LightHearts UK Mental Wellbeing - Week 4

by Liz Axham and Kat Jezzard-Puyraud

This week’s theme is getting rid of the toxins in our life – that means bad people, bad food and bad habits.

We all have our vices. Both of us have an addiction to showbiz gossip. We hate ourselves for it. We know it’s a waste of time and we know that judging people for the way they look in thong bikinis is not a great way to live our lives. We also have an addiction to Tesco’s sea salt and cider vinegar crisps (crinkle cut). And full-fat lattes. We know all these things are not good for us. But we do it anyway.

Mind you, this is a whole lot better than the vices we used to have. Drugs (soft and hard), alcohol (Jameson’s whiskey, anyone?), sugar (bumper packs of Maltesers, whole tins of Quality Street, anything with shiny purple wrapping….nom, nom, nom), cigarettes (all hail the Marlboro man). We all have our crosses to bear. For some it’s an addiction to their phones – constantly checking their social media updates to the detriment of their families; others it’s TV – staying up all night because you just have to find out what happens in the next episode; and for a section of the population it’s sex. Say no more.

Some of these habits are known to have bad effects on our physical health when taken to extreme. But what about the effects on our mental health?

Toxic Sugar

Sugar is a git. Because it tastes SO good. And it makes you feel cosy and happy and perky and….and….

And it can also make you feel tired, and irritable and give you spots and make you fat and give you diseases like diabetes that make you blind and cause your toes to fall off.

But the biggest problem for people suffering from mental problems is that sugar affects your hormones. And when you suffer from stress, anxiety and depression, you don’t want to muck around with your hormones and cause any more chemical imbalance if you can possibly help it.

Here’s how sugar creates havoc with your mental health:

Sugar disrupts insulin. Insulin is connected to all of the other hormones in your body. When you eat sugar, this creates a spike in insulin levels, which as a consequence, then mucks up the levels of an important hormone called SHBG which governs the ratio of estrogen to progesterone in our bodies (known for keeping us calm and happy). When those ratios go out of whack it leads to irritability, anxiety and insomnia. So as you can see, if you want to be calm, happy and relaxed, then sugar is the anti-Christ of foods.

It’s also be proved that sugar kills many of the good bacteria in our stomach which are vital not only for our immune system and our physical health, but which also help our mental health and especially our propensity to suffer from anxiety and depression. Just check out our blog post here How Gut Bacteria Affects Depression.

It’s not hard as hard as it seems to cut down on sugar. We’re not talking going to Gwyneth Paltrow extremes here and just surviving on quinoa granola and water filtered from Icelandic glaciers. All we’re saying is cut down on the sweet stuff.

Kat, a life-long sweet-tooth and confirmed sugar addict who would think nothing of eating a family size black forest gateau all to herself swilled down with a litre of Diet Coke (because she thought the word ‘Diet’ would counteract the sugar in the cake), decided some years ago that she was sick of being a grumpy old cow who couldn’t sleep and decided to see if cutting down on sugar would make things better. It did. Not only is she less crabby, but the binge-eating disorder she’d suffered with for over 30 years miraculously stopped. (For Kat's personal story of how she tackled her eating disorder, click here on the blog article 'The One Thing That Stopped My Binge Eating Disorder')

A questionnaire that was funded by the charity Mind found that 88% of people said that changing their diet "improved their mental health significantly" with many saying they had seen big improvements in mood swings, panic attacks, anxiety and depression.

Below we have an interview with Kat and Liz about how food and emotion are closely linked and how it affects people with mental health issues.

Kat’s Mental Fixit for Cutting Down on Sugar:

"After many years of going on crash diets, I finally realised that it was my huge intake of sugar that was causing mayhem with my mood and my binge eating disorder. Now, instead of reaching for the biscuits when I want something sweet, I have a handful of almonds and a small glass of milk which stops my sugar cravings and provides some protein to squash my appetite. Moderation is what’s called for. Don’t go kamikaze and cut everything out. You’ll just get overpowered by your cravings and then feel like a failure when you go back to the biscuits. Just cut down bit by bit and see how you feel. But I guarantee that the less sugar you have the better you will look and feel. And you won’t be such a grumpy git either.”

(Please note: If you have any underlying health problems, it's probably best if you speak to your local doctor before you change your diet in any way. But until you get that appointment, you could have a bash at giving the biscuit tin a miss and see how it goes.)

