Pause, breathe and reflect


Dr Libby Weaver’s daily wellbeing practice, chickens and her new book.

Having chickens at home is bringing great joy to Dr Libby Weaver’s life.

Prior to the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, Weaver, 47, spent three to four months of the year travelling and speaking at events across Australia, New Zealand and the Northern Hemisphere, and living between Australia and NZ.

When life as we knew it changed, Weaver chose to base herself at her home on the Gold Coast, which is close to her parents.

Growing up in Tamworth, New South Wales, the family had chickens and it is something she has yearned for since, but until recently, her lifestyle prohibited it. Now she has a chicken house, three hens and six veggie patches in her backyard and she couldn’t be happier.

“The last two years hasn’t changed any of my rituals and the way that I take care of myself but it’s changed the way I work,” says Weaver. “I remember at first thinking ‘this is really tricky’ and I realised I was focused on all the drawbacks – so I started a list and put the headings ‘benefits’ and ‘drawbacks’ at the top of the page. I believe that in everything, there are equal benefits and drawbacks, it’s just our brain focuses on one more than the other.”

She found it a really powerful exercise and it helped her realise she could now have chickens. “Every day I kiss their heads and thank them for the joy that they bring me. They’re just the biggest crack-up and follow me around,” she says. “Now I try to pass this exercise on to people as a really healthy thing to do. It just softens the, ‘argh’. It makes you do a big exhalation and it stops you thinking, ‘oh, this is really tough’. You start going, ‘yes, but there’s also all of this beauty’.”

Eating early

Since working from home, Weaver has also begun eating dinner at 5pm because she’s realised that is when she is hungry.

“I remember going to a conference a long time ago where a professor of medicine from Swinburne University in Melbourne walked onto the stage and before he even introduced himself, he said, ‘okay, what time to old people and babies want to eat dinner?’ And the entire audience chorused ‘five o’clock’. And he said, ‘exactly’. It’s a great time to have dinner but we usually don’t do it because we’re still at the office. Since working from home, I’ve really enjoyed that,” says Weaver.

“I think a lot of people think,’ oh, it’s too early for dinner. I’ll have a snack’ and before you know it, you’ve had half a packet of crackers and half a tub of hummus. Everyone wants something at about five o’clock, so if you can, just have dinner then. I understand it’s not practical for everyone. But if you can, it’s great.”


Personal practice

Weaver is really committed to spending time in nature. Each morning she spends at least 30 minutes outside, even if she’s just looking around at everything or going for a wander with her chickens. 

If she gets too engrossed in her work and feels her heart rate increase, she’ll pause for a minute and listen for birds or look out the window. “Nature is a huge part of what uplifts me, but I also find it very calming,” she says.

A picture of glowing health, Weaver admits she is a really good sleeper, water is her main drink and she mostly eats whole real food and plenty of veg, though she’s “always going to eat hot chips”.

“My nutrition is something I obviously care about immensely but it’s not something I have to try really hard with,” she explains. She puts that down in part to her upbringing. As a child, when her grandmother visited, she didn’t bring chocolate; instead she brought a pot of natural yoghurt and the big treat was having a teaspoon of honey with it.

“I feel that was pretty odd though I loved it and didn’t think that I was being deprived,” Weaver says.

“I feel like she had an influence on me as well as my parents. We had orange and mandarin trees in the backyard and I can remember being taught when we picked an orange that it had vitamin C in it and that that was good for preventing colds. So I had this interest in the way food could help your body and grew up with an awareness of that. I used to read about it for pleasure, so it made sense to study nutrition and dietetics and it all just went from there.”

Today, the three pillars of Weaver’s work are nutrition, biochemistry and emotions, which she uses in her daily life as well as to help support others on their health journey.

Part of that is ensuring her own relationships are really healthy. “If I feel like there’s something that’s a bit off or there are words unspoken, I do my absolute best not to leave it too long and have a conversation about what I feel is unsaid, so there’s not a perception of a lack of care in my relationships.”

