LightHearts UK Mental Wellbeing - Week 6
by Liz Axham & Kat Jezzard-Puyraud
Don't be scared ok, but this week’s theme is dealing with our fears. If we allow fear to enter our lives to an extreme extent it can really take over and make life difficult for us. So this week we're going to tackle fear head on and see how we can dismantle it so it doesn't have such a hold over us.
First of all, we have to understand that fear is a natural mechanism to stop us from getting into dangerous situations and to help us make sensible and practical decisions. Our adrenal gland is mainly responsible for this as it triggers our ‘fight or flight’ syndrome which happens when we detect danger. It quickens our heart-beat, makes us more alert, improves oxygen flow to the heart, brain and muscles and ensures your whole body is ready to take action to stay safe from danger.
So for example, if you suddenly detected smoke and realised your house was on fire, your brain tells your adrenal gland to start functioning in order to help you battle against the fire in your house or fight your way out of the burning building.
But for people who are anxious, this adrenal gland tends to fire up in moments when situations aren’t actually dangerous. For example, standing up in front of your colleagues and delivering a presentation. It’s totally normal to be a bit nervous when standing up in front of a group of people. But in anxious people the adrenal gland floods the body with hormones that send signals like: “OH MY GOD. My mouth is so dry. If I stand up now I’m going to choke. My heart is beating so fast that if I start talking I’m going to collapse. If I can’t get the Excel spreadsheet to work I’m going to have a heart attack. Or at the very least wet myself. ALERT ALERT ALERT.”
So your adrenal gland is really helpful when fighting fires, but if your brain is telling it it’s in danger when having to deliver a presentation…mmmmm, not so much.
An overactive adrenal gland is like a massive drama queen. It’s like those types of people who like nothing better to create fear when there is no fear, and who enjoy watching people have a meltdown. Basically an anxious person’s adrenal gland is like the Daily Mail newspaper - it loves to spread fear and conflict and instead of ignoring it, we just keep indulging in it. (Seriously, we both have to physically pry our fingers off our computers to stop ourselves from clicking on articles about why we're definitely going to die of cancer if we've ever eaten slightly burnt toast. We all have to stop it. We're just making ourselves anxious. And we're wasting our lives.)
So we have a few helpful theories – mainly based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy - to help you start taking control of your thoughts so that your brain sends the appropriate signals to your adrenal gland and not just random alerts when there is no danger and nothing to fear.
Kat's Mental Fixit for Fear
"When I start getting symptoms of anxiousness, instead of blaming myself by saying “You are such a loser. You can’t even deal with the slightest social situation without hyperventilating.” I just blame it on my adrenal gland. I don’t attack my personality which doesn’t help at all. I just say to my adrenal gland “Thanks for alerting me to the possibility of danger my friend. But you are exaggerating the situation.It's only Christmas dinner. It really isn’t that bad at all. You can step down. Your work is done.” Addressing my adrenal gland as an overly keen employee in my body, helps me give me perspective and creates enough space for me to take a breath and actually see that nothing really bad is going to happen.”
And talking of breath, here is a great breathing exercise to try when you’re feeling anxious which will give you the time and space to allow your brain to reset and tell your adrenal gland that it doesn’t need to fire on all cylinders and that it needs to just chill the heck out. It’s a technique used by American practitioner Molly Larkin who has studied healing techniques with indigenous elders from around the world for over 30 years and was a student of the Muskogee Creek elder Marcellus 'Bear Heart' Williams who used breathing techniques every day. And he was pretty chilled so it definitely works. (Check out the picture of Bear Heart on the video that Molly kindly donated to us – what a dude. And you can find Molly's details on our credits page.)
One of the things we do to avoid fear is to avoid situations that make us feel scared or worried. That’s all well and good but if there comes a time when you’re unable to avoid them then it makes dealing with them doubly difficult and exacerbates our worry.
So here are some tips to help manage avoidance and to face our fears – it’s called ‘graded fear practise’. We touched on this in Week 1, but we're going to take it a step further now. We can begin to understand our fears better by grading it. For example if I was afraid of going out on my own to a social occasion, I would write down the following questions for myself to answer (Just tailor the questions to your particular fear).
- In what situations do I begin to feel anxious?
- Is there a particular place that makes me feel more nervous than others?
- In terms of numbers, how many people need to be around to make me feel anxious?
