Archive | Stress and wellbeing

Do you need to change your lifestyle before stress does?

Are the warning signs flashing that you need to change your lifestyle before stress gets the better of you and brings about some unwelcome change? In fact are you heeding the signs? People don’t always see that the signs are there, that what was previously OK about how they were living and working is now no longer OK. We think we can cope and assume things can be as they have been so far, when in fact the body is protesting and the style is draining it of the ability to be able to cope. What is important is that we make the necessary changes before we are not in a position to choose.

Our bodies are designed to cope with short-term stress, such as an emergency, where the body generates hormones to enable us to respond appropriately. However what many of us do is live at a pace and pressure that makes the stress response more of a norm. It can even be addictive, the “buzz” of the hormones powering through us. It might be OK when our work is going well and we are enjoying ourselves, but when the stimuli get more negative, the body starts to react negatively too. Over time this can store up illness and eventually be dangerous. Little signs like catching colds, sleeplessness, aches and pains, excess of smoking, alcohol and eating, tense muscles, irritability, out-of-character behaviour, are just the early signs. You want to take action before you find you have some serious health condition.

It’s not so easy since we have often conditioned ourselves to tolerate a certain lifestyle that makes stress part of the architecture. For example we set ourselves expectations for our housing choices, where we live, or schooling for our kids and accept certain kinds of travel and types of jobs, or we want particular kinds of careers and these have consequences for our lifestyle, or we find it difficult to get the right balance between work and free time and/or family time. For some of us we treat stress as part of the territory, not realising how it can over time harm us.

Then we wake up and realise that all this doesn’t work. Then there’s the issue of how to change it, before it’s too late. That too can be stressful, which shows how caught up in all this we can get! We run up against the conditions or expectations we set for ourselves, like we believe we “must”have certain things in our lives for it all to work, conditions which are actually costing us.

It’s all about stepping back from it all, pausing and letting go, and then asking ourselves what we really want.

People often say what asked that last question that all that really matters is love, relationship, peace and the timeless little things, seemingly of little consequence when busy and stressed, and which we therefore forget about, but which actually have real meaning for us. Like sitting and looking at some scenery just down the road, a walk in the park, holding hands with your loved one, being still…

Today’s life has disconnected us from who we really are. It’s time to reclaim it.

I give coaching to people who want to re-balance their lives, get off the stress treadmill, and find a calmer, more meaningful life. To contact me, click here.

Sleep problems tell us what we need to change in our lives

When did you last have a good night’s sleep? Lots of people are now reporting having sleep problems, like difficulty getting to sleep or waking up during the night and then lying awake, perhaps more than once, or waking prematurely, or all of these! The health implications of continued poor sleep are considerable and they challenge us to look at our patterns of living as well as any other underlying condition we’re not aware of.

A recent report showed that many people are using their digital gadgets late in the evening, and even at night, and that this is causing disrupted sleep due to the blue light which suppresses the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. It’s like a message to wake up! Which in another sense is what we need to do, to wake up to what we’re doing to ourselves with our addiction to such technology.

Sleep problems are also a symptom of how we are living our lives in general, a reflection of what is happening during the day, our anxieties, stress levels, problems we’re having and the many other ways that issues can intrude into our sleep state and we can re-live them in different ways in our dreams and even wake up to mull over them during the night.

This is where it can be so useful to look at how such interruption to our wellbeing is telling us of things we need to address that aren’t working in our lives. These wake-up calls come when our health and harmony gets seriously challenged and we decide we can no longer carry on as we are doing.

However it also tells us of the need to self-manage differently. For example, how we could attend to what our mind is doing and train ourselves to let go of incessant thinking, be present and aware, and in a centred state, which can be cultivated through practices like mindfulness. A period of wakefulness can, instead of being fought, like a battle against yet another dreaded “I can’t sleep” session where we get all tense, restless and frustrated, can be surrendered to and be rather a time to be still, present and aware without thought. And you could read something calming and uplifting, and enjoy the silent hour when all about you is quiet. A little meditation in the midst of such quiet, which mirrors back to you the joy of true stillness. Thus a period of wakefulness becomes an opportunity. Indeed there are those who get up intentionally and pray or meditate.

