Tag Archives: anxiety

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 If it’s an out of date coping mechanism, you can unpick it on those terms.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.

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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.


When good things exhaust me

Good things are supposed to be… good. However, something it has taken me a long time to get my head round, is that if I’m burned out, or close to it, good things are just as problematic in some ways as slightly bad things. This, frankly, is annoying, but in learning how to see it coming I’ve been able to look after myself more effectively.

It’s easy to forget that good things also take energy. Good news, exciting developments, moments of joy, relief and the like all take energy. They take a lot more energy than just shuffling along in a non-descript state. Sometimes, good things even bring an adrenaline burst. If you’re an anxious person, then adrenaline means anxiety even when you know a good thing is happening. I was told by an entirely unhelpful person some years ago that I can’t tell the difference between excitement and anxiety. My head can, but for my body, there is no difference. It’s not a failing, or something to fix by trying harder it’s just what happens.

Good things require processing time. If I’m feeling a lot of emotions, I need time to work that through. It’s more obvious when the feels are all difficult, that self-care is in order. Intense good feelings need just as much processing time as difficult feelings. The high of something good can provide a lift, but if my energy is poor then on the far side of the happy peak, is a slide down into a low place. If I know the slide is coming, I can handle it better.

I’ve spent most of my life doing intense highs and lows. The only times I haven’t were when I was too depressed to do the highs in the first place. I’ve always believed that the lows were the price of the highs and chose to accept that as a trade-off. However, in recent years I’ve become more interested in exactly how my brain and body work, and it suggests something more complex is going on. I can have highs without an inevitable crash afterwards if my energy levels are generally good. I can navigate the aftermath of highs better if I give myself processing time.

Sometimes resting is enough for emotional processing. Sometimes I can sleep it off and let my unconscious, dreaming mind figure out all the things. Sometimes I can walk it off or bounce it off on the trampoline to get excess energy under control. However, when it’s a more complicated feeling, I need to dance, or sing, or play a musical instrument for a while. I think these help me most because they let me manifest how I’m feeling without having to get specific words on it. I can express emotions and embody them and settle them into me. Some emotions are big enough to have an impact on who I think I am and how I view my life as a whole. They take some processing. It’s better if I make time and space for them.


Mental health support kit

Yesterday on social media, fellow Druid Cat Treadwell pointed out that for physical injuries and disabilities, we use things to help us – walking sticks, being her example. There’s no immediately obvious kit to use as a mental health support. So, I started thinking about things I habitually carry, and things I’ve carried in the past. This is not an exhaustive list. Plus, this probably needs to be personal.

Rescue Remedy (contains alcohol, so not for everyone).

Tissues.

Bottle of water. (I’ve yet to find a situation where water hasn’t helped me).

Something with sugar in it (if you do sugar and if sugar soothes you).

Something hard I can grip to focus my mind (tends to be either keys or crystals for me.)

Something affirming (I used to carry a little plastic figure of Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard in my pocket to protect me from evil. He was totally effective.)

Something tactile and reassuring to touch (I’ve often got a friendly stone in my pocket).

I also find there’s something inherently reassuring about going out with extra gear – whether that’s waterproofs, a sunhat, or other bits and pieces of useful things. I feel more in control when I’ve got some sort of a kit bag to help me deal with changes and thus to face the unexpected. Starting out feeling a bit more in control really helps with the anxiety, I have found.

 


Drama and Anxiety

I hate drama, but anyone who has ever dealt with me when I’ve been panicking could easily assume that I love it. I expect I’m not alone on this, and that talking about the mechanics might be useful for people who find they are dealing with other people’s anxiety.

Anxious minds generally haven’t got there by themselves. The fear of failure, the need to psychically know and guard against any mishap, even the ones you could never have imagined… Experiences that mean you know exactly how it could spiral out of control leave anxious people hyper vigilant. We’re looking for trouble, for threats, for things that could go wrong because we’re trying to make sure they don’t go wrong. We may feel unreasonably responsible for making everything ok, and again, people who get to this point often don’t do so alone, they’ve been made responsible for things they have no control over, which is a damaging experience.

The anxious mind may be looking for the small, controllable thing that could be changed to avert the big disaster. Put that way, it may sound fairly logical, but in practice it means we may be constantly catastrophising. Small problems appear to us as really big problems in the making because experience has taught us to look at things that way. If anything starts going wrong, that threat gets bigger, and at those points I start seeing many, many means by which it could all play out in the worst possible ways. Anxiety plus a vivid imagination is a tortuous mix.

If a person is anxious because of historical trauma, then getting into a fear situation can trigger flashbacks and much deeper fear. It can go beyond being anxious, to being terrified, overwhelmed, being consumed with absolute panic. That in turn can look like some very random flailing from the outside. If you don’t know a person’s terrors, then what they do and say when gripped by terror may not make a lot of sense.

