Tag Archives: anxiety

Habits of the anxious mind

We all see reality through the filters of our beliefs. We interpret experience in-line with what we already believe, we pay attention to things that fit with what we already think, and ignore or explain whatever doesn’t fit. This is often necessary because there’s too much information coming into our little minds, and this helps us deal with it. Obviously there are downsides.

A mind suffering with anxiety filters all experience through the assumption that things are dangerous. It will see threats where other minds would not. It hears criticism and setback, hazard and risk. This is often because the anxious mind has previously been overloaded with stress and/or trauma and is acting in a perfectly reasonable way to try and protect itself. It cannot see the world as anything other than hostile.

Anxiety may well have shattered a person’s ability to believe in themselves and have confidence in their skills and abilities. This means that the slightest setback or criticism can look like disaster to an anxious mind. It’s also why a response that tells off the anxious mind for overthinking and panicking actually makes things worse. It can simply confirm to the anxious person that they are stupid, over-reacting, useless. The anxious mind can latch onto that criticism instead and see themselves as a failure.

It is not easy for an anxious mind to consider the evidence in a non-anxious way. However, stopping and having a good look at a situation – however scary that seems – does help. Affirm to yourself that you are not irrational – there are perfectly good reasons why you feel as you do. From there, it’s that bit easier to just consider whether your perfectly good reasons are totally applicable in this situation. A tiny margin of uncertainty can make a lot of odds, and thus can allow a bit of reconsideration. Was it meant that way? Is it definitely doomed? Well, maybe not, and the uncertainty allows a tiny step down from the panic.

When any single way of relating to the world becomes normal, it’s really hard to challenge and change it. Be that fear, or depression, entitlement, arrogance, or a belief that your positive thinking will make everything magically come out for the best. It is not an easy thing to notice the mechanics of your own thinking, much less to change them, but it is possible. If you can’t make reasonable predictions about what’s happening around you, the odds are you have a dysfunctional filter of some sort. The emotions you most often feel will indicate what sort of filter you have running.

Reclaiming my intuition

The trouble with intuition, is that some people will use it to replace evidence in a way that cannot be argued with. The experience of people magically ‘knowing’ things that from where I was standing, looked like utter bullshit, left me reluctant to use my own for many years. I’m equally troubled by the way we use confirmation on social media ‘I have a bad feeling about today, does anyone else?’ Of course someone else does – the internet has a lot of people on it. I’m wary of how we can all use ‘intuition’ to tell us the things we want to hear, to affirm our biases, prejudices, personal insanity…

But life without intuition is thinner, paler and missing a lot of tricks. We absorb far more information than we can consciously process, and what emerges as a ‘gut feeling’ may not be ‘magic’ but instead the result of unconscious processing. If I let myself, then some of my best thinking happens this way.

How do you tell if what you’ve got is intuition, self indulgence, or madness? This is a question I’ve been asking myself for years. It’s especially loaded for me, because depression and anxiety create feelings of doom and misery, and I can persuade myself that I must be psychically knowing that something dreadful is going to happen, and spiral down into it, and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or I can attribute it to dodgy brain chemistry and let it go… How do I tell which is which?

The only thing I’ve got as a method of testing, is whether I can use it to make fair models of what will happen. If my gut feel about a person, or a situation, fits in fairly well with what happens, then regardless of whether that’s psychic-ness or unconscious processing, I’ve got something I can use. If my impressions don’t relate to reality, then something less helpful is going on. It requires an uneasy amount of self-honesty. Who doesn’t want to be magical, intuitive and special? It’s hard to look at a gut feeling and say ‘you aren’t real, my brain chemistry is playing up’ but sometimes that’s the path to sanity.

Then there’s the question of how we use intuitive insights in social situations. Some people are assholes. If that’s where you’re coming from, then aggressively asserting intuition as a means to power, to subdue or impress others, is just asshattery. It’s not good to go deliberately trying to poke around in other people’s heads and lives, either. It’s an invasion of privacy. If insight just turns up, then there’s a responsibility to use that kindly, and not as some kind of power trip.

