Mercilessly bullied at school, this Belfast author believes he can relieve stress with simple 10-minute-a-day exercises for the mind
Belfast-born psychotherapist Owen O'Kane lived through very troubled times that inspired debut book Ten To Zen, on ways to improve our mental health, which was the subject of a bidding war and is now published in eight countries
If you're hoping to reduce stress in 2019, a new book by a Belfast man has been designed to ensure that this New Year's Resolution will be an easy one to keep. Owen O'Kane has already hit a nerve with his first book Ten To Zen, aimed at improving people's mental health and reduce stress.
Not only has it been the subject of a bidding war between major publishing houses, but it is also set to go global even before it gets into print.
Although that's virtually unheard of for an unknown author and a debut book, it is not so surprising given the life experience and professional expertise behind it.
O'Kane (49) drew on his own youth growing up gay in one of Belfast's main flashpoints during the Troubles.
He has spent his career mostly in mental health, first as a palliative care nurse and then as a psychotherapist.
Growing up, he witnessed the full force of the civil and terrorist violence in his home community of Ardoyne in the north of the city.
O'Kane was bullied in secondary school because he was "different". And he grew up terrified of his sexuality, so much that when he was in his early 20s he tried to be 'healed' of his homosexuality during a visit to Lourdes.
It was a failed attempt as he moved to London shortly afterwards and met his partner Mark 20 years ago, and they later married.
O'Kane now runs a mental health unit for the NHS in London as well as his own private practice.
He is also in demand for corporate workshops on reducing stress.
It was during one of these workshops that someone suggested he write a book about his techniques and the result is Ten To Zen: 10 minutes a day to a calmer, happier you.
In it O'Kane provides a series of easy-to-follow daily workouts for the mind lasting just 10 minutes. If carried out daily, he says, these short sessions will have a major impact on improving overall mental health.
O'Kane has lived in London for the past 20 years but he frequently flies home to visit his father, who still lives in Ardoyne, and three brothers.
He says growing up here with the conflict and fear of the Troubles was the perfect training ground for understanding the anxious mind.
He adds: "In Ardoyne we experienced the worst of the Troubles. It was always at the centre of riots and the hunger strikes. A lot of my memories are of riots and bombs. I also had an uncle who was killed when I was a teenager.
"He was my mum's brother, a milkman, and one of those random victims of a sectarian attack.
"I saw first-hand the damage and it had a hideous impact on my mum and my family - we paid a huge price.
"It also made me curious about people and how they reacted, and that could well have been the beginnings of my interest in working with people."
O'Kane attended St Gabriel's High School and then went to St Malachy's Grammar to study for his A-levels.
He remembers standing out at school during a time when homosexuality was still hidden in Northern Ireland.
He says: "I watched the Belfast Gay Pride parade recently and there were 50,000 people at it. I remember watching it as a young man and there were 50 people taking part.
"I stood in a side street off Royal Avenue to watch it because I didn't want to be spotted by anyone.
"Back in the day it wasn't accepted, and at school I was different and it wasn't tolerated. I was massively bullied, absolutely terrorised, and kids just didn't let up, and that went on all through my developmental years."
On leaving school he decided he wanted to be a priest and entered a monastery in Dublin, where he spent four years before realising it was not for him.
It was during this time he got to take a group of ill people on a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine in Lourdes.
On the plane O'Kane decided he, too, would take a dip in the 'healing' waters at the shrine in the hope of getting rid of his sexuality.
However, it had the opposite affect, as he recalls: "I thought in my head that it would heal this gay thing and make it go away.
"These two French guys came up with no tops on and displaying their muscled chests to dip me in the water.
"As I was bought out of the water, I looked up at their naked torsos and thought: 'Bloody hell, I've no hope'. Bizarrely, though, in a way it was the beginning of healing as I decided I didn't need to fight it anymore and I just accepted it."
He says he is delighted that there is a lot more tolerance and acceptance today and believes it is only a matter of time before our laws on same-sex marriage come into line with the rest of the UK.
O'Kane originally 'married' his partner in a civil service, but when same-sex marriage was made legal in England and Wales in 2013 he and his husband applied to have their paperwork changed to a recognised marriage under the law.
He says the impact of his early struggles with his sexuality is something he can relate to in his work as a psychotherapist.
He says: "It took me a long time to accept it, and in my line of work the most difficult thing people struggle with is shame - and no matter what anxiety a person has, usually under it all there is a sense of shame.
"Accepting myself gave me an enormous amount of freedom and changed the trajectory of my life."
As a former palliative care nurse, O'Kane heard at first-hand the biggest regrets people have on their death beds and, as a result, learnt about the stresses and worries we shouldn't hold onto.
His time in the NHS has seen him use a multitude of techniques in helping people with mental health problems.
He has taken the best of these techniques and used them to create Ten To Zen.
After a bidding war between publishers, O'Kane released Ten To Zen in late December.
He believes that in the same way we look after our physical health, we should also focus on our mental health. His philosophy is that we can all spare 10 minutes every day, especially if it leads to a calmer, happier you.
He explains how his book came about and his surprise at how very quickly it was snapped up for publishing, already guaranteed to sell in seven countries outside the UK including Russia and the US.
He says: "I often do corporate gigs for companies like the BBC and Sky and the big banks and I would go in and spend a day or half-a-day teaching their staff how to manage stress.
"I realised that it wasn't enough just to tell people to meditate or just breathe out; they needed a plan to help quieten the mind and calm down.
"I created a programme and one day after a gig I got talking to someone who said I should write a book about my techniques, as they were really helpful.
"It started me thinking about how I could put all my experience into a book. Seven months later I contacted a publisher who invited me in to pitch my idea and on the same day they offered me a deal for my book.
"Shortly after I was contacted by Bev James, who is the agent for Joe Wicks. Bev is really into wellbeing and development.
"She got another publisher on board and there was a bidding war and in the end I went with Bluebird, which is part of Pan Macmillan.
"The book is now being sold in seven countries. When I was writing the book it wasn't even on my radar that there would be that level of interest.
"I think it shows it is not just the UK and Ireland where stress is a problem, but in other countries people are really struggling too."
A lifetime of experience has been poured into the book, where the beauty is in its simplicity.
O'Kane knows from his professional experience as well as his personal struggles how stress can impact a person. But even better, he has practical techniques for managing it.
He adds: "The book is not a lengthy programme or a fluffy programme, it is a practical, down-to-earth guide. Just 10 minutes a day can really help people and change their lives.
"Everyone can fit 10 minutes somewhere into their day. When you go to the gym and stick to a programme of exercise, you will see the changes in your body for the better.
"It is the same principle. We take care of every other part of our body and what the book gives people is a workout for the mind and a maintenance programme.
"If you are stressed and struggling, then it will stop you from going over the line and getting more stressed.
"Stress builds up and builds up and in the book there are techniques that will bring that all down and help you to calm the mind and get out of that frazzled state."
- Ten To Zen by Owen O'Kane, published by Bluebird, price £10.99, is out now. Follow Owen on Twitter @Owenokaneten