The sweet smell of oranges

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Ever since I was a young teenager I have been fascinated by Aromatherapy. I love the potion-like characteristics of the essential oils: the tiny dark-glassed bottles they come in, their potency and their delicate nature.

I am always amazed that three little drops of an essential oil can hold their own in a bath filled with steaming water. How those tiny drops dance defiantly on the surface of the water, change the aroma of the steam and transform the entire experience. As a curious, young person I was fascinated by the special qualities of the oils, and as a gentle rebellion, I appreciated aromatherapy as a natural practice and an alternative to modern medicine to enhance my wellbeing.

Aromatherapy is the therapy of smell, using aromatic plant extracts, such as essential oils, as the main therapeutic agent. The essential oils are extracted from plant resins, flowers, bark, leaves, peel, stalks, fruit and/or roots. The word Aromatherapy is self explanatory “aroma” “therapy” but I was always confused as to why the oils were called “essential” oils. The answer made my heart swell. According to a number of sources, it stems back to alchemists in medieval times bouncing off the concept introduced by Plato and Aristotle. The fifth element: the element of spirit, soul or life force, which sits alongside the other four being fire, air, water and earth. The element of “quintessence” - the purest essence of life. Magically, those little dark-glassed bottles hold the spirit of the plant.

The spirit of plants have been used for thousands of years by humans through both Ayurvedic practices in India and by the Ancient Egyptians to enhance our mind, body and spirit; treat certain conditions; alleviate certain ailments; and create an overall state of harmony and wellbeing.

The forgotten fifth sense

In a world that is so visual, oral and tactile, it is easy to forget about the importance of your sense of smell. And, yet our sense of smell is, at times, the most dominant sense, it just does it in a humble way. A recent study published by Nature, the international journal of science, found evidence that what we see is influenced by what we smell. You don’t need a research study to convince you of the connection between taste and smell. Anyone who has lost their sense of smell, say through a bad cold, knows it has an impact on how food taste. Although separate senses, the neural messages of taste and smell converge for us to detect food flavours. Without a sense of smell, our sense of taste is diminished. Hearing and smell are an unlikely pairing but do collaborate together according to a recent study, where music was shown to influence what we smell. An aromatherapy massage is the perfect example of smell and touch working together, where the benefits of the massage are enhanced by the smell of the oils as you breathe them in and they affect your limbic system, the part of your brain which is responsible for motivation, fear, pleasure and processing your emotions.

The power of smell

It seems you cannot underestimate the power of smell. Smell can influence how well we sleep and what we dream. It’s been proven, through a study which has shown the scent of rose will result in more pleasant dreams, compared to rotten eggs. I am not surprised!! We also use our sense of smell to identify fear and find true love. Pretty powerful stuff. Smell can also help you relax, reduce your anxiety (even during childbirth) energise you and help your concentration.

Want to reduce your coffee intake at work? Put a few drops of lemon or sweet orange oil in a bowl of hot water, or diffuser. Or eat an orange and leave the peel on your desk. Your workmates might think you are a bit of a slob, but the smell of oranges can help boost energy and alertness. Sweet orange oil also settles a stomach or two, can tone skin to reduce breakouts, is a fantastic oven cleaning agent to remove grease and is said to lift your mood. A pretty good all round kind of oil if you ask me!

I’m doing a one-day aromatherapy course in a couple of days time. I’m really excited to learn a few more things, and hope to get to make my own potions, oops, I mean oil blends! No doubt I will come home with a few more bottles of oils, and a few more ideas for using essential oils, and aromatherapy, the ancient and magical craft of scent for well being and life. Hey, who knows, maybe I’ll deliver on Christian Dior’s request to ‘make me a fragrance that smells like love.’

The lost hour

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I slept in today. Not a huge sleep in for a Sunday, but a sleep in nonetheless. And I was OK with this sleep in, and the time I got out of bed, until I realised an hour had been stolen from me. And then suddenly and ridiculously, I had a psychological shift in my perception of time and the anxiety started and the panic set in. How was I going to get everything done today? I couldn’t possibly, now I had lost an entire hour of my life!