- Does it make a difference if the people come into close contact with me?
- Does it make a difference if I am alone or if I have a friend with me?
- What time of day is worse or better for me?
- What makes it harder or easier to cope?
- What bad things do I think will happen if I go to a social occasion? Has this ever actually happened or is it a fear that I think might happen?
Detailing our fears helps us to face them and tackle each aspect bit by bit. It also helps us see that certain situations are not really dangerous, we only perceive them in that way in the heat of the moment. Sometimes writing down our fears lets us see the irrationality of our fears and helps take away any power we associate with that fear. By staring at the bald facts of our fears we are confronting them, getting over that stage of trying to avoid it and getting through those first shuddering feelings we get when we think about that situation. If you can do this detailed grading practise then you are already on the road to conquering your fear.
Target Your Fears
Now you can set a target of confronting those fears in reality. For example write down what you find most difficult about the situation and the least difficult. Make a chart for yourself. Taking the same example as the one above (being nervous of going out to social occasions), I would write down the following:
Least difficult - Going to a pub with my best friend.
Most Difficult - Going to a house party on my own with lots of people I don't know.
First try and tackle some of the points on the least difficult section. So for example I would start by going to the pub with my best friend when we were on our own. Then I would go to the pub with my mate and a few of her friends. Then I would go to the pub with her and some people I didn't know so well. Until perhaps I could walk into the pub on my own and start chatting with her friends even if she hadn't turned up.
If I had other things listed in the ‘least difficult’ section then I would just work my way through them one by one. So in this way you can take baby steps in confronting your fear. Whenever you feel ready and you feel your confidence growing then you can start tackling the more difficult sections. Don’t push yourself too far. Just allow your confidence to build from doing each target bit by bit. When we break down our fears and phobias like this they don’t seem so overwhelming and insurmountable. They seem doable.
So for example when I decide to tackle my ‘most difficult’ section, I could start by going out to a party when my best friend was with me. And then perhaps ask her to leave my side for 10 minutes. And when I got used to that I would go and chat with a few people I didn't know so well.
It can help to set the targets out like this:
Go to the pub at a quiet time with my friend.
Go to the pub at a busy time with my friend.
Go to the pub on my own and meet her there.
This way you’re not putting all the pressure on at one go. And don’t move onto the next target until you feel completely happy with having done the first one. It might take several goes but just do it until you feel confident to move on. Try not to give up! Any anxiety you have is normal because you are for once confronting your fears instead of avoiding them. Just keep repeating to yourself that every effort you make however small is helping you to overcome your fears. And when you begin to conquer your fear you begin to build up mental toughness. Being flexible but mentally tough is one of the key elements to mental wellbeing.
Cause a Distraction
Whenever you’re dealing with your fears head on like this, it’s sometimes good to distract yourself. Music is a wonderful way of doing this. If you can put your headphones on and play yourself some uplifting music either before or during confronting your fears it can help take the sting out of the situation. Music has been scientifically proven to trigger both dopamine and endorphins (the chemicals that are behind the feelings of motivation and feeling good.)
One way is to create your own playlist. Here are our playlists which we use whenever we need a bit of a lift (Don’t judge our musical taste. We were born in the Seventies. It’s not our fault).
- ACDC – Shoot to Thrill
- Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime
- Deelite – Groove is in the Heart
- Tom Waits – Step Right Up
- John Coltrane – Favourite Things
- Abba - Dancing Queen
- Michael Jackson – Off the Wall
- Ella Fitzgerald – Lady is a Tramp
- Santana - Oye Como Va
- We are the Champions - Queen
- I'm a Believer - The Monkees
- Adventure of a Lifetime - Coldplay
- Lollipop - Mika
- Play Dead - Bjork
- Pocketful Of Sunshine - Natasha Bedingfield
- Zoom - Fat Larry's Band
- Enough is Enough - Donna Summer & Barbara Streisand
- The Road - The Levellers
- Dizzy - Vic Reeves & The Wonderstuff
If you’re having problems finding musical inspiration, take a look at this link and find the songs on youtube to give you an instant boost.
As an extra to the playlist tool, you might also want to create your own weepy playlist. This sounds counterproductive, but there are times when it’s good to let all that pent up emotion out. Sometimes anger or grief can build up to create fear or feed into fears, so if you can let out some of that emotion by having a good cry the all the better (see Week 3 for Kat’s Mental Fixit go-to weepy track).
