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  • Writer's pictureHelen

How I got here: my education and career

I’m analytically minded, and very observant. Over the years one of my friends has often asked me...did you do a degree in psychology because you were already analytical and wanted to understand your family and your world better, or did you study psychology and as a consequence become more analytical? For the longest time I couldn’t answer the question. What came first; the chicken or the egg? What I can remember is the day, when I was about 14, that a mum came into school to talk during assembly about her son’s autism. I remember it clearly because I was fascinated, and I was hooked; by how the mind works, by what makes people who they are, and by what can go wrong.

There was never any question about what degree I would do: Psychology. I started at Liverpool University and I got my first big lesson in knowing when to quit. I hated it, not because I hated psychology but because it turns out there are lots of different slants on psychology and I’d found myself on a course favouring animal behaviour. I wanted to know about the brain, about neuroscience, and about human behaviour. I didn’t care how far a cockroach could jump (the only Liverpool lecture I can actually remember).

One big decision later I quit and started at Loughborough. This course I adored. I got to study all the things I loved; from child development, to forensic psychology. From the intricacies of the brain and how it works, to memory, cognition, and sleep. I already knew I wanted to be a Clinical Psychologist, so I also found myself a job as an assistant psychologist helping to run CBT sessions for anxiety and depression. I got my first taste of therapy, because in order to teach CBT techniques we needed to have practiced them ourselves.

The general path to becoming a clinical psychologist involves gaining experience with as many client groups as possible before applying for a doctorate, so I spent the next decade working across many NHS and community settings. I worked with adults with autism/learning disabilities, in dementia services, and with children with behavioural problems. I worked in community psychiatric services as well as inpatient psychiatric hospitals. Some of these jobs I loved, others in hindsight were traumatic, but each of them gave me deeper insight into human behaviour and the mind.

I decided to undertake an MSc in Health Psychology, which is the study of the mind body connection i.e. how physical health impacts mental health and vice versa. This introduced me to subjects such as psychoneuroimmunology (the study of how psychology impacts nervous and immune system functioning), as well as the psychology of health behaviours and health outcomes, and my favourite subject: trauma and PTSD. I remember reading my first mind/body book ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers’ and being blown away. I still recommend this book now.

I left my MSc planning to continue the clinical psychology route but somehow found myself in a role working with the families of mental health patients, and there I stayed. I became an NHS trust lead for family and carer support, and it wasn’t until this role that I think I really understood the true impact of stress on a person’s body and mind. Statistically speaking unpaid carers are the most stressed people in society, in real life the fall out for a person’s mental and physical health is devastating. Some of the families I worked with were completely overwhelmed and deeply traumatised, with carers frequently becoming anxious, depressed, or physically ill themselves. Our trust covered 3 very different boroughs with very different socioeconomic populations, and also covered many client bases i.e. CAMHS, dementia, ALD, forensic inpatient, acute psychiatric. I think this period gave me a very varied experience, with a deep understanding of mental health and what I now recognise to be, to a large extent, trauma.

I had my children, and when I began wondering what to do next I found myself constantly looping back to yoga. Being completely honest this was purely because I loved yoga and wanted a job that could fit around children without having to rely on childcare; I hadn’t really given it much thought beyond that. On Day 1 of my yoga training the link between yoga and the mind jumped out at me and from there I could not unsee it. Like most people I used to think yoga was mostly stretching that just sort of felt good. However, the minute you begin reading even the tiniest bit of yoga philosophy it becomes clear that yoga is, and always was, about the mind.

Since that day I have viewed yoga through a completely different lens. Most of my teaching focuses on mental health and (before lockdown) I taught NHS and community groups who had experienced acute or prolonged trauma. I mix all the things I learnt in my mental health education and career with all the things I learn through yoga, and I do believe it can be a powerful combination.

All my yoga CPD training has been focused on yoga for mental health, and yoga therapy for issues such as PTSD, anxiety, insomnia. Initially I had no intention of undertaking a full yoga therapy qualification because I was only really interested in mental health, not physical illness. However, the more I study and the more I learn the more I realise the two do not exist separately. Particularly in the case of trauma, a person is just as likely to experience a physical illness such as fibromyalgia as they are to experience a mental illness such as anxiety. The body and mind are one, and if I want to help people I need to understand both. I begin my full yoga therapy training in 2021.

Shifting my yoga focus towards the mind hugely impacted my personal practice. I came to realise that what I had once viewed as stretching had actually been a form of therapy that had been keeping me afloat for the best part of 20 years. I have a history of trauma myself, and the more I deep dive into yoga and its mind body practices the more I use them daily. Yoga cultivates self awareness and this awareness has led me to many different types of therapy - from psychological therapy to TRE. All of these have helped me understand myself better, and to soften and heal from the experiences that shaped me.

People often ask me if I’m a psychologist. I am not, I do not claim to be, and actually I no longer want to be. I’m just a girl who’s been studying the mind since I was 18; because I always loved it, because no doubt I always will, and because if I can help anyone else along the way I am honoured to do so.

It's often debated whether illness is nature or nurture, I believe it’s neither. It’s an incredibly complex mesh of nature, nurture, lifestyle, injuries, traumas, circumstances, pot luck, sliding doors, and tiny slivers of fate. I don’t think we will ever truly understand how we came to be the person that we are with the health that we have, and I don’t think we necessarily need to; we just need to find the practices that work for us. We need to find the modalities that help us to soothe and soften, to strengthen and balance, and to release the tensions and traumas that have contributed to our ill health - in body and in mind. For me, a huge part of that is yoga.

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