My phone said it was 9.20am when I sat down to do my morning meditation. As part of my meditation teaching course I have shifted my practice away from guided meditations and I am meditating on my own for as long as I need, for as long as it goes for. Whatever that may be. Today I surprised myself by doing an hour meditation. Although for a second, when I looked at the clock on the oven, it appeared I hadn’t meditated for any time at all. You see the oven clock showed 9.20am, the exact time my phone showed when I checked it as I got out of bed to go do my meditation. I was confused. How could that be? I know I started at 9.20am. Did I read the time wrong on my phone? And then I realised. Daylight savings had hit. Daylight savings was here. Even though my friend last night on the phone reminded me it was coming, I had clean forgotten. It was now 10.20am, as my phone confirmed. I went around the house and changed the other clocks, feeling the tightness beginning to build in my chest as my mind started going through the list of all the things I need to do today.

I have a lot to do today. I need to write two blog posts for Blogtober, or close to two. One for today and one ready for tomorrow as there is little time tomorrow to write given a full day of work, pilates for an hour in the evening followed by my meditation teaching course for a couple of hours. I also need to go and pick up some groceries from the Source Bulk Food Store, where we are buying non packaged food, and I have to go as I have run out of flour, and I need to make home made pasta today, as we aren’t buying prepackaged pasta either. At some point I also need to pick up my daughter from her post party sleep over, and I was planning to take the dog for a walk, as I really need to walk today. I really need to get outside. Being Sunday, it is my day to make Kombucha and do the second bottling of last week’s batch. And I have homework to do for tomorrow night’s meditation class. I can’t possibly get all this done now!

Reality check. I know all of these things will take more than an hour. And so, it really makes very little difference if the time is 9.20am or 10.20am. And, I looked at my phone when I got up, not any other clock. The change of time was already taken into account. I was OK about getting up at 9.20am when I first got up. Nothing had changed. I didn’t see 8.20am. I hadn’t really lost and hour. My panic was illogical. But acknowledging this did not help dispel it. No matter the reality, my day suddenly felt completely out of control and I felt I was facing an insurmountable problem. The irony, of feeling this way not long after writing a post about our perception of time, was not lost on me.

There was nothing else to do but give in to it. So, I sat down and ate breakfast. With food in my belly, my brain was much more logical and despite having three or four ideas for today’s post, I decided to write about my ridiculousness, to share my illogical reaction and anxiety about daylight savings because I know I am not alone. Somehow the ‘fading of the curtains’ during daylight savings gets to us, the feeling of an hour being stolen from us offends us. Until about day three, and then we are good with it, particularly given it signifies the start of summer coming and more daylight after work, more time in the sunshine, more playtime. And hey, it will be lighter longer today, and I can walk the dog during the extra daylight time in the late afternoon.

It is so much nicer to walk home from work with the sun a little higher, and it being daylight when you get home. And if there are no evening commitments, you get to sit in the sun for a bit on the deck enjoying a nice beverage or two. And yes, to begin with the mornings are hard, particularly the first Monday (grateful the first day of daylight savings is always a Sunday). It is a little darker when we rise to go to work to begin with, but eventually, it gets lighter and lighter.

I welcome with open arms the season changing to summer, the days becoming longer, the evenings a little shorter. I thrive on sunshine, I always have. Like a flower needing the sun to grow, to blossom and to open. In second year university, I was hit with an extreme fatigue for most of the year, the doctors suspected Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and possibly Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly named SADs. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was a relatively unknown condition by the general public in the late 1980s, and at that time it was one of those conditions where people raised an eyebrow when you told them about it. With that look on their face like what you were describing was all in your head. SADs was even lesser known. The year I was told I might have either of these conditions, or a combination of the two, was the year after the first definition of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome had been published. So it was something very new to most people, although looking up the history of it for this post today, I had no idea it had been around since the mid 1930s, just under another name ‘myalgic encephalomyelitis’.

Whether I had it or not, I will never know. Regardless, after the suggested diagnosis I considered some of my lifestyle choices and slowly made changes to recovery. At the time there was no clinics, no specialists in the area, so I just went back to the basics. I drank less alcohol. I changed my diet. I had previously decided to cut out all meat, but my vegetarian diet was insufficient as I was not eating enough of the right foods to provide me with my protein and energy needs. A bowl of rice and corn, doesn’t really cut it as a nutritious dinner. I removed wheat and then gluten from my diet. Something confirmed, much later in life, as necessary, not long after the release of the Coeliac gene test. As well as changing my diet to overcome the extreme exhaustion and malaise, I started, very slowly, a regular exercise routine and when strong enough I joined the gym and began going to aerobic classes (it was the late 1980s), eventually becoming a bit of a gym junkie, doing three classes in one night. But the most significant change was making sure I got enough sunshine. I opted not to take up the artificial light therapy offered, but made the effort to be outside as much as possible, particularly in the colder months, and took Vitamin D supplements regularly.