On the rare occasions where sleep doesn’t come easily to her, she knows something is bothering her and she needs to get to the heart of what it’s actually about. “I do my best to see it as feedback and address it,” she explains.

Unpacking worry

When she first began working with patients, she taught them that the symptoms that they were experiencing was feedback from their body that something needed to change in the way they eat, drink, move, think, breathe, believe, perceive or a combination of those. 

“It’s about digging into the feedback about what needs to change. That personally works incredibly well because as soon as I see what it’s really about, I’ll do my best to find a solution to it,” she says.

“And sometimes that solution is ‘I actually can’t do anything about that right now’. So it’s the old serenity prayer of ‘we need to have the courage to change the things we can and accept the things we can’t and have the wisdom to know the difference’. My mum gave me that when I was a little girl and it’s always stayed with me and I love it.”

Getting to the root cause of your worry brings a huge amount of growth as well as a return to calm, explains Weaver. She is very interested in the stress response and sees that it has two prongs.

“There is very genuine stress going on in people’s lives and in the world right now and there’s also a huge amount of stress we create for ourselves because of how we think. That’s the part we can change,” she explains. “Often our stress shows us where we allow others to judge us and care about what others think.”

In 2019, when she was writing her book The Invisible Load, Weaver held some focus groups with women of different ages. In the 18-to-25-year-old group, a common stress was social media, whereas for the 35-to-50-year-old group, it was running late. 

“When you pause and think about it, running late in itself isn’t stressful,” says Weaver. “It’s not real. It’s self-created and there’s no right or wrong there. It doesn’t matter if you find it stressful or not. It’s just an opportunity for you to learn something. It might be FOMO if you are running late for a conference and don’t want to miss the first speaker. Or maybe you’re worried about what the person you’re late to see will think of you.

“The reason social media was a stress for the younger group is because they’re very focused on feedback from their peers, and thousands of people they’ve never even met.

“We have traits that we unconsciously need other people to see in us. It’s really healthy to identify what yours are. Ask yourself, how do I need other people to see me? When I’ve done this work with my patients, common threads for women are ‘I need people to see me as kind, thoughtful, selfless, intelligent, independent, strong, courageous, funny and perfect. 

“So then I would say, ‘okay, so the next time you’re stressed, pause and consider, am I perceiving  someone is seeing me in the opposite way to how I want to be seen or how it’s important for me to be seen?’ And most of the time the answer’s ‘yes’.”

Old brain, new brain

When doing this work, it helps to understand how our brain works, says Weaver. “Understanding the way that we think is incredibly important. Psychologist and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his team worked out that humans have two thought systems in our brain and they don’t speak to each other. I’ve come to call them old brain and new brain, even though they’re thought systems.

“Our old brain works at warp speed, faster than we could click our fingers. And it generates a feeling and runs off patterns and associations we’ve created over our whole life, but it’s unconscious. So we’re not even aware that it’s done anything. And our new brain is relatively slow compared to our old brain but has the ability to apply reason and logic. It’s conscious, so we can choose to use it. And we’re aware of it and what it thinks but right now, at this point in evolution, it’s entirely optional. So much of our emotional overwhelm comes from what our old brain generates and our new brain fails to examine.”

An example of an inherent old brain reaction might be when you see an acquaintance at the supermarket and just as you’re about to say hi, they duck their head and march past you.

“In that moment, you don’t stand there and consciously think, ‘Hmm, what just happened?’ In an instant, your old brain fires and creates a feeling you’re not even aware of. And it runs off old patterns and associations – usually that you have to be approved of to survive. So when Mrs Smith walks past and doesn’t speak to you, your biggest fear gets triggered, which is that you’re not approved of, that you’re not loved.

“And if you’re not loved, you won’t survive. Suddenly all you can think about is how you can’t wait to go home and polish off a bottle of wine or crack open the chocolate biscuits you’ve just bought. And you don’t just have one or two biscuits. You have the whole packet and you won’t really understand why you’ve just done that,” she says. “It’s because your old brain has generated a feeling that Mrs Smith disapproves of you.

