The Art Of Worrying

Worrying is a human condition that every single person experiences at some point in their life. ‘Did I lock the front door’, or ‘how am going to afford this months rent’ are examples of the kind of things that we ask ourselves, and are perfectly justified in doing so. We ponder such questions, and either offer up a solution (if this is possible), or for more abstract concerns, we move on from them after ruminating upon them for a while, as our lives, work or social activities allow us to forget these worries, with little damage having been done to our peace of mind. In fact, moderate levels of worry are a good thing, as they allow us succeed in our work and our personal lives, and ensure that we make the right decisions, and interact with others in a compassionate and understanding way. They also allow us to  keep ourselves, and our friends and families safe, as the ‘fight or flight’ mindset proves to be a successful and necessary human condition.

However, if you suffer from anxiety, then the levels of worry extend beyond the normal parameters, and they can consume every waking moment of your life (and often the sleeping ones too), from the significant misgivings, to the most trivial of thoughts, fears and doubts. An insignificant worry can infest the mind, burrowing deep under the surface and ensuring that a feeling of utter helplessness is achieved, causing both exhaustion and contradictorily a restless energy which causes the body and mind to be in a perpetual state of tension . As this article states , “The distinction between an anxiety disorder and just having normal anxiety is whether your emotions are causing a lot of suffering and dysfunction,”. It feels as though your mind is constantly racing at 100 mph, and there is never a let up from the anxiety and fearful worrying. The adrenaline courses through you, and the notion of relaxation is an alien phenomenon, as there is no escape from the mental strain. Any break in your day is filled with these incessant worries, and the utter exhaustion it creates is indescribable. The unhappy irony is that despite this fatigue, sleep can often be extremely difficult, and the hours lying awake ruminating, fretting and predicting, ensure that the cycle of persistent anxiety and lethargy are in constant fluidity.

Of course the act worrying about interviews, finances or family issues are all understandable, and universal in their engagement. It’s not these worries that are the issue, it is the more trivial and petulant thoughts which cause the most despondency, and they can be the most shameful or embarrassing when trying to describe to others. An example of this, which is hard to relay due to its inexplicableness and seeming insignificance, is when I used to become obsessed that none of my clothes fit me or looked presentable. A regular person would either dismiss this almost immediately, or maybe buy a some new clothes that they feel comfortable in. However my concerns could never be quashed, and I would either worry they were too big, too small, too tight, too loose, and would regularly spend an hour trying on every item of clothes I owned, in all different combinations, to try and prove to myself that it was all fine. By the end of this I was more frustrated and mentally shattered than I was before, and my fears had not been allayed by any means, and I felt sickened by the fact that such trivialities were taking over my life.

Similarly, I would often avoid going out of the house (outside of school or work) as I was so ashamed of how I looked. When I walked down the street and saw someone look at me I would convince myself that they were looking at me because I was ugly or inadequate, or they were judging me in a negative way. Of course in the cold light of day this way of thinking is ludicrous, but the anxious and depressed mind doesn’t allow these astute realisations to make life any easier; in fact it makes it worse that I have the ability to deconstruct my thoughts, as the fact that this makes no difference to the levels of anxiety or presence of negative beliefs and assumptions leads to even more dejection and frustration. These constant worries have consigned myself to a life of making of lists, in an attempt to extract the worries from my mind and lock them down on paper to deal with later. In a sense this helps as I can put that worry on hold for a while, but it doesn’t really attack the problem at its heart, and instead merely acts as a temporary method of avoidance. The examples I’ve just given are not quite as bad as they were 10 or so years ago, although they are certainly still ever present. They are also only 2 examples out of the many hundreds of thoughts and anxious ponderings that nestle in my mind on a daily basis.  I’d suggest that my dealing with them has not necessarily got better,  but more that I have become so used to them and their effects, that in a sense I accept that they are part of me, and unfortunately define who I am as a person.

