health · mental health · top tips

How To Manage Blood Test Anxiety

I’ve never been a massive fan of blood tests, and my opinion of them hasn’t exactly improved with much closer acquaintance. And trust me, diagnosing a TSH-secreting pituitary adenoma involves a very close acquaintance with the phlebotomists (a.k.a. vampires, a.k.a. people who draw blood for testing) of your local hospital. People are weird, so there’s probably at least a couple of oddballs out there who positively enjoy having their blood drawn, but I am not one of them. In fact, needle phobia is really common – affecting perhaps one in ten people. So how do you manage blood test anxiety if you have a condition that requires lots of blood tests?

How To Manage Blood Test Anxiety

Try to understand your anxiety and symptoms

It may be helpful to consider if there is any particular source of your blood test anxiety or needle phobia – for instance, an upsetting experience as a child, or a fear of fainting, feeling sick, or the pain of the needle. Or it could be associated with the sight of blood, which many people can find to be a trigger for anxiety, a more general fear of medical procedures or hospitals – or even having a parent or caregiver as a child who exhibited anxiety about any of these things. Understanding the triggers for your anxiety doesn’t necessarily solve anything, but it can help you work out what parts of the blood test situation are a problem for you.

In terms of symptoms, anxiety tends to be linked to one of two things:

  • Often needle phobia or anxiety around blood tests is linked to feeling faint, or a fear of feeling faint. Fainting can occur as a result of a drop in blood pressure.
  • Otherwise, it may be linked to physical symptoms of stress or panic, such as a racing heart, sweating and/or feeling nauseous.

Understand what to expect

It’s helpful to understand what to expect in your blood test appointment, and prepare yourself for it. The unknown is always scary. Probably the most important thing to keep reminding yourself is that blood tests usually don’t take more than a couple of minutes! So hopefully you shouldn’t have to manage your blood test anxiety for too long.

Usually, at the start of your appointment you will be asked to confirm some details about yourself. Then the phlebotomist will disinfect the skin where the needle will go (you usually get to pick which arm they’ll target!) and wrap a tourniquet around your upper arm, to make the veins stand out more. They may ask you to make a fist or pump your hand – again, to make the veins stand out. Then they’ll put the needle in – usually they’ll warn you just before it happens, and ideally you want to keep your arm relaxed. They may need to keep the needle in while swapping over blood collection tubes, if they need to do a number of tests.

When your phlebotomist removes the needle, they may ask you to press on the vein, to reduce bleeding, and they’ll probably offer a plaster or cotton wool and tape to cover the cut.

Follow some key steps before your appointment

Eat and drink beforehand (if allowed)

Some blood tests require fasting, so if that’s the case, make sure you follow the rules – but fast for the minimum time allowed. It’s really important to stay hydrated, because dehydration lowers your blood pressure, which makes drawing blood more difficult and makes it more likely that you may feel faint after your blood test.

If, like me, you’re also a bit inclined to end up with low blood sugar, then making sure you’ve had enough to eat or a sugary drink beforehand (if allowed) may also help, as low blood sugar can also make you feel faint.

Wrap up warm

It’s helpful to make sure you stay warm. When your body is cold, it causes the veins near the surface of your skin to shrink down, making it harder to draw your blood.

Plan something nice for afterwards

Try to give yourself something to look forward to after your appointment; something that you can focus on as a pleasant experience. It can be something small, like a nice coffee from the hospital canteen, or something bigger like a trip out or exciting dinner plans. Try to focus on this as something positive to look forward to, rather than focusing on the blood test appointment.

Key steps to manage blood test anxiety during your appointment

Talk to your phlebotomist about your blood test anxiety

Make sure you tell whoever’s taking your blood that you’re anxious about blood tests. There’s no need to be embarrassed; they will have seen hundreds of people with needle phobia before. They can help ensure that you feel as comfortable as possible, and distract you from what’s going on. They may also be able to make other accommodations, such as allowing you to lie down if you’re concerned about fainting, or allowing you to bring a friend or family member with you for moral support.

Similarly, if you have veins that are difficult to find, make sure you warn your phlebotomist.

Remember to breathe

So far, so obvious. If you’re anxious, you may find yourself unintentionally holding your breath while you wait for the needle to pinch you. But that won’t help – in fact, holding your breath interrupts the oxygenation of your blood and may make you more likely to faint.