So we can change our relationship to sleep. So too can we more appropriately prepare ourselves for our time when we can sleep. Like letting go of gadgets and approach the last two or three hours before sleep as a time for relaxation, conversation, enjoyment and being contented with ourselves and with our lives. Now, how about that for a difference!

You can get life coaching with me on your lifestyle, on resolving what gets in the way and on moving forward to a better state in your life.

What stops you being in present moment awareness more often?

If you are having a lot of stress at the moment, now is a good moment to pause and take some deep breaths, deliberately, consciously and in full awareness of the present moment. Notice a difference? Just taking some deep breaths, then breathing steadily and in present moment awareness, letting go of what’s going on. It’s so simple. So why don’t we do this, what comes naturally, more often?

One of the great values of mindfulness practice is that it is such a great way to manage and reduce stress. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) is well-known and has stood the test of time and much scientific investigation. I discovered the techniques by chance well before I had heard of Jon’s work, once I became aware that stress was part of what was messing up my life, and I sought out mindfulness meditation, yoga, the body scan, doing some courses and meeting new people as a means to moving my life on.

What was clear to me was that doing mindfulness meditation and yoga on its own wasn’t enough. I needed also to understand and shift the underlying issues that drove my stress response and could make me sick if I didn’t do something about it. The fact that people around me had become unwell, in this case from cancer, and the dawning realisation that my life as I was living it had something major to do with it, was a key driving force. I wanted to truly change my life. And I did, a new person in my life, moving to Wiltshire, a new business, new friends, new ideas and insights to inspire me, lots then changed.

The use of the practice endured. I have meditated ever since, and learned more about the practice, and of key underpinning concepts and understandings that informed and sustained it. Just to go off and meditate a bit, do stretches, walk, and the other things people do, were not in themselves enough – at least not for me.

I needed to understand more why and how I was reacting as I did, what that stuff was that was sustaining the maladjustment I had experienced and was letting go of. It’s like you need to know what it is you need to let go of.

Thus my mindfulness practice served as an invaluable anchor, something that brought me back to being connected to my self, one that helped me while I learned much more about who that self was and is, both at the ego level and at essence, and what I needed to know to sustain me going forward. This knowledge is absolutely essential.

The material world is very good at obscuring the path of truth, your truth, my truth. People can do versions of the “spiritual by-pass”, or whatever other name you care to give it like denial and avoidance. At any moment down can come the veil of illusion around material values. I think a lot of the personal growth “movement” has got sidetracked with this at the moment. To sustain one through such distractions needs knowledge, so that you can always make distinctions, discriminate, and re-cognise the essential truth beneath the layers of the veils of illusion.

Thus, so informed, you can go back to your meditation and be aware once again of your truth, using the knowledge you have acquired about yourself to part the veils of illusion – in whatever ways that’s meaningful to you.

You can learn more about this transformative ability on our programs, starting with our one-day event on 8 March 2014 and developed in much more detail and taken further on our retreat in southern France on 21-28 June 2014.

Do not believe everything you think

Do you wake up with a list of “got to’s” buzzing through your head, like a shopping list of things that “have” to be done? If so you’d be like very many of us, with multiple things claiming our attention. It’s like the moment we wake up, there is the sheer drivenness of our lives, right there in the flood of often chaotic thoughts. Then the body responds, with racing heart, sweaty hands, butterflies in the stomach and so on. For some of us, our sleep has been like that, and we’ve even gone to bed with it, if not stayed awake part of the night on the smart phone or iPad, or with bouts of insomnia and repeatedly going over some issue. Yet these are all thoughts, flooding through our system, thoughts we believe. So why say, do not believe everything you think?

One essence of mindfulness is to step back and create space between our thoughts and our reaction. It is the thoughts that nine times out of ten we’re reacting to, ones we believe. Yet they are just thoughts. Stress reactivity however is a pattern, driven by such thoughts and the associated feelings. It is hyperarousal driven by thoughts that we participate in outside of awareness, often ones we’ve held for very long times and have become automatic. We see a perceived threat and go through an emotional response which churns out stress hormones for survival, very often when the perceive threat is very far from being actually of that order.