For many people their greatest dream or aspiration is to buy their own house, travel the world, or dominate in their field of work. For me the greatest gift I could be afforded is a clear and peaceful mind, and an end the infestation of my thinking space. Former cricketer Graeme Fowler (now educator about his experiences of depression) offers a pertinent description of the differences between the depressed and non-depressed mind: “I try to explain the difference between an emotional down and a mental health issue. My wife summarises it like this: she says that if she was feeling down and won the lottery she’d be fine but if I was feeling depressed and won the lottery it wouldn’t make any difference to how I felt.” I feel that this perfectly sums up the heart of the problem. I could have everything in the world, such as wealth, success and material objects, but they wouldn’t stop me from worrying and inwardly analysing myself. The anxieties would still burrow deep down and manifest themselves as the all consuming entities that they are, and the prevalence of wealth and success would not free my mind…it would probably burden it even more. When I’m busy and occupied I can temporarily keep the thoughts at bay, although I know that they are always just beyond the horizon, never truly staying completely out of sight. When I’m alone and quiet they come rushing back at me at full tilt, like a train speeding across the English countryside. If someone asked me what it is I want most in the world, I would answer that all I yearn for is a quiet, undisturbed, unburdened mind. Alas, I gave up on that desire a long time ago…the noise became too loud and the mind too active. I’ve striven to find a way to try and turn my mind off, but despite my persistence and unwavering determination, I’ve yet to locate the off switch.

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Social Media and Mental Health: Part 2

In my blog post from last week I surmised that social media and blogging are exceptionally helpful for those suffering from a mental illness, due to the fact that they can facilitate the ability to open up to friends/colleagues/family etc. They also can act as an information source for suffers and non-sufferers alike, and can help deliver the crucial message that nobody with depression or anxiety is alone, and it is remarkably easy to reach out to others in a similar situation. However, Adrian posted a pertinent comment in reply to my blog:

“This seems like it was a great article. I personally tend to focus on the negative aspects of social media, namely how using it sometimes makes me feel isolated or else compare my life unfavorably to others, but I think it’s mainly Facebook that makes me feel that way. It’s a good point that using social media to express feelings of anxiety and depression outside of your real-life social circle (like Instagram, Twitter, and Yik Yak) can be a positive outlet. Thanks for this post!”

He touched upon a very relevant and significant point, and one which I had intended to focus upon in a future blog post, but it seems sensible to address it now. The benefits and strengths of social media, namely acting as a global platform and communication source,  are also its downfall, and how it can lead to the triggering of depressive episodes, or making existing periods of low mood significantly worse. Certain images or posts can precipitate low mood, such as seeing photos of contemporaries from school who are getting married/having children (leading to thoughts like ‘will that ever happen to me’), or fellow facebookers smiling, having fun, going on holidays with friends etc. These can be triggers in ‘real life’ which proliferate feelings of sadness, desperation, hopelessness and self doubt, and with the rise of social media, shutting yourself away can no longer provide an escape from these factors. One of the features of depression is the necessity to self analyse yourself and make comparisons with other people, and the prevalence of social media (in particular Facebook and Instagram) ensures that this is done on a much larger scale.

Personally, I find social media less of a trigger when I’m feeling stable, however it can have a powerful effect on my mood if I’m already in a bad place. For example, if I’m thinking thoughts such as ‘I don’t have friends/am not in peoples thoughts’, or if I’m frustrated by my anxiety preventing me from going and and doing activities that I want to do, then seeing a photo of a group of friends doing an activity together or on a night out can inevitably lead me to feeling extremely down and demoralised. It provokes feelings of unfounded jealousy, inadequacy and longing. It confirms predetermined falsehoods, and helps foster the incorrect but deeply believed thoughts and feelings about myself, my predictions of how others view me, and also  my prospects (or lack of) for the future.

Another negative impact of social media is an issue I have touched upon in previous posts, and concerns the eruption of nostalgic feelings when viewing images from the past. Seeing a photo of myself as a child is a trigger to negative though processes, including the inevitable questioning of everything that has happened from that point to the present moment, as well as a deep yearning to go back to that time when wide eyed innocence took the place of todays anguish, anxiety, regret and fear. Of course, I look at these memories through rose tinted glasses, as undoubtedly there were worries, concerns and anxieties that existed to me back then, but the power of hindsight and backward reflection, in relation to depression, is that you have no control of what the mind decides to focus upon. For me I see an idealised presentation of what my life was, which evokes a real desire to go back to that moment, and that time in my life, rather than where I find myself now at the end of my twenties.