Instead, try using relaxation breathing techniques to help you get through your blood test appointment. Slow, controlled breathing has been proven to affect the nervous system and brain activity, and to increase sensations of comfort and relaxation. So it’s definitely worth a try!

The NHS provides basic online guidance on breathing techniques for stress that are simple and easy to do. You can also easily find guidance and videos online via a quick search. Breathing exercises usually involve counting patterns of breath, which also works to distract your brain from what’s going on.

Don’t look!

Try not to look at the needle. These days, I’ve had so many blood tests that they don’t really bother me any more, but when I did find them more stressful, I always found that it was best not to look at my arm or what the phlebotomist was doing. In fact, the sight of the needle or of blood may actually set off the anxiety reaction (vasovagal syncope) that can cause you to faint – so it’s best avoided.

Instead, I would pick something else to look at – there are often posters or notices on hospital walls, so pick one and focus on that instead.

Distract yourself

Anxiety can increase when you focus on the source of your anxiety, so distracting yourself is a helpful way to manage blood test anxiety. You can try counting in your head, trying to remember or run through song lyrics, or chatting with the person who’s drawing your blood. You could even watch a video or listen to music on your phone during the blood test, to keep your mind off what’s going on.

Use the Applied Tension technique

If you tend to faint during blood tests, you can use something called the ‘Applied Tension Technique’ to help. This aims to help maintain blood pressure and prevent the sudden drop in blood pressure that can lead to fainting (or just feeling faint), through undertaking some physical exercises. It’s a straightforward technique, which simply involves tensing the muscles in your body to increase your blood pressure. You can read more about this technique and how to use it here.

Consider professional help

If your blood test anxiety or needle phobia is very severe, it can interfere with your medical treatment if it results in you avoiding blood tests. If the steps outlined above don’t help you manage your blood test anxiety, consider whether it could be helpful to seek professional help. You should be able to find a therapist who can help you address your anxiety over time.

Your suggestions to manage blood test anxiety

Have you suffered from needle phobia or blood test anxiety? How did you learn to manage your fears and get through blood tests? Please share your experiences and suggestions in the comments!

health · mental health · tea

Tea For Mental Health And Wellbeing

It’s no secret that I love tea. I have a regular tea review feature on my instagram page, and occasionally tea reviews make their way onto this blog as well. I probably drink too many cups of tea a day, and that only escalated while I was on maternity leave – probably partly due to a need for caffeine thanks to being up all night with Little Man, and partly as a reaction to being forced onto the decaff stuff while I was pregnant. I’ve always found tea drinking to be soothing, and I have a range of different teas at home. But can drinking tea actually be good for your mental health?

tea for mental health and wellbeing beneficial a look at the science behind tea drinking and mindfulness

Tea For Mental Health

In the UK, at least, we tend to brew up a cuppa as an automatic response to any stressful situation. It’s a stereotype that’s also kind of true – we drink 50 billion cups of tea a year, and one in ten of us drinks six or more cups per day. That’s a lot of tea. So is all that tea working to help us deal with stress – or are we just drinking for the flavour?

What does the science say?

Before we look at the science around tea and mental health, we need to first consider: what is tea? Technically, “tea” is a beverage prepared using the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant – this includes teas such as black tea, green tea, and matcha. If your tea isn’t made from camellia sinensis leaves, then it’s really a herbal tea a.k.a. a tisane or infusion. Different types of tea will have different chemical properties, making that their effect on mental health will not be directly comparable. So in looking at research on tea and mental health, we first have to understand what “tea” the researchers were actually using for their work…

Studies on the effects of drinking tea on mental health

Researchers have found that drinking camellia sinensis tea lowers the stress hormone cortisol. And that’s not all: drinking half a cup of green tea a day also seems to lower the risk of depression and dementia – one study in Korea found that people who habitually drank green tea were 21% less likely to develop depression over their lifetime, compared to non-drinkers. That is a protective effect equivalent to undertaking 2.5 hours of exercise a week – not bad for a cuppa you can enjoy while sat on your sofa.

Similarly, studies in Japan and China also found green tea drinking to be associated with a lower risk of depression. And it’s not just green tea – other studies have shown that camomile tea (a herbal tea or tisane) may also have an antidepressent effect.

The small print

However, it should be noted that, while there is evidence that regularly drinking some teas can help improve mood in healthy populations, there’s not yet any evidence that it can help people who are already suffering from mental illness. And, of course, the studies discussed above only look at two types of tea – green tea and camomile – out of the huge variety of different teas and tisanes that you can buy. So it’s a little premature to reach a conclusion about the benefits of tea drinking…

Additionally, the studies that have been done don’t necessarily tell us where this protective effect is coming from. Is there a chemical (or chemicals) in tea which reduces our risk of depression – or could it actually be more complicated than that?

