LightHearts UK Mental Wellbeing Course - Week 1

by Liz Axham & Kat Jezzard-Puyraud

When you suffer from stress, anxiety or depression it’s really hard to know where to start when you’re looking for a solution. Everything seems either too overwhelming, or too much like hard work or takes up too much time.

So to help you on your way, we’re going to break things down into easy bite-size portions and provide you with all the tools you’re going to need to put yourself back together. Because that’s what it feels like when you’re going through bad times. It’s like parts of yourself are either broken, lost, rusty or totally clapped out. So this week we’re going to show you how to assess the stuff that needs fixing and make a plan to start putting yourself back together.

The first thing we’re going to ask you to do is to get a notebook. Don’t go and buy yourself a fancy-pants notebook because if your writing is anything like ours, then you’ll feel bad about mucking it up with your scrawls. Just buy the cheapest book in Poundland and get stuck in. Then every day just write one simple paragraph about how you feel. If you don’t like writing much just do it in bullet points. Here’s an example:

  • I feel rubbish today
  • I’m so tired I can hardly get out of bed
  • All I want to do is watch back to back Game of Thrones under my duvet
  • I would eat a whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s but that would mean walking to the shops and I just feel too anxious in case I bump into someone I know
  • I hate writing in a diary

Even if that’s all you do, at least it’s an accurate portrayal of how you feel in that moment. Just expressing yourself on paper, even in the smallest of gestures, is alleviating some of that stuff from your brain and putting it somewhere else instead of letting it go around and around your head. Just write about how you’re feeling right now. Don't get bogged down in re-living the past or speculating about the future. Just write down what your emotions are in that moment.

Every week we’ll have a couple of questions for you to answer in your notebook and you might find that in answering them that some issues might arise for you. You can explore those feelings by writing about it so you can start to make sense of WHY you're feeling the way you do and what triggers those feelings.

But please DON’T read your notebook back to yourself. Every day is a new day. Don’t revisit your daily entries. Just forge ahead.

Some people find it good to start their day with a bit of writing to get it all off their chest so it doesn’t burden the rest of the day. Others like to do it in the evening or just before bed, when perhaps the worries that keep them up at night can be expressed and then put away in a drawer. However or whenever you do it, just try your best to do it.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

One way to get your mind to relax is to relax your body first. Progressive muscle relaxation is a tried and tested technique of getting your muscles to release tension first which then naturally brings on the effect of relaxing your mind.

Our bodies reveal a lot about the tension we’re feeling inside. When we’re anxious or stressed our shoulders rise up and the areas around our neck become tense. There are a few muscles which take the full force of this – the Levator Scapulae (which runs down the back of the neck to the shoulder) and the Trapezius muscles (the big muscles that run from the back of the neck and over the shoulder bones) is where we end up getting big knots and masses of muscle tension. Our facial muscles also take a big hit when we’re stressed. The Masseter muscle which controls the lower jaw can come under immense pressure from grinding our teeth or tensing our jaws which can go on to cause tension headaches.

When we’re depressed however, another set of muscles come under strain. If our shoulders are slumped, the rest of our body slumps and this causes bad posture. The muscles around the lower lumbar region of the back will start to grumble and the neck muscles which extend the head will ache from being stretched downwards too often.

Some people find other bits of their body tensing when they’re anxious. For instance their toes or hands or their thighs. Everyone has an individual way of holding tension in their bodies.

Take a moment to just focus on your body. Can you identify where you’re feeling tense? Are there areas that particularly ache or feel sore? Just isolate an area of tension, and see if you can make a conscious effort to relax those muscles. Say the word 'relax' to yourself as you do it, as if you're speaking directly to your muscles. After trying this for a few minutes, see how your posture changes or how your body softens.

Kat's Mental Fixit for Tension

“I have a habit of clenching my jaw and hunching my shoulders when I’m anxious. If I’m feeling fearful or worried, I just take a moment to try and de-clench my teeth and lower my shoulders. I roll my shoulders a bit and open and close my mouth a few times to just release that tension.  This quick technique reminds me that when I worry not only does my mental wellbeing suffer, but my body suffers too so I end up looking like the Igor character out of Frankenstein. And who the hell wants that? So to help me, I picture the face of someone serene and I try and soften my face to mirror that type of serene look. By concentrating on something physical it actually takes my mind off my mental state and I begin to calm down."

To help you find a way to release the tension from all around your body, we have an audio clip for you of a Progressive Muscle Relaxation Meditation. Just lie back and listen to the guided meditation which will list the areas of your body and help you to lessen the tension in those muscles.

