Two years ago I was working three days a week as lead counsellor for an NHS Trust’s staff support service, had a private counselling practice, was single-parenting my teenage daughter, and had been embroiled in a complex legal battle for three years. I was in my 59th year and approaching the big ‘60’, which felt daunting and more significant than the big ‘50’ – no doubt as we get older each progressive ‘significant’ birthday holds more meaning until we really do wonder if we will see the next. Facing the reality that I was now well over halfway through my life, witnessing peers dying or facing serious illness was starting to feel a bit depressing.
I was experiencing various minor ailments and weird symptoms: disturbed sleep, waking up tired, headaches, digestive problems, eyesight deteriorating, tinnitus, poor hearing, muscular pain, bouts of low mood and exhaustion. Nothing was serious enough to stop me carrying on, but I worried there was something wrong with me – though blood tests showed nothing. I knew I wasn’t getting enough exercise – all those hours sitting and listening – but I felt too tired to start, and there just didn’t appear to be time.
And how was work going? I had already cut down my private clients. I thought I was doing a good job in the NHS, but looking back now, I’m not so sure. I clearly remember wishing the time would pass so I could go home. Then the final straw – being on my own for the first time at Xmas, and having a severely depressed, suicidal client whose mental illness was beyond my service’s remit. I experienced the classic meltdown – crying, distress and agitation at the thought of going back to work. So I stopped. I went off sick. It was the best decision I had made for a long time.
I took almost two months to de-stress, re-evaluate my life and the choices I was making. My priority was to make changes in my self-care, but I also wanted to change the focus of my work. I was already a qualified coach and had worked in various settings, but I didn’t want to return to that. Then a friend told me about health coach training, something clicked and I knew I had to do it. I decided to enrol in training with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) and it turned out to be life changing. I have done a lot of training in my 60 years, but this was the best so far. Diet and nutrition have always been a ‘hobby’ of mine and I had experienced the powerful connection between food and mood many years ago when I worked as a personal assistant for a holistic doctor in Vermont. I knew this was the next step in my professional development – the last bit of the jigsaw – the integration of body, mind and spirit. I also knew the training would provide me with the support, encouragement, knowledge and motivation to dramatically improve my own health. And so it has – I have lost over a stone in weight (without trying), all my ailments have gone, I exercise regularly, have cut down my NHS work and now work privately as a health coach. I had a fantastic 60th birthday and can honestly say I feel better than I have for many years. The big ‘60’ no longer feels depressing – instead, I feel liberated as my parenting responsibility diminishes and I look forward to new exploration in my next decade.
With my new ‘health hat’ on, I have turned my attention to other coaches and therapists and their health. I notice stress, I notice weight, and to be honest, some just don’t look the picture of health! That is no surprise really, as our work usually involves hours of sitting. A study carried out by the BBC showed the health benefits of just standing for a few hours a day as opposed to sitting.1 We are also holding our clients’ issues and problems – no matter how well we are at remaining objective, our emotions and nervous system are being triggered, and we are on a journey with them.
I think most of us who are drawn to coaching/therapy tend towards giving and generosity; we care, we want to help and be of service – but that can become a compulsion, perhaps even an addiction. Most therapy trainings require students to engage in their own therapy where the opportunity to address ‘the rescuer’ part of themselves may be explored. Being driven to rescue and help others is well recognised as a shadow side of becoming a ‘helper’. But how much of this is covered by coaching trainings? Coaches are still not required to be in supervision, which is another place where our wellbeing could be addressed. I wonder if coaches (and therapists) can really be effective with clients if they are not putting their own wellbeing at the centre of their lives? As therapists and coaches we need to have robust mental health – even if we have not engaged in therapy, we are expected to have done some ‘work’ on ourselves. Surely we should also be required to be robust in respect of self-care of our bodies as well as our minds?
My experience is that, since reviewing and transforming my own wellbeing, I am doing a much better job with both counselling and coaching clients. What I loved about my health coach training was the emphasis on ‘walking the talk’ – learning to put into practice healthy lifestyle habits so that I bring energy and clarity of thought into the room with clients.
And what of the clients? We are often asked to coach on a specific area, for example, their performance, or career development, within a limited timeframe, or in my staff support work, to counsel someone who is depressed or anxious – but I question how truly effective we can be by only addressing one ‘compartment’. How effective can coaching be in making lasting change in one area, such as work, while clients may be exhibiting unhealthy behaviours, such as addiction to sugar, alcohol, and stress? We all know as coaches and therapists that everything is interconnected, and that we are whole people with complex lives that cannot be easily compartmentalised. But that is often how we are asked to work. At times with counselling clients, I find myself itching to address the fundamentals: to explain the connection between what they put in their body and how they feel; that the bottle of fizzy drink they have in their hand is a cocktail of toxins that will disrupt their gut function, that in turn will affect their immune system, their hormone function and their mood; that stress hormones raise blood sugar levels, so if they are comfort-eating sugar, they are perpetuating a cycle of low mood and exhaustion. But my role is as a counsellor and my remit is to do talking therapy – and to start asking someone what they are eating can feel irrelevant and can trigger a defensive response. So I tread carefully, and I tune into those who may be interested in working more holistically. But deep down I feel this is madness – our healthcare is madness – and we see the results of this madness in the mental health, cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease statistics.
You may be wondering what the difference is between health coaching and life coaching? There is some crossover and certainly life coaching encompasses a more holistic approach. The main difference is that as a health coach I educate people in food and diet, share information and make recommendations. Then I use coaching skills to help clients take action, stay motivated, and achieve their health goals. As well as addressing nourishment of their body, we look at where they may be malnourished in other areas of their lives. We address ‘food for the spirit’ as well as food for the body. Coaching people on their health opens the door to taking responsibility for themselves and therefore their lives. It’s as if we are addressing a fundamental question – how do you relate to your body and yourself? How are you treating the body that you dwell in? What choice are you making when you put certain food in your body, when you drink too much alcohol, when you work instead of rest, when you say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’, when you repeatedly don’t go out for that walk or run?
When people start to make good and healthy choices, and take actions that enhance their wellbeing through diet, exercise, nutrition and stress-management – they start to see that they have the capacity and freedom to make changes in other areas such as career and relationships. Because they have a direct experience of making new choices and seeing the results in how they feel and look, they then feel better about themselves, confidence increases, the ability to think improves, and energy levels increase so they can make bigger changes that previously felt overwhelming – it has a ripple effect.
I recently watched a video by Kelly McGonigal, a scientist at Stanford University.2 Studies of the brain show four key elements that activate the part of the brain used to focus on long-term goals as opposed to short-term impulses – mindfulness, good sleep, exercise, and a healthy plant-based diet. These are all elements I work with in my coaching and it is exciting to hear science providing evidence that they actually change the way the brain functions.
My particular interest and area of development is the food and mood connection, and I am specialising in body-mind resilience for women over 40. Other therapists and coaches are starting to seek my support. Nutrition is a developing area, with new information becoming available daily. My vision is that one day we will be required to work holistically – using nutrition and diet as one strategy in creating wellbeing for those struggling with stress, mood and difficult life issues. I believe both coaches and therapists should be learning about this area – both for their own wellbeing and their client work.
Hilary Martin works in private practice as a health coach and is lead counsellor at South Devon Healthcare Foundation Trust.
1 Mosley M. Calorie burner: how much better is standing up than sitting? [Online.] BBC News 2013; 16 October. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24532996 (accessed 7 September 2015).
2 McGonigal K. The willpower instinct. Talks at Google. [Online.] YouTube 2012; 1 February. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5BXuZL1HAg