“If we actually brought our new brain into that moment, acknowledge that we felt different leaving the supermarket from when we arrived, we could pause and ask, ‘What just happened? Am I hungry? Is my blood sugar really low? Oh no, that’s right. Mrs. Smith walked past me without speaking and I’m a bit hurt or I’m worried I’ve upset her’. We could pause and think, ‘actually Mrs. Smith looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. I probably need to go around and check in on her and see if she’s okay’.

“And, if you go and check in on her, on the odd occasion that you might have upset her, she’ll be able to tell you and you can clear it up, but you won’t have upset her. She’ll just say, ‘oh no, I hadn’t had a shower that morning. And I was really hoping to not run into anyone I knew’. 

“So our old brain runs our life, and I think a huge part of overcoming emotional overwhelm and anxious feelings is learning to bring that new brain in more often and get it to do what it’s so good at, which is applying the logic and the reason, which is easier said than done. It’s a lifelong practice, but it’s very rewarding.”


Cards for calm

Weaver is known for her self-help books – she has published 13 to date and has a new book in the offing, though right now, it’s just in her head. Her latest offering is a wellbeing deck of Condition Your Calm cards.

“I thought, how can I help people who are so far from calm right now, to have more of that in their life? I didn’t feel like that was a big book,” she explains. “People are saying to me, I try to read at night but I’m so exhausted, and I think a huge part of that is feeling so overwhelmed, and uncertainty. The cards offer little bite-sized pieces of information that either contain some education or something that people can instantly do, or provoke some self-reflection.”

Learning to breathe

Weaver’s first job in wellbeing was at a health retreat in Queensland where she had the “ridiculous” privilege of learning Tai Chi from a Tai Chi master, including breathing patterns. 

“I don’t remember ever breathing so slowly,” recalls Weaver. At the time she was a runner and ran for at least an hour a day. “I was slim and I would have told you that there was no way I was running for weight management but I can see in hindsight I was, because it was so ingrained in my dietetics degree that the calorie equation was the only thing that influenced your body’s shape and size. I was educated with the mentality of you’ve got to burn off whatever you eat.”

However, her job at the retreat meant she had to leave home very early in the morning and she wasn’t so obsessed with her running that she was going to do it at 3am before she left for work.

“My job was knocking on each guest’s door, waking them up and teaching them Tai Chi for half an hour each morning on top of a hill as the sun rose. It was a crazy privilege but it doesn’t burn a lot of calories. You are literally just standing there doing these very gentle arm movements and breathing diaphragmatically for 30 minutes.”

The next part of her day was taking the guests who hadn’t exercised in a really long time on a very gentle walk for about 20 minutes over flat ground. Again, she wasn’t burning a lot of calories.

“My eating remained the same across this time but my clothes got looser and it completely fried my brain because based on how I’d been educated, the opposite was supposed to happen,” she says. “And it was that experience, coupled with what I was noticing in my clients, that led me to go back to my geeky biochemistry textbooks with the question in my mind, ‘what leads the human body to get the message that it needs to burn fat and store fat?’”

This formed the basis of her best-selling book Accidentally Overweight. “Calories are one factor, but there are eight other factors that will tell your body whether to hang on to it all, or whether it’s the right thing to use fat as a fuel. So breathing led me down an incredibly mind-opening rabbit hole.”

Breathing correctly is a practical thing anyone can apply to their life and can be a game-changer if you struggle with stress or weight loss. Most adults breathe moving the upper part of their chest instead of their belly, explains Weaver.

That’s driven by adrenaline, which activates our sympathetic nervous system – our flight or fight response.

Diaphragmatic breathing lowers our stress hormones faster than anything else we’re currently aware of and activates the calm arm of the nervous system: the parasympathetic nervous system. 

“It’s terrific to do any kind of breath-focused practice, whether it’s meditation or restorative yoga. But while doing yoga twice a week is great, what are you doing the rest of the time? Are you pretty amped up?”

She encourages people to create rituals to check in with how they are breathing. If you work at a computer, she suggests looking at the time in the top corner, and on the hour, every hour, do 20 long slow breaths. Or when you stop at traffic lights, do long slow breaths while the lights are red. Before you know it, you become very breath-aware and start to notice when you’ve moved into your upper chest breathing. 