Toxic Waste

So as we mentioned on the video clip, once you get rid of the sugar you might want to consider other toxins that we pollute our bodies with - alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. Alcohol (which also contains huge amounts of sugar) brings us down, caffeine makes us hyper. Both substances screw with our bodies’ natural balance.

With nicotine it's a whole other ballgame. For people who smoke, when they get stressed they immediately reached for the cigarettes. They think it calms them down. But it doesn't. Nicotine actually quickens the heartbeat. So it's not the cigarette that calms them down at all. What actually makes smokers feel better is the fact that they have to slow their breathing down in order to inhale and exhale the smoke. Think about it. When a smoker takes a puff on a cigarette they take a huge long inhale, they hold the smoke in their lungs and then they exhale slowly. THAT is what is calming them down. They are basically doing a basic breathing technique! Unfortunately the nicotine actually counteracts any good effects this breathing technique brings plus it's addictive and costs a bundle. You'd be better off reaching for a pencil and pretending to smoke like kids do. You'd get all the benefits of the slowed breathing with none of the disadvantages. Liz used to smoke full-on Red Marlboro. Now she's given up and uses vapes but is trying to cut down on those as well because the chemicals they use in the vape mixtures may not contain nicotine but they contain all sorts of other nasty chemicals. And as the medical research for these vapes are still in the early days, we have no real idea how dangerous these chemicals are. So basically we're saying the less chemicals you put in your body, the better for both your physical and mental health.

If you suffer from difficulties in sleeping then you need to cut right down on caffeine, alcohol and  nicotine. With caffeine (and that includes tea as well as coffee and especially fizzy drinks that contain both sugar and caffeine) you need to give yourself a curfew. Try and stop drinking them by 1pm, after that have de-caff drinks. Water is the best thing to help flush out the toxins and put your body back into balance. Also try not to smoke or drink alcohol past a certain time in the evening. Give your body time to rest and start flushing out the bad stuff before bed. If you can just knock all these things on the head, then that's even better. Again, the less chemicals you put in your body, the more calm and peaceful you will become.

Let's give you some examples - Liz used to drink 15 cups of coffee a day. Despite knowing full well this was bad for her, she managed to convince herself that unlike the rest of the human race she was somehow immune to the toxic effects of coffee. Until she developed panicky heart flutters that kept her awake at night with anxiety plus crippling stomach pain. After another six months she was having to have a month off work because she had to have her gall bladder removed. Yay!

Kat used to like to drink. A lot. But it always ended the same way. With a fight (either with strangers in the street or a loved one) and then usually and humiliating falling over in front of everyone and showing her knickers. After a night of drinking she would always wake up in a state of high anxiety and panic and have to call everyone she knew to apologise for her behaviour. The shame, anxiety and physical effects of binge-drinking would last all week. Until she did it all again the following weekend. Double yay!

So don't be like us. Sort it out. And if you think you might have a real issue with alcohol or drugs, click here for our HELPLINE PAGE for help with substance abuse.

Toxic Distractions

Computers, phones, TVs and tablets are great distractions to use when we’re feeling a bit anxious. But we have to know when to knock it on the head.

For a start, social media may feel like we’re connecting with people but it isn’t a real connection. It’s a cyber connection. It’s not like having a friend come round for a cup of tea and a face-to-face chat. Of course, some of us have family and friends who live far away so computers are our only source of contact with them. But instead of tip-tapping away on Facebook or emailing them, try picking up the phone so you can hear their voice. Or Skype them so you can see each other face to face. (We’re going to be talking more about Social Media in Week 8).

Also, the other downside to too much social media is that blue screens have been found to affect levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and our body’s natural circadian rhythm. This means high usage of phones and TVs in the evening can disrupt our brains into thinking it’s wake-up time instead of bedtime so our brain doesn’t know when to switch off and calm itself ready for sleep.

The current thinking is that any electrical equipment in the bedroom can cause sleep problems. So strip back your bedroom to just a bedside lamp. Everything else – hairdryers, chargers, TVs, games consoles, basically anything with a plug – just get it out of the room or at least unplug it. Try not to bring your phone to bed with you. If you rely on your phone for your alarm, just buy a clock radio and soothe yourself to sleep with a timer set on some classical music channel. Or if you listen to podcasts, make sure you put the brightness level down on your phone so the blue screen light doesn’t disturb you.

