Tag Archives: anxiety

Getting my brain back

One of the things I particularly struggle with around depression and anxiety is the way both of these things impact on my ability to think. When I’m suffering, I lose focus and my concentration is greatly impaired. It takes me longer to do everything, I have fewer ideas, and I’m less confident in my judgement. Of course when everything takes longer, there’s less time for rest or for good stuff, which makes the depression and anxiety worse. A vicious circle forms.

Not being able to think well in recent months has flagged up to me how invested I am in my mental function as part of my identity. I had made a number of work choices based on a belief that I would be clever enough to juggle it all. At the start of September I was working eight different small, part time jobs, because with no idea how the finances were going to work after an unexpected upheaval, I said yes to everything that came in. I put one of those jobs down quickly. Several of the others had steep learning curves and a lot to take in, so the autumn was challenging.

At Christmas I put down what was identifiably the smallest job – some marketing work I’d been doing for a couple of authors. Happily, I was able to point out to them where their own strengths were and how best to go forward and I think they’ve being handling it well since then. I think it was the right time for all of us to reconsider my role.

I came into January with six jobs, coping better and doing more several of them, but still struggling to think. I started to feel like it was me – that I couldn’t cope with forty hour weeks, and that the problem was my own poor mental health. I struggled on, with things getting harder day by day. I reduced my hours on one of the jobs, and got very little benefit from that. By early February, everything was reducing me to tears and I knew I was in trouble. I put down two of the jobs – two that were interlinked. I had got to the point of feeling that I just couldn’t do it anymore, and the fear of breaking down in tears when dealing with people had become a serious thing. At that point I was still afraid that the problem was me, and that I would stay where I was.

In the few weeks since then, I’ve become calmer. I’m still working very long hours, because there are jobs I need to finish. But, this week, my brain started working again. I’ve become faster and more confident, and that in turn has lifted and cheered me. I like myself better when my mind is sharp. I may now be able to create a virtuous circle and get back on my feet again.

What I’ve learned from this is that I can work 40-50 hour weeks and be mentally viable. What I find hard is having to shift between lots of different, often unrelated jobs, but, if everything else is ok, I can do that. Where I have clarity about what I’m supposed to be doing and the room to get on and deliver, I have managed. What I can’t deal with is uncertainty, fast moving goalposts and frequent changes of direction. I don’t know that I could do one 30 hour a week job in that sort of environment and stay functional.

Today I feel a bit more like a person I can recognise. A person who can have ideas and gets stuff done. Feeling more like myself combats the depression and anxiety, and gives me more tools with which to deal with those issues. I’m lucky because I was able to put the problem job down quickly – not everyone can afford to. How many other people’s mental health issues are simply a consequence of their economic circumstances, the lack of control they have over their lives, the pressures created by their workplaces and the huge feelings of uncertainty created by the ill considered choices of governments?

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Working while anxious

Experiences of panic and anxiety can make working difficult, or impossible. It’s hard to think clearly when anxious. Decision-making, prioritising, and concentration can all be impaired, which makes getting anything done difficult, and also makes it hard to trust that what you have done is right. Here are some strategies I’ve found helpful for working with anxiety.

Invest more time in planning how and when you are going to do things. I use a physical diary and I allocate work to specific days. Having moved to this from an endless to-do list, I find it helps me stay on top of work and not get overwhelmed. Also use your diary to plan rest time, time off and restorative activities. Time spent planning is a good investment because it’ll help you avoid being overwhelmed. It helps with making more realistic decisions, and monitoring progress. It gives a much needed feeling of being in control.

Take breaks. It is more efficient to take a break than it is to push on with poor concentration and mess up. It is more efficient to take a day off, get into a better headspace and carry on from there than it is to burn out, collapse or have a meltdown. If something seems impossible or overwhelming, stepping back to properly assess it puts you in a better position.

Look after your physical health. Eat good food, move about, get outside, stay hydrated, get enough rest and sleep. Don’t treat your body as a non-issue because the work is on top of you. Look after your body and you will be better able to cope with everything.

Don’t assume the problem is you. When you’re anxious, it’s easy to assume that the problems with stress and overload are being caused by your own mental health problems. This isn’t necessarily true. It may well be that stress has external causes that need dealing with. If you don’t feel able to assess this, check in with someone you trust and ask them how it looks. If your workplace is making unreasonable demands, even if you can’t get that changed it can help a lot knowing that the demands are unreasonable and that it isn’t coming from inside you. Feelings of failing only add to feelings of anxiety.

