (2017). Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. London: Penguin Books.