From  the outside, it isn’t easy to tell who is just enjoying being the centre of attention and who is mired in terror and misery. You may rightly not want to get involved with someone else’s wallowing in drama. If you’re a halfway decent person you probably also don’t want to add to the suffering of someone who has been triggered into a state of intense distress.

Look closely, and the anxious person will not be enjoying it. They won’t be drawing attention to their panic any more than they can avoid. They may also be anxious through to terrified about how people are even going to react to the state they are in. They are more likely to apologise (and in the case of people with an abuse history, apologise a lot and for things they clearly have no control over). They may not be able to hear reassurances or accept comfort easily but once they can, they will respond well to sources of safety and calm. Anxious people seek affirmation and safety, although we may use some convoluted routes to try and get there. Drama people seek escalation and attention. Anxious people are exhausted by terrifying episodes. Drama people feed on it.

The anxious person wants to be safe, and they want the people around them to be safe. The person who does drama for attention wants to be the centre of attention. In the heat of a stressful situation it can be hard to decide what you’re dealing with but I think it is possible to tell the two apart. If you ply a drama person with care and support, they will keep having more drama. It can take time to get an anxious person out of the loops and cycles of fear, but it is possible. Over time, a person can heal themselves but it helps if there’s a safe environment in which to do it. Treat an anxious person like they’re just making drama for the hell of it and you can make things a good deal worse for them, silencing them and limiting their scope to ask for help. The drama lover will just seek out a new audience if they aren’t getting the feedback they crave. Unfortunately, seeing what someone does with your disbelief can be the easiest way of identifying what’s going on. For the anxious person, that can mean yet more broken trust, yet more isolation and fear of asking for help.


Facing a trigger

There is a world of difference between causing anxiety, and triggering. Anxiety is unpleasant, no two ways about it, but a trigger will give a person a flashback to a situation of trauma. It is possible to tackle anxiety by facing up to the sources of fear – and of course the less well founded the fear is, the more effective this is. Sometimes we end up scared of things for no good reason and we have to retrain ourselves to deal with stuff. I’ve done some of this along the way, I’ve found CBT approaches really useful.

The worst thing to do to someone who suffers PTSD is to make them revisit the trauma. Untreated trauma, and trauma revisited can build up layers of additional triggers and problems. Been there too. I don’t have a PTSD diagnosis because the doctor I was seeing when that would have been most useful didn’t want to send me for tests – not because he thought there was no issue, he just didn’t want to send me for tests, and I didn’t have the energy to fight him. Every single professional person I encountered over a period of years – doctors, police, solicitors, social workers and the like, every last one of them required me to retell what had happened. That’s a lot of deep retriggering, often in situations where being distressed put me at a significant disadvantage. I have no idea if being able to name a diagnosis would have helped.

Triggering happens because something is too associated with the original trauma, and brings it all back. This is why trigger warnings matter – on obvious things like child abuse, torture, extreme cruelty and rape it is worth warning people because anyone who has experienced that will suffer enormously if they come upon it unprepared. This isn’t like pushing past fear of going outside to go outside – because in that example, you go outside and you probably don’t face a terrible thing. Being triggered means facing a terrible thing. So on the whole, facing down a trigger is not the ideal way to deal with it.

The further removed the trigger is from the trauma, the more chance you have of taking it out. You need to stack up a lot of time feeling safe and secure first. There is no real scope for dealing with triggers while you’re still in a dangerous situation. I’ve written before about how I have overcome being panicked by post. I’ve got that down to just a bit anxious, now. The reason I had become so panicked by post, was that terrifying things came in envelopes for some years. Many of those terrifying things came from my solicitors, and every envelope represented a bill that would cripple me financially for good measure. Between this and the deliberate retriggering described above, I’ve been totally unable to deal with most people in a professional capacity for some years now.

Yesterday I went to see a solicitor about making a will. The same family solicitors company responsible for all that letter sending. I let a professional person ask questions about my life. But, because it was a will, we didn’t get into the stuff I never want to have to talk about again. And I knew upfront what it would cost. The appointment letter, when it came in the post, made me feel bodily sick, but I weathered it. I’ve kept reminding myself that I’m in charge of this process. Perhaps next year I will find the means to go and talk to a doctor – and it will be a different doctor – about things that are wrong with me.

It has taken me years to get to the point where I feel like I can do this. Years of kindness and support on the domestic front. Years of rebuilding my sense of self. It is possible to challenge a trigger, but it is not something to rush towards. Only the person dealing with the trigger can say when it might be worth having a go.