If you live with other people, check in with them too about balances of work and domestic responsibility. We have a household policy that the person who is having the easier time with paid work picks up the larger share of the domestic work – and we pass that balance back and forth at need. We re-negotiate regularly and we check in with each other to see what’s changing. If one person has a deadline, it might be a good week to let them off domestic responsibilities. I find that in the week or so after a big project, I’m more inclined to do the domestic things and may dig in for deeper cleaning and re-organising.

We don’t become anxious alone. Anxiety is the consequence of experience, and it’s often the consequence of having been put under too much pressure for too long a period. We don’t solve this on our own – even if all the conventional responses to mental health make it an individual issue. In practice, the solution to mental health difficulties is often team work. Wellness is a consequence of how we work together, how we share the loads, the stresses and the opportunities to kick back. If we all check in with each other to make sure workloads are shared fairly, anxiety is reduced. We can also help each other by working together to create peaceful, supportive environments and to plan ahead so that people know what they’re doing and when. Predictability eases anxiety.


Challenging anxious thoughts

When anxiety rolls in, it announces that everything will be awful. I have a powerful imagination, and my anxiety hijacks this and gets me to imagine multiple terrible outcomes for everything. This is exhausting, and I am really good at frightening myself. For some time now, I’ve been trying to find ways of dealing with this.

I have done some CBT work, and the problem there is that it assumes your anxiety is irrational. My anxiety is not irrational, it is absolutely rooted in my life experiences. The things that come up for me when anxiety kicks in are based firmly on stuff that has happened. Treating it as irrational reduces my self-confidence and has me second guessing myself and that’s not useful. Consequently, stage one of anxiety management for me, is to listen to that anxiety and to acknowledge that it is a perfectly reasonable thing to feel. When I do that it becomes easier to then ask ‘but is it relevant right now?’

I do risk assessments. I try and look as carefully as I can at the situation to decide how applicable my anxious feelings are. Often this helps me at least consider that it may not be terrible. Sometimes I decide that my anxiety is right and that I should get out. At times, my anxious thinking does have a protective aspect to it, and this is something I have no desire to lose.

Sometimes, I can’t tell on reflection whether the anxiety is well-founded or not. Often when dealing with other people, I just don’t have enough information. When dealing with people, I’ve decided that one key question to ask is ‘do I think they will treat me kindly?’ I don’t need everyone to get everything absolutely right for me, but in anxious situations, the care of another person can be a game changer. The person who can say no gently, and with respect isn’t going to do me serious harm. Can I trust a person’s kindness? When I’ve concluded that the answer is ‘yes’ and been proved right, it’s been powerful and transformative stuff. The only thing I need to trust in another human being is their kindness.

I now also challenge myself to try and think about best outcomes as well as worst ones. It helps me not get into obsessive over-thinking about terrible things. It can provide useful information as I risk assess a situation. It helps me see when things really are moving in the right direction. A good outcome can be hard to spot if all you’ve got is disaster thinking. Imagining what the best someone might do would look like helps me open up possibilities that anxiety would have shut down.

I want to keep some aspects of my anxious thinking as part of my tool set. I know it helps me stay safe. I don’t want to give my anxiety the steering wheel, or have it dominate how I think about people and situations. I want to hold room for new and different things to happen, and where I’ve been able to do that, there have been powerful responses from other people that really change things for me.


Work, depression and self esteem

Here are some mechanics I have observed repeatedly in my own life, and am fairly sure I am seeing in the lives of various of my friends who suffer from depression.

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → unable to work → feeling even more inadequate → becoming even more depressed.

Or…

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → working harder → becoming even more exhausted → becoming more depressed.

When you look to work for validation, for a sense of self worth and achievement, and depression is gnawing away at your underpinnings, the odds are you aren’t going to win. But, if you don’t work (be that paid or unpaid), you get to feel even more useless. Depression is good at telling a person they are useless, worthless, unlovable, unacceptable.

Thus when depression kicks in, I turn towards work to try and feel validated. While resting might help my body, it can actually leave me more anxious and insecure than trying to crack on. Instead of turning to others around me for help and kindness, I dig in to the most utilitarian relationships. I focus on where I am most useful, not where most good flows towards me.

I’ve looked hard at the mechanics of this, as it happens in my own life and as I observe others on the same downward spirals. The conclusions I have come to are that it is very hard to get off this spiral on your own, and that once you are on it is not a good time to be dealing with the things that cause it. The real answer lies in what happens the rest of the time – how loved, supported, valued, resourced and welcome a person feels. The degree to which utility dominates relationships in the normal scheme of things. The amount of positive feedback and soul food.