“This is a particularly good practice if you are having trouble sleeping. Just lie on your back with your hands on your belly and start to move your belly as you breathe. Another really lovely ritual that provides calm before we go to sleep is putting your legs up the wall,” she says.

“So either lie on your bed and put your legs up, or sit on the floor and wiggle right in beside where the floor meets the wall, swing your legs up the wall and just open your arms out and you’ll drop down into diaphragmatic breathing very easily in that position. Even just five or 10 minutes of that before bed is very calming.”

New Year detox

Now that the silly season has passed and life is back to being semi-normal, it’s a time where many of us feel it’s time to do a detox. But as Weaver points out, “detox has had a lot of confusing press”.

“The liver is always detoxifying. We wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t. It’s a natural process and it’s always going on. But certainly our lifestyle choices can make an impact on how efficiently our liver is able to do its critical detoxification work. For example, the human body can’t excrete alcohol.

“The liver changes alcohol into acetaldehyde and acetaldehyde is actually what gives you a hangover if you’ve had too much because the body isn’t clearing the acetaldehyde efficiently. 

“Very gradually over time, usually through lifestyle choices, we can accumulate more and more fat in our liver. Fat used to only ever be seen in chronic alcoholics but now, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is being diagnosed in teenagers who’ve never had alcohol but as a result of the amount of processed food and drinks they’ve had in their life.”

She encourages people to not think about deprivation through giving up alcohol or having less, but to think about what you’re actually asking your liver to do, and make more choices that support it. 

“The liver loves brassica vegetables. The sulphur component in brassica vegetables is very much needed for what are called phase two detoxification pathways,” says Weaver. “Iron is one of the nutrients needed for phase one liver detoxification and iron is the most common nutrient deficiency in New Zealand women of menstruation age. It’s also the most common nutritional deficiency in children and pregnant women.

“So I encourage people to focus on putting more things in that actually support the liver to do its critical detox work. And then let’s start to turn the tap back on the things going in that take away from optimal liver function. Let’s get honest with ourselves about how much alcohol we’re having, how many processed foods we’re having and give the liver more of what it loves.”

Summer drinking

Weaver loves an ice-cold beer, especially on a hot day after spending time working in her backyard.

She recognises that a lot of people probably think it would be wise to drink less but find it hard to do because they either want the alcohol as a reward for surviving another day of home-schooling or they drink to relax – “it’s the out-breath” – or they are sad, so it’s an escape. 

“I’ll never tell someone when they’re drinking at a level that’s harmful to them because for some people, one glass five nights a week would be harmful to them. Whereas for others, that’s not a problem,” she says. “I think we know in our own hearts, when we’re doing something that’s hurting us and a much more important question is why are you doing that? One exercise I get people to do is to finish the sentence, ‘wine is…’ or ‘gin is…’. 

“And so what is it? What positive emotion do they associate it with? Then you look for other ways you can experience those feelings. For some people it’s connection with their partner at the end of the day and it’s not actually the alcohol that’s allowing you to connect. It’s the fact of pouring a drink together and giving yourself permission to stop and have a chat. That’s really what you yearn for. So four nights out of seven, you could put sparkling water in a wine glass and squeeze some fresh lemon into it and still sit down and enjoy that ritual,” says Weaver.

“That’s a very big difference having alcohol three nights a week instead of seven nights a week. But you’re not going to do that until you know what you’re really wanting the alcohol to give you. So if it’s relaxation, it might be the breath focus practices. It’s remembering that it’s what we do every day that impacts on our health.”

Intermittent fasting

If fasting is just something that naturally works for you and you just do it as a matter of course, that’s great, says Weaver, but she worries that it has become another weight loss fad.

“My concern very much is that for a lot of people, it’s just another diet. It’s the dieting mentality I’m really trying to end because if you see intermittent fasting as just another diet you’re supposed to be doing, you’re either on it or you’re off it. And when you’re on it, you’re really proud of yourself and your self-talk is really kind. But if you think you’re supposed to be on it but you’re not doing it, you’re usually silently berating and judging yourself, and it becomes another way for you to beat yourself up. And it’s the beating yourself up that makes you eat unresourcefully anyway. So it doesn’t actually fix anything,” she says.

