Mental Wellbeing Course - Week 2

by Liz Axham & Kat Jezzard-Puyraud

This week the theme is quietening our chattering brains.

We are surrounded by chatter. The chatter of radios, TVs, mobile phones, social media. The chatter of colleagues talking about celebrity gossip, the banter of family or flatmates, people at the bus stop moaning about the transport system. Everywhere we go, our brains are barraged with this noise.

It’s enough to drive a person mad.

And even when the TVs and radios and phones are turned off, and you’ve finally logged off from Facebook and Twitter and everyone in your building and your street have slipped off into their dreams, you are then faced with another kind of noise. Brain chatter. Inner dialogue. And for some of us, this is the most unpleasant noise of all. Because very often this type of noise brings with it a whole set of crazy negative voices.

Here’s some examples of some of the absolute rubbish our brains have chattered to us personally, normally during the small hours of the morning when we can’t sleep:

  • “Why did you eat all those crisps? Why can’t you just have a small handful? Why did you have to eat a bumper size pack all to yourself? Whyyyyyy?”

  • “Your husband is going to leave you for a younger woman with perky breasts. The kids will also prefer this new woman to you. They will all abandon you. You’ll be alone for the rest of your life. And then you’ll get cancer."

  • “Did I pay the gas bill?”

  • “What’s that pain? Is it a lump? It’s a lump. I know it’s a lump, it’s a…oh no. it’s a spot. Ok. But maybe there’s a lump underneath? What time does the doctor’s office open?”

  • “Have I locked the front door? Yes, I locked the front door; I always lock the front door. But what if you didn’t and a burglar gets in? I’ll just go downstairs and double check that I did actually lock the door…..Ah right. I locked the door. Why didn’t I remember that? Maybe I have Alzheimer’s?”

  • “Why did I say that to her? I shouldn’t have had that last glass of prosecco.”

So to sum up – most of our negative brain chatter involves death, betrayal, poverty, weight issues, work issues, health issues, and cancer. A LOT of cancer stuff. Now for some people some of that stuff has actually happened or is actually happening right now and that trauma can be a like a waking nightmare.

But here's the thing - even if you're in the midst of a crisis, a lot of our brain chatter revolves around stuff that still might never happen, even as a consequence of trauma. Most of our chatter is of the "what if?" kind. This is a futile merry-go-round of worrying and wondering. And it gets you absolutely nowhere except down.

Also you may notice that when this brain chatter happens, you don't always talk to yourself using the first person, as in "I can't believe I ate that whole packet of biscuits". You sometimes talk to yourself using the second person, as in "I can't believe you ate that whole packet of biscuits." It's like you're distancing yourself from your own being - judging yourself and berating yourself. Like a punishing parent. Talking to yourself in that nagging, haranguing way doesn't make you feel good. It just makes you feel like a small child who keeps misbehaving.

We sometimes talk to ourselves in ways we would never ever dare talk to someone else. We say unkind, destructive, and downright abusive things to ourselves and somehow think it's what we deserve. But that's just another untruth we tell ourselves. None of us deserves that kind of abuse. Would we talk to our best friend in that way? No we wouldn't. So why do we do it to ourselves then?

This week we're going to help you be a little kinder to yourself, to treat yourself as a friend, and give you some positive distractions so you can tell that brain chatter to go and shove it.  (You can click here for our article on more ways to stop your inner critic.)

Now when we talk about distractions, we don't mean the types of things that numb the pain or help you escape for a few hours. You can distract yourself all you want with TV and alcohol and drugs, sex or food, but if you’re the type of person that fears being alone and sober with the sound of their own thoughts, then attaining peace of mind is going to take a little bit of work.

So we’re going to demonstrate some techniques to quieten that brain chatter and introduce some calming methods to help you ease into periods of being alone with only your thoughts. All these techniques take a bit of practice. If you don't get it the first time, don't give up. Just imagine what your life will be like without that brain chatter and constant inner dialogue. Mmmmmm. It's nice and quiet isn't it?