With mindfulness, when you learn and practice it over time, you can disentangle your thoughts. You can disengage from them at one level while being able to focus more accurately and problem-solve without all that stuff. You can “dis-identify” from them, so that they no longer seem “you”, but just thoughts. Crucially they aren’t facts. Having had a negative thought can then be seen as lets say an old thought based on old, outdated programming, and as the wise observer you can let it go. In a sense you know so much more: “This too shall pass.”

You can still work on your thoughts and replace negative ones with positive ones, use affirmations etc., but with mindfulness you’ve created a wholly different relationship with them.

This is very important. What we believe, we are. What we think we create, at some level. Thoughts become realities. Stressful thoughts beget more stress and so the cycle goes on. In that mode we can’t distinguish between our stress-created world and alternative, more constructive and more healthy perspectives.

Our teaching in mindfulness helps you learn to calm your mind, disentangle your thoughts, and be able to step back and make far wiser choices that truly heal your life and put you back on purpose.

You can learn more about this transformative ability on our programs, starting with our one-day event on 8 March 2014 and developed in much more detail and taken further on our retreat in southern France on 21-28 June 2014.

Do you really have a cold mindfully or simply feel sorry for yourself?

It’s something we all get, The Cold. “Ugh!” you might think. But how do you usually deal with it? Do you march forward stoically, suffer in silence, disappear behind mounds of tissues, or slump before the metaphorical fire feeling sorry for yourself? Having a cold mindfully can seem a contradiction in terms.

Emerging from a few days with a furious cold I do at last feel free, free that is from cold-induced mega-congestion, to communicate once again and this time reflect on what it means, to me at least, to have a cold in 21st Century Britain. I noticed that colds are a bit like the mind’s process, which would be unsurprising given the intimate connection between body and mind.

Of course, there’s dealing with social ostracism, since travelling on a train is not just more than usually uncomfortable but surrounded by unfriendly glares, people moving seats, etc., the “I don’t want your cold” thing or “how dare you pollute my space”.

However, as most sufferers will confirm, really that’s nothing (we think) to the sore throat, sneezing, headaches, “feeling bad” stage, followed by a flood of nasal, throat, and chest activity (I’ll spare the detail) and general helplessness and misery. The final, later stage is then a release from neurotic unwellness, with diminishing symptoms and then residual habitual cough or whatever that lingers for long afterwards lest we ever forget. So we have resistance, descent into the pit or abyss and then release.

The turning point for me, ie from descent to release, was in Paddington Station, London, on the way home, when I was surprised by an immense rush of grumpiness (well, anger actually). Then, the next morning, everything seemed remarkably peaceful and clear, although with a big sleep deficit! It was like the clouds had at last cleared and things had fallen into place, resolution had occurred, energy was restored and there was Hey! Presto! Full functioning.

Sounds like a regular bout of human masochism, were it not that there’s a certain fateful inevitability about the whole things. It happens. We get bugs. But in the midst of it all, it seems like it’s never ending. Yet, as Buddhists say, “This too shall pass”. Things never stay the same. Things move on. So do we.

So what about the process of the mind that the cold can be a reminder of? There is this aspect to our process which we can resist, and then the pressure builds up, and maybe things get worse even because we resist, until we finally surrender to the process and move through what Gestalt therapy calls the implosion before the release. We fear, at some unconscious level, what we also know at a higher level we need to face and go through. So we resist. When we finally face it, look it in the face, we can at last meet and acknowledge and move through the barrier into a free space.

From a mindfulness perspective, one point is to as much as humanly possible be in the state of mindful awareness of what is occurring. Even as you feel grumpy, you also know you are feeling grumpy, you are mindful of it. Then you have a way through. If you become unaware grumpy, “it” has you, and you can end up going where you don’t want to go.

I was conscious during my cold of being aware of lots of discomfort and it was very powerful, instead of resisting it, to focus mindfully on it, to be aware of it from a mindful perspective, so that the attachment to resisting it could be released. Each time, the discomfort lessened considerably. It’s been shown by research that mindfulness meditation practitioners can have considerably reduced experience of pain. So, the thing is to do what you avoid doing, and embrace the discomfort, and be “with the cold”. There’s something also here about acceptance. Colds happen, and they too shall pass.

