I sat in the hairdresser. My hair was the longest it had been since I could remember – surgery and recovery had meant I had not been well enough to have a cut for 4 months (normally it’s every 6 weeks!). ‘What colour would you like today?’ asked John. We’d not met before, so I responded with my usual, ‘Black, black or black – I guess those are my only options. But really I’d love white blonde!’

Now, it’s a long story, but suffice to say John told me that if I cut my hair really, really short and got rid of all the black dye, he could bleach my dark natural roots – and I could return to the colour I was when I was 18 (a very long time ago!).

This was my first proper outing since the op. I felt depleted, and drained, but the thought of a fresh start, putting the past months behind me, remembering who I was before I got sick would be a great idea. I could feel the excitement bubble up inside me. The decision was made – let’s do it!

My friend and hairdresser of years, the gorgeous Kirsten, embarked upon stage 1 – cutting my hair short; and as each lock fell to the floor, I could feel the happiness returning.  We chatted away about old times: life’s journeys we’d travelled since we’d met, the ups the downs, the twists the turns. I forgot about being ill. We giggled and laughed.

Ninety minutes later, hair very short, I left with my natural dark colour, peppered with grey (à la George Clooney!), and I felt like me for the first time in years. And as I wiped off any remnants of make-up that night and looked in the mirror, it was me, warts and all – and it was OK; really OK. I felt free; that metal armour that for so long had been suffocating me had fallen away.

Stage 2 was yet to come!

So what is it about letting go, and doing something physical, that makes us feel like we’ve moved on, started afresh? Where does this come from and why do we feel so much better? Yesterday, I found myself (with my newly chosen mental attitude) at a spa for a couple of days – talking about moving forward. It was suggested I write on a piece of paper all the sadnesses, traumas, anger and past events that I wanted to let go of – and then burn the piece of paper and say goodbye to them all. Again I asked the question, ‘why is that physical act so important?’ Why is it, that such rituals – burning paper or cutting hair –  can have such an emotional impact?

Now when I started looking into this, I came across a number of articles discussing the ‘breakup haircut’ – that impulsive decision to make a drastic change during an emotional hardship. Dr Laura Berman, relationship educator, explains that when we feel upset or ill, we often make external changes in the hope that it might change how we feel internally. It is about taking the power back. On top of this, clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany suggests that we often have drastic haircuts in the hope of freshening our identity (in my case no longer labelling myself ‘ill’?). It is a way we feel we can put the past behind us and move on.

In terms of those other physical rituals we undertake such as burning our sadnesses and traumas, there is psychological evidence that these can reduce our feelings of upset, anger and grief. Michael Norton and Francesca Gino have conducted a study where participants were asked to write about their sense of loss when a relationship ended and were asked about any coping rituals they had used. It then became clear that those who had used a ritual felt a lower level of grief than those who had not.

So with all this in mind, stage 2 arrived – and John got out the bleach. 5 hours later I emerged a new person. For me it was less what I looked like, but more how I felt. It reminded me of when I was young and carefree, of what I was like ‘before I got ill’. It was without doubt a step towards letting go and beginning a new journey in my life. I left feeling different, making a firm decision to ‘choose’ my thoughts very carefully from now on.

Forget what hurt you but never forget what it taught you.
Shannon L. Alder

So what does all of this say? Certainly not go get your hair cut off and bleach it white (although it has been fun and I love it!). But perhaps take that bit of paper with words, and burn it – or release it in a bottle downstream. Some say visualise cutting a chord and letting go. I like a good bit of de-cluttering – or just a long old scrub in the shower. Whatever you do, for me it’s about the internal (even if the external action is the catalyst) – it’s about making a decision to shift my mental perspective – and choose my thoughts. Moment by moment. Day by day. And of course make them good!