Social Media therefore is both a positive means for expression, but also a proven trigger for many of the negative aspects of mental illness. It is a both a blessing and a curse, and the key is to learn how to utilise its positive aspects and negate its negative. Social Media essentially is a digital representation of real life, where the words that hurt are written rather than spoken, the stimuli that evoke memories are pictorial rather than anecdotal, and the way to reach out to others is through taps on a keyboard rather than whispers down the phone. Times changes, but sadly the negative and destructive mindset doesn’t. It’s just a case of trying to use social media for its positive enabling abilities, and shielding yourself from its unnerving capacity to break your resolve.

“There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Social Media and Mental Health

Whilst browsing the BBC news website, the following article caught my eye: ‘How social media helped me deal with my mental illness’ Before I had even read the article I predicted that it was going to be of particular interest to me, although I didn’t foresee how abundantly relatable it would prove. At the heart of it is an analysis of how important social media can be in dealing with mental illness, and how it can give a voice to people who are otherwise unable to express their thoughts or feelings. I won’t go into the article in too much depth, as I’d encourage you to read it through in your own time, but I did want to pick up on a couple of particular points that really struck me.

Sophie Hawker’s case study was particularly pertinent as I saw a reflection of myself within her words. For her social media was both a valuable information portal, and also an irreplaceable way of expressing herself. From my own personal experience of writing this blog, and its subsequent sharing through social media, I can attest that it has proven to be the most effective and advantageous way of expressing how I’m feeling, and allowing others an insight into my state of mind. Composing my thoughts on here also ensures that it becomes less of an issue talking about it with other people as they are already aware of how I’m feeling, and what struggles I’m going through. As Sophie perfectly puts it: “It gave me the confidence to talk about it in real life because I’d already practised talking about it online. I’d learnt more about it too, so I felt I could explain it to people a bit more.”

Sophie also touches upon another significant point when she discloses that “I found people of a similar age with similar interests who had experienced it at a similar time in their lives and that was really beneficial.” I’ve been surprised and gratified with the number of comments I’ve received from people in a similar situation to myself, and its especially rewarding when people declare that its a relief to read about someone who reflects their own circumstances. I’ve been especially touched by comments from contributors stating that my words have helped them in some way, and that makes me feel incredibly proud. Social media really causes you to be aware, more than any other time in the past, of how many people suffer from mental illness, and how you are not even remotely alone, even though you may think you are. It gives an outlet which 15-20 years ago would never have been possible, and I’m perturbed by how people with mental health issues were able to connect with other people in similar situations in ‘pre-internet’ days, and consequently I wonder at how many people slipped under the radar (perhaps fatally) through lack of an outlet the like of which exists today.

Madelaine also expresses similar beliefs, stating that “it was easier on social media to talk about it. There would be times at university when I would feel anxious and I wouldn’t tell my friends but I would tweet. I’d feel more confident saying it there.” If social media allows people to open up when they otherwise would not be able to, then it can only be a positive endeavor, and it not only benefits the individual, but is also a great way to educate those friends, family, colleagues etc about the illness, and provides a much more informative alternative to merely browsing an NHS Direct article. This is about real people and real lives.

Finally, I wanted to touch upon the responses people gave in the article to the question of what aspect of mental health they wanted to talk about (through the app Yik Yak). Here are some of the responses presented:

Mental health
Yik Yak
People with depression and anxeity
Mental health in schools
For me these responses epitomise how social media can play a huge part in mental health education and therapy, as they facilitate in making sufferers fundamentally aware that there are thousands of people in the same boat, and that you unequivocally posses a way to connect with them. It’s staggering how many times I read blogs, articles, or even those 4 quotes above and think ‘thats exactly how I feel’. I could have written each of those 4 statements, and that really is the main point of this article. Whilst social media gets a bad reputation for trolling, bullying or pointless posts, it’s much more satisfying to focus on the positives and the real influence it can have by allowing people like myself, or Sophie, or Madelaine, to finally be able to open up. As Daniel Holland says “You think you’re alone with these things. The ability to be able to discuss this with other people online is a big deal. It’s letting people know they aren’t alone.”
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Sunday Night Reflections