I’ve spent some years now trying to be more open to my unconscious mind, to insight and intuition and at the same time to not let my depressive and anxious tendencies latch onto it. I’ve got a way to go, and I’m a long way from entirely trusting myself, but overall I like the trajectory.

Thinking about mental illness

How we think about mental illness, collectively, informs how a person who is suffering is able to behave. If we treat mental distress as something to be got over by ‘pulling yourself together’ or as not a real illness, then people suffering have little choice but to slog on, right up until they can’t.

I’ve found from personal experience over the last year, that if I draw direct lines between what I’m experiencing and some kind of bodily ailment, that I can make better choices about how to deal with it. What I’m going to offer here is crude and limited, but I hope it will work as a place to start.

A mild dose is like having a cold. It will probably clear up on its own in a fairly short time frame and it is possible to keep going and do all the things, although I’ll feel shitty and demoralised. Some time off would speed recovery.

A more serious bout is like having the flu – I really am going to need some time off to recover, I won’t be able to keep going as usual. It could knock me about for a few weeks and I’ll need to take things gently.

At its most serious, it’s like having pneumonia. There’s no way to keep going as usual, serious interventions, including medication and hospitalisation can be a consideration. Like pneumonia, serious depression can and does kill people and needs treating with just as much caution.

One of the important things about relating depression and anxiety to physical ailments is that it moves us towards treating the whole process as a bodily condition. I find this incredibly helpful. It’s not a failing, or a lack of will, or insufficient effort, any more than getting the flu is those things. Care and attention are required for recovery, but recovery is possible. For those who are afflicted in the longer term, other bodily analogies may prove more helpful.

Fevers are a useful analogy because when feverish, we can think all kinds of odd things that we wouldn’t believe for a moment when well. We can see and hear things that are illusionary. A breakdown in mental health can have a person thinking and believing all kinds of unhelpful things. If you can hold onto the notion that what’s happening may be a lot like the flu, it’s possible to avoid believing that the fever dreams of anxiety are based in reality. If depression and anxiety are things that are happening to you, not things you are, then it’s a good deal easier to resist them.

Illness and the magic thing

It’s important to talk about mental illness. Only by talking about it will we challenge the stigma, get rid of the inaccurate myths, challenge assumptions and improve things for everyone.

One of the big problems with mental health is that we treat it as an individual issue, with little or no reference to how context impacts on wellbeing. One very significant aspect of context is the way in which other people react. I’m conscious that many of the same things hold true for chronic illness. Certain kinds of responses silence people who are suffering, make it harder for us to ask for help, and can increase distress, anxiety and alienation. How people react to illness can make ill people more ill.

The big one (I think) is the idea that if we only tried harder and/or did ‘the magic thing’ we’d be fine. What ‘the magic thing’ is varies, but it will be something the person we’re dealing with is sure is a fabulous fix for everything. We’re told we should be on medication, or shouldn’t be on medication. We should make more effort, or get more rest. We should stop eating a thing, or start eating a thing, or do yoga, or practice mindfulness…

The person who says ‘I’m really struggling right now’ is not helped by being told they need the magic thing to fix them. Not least because we’ve all tried a whole array of alleged magic things already, and they mostly don’t save us. When you’re down, and beaten and exhausted and everything is hard about the least useful thing to hear is that you should be making more of an effort with something. Fear of dealing with this silences people, encountering it can kick those who are already down.

The motives for how we respond to illness in others stand questioning. If we make a suggestion to someone else, we may feel that’s us off the hook. We did our bit. We have no further responsibility. We may believe that because we are well, that something we are doing is the reason for this, and not that it might just be luck. Belief in ‘the magic thing’ protects us from having to be afraid that we could be unlucky and get sick. It may also allow us to feel superior, that our cleverly doing the right thing is keeping us well while others fall and suffer because they aren’t making as much effort as we are. Being blamed for illness adds to depression, despair, and a sense of alienation.

