Tag Archives: anxiety

Anxiety, Inaction and Compassion

This week, splendid Druid blogger Cat Treadwell put up a really brave piece of writing about how anxiety has been making her freeze. https://druidcat.wordpress.com/2022/08/23/update-2/

I recognise all of this, and it’s an issue that has crippled me repeatedly this year, leaving me unable to function at times. I’ve not talked about it much because I haven’t known how to, but seeing Cat’s post inclines me to step up. It’s a lot easier to think about these things when they affect other people. What Cat is going through clearly isn’t ok, and I wouldn’t blame her for that in the way that I tend to blame myself for my issues.

What do we expect of each other? What do we assume in face of other people’s efforts, shortcomings and struggles? If you start from the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got, then it’s a good deal easier to stay kind when people fall short of the mark. Sooner or later, we all mess up, or aren’t as good as would have been ideal. It’s a human thing. It is necessary to be able to say when things aren’t good enough, but it’s better not to assume this is either malice or lack of care.

Assumptions of laziness plague people who are ill. This is not an accident. It’s a deliberate approach coming from both governments and media, to blame and shame people who are struggling and to put the burden of responsibility onto them. Right now in the UK we’re seeing that extended to all people in poverty who are being told they must work harder, even though the problem is clearly the amount of profit going to shareholders.

There’s nothing lazy about wanting time to rest and recover, or needing to get well. There’s also nothing lazy about a person not wanting to work themselves to death so that someone else can make a profit out of them. Most of us are doing the best we can with what we’ve got – when what we’ve got isn’t enough and there is too much that we feel under pressure to do. No one should feel frightened or ashamed for trying to meet their own basic needs, but here we are.

It costs nothing to lift, support and encourage people. It is an easy thing to affirm that you know people are doing their best. Keep your rage and frustration for the people who create the impossible situations we’re all now in, not the people who are just trying to deal with it and cope. There is power in kindness, and the potential for transformative change in not adding blame and humiliation to the burdens people are already bearing.

It is easier to act when you feel supported. When you anticipate knockdowns, criticism and humiliation it is very hard to do anything. Being distressed to the point of being unable to function doesn’t improve anything for anyone. We can all contribute to doing better around this, by deliberately lifting and encouraging people when we can. Culture – after all – is just people, and as people we have the power to change how it works.


Anxiety and offering

On my recent post about offering rather than waiting for people to ask for help, Potia made an important comment about how hard that can be, too. Anxiety can make it incredibly hard to step up, and that can often be a consequence of having been knocked down for trying to help. I’m much more uneasy talking about this because it is far more exposed and takes me into areas of personal discomfort.

I have anxieties around offering. It comes up with every blog post and every comment on social media – am I saying the wrong thing? Will I hurt someone? Will someone get angry with me? It’s not an irrational fear, this sort of thing happens. I’ve had periods when anxiety has left me unable to work out what to say on other people’s posts, and that’s a real barrier to offering help.

I go through it every time I write a book, and every time I put content on Patreon. I feel like I’m imposing on people by even suggesting someone pay attention to what I’ve done. Partly this is because I got told off a lot as a child for being attention seeking, partly because there has been a lot of unpleasantness around online Pagans getting cross about people sharing their work, and especially when that work is for sale.

I have fears about being overwhelmed and taken advantage of if I offer help. It’s not irrational. I’ve been pressured and worked to burnout more than once. Sometimes it’s easier to do boundaries by not offering in the first place. I’m an easy person to guilt trip.

I have fear about encountering weirdness and resentment, or being treated like I’m trying to take over, or control people and shit of that ilk. Again, this isn’t irrational, I’ve had some serious problems around how other people have understood my desire to help, and it has made me a lot more cautious.

These days I’m more likely to show up for individuals than I am for groups, because the dynamics are less complicated. There are a few people I am dedicated to helping and supporting. There are some people who get my help conditional on not pushing any of my buttons but I will cut and run at the first signs of threat.