Classical music is also great to calm you down. If you’re feeling panicky it can take you to another world. If you can close your eyes and just listen to each musical instrument in turn and isolate each sound in turn, it can distract your mind away from your fears and just give you enough time to distance yourself from the situation and allow your adrenal gland to chill the hell out. Sometimes it can help if you make up a story in your head to go along with the music. But if you find your fears worsening when you close your eyes, take a look out our special video clip below using the soothing classical piece by composer Vaughn Williams. (It also features the beautiful nature photography of Kat’s sister Rebecca Jezzard – you can find more details about her work on the credits page).
The Next Steps
If you find you are not able to complete your fear targets it might be that you’ve set the bar too high for yourself. Try to break the target down to an even smaller goal to give yourself a better chance. And continue to note down in your diary how you’ve been feeling about it. Even if you can't actually tackle your fears at this point, if you can write about your fears then you are still confronting them, just by the very act of writing about them. You might find that at the beginning this is all you can do.
Then you could move on to talking about them with a friend or professional. (See our helpline page for details of organisations that can help you.) Again - you are still confronting your issues by talking about them. And by talking about them you are taking away the power fear can have over you (Fear tends to grow in secret in the dark and when we’re alone. When we take fear out into the light and show it to someone, it’s like a vampire and tends to just crumble to dust.)
Just make sure you don’t speak to someone who will belittle your fears and make you feel stupid by admitting a phobia. If they tell you “Well I can’t see what the problem is” or “Stop being silly” then ignore their opinion, tell them to jog on and find someone else who will be more sympathetic. Your fear is real to you at this point. But one day soon perhaps you’ll be able to see it from that person’s point of view and maybe even be able to say to yourself: “I don’t know why I felt so worried about that now. I can deal with that issue with no problem.”
Fear or Fact?
In many cases, our fears come from our imaginations instead of actual fact. For instance, Liz's fear of public speaking stems from her fear of thinking that she is bad at it. But the truth is, when she battles her fear and gets up to deliver a presentation, she's actually quite good at it. So her fear is mostly founded on an untruth. She is not bad at it at all. It's only her inner critic that tells her she's bad at it and that lie has fuelled her fear. When Liz looks back at the times when she's had to do public speaking, she can build up a case against her fear. She can say "My fear comes from a lie I keep telling myself. But the evidence shows I'm actually quite good at public speaking. I have been complimented on my presentations and nobody has ever said I gave a bad one." So now Liz can refuse to believe that fear because the evidence against it no longer supports it.
Kat has a fear of her loved ones being killed in a car crash. This is a fear that stemmed from a teenage incident when she came across a car crash and saw a man die. When someone she loves is travelling home by car and is a bit late, her fear begins to kick in and she starts to imagine the same fate will befall them. Her imagination goes into overdrive and she thinks: "They said they'll be here at three. But it's ten minutes past. Why haven't they phoned?" Then when she tries to call, the phone just keeps on ringing and her imagination revs up again: "They're not answering. That means they've crashed and the phone is lying in a ditch along with their lifeless body." But again, this is not fact. Like Liz's fear, this is a lie she tells herself. Without wanting to jinx anything, she has to build up the evidence against that fear by saying: "There have been numerous incidents when my family have arrived late. These have been due to traffic, toilet stops, late starts, coffee breaks, car problems, arguments, lack of petrol and once because a dog ran out in front of their car. Never once have they been late due to a car crash. They are not answering their phone because it's probably in a bag in the boot of the car, or they've got the music up way too loud. Do not start phoning hospitals. They are fine. And they will arrive when they are meant to arrive."
Have a think about your own fears and see how your thoughts might affect you when you make up catastrophic outcomes rather than just focusing on what is true. Use this questioning technique while you are in the midst of your fear. This problem solving approach can help you to distract yourself from the crisis in hand and take you out of feeling in immediate danger. The more questions you ask, the more you can get to the root of your fear and pull it out to stop it from flourishing.
