Top tip for difficult times


Years ago I came across this idea and found it enormously helpful when going through difficult times.

Often life isn’t easy, and sometimes it certainly doesn’t feel fair. The goalposts move all the time. So, when life gets you down, remember that you are the product of a very long line of ancestors stretching back through time. They survived the worst adversities, difficulties and struggles. Those ancient battles and plagues you see in documentaries – your ancestors survived them all. It’s their genes and their blood that are part of you right now.

You have inherited all of their courage and resilience. You are their direct descendant and you are capable just as they were. You can do it!

Why it’s ok to ask for help


A fledging starling was in my garden this morning. The parent bird was busy collecting bugs, whilst the youngster sat helplessly on the patio unable to fly away if danger arrived. It reminded me of this quote attributed to Marcus Aurelius:

“Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”

Most people expect to always be able to solve the problems life throws at them. I’ve worked with clients who worried about asking for help, believing they should be able to do it all on their own.

When we are born, we are all completely helpless and rely on others to help us grow and learn, just like that fledgling. It is ok to ask for help and you don’t have to face anything on your own. It doesn’t mean you are weak, or stupid or worthless and it is not something shameful. If you need support, then like the soldier who is injured, help is there for the asking.

To check out the different approaches that might help you, have a look at the Therapy pages on my website: http://www.mindmakeover.co.uk

Worried about exams?


Exams or tests coming up? Stressed? Sleepless nights?

Exam and test anxiety has debilitating effects, not only on self-belief and performance, but also on general mental health. It’s not just young people who are affected – mature students also struggle. There is help available and whatever your age, you do not have to struggle alone.

Exam anxiety manifests in a number of ways. You may experience it around traditional exams but also in any situation where you are going to be judged on your performance, including auditions, interviews and driving tests. I successfully work to help many people who are experiencing anxiety about all kinds of tests and exams, whether at school, college, university and professional institutions, or for work related tests of aptitude or performance. Whether you are a pilot needing help to pass challenging assessments of competence, an actor or musician auditioning for a role, or someone who has trouble with a driving test, I can help. So, how do you know if anxiety is having an impact? The indicators of anxiety generally fall into three categories: cognitive, affective and physiological.

Cognitive signs of test anxiety include negative thoughts of being overwhelmed and not in control of the test situation, the experience of ‘going blank’ and not being able to recall material, and excessive thoughts focusing on failure.

Affective signs include feeling panic, fearful and anxious about the test or the consequences of failure.

Physiological signs can include a racing heart, an upset stomach, wobbly or jelly-like legs, and trembling and sweating, before or during the test situation.

“…every time a teacher tells me exams are near or if you fail you risk not getting a good job I get so scared and sometimes I get so scared and stressed I feel like crying. We should just be told to try our best and work hard and if we don’t listen to that information then it’s our fault because pressurising a student can stress them and so they end up doing worse than their best”(Putwain & Roberts, 2009)

Nobody should have to feel like this about exams and tests. I used to teach Psychology, and I am an Examiner who assesses other psychological practitioners, so I fully understand the pressures that people experience. If your test nerves are having a negative impact and stopping you reaching your full potential, then contact me to find out more about how I can help.

Research reference: Putwain, D.W. & Roberts, C.M. (2009). The development of an instrument to measure teachers’ use of fear appeals in the GCSE classroom. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(4), 643–661. doi:10.1348/000709909X426130

Helping You Overcome Anxiety


Unlike stress that can come and go with the situation creating it (maybe work, study, relationship or money problems), anxiety is something that can persist whether or not the cause is clear to you.

Anxiety can make you imagine that things in your life are worse than they really are, and prevent you from confronting your fears. You may feel that you are going mad, or that some psychological imbalance is at the heart of your unhappiness. However, it is important to realize that anxiety is natural and normal and results as part of a process of bodily functions designed to help you. It is your body’s natural reaction to a challenging event or situation. Biologically the body is readying itself to either stand and fight the threat or to get out of the situation quickly – both of which require a physical response. This process gives you a boost of adrenaline that increases your heart rate and the amount of oxygen going to your limbs known as the “fight or flight” response. The “butterflies in the stomach” feeling that many associate with anxiety is this mechanism kicking in, but instead of being used to avoid immediate danger, it is often inappropriately activated during normal, everyday situations when stress has built up, often without you realizing it is happening.