Ujjayi Breathing

The first method we’re going to demonstrate to you is a breathing technique called Ujjayi Breathing. It’s a form of yogic breathing that is very focused so that all your effort is spent just concentrating on your breathing and there is very little space to allow negative thoughts to come through. And once you’ve done a few rounds of Ujjayi breathing, you’ll feel so relaxed that those negative thoughts become duller and lose some of their power.

Listen to the clip below, where Katya demonstrates the Ujjayi breathing technique.

Breaking Negative Thinking

Our thoughts have enormous bearing on our frame of mind. For instance, we can start off feeling perfectly fine, but if an unpleasant memory or worry pops into our brain then that can set us off on a long chain of negative thinking which can result in stress and even reduce us to tears.

One way of breaking this negative thinking is to think of thoughts like buses. They come and they go, and some buses you choose to get on and some you don't, and you just let them go by. Bad thoughts are like buses that are emblazoned with negative advertising designed to make you feel bad, and are packed full of grumpy people who snipe and moan at each other. Those are the buses you should just let pass. Don't stick your hand out for those ones. Just wait and be patient for the good thoughts, the buses that are covered with pleasant advertising and have a few people on them who are all smiley and who look out of the window enjoying the scenery. Those are the buses you want to get on. Because there is a simple matter of choice here. When a bad thought comes along, choose NOT to get on board. Don't ride with it. Let it pass because a better thought is just around the corner.

Unfortunately one of the ways we end up riding with the bad thoughts is when we rehash old conversations, or by imagining difficult situations that might take place in the future. These conjured-up scenarios may feel, in a strange way, satisfying while we indulge in them, but they can actually hugely affect our wellbeing.

This type of rehashing and re-imagining dialogue has a habit of doing nothing but holding us in a negative frame of mind. Because these scenarios are not real, they go nowhere and resolve nothing. All they do is waste our time and whip up drama where there is none, or re-create a traumatic situation which has already past and which we can do nothing about. It’s masochistic and it damages us. 

Kat’s Mental Fixit for Brain Chatter

"I always rehash an old break-up scenario where I change the real ending and instead substitute one where I walk away with my dignity and a witty quip. It makes me feel better for about five minutes until I remember what actually happened. The reality was that I was on my knees screaming and begging with a total sense of humour failure. When I revisit that memory I end up feeling a billion times worse. So every time I start re-hashing it, I do a few Ujjayi breaths and say to myself out loud: “Oi Brain! Shut it!” to shake me out of that negative mind space. (Not great when I'm out in public but if it stops me from spiralling down, I really don't care). And if I'm being horrible to myself and beating myself up mentally about something stupid I've done, I stop still for a moment, take a really deep breath and say out loud "Stop bullying me!" It's a technique of distancing yourself from the unkind, negative side of yourself. You have to stand up to yourself and refuse to be taken down by these negative voices. Sometimes you just have to give your brain a damn good talking to before it listens.”

As well as the rather unsophisticated“Oi! Brain! Shut it!” technique, there are other methods to halt these unpleasant thoughts before they really take hold, spiral out of control and negatively influence how you’re feeling or even ruin your day.

Changing Your Thought Pattern

Our brains are incredible. The amount of work they do to keep our bodies functioning is amazing. But our brains have a fickle side too. Here’s an example you can try. Try telling yourself out loud that you feel extremely tired. Now keep saying it and really feel it as you repeat it. What happens? Your body starts to droop, your shoulders slump, your voice gets slower, your eyes get heavy. If you keep telling yourself every day that you feel tired, or you feel bad, or you feel useless or worthless, then your brain will take your word for it and you’ll end up believing it and feeling it.

We need to be very careful about what we tell ourselves. We need to make sure that the things we say to ourselves are helpful and kind, not critical or negative. We need to monitor the brain chatter that comes from ourselves and modify it so that it doesn’t bring us down and make us feel worse. Just a little bit of loving kindness towards ourselves can make all the difference. Focusing on our strengths instead of our weaknesses or saying to yourself once in a while: "You're doing okay matey. You're alright." It's like having your own inner coach cheering you on.

