Aromatherapist and Health Coach Kate Harahan, Owner of Neal’s Yard Remedies Edinburgh
Primary & Secondary Food, Anxiety and Illness
An interesting concept which I learnt in my health coaching course was that of primary and secondary food. Primary food being the quality of our relationships and connections with other people, our job satisfaction, enjoyment of free time and general levels of happiness in our life situation. Secondary food is the food which we physically eat. The theory is that someone who eats the healthiest food possible and takes daily exercise classes but who does not enjoy their job or have meaningful connections with those around them and experiences stress and anxiety, can develop disease. On the other hand, someone who eats non-nutrient food, smokes and drinks but who has great relationships with their friends and family, enjoys their job and is relaxed will remain healthy.
I found this concept fascinating and realised that while my secondary food was generally good, because of my single minded focus on the business, time for my primary food was lacking. I worked A LOT. Every day in fact for years and years as a self-employed person even before I had the shop and therapy rooms. On my days off and when I was supposed to be on holidays, I was always available and connected in some way to my job or business. I suffered from extreme anxiety since having the shop and therapy rooms. The responsibility of being an employer, being in sole charge of a building and the health and safety of everyone who passed through it, the legal responsibilities, the daily financial stresses and worries about how I was going to pay for everything. I was in it 100%.
When someone is feeling overwhelmed, withdrawal is a method of survival, like the natural fight or flight mechanism of cutting off the blood flow to some areas of the body in order to focus on what is critical in that moment. I withdrew a lot from other important parts of my life like my hobbies and spending time with my friends. I lost count of the amount of times I said ‘I can’t, I’ve got to be in the shop’, and I thank my loved ones for putting up with that time and being so supportive. Some days I would be so overwhelmed I would wake up and think, ‘it’s ok, I can come home after work and get straight back into bed’, where I would lie unable to sleep, worrying about the shop burning down, fixing the leaking roof and how I was going to pay the shop rent and rates and business loans and wages and myself.
It’s easy to read about someone else’s experiences of illness and ways to avoid it: I had done it myself many times before and ignored their advice and the fact that serious illness could happen to me. In most situations you need to experience something for yourself before it really hits home and you can begin to make changes for yourself. I observed the minor ailments that came in and out of my life in the years leading up to my illness and made small changes to my lifestyle but just small enough to keep the minor ‘invisible’ ailments in check. When I developed perioral dermatitis (also known as ‘muzzle rash!’), a very visible rash on the face, I made a few more changes but they were still too small to address the long term anxiety and the effect it was having on my body. Like with any major issue that one has been ignoring but which may appear obvious to others, the first step in getting better is recognising and accepting that there is a problem in the first place. In order to recognise that, sometimes your body says ENOUGH! And stops you in your tracks. And then I got quinsy.
Quinsy, or peritonsillar abscess is a medieval sounding disease, common in the 1700 and 1800s and much rarer these days because of antibiotics. Although the doctor told me it may slowly become more common because of antibiotic resistance. I won’t go into the gory details - you can Google it if you are curious. All you need to know is that it is extremely debilitating, excruciatingly painful, you can’t eat or drink or even swallow your own saliva, it’s not possible to open your mouth, there is ear pain, jaw pain and it felt like all of my teeth were going to fall out because of the pressure in my gums. After a couple of days of feeling ill, the pile of tissues next to the bed became larger, the swelling in my throat grew bigger and bigger to the point that I thought I would not be able to breathe for much longer, so in the middle of the night I went to A&E.
I couldn’t talk – so there were lots of hilarious notes between me and doctors. At home, there were text messages sent to obtain items needed from the sickbed and subsequent written down arguments. When my voice came back a little, I sounded like a robot and spoke so slowly the sound made me laugh (a strange kind of primary food!), which hurt so much it made me cry, which hurt even more because I couldn’t swallow the tears and dribbles. There were frequent trips between the bed and microwave to heat up my wheatybag and longingly view the kitchen table which was torturously lined up with all kinds of liquid medicines, herbs and beverages that I could not eat or drink. Lying in bed thinking I might die of blood poisoning or dehydration if I didn’t drink some fluids soon, my anxiety was still there. I felt guilty for being ill and not being in the shop and the perceived extra burden on the staff of my absence.
Here’s the first aid kit that I used to get over my quinsy experience. Fortunately, we’re no longer in the 1800s so I was saved from humoral theory and bloodletting!
1. When I couldn’t swallow anything or open my mouth:
I used a straw to rinse my mouth out with icy water and liquid ibuprofen, Lavender and Myrrh Mouthwash and a herbal tincture to try and get the swelling down enough to swallow some medication, soup and herbs.
Gently massaged my neck and face with a blend of antibacterial essential oils stimulating lymph flow to reduce the swelling and take away the waste products from the area.
I used a wheatybag constantly to reduce the pain in my neck, jaw and ear.
2. When I could swallow a little without it coming out of my nose:
I mashed up fruit ice lollies and posted them through the tiny gap in my mouth with a fork.
Slowly sipped soup and smoothies punctuated with liquid penicillin and a herbal tincture.
Eucalyptus Pastilles with propolis and essential oils to soothe the pain. Olive leaf supplement from Viridian for long term immune system support. Lactobacillus Rhamnosus probiotic to repopulate the bacteria in my tummy killed off by the antibiotics. Lavender & Myrrh mouthwash to kill any remaining bacteria.
After almost four weeks of being ill, I had a revelation. When I went back into work, I realised that my presence was not as important as I perhaps thought. The business was still standing, my staff were doing an amazing job and I realised that a lot of the issues surrounding the business and my stress and anxiety levels were mainly in my head.
I had already been thinking while I was sick, ‘why am I doing this, I’m slowly killing myself off’ but when I got better and changed my mind-set, I was able to make changes in the business that meant that I did not have to go in all the time and now I do not think about it all the time. The legal papers and money and even the business itself are all a concept rather than a heavy burden. Once I let go of that heaviness in my mind, I instantly felt like a weight had been lifted. I’m actually grateful for being so ill because it facilitated changes in my life that perhaps I would not have made otherwise. I came to a place of peace and acceptance and promised myself to focus more on the quality of primary food in my life. I hope something in this story inspires you to do the same.
Here’s the first aid kit that I continue to use after the illness.
1. Long term support after the quinsy was gone:
Olive leaf extract, multivitamins and high strength Ester C. Astragalus and Echinacea tincture for immune system support.
Daily probiotics for a healthy tummy.
2. Long term changes to adapt to life with a reduced workload:
Lemon balm & L-Theanine capsules every day, sometimes three times a day to address the anxiety I feel about stepping away from what had been the main focus of my life for the last five years.
Cherry Night supplement to get back to sleeping normally after weeks of broken sleep, waking in the middle of the night and early in the morning.
Relaxation and breathing exercises to help with washing machine brain. My favourites are two that I learnt from Karen Kirkness from Meadowlark Yoga. The first is simply sitting still and quietly with your eyes closed, and taking a long deep breath while counting in, two, three, four, five, six (or how ever many numbers feels comfortable for you), then out, two, three, four, five, six. Soon you won’t be able to think about anything else apart from your breathing.
The second is to lie down still and quickly scan through your body, focussing on relaxing every individual part. So start with your right big toe, right second toe, right third toe, right little toe, right shin, right calf, right knee, and work your way through your entire body. I usually fall asleep before I get through everything.