In the aftermath of anxiety

A panic attack can be a rather self announcing thing. It has inherent drama, so it can be possible for people not experiencing the panic to tell that something is going on. However, the aftermath of a panic attack is also a difficult time, and it is far harder to see what’s going on then, so I thought it might be a useful thing for me to talk about.

The physical symptoms can persist. Raised heart rate, tight chest, difficulty breathing – these things can go on for hours, even days after a big panic attack. It feels awful and can lead to the fear that something has gone wrong at a bodily level. I’ve never been clear how you’re supposed to tell between panic and heart attack warning signs. Those of us who suffer panic are told to ignore what others are told to take seriously.

There can be a huge emotional backlash. It invariably leaves me feeling like I’m stupid, irrational and I’m embarrassed by my loss of control. I hate not being able to control what I’m doing. I get anxious that people will not take me seriously, or will think it’s a stunt, a bid for attention, an attempt at emotional blackmail. Often as a consequence I will become withdrawn afterwards, especially when I don’t know how people are responding to me.

Once panic has been triggered, it is easier to re-panic me. This can lead to incredibly vicious cycles where it gets ever harder to stop panicking. Without calm and respite, panic can get seriously out of control.

Exhaustion is a common part of the backlash. Emotional and bodily exhaustion can be severe and can last for days. The desire to just down tools and go to bed is huge. When things are really bad, a massive panic attack can result in the no energy, not coping outcome of a big round of depression.

If you are dealing with a person who suffers from panic, then the best way to find out how to help them is to ask. On the whole, taking people seriously and treating them kindly makes a lot of odds. However, as panic is often related to abuse experiences, make sure that what you do to help doesn’t seem controlling, doesn’t give the sufferer the feeling that they are so useless they can’t take care of themselves, doesn’t patronise or demean them. Those of us who are ok with being touched can be significantly soothed through long hugs, but never hug without asking. Unsolicited body contact can be a panic trigger. Bring drinks, reduce noise, remove threats, talk calmly, give space and time.

Triggers are tricky things. Someone else’s triggers may make no sense to you, and you may feel that the time it takes them to recover is unreasonable. This is because it isn’t your trigger, or your history, or your body, and it is important to bear that in mind when dealing with someone in distress.


Making space for the feels

For much of my life, I’ve had external pressures making me feel emotionally unacceptable. Along the way I’ve been mocked, shamed, humiliated and punished for expressing my feelings. I’ve loved people dearly only to find them horrified by any expression of my loving them dearly. I’ve been told my expressed emotions are so extreme as to seem fake. Ridiculous, over the top, drama queen, attention seeking… you get the idea.

And so I learned to mute myself. To not say a good 90% of whatever I feel. To understate, make tame and easy and comfortable everything that goes on inside me. I’ve crushed myself to avoid having to deal with others crushing me. I’ve known for a long time that this process, whether it comes from within or without, has a ghastly effect on my mental health. But I’ve also learned how to put a poker face on and hide that as well. It seems fair to assume that the people who habitually dismissed me would also dismiss mental breakdowns as further attention seeking and fuss making.

In recent years I have benefited from safer and more supportive space and it has allowed me to stretch and experiment a little. I find that if I make some space for me in which I can be totally honest about how I feel, that I don’t take damage. Often this means getting some time alone (bathrooms are excellent for this) and holding a few minutes of space where I can feel the unacceptable thing. Anger, frustration, resentment, envy, bitterness – these are often the most trouble to express. However, I can have a fair amount of trouble with joy, pain, sorrow… I’m still not easy about crying over films in company.

If I make some space for me, and properly acknowledge what I’m feeling and treat it with respect, then hiding it feels very different. I am not made smaller. I am not crushing myself.

There are a lot of things I cope with by bullshitting. Physical pain is a constant in my life. Depression and anxiety are often present in my head. I’m often short of energy. I don’t find that dwelling on these helps me, and I prefer, for my own dignity and comfort, to put a good face on it. But this also means that most people are dealing with my fakery, and have no idea what’s really going on. Recently I’ve been experimenting with saying how things are but acting as I normally act. I’m working out who responds well to that information, who shares honestly in return, and who says ‘how are you?’ as a social gesture expecting ‘fine thank you how are you’ as the only possible reply. Because it’s not about genuine care, it’s about presenting socially in the right way.

I also find that where I make space deliberately for other people to be honest with me, and they take me up on that, I feel more confident about expressing myself. It gets easier to do the good stuff, too. To be exuberant, wholehearted, affectionate, to laugh wildly, and all those things, in the company of people who have room for it. Once again I find myself obliged to point out that mental health problems require community solutions. I did not get into that mess alone, I have not got out of it alone.