And here’s the biggest issue that affects people with mental illness - getting enough sleep is a massive part of helping our mental health. If you sleep well, you have a much better chance of feeling a whole lot better about the world. So once you’ve cut down on your sugar, caffeine and alcohol and cut down on the blue screens you need to see how you stand with your body’s natural level of sleep.

For those with insomnia issues there’s all the tried and tested techniques of course - putting a few drops of diluted lavender oil on your pillow; having a hot bath; drinking hot milk, keeping your blankets and nightwear to a minimum and opening your bedroom window but there are other methods too.

Kat’s Mental Fixit for Insomnia

“I started getting insomnia when I was a teenager when I took a peek at my grandma who had died in her bed. After that my crazy teenage brain associated sleep with death. But after many years of battling sleeplessness I have found my magic formula.

I don't drink any caffeinated drinks after lunchtime and I rarely drink alcohol now - only on special occasions. Boring I know, but it works. And to be honest, I'd rather have a good night's sleep than a glass of wine. You have a choice - sleep or alcohol? It's a compromise I'm willing to take.

I take a good quality multi-vitamin every day. Research has shown that people with low magnesium levels can often suffer with insomnia but as it's difficult to know which vitamins I'm lacking without an actual blood test, I make sure I'm just covering all bases with an effective multi-vitamin.

I make sure I get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day. I do a bit of gentle yoga stretching and a brisk walk every day. I think more than anything, that's helped not only my insomnia but also my mental wellbeing.

Reducing time spent watching TV in the evening is also key for me. (I just choose one programme that I want to watch and make sure I watch it early in the evening. Then I switch the TV off otherwise I'll end up falling asleep on the sofa.)

I turn off my smart phone at about 8pm and I don't go on the computer after that time either. Being a mum, I don't go out much but I spend the rest of the evening doing something relaxing like chatting to friends, pootling about the house doing a few chores, reading, having a hot bath, doing some meditation, writing in my journal or spending time with my family. It's amazing how much time you end up with when you switch the box off. It's not exactly a rock and roll lifestyle, but I'm middle aged now so I don't give a flying fart what anyone thinks of the way I live my life. The most important thing is that instead of getting broken sleep that amounted to only three or four hours a night, I now sleep through the night.

When I get into bed, I read a book until I start feeling sleepy. (I used to listen to podcasts in bed but I found that if I'd fallen asleep before they finished, I would wake up and I'd have to start again causing my sleep to be broken.) When I feel my eyes getting heavy, I turn the light out and do some deep breathing exercises and before I know it, I'm in the land of nod.

I also found my optimum body clock rhythm by getting up every morning at 6.30am and never getting into bed before 11pm. Ideally I'm asleep by midnight. I only actually need on average six hours of sleep a night. Everyone is different - some people need eight, some seven, some only four. But it's about how YOU feel when you wake up. I feel great after six hours so despite what everyone says about needing eight, I can safely say that my personal sleep pattern means I only need six. So that's what I aim for.

I'm positive about sleep now. I don’t get stressed about it anymore. Every night I go to bed saying: 'Tonight I’m going to have the best sleep ever' and sometimes I do. But sometimes I don't. And when that happens and I've had a bad night and I can't think of a reason for it - perhaps a heavy meal? Something I said or did that was bothering me? - I don't get panicky or negative about it. I just think -well, hopefully it'll be better tomorrow night. And invariably it is."

NLP checklist

If you still have problems sleeping then there is a great system which has been developed called Neuro Linguistic Programming.

Here are the tips recommended by this technique:

1. Don’t go to bed too early. Stay up as late as you can. Then set your alarm early in the morning and get up straight away. This resets your circadian rhythm (your body clock) to more suitable times so it begins to recognise night for sleeping and day for waking.

2. Get lots of fresh air, sunshine and exercise during the day. (As an extra note: If you don’t get out much, and you think you might be suffering from SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder - which is when you don’t get enough sunlight and get depressed during the winter months, you may need to get yourself some light therapy. See this link for an explanation from the NHS about the condition:

3. Don’t take naps during the day or fall asleep on the sofa in the evening. If you do need a nap then make sure it's only 10 minutes, otherwise you'll end up feeling groggy for the rest of the day.