I think some of this is cultural – that we don’t collectively know how to value what’s given for free, and that there is an expectation that female-seeming people should supply emotional labour on demand, for free. People who can only think in terms of power, control and manipulation are bound to interpret help as a power move and act accordingly. It’s also an issue that sorting things out can be threatening. Maintaining problems can be a power-over move. Keeping people trapped without the help they need can be a way of controlling them. If you try and fix that, you can be met with all kinds of nastiness. Occasionally there are people who are so invested in victimhood and helplessness that help is the last thing they really want, which is also complicated.

Small acts of stepping up can make a lot of odds. I’m mostly too tired now for the grand, heroic gestures, but there are people I check in with and check up on and perhaps if we all did a bit of that, the people who have no idea how to ask for help would have an easier time of it.


The language of mental illness

I notice that I feel more comfortable writing ‘mental health problems’ than ‘mental illness’ because the second option seems so much more loaded. The words we use to talk about mental illness are problematic, too. Anxiety and depression are words that really don’t convey the life destroying nature of being overwhelmed by those things.

Years ago, a doctor gave me a questionnaire that talked about being anxious and fearful. I wasn’t those things – I was overwhelmed by terror on a daily basis and unable to function as a consequence and I could not express the severity of my situation in the terms the survey offered. I was then given a CBT handbook to help me manage those small fears that will go away if only you push back against them. Only I was terrified, all the time, thanks to the genuinely threatening things that were going on in my life.

Depression, as a term does not convey the state of being so weighted down that you no longer know how to move. It does not express the experience of being so numb that you no longer seem like a proper person on the inside. Depression does not convey the utter despair and hopelessness that sometimes kills people. Talking about the fatigue that comes with depression does not express what it’s like to be so overwhelmed that even the idea of trying to do something is unbearably exhausting. 

‘Triggering’ is a word that has been sorely abused by people deliberately minimising how trauma impacts on people. Triggering as a word is not adequate to express the horror and loss of control of finding that your mind has been thrown back into reliving traumatic experiences from your history. The word ‘trauma’ alone does not do enough to convey to untraumatised people what that kind of experience this means. And I don’t want to expand on that because not triggering the traumatised folk is a consideration alongside wanting to educate those who don’t really get it.

‘Personality disorder’ is an awful term that has stigma hard wired into it. It’s also a really problematic area of diagnosis – it’s just a label, it doesn’t represent anything that can be measured. How do you tell between these ‘disorders’ and perfectly reasonable trauma responses? How do you tell between trauma in undiagnosed neurodivergent adults, and ‘personality disorders’? This is an area where the problematic language represents a lot of problematic thinking. If this isn’t familiar territory, have a look at the ‘symptoms’ for schizophrenia https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/schizophrenia/symptoms/ and consider how many of those might be caused by trauma and by real threats that are assumed not to exist. What happens to an abused teen whose parents frame their behaviour as delusional? 

Often, the official language to describe conditions comes from an unaffected observer, not the people having the experience. This isn’t a neutral process, and the stigma against mental illness and neurodivergence is massive and longstanding. And please, if we’re going to label murderers as being mentally ill, could we at least have a specific label for that illness rather than making it seem like mentally ill people are dangerous to those around them. We’re not. Most of us are far more likely to harm ourselves than anyone else.


When Panic Becomes Dangerous

CW self harm

In theory, fear and anxiety are there to keep us safe. For the person who has been traumatised, this can lead to jumping at shadows, hypervigilism and flashbacks in ways that can really mess with your daily life. But still, the theory is good, the fear is learned, rational, reasonable and your brain is dealing appropriately with the threat level it is alert to. 

My panic does not exist to protect me. My panic exists to protect other people from me. It’s not a mystery how I got here – my ex did a very good job of persuading me that I was an awful person – cruel, manipulative, aggressive, unreasonable, ungrateful and causing him constant pain and difficulty. His words stay with me, and when I make mistakes, they loom large. It doesn’t help that this wasn’t my only experience of me being a terrible person, and it’s all there waiting for me any time I get anything wrong.