I don’t hate winter like I used to. But even so, when the warmer weather starts, when the sunshine and bright blue skies welcome me in the morning as I wake up, I instantly smile. It does lift my spirit and change my mood for the better. And I see it have this influence on other people too. Over the recent couple of days of great weather, I have noticed people look happier, smile more, have a spring in their step. So, despite the initial (and unreasonable) panic about everything I need to do today, I am grateful daylight savings is here again. And I feel OK now about losing an hour today. I hope you do too.

The wonder of joy

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I have often wondered how we have found ourselves, as a society and as a species, in the situation we are in. A situation where one of the most primal emotions, something we are born with, which comes so naturally in our youth, is hard to locate in our daily lives as we become older. Joy.

What happens to us in life as we grow? Why does joy diminish, dilute, become elusive or unnoticeable? Joy is there when we first start out. In abundance. It is there in us instinctively, pulsing through our veins, our bodies, our hearts, without any limitations. Think about a recently born baby and the joy on their little face, in their entire body. The joy they express, and spread, time and time again as they see things for the first time. The joy in their innocence, the joy in their wonder.

The joy in their wonder.

There is a symbiotic relationship between joy and wonder. Joy feeds wonder and wonder feeds joy. And there is the answer. What happens to us in life as we grow? We lose our sense of wonder. What happens when we lose our sense of wonder? Joy diminishes, dilutes, becomes elusive. We don’t notice it anymore.

So, to rediscover the joy in your life you need to rediscover the wonder in life. Rediscover the mystery, dial up your curiosity. It is not just our brains which thrive on novelty and on new discoveries, our souls thrive on it too.

Rediscovering the wonder in life can be found in learning to play an instrument, learning a language, embarking on a creative adventure, meeting new people, travelling to new places, starting a new career or helping people. But it doesn’t have to be so big or so formal. There is great joy in rediscovering the wonder in the moment, whatever the moment holds.

Look at the world through the eyes of a child in everything you do. When you brush your teeth, do the dishes, walk the dog, or sit on your back deck. Pause in the moment, open your heart in such a way you are entwined with your inner child, allow the inner child to lead what you perceive. See the toothbrush for the very first time. Really see it. Like a child would, with wonder and curiosity. See the details, think about why and how it came to be, how the bristles work, how many there are, why they are the colour they are, the shape, the texture.

Next time, you are walking to work, to a friend’s place or simply taking the dog out for some exercise, take time to notice the things around you. The light of the day. The shape of the clouds. The leaves on the tree. The petals in the wind. The colour of the houses. The flowers in the gardens. The texture of the path. The sound your feet make as you walk. The messages carved into the pavement. The smell of the jasmine. The smell of rain coming, of freshly cut grass or perhaps someone baking bread or cooking in a house somewhere nearby.

You can also appreciate and notice things when you are gardening. Pay attention to the texture, the smell and the weight of the earth, as you dig or weed or plant your garden. Notice the finer details of your garden, the intricacy of the plants, where the ants are coming from and where they are going, even what they are carrying. The birds around you. The trail of the snails. The scents, textures, colours and movement in your garden.

Take time to notice. Pay close attention to what is around you, in the moment. And choose to dwell on the things which make you feel good inside. Watch the joy return to your life, through your day to day activities, through every step of your being. Focus on being in life rather than the doing of life. And when you start noticing and you allow yourself to be curious about the smallest things in life, it becomes a habit you transfer to every other layer of your life. And joy will be with you, throughout everything you do.

Gaming: what a brain changer

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Part 3 of 3 from my 2016 MayoInOZ talk 

Games have always been part of our story, part of our cultural learning. 

Vikings, for example, played all sorts of games, some were even like baseball and rugby we play today! They would have been tough rugby opponents for sure! Alongside the Vikings, ancient Egyptians and Chinese all played games similar to the modern game of chess to teach them strategies of war. The Viking game was called Tafl and was often played with an audience. A dangerous game according to one legend, where a Viking Jarl beat his King, and was, of course, ordered to be killed. Not the best career move, that one.

Games are said to be the oldest form of human social interaction. But games acutually predate humans and our culture. In his 1938 book Homo Ludens, Dutch Historian Johan Huizinga says:

Animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing

So true. 

Animals play games as part of their survival. When we watch that wonderful footage on one of those David Attenborough shows of young lion cubs playing, they are practising for when they have to fight to be leader, or kill for food. That swipe with the paw one cub makes on his brother, when playing, is preparing and teaching him to fight. That swipe is what he needs to assert himself when defending his position as pack leader in the future, or to bring down a zebra for food.