There is a balance to find here, because information sharing is a good and often helpful thing, but unsolicited medical advice from strangers is often demoralising. The thing to watch for is the tone. Sharing in solidarity – here’s the thing I tried, this is what happened – can be really helpful. ‘You should do this’ has a very different tone. There’s a power imbalance in it, a disrespect for the person on the receiving end. An implied superiority on the part of the person dishing out advice.

Another way of silencing, dismissing and injuring people who are ill is to tell them off for it. People who are told that expressions of distress are basically attention seeking and not ok learn not to mention it. You’re just making a fuss. You just want to be the centre of attention. You’re playing the victim again. You’re such a martyr… Which begs the question of why a person who is suffering should not be able to say so? The answer is all about the discomfort of the listener being more important than the distress of the person who is distressed. When you are deep in depression or other illness, and the distress caused by saying so is deemed more important than what you’re going through – that really doesn’t help. It’s a massive blow to self-esteem.

Depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels right now. We won’t change that without changing the context in which people are experiencing things.

Meditation and anxiety

Meditation can be really helpful for managing anxiety, but it can also trigger it. The most important thing to bear in mind is that the individual (be that you, or someone you are working with) is always right. If it doesn’t feel good, it isn’t good, simple as that. It doesn’t matter how useful or helpful someone else thinks a practice is, if it triggers anxiety, don’t do it.

For some of us, learning to control breathing is a great aid in dealing with panic. My panic attacks tend to impact on my breath – the more dramatic the attack, the more likely I am to lose control of my breathing. The discipline of breath control learned in meditation can help me avoid hyperventilating, and it can also help me reassert normal breathing if I have been panicked into entirely losing it. However, breath control is not a magic cure all, and if controlling your breath leaves you feeling anxious, it won’t help you.

A guided meditation or visualisation can be really good for taking the disturbed mind away from itself for a bit. A pathworking can be a wonderful distraction that allows the mind some respite. However, you have to trust the person who is speaking it for you. A recording that you can check through ahead of time may be of most use. A friend who knows your issues may be safe enough, but anyone leading can make mistakes – I’ve triggered participants in meditation, in all innocence. On one occasion I blew out the candle, not knowing one of the people meditating with me was seriously afraid of the dark.

If having someone else tell you what to do pushes anxiety buttons, stay away from guided meditations.

Often, anxiety issues relate to a fundamental fear of losing control or being powerless. Meditation can help you assert a sense of being in control of your own mind, able to step in and out of practices and ideas as you choose. Pick ways of working that support your right to determine what happens inside your head, and that affirm your sense of being in control.

You can use meditation as a safe space to confront issues of not being in control. You can face specific fears by visualising situations, explore letting go of protective measures and use contemplation to work on, or work out underlying issues. This can go a long way towards dealing with the causes of anxiety, but it’s something to do in your own time and on your own terms.

Miyazaki Meditations

I’m not the world’s most visually minded person, which, I confess, makes visual meditation hard work. I’m also, sometimes, a really stressed and anxious person. When you’re lying there at night with a thousand worries rampaging across your brain, it can be hard to switch that off to go to sleep. I’ve been meditating regularly for a good twenty years, but I still find there are times when my brain is triggered into frantic and counter-productive activity.

Meditating when it’s easy is all very nice, and probably very good for us, but it tends to be when meditation is hardest that we need it most. So, how do you even start to meditate when your brain is full of angry weasels?

I like pathworking, but the trouble with pathworking is that you need something to hold the path. Lying in bed at night (where meditation in self defence is an issue) a pre-recording won’t work, and getting my stress-fest of a brain to organise anything is at best a long shot.

What I’ve taken to doing, is using journey sequences from the films of Hayao Miyazaki. I’m especially fond of Spirited Away, where you can walk down the tunnel, out into the landscape, over the river and towards the bathhouse – it’s the perfect opening for a pathworking. Miyazaki films are visually intense, and I find them to be good soul food, so making myself go over a journey sequence helps to calm the brain weasels, while being unstressful, and inherently settling.

