Putting your best foot forward - Reflexology and positive mental health - by Alex Critten

When we talk about positive mental health, what - pardon the pun! - comes to mind? Feeling confident in yourself and your abilities? Good self esteem? Coping well with the stresses of everyday living? Engaging well in the world that is around you? Upholding and maintaining good relationships?

All these are good indicators that your mental health is doing ok. What happens if one or more of these goes off kilter? Soon, life can seem more difficult and the gradient of the ‘treadmill’ becomes steeper and faster. 1 in 4 people experiences varying degrees of difficulties with their mental health, at any given time, yet mental health is still a matter many struggle to discuss.

In coping with the changes to mental health, we all have have different strategies. Often, this can be self-medicating with alcohol, food, prescribed medication or illicit substances. However, many people are turning to more alternative ways of managing, such as Complementary Healthcare and this can involve Yoga, Massage and Reflexology.

The Complementary Healthcare industry is huge, with a large proportion of those that access it being women. Women are more likely than men to access support, seek it out, ask about it, whether that be through their Doctor’s surgery, getting recommendation from friends or just generally do their own research. Yet, Complementary Therapies are superb resources for men too.

It is also likely that for a man to be embarking upon any form of alternative healthcare to the traditional medical model, it’s usually their partner who has been the driving force.

So, why could there be resistance from men in utilising Complementary Therapies, particularly Reflexology?

Reflexology conjures up different responses. Some people think that it’s no more than a tickle of the feet (different service, different purpose, each to their own!), others believe that it is nothing more than a glorified foot massage, something that you get done in a beauty salon (Possible, however, often these practitioners are not clinically trained). When choosing a Reflexology Practitioner, people should ensure that the Practitioner has been rigorously trained at a reputable school, is a full member of a professional organization and is fully insured.

Men can feel unsure about a therapeutic environment. If it’s not clinical looking, there seems to be suspicion. Yet, once the treatment commences, fears are allayed and all men enjoy the treatment.

Reflexology, by definition, is the whereby ‘the organs, systems and structures of the body are mapped out on the feet and hands. By utilising varying pressure with the hands, you aim to bring about homeostasis to the corresponding areas in the body’. In short, the purpose of Reflexology is to bring about balance to the body, and its energy, as a whole.

And how can this help with mental health? Mental health affects us all. Stress, anxiety, sleep disorders and being altogether run down, affects men and women alike.

Time to Change Wales is the first national campaign to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health problems. They put forward that with regards to the more prevalent mental health disorders, although women tend to be given a diagnosis more than men, men are displaying signs of far-reaching mental ill health and are less likely to approach a health professional regarding them.

Mental health is a very current issue being discussed, particularly amongst men in the 18-45 age bracket. Only this week, the DJ Tim Bergling, otherwise known as Avicii, who had world wide success in electronic dance music world, was said to have taken his own life after years of stress and excessive substance use due to the nature of the Industry that he worked in and the demands put upon him. He was 28 years old.

Social Media is thought to be compounding the difficulties of mental health face by many, particularly relating to self-image, self esteem and when coping mechanisms of men and women’s are compared, men’s are generally less healthy than that of women’s. By this, men’s alcohol consumption can be up to three times higher than women’s; their support network can be more fragmented and not as close - mental health is still seen a taboo topic, carrying stigma to some and to discuss it is a no-go area, particularly from a culture aspect where many people do not believe in mental health difficulties and whereby mentioning them as such could see them outcast from their community.

Depression, anxiety, personality disorders and schizophrenia are no more or less difficult based on whether you got a Y chromosome in your DNA.

Outdated stereotypical phrases relating to men do nothing to help with coming to the fore about any difficulties being experienced: - Strength, holding dominating positions of power, the hunter-gatherer principle, the idea that strong and silent is both alluring and attractive, the ‘show no signs of weakness” and ‘stiff upper lip’ bravado of heroes in the media. But what if the heroes are those that speak out and confront their difficulties?

As mental health charity MIND states, ‘In many of these macho images, there is little room for showing poor mental health. The men who are most revered in society (famous, wealthy, successful, powerful) are not always ready to admit their struggles in public and that can leave the “average bloke” feeling uncertain about speaking out’.