“Whereas for other people intermittent fasting is a way of life. They don’t even think about it. It doesn’t require any effort. It’s literally just how they live. So for those people, it’s not a diet. Yet, if it’s something you feel like you have to do, it’s not helping you in any way, because until we get to the heart of what that’s really about, usually we will fight an uphill battle.

“I know some people who have benefited immensely from it. I also know some people who gained weight doing it and some who have really messed their blood sugar up. So we need to notice our body’s response to things. Your body will give you feedback.”


The ripple effect

Weaver realised very early that she wanted to help educate people about how their body worked. She believes if people understood and appreciated how extraordinary their body is, that they’d treat themselves with more kindness.

Her original mission, which still holds true today, is to educate and inspire to enhance people’s health and happiness, igniting a ripple effect. 

“It sounds bold but when we look after ourselves, it ripples out and affects the way we interact with everyone,” she explains. “What inspires me is the thought that someone is robustly healthy and their mind isn’t run by their old brain, that they’re not incessantly putting themselves down. It changes what they’re able to do in the world. I love the thought of that, and that can start with food. It can start with anything, but food can be a common road in to change how someone sees themselves.”

She also created a supplements line to address actual challenges, with Cycle Essentials to help women with menstrual cycle issues, and Liver Lover to assist liver detoxification pathways. And it was important to her that all Bio Blends supplements were “paddock to capsule” and made from whole real foods and herbs. For example, most of the ingredients in her Organic Daily Greens and Radiant Reds powders are grown in South Canterbury.

As for what 2022 brings for her personally, Weaver plans to write another book but is keeping mum on the subject for now. “I don’t plan ahead,” she laughs. “I don’t set goals, though I’m not against that. But I do know that I’ll write another book.”

She is keen to remind people about how strong they are and to trust that it’s all going to be okay. “I don’t think the opposite of stress is calm. I think it’s trust, but we forget to trust the unfolding,” she says.

“We get the opportunity to learn lessons while we’re here and sometimes it’s incredibly uncomfortable but there’s also immense beauty that co-exists with that. We can lose sight of the beauty when we’re really challenged but it’s still there. I guess I see life as a really gorgeous, amazing symphony that unfolds to foster our own unique expansion.

Breathe diaphragmatically

To calm the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, slow your exhalation. Stack your hands one on top of the other on your belly and count 1, 2, 3, 4, as you slowly inhale, and then slowly exhale for four. As you get competent and comfortable with that, you can start to extend the exhalation, e.g., inhale for four or inhale for six, and then exhale for eight or 10.

As you inhale, your hands rise as your tummy expands. Then as you slowly exhale, your hands shrink back towards your spine as your tummy deflates.

Dr Libby’s top wellbeing tips

Eat primarily whole real food

Whole real foods provide more nutrients and antioxidants and cut out the preservatives and artificial flavours, artificial colours and artificial sweeteners that have infiltrated the food supply.

Make water your main drink

That doesn’t mean don’t drink anything else, but make water your main drink that you have across the day. Staying hydrated is crucial to how you think, feel and look.

Find a type of movement you enjoy 

We know that being sedentary is not good for us. It’s not good for our lymphatic system or for maintaining muscle mass. Around 150 minutes of movement a week is really important. Find something that you love, because then it’s not a chore. It could just be a 30 minute daily walk.

Sleep

Our biological requirement as adults is seven to nine hours and we can’t fight our biology. If you have trouble sleeping, make it a priority to find the road into your sleep challenges, as this will help you out of them.

Let ourselves have what we have

So often we’re thinking about what we want life to look like or what we want to achieve. A huge part of having great health is letting ourselves have what we already have, because I think that’s what joy is all about. Joy gives us an irreplaceable depth of energy, and with that energy, we can look after ourselves better and that has a big ripple effect out across the world.

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