So instead of trying to protect myself, my panic has me hurting myself. Including having a lot of trouble eating or drinking. If I’m weak I am less of a threat to others. If I hurt myself, I’m not hurting someone else. At the worst extremes it leads to the idea that everyone would be better off if I didn’t exist.

It’s taken me a long time to understand this as a process. It’s not easy to think about the mechanics while it’s happening, and almost impossible to make any sense of it afterwards. But, I’ve had about a month now of intense panic, and that’s given me a lot of opportunities to notice things about the mechanics.

I’ve got a practical intervention in place – if I get the urge to hurt myself, I use resistance bands. At least that way the pain I inflict is helping me build stronger muscles, which I need anyway. Moving with them helps calm me, and I’ve managed to use them through really bad episodes where I felt that I did not deserve any kind of comfort or ease. This is one of the worst periods I’ve ever had for panic, but it’s also been the best managed around self harm and I feel encouraged by that.

I didn’t get here on my own. Not this episode, not this issue. I think this is often the way of it with emotional and psychological damage. The wounds come from outside. We don’t expect people to put their own broken arms into plasters or to sew up the gashes in their bodies. 


This is not invisible illness

There are more ‘invisible’ illnesses out there than visible ones. Granted, there are a few that will announce themselves on your skin. There are quite a few illnesses that are obvious because they impact on your movement and speech – and I’ve heard far too many stories about those being assumed to be the result of substance abuse.

Depression and anxiety are not invisible illnesses. Not if you care to look closely. The picture in this blog was taken during a very bad week, where the panic had compromised my ability to sleep amongst other things. I was exhausted, and I looked it. My skin tone, my posture, the shadows around my eyes, the look on my face… 

It’s tempting on social media to present the best version of your face to the world. It’s tempting to want to be seen as your best self – and in some ways that’s a stronger pitch for an author. Some people will judge you for being fragile, ill, in trouble and some people will see that as a sign of weakness or failure. That’s part of why I’m sharing this photo. 

I panic when I can’t work out what to do, or when everything I do seems to be wrong. There’s a very particular kind of panic that goes with feeling that I have nothing to offer, and that my very existence may be harmful to others. The kind of anxiety I get on normal days is mild and bearable, but the kind of panic that leaves me feeling like a failure as a human being… that one is really dangerous. 

It doesn’t look like a broken arm or like blood gushing from my body, but it’s not that hard to spot. Most people’s ‘invisible’ illnesses aren’t that hard to notice if you listen to what people tell you and pay some attention to what’s going on. Failure to recognise this stuff should not be an excuse for ignoring it, denying people help or acting without compassion.


How not to be a punchbag

Once upon a time I had a science teacher who liked to punish the whole class by making us sit with our hands on our heads. I’ve always had poor circulation, so this would invariably mean pain, followed by not being able to feel my hands, followed by prolonged discomfort once we were allowed to put our hands down. I never said anything to him about it because I was afraid that admitting distress would make him more angry. I was also a reasonably good and quiet student being punished for what other people were doing.

I learned early on that if someone upset me, it was best not to antagonise them by making a fuss about it. I have some really problematic habits around assuming I am responsible for everything. If someone hurts me, my knee jerk reaction is to assume it is my fault for getting something wrong, being ‘bad’ in some way or otherwise deserving it. This makes it hard to hold boundaries. I’m not even sure where the boundaries should be, most of the time.

This is a key thing around people not being able to get out of abusive relationships – I’ve been there. When you think it’s all your fault, you don’t leave. You try to fix things. You shoulder responsibility and try to appease, and apologise and do better. When you’re dealing with someone who wants to control and hurt you, this never works, but from the inside it can be hard to see that, and all the while you feel smaller, and worth less, and eventually, you feel worthless.

People project all kinds of things. They project their own fears and insecurities. Many people act as they do because of their own wounding. Some people will attack first when they feel threatened, even when the threat is entirely in their head. There are people who just use other people as punch bags, physically and emotionally. And I know I can’t shoulder that, or fix it. I can’t even help. I’m trying to learn how to get out of the way, at least.