4. If you can’t sleep or if you wake up during the night, don’t stay in bed. Get up straight away and go and do something else – read a book, do some housework, do some of the meditation exercises. But try not to watch TV or go on your phone as it’s got the dreaded blue screen which won’t help your melatonin levels. Whatever you do, don’t lay awake in your bed.

5. Don’t say “I’ll never get to sleep tonight” or “I’m going to be so tired in the morning”. As you’ve seen with the technique of autogenic phrases in Week 2, if you tell your brain something it believes it. So if you tell it something negative it will start to believe it. Don’t turn your insomnia into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Instead lull your brain with positive sleep connotations by saying things like “Mmmm I’m going to sleep so well tonight” or “My body can still function really well with just a little sleep” or “I feel so sleepy right now. It feels so good to be in cosy in bed.”

6. When you get up in the morning, still with the autogenic phrases in mind, don’t be negative about your night’s sleep. Don’t say “Oh god I feel knackered” or “What a crappy night’s sleep that was.” Instead say “I think I had enough sleep last night” or “I feel just fine.” If you tell yourself you’re fine your brain and body will begin to believe it. It sounds bonkers – especially when you’re so sleepy you could fall asleep in your cornflakes - but it does actually work. Our brain is a fickle, fickle organ.

7. Try this NLP insomnia fix technique in the audio below. Use it before bed to really help nudge your body into a deep, restorative and healing sleep.

Kat’s Mental Fixit for Winding Down

"When I'm trying to wind down in the evening and avoid the TV, or if I'm feeling a bit worried or anxious I download the BBC podcast ‘Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review’. For some reason I find it deeply comforting – it’s a bit like listening to two funny geezers bickering with each other on the bus. It’s light-hearted and full of great film reviews and interviews with actors and directors. And I also feel like I’m in a special club of millions of people around the world (listeners are called Wittertainees) who tune in and listen every week. It's deeply relaxing because my mind is being entertained and directed away from my anxiety. I especially like it when Mark Kermode tells the listeners that ‘Everything will be alright in the end.’ It’s become a running joke but I really believe him. Everything will be alright in the end.”

Here’s the link to the film review podcast if you fancy becoming a Wittertainee too:

Toxic People

At some point in our lives we accumulate toxic people. They may be friends, relatives or colleagues. However they manifest themselves in your life they are the type of people who, after coming into contact with them, make you feel worse than before.

These are the main traits of toxic people. (Some of them have more than one trait or a mixture. If your toxic person has all of these traits, then God help you.):

  • They are always complaining but they never do anything to help themselves – even after you’ve given them advice

  • They always call you asking for a favour (they never call to just check how you are)

  • They always want you to meet them at a time that’s really inconvenient for you but convenient for them

  • They never make the effort to visit you, they always make you travel to them

  • They call at awkward times of the day and night

  • They never ask you any questions about your life but spend an inordinate amount of time talking about themselves

  • They make you feel tired and/or guilty and/or stressed after seeing them

  • They put you down or make you feel small or worthless

  • They always have big dramas going on in their lives

  • You end up rearranging your life to suit them and then they don’t show up anyway or they make you do a different time, date or place

  • You feel reluctant to pick up the phone when you see their name come up on the caller ID

  • You dread meeting up with them and can’t wait to get it over with

These people are energy vampires, they are drama queens, they are crazy-makers. And – if you can – you need to get these people out of your lives or at least create some distance.

The best way to do this, is to simply say no to them. But don’t say no and then give a big long excuse; Just say things like “No I’m sorry I can’t help you move house. I’ve got plans that day.” Don’t say what your plans are. Don’t give any details. Just firmly and pleasantly say you are busy. The strange thing is that people very rarely ask what you’re doing when you say no in this way. If they do, just be vague and say “family stuff” or “work stuff”.

The other way to get out of seeing them is to say “I’ll have to check.” For example “I’m not sure I can take your kids from school that day while you go and have your extra marital affair. I think I’ve got something on. I’ll have to check.” Very often, just giving yourself that space – rather than giving a definitive yes or no – can get yourself out of a situation. Very often they'll just go and ask someone else if you don't give them a direct answer straight away.