You can learn more about how to use mindfulness to change your life. We have a workshop coming up: to learn more, click here

Stress makes it difficult for you to think clearly

Do you find that when you’re living under pressure you find it difficult to think clearly and structure your  thoughts. In fact do you lose your words? People talk of feeling like their brain is scrambled and say they are “losing it”. People who meditate by contrast, and thus become mindfully aware,  find that while they might beforehand be struggling for ideas, they come out of the meditation thinking much more clearly and have often got the idea or solution they needed. Of course meditation isn’t the only way this happens: try having a shower or notice what comes to you just as you wake up or drift off to sleep.

Now I wouldn’t want you to become an insomniac in search of solutions to problems, since sleep can be a great facilitator. However it’s worth noticing what happens when we get these insights and understandings. It’s like we may need to completely let go for our mind to do its thing.  As a result of taking our minds “off it”, so to speak, we enable the creative process to work.

In the stress response, the body takes energy away to focus on fight or flight. Thus the rational side of the brain is sidelined, with preference given to the emotional side, and hormones are generated in order to take action. No wonder we find it hard to think! When we relax, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks back and we start start to recover from the stress hormone dose, and calming hormones are released, with the effect that social bonding improves, blood pressure is lowered, the immune system strengthened, memory gets better, and new learning becomes possible, one starts to feel happier, and more positive, and there’s even a burst of creative insight, and your performance can even be greatly enhanced. If by contrast you are hooked on a stress response you don’t get the benefit of this.

In meditation, we take our awareness away from what we are thinking and focus instead on the breath or other focus that we use and allow ourselves to observe the mind rather than be “caught up” in thinking. Instead we let go of being caught up, and centre ourselves in a calm awareness, present to the moment. Neuroscientists have observed changes in brain patterns that occur as a result. Thus, activities like mindfulness practice enhances present-moment awareness, and thus with a present-moment awareness of what is going on, you can train yourself to more easily let go of the pressure you feel and shift back into the parasympathetic response.

We offer trainings in mindfulness to help people learn this vital, life-changing ability. To learn more, click here.

Did you find it hard to switch off this holiday?

It’s seemingly a necessary function of taking a break for a North European to go where the rhythms of life are slow, the climate warmer and the day’s activities seem better organised for serving the senses. Being in South West France it was for me therefore good to take time out to observe and be present with the process of its life, to enthuse at the rising of the sun, read in the cool of the morning air, shop in the local market, eat out in a welcoming cafe, indulge a bit where it’s been necessary all year to mind what’s eaten, come home and retreat indoors in the heat of the afternoon, before emerging again in the late afternoon to sip a drink on the terrace and watch life drift past in the valley below. The fast pace of today’s northern European living can seem very far away. Sounds a bit too ideal? Especially if you’re now back at work a while and that holiday can suddenly seem very far away? Or you find it hard to switch off anyway. If so, join the current state of the human race.

Yet to write like this may seem to suggest that going away is easy and all you have to do is metaphorically hang up the suit, get out the sandals, grab a beer, chill out and the metamorphosis is complete. Maybe it’s just you and me that feel guilty about it, and the rest, well they just have a great time! Except many people don’t find it so easy, and we’d kidding ourselves if we think it is. Recent statistics have shown that on average it takes people over 4 days to calm down, let go and reach their desired equilibrium. And it can be even longer for those who can’t quite let go and keep checking their emails! Many who are stressed don’t know it, such can they be disconnected from their bodies or are in denial about it – till it catches up with them.

It’s even more  noticeable when they come back off holiday and it seems like they’ve never been away. In fact it can seem even worse. There’s the pile of emails to attend to, mostly one’s cc’d to you, and then there’s that catching up to do with what’s being going on while you were away and things others have been running with that you now need to take over. And there’s the changes being implemented while you were away. And so on. It can make you feel breathless just to contemplate it.

Here’s where it’s so important to set some intentions about doing things differently, and getting some support to stay on track with them, ideally planned when you’re away. Thus it’s invaluable to start paying attention to your body, since you can get disconnected from it and a function of survival. That’s where these patterns can get locked in. Taking up some exercise, doing yoga, meditation, taking up a mindfulness practice, regular body relaxation, eating healthily, letting your mind switch for stretches once a day: you name it, there’s plenty of options available.