It helps that there are people in my life now who are willing to help me work this through. It’s useful having feedback about what might count as fair or reasonable treatment. But sometimes I am still very much the kid in the science lesson, afraid to tell anyone that they can no longer feel their hands and that their arms are burning.


Access and Anxiety

Anxiety and some kinds of neurodivergence can make the uncertainty inherent in an event a real barrier to participation. These sorts of issues can be easily overlooked and can result in excluding people who could have participated with the right support. Accessibility isn’t just about whether a person can physically get into the space, barriers are not just about bodies.

I’m no great expert on neurodivergence. My understanding is that unfamiliar things, changes to routines, and other kinds of uncertainty can be immensely stressful for some neurodivergent people. Knowing things in advance so as to be able to feel prepared can make a great deal of odds and reduces anxiety.

I do know a fair bit about anxiety. Given an empty space, the anxious brain will just go ahead and plug in disasters. The more you know, the less room there is to unleash the panic weasels, and the more manageable the situation becomes.

What kind of thing a person needs to know about is probably going to be quite variable. Based on what I’ve seen around event organising, the most important thing is not to be complacent around requests for information. Don’t assume people are being unreasonable or demanding if they need to know about something ahead of time. Also, they probably aren’t going to tell you if they have sensitivity issues caused by autism, or a hard time imagining unfamiliar things, or are checking to avoid trauma triggers, or need to stop their brain from coming up with a hundred potential disasters.

If you don’t know exactly how something is going to work, tell people what you do know – try and work out what the limits are. Consider asking if there’s any kind of information they need. Make it ok for people to step out if something turns out to be too much for them. Actively support people whose psychological needs are different from your own and don’t expect everyone to be the same.

It shouldn’t matter why people are asking for information and help – in that we should not have to be persuaded they have a specific need in order to act on requests like these.


Managing the energy

For some months now, I’ve really been struggling with energy levels. It’s affected what work I can do, and how far I can walk. It’s also been depressing and worrying. I’ve been making a lot of changes in order to try and handle things better and in the hopes of being able to recover from this to some degree.

I notice that I tend to think of poor energy as a head issue. It’s one I’ve previously dealt with by applying willpower and pushing through. Like a lot of people dealing with fatigue, I have a history of not being taken very seriously and being encouraged to think of it as a personal failing, not a body issue. I find that when I treat low energy as something that is happening to my body – not as a failure to make enough effort – I can improve things. Mostly it’s about food and rest.

Increasing my food intake often helps. Even if it doesn’t solve the energy problem, it tends to ease the panic and depression that go with having run out of energy. Toast is my friend. Fruit is also good. Plant-milks are easy to digest and sometimes biscuits are the answer. I have to remind myself that comfort eating doesn’t make me a terrible person, and that I am allowed to do things that help me feel less horrible.

Rest makes a lot of odds, and as I’ve explored in previous posts (Doing Nothing) sometimes flopping in a heap is about the only option I have. I’ve established that how and when I rest makes a lot of odds. It is currently fair for me to assume that I’ll get three or four hours in a day with good concentration and scope to be active, and that I might get a few hours beyond that where I can do some things in a more limited way – reading or crafting perhaps. I can no longer just work flat out in the way I used to. To have four hours or so of good brain, I have to take breaks. Slow the pace and more becomes possible. I still have to be careful not to wipe myself out, but pacing is clearly key.

I have to prioritise. I have to say no to things. I have to make the time to stop and recover.  It’s a lot to learn and is requiring me to identify and rethink a lot of beliefs I have about myself. I need to feel that I am allowed to rest, and I need to deal with the voices I have internalised that tell me otherwise. If I keep on as I was, I will likely get worse. If I can change things, there’s some hope of turning this around.