Common physical symptoms of anxiety include: increased heart rate, palpitations, muscle tension, “Jelly legs”, tingling in the hands and feet, hyperventilation (over breathing), dizziness, difficulty breathing, wanting to use the toilet more often, feeling sick, tightening across the chest area, headaches, hot flushes, perspiration, dry mouth, shaking, sensing a lump in the throat or choking sensations. You may experience some of the following thoughts: that you may lose control or go “mad”, have a heart attack/be sick/faint/die/have a brain tumour, feel people are looking at you and observing your anxiety, things seem to be speeding up/slowing down, feel detached from your environment and other people, wanting to escape from the situation or feel on edge and alert to everything around you.

Some people have a very identifiable cause for their anxiety; a traumatic incident, lots of stressors, or have undergone a significant life event (such as moving house, a separation, health worries). For others there is no identifiable cause for their anxiety and this creates distress. It can be helpful to think about your stress levels as being like a bucket of water. When you keep adding stressors to the bucket (even little ones like finding a parking space or commuting to work), over time it fills and fills until one day it overflows. This can be a good way of looking at anxiety as it explains how sometimes it can seem to come out of nowhere with no significant trigger. However, what has happened is that the trigger was just a very small stressor that tipped you over the edge and allowed your bucket to overflow. You really need a leaky bucket with lots of holes to reduce your overall stress levels. Each one of these holes could be something positive that you do to manage your anxiety, such as deep relaxation, exercise, reading, listening to music or spending time with friends or family.

The most common behaviour when you are anxious is avoidance. Although avoiding an anxiety-provoking situation can provide immediate relief, it is only a short-term solution. Although it may seem like the best thing to do at the time, the anxiety returns the next time the situation happens as avoidance has reinforced the message that there is a threat. When you start avoiding things you never get to find out whether your fear about the situation is justified or what would happen.

The common thread between most anxiety disorders is the panic attack. However, when panic attacks are experienced out of nowhere without an apparent trigger, this is classified as panic disorder. People with panic disorder often feel OK one minute, and the next may feel totally out of control and in the grips of a panic attack. Panic attacks produce very real physical symptoms, from a rapid increase in heartbeat to a churning stomach sensation. These physical symptoms are naturally unpleasant and the accompanying thoughts of terror can make a panic attack a scary experience. People start to dread the next attack, and quickly enter into a cycle of living in fear of fear.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is diagnosed by your doctor when you feel in a constant state of high anxiety and is also called ‘chronic worrying’ or a ‘free floating’ anxiety condition. People with GAD often describe how they can resolve an issue but as soon as this happens, another worry pops up. Everyone has worries from time to time, but GAD is different in that the worry can last for over 6 months, and the level of worry is out of proportion to the risk. For example, if a family member is an hour late getting home without calling, a person with GAD may think ‘they must have had an accident’, rather than any other explanation such as being delayed in traffic.

GAD is particularly difficult to live with as it is constantly on a person’s mind – there is no respite, as the anxiety is not tied to a specific situation or event. It can cause problems with sleep, maintaining a job and impact close relationships. If you feel you may have GAD or panic disorder then you are advised to seek further information and guidance from your doctor who will be able to make a formal diagnosis.

If you feel anxious all the time, for several weeks or if it feels like your anxiety is taking over your life, then it’s a good idea to ask for professional help. Prolonged anxiety, and the overthinking that accompanies it, interferes with sleeping patterns and can result in overwhelm and low mood. It may seem hard to admit to fears that most other people don’t appear to have, but asking for help is a sign of strength and the first step in getting better.

I specialize in helping people like you overcome anxiety. I draw on a comprehensive range of techniques and approaches to help you overcome your difficulties. If you’re interested in finding out more about the ways I can help, then get in touch.

Would you like a good night’s sleep? Here’s how


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Did you have a good night’s sleep last night? Did you wake up this morning feeling refreshed? Or was it a bad night?