What’s often also needed however is the commitment and discipline to sustain it, even when the demands can get high. That’s often where the real challenge lies, since we are then brought up against the patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving that led us to live such a fast-paced life in the first place. That’s where it can also pay to invest in some form of personal support such as coaching, to identify these patterns and make some changes at this more underlying level.

You can learn more about my coaching here.

Are you living your life in a way that really serves you?

In these holiday months it might be customary for some of us lounging by the pool in some sun-drenched beautiful location to reflect on the pace of life, and ask why do we put up with it and why can’t we do things differently. The lazy discussion on living your life as you really want, after say some complaints about the sharing of tasks, might result in some intentions to make changes. Yet like lambs to the slaughter we go back to our driven, city-centred life-styles and very quickly all the relaxation and sense of wellbeing has vanished and we’re back on the treadmill. As is also probably customary at these times people like the BBC put out articles on this subject, as with this comparison of the UK with Denmark, and we indulge in ritual self-mortification about how we’ve got it all wrong.

Contrary to widely held belief, we’re not the most driven country. The other day I was reminded about how in the US people work longer hours and have just two weeks’ holiday, and don’t seem to think a lot about it. Yet, as the above-mentioned article makes clear, Denmark is according to a UN survey the world’s happiest country. What is striking to read is the difference in values that is evident, with a lower priority given to achievement and “keeping up the with the Jones”.

Yet, humour apart, this time out to think about your work-life balance and your values is a very useful activity, and I’ve personally met as well as read about people who have actually followed up by making significant changes in their lives as a result. There’s one thing to have the debate, and it’s another to take action and have the courage to change.

It is worth asking yourself a few honest questions about the price you are paying for what you are getting. What are the current implications of the current choices being made? What is the impact on you, your health and wellbeing, and on your relationship if you are in one, and on your family and your friendships. In fact is the last-mentioned losing out. I often work with people who have all but dropped their friendships, giving lack of time and distance as the reasons. All the evidence about what fosters wellbeing points towards the importance of relationship in all its forms as a major contributor. Yet I find people who don’t really get time to spend quality time with their partner and/or children. I meet people nearing retirement who have no friends and are not in a relationship. Such people on average live less long and have more health problems.

A useful exercise to do is to imagine yourself at 85, let’s say no longer able to do very much or get about so easily and sitting in your proverbial rocking chair, and now think about what you have in your life now and have had in the last two or three decades, as notional figures. What comes to mind? What do you most value and cherish. Do you come up with a list of material things (because when you’re dead you can’t take them with you – well unless you’re a Pharaoh)? Or do you think of more qualitative things, things that touch you more deeply, that have an emotional resonance? Might there be something there about relationship (in whatever form) or spirituality? What really matters to you when all the trappings of modernity are stripped away. Do you want to go to the pearly gates and say, “Hey, God, I’m really proud of that Mercedes”? Or might you say that you’ve been blessed to find and enjoy enduring love, bliss and contentment. Or that you finally fixed that tendency to blame others and take it out on them when things didn’t work out as you wanted, or that pattern of resentment towards your family, or that deep-seated anxiety that plagued your life, or some other way in which you lived your life that didn’t serve you. Or that you finally gave up on your angst for not “having enough” of whatever it is, and finally learned to accept and feel grateful for what there is in your life. Or any one of those things that we allow to stop ourselves being happy, contented people.

It can come down to thinking about your values, and what is really important to you, and then going about making it happen. Which brings up that other matter, the courage to change. For this, see the next post!

Psychological pain and suffering are not necessarily illnesses

With yet more signs of increasing stress, depression and anxiety amongst many people, it can be quite tempting to cast it as the spread of “mental illness” in society were it not that this term can be highly misleading. It is therefore heartening to read of highly-placed people cautioning against the over-use of the term.

The “medical model” is a common approach to pain and suffering, treating conditions like depression and anxiety as “mental illnesses”, with the implication that they can be “diagnosed” and “treated” with medication. Psychiatry is typically based on this approach, although not all psychiatrists would agree with it. The “treatment” of depression and anxiety in the UK National Health Service can, in addition to medication, involve approaches like CBT (Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy), as recommended by bodies like NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence). In some areas of this approach, services like counselling have been sidelined in favour of CBT on the basis that they claim the former lacks scientific evidence. Hence “science” is brought in to attempt to buttress the medical model approach, although again many would dispute the use of “science” in this way or argue that counselling does have evidence for its effectiveness.

