When I Interviewed... a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Hypnotherapist
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. I have made content for BBC Radio 2 around the topic of Mental Health Awareness before in my other life as a producer. When we were in the middle of our own fertility journey, I organised a Cabaret with all my super talented performer friends to raise money for Mind. It's a topic very close to my heart.
So, this blog is about techniques that can help you cope with a your mental health while you're going through a fertility struggle and I thought I should maybe interview someone who really knows what they're talking about...
Naomi Woolfson is a mindfulness based cognitive hypnotherapist, trained in Emotional Freedom Technique. She has a coaching business as well as a dedicated Fertility Support website (www.embracefertility.co.uk ) with online courses, community and inspiration. Which is pretty bloody awesome!!
Naomi reaffirms a lot of the life-changing stuff I discovered on my own fertility journey…while being properly trained and having a very established business. Handy!!
I particularly love that Naomi talks about the dangers of worrying that you’re not being positive enough and thinking that’s why your treatment isn’t working. I got myself into this state at times so I know it's easily done.
Let me reiterate her point: that’s not why it hasn’t worked.
Being positive is wonderful and I believe there are ways you can feel truly content and peaceful even throughout a fertility struggle (and even if its not every day). But please do not berate yourself if your affirmations and vision boards aren’t working.
Don't get me wrong. I believe (strongly) that you can experience a different reality depending on your mindset (and I practice it myself with daily gratitude and other self care habits.)
But it’s NOT YOUR FAULT if all your best, tip top, fist punching, water drinking, yogi-karmic positive thinking... doesn’t result in a healthy pregnancy and baby.
IT IS NEVER YOUR FAULT.
I constantly work on my self care - it's like brushing my teeth. Having breakfast. I check in with myself all the time to see if I need anything. This DOES NOT mean I've got it all figured out. It simply means I can give myself what I need when I need it.
I have started to call my daily self care: The Positivity Balance. Sorry if that sounds a bit wanky. Just, you know, trying to "coin a phrase" if you will...
Finding the balance between positivity and mindful awareness is a TOTAL game changer. Your head, your mental health, your experience of your fertility struggle can change when you practice this shit. It's total f-ing magic.
Naomi and I had a lovely long chat; so here’s our interview in full. Read on for a really useful perspective:
Tell me why you set up your business?
I was going through fertility treatment myself. I was diagnosed with endometriosis when I was a teenager, so pretty much from that point was told I would need IVF to conceive, (as it turns out both Naomi's children were conceived naturally) and then when we started trying, I really wanted to find positive ways to support myself and it seemed to me everyone was just talking about treatment.
I wanted to do everything I could before doing treatment, and I started learning about the mind body link – I thought I’m really stressed out, is that harming my fertility, how can I switch that? Also I wanted to have friends to talk to about it; but none of my friends were going through it. So, I thought: I’m going to have to make friends who are going through it – and that’s why I started the support group, to meet other ladies.
So you started it before you got pregnant?
Yes. We’d been trying for 2 years and I started the support group. Then ran the group for 2 years before I got pregnant.
Talk to me more about the mind body link?
When you're trying to conceive you read and do anything you can to help yourself. You read that eating pineapples might help, so you buy 10 pineapples, you read needles in your forehead might help so you try acupuncture, you do anything to try and fix this problem and get pregnant.
Everyone keeps telling me that stress impacts on your fertility negatively but I was going through a rabbit hole of ‘if you think positively, just imagine you’re pregnant and this baby will arrive…and then of course when it didn’t happen, I then thought I’m not being positive enough!’ and getting more and more depressed, because I was trying to be really positive and you can’t just MAKE yourself be positive.
So I thought there’s something in this but how do I access it. I want to feel happier, but how the hell do I do that when I’m this low. That’s what I got interested in. My blog is about how to feel good now…then your chances of pregnancy are greater – for many reasons which I write about in my blog - but that’s not why we’re trying to get you happier.
If someone’s really happy, it’s not that having a baby isn’t as important, but THEY then become the most important thing again rather than, ‘I’ll only be nice to myself once I’m pregnant’.
This is such an important message. I just saw someone posting on Instagram: ‘I can’t visualise myself with a baby, does that mean I won’t get my BFP because I can’t picture it?’, I commented and said it’s normal to feel like that, but no it doesn’t mean that you won’t get pregnant.
It’s key to realise that just because you’re feeling sad, it doesn’t mean that nothing will work out.
