Without numbers, stories are just anecdotes, but without stories, numbers are just dry statistics.
- Tara Lamont
In the 1970's I taught yoga and several different types of meditation. In the 1980's I began teaching courses in Autogenic Training, a form of deep relaxation/meditation. I continued running Autogenic classes for about 25 years. In addition to the relaxation/meditation exercises, the teaching also covered several other life skill/stress management techniques. For a much fuller description of these eight session courses, visit the Autogenic Training section of this website.
Gradually the course became "too big" for the Autogenic label. It had evolved into a broader stress management course that still had Autogenics at its core. At the same time a number of other developments emerged. These included exciting new research on the value of mindfulness training and also improved understanding of how physical healthy living practices - exercise, diet, alcohol moderation, smoking cessation - are actually of huge importance for psychological health too. And to top it all there was now also a burgeoning research literature on ways of going beyond "good enough" to focusing on increasing happiness & wellbeing. It was time to move forward. In May of 2010 I wrote:
On Monday of next week I'm due to run the first evening of a new twelve session course that I have been "cooking" for quite a while - see, for example, the post I wrote back in February "Developing a training course: life skills for stress, health & wellbeing". I explained then that "I've known for some time that I wanted to "upgrade" the stress management/relaxation skills course that I've been teaching for many years. I find the emerging research on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) exciting and encouraging, however the patient population I'm working with is much broader than just people with recurrent depression. Although MBCT/MBSR have been used for people suffering from diverse disorders, it is the results achieved in reducing depressive relapse that I find particularly impressive. I want to provide a training that is evidence-based and applicable to a wider group of people struggling with anxiety, depression, stress, relationship difficulties, poor health habits and general unhappiness (and wanting to build better health and greater wellbeing in their lives). The emerging MBCT and MBSR literature is relevant here, but so too is a wealth of other research - for example the recent meta-analysis of relaxation therapies for anxiety disorders, the encouraging results being achieved teaching acceptance and values-based action for chronic pain patients, and the recent startling outcomes reported using mixed methods group interventions for both cancer patients and people with heart disease.
I've decided to bite the bullet and develop a group "life skills" training course for the patient population I see, from the ground up - using inspiration from a wide range of successful interventions - rather than simply take an already developed training course "off the shelf". I went on to write "I feel excited about this. I plan to run a new group course for this broader client population. An important aspect of the course will be a relaxation & mindfulness exercise, but within a broader overview. Probable ingredients for the course - besides the relaxation/mindfulness - will be work on improving health behaviours using implementation intentions, a focus on relationships & compassionate mind training, and exploring the relevance of values-based action, positive emotions, and self-determination."
The publicity leaflet I subsequently put together reads:
what is it? This course is ambitious. It aims to help us live longer, healthier lives that are more energised, happy and fulfilling. We will work to improve our knowledge and activities in three interconnected areas - stress management, healthy lifestyle, and overall wellbeing. The recent Norfolk study (Khaw et al, 2008) involving more than 200,000 UK adults showed that, over 11 years follow-up, those with the healthiest lifestyles (for smoking, exercise, alcohol & diet) died at only a quarter of the rate of those with the worst lifestyles. Those living most healthily were - for mortality risk - biologically 14 years younger than those living poorly. Yet most of us are not living well. Two US studies (Reeves et al, 2005; Stampfer et al, 2000) show only 3% of the population tick all boxes for basic healthy lifestyle practices (smoking, exercise, alcohol, diet, weight).
On this course we will look at how to build and fine tune healthy lifestyles. Fascinatingly we now know that exercise and diet are also very important stress management tools. Additionally we will develop skills in relaxation and meditation using Autogenic Training and goodwill practices. These methods have been shown to reduce anxiety and vulnerability to depression, as well as increasing positive mood. We'll review our relationship networks too and consider ways of improving this crucial resource for both stress management and wellbeing. We'll check on how well we sleep. We'll learn about goal setting, motivation, implementation intentions and forms of therapeutic writing. And we will explore positive mood, engagement and meaning in life - three interweaving contributions to wellbeing and overall life satisfaction.
Potentially this course is life changing. What it will definitely provide is a huge amount of support for participants to live much more healthily, more productively, and more happily. Broad-based lifestyle and stress management courses like this can definitely have major impacts. Two recent studies (Andersen et al, 2008; Orth-Gomer et al, 2009) randomised people to standard care or to standard care plus a broad-focused lifestyle/stress management group. In the cancer study, at 11 years follow-up, those randomised to the group intervention had halved their risk of death compared to those just on usual care. In a similar type of randomised trial for heart disease, those given a broad based group intervention, over 7 years follow-up, reduced their chance of death by almost threefold. And this course isn't only about life and death! It is also centrally about living more relaxed, energised and happier lives. Research now highlights clear pathways to do this.
who is the group for? The group is for anyone who wants to work seriously at helping themselves be healthier, less stressed, and more fulfilled. It will be hard work - and potentially life changing. We will be 6 to 8 people (plus the facilitator, Dr James Hawkins). James will provide the knowledge base and many years of experience with these methods. We as a group will work together over seven months to encourage and support each other on this "journey" of change. It's one of the great strengths of group work that we can inspire, challenge, empathise, learn from, and help each other.
So I plan to blog about the challenges, impressions, feedback, and outcomes that emerge running this first version of the "Life Skills" course. Hopefully this will be useful in a whole series of ways. Some of the ideas and comments may be helpful for other stress management/health behaviour/mindfulness training course facilitators. Blogging about the course may also provide another useful layer of information for current and would-be course participants. I hope too that the process of reflection will help me make this course as excellent as a I can.
And given below are detailed descriptions of the twelve "Life Skills" course training sessions.