As well as stopping that inner critic and replacing it with an inner coach, we have to be aware of how we portray ourselves to others. As Brits, we can't help but do the self-depreciating thing. It's in our nature. But actually it's quite damaging. For instance, have you ever heard someone say: “Oh I’m so unlucky. Nothing ever goes right for me.” Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself. These type of phrases have a habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophesies. And we're not talking about the old saying that being negative attracts negativity. What actually happens is this: if we truly believe nothing ever goes right for us then all we are doing is waiting for and focusing on something bad to happen. And while we wait for the bad stuff, we ignore all the good things that happen in between or we just dismiss them all as flukes.

There are lots of advocates of positive thinking – people who chant positive affirmations and refuse to let anything negative in. But we are human and it’s just not realistically possible to keep up that level of positivity on a day-to-day basis. It's also not truthful to banish all bad thoughts and feelings. It’s not healthy. Bad thoughts and feelings are normal. When something bad happens, it’s perfectly natural to feel crap about it. And it's better to express it rather than let it fester. But the trick is not to let it overwhelm you. Deal with it as best you can, get it out of your system and then look ahead more hopefully.

Kat's Mental Fixit for Feelings

"It can get really annoying to be around relentlessly cheerful people. I once tried being positive all the time and not only did I find it very tiring but my sister said it made her want to punch me. But then again, she's always very negative and that makes me want to punch her. I realised that I had to be more real with my feelings. If I feel good, I celebrate that feeling but if I feel bad I acknowledge it but I make sure I don’t let it take over and ruin my day. It's all about finding a balance. And trying not to punch people.”

So to find that balance, you can start by flipping that negative thought pattern into a more hopeful thought pattern. (Note, we're saying 'hopeful' not positive.) For example, whenever you hear yourself berating yourself about being unlucky, just stop mid-sentence and turn it around. Perhaps say something like “Well, I may have had some bad stuff happen to me in the past, but I think things are looking up.”

We have some exercises to help with that in the homework section below. But for now, Katya is going to show you how fickle our brains really are by giving a guided meditation to trick our brains into feeling relaxed. We’re going to give our brains lots of helpful relaxing phrases and by the end of it, our bodies will - hopefully - feel that benefit too.

By the way, Herbert Benson, who is Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a renowned expert on the benefits of meditation, found that meditation doesn't just reduce blood pressure or stress, but it actually changes genes. That's right. According to Emma Young who researched the phenomenon for her fantastic book 'Sane' (see the credits page), Benson and his team found "even first-timers (to meditation) show an increase in the activity of genes involved in the function of mitochondria (tiny components of a cell that produces energy) and the secretion of insulin (which regulates blood-glucose levels). There is also a drop in the activity of genes involved in triggering potentially damaging inflammation (which has been linked to depression) and stress-related pathways."

So if you think all this meditation lark isn't going to do much for you, just chew on that top-class scientific information for a while and then have a bash at the meditation below:

Quick Tips for Stress & Anxiety

Liz has some top tips below to help you cope when you’re feeling a bit dodgy. Scan through them whenever you feel your stress levels rise. You might be able to do something practical to bring those levels down immediately. 

  • Avoid self-medication and smoking, too much alcohol, coffee or tranquillisers.

  • Physical activity really helps – work off your stress.

  • Don’t put off doing things that relax you – find something that works for you and ensure this it’s as much a priority as everything else – it’s important.

  • SLEEP! It’s vital that you give your body and mind time to heal.

  • If you are unwell – give yourself a break. You are allowed to be ill and listening to your body more and giving it what it needs is crucial to helping you feel better in not just your body but your mind too.

  • Life should not be a constant battle ground – think about whether there are ways to compromise. Conflict is stress-inducing and often avoidable if you moderate your responses. By thinking this way you may find it easier to resolve issues in a less stressful manner.

  • Learn to accept what you cannot change. If something is how it is, you cannot change it – so let it go.

  • Manage your time. Being late is stressful. Not enough time to complete tasks is stressful! Plan and delegate – other people can often do things just as well as you. So just let them help you.