If you had a rough night then you are not alone. Many people experience problems sleeping at some time in their lives. As babies, we can sleep for 16 hours a day. As adults we tend to benefit most from 7- 8 hours sleep on average. Over your lifetime you will develop your own sleep pattern, which may change as you age. You will probably notice changes in sleeping habits at significant times as a result of various issues. When I see clients seeking help for sleep problems it is helpful to define exactly what they are experiencing as there are different types of sleep disturbance:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Sleeping lightly and restlessly, waking often, and lying awake in the night
  • Waking early and being unable to get back to sleep

We are probably all familiar with the tell-tale signs of a rough night’s sleep! Physical symptoms usually include feeling tired during the day, frequent headaches, irritability or lack of concentration, and feeling tired on waking rather than refreshed and re-energised. The main causes for sleep problems are:

  • State of mind – anxiety, depression, worry, anger, grief, or anticipating a difficult event
  • Menstrual cycle changes in women
  • Change – moving house, starting a new job or a course
  • Environment – noise, discomfort, time zone change
  • Pain
  • Medical conditions – heart, breathing, digestion, high blood pressure, arthritis, anorexia, tinnitus
  • Recreational drugs – nicotine, caffeine, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, LSD, cannabis
  • Sleeping pills or tranquilisers – these substances can create sleep disturbance!
  • Other prescription drugs – some contraceptives, diuretics, slimming pills, beta-blockers, stimulants

It’s a long list so if you are having problems sleeping, it is important to work out whether there is an underlying cause for your disturbed nights, or any particular trigger. Here are some areas for you to consider:

  • Are you aware of any cause or trigger
  • Are you aware of any stressors
  • Is your bed comfortable – how old is your bed and does it need replacing
  • Is your bedroom dark enough – do you need thicker curtains or an eye mask
  • Any noise disturbance – neighbours/snoring partner. Earplugs may help
  • What is the temperature of the room and is it cool enough for sleeping
  • Diet – very rich foods and alcohol can interfere with sleep. Are you eating too late in the evening

It also helps to avoid these:

  • Naps during the day especially after 3pm and longer than 20 minutes
  • Going to bed when you are stressed or wound up or not ready
  • Having an argument at bedtime
  • Working, eating or phoning in bed
  • Using an electronic device in the evenings which emits blue light – including watching TV
  • Lying in bed awake for more than 30 minutes
  • Eating, drinking or smoking if you get up during the night
  • Falling asleep in front of the TV
  • Drinking too much liquid towards the end of the evening
  • Worrying about not sleeping or getting angry
  • Stimulants – coffee, tea, alcohol, nicotine, cola drinks, food additives, junk food, slimming pills or appetite suppressants

The good news is that there are many things you can do to change habits which may be interfering with the right quality and quantity of sleep, including:

  • Change or resolve things causing you stress where possible – see a therapist if you need help with this
  • Accept situations that you can’t change
  • Give yourself enough time to do things. Don’t take on too much and avoid unrealistic demands
  • Live in the present, rather than worrying about the past or fearing the future
  • Talk through any relationship problems with the person concerned
  • Do some relaxing activity just for pleasure
  • Get regular exercise, but not later than 2-3 hours before bedtime
  • Spend at least 30 minutes a day in natural sunlight. Daylight regulates your sleeping pattern
  • Some foods aid sleep such as a meal high in carbohydrates 2 hours before bedtime, a warm milky drink, a herbal tea such as chamomile, or hot water before bedtime
  • Establish a bedtime routine
  • If you are a late sleeper, get up earlier
  • Get up at the same time each day
  • Only go to bed when tired
  • Do one final security check
  • If you can’t sleep, get up and do something that is not too stimulating
  • Have a warm bath or take a light walk before bedtime
  • Replace negative thoughts with positive ones – “I will sleep”
  • Lavender scent on pillows can help to relax you
  • Don’t try too hard to sleep – instead just let go and allow it to happen
  • Give yourself some quiet time each day
  • Practice relaxation techniques or breathing exercises regularly
  • Keep your mind and body as relaxed as possible – self hypnosis, mindfulness and meditation is great for this

Various natural remedies claim to aid restful sleep such as valerian and cherry juice products. Research suggests that cherry juice increases melatonin levels – the hormone that regulates sleep and makes you feel naturally sleepy at night. As melatonin is released you feel increasingly drowsy. You naturally feel most tired between midnight and 7am. You may also feel mildly sleepy between 1pm and 4pm when another increase in melatonin occurs in your body.

Psychological interventions are very effective for dealing with sleep problems and can include relaxation training, stress management and hypnotherapy. I have helped many people suffering with insomnia using these techniques. For starters, why not listen to my free 10 minutes relaxation track before you go to sleep. If you find this approach helpful then there are lots of meditative recordings generally available which will help you to relax a busy mind and promote a good night’s sleep. My free recording is here: http://www.mindmakeoveruk.com. Alternatively, seek out a hypnotherapist who will work with you on a one-to-one basis.

Sleep well!