Pain, Shame and Guilt

I think in many ways it’s a reflection of how seldom mental health is taken seriously that we add shame and guilt on top of people’s existing pain. No one who considered themselves kind and well meaning would tell a person with flu to just pull themselves together and try harder as though this is how you get over flu. We don’t tend to tell people whose bodies have been seriously injured that they should ‘man up’. Culturally we do have some serious and parallel issues around how we treat chronic pain and long term disability, but that’s a post for another day.

We treat psychological injuries as though they are personal failures and in doing so, add to the burden already wounded people are carrying.  Telling people the reasons you think they shouldn’t be in pain doesn’t ease pain. What it does do is help that person internalise shame and carry guilt about their own suffering. That in turn makes it harder to ask for help.

Depression isn’t an individual failing. Often the reasons for it aren’t personal, but systemic. Poverty and the stress of insecurity makes people ill. Overwork, leading to exhaustion and burnout makes people ill. Distress caused by mass extinction and climate chaos makes people ill. Being made responsible for things we have no power over also makes us ill. Here in the UK we have a culture of working people to death, blaming them for not being able to find work in a shrinking jobs market, causing poverty and then blaming people for being poor and a host of other such horrors that pile on the misery. The result is that not only do you get to suffer the consequences of stress and insecurity, but you get to feel like it’s all your fault for not being good enough in the first place.

If you do get help with mental health issues, the odds are it will be meds. That’s what we can have. Huge numbers of people are suffering depression and anxiety as a direct consequence of our messed up work culture and precarious lives. How can the answer to such system failures, be chemical? Use it to get by if it helps you, but don’t buy into the idea that meds are the answer here.

We have to stop blaming individuals for suffering and start talking about the way in which our culture is sick. We get less time off than your typical mediaeval peasant. The safety net of welfare is being eroded. We are punished for misfortune and poverty. We don’t have enough green space, enough quiet space or enough time to benefit from exercise. Many of us can’t afford to eat well. It is difficult to be mentally well in such a situation.

Mental health is a collective problem that needs solutions on a societal level. When we treat it as a personal problem to be solved at the personal scale, we add to the guilt and shame that makes people ill, and perpetuate the stories in our culture that are causing bodily and emotional sickness. Mental health is a cultural issue, a societal issue, a political issue.


Trusting my intuition

I have a hard time trusting my intuition. It’s something I’ve been exploring deliberately this year. I’ve also found myself in situations where there are no other sources of information, and intuition is all I’ve had to go on. At this point I’ve come to the conclusion that I can afford to trust what I intuit.

One of the single biggest problems for me in all of this is that I suffer from anxiety. I have a powerful imagination and can come up with many ways in which a situation could go wrong. There are reasons, rooted in my history, that make it hard for me to imagine good outcomes. It is hard to trust my intuition when my anxiety is screaming ‘you’re doomed’ and my imagination is playing out all the worst case scenarios. It’s not easy to tell what is just anxiety screaming, and what might be something else.

Being an anxious person, I tend to assume that any hopeful feeling is just wishful thinking on my part. I have been in the habit of writing off any good or uplifting feelings on the basis that they must be irrational. This hasn’t been helpful.

The answer has been to make time and really sit with whatever I’m feeling. To pay attention to what fits in my habitual thoughts and what doesn’t. If I interrogate those impulses I can often tell what is just anxiety as usual happening for me. Alongside that I’m making a conscious effort not to dismiss out of hand any possibility that doesn’t lead to crushing failure, disappointment and distress. Sometimes things do work out well, and I have evidence of this. I no longer live in a situation where there is someone intent on crushing me, and I no longer need to assume the worst for my own safety.

My intuition has room for the best in other people. It has room in it for hope, and good outcomes. My intuition is much more open to trust than the rest of me. It’s a small voice, long ignored, but this year it has held up where conventional sources of insight have failed. My intuition has kept me going where otherwise I might have broken down entirely. I do not have to accept a life without hope and possibility. I can consider that better outcomes are possible. I can afford to trust existence and the universe to be neutral towards me, not actively hostile. I can trust myself, and I can stop feeling that my more hopeful impulses are naïve, self indulgent or ridiculous.