This in turn leads me to thinking about how we normally treat each other. How transactional are our relationships? How much of a feeling of scarcity underpins how we treat each other? How much do we do to validate each other in the normal scheme of things? What do we do for the people around us if we suspect they aren’t ok? If we can support and validate each other on terms that are not primarily about usefulness, I suspect we can all help each other stay out of the awful downwards spirals.

There is a massive amount of power in telling someone you value them, and that their value is not conditional on what they do for you.


When to run away

Anxiety creates strong urges to run away. Perhaps some people get fight as well as flight, but I suspect that panic is more likely to just kick off the flight impulse.

A few years ago I decided to give myself permission to act on my panic. I’d been through a lot of challenging situations where I’d had to stay put, no matter what it cost me. Staying with something that has panicked you so much that you feel an overwhelming urge to flee, is something I find not only emotionally tough, but takes a toll on my body as well. Not running away increases the stress. Not manifesting the stress in any visible way creates massive tension in me.

I talked with my nearest and dearest about strategies to manage my running away. We started planning how to handle situations that looked high risk for panic. It took the pressure off considerably. I’ve had to run away from a few things, and it’s generally been a good choice.

Of course running away is only a delaying tactic for some issues. It can be expensive in other ways. I’ve had two work related panic issues in the last year. Running away from workspaces means running away from money. I’ve run away from jobs before that were making me ill, and I’ve run away from a couple of volunteering situations as well. I have learned to put my mental health first, and created a living arrangement that allows me to get out if something is making me ill.

The most recent rounds have been remarkably different however, because both times, someone else has stepped forward with a solution to help me stay. I’ve said many times that I believe in community solutions to mental health problems, but it’s a whole other thing to have someone come in and offer just that. Situations I’ve stepped away from permanently haven’t offered support or much care that I was struggling. No one was willing to do things differently to accommodate me. Sometimes, there wasn’t even anyone willing to hear what the problem was. I don’t think this is unusual – we place the responsibility for mental health problems squarely on the shoulders of the person suffering.

However, when someone else can step in with a solution, everything changes. It means feeling heard and respected, feeling valued despite these problems. It means being given the chance to work in a way that is sustainable for me. It means the work I can do is seen as worth more than the bother of changing things to keep me viable.

Many workplaces are stressful and difficult. When we expect people to just shut up and put up with it, it is inevitable that some will crack under the pressure. We’re living with a mental health crisis that has been explicitly linked to work stress (but not widely reported – it was in a chief medical officer’s report a few years ago). It’s not that startling to discover that when we take care of each other, stress may be less of an issue and people may be less at risk of anxiety and depression. Community solutions work for illness caused by collective dysfunction, if only we have the will to implement them.


Comfort and discomfort

This weekend has brought a radical change of thinking for me, so I’m going to share it on the off-chance someone else finds it useful.

Triggering and panic attacks are big issues for me. Less of a problem than they used to be, but still things I have to navigate through. I know that people can trigger me in all innocence. They can do things that look like other things and panic me. My panic is not the measure of whether someone else is a good person or not. So, for years now, I’ve tried very hard to manage my reactions so that I don’t upset someone who has accidentally triggered me.

My experience of talking to people (usually, but not always men) who have triggered me is that many resent being asked to do differently and have expressed the idea that its unfair being held responsible for dealing with the consequences of something they didn’t cause. I’ve heard that and taken it onboard.

It means that much of my behaviour in response to panic and distress is about trying to keep other people comfortable. It’s not been about my comfort, or what I need to do to heal. Some of it is because I feel safer if I keep the men I’m dealing with comfortable. Thankfully the men I live with are not an issue on this score and are willing to hear, change and support. My safety is not dependant on their comfort. But in any other situation, if there’s a tension between my comfort and someone else’s, I tend to feel that asking for my issues to be heard is risky and may make things worse, not better.

This is where I’ve decided to make radical change. I never feel comfortable dealing with people who trigger me and expect me to deal with that. Even when they aren’t setting me off, I don’t feel safe and I am always on edge. I’m going to stop putting myself in those situations. I am not going to show up, or if I really can’t dodge it, I am going to get out at need. I’m going to stop investing energy in trying to make comfortable the people who make me uncomfortable.

If they call me a drama queen, or they say I am making it all about me, or being unfair to them, as has happened before in such situations, maybe I’ll just agree. And get out of the situation. I do not have to feel emotionally responsible. I do not have to feel obliged to comfort and reassure people who discomfort and unnerve me. I do not have to make their opinions the measure of whether my feelings or needs are even valid. It occurs to me that I don’t even have to get this right, or be fair or reasonable, that I can say no because I want to, and that I do not even need to justify it.