Mind also notes that ‘the tide is turning for men. When Prince William and Prince Harry began talking openly about their own mental health challenges, it gave the nation an incredible lift. One by one, more of these revered men are coming forward and openly addressing mental health; footballers, politicians, actors, anyone can talk about it. I do not consider that these men are weak or failing by speaking out, in fact, they are the brave ones.They are the ones who are “manning up’.

That expression is still often used for the wrong reasons, unfortunately. The concept that mental health can be conquered by simply acting more “like a man” is misguided.

So, how can Reflexology help? There are many important benefits, too many to discuss here. Reflexology gives an opportunity of time to rest and focus on yourself. It also gives a safe space to talk, if required. Many of my male clients find that as I make it clear from the offset that what is discussed is done so confidentially, it gives them an opportunity to gain perspective and clarity on any concerns that they may have ongoing in their life. Reflexology is a positive coping strategy, as it is non-invasive, balancing and complementary to any medication that an individual may be utilising. As a Practitioner, I will never claim to diagnose, cure or prescribe and I work alongside medical professionals to treat an individually holistically, that is, treating the whole person and not just the symptoms of the matter that they come to me with.

A person’s feet tell me a lot about their lifestyle and their health, through the initial completion of a comprehensive Consultation with that person, prior to our treatment. Reflexology does not come with a one-size-fits-all approach. Each person is individual and so their treatment is tailored to them as such.

And now for the science bit!

There are so many physical benefits of a Reflexology treatment. Our feet get a rough deal. They carry us the equivalent of five times around the earth in an average lifetime, yet we give them less attention then they deserve. They are one of the most neglected parts of our bodies.

Our nervous system is what coordinates the actions of our body, by transmitting signals to and from different parts of it. Reflexology triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, helping to return our body to a state of deep relaxation. This creates a knock-on effect to all other systems of the body, ranging from our digestive system, through to our circulation, help to increase blood flow to the extremities, slowing down heart rate and decreasing blood pressure. This can be hugely beneficial in people who experience anxiety.

Furthermore, Reflexology encourages the release of endorphins; the natural feel-good hormones in the body that can minimise the body’s stress response.

For clients experiencing stress-related illnesses, anxiety attacks, confidence issues or where they may be mentally or emotionally challenged, Reflexology can be literally life-changing. An individual’s self-esteem and confidence can be significantly improved, with recipients reporting an ability to deal with difficult situations more easily. They can feel stronger and more in control, with the ability to communicate much improved for many.

This can lead to them being able to articulate ideas, express emotions and feelings more freely and readily than previously. Lastly, there may be an overall improvement in being able to assess and fulfill needs.

So, why am I so passionate about Reflexology? I Qualified almost eight years ago, having completed my training here in South Wales. I’ve held a long term interest in Complementary Therapy most of my life. With family members from the Medical and Nursing background, I’ve always had the greatest respect for our Health Service. I myself worked in the field of Mental Health for almost thirteen years, in both in-patient and Community settings, so I have seen first hand how mental health affects the lives of the people living with difficulties, in addition to family and friends. Two of the areas that I worked in were Substance Use and Detox and Crisis Resolution services, the latter supporting people of high risk of suicide.

I was part of the team that set up Wales’ first - and still only - Crisis House, which offers an alternative to hospital in-patient admission for those who have reached a point of mental health crisis. This was to ensure that an individual does not stay in hospital for longer than they need to.

During my six years there, I helped to establish and project manage a Complementary Therapy project, which enabled individuals staying at the project to access Complementary Therapies, such as Reflexology, for free. The effects of Reflexology upon mental conditions have been incredibly positive and due to it’s safe, simple and effective approach, it makes it a popular choice for supporting mental health difficulties.

If you are interested in knowing more about how Reflexology may help you, please contact me via the links below.

Twitter - @alexthefee - Hafal, Wales’ leading charity for people with serious mental illness and their carers. - MIND Cymru is leading mental health charity MIND’s Welsh arm, joining forces with 20 local MINDs in Wales. - Mental Health Matters Wales is an independent non-profit, non-political charity which works with people who have a mental health related issue, other voluntary organisations and statutory services to promote mental well-being and to ensure there is a comprehensive range of mental health services in Wale

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