Meditation for mental health

Meditation can seem like an excellent tool for tackling mental health problems. So much so that if you go to a GP, you may find that mindfulness is suggested as the answer to your problems. Here are some of the things meditation helps with, and things it doesn’t.

Using meditation to calm panic attacks. You have to be an experienced meditator to be able to make your brain switch gear in face of panic. If you are learning to meditate to control panic, do not expect rapid results.

Using meditation to reduce anxiety. It can work if the panic is all inside your head. However, the odds are good that there are external stressors involved. You can learn to be calmer through meditation and thus cope better with stressors, if the stress isn’t too much. If you are under constant pressure, it is only by dealing with the external problem that you can sort out the anxiety. It isn’t all about what goes on in your head – not if you are bullied, forced to work in inhuman conditions, not getting enough rest or sleep and so forth. Trying to meditate your way out of it can make you feel more responsible for a problem not of your making.

Working alone and meditating in a way that makes you more aware of what your brain is doing (ie mindfulness style approaches) can work if your faulty thinking is most of the problem. For most people, anxiety has been caused by something. Sitting mindfully with your traumatic memories will do you more harm than good. Resolving trauma without the support of a counsellor is a long, hard, painful road. It can be walked, but I feel no one should have to do this alone.

When a person is depressed, the world appears in certain ways. I’ve never found meditation helpful for changing my outlook, not if all the meditation does is send me inwards into my own personal hell. Distraction is much better – pathworkings and other guided meditations, meditating on something simple and uplifting – a plant, a cloud, a nice oracle card… Getting out of your own head in this way can bring considerable relief. Sometimes, just getting the headspace is enough to help move things forward. Sometimes it isn’t.

There’s every reason to use meditation techniques for immediate relief and for coping with problems. If you find you can use it to tackle larger problems – all power to you. However, if you find meditating makes things worse, it is not a personal failing. If you find no respite, and that it sends you further down your own rabbit holes, don’t do it. If your problems are out there in the world and caused by other people, don’t make yourself solely responsible for fixing things.

Meditation is not a magic bullet, it is not a salve for every ill. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either trying to let themselves off the hook, or save themselves money, or wants to diminish your problems for their own comfort. It may be that they’ve only experienced very mild depression and anxiety – the sort meditation can definitely help with – but they don’t know what a minor brush they’ve had.


Intuition, ill health and uncertainty

As a much younger human, I trusted my intuition, but through my twenties I became ever less able to do so. For a long time I’ve had incidents that make it difficult to tell what I’m dealing with.

Anxiety will tell you that something is terribly wrong. Depression will tell you that there’s no point even trying, it’s all hopeless. Stress will tell you that you have to keep going, flat out no matter what. Problems with bodily health can feel like psychic attacks, premonitions or signs. If you start buying into these as intuitions of the truth, what you do is reinforce whatever is wrong with you. But at the same time, none of these conditions turn your intuition off, so that can also mean missing important insights.

I don’t think intuition is a ‘woo-woo’ issue, at least not all the time. We take in vast amounts of information – far more than we are consciously aware of. We do most of our processing unconsciously. Thus often what we experience as a magic thing happening, is really our brains having worked through what we’d got. Those ping moments of inspiration, eureka, and intuition aren’t at odds with reasoned thinking, they’re just one mechanism amongst many. At the same time, if your take on reality has room for truly magical things to happen, well, sometimes what we intuit can be so far removed from what we had information about, that this seems plausible.

The question remains, how to tell one from another? Just because you’re feeling anxious, doesn’t mean you’re paranoid. Just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean nothing is crushing you down.  In the last few years I’ve let go of the idea that my intuition is totally broken, unreliable and best ignored, and started making space for it. I’ve started trying to tease out those threads of mental health, hormonal activity, body feelings and so forth to get a better picture of what’s going on in my life.

I’ve come up with a couple of things I think are useful. Firstly, checking in with someone else. Most mental health issues make it difficult to trust your own judgement or perceptions. If there’s a person you really trust, being able to run things past them can be helpful. Am I being paranoid? What’s the most likely source of this experience? What’s your perception? It is worth being wary because two people intent on out-wooing each other can build layer upon layer of imagined things and end up convinced that they’re at the centre of a magical war or some such (I do not jest, I’ve seen it happen). If you can help each other think critically, all well and good. If not, it may do more harm than good.

My other solution is to give my intuition defined outlets – divination tools to play with where the interpretations do not depend so much on my own mental state. Oracle cards are great for this. It gives me a cross reference for the body feeling. Do the cards reinforce what I’m experiencing, or are they at odds with it, or do they cast the whole thing in a different light? It’s also a way of honouring and making space for my intuition rather than wholly distrusting it, and I feel better for being able to do that.