Breathe Easy

Another technique to help calm yourself is to concentrate on your breathing. Breathing is something we take for granted. But if you’ve ever suffered from a panic attack then you’ll know all too well that feeling of not being able to get enough oxygen or feeling like you’re about to suffocate. Your heart races, you get sweaty and dizzy and you think you’re basically going to die of a heart attack. It is one of the most extreme forms of mental collapse and if you’re prone to them, they can make you very scared of going out in case you suffer one in public.

Whether you suffer from panic attacks of not, breathing properly and deeply can bring about a host of relaxing benefits. Most of us go through our day breathing in a very shallow manner, taking short bursts of air through our nose or mouth and then expelling it quickly before it has time to really expand our lungs. The average person only uses 20% of their lung capacity when in resting mode. So what we're going to try and do is double that number so that even though we're only sitting down, our lungs are working as hard as if we were exercising. By doing that, we are taking in far larger quantities of oxygen which in turn will relax our muscles and our minds.

We’re going to show you a few different breathing techniques over the coming weeks. By the end of the course, you’ll be able to choose the one that works best for you.  You can then use them throughout your life, not only to help you relax or get you out of a panicky situation, but as a way of treating your whole body to the gift of oxygen and energy.

Scientifically speaking, there is a very easy way of telling your brain to de-stress using breathing exercises. If you hold your exhaling breath for even a few seconds longer than your inhaling breath, the vagus nerve that runs from the neck to the diaphragm sends a signal to your brain to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (the system that helps us relax) and reduce the signals to the sympathetic nervous system (the part that deals with stress and 'fight or flight'). Also, breathing in through your nose (instead of your mouth) and exhaling the air with an open mouth, also sends the right signals to your parasympathetic nervous system. So just by inhaling through your nose and then holding your exhale through your mouth for a few beats longer, your brain will automatically balance out your stress levels. How easy is that!?

Below is an interview with Liz who explains how breathing techniques are the first port of call in helping her patients who suffer from high anxiety and low mood.

Basic Breathing Technique

To give you an idea of the breathing techniques that are used, below is an animated sequence which will help you begin breathing more deeply. It’s a picture of a shape folding and unfolding, and by synchronising your breathing to this shape you’ll be able to breathe in a guided, rhythmic fashion.

All you need to do is this:

1. As the shape folds out - breathe deeply in through your nostrils.

2. As the shape collapses, blow the air out loudly through your mouth.

Give it several goes and see how you feel afterwards. Then try breathing in a similar slow rhythm but without the picture.

Liz’s Mental Fixit for Anxiety & Panic

"When you're anxious or panicky about doing something, the easiest thing to say is 'Stuff it, I can't face it, I’m not doing it'. I’ve done that – we’ve all done that. But often this means we just feel guilty & rubbish or that when we definitely have to face this situation, it's twice as hard. A useful method I use to push through my anxiety and become more able to do things rather than avoid them, is to unpick some of the reasons I’m anxious and grade how anxious I actually am: 0 = No anxiety 10 = the most anxious I could be.

When you’re in the midst of the situation and you feel yourself getting anxious, just try and stop for a moment and grade your anxiousness (this process in itself distances yourself from the anxiety). And try to remember that however your body and mind feels in that moment, that this is temporary. It will pass, sometimes in a matter of minutes, and that it doesn't have to control you and what you do. This is what I try and do every time I feel anxious.

Then later on when I'm calmer, I try and analyse that experience. I think back to it, and write it down - perhaps there are actually some parts of the situation that I COULD do? I describe the situation in as much detail as possible. So for example, rather than just saying “socialising” I try to think about what part of socialising provokes anxiety. So I would write:

  • Making small talk with strangers;
  • Having to eat in front of others at a dinner party whilst trying to sound interesting;
  • Worrying that I’ll say something stupid that will make the whole room go quiet like in Bridget Jones.

Then I put a rating on how much anxiety being in that situation is likely to generate for me. 0 = No anxiety 10 = the most anxious I could be. Then I break down the parts of the situation and when I feel ready, I see if I can work through it by doing the least anxious part first. I could for instance agree to go to a buffet style party with a friend first, rather than a sit down dinner just to get myself more accustomed. And if that went ok then I could agree to go to a sit-down dinner but only if I had a person seated next to me that I knew well. And so on.

Don’t worry if you can’t tackle every situation just yet. After our 10 weeks, hopefully you will feel ready. But if you do manage to get through a difficult situation before that, take time to acknowledge that you DID IT! And then move onto the next thing on your list. As anxious people we always start off saying: “I can't do it, I can't cope with that, I'm not strong enough” But the more evidence you build up to challenge your anxious thoughts, the more you will be able to change those thoughts to “I DID do it, I DID cope and I AM bloody strong enough!”