Kat’s Mental Fixit for Fear:
“When I start to get overwhelmed with fear or worry, I always remind myself that I have no control over outside events. I can’t stop bad things from happening despite my best efforts. But I do have control over one thing. I have control over my own thoughts. I have the control to stop myself, distract myself, distance myself and to replace those fearful thoughts with good thoughts instead. And because I know I have that control, I realise that I have control over my own happiness. It’s hard to remind myself of this sometimes, but it's something I continue to drill into my brain. Fear is not a tangible thing. It only becomes real if I give it importance. If I take away its importance it can no longer rule me. I have that choice. And I choose to exercise that choice every single day.”
To help you overcome your fear, we have a hypnosis session for you to try and pinpoint where that fear came from and try and release it from your subconscious. The script, by hypnotherapist Josie Hadley, was kindly donated to us by the Palo Alto School of Hypnotherapy.
The Week Ahead
1. In your diary this week, write about your fears and how they have held you back in your life. What would your life be like if you didn’t have these fears? Ask yourself what you gain by holding onto these fears – is it a way of staying safe and taking no risks? Is it because you have become familiar with them and you don’t like change? Is it because it gets you attention from people? Are you afraid of the freedom you will gain if you let go of those fears? Really try to see why you continue to hold onto these fears and see how your fears become a cage which inhibits you and makes you unhappy.
2. Answer this question to yourself - in what situation do you rely on hypothetical scenarios rather than factual evidence? Do you allow your mind to spiral off into fantasy lands where fear and danger lurk? How often do you question those scenarios and say to yourself – no, this is not true. There is no danger here. Try to observe your behaviour when you begin to feel fearful and find out the trigger – is it a true fear or an imagined fear? How can holding onto the truth help you to combat your fear?
3. Have a look at the link below. It's called the Atlas of Emotions and it’s about action versus reaction – how our bodies and minds cope with fear and negative emotions. It shows us how can we learn to recognise these triggers and not let them overtake our lives. Inspired by conversations with the Dalai Lama, psychologist Dr Paul Ekman, devised these illustrations of the states of emotions and how they relate to each other in order to gain a better understanding of emotions. http://www.paulekman.com/atlas-of-emotions/#
4. Write the list of tips for coping with anxiety & panic from Week One. We’ve copied them for you here. Write it out, tear out the paper and carry it everywhere you go if you think it will help.
- Remember – feeling anxious is a normal physiological reaction to stress. It is our bodies’ way of trying to protect us from danger. So whatever reaction you get from stress, your body is actually just doing its job. But you have to find ways of trying to make it understand that it’s not in any real danger.
- Remember to grade your level of anxiety on a scale – 10 being the worse you have ever felt & 0 being no anxiety. You might find that you’re feeling less anxious than you realised.
- Anxiety and panic feelings WILL pass – they come in waves. Try to tell yourself that this is just a temporary feeling that will pass.
- Start to moderate your breathing by doing the breathing exercises.
- Thinking about what MIGHT happen is unhelpful. Focus on what is happening right now in this moment. You are safe. You are going to be okay. You can cope. You have got through this before. This will be over soon.
- Accept how you are feeling and name it. For instance: “I’m feeling anxious right now. This is why my body feels this way. It WILL pass.
- Try to stay in the situation you are in. Avoiding it now will make it twice as hard next time. Use your grading system to consider whether you can actually get through it. Is it as bad as it could be or can I try to tolerate it a little longer?
- Consciously relax your tense muscles – usually the neck and shoulders carry most of your anxiety. Roll your head around your shoulders slowly, whilst continuing your breathing exercises.
- Keep breathing until the worst of your anxiety passes….
5. Take a look at this fantastically relaxing video clip of music that uses binaural beats that mirror the rhythm of our brain waves when in a relaxed state. Just breathe deeply while you listen and watch. Use the “thinking, worrying” “planning” technique (from Week Five) to let go of any intrusive thoughts.
6. If you haven't already done so, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter here, remembering to add firstname.lastname@example.org to your contact list so we don't end up in your junk mail. The sign up is not obligatory and is not used for business or sales purposes. It's purely so we can share new research into mental wellbeing. We won't bombard you with emails or share your details with any third parties.
We hope you're able to conquer at least some of your fears this week. Keep going with the CBT techniques, the breathing exercises and the meditations and write out all of your feelings in your diary. If you can begin to get over your fears - or at least start by acknowledging them and figuring out where they've come from and why you cling onto them - then you'll be making a giant leap in helping your mental health. Don't look down, just keep on ploughing ahead. You've got this....
Kat & Liz x