Tea Drinking and Mindfulness

Some researchers have suggested that some of the physical and mental health benefits from tea could actually be related to the act of preparing tea, rather than the ingredients within the drink itself.

Tea preparation as a form of mindfulness

The rituals of making and drinking tea can act as a form of mindfulness. Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment, to your body, your sensations and what’s happening around you. It is recommended by the NHS and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence as a recognised way to treat depression. You can read more about mindfulness here. Preparing and drinking tea can act as a form of mindfulness, because it involves taking time out of your day, stopping whatever you’re doing to focus on preparing your tea, engaging your body in making the tea and enjoying the smells and flavours that go with it.

Tea preparation rituals around the world

In fact, all around the globe, many cultures have developed formal practices around the making and drinking of tea, which reflect this meditative and ritualistic aspect to tea preparation.

In parts of East Asia, the ritual of making tea has been elevated into the tea ceremony, a ceremonial way of preparing and presenting tea – perhaps the most famous form of tea preparation ritual. In Morocco, mint tea is traditionally prepared for visitors to the home and three glasses are served, each representing a different aspect of life (check out my recipe for fresh mint tea here). Russia has its zavarka tradition; Argentina its mate culture; and of course here in the UK we have the traditional afternoon tea, where the cakes and sandwiches are arguably as important (or even more important?) than the tea itself. It’s interesting that so many different cultures across the world have all developed these distinct rituals around preparing and serving tea.

How to create your own tea ritual for mindfulness

The simple process of taking time out of your day to prepare and enjoy a cup of tea is really a ritual in itself. But if you’re specifically looking to practice mindfulness for your mental health, you can consider creating your own tea ritual for mindfulness and wellbeing. It can be easier to bring elements of mindfulness to an every day activity like making tea, compared to finding the time to meditate or undertake other more formal mindfulness rituals.

The key element of any mindfulness practice is to really pay attention to what you’re doing and the physical experience you’re undergoing. So as you’re preparing your tea, consider:

  • What sounds are you hearing? For instance – a boiling kettle, the clink of a teaspoon, the gurgling as you pour hot water into a cup.
  • What do you see? How does the liquid change colour as the hot water and/or milk is added to the cup?
  • What else can you sense? The warmth of the cup in your hands, the smell of the tea as it’s brewing, the taste of the tea when you start to drink.
  • How do you feel? As you sip your tea, can you take a few moments to consciously relax your body, take some deep breaths, and enjoy this time?

Top tips on creating your own tea drinking mindfulness ritual

If you’re looking for some more detailed guidance on how to create a mindfulness practice based around tea drinking, there are lots of great resources out there. I like this guide about how to be mindful with a cup of tea, and this guide to creating a slightly longer tea ritual, for when you have more time to spare.

Tea for Mental Health: A Summary

So, in summary – yes, tea drinking can indeed be good for your mental health. And frankly, that’s enough of an excuse to justify my next cuppa! But it’s not a magic cure that will leave you feeling better overnight… Things are rarely that simple. By incorporating mindfulness practice into the simple enjoyment of making a cup of tea, you may be able to take best advantage of the mental health benefits of drinking tea.

Your thoughts on tea and mental health

Do you practice mindfulness when drinking your morning cuppa? Do you feel that tea drinking has had mental health benefits for you? Or have you enjoyed experiencing tea culture around the globe? Please share your experiences in the comments, below!

baking · food · health · mental health

Baking For Mental Health

You may have heard of art therapy – but have you ever heard of culinary art therapy (or CAT)? Increasingly there’s a move to recognise that cooking and baking can be good for our wellbeing – and there is actual scientific evidence that baking is good for mental health. As you probably know if you read this blog regularly, I’m a big fan of baking (especially gluten-free baking!), so I wanted to explore this further in a blog post looking at why baking is good for our mental health, and sharing some top tips to help you get started with baking therapy…

Baking for Mental Health

Why is baking good for your mental health?