Escape Your Worries

When you’re feeling rubbish, the only thing you want to do is escape. Escape from your situation, your mind, your body, your environment. But when you’re stuck – either due to ill health, money issues, work or family commitments – then you have to think of another way to escape. Many people choose books, TV, others choose booze, drugs, food (guilty!) or other more crazy ways of escaping.

Whether they be tame or extreme, these are all quick fixes. The book comes to an end, the TV show finishes and the booze and drugs wear off to leave us with a whopping headache. One thing we can rely on, which is constantly with us, is our imagination. Even when we’re at our worst, our imaginations can fire on all cylinders. Sometimes to our detriment. For example, imagining our own funerals; imagining how it would feel to punch your ex in the face; imagining how it will feel to tell our bosses to shove it.

The trick is to be able to use our imaginations in a more productive way by imagining situations or places that arouse pleasant relaxing feelings (rather than fist-clenchingly angry ones).

Below is an audio that should help get you in the right frame of mind. It’s a favourite with our relaxation groups and leaves everyone with a feeling of lightness and dreaminess. Make sure you try this one in a quiet moment. Give yourself some time and space to really let the words guide you into a different place.

Liz's Tips for Anxiety

Now take a look at some top tips Liz has compiled for you in case you need a little extra help to get you through this first week.

  • 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 worst you have ever felt & 0 being no anxiety. You might find that you’re feeling less anxious than you realised.
  • Anxiety and panicky 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. I feel sick. I feel sweaty. My heart is beating fast. But I'm ok. I'm still breathing. Nothing terrible will happen. I'm just feeling anxious. It's ok. 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.
  • BREATHE. Breathe in through your nose and breathe out slowly from your mouth. Just keep breathing deeply until the worst of your anxiety passes…
  • When you're feeling calmer, read our special article about how this interesting cold water technique can have results in helping both anxiety and depression.

The Week Ahead

Each week we’re going to set you a bit of work to do at home. (We refuse to say “homework” because that has negative connotations and tends to trigger anxiety in us, let alone you!) We don’t want you to feel you have to complete this section or do any of these suggestions religiously. We don’t want to give you another stick to beat yourself up with. As we said, these are “suggestions”, they are things to help you. Don’t set yourself up for failure by laying down unrealistic targets for yourself. Just do as much or as little as you feel like. (But we guarantee that the more you do the techniques, the better you’ll feel).

So over the next week we’d like you to:

1: Try and write in your notebook every day. Here’s some questions that might help you make a start:

What things would you categorise as triggering stress or anxiety? If you can’t think of anything, just write of an experience you’ve had that’s caused you stress. Or think about what times of day make you most anxious? How do you know when you’re stressed? What parts of your body hold stress – tense shoulders, bad back, clenched teeth? What is your behaviour like when you’re stressed? What do you look like? Everyday write down when you’ve felt stressed or anxious that day and try and think about why that’s happened.

Make a list of situations that make you anxious and grade them using Liz’s 0-10 grading system. If you’re feeling brave, perhaps try and break down the situation and try part of it. If you don’t feel ready yet, just write down the situation and grade it. You’ll get round to it in your own time. There’s no pressure. Just writing and grading is a good start!

2. Try to practise the breathing exercise every day. Try it with the picture for a couple of goes and then try it without the picture. Perhaps have a go at practising it at different times of the day and in different situations – maybe if you’re waiting for the bus, or in the queue for the supermarket.

3. Practise the Progressive Muscle Meditation every day. Try it with the guided meditation. And then see if you can try and relax your muscles on your own in different situations. Perhaps if you’re at work or at the doctor’s surgery or even just watching the TV.

4. Listen to the Cloud Imagery meditation every day. As well as doing that, have a go at imagining pleasant environments for yourself. Maybe imagine sitting in a room where you feel safe and calm. Or sitting peacefully in a place of nature. Whatever it is, practise escaping into these imaginary worlds whenever you start feeling stressed.

5. Take a look at the website by mental health charity Mind which has lots of great advice and support. Here's the link:  

6. Watch this clip by Robert Litman, who speaks about the relationship between breathing and anxiety and demonstrates breathing exercises:

So once you've done this week's course, just check back in on the website in a week's time where Week 2 is already up and ready for you. And of course you can share this course by pressing on the social ‘share’ buttons at the very bottom of this page. Share it with your friends or with anyone you think might benefit from some TLC for their mental wellbeing. Our aim is to try and reach everyone who suffers from stress, anxiety or low mood so please help us in our mission to change lives! 

But please note – we can’t give out specialist advice for individuals so please don’t email us personally. We’d love to be able to help you all, but unfortunately it’s simply not possible. We do have a list of specialist helplines that deal with mental health issues or problems that impact on mental wellbeing, so take a look at 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 next week, we hope that you stay safe and calm and we wish you all the very best with the week ahead…

Kat and Liz x

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