This weekend has not been a good one, and in fact has been the worst that I’ve had in a while. Whilst for the majority of the week the weekend is the holy grail which seems like a glorious mirage when imagined on a sleepy Monday morning commute to work. And yet by Sunday evening the mirage has been replaced by a desolate wasteland, and my feelings of positivity have morphed into resentment and dejection. Often I find myself looking at the clock on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and thinking ‘how is it only 2 o’clock’ or ‘I wish it was 7pm as I could then have a shower, eat, watch TV and then go to bed.’ It’s bad enough having these thoughts on a weekday, but to experience them at the weekend feels tantamount to treason, as these should be the days that you look back at on Monday morning with a great sense of accomplishment and nostalgia. Instead its merely another case of time slipping by, and the mantra of ‘living life to the full’ being so far from the truth that it would be laughable, if only it wasn’t so heartbreaking.

This weekend’s lack of fulfillment, and the consequent feelings of frustration and melancholia, was enhanced by the extreme exhaustion that I felt, significantly more severe than it has been for many months. Both Saturday and Sunday afternoon I had best part of 90 minute naps, and also went to bed early on Friday and Saturday night, and yet the utterly debilitating lethargy that coursed through my body ensured that even if I had wanted to do something with my time, I physically wouldn’t have been able to. On Saturday afternoon I tried to sit in the park and read, but had to call it quits after 30 minutes as I was so fatigued that I could barely read the words on the page. In fact all weekend I probably spent a total of 2 hours outside of my flat, and therefore the sense of isolation and frustration were at maximum levels come Sunday afternoon.

It didn’t help that the weather was glorious on Sunday, because you can get away with locking yourself away on a cold winters day, but in the summer months it just leads to headaches and more lethargy. It’s one of the reasons I dislike the summer months so much, and why I have a kind of reverse seasonal affective disorder, which actually affects about 10% of SAD sufferers. I can only hazard a guess at why this is. Possibly it’s the crippling lethargy caused by the warm and humid weather, which amplifies an already anxiety induced weariness. Or it could be that the longer days means there is essentially more time to fill, and thus its highlighted to me even more clearly that I achieve very little in my personal life. Or it could be that the warm weather and school holidays inevitably leads to people/families/partners etc enjoying happy moments together, which augments my own sense of loneliness, and need for human relationships. The short, cold, dark winter days can mask these truths, and the bleakness that manifests in those months acts as a kind of bandage, covering up a wound and allowing you to temporarily mask the cause of it.

In the past I was optimistic enough to make plans for weekends or evenings, or life in general, even though predictably I would cancel them or not gain any sense of enjoyment from them. Now though, I don’t posses the self belief or hope to even do that, and accept that getting through each day is the only achievement I will be able to have, or the closest thing to success. I’ve mentioned numerous times the cyclical nature of depression, and my weeks tend to epitomise this model. As the week progresses there is universal excitement of the approaching weekend, which everyone experiences in unison. But then almost as soon as 5pm on Friday hits, there is the reemergence of the anxiety, depression, tiredness, and all sense of joy at the prospect of the weekend evaporates. I don’t have the physical or mental energy to do anything with my time, but the lack of activities and engagement then precipitates a disintegration of the already diminished stamina. It’s a cycle that I‘m unsure how to break free of. As I sit here writing this I feel utterly drained, unrefreshed, and categorically dejected. I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that I’m feeling these things, or the fact that I’m resigned to them never changing. The lack of hope, and admittance of defeat, is perhaps the greatest tragedy.

Check out this blog post from My Anxiety Companion which helpfully voices some of the thoughts and feelings that anxiety can represent: http://www.myanxietycompanion.com/blog/13-things-anxiety-sufferers-need-you-to-understand