Exactly, it can go very wrong. You can get really pulled in…I really know that the only thing we experience in life is the world through our own thoughts and perceptions. So, I talk a lot about how our thoughts do create reality. I believe that. But it’s not in the way of: if I sit here and wish hard enough for a baby, a baby will magically appear. More – you need to get yourself happy, open and accepting of all the stuff that’s being thrown at you and that’s what got interesting to me…I didn’t get pregnant until I’d really come through this and started seeing the good things coming out of not having a baby yet.
I really wanted one, but it wasn’t this “if I don’t get pregnant this month, the world will end”. I shifted from that into the next phase. We took a break after our miscarriage and it felt like the baby that I miscarried…he wasn’t supposed to stay. I had a very strong feeling that it was a boy. And I felt that ‘he’s not the baby we’re supposed to have first’. If it had happened to me 2 years before, I would have crashed and burned. I wouldn’t have coped at all. I was more depressed when we were going through IUI 2 years earlier than I was after the miscarriage.
People said: ‘but the miscarriage is so much worse’, and I said yes, but it’s the perspective you have on it. I just felt like it was amazing we had been pregnant – that we’d managed to create a child with his sperm and my egg. Wow! That in itself proves that its possible, where until that point we didn’t know if it was possible.
So, you started your blog- when did you start training as a mindfulness coach?
About 6 months after I’d been running the group. I did my Emotional Freedom Technique training first, and then the cognitive hypnotherapy the following September. I’d been writing, speaking to people and I did the volunteer training with the Fertility Network and the lady running the course asked if I had thought about helping people for a living and I thought – no I haven’t but yes!
And have you found that your work has made a massive difference to how people cope?
Definitely, I think the biggest thing is when someone realises themselves that they need help because that is the first step. Even if all they did is say, I need help: then come and sit with me in the room in silence…that massive step of recognising: I need to change something. My thinking and my thoughts are negatively impacting me now.
So, people come and they say: right I need to do something, I don’t what it is but that’s the start point for therapy. It’s generally overcoming anxiety, overcoming this dread of what if this isn’t successful. They don’t want to go into treatment being petrified that it won’t work, when they’re so stressed. They just can’t go through the process. More people drop out of doing treatment through the emotional impact rather than medical prognosis. If 10 people stop doing treatment the reason for most of them will be because they can’t hack it anymore and you can change these things so easily because it’s a way of getting to know your thoughts and patterns, learning techniques to strengthen your resilience.
That’s it isn’t it - strengthening resilience. It’s going to be hard; if you know how to look after yourself, you will be ok, you will get through it and nothing that happens can change that if you’re able to access that strength.
Before you get it and feel it yourself it's so hard to believe – I was seeing an amazing therapist who had been through infertility himself and he kept saying ‘you’ll be ok even if you’re not a parent’ and I said, ‘no, no I won’t, I have to, that’s not an option’ and pushing so hard against it.
In the work I do, I’m not trying to convince people they will be ok if they're not a parent, because that is the ultimate fear and when you’re so entrenched in it, it’s too painful, it holds you back. I talk about getting you to a place where you are okay right now, you don't need to think about next month, next year, what happens if treatment doesn't work etc. etc.
I just say, maybe you will be ok for the next few weeks, the next few days, the next few hours. Let’s bring it right down. You don’t need to be OK in 4 years, you’re not there yet. Let’s wind it back to this moment.
Exactly. Day by day. Someone said it to me and it struck such a chord. Let’s not worry about whether or not it works. Let’s just have breakfast. Then go to the clinic. It just takes the pressure off. What are your top tips?
The main thing is self-care. Nourishing and nurturing yourself. If you want to be a mother and you’re expecting your body to grow a tiny life, you need to be nurturing yourself.
Meditation for me was a way to connect back with myself. We all think 'I haven’t got time to meditate.' or 'I'm bad at this' but the more you do it the more you benefit. It takes 6 seconds for body to go into stress response and 3 whole minutes to reverse it and initiate relaxation. It takes a few minutes for our bodies to calm down. To reverse the process and be calm. (Scroll to the end of this interview to read through the Letting Go meditation from Naomi).
You can practice it as many times through the day, you can ground yourself, breathe and focus on what’s actually happening in your body right now, what’s happening in your mind.
Does this practice every day work?
Yes. Even once a month is really helpful but if you build it up to be a habit it becomes a lot more powerful. You don’t practice to get better but you’re practicing how to bring yourself into alignment, so by deliberately practicing in those three minutes, then when you get stressed out in 2 hours time, you practice the ability to bring yourself back into calm, you’re more likely to be able to do it when you’re really stressed.