  • Don’t be afraid to say no. If you say no to something you don’t want to do or can’t do from the start, you avoid becoming stressed and anxious later when you have to then pull out of something. If you don’t want to do something, say no from the start or say "I'll think about it" to give yourself time. Never say yes straight away.

  • Recognise when you are tired/stressed/anxious and then STOP. Take some time to rest, gather your thoughts and regroup. Then complete the task. When we are tired and stressed we react differently to when we are rested and relaxed. We are far more productive and do things more effectively when we're rested and relaxed.

Medication for Anxiety & Depression

If your anxiety and depression has got to a point that you’ve needed to seek help from your doctor, then the likelihood is you may have been given the choice to receive medication. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication come in many forms. Being a psychiatric nurse, Liz has seen the both the benefits and side effects of mental health medication. Below she explains a little about the main types of medication the NHS prescribes. If you are unclear about medication or want to know more about the treatment you are currently receiving, please contact your doctor. They’ll be happy to explain both the benefits and side effects of your treatment. (But as we’ve stated before NEVER come off medication unless your doctor has ok’d it. And if you’re unsure of any over the counter medication or herbal remedies that are advertised or available in your local chemist, just talk to the pharmacist first who will be able to advise you.)

Have a Word With Yourself

There are times when a bit of brain chatter can actually be useful, as in the method of talking hopefully to yourself. Liz has had to battle a fair bit of anxiety in her life and she’s found a personal way to deal with stressful situations by using her method which she calls the ‘Having a Word’ technique:

Liz's Mental Fixit for Anxiety

“Sometimes you don't know why you are feeling anxious and cannot come up with any triggers or clear ways to understand why you are feeling this way. Some situations are particularly difficult like job interviews and interactions with people that are maybe confrontational. With these type of situations I find the 'have a word' method really works for me. Feeling anxious can happen to me in one of two main ways:

1/ I am about to do something like speaking at a meeting or having a planned public event, or I have to engage in a discussion with someone that is going to be a bit tricky.

2/ I am driving in my car to work and I feel really anxious but have no idea why.

For both of these scenarios the 'have a word' method is then bought into play which is literally me having a word with myself: For situation 1 I would say to myself:

'I'm feeling anxious because I don't want to do this. Okay. That's okay. How I'm feeling now is not how I am going to feel when it's all over. I'll do what I have to do and then it will be fine again. It's not going to be great but I've done it before and I got through it so I'll get through this. Just keep calm, get it done, and then it’s finished. Then I can carry on as normal and go home and watch Netflix.'

For scenario 2 I would say:

'I'm feeling anxious. Why am I feeling anxious? Everything is fine, nothing is going on, I'm in my car, I've got the radio on, the kid is at school, the dog is in doggy day care (he suffers with anxiety too and can't be left alone!) and everything is fine. Chill out, breath nice and calm, let all this crap go, get the day done. And then you can go home and watch Netflix.'

The 'have a word' method is basically me taking control of my anxiety and not letting it dictate how I'm feeling. To be fair, it has taken years to perfect. But I've spent most of my life being anxious about pretty much everything.

So to add to this method, build up evidence by reminding yourself that you’ve been in these situations before. I have worried endlessly and ruminated for days and days beforehand about situations that have actually turned out to be okay. I coped. I managed. I got through it. And if they didn't go well – I survived it anyway! When you allow this evidence - the fact that you got through it and survived without major trauma - to then challenge the anxious thoughts, the anxiety levels go down. And down. And down. To the point where you do things that you never thought you could do in a million years.”

The Week Ahead

1. We are going to set you the challenge of trying to keep negative inner dialogue and brain chatter to a minimum over the next week. When you start on the cycle of imaginary conversations, try and stop yourself. If it's a rehash of an old conversation, try Kat's "Oi Brain! Shut it!" technique, or if you want something more sedate, say something like: "Oh there's no point in going over that again, it's past." Or if it's an imagined future scenario say something like "Oh I'll cross that bridge when I come to it." If you're berating yourself with something negative, tell yourself something hopeful or kind instead. If you're worrying about something that is out of your control, just throw it back into the world with a phrase like 'I don't have time for that now. I'll deal with it tomorrow."

