Tag Archives: anxiety

Being Excited

One of the things I’m paying attention to in my quest for a more joyful life, is the role excitement plays. I need things to be excited about. I need to imagine things I’m going to be doing that it’s worth working towards – mixes of challenge and opportunity work well for me. I went back to playing the viola because I was excited about a possibility, and that in turn has opened up more possibilities for me.

I have a need for novelty, and I get bored easily. This was a problem in my first marriage, and something that brought me a lot of criticism. Why couldn’t I be happy with what I had? Why was I always chasing new experiences? Why couldn’t I be happy with what I’d done already and just settle down? For a long time I felt a lot of shame around that, not helped by a sense that there was perhaps something un-spiritual about these feelings.

I’ve let go of the shame on this one. I crave new experiences, and I am hungry for ideas. I get depressed when my brain doesn’t have enough to chew on. I can’t write if I don’t have a rich supply of ideas coming in. I want to encounter the world as fully as I can, to see and know, to bodily experience and be affected by lots of different things. If I don’t have that, or the prospect of it, I don’t feel excited. If I’m not excited at least some of the time, I am far more likely to slide into depression. It takes more to get me out of bed in the morning than the prospect of the same, predictable grind. I feel dull in face of dullness, and that really doesn’t work for me.

I find I rather like experiencing myself as an exciting person. That depends to a fair degree on how other people react to me and to what I’m doing. It cheers me greatly when other people find me interesting and want to engage with whatever I’m doing. I like me better when I’m the sort of person who is out there making things happen, having adventures and creating things. I’ve discovered a lot in the last six months or so about the contexts in which I like being myself, and it’s something I’m choosing to invest in. It’s increasingly obvious that when I’m enthused enough to put things out there I am most likely to be engaging and interesting for other people.

Apathy sucks the joy out of a person and makes it harder to act. Caring and investing are vital underpinnings for being able to feel excited. Some capacity for hope is also important. Sharing enthusiasm with other people is really powerful, I find. I’m more likely to be excited about what I’m doing if someone else is excited about it too. I’m deeply affected by other people’s enthusiasm and I find that good to be around. 

I know there can be issues around the idea that enthusiasm isn’t cool. We’re supposed to be calm and dispassionate and being a proper grownup seems to mean being joyless and unresponsive, especially in face of anything that hasn’t cost a lot of money. I’m a long way past caring whether anyone thinks I’m childish, or silly because a life without much enthusiasm is hard to bear. I’m happy to be a bit ridiculous, and I’m not prepared to be ashamed of this part of me.

Anxiety past and future

When people talk about anxiety it’s often around the idea of being afraid of what’s going to happen. Don’t worry about the future, cheerful memes tell us. You can’t control the future, you have to live in the present. My growing suspicion is that anxiety isn’t about the future at all, but about the past, and perhaps to some degree, the present.

There are people who just worry about things randomly and for no good reason, but they seem to be rare. The people I know who struggle with anxiety do so for reasons. Experience has made them anxious. The fears are not irrational and it may also be the case that the source of anxiety is ongoing and pressing. Poverty is a simple example of this. Living in poverty creates a great deal of stress and causes problems that are not easily solved. Having no money will create the fear of becoming homeless, and the life expectancy of people who are without homes is shockingly low, so there’s a lot to be reasonably afraid of there.

When people experience trauma, it changes them. It’s fair to assume that a lot of people out there are dealing with trauma legacies, most usually from sexual assault and domestic abuse. No matter what the exact shape of the trauma is, it leaves you feeling fundamentally unsafe. A lot of PTSD recovery work depends on asserting that what happened was a one off and that you don’t therefore have to be afraid of everything. This might work for a person whose trauma centres on a specific event. However, when there have been multiple traumatic experiences over time, what’s happened is that the person has been persuaded that the world is not a safe place.

Anxiety is the grip of the past. It’s the ongoing impact of things that already happened. It isn’t about an imagined future or about wonky thinking, its about being unable, bodily, to let go. You can’t forget, you can’t unknow and so the fear lives inside you.

How rational is it to try and retrain a brain so that it thinks the world is, broadly speaking, a safe place? For a lot of people, this just isn’t true. If you have reason to think you might be beaten up for your sexual identity or shot because of your skin colour, you know you aren’t safe. If you have to get up tomorrow and go to a job where the stress makes you bodily ill, you aren’t safe. If you can’t afford to buy sufficient food, you aren’t safe.

All too often what we do is centre the problem in the person who is suffering. What we need to do is make improvements so that people are actually safer, rather than having interventions that depend on persuading people that they are ok, when really, they are not and do not actually have much control over things. The person who can genuinely overcome anxieties by undertaking to worry less did not have massive problems to begin with.

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.