Firstly, let’s look at some of the reasons why baking is good for mental health…

Shifting your focus

Baking requires focus and concentration. You need to find the right ingredients, weigh them out, and run through the process of turning them into delicious baked goods. Baking is also often quite a physical process – activities such as kneading bread, or mixing together ingredients, get our bodies involved as well as our minds. It’s a great distraction that forces your mind away from focusing in on sources of stress and anxiety. It also gives you a sense of control and purpose, paying attention to the present and what’s going on around you. As such, it works as a form of mindfulness, which is a great way to manage anxiety and stress.

Taking Time For Yourself

Baking takes time – whether it’s fifteen minutes to whip up a quick batch of cookie dough, or four hours on a celebration cake. That’s time that you’re carving out of your day for yourself. Taking time for ourselves is an act of self-care that’s really important for wellbeing.

Get Creative

Baking is a form of creative self-expression. As such, it’s a way to release stress and an outlet for emotion. Baking can help us to express our feelings, and getting creative is a recognised way to manage mental wellbeing. Repetitive creative motions – like baking, knitting, or even DIY – actually help your brain release dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ chemical.

Engage your Senses

Baking engages all the senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Engaging those senses is pleasant and uplifting, and can also reawaken fond old memories and associations – such as baking as a child. And of course, we all enjoy biting into a lovely slice of cake at the end of the baking process (and maybe licking the spoon beforehand as well!).

Share the Love

One of the aspects of baking that can be so satisfying is the opportunity to share what you make with other people, friends and family. Making other people happy is itself tremendously rewarding – and who doesn’t feel happy when they’re presented with a slice of homemade cake, or a cookie? Gift-giving is an important part of human cultures across the globe, and interestingly studies have shown that it is actually often the person giving the gift – rather than the one receiving it – who reaps the greatest psychological benefit from gifting. It helps us to feel valuable and experience a positive self-concept, increasing self-esteem – so it’s not surprising that sharing our bakes is good for our mental health.

Baking for Mental Health: How To

So, you’re convinced about the benefits of baking for mental health. You’ve decided to give baking therapy a go, and you want to get on with it. But how do you actually make it work? Here are some key pointers to get you started.

Low Pressure Baking

Baking is not going to help reduce stress and anxiety if it becomes a high-pressure situation. For instance – baking a birthday cake, or agreeing to create dessert for a large dinner party, or host afternoon tea, places a lot of pressure on yourself. That creates more stress and anxiety. Instead, keep your baking low pressure by baking for yourself, in situations where it doesn’t really matter if the outcome is wonderful or if you burn the brownies.

Keep It Simple

Linked to the above, following incredibly long and complicated recipes is only going to work as good therapy if you’re already a very advanced baker. Try to start with simple recipes, and learn new techniques one at a time rather than trying to take them on all in one go. When I’m feeling in need of a bit of baking therapy, I generally try to go for straightforward recipes that yield yummy, satisfying results, like these gluten-free oatmeal raisin cookies, these mochaccino brownies, or this delicious rocky road recipe. Let’s be honest – if baking therapy is a thing, then chocolate therapy is most definitely real as well.

Maintain A Sense Of Humour

Bakes go wrong. This can be really frustrating. The other day, I was planning on making raspberry macarons at home. I’ve made macarons a bunch of times, but this time it went horribly wrong (I still don’t really know why!) and I had to throw out the entire batch and start again. And, if I’m honest, it put me in a godawful mood. All the fun went out of it – especially when the subsequent batch I made were still not really up to scratch, even though they tasted pretty good. It was the ultimate baking therapy failure: I ended up in a worse mood than I started in.

What did I do wrong? Not maintaining a sense of humour! Bakes go wrong. It shouldn’t be a big deal. Try not to let it stress you out, and try not to go into each bake with super-high expectations. Take a picture of the horrible mess you’ve created, text a friend or post on social media, and have a good laugh at yourself. You’ll live to bake again another day, and if you find yourself getting stressed out by your bake rather than enjoying it – just stop!

Bake Vicariously

Okay, so baking may be great for your mental health – but let’s be honest, it’s not always practical to crack out the mixing bowl. Whether you don’t have the energy, the time, or simply the drive to actually get baking, there is a Next Best Thing. You can bake vicariously with the aid of The Great British Bake Off (known in the US for some reason as The Great British Baking Show).

Don’t get me wrong, other baking shows are available. But I haven’t found any that have the charm of Bake Off. There’s something very lovely about the camaraderie of the show, and it’s a great form of escapism that will get you weirdly involved in the process of creating types of cake that you’ve never even heard of.

Baking Therapy: Your Experiences

Are you a keen baker? Have you found baking to be a great form of expression and therapy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!