Depression and self esteem

For some years now I’ve watched a number of friends who suffer from depression hit burnout on a fairly regular basis. I used to burnout regularly too. Sometimes it’s easier to think about what’s going on when looking at someone else’s patterns rather than your own.

Exhaustion can cause depression and will always make it worse. Avoiding this is a process of self care in which you do the pretty obvious thing of dealing properly with your own needs on a day to day basis. However, for people with low self esteem, this doesn’t work in the same way. If you feel that your needs don’t matter, it’s really hard to put them first. If you feel that putting your own needs first would turn you into a terrible, selfish monster, then running yourself into the ground can feel like the responsible choice. In terms of your mental health, it might be less terrifying than trying to be nice to yourself.

People don’t develop poor self esteem all by themselves. I think most of us learn it, or at the very least get it reinforced. And then when you burn out and people tell you off for not taking proper care of yourself, that doesn’t help. I had a lot of rounds of well meaning people pointing out that I could hardly look after anyone else if I wasn’t in good shape, but for a long time that wasn’t something I could work with, only feel as another form of failure.

Low self esteem will keep you feeling like a failure. Feeling like a failure will make you anxious and depressed. You keep running as hard as you can, doing as much as you can and burning out and falling over, and the question to ask is why? Why does that seem like a good idea? It is a hard question to ask and the answers may be tough.

If you don’t feel entitled to exist, then you may spend your whole life trying to make up for being here. Trying to justify your existence, or do something good enough that you can feel entitled to be just like a real person. However, anxiety and depression and burnout won’t raise your self esteem. Not meeting your own basic needs actually adds to low self esteem and keeps you locked in cycles of burnout, effort and despair. These are hard cycles to break. If looking after yourself leads to anxiety about being awful in some way, it’s really hard to look after yourself.

I’ve made a lot of progress on this in recent years, but not by tackling it head on. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to honour nature in my own body. If Druidry is honouring nature, then treating my mammal body the way I would any other mammal body is something I can get to grips with. Treating my fragility as nature manifesting, as the limitations of my physical self, and the natural realities of my existence has helped me cope with it better.

I’ve also learned that if I am complicit in something unethical, then I support and enable unethical behaviour. I need to model the ways of being that I want to see in the world. There are a number of lovely younger women in my life and I don’t want to show them how to trash yourself and burn out. I want to show them how to live well and take good care of themselves, and to do that, I have to embody it.

It is easier to think about how things impact on other people. If you have low self esteem, it may be easier to do things for other people than it is to do things for yourself. Setting a good example is also something you can do for the people around you. Living in the way you would like the people you care for to live, can be a way of breaking out of the awful cycles that low self esteem can otherwise create.


Dealing with being overwhelmed

The point at which you are overwhelmed is not the ideal time to be trying to find a strategy for dealing with this kind of thing. It is as well to have some plans in place before you are struck down. If you suffer from poor mental or physical health, you may be especially vulnerable to becoming overloaded. Here are some things I’ve noticed that I hope may prove helpful to others.

Rest is the best antidote to being overwhelmed. However, if everything is getting on top of you, then you may feel too panicked to rest, or unable to stop. If you are overloaded for too long, you may not remember how to stop, much less when to do it. It is important to plan rest time in advance if you think things are going to be tough. It’s good to be in the habit of planning rest time and setting time aside for it so that you have reminders that this is a thing you need to do. It’s surprising how easy it is to forget this in a crisis.

Good things can also be overwhelming. I find this one all too easy to forget and am often caught out by it. Good things need processing and digesting too, and need recovery time.

Know what helps you process things and cope. For some of us, reading, or walking, or crafting can be a quick route back to sanity. Know what works, and make sure that the people around you also know what works. That way, if you are overwhelmed and unable to think straight, someone else may be able to steer you towards the wool, or the woods, as required.

Planning ahead is good – if you know something is likely to be tough, planning the rest and recovery time is a good idea. Pacing is good – pay attention to your limits and respect them more of the time than not and you may be able to stay on top of things. However, it is so easy to be knocked sideways by the unexpected, and you can’t see everything coming. Try to keep some slack in your routines so that you can deal with the unexpected. Don’t be hard on yourself if you’re caught out by things you didn’t anticipate.

Anyone can be overloaded. A person who is overloaded too much and for too long will find their mental and physical health deteriorating. None of us cope with this well. There is no shame in being unable to bear the unbearable. There should be considerably more shame attendant on piling stress onto people, with unreasonable deadlines, impossible workloads, unfair demands on time and so forth. There should be considerable shame in asking people to act like everything is on fire, every day. Too many employers do it. The government does it to us as well.