Games support cognitive development. Both in animals and humans. Research shared in the Lego Foundation's report The Future of Play, shows the amount of play we engage in, has a direct correlation to the development of our frontal cortex. Our frontal cortex is the part of our brain where we: monitor our behaviour, and the behaviour of others; work out what is relevant and what isn't; learn from mistakes; and exercise divergent thinking. Interestingly, these are all the things we do when playing a game.

When playing physical game, strategic mind games (cards or board games) or online games you have to work out very quickly what you need to do and what the other person is doing - monitoring behaviour. You also have to work out what to take notice of and what to ignore - what is relevant. When you make a mistake and lose, you refine how you play. And to play a game well you have to exercise your divergent thinking. When playing games we exercise our frontal cortex, making it stronger.

The Lego Foundation report also references the research of Marian Diamond from the 1960s. Marian experimented with rats. She put some in an enriched environment with games to play. The results of the experiment was that rats engaged in play were smarter. They had bigger brains and could undertake more complex tasks. This fundamentally changed childhood development practices. From that time on every nursery needed bright walls, with posters and mobiles hanging from the ceiling. Parents and carers were encouraged to play. 

It is no mistake that we play the most when we are younger. That games and play are intrinsic to our youth. There is a direct correlation between play and our brain development. And our brain is undergoing its biggest changes in the most rapid way in early childhood. This is why, at this time, we need to play. 

When we are born our brain has millions of pathways. To make us work more efficiently the brain prunes itself. It strengthens the pathways we use the most and those we don't use become dormant. New ones can also be created. According to the Lego Foundation, games support the pruning process because:

Repetition of sequences and actions in games...strengthen pathways and creates new ones.

For some time people thought the pathways that were not used, died and could not be resurrected, and that new ones could not form. That the brain was rigid. Norman Doidge MD through his book 'The brain that changed itself', has popularised the theory of brain neuroplasticity. The theory that the brain can rewire itself. A read I highly recommend. He shares inspiring stories about things like a guy, Philip, who had his arm amputated after it became useless following injury in a motorbike accident, but suffered terribly from phantom elbow pain in his amputated arm. A neuroplastician, V.S Ramachadran treated him by having Philip place his right arm in a mirror box, tricking the brain to think it is the left. After time the brain rewired itself curing Philip of his pain by altering his view of his body. Amazing. 

Another story in this fascinating book is of stroke victims unable to speak, play a therapeutic card game that incrementally rewires the brain through constraint-induced therapy to overcome learned nonuse. 

So when our brain is developing, games strengthen pathways and creates new ones. And when our brain is rewiring, games do the same - strengthening pathways and creating new ones. This is why games are so well suited to mental and physical rehabilitation. I am so excited to see what ReachOut are doing with their mental health game Orb and what Mira Rehab are doing in the physiotherapy space. And I can't wait to see what the future brings for this space, particularly when you throw augmented reality into the mix.

For all those believers out there, Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law says it all:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Healing has always been magical. 

(This post is the final post sharing an expanded version of my talk at the 2nd International HealthCare and Social Media Summit, Mayo In Oz, in November 2016).

What next?

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Part 1 of 3 from my 2016 MayoInOZ talk 

Let's take a look into the crystal ball and see what the next digital disruption is for the healthcare industry.

I have always wanted to be a fortune teller, the very idea awakens my gypsy soul - so join me on a journey using the past to understand the future, following the words of a very wise man.

The further backward you can look, the further forward you can see.

Thank you Winston Churchill.

But before we start, I think it is important to define 'future' in this context. I am not talking about the distant future, but the future that is happening 'right now', or what Bhargava defines as 'the accelerating present'. I want to look backwards to understand what is just around the corner. I want to look at the digital disruptions that are starting to happen in health, the ones that will gain momentum in the short term.

If it was a maths equation, it might look something like this:

So let's start at the first half of the equation and remind ourselves, for a moment, where we have come from.

Twenty years ago, companies started building websites to communicate, sell and influence. Web became a trend, you had to have one. And today, almost everyone does - although in a very different format to what it was back then. According to internetlivestats.com there are more than 1 billion websites today. The relevance of website to the health industry in Australia is unquestionable with 20 million internet users in Australia and, according to healthdirect, 80% of Australians seek health information online.