2. Every night before you go to bed, write a bullet point list of all the things that are worrying you in your notebook. It could be the really catastrophic stuff or maybe something very mundane about buying cat litter. Whatever it is, write it all down. Then turn the page and say to yourself: “I’ll think about all that tomorrow”. Then on a new page write about all the stuff that went right with your day. Even the tiniest little thing. If it gave you pleasure or raised a smile or made you feel good or if you felt you achieved something, then write it down. Then close your notebook and put it deep in a draw. By dismissing the worrying stuff for the night, and leaving yourself focused on something good will help quieten some of that negative chatter.

3. Take a look at this clip from expert Eckhart Tolle about negative thinking from an Oprah Winfrey interview. Does he say anything helpful that you can take with you? Write down any key phrases or sentences that you find helpful in your notebook. (By the way, Eckhart Tolle has written some really ground-breaking books on the subject - the most notable being ‘The Power of Now’ which is definitely worth a read. And of course Oprah is the queen of mental wellbeing and has lots of fab videos and podcasts on the subject. She's someone who had a really tough childhood but has managed to pull herself out of her negative thinking to do some really inspiring work with some of the biggest experts in the world on the subject of mental health.)

4. Try Liz’s ‘have a word’ method when you feel the anxiety rising. Build up your own body of evidence to remind yourself that you are able to survive stressful situations. You won’t die. You won’t stop breathing. You will get through it, survive and get through the day.

5. Practise the meditations and exercises daily (if you have time, revisit the ones from last week too) and continue to use your notebook. Try to use this week as a way of turning those negative thoughts around. Even if you find it hard, write something like "I'm finding this hard, but I'm going to try anyway." And then keep trying all week if you can. You can use the following questions and exercises below to help you write your daily journal:

  • When you’re stressed what words would you describe how you feel? Write them down.

  • Now think about the opposite of each word and think about how you can regain control of these feelings and change it to their positive opposite. Change the negative to positive. For example: Tired – Energised; Angry – Calm; Tearful – Joyful; Despondent – Hopeful.

  • Everyday describe your feelings in your journal and if it’s negative find the opposite to make it positive. Close your eyes and imagine feeling that way. Imagine a situation when you'd feel that good. Really try to believe that feeling for about five minutes, tell yourself out loud that you are feeling that way and see how you feel afterwards. Do you feel different?

6. At the end of the week make a note of which techniques worked best for you in your notebook. You can take these forward to the next week and continue to practise them if you feel like it.

7. You can sign up for our mental wellbeing tips and advice newsletter. This is not obligatory and is not used for business or sales purposes. It's purely so we can share new research or ideas into mental wellbeing. We’ll only do it if we think something is really worth sharing. We won't bombard you with emails. (We find that highly annoying too!) And just to make it clear - your email addresses are for our eyes only, we would NEVER share your details with any third parties. You have our word. But please make sure you add to your email contact list or we might end up in your junk folder. Just enter your email address and sign up below.

But as we said before – we can’t give out specialist advice for individuals. Much as we'd love to fix everyone's problems, we can't help you via email or over the phone otherwise we'd get slapped on the wrists by the medical profession. We do have a list of specialist helplines that deal with mental health issues or problems that impact on mental wellbeing, so click on our HELPLINE page to see whether you could benefit from their specialist advice. Or if you’re feeling in desperate need, please get in touch with your doctor or visit the A&E department of your local hospital.

So until Week 3, go easy on yourself. Don’t push yourself and don’t berate yourself if you don’t feel up to doing the exercises. Just take your time go at your own pace and try your best. Start treating yourself as a friend, not as an enemy. You're alright matey. So see you next week…

Kat & Liz x

© copyright 2017. ‘LightHearts UK Mental Wellbeing Course’ by Katya Jezzard-Puyraud & Liz Axham