Overcoming our own thoughts

I’ve done CBT work – I was given a booklet by my doctor some years ago. It gave me a few fire-fighting techniques, but I found it of limited use. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy assumes that the problem is you, and if you change your thinking you won’t feel as depressed or anxious. When the problems originate outside of you, changing your thinking can be like stepping into a gaslighting program where you start having to persuade yourself things are ok when they aren’t. This does not improve anyone’s mental health.

So, when your thoughts spiral out of control into anxiety and depression, and learning not to think those things isn’t the answer, what can you do? This is what I’ve come up with…

1) Define the problem. Pin down exactly what is making you feel anxious or depressed. If that’s triggering you into other problematic things, acknowledge it, but don’t dwell on the triggering any more than you can help. Take yourself seriously.

2) If you can get away from the trigger at all, do so, and then get whatever respite you can and your mind will eventually calm down.

3) Risk asses what’s going on. If the source of your distress is primarily functioning as a trigger and isn’t a threat in its own right, then go for self care, and maybe if you feel brave, look at the mechanics and see if you can change anything. Affirming that the threat is in the past and not with you now can help. Talk to someone about it, try and build a new perspective. If it’s an out of date coping mechanism, you can unpick it on those terms.

4) If you do your risk assessment and feel that the problem is happening right now, how you progress will depend a lot on the nature of the problem. Dealing with the threat or removing yourself from it are your best bets. If you feel the threat is small, then talking through how it makes you feel, or getting some help to tackle it may suffice. A scary bit of paperwork can be dealt with, you can recover and move on, for example. If you have a history with something it is perfectly reasonable to find it difficult. You can get on top of this, and you can feel better about things.

5) If something panics you so that you can’t think clearly about it, try and find someone who can work it through with you.

6) If the threat is real and larger, see what help you can get, be that the police, medical assistance, etc. There may be support groups out there, or advice to be had. If you are dealing with a significant threat, it is not irrational to feel anxious or depressed. Be clear with yourself that your feelings are totally appropriate, and vent them where you can to try and avoid being paralyzed by them. Work to remove the threat or to escape from it – you won’t be able to recover until the problem is dealt with.

7) If the threat is ongoing, it is going to take a toll. This includes situations like domestic abuse, workplace bullying, dealing with institutionalised racism, or any other misery created by the wider society and political structure you’re stuck in. Sometimes there is no ‘away’ to escape to and as the person suffering it really shouldn’t be your responsibility to fix what’s broken. If you take damage dealing with something like this it is not a sign of weakness or illness. It is a natural, human response to something inhuman. I wish I had more to offer you than this.


Too much information

Put me in a wood, a field or similar, and I’m a happy creature able to spot other happy creatures. Put me in a modestly busy human environment and I still function. However, in a busy human space, I can get really stressed and panicked. It’s a simple case of too much information. I can’t tune out the visual information or sound information coming to me. When there are hundreds of people talking and moving, I can’t concentrate on anything.

Some of this is hyper-vigilance issues, which in turn are a consequence of anxiety. Some of it is that I’ve always been good in woodland and able to spot small birds and rodents as well as larger presences. What’s good in a wood isn’t good in a heaving conference centre.

I made a bonnet for a recent steampunk event. Bonnets are Victorian gear, so, I knew it would fit in ok. They also radically cut down on peripheral vision. I reckon what I made cuts down my field of vision by about a half. Most especially it stops me seeing people who are almost behind me and enables me to focus on people who are in front of me. I was unsure whether this would reduce or increase stress. I think it depends on whether information overload or hyper-vigilance is your primary issue.

If your body is hyper vigilant, then things like having your back to a wall and being able to see all entrances and exits is more likely to reduce stress than simply reducing the information. Being caught unawares, or being harmed by what you can’t see coming is what your body is afraid of. The degree to which hyper-vigilance is an issue may also vary depending on how threatening you find the location. If you’re willing to experiment on yourself, cutting down on visual input may help you tell what’s going on with you, but the experimenting could cause discomfort. Also, we all react differently to different things, so if you do decide to explore this, bear in mind that you could have very different things happen.

Wearing the bonnet and cutting down how much I could see made me less stressed. I also had the opportunity to wear a large, woollen octopus on my head. The tentacles of the octopus also reduced my peripheral vision. I came through several large, very busy train stations while wearing the octopus, and that also reduced stress.

This leaves me pondering designs for blinkers – like the sort horses often wear to avoid being panicked. My suspicion is that blinkers could look kinky, so they may not be suitable for all circumstances. I’m also going to explore some hat modifications, because ear flaps might get me the same effect while helping keep my ears warm, and might not draw as much attention. Sometimes it’s good to be in a public space with a knitted octopus on your head, but sometimes it’s preferable to draw a bit less attention.