Dealing with toxic people can often make us feel anxious. There's a useful technique called 'Anchoring' which helps to deal with any stress-inducing elements – whether it be a toxic person or a bad situation. (You can click here for our special article on the Anchoring technique and how it can also help panic attacks. ) Listen to the audio below to find out how to use it in your daily life to help reduce your anxiety.

Good Anchors

Following on from the anchoring technique, we’d like you to think of things that make you feel safe or happy that are non-toxic.

For instance, Liz feels good when she gets in her car on her own. When she drives she feels independent and strong. She puts on the music she likes and sings along. She feels safe in her little car, like nothing and no one can touch her at that moment. Kat feels safe when she is in her bed, curled up with a good book and her Bagpuss hot water bottle. She feels particularly good if the sheets are fresh and she’s just washed her feet. (Sometimes it’s just the little things….)

This is what we want for you. Think about what makes you feel happy and safe. Now do it, or go there, or wear it or be it. Whatever it is, try and feel this feeling more than any other feeling right now.

You need to fill up your life with good anchors to stop your life from filling up with toxicity again. When you stop dicking around on social media, stop watching so much TV, stop spending your life with people who wasted your time, you will find that you have lots more time on your hands. But for someone who is anxious or depressed this can sometimes feel daunting. Try not to let it. Instead, try doing things that you never have time for. Here are some examples (they’re a bit tame but we’re erring on the side of caution. We don’t want to encourage ‘bucket lists’ of bungee jumping and diving with sharks because your relatives might sue us if you come a cropper):

  • Spring clean your wardrobe and chuck out all your clothes that make you feel bad or have bad memories associated with them.

  • Sit down and listen to a whole album from start to finish without doing anything else except just listening. (Although if it’s vinyl studying the sleeve notes are fine. And singing along to any printed lyrics is even better.)

  • Go to the library and take out a whole load of books to read. Yes, real books with pages. Not Kindles or e-books – they use back-lit screens which are not good for your body rhythms or melatonin levels.

  • Fixing stuff around the house that needs fixing or decorating walls to look brighter.

  • Writing – your journal, some bad poetry, a short story, your memoirs.

  • Cooking healthy stuff. (We all love Mary Berry but lay off the cake baking, especially if you suffer from eating disorders).

The Week Ahead

1. Keep on with the journal writing. How’s it going? Is it getting easier? To help you this week, we have some questions for you below:

  • What are your bad influences or bad habits?

  • Who are your crazymakers and energy vampires and drama queens?

  • Why do you continue to have these things in your life? What purpose do they serve? And how can you remove them? Or how can you deal with difficult people better? (Take a look at our blog post on How to Mindfully Deal with Difficult People for some helpful pointers!)

  • What are your anchors? When are you safe?

  • How can you reach your anchor in everyday life? Think about replacing bad influences with good anchors.

2. Have a go at doing this Indian head massage on yourself. It’s an excellent way of releasing toxins and getting rid of any sugar withdrawal headaches. It’s also great for insomnia.

3. Take a look at this article about the damage blue screens do to our minds and bodies. Keep a note in your journal about how often you use something with a screen (this course included!)

4. Even if you don’t have sleep problems, try and get lots of fresh air, sunshine (if you’re lucky) and exercise. If you do have sleep problems, follow all the NLP advice and see how you get on.

5. Practise all the meditations and techniques. See which ones you look forward to doing and which ones you’re not fussed about doing. Start making a list of the techniques that seem to be working for you and practise those ones more. By doing that you’re starting to collate your own list of Mental Fixits which means you are well on your way to having an armoury of weapons to blast your anxiety and depression.

6. Try and look at your diet and see if there are ways you can cut out sugary food such as biscuits, cakes, sweets and chocolate. If you have a feeling your diet is lacking in certain vitamins, take a good quality multi-vitamin to make sure you're getting all the nutrients you need which may have a bearing on mood and sleep. For more advice, click here on our blog article 'How Improving Your Diet Can Improve Your Mental Health' and also take a look at this excellent website from the Royal College of Psychiatrists about eating well and mental health:

7. If you haven't already done so, sign up for our newsletter, remembering to add to your contact list so we don't end up in your junk mail.

Good luck with your detoxing - see how far you get this week and then just keep on going for it. We wish you the best of luck as always and we hope you tune for Week 5...

Kat & Liz x

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