Then a decade or so later came Social - MySpace, Facebook and Twitter - and we all know the momentum this trend has gained for both individuals and for businesses. Well not so much for MySpace, but definitely for the others. Businesses adopted social and started advertising in this space, creating pages. For good reason. Statistics from smartinsights.com indicate that there are 2.3 billion active social media users worldwide (as of April 2016). That is huge. It is big business.

Not long after businesses embraced Social, suddenly everyone had to have an app. The app store is now as common place as the milk bar was in our lives over 40 years ago - but without 4.2 million varieties of mixed lollies to choose from (imagine that). Yes, figures from statista.com show 2 million apps are available through the Apple Store and 2.2 million available for Android. 

When I worked at Epworth, we launched our first maternity app, the first hospital in Australia to do so. Subsequently, I received lots of requests for apps. My favourite was from the urologist who wanted us to develop an app for people to record how much they pee. That was the point I realised you could have an app for anything you wanted. And just incase you are curious - there is an app for recording your toilet business (not developed by that urologist and only available on Android, with a few glitches according to the reviews). Look it up, it is one of a kind and called Toilet Tracker. It tracks both number ones and twos!

As we are all acutely aware, the Social space has continued to grow. LinkedIn, which many of us scoffed at, took off. 'Who would want Facebook for work?' we asked, and now, who can live without it? I found an amazing marketing specialist to come work with me through LinkedIn. I loved that I simply threw in some key words and within seconds I had two great candidates from my inner circle of connections. Rang the connections for a reference and success. It was that easy. 

From there, the trend to unfold over the last few years has been business using Social platforms we enjoy in our personal lives - Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, to name a few. These platforms have all found a place in the commercial world (although I have to admit, I am still not over the fact that businesses are advertising on Instagram - ruining the joy of Instagram for me).

The growth in Social has not just been about different platforms, it has also been about new features and functionality - video, live streaming etc. And the way we use Social in business has really changed too. Not so long ago we would only post professional videos, or use a professional camera to take the images, or use stock imagery and painstakingly design the posts. But we now have to be more nimble, like we are at home, and I am so thrilled to see it happening.  In terms of Social, we need to 'nimbilise' our work practices. Yes, it's a made up word, but if they can get 'fabulise' into the Merriam Webster dictionary and 'glamping' in the Oxford Dictionary, surely they can handle 'nimbilise' - the act of making something more nimble.

How do you 'nimbilise'? By walking around your work place and capturing the moment on your phone and posting it with comments, just like you do on the weekend around your personal life. It is no different. See, Snap, Share. People responsibe for the social should be out in their organisation - seeing the good news stories and inspiring things as they happen. What does it look like for healthcare? You stop a doctor in the corridor and ask her some questions about a topical subject, film it and post it right there. You don't have to book an appointment to interview her with a film crew and spend days in the editing suite. Sometimes, it is as simple as having a basic idea to hold it together. Drop into the staff room, take a nice portrait on your phone, a group shot of theatre staff, nurses, admin and then share a little bit about them. Get out there and talk to people, find out about them, get them to give text you a photo from something interesting in their past - you will be surprised at the wonderful talents people have hidden. Celebrate them in a Throw Back Thursday. Build your story.

But I digress.

According to Wiki, there are over 200 Social Media sites, not including dating sites. Not an overly accurate number as there were some key platforms like WhatsApp missing from this - but my Google Search led me no where but here. So let's call it around 200. Of course, not all 200 will be appropriate for your business. And although 200 is not a high number, it is a huge number of people when you think about the fact that one of these platforms alone - Facebook, the leading platform - has over 1.7 billion users.

So, what next?

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I think the next trend to gain momentum, particularly in health, will be games. Perhaps it is because I have a 15 year old gamer, and it is in my face, but it just seems like the next logical step for health (and other industries). And it is starting to happen already.

Please note, I am not talking about online games for entertainment - that has been a growing trend for years. But just like Social was for a long time just for the individual and exactly as it is named - for social - this is predominantly where games are at - for the individual and in a social context. But all the signs are there, and it is starting to happen, games are becoming part of business like Social has. Gamification is happening.

I am not suggesting we will interact with games like we do at a base level with Social. It is not about online games becoming advertising platforms or building followers, or posting information out to followers for them to share. It is about creating games to change health behaviour and using games as part of the treatment.

It is about getting developers, gamers and clinicians in the same room to create games for health. But more in that in my next post: Get Your Game On.

(This post is part 1 of 3 posts sharing an expanded version of my talk at the 2nd International HealthCare and Social Media Summit, Mayo In Oz, in November 2016).