I found the more I was looking after myself the easier it was if I’d had a failed cycle or heard another pregnancy announcement. I was able to access the core, strength practices in my repertoire and re-align myself faster. What about how to recognise when you need support? When should someone seek help?
As soon as possible. I left it a lot later than I wish I had. I was focused so much on my physical body, changing my body but my health was being really impacted by my stress and the thoughts I was having. It was my fertility clinic – I had a panic attack during treatment and the doc said: you need to see our mindfulness specialist. So I did the course with her and I felt so ‘held’.
Someone I could talk to who wasn’t going to tell to take an extra 5mg of this, or avoid eating potatoes for a month…she didn’t give me answers, she asked me questions so I could find the answers myself. It was so liberating to give myself the space to say whatever I need to. She was not going to judge me.
I had a similar experience. Referred for counselling when I was in floods of tears! I learnt accepting support is not a weakness. A big message I want to get out there. You’re so much stronger when you do have someone to comfort you. It’s practical as well – they can give you strategies on how to cope
For me, it was finding a community of women not only going through it but looking for positive ways to support themselves.
I found forums depressing. One person would say “omg this has happened” and 50 people reply saying, try this, see this person, eat this! You’d never hear from that person again. You’d never know if they got pregnant or not. You invest all this time connecting and never hear from them again. Loads of depressed people freaking each other out! I tried to respond with mindful comments but people were negative about this – you’re being unrealistic. I realised it wasn’t helping me.
That’s why I started my own group. I wanted to be able to say to people, I’m feeling really good today. This has happened, let’s celebrate it. And in the group we invite people to share their pregnancy announcements! In forums you’re not allowed to announce it, but I thought if we can’t even cope with another woman who has been trying for 5 years getting pregnant, then we need to look at that. It’s very different from your best friend who has been trying for a week telling you over coffee to someone who has really struggled. We need to be able to celebrate and see that it’s possible. One lady had been trying for 8 years and she didn’t share it in the group, but I said she should! People need to hear its possible – it’s amazing! But people feel guilty. And sometimes I feel guilty now. But we’re all on these different paths and we can’t keep ourselves closed off.
So, what we’ve done is share announcements (no pics of scans though) and then there’s the mindful pregnancy group. Because even though you might get pregnant, you don’t suddenly change overnight and think – great, now I have no worries. New worries and anxieties come up and you need a space to talk about them without feeling guilty about upsetting others.
Then when you have your baby there’s our mindful parenting group. Everyone has extra high levels of guilt about the days we are finding it hard and struggling with being a mum. Because you’ve gone through so much to have them but it’s so normal to have some days where you want to sell them on eBay! Its ok not to love every single minute as long and you love your children. Parenting brings new challenges and things to deal with.
That's what I'm writing about now how we can bring mindfulness to parenting and stay connected deeply to ourselves so we can connect deeply with our children. There is a link to the group from the community page of my website www.embracefertility.co.uk.
A mindfulness practice: Let it be
This exercise can be used to release both fears and desires, allowing us to experience the moment as it is:
Close your eyes and tune into your current emotional state. Nervous, sad, excited, overwhelmed. What thoughts are behind this emotion? Are you experiencing any physical sensations linked to these thoughts, for example a tightness in your chest or fluttering in your stomach?
Bring your hands together and cup them as if you are holding a butterfly.
If you could allow all of these emotions, thoughts and feelings to flow down your arms into your hands and give them a shape or a colour, what would they look like?
Imagine holding all of your emotions, thoughts and feelings in the palms of your hands. Perhaps they might resemble a glowing ball of light, or have a physical shape, or you might just get an idea or a feeling of what they might be.
Then very gently, very slowly, open your hands, gradually turning your palms upwards towards the sky so that your little fingers are touching and your hands represent a bowl shape.
Say to this collection of your emotions, thoughts and feelings: “I release you, I let you be.”
Then stretch out the palms of your hands and slowly pull your hands apart, leaving the emotion floating in front of you in the air.
By releasing our grip on our desires and our fears that our desires may not be fulfilled we come to a place of acceptance that, just for this moment we can let these feelings be. This doesn't mean pushing them away. Just let them exist in front of us with no attachment.
Taken from the Embrace Fertility 10 week mindfulness course. Visit www.embracefertility.co.uk to download your free 5 minute mindfulness MP3 and poster '10 ways to bring mindfulness into your day while trying to conceive.'