In the meantime, many recipients of such “medical” interventions have for a long time now voted with their feet after years on drugs like Prozac, and sought out non-medical-model and alternative approaches to dealing with their challenges. The whole subject is hugely controversial. As the psychiatry profession prepare for the release in the States of the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (whew!), popularly called the DSM-V, it is worth checking out just how much the Medical Model people think can be included under the heading “disorder”. As the article mentioned at the start of this article makes clear, many conditions that get classed as “disorders” are not really so severe as to merit the term. Yet, the trend is to “medicalise” more and more of suffering and pain.

For very many sufferers, conditions like anxiety or depression are degrees of how I experience my world. At this or that time I may feel depressed, stressed or anxious. It might be happening a lot for me at the moment, as I perhaps deal with certain things going on in my life. But that need not mean that I am “ill” or have a “disorder”. It can be that such experiences belong in a spectrum, a polarity, of experience, from which I can emerge after a while as I sort certain aspects of my life out. The danger for such a person is the experience can seem so alarming that they see a doctor and can get sucked into a medicalisation of the experience.

That is not to say that some people don’t get “clinically depressed”, as the term goes and find it such an ongoing part of their lives that they need medical support. Recently for example Alastair Cambell has gone public on how he has for years battled with depression. Another example would be Stephen Fry, who on one occasion confessed that once while leading a popular TV program he “simply did not want to be”. Many sufferers from for example “bi-polar disorder” would say so. Looking at certain aspects of their life, attitude, beliefs and outlook for example, as one might in say counselling or coaching, doesn’t on its own necessarily shift the condition and they need medical support. My point here is that for many people, medicalisation of their experience may not be the most useful approach. That is not to say that once on medication one should come off it. That needs to be done with medical support, as it can otherwise be counter-productive. It is just that use of a talking therapy or coaching can be of help, and in time as one feels better then for certain people under medical supervision it is possible to wean oneself off drugs.

What’s needed is a more open-minded approach to suffering, that is not exclusively and dogmatically one-size-fits-all that some “medical model” advocates can adopt, but embraces a much wider approach towards being of support to our fellow humans.

Feeling driven and needing a break after a holiday

For many a holiday can feel like a well-earned rest but for others it can be a much-needed break after very pressured work. Some even feel guilty to take time out. Yet breaks are necessary pauses for us, especially if we’re feeling driven.

Today is classically when large numbers of people return to work in the UK after what seems to some of us like quite an extensive Christmas. For many it’s also when the children go back to school. Yet I wonder how many of you collapsed in a metaphorical heap this Christmas and still found that time flew by, such that you wondered what happened to that break. No doubt many succumbed to the winter flu bugs and colds, since our immune system can get worn down by stress and we are more vulnerable to infection.

Then coming back to work can seem like they’ve never been away and people can feel tired and depressed and wonder why. No wonder so many plan their summer holidays at this time. We need something to look forward to.

Taking time out is one way of pausing the system, giving oneself a break from the seemingly endless flow of everyday activities. We can feel so driven and even say to ourselves and others that “we have no time”. Yet time is an illusion. It can expand and it can contract. Time can even seem endless. In our current culture we need to give ourselves time, to “give to our self time”.

Very driven people can lose this sense of time and space, the endless present moment. Yet it’s always there, here.

Take a moment now. Yes, just pause, right now, in the moment….Take a deep breath and breathe out long. And take another. As you breathe out…let go….and relax….and as you breathe in and out now more gently, notice your in-breath…and your out-breath…being aware of your breathing….and notice the present moment…Just allow yourself to be very aware of the present moment…and the next moment…and if your mind wanders, come back to noticing your breathing…and be aware…Nothing to do…nowhere to go…let go of thinking and be aware…and enjoy this moment you are giving yourself…and you can continue like this…or start to come back to this article you are reading.

What was that like?

It’s a practice, pausing and giving yourself space and time. Do it regularly from now on. Take breaks in the day. Maybe go for a walk and do this. Sit at your desk and do it. Do it at the beginning and at the end of the day. It’s a quick five-minute re-charge. Enjoy!

We have lost the ability to give ourselves space and time and slow down and be present. It’s time to give ourselves back this precious right.

 

 

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