Any strong and familiar visual imagery would of course do it. Any sequence from a game, or a film, that gives you strong visual imagery to work with can be borrowed as the opening to a meditation – whether you’re working along the edges of sleep, or not.

Inside our brains, we form pathways in a fairly literal sense. Panic, anxiety and other unhelpful things can become the paths we walk, and the more often we walk them, the more we wear those paths into ourselves. Taking a different path is restorative, it can break cycles of fear and depression, and gives us a chance to go somewhere else, in every sense.

I have a book on meditation,and there are other excellent meditation books at Moon Books – more info here http://moon-books.net/blogs/moonbooks/meditation-books/

Meditation for people who mostly can’t

This year, The Pagan Federation Disabilities Team has run an online festival. Part of the idea is to make a festival that is available to people who can’t normally get to Pagan events. You can find it here – https://www.facebook.com/events/1834295640131014/ It’s still happening…

I made a film about meditation. When a person is depressed, anxious, ill or in pain, mediation can be very hard, and many forms can do you more harm than good.

Normally I make videos when I’m at my best. I wait until I’m awake and really focused, and that can mean days pass between the idea for a video and the making of one. On the day of recording, I’ll set my work up carefully so that I’m not exhausted over overloaded before I start. I have limited energy, so this is essential to my getting the best results I can.

With this video, I didn’t do that. I was tired, and my attention was poor, and at one point I could not remember the proper words for a thing I was trying to talk about (Sheena Cundy’s Nature Oracle Cards). I could have made a second recording. I could have edited. I didn’t, because I wanted to share something of the reality of trying to work with a brain that’s grinding to a halt.

Like most people with problems, I’m good at hiding it. For a disabilities event, it made sense to be more honest, as a gesture of solidarity with everyone else who is struggling.

Matters of belonging and learning to trust

I’m not good at trusting people. It’s not especially irrational; I’ve had my trust betrayed in some serious ways, in the past. I also suffer from anxiety (although nothing like as much as I used to). One of the things I’ve learned this week, from a fellow sufferer, is the way anxiety distorts perceptions. It’s easier to see when looking at someone else, and of course usually anxiety is only seen from the inside.

We learn patterns of behaviour. We learn what’s normal from how other people treat us, and we start learning this from our first breath. Things that are well-meant can have unhelpful consequences. One of the refrains of my childhood was being told not to show off, not to draw attention to myself. I worry every time I try to promote my work, that I’m acting out, showing off, behaving inappropriately. I have to fight my way past it on a regular basis. I know it’s there, and it’s one of the easier ones, not least because I’ve been blessed with so much positive feedback about my work that I know there’s plenty of you, dear generous blog readers, who are interested.

Still, dealing with people, I find it hard to imagine that I’m acceptable. It’s very easy for people to say in all innocence things that will cause me to take a step back. I infer that I’m too much, too difficult, too enthusiastic, imposing – I’ve heard these things so many times through my life that it’s easy to hear them when they aren’t quite what was meant.

What it means in practice is that to feel easy and secure in a situation, I need a fair amount of positive feedback. I need to know where I fit, and that I fit, and that I am welcome. Recent years have brought me a number of critically important spaces where I feel I  belong. There’s my marriage, for a start. The Contemplative Druid group has been a welcoming, patient, affirming space where I’ve felt able to speak honestly, and have had chance to tackle some of my body contact issues. I feel a sense of belonging with OBOD, although that’s all through the ether and somewhat more ephemeral. I feel a deep sense of belonging at Moon Books, where the affirmation that my work is valued has been ongoing, and I take considerable joy in helping and supporting other authors. I’m starting to feel a sense of belonging with Druid Camp too (it’s taken me nearly three years). This week I’ve realised that Stroud Short Stories is also going to be one of those spaces for me.

One of the hardest things for me, is to trust people to find me acceptable. It makes me hesitant around relationships of all shapes and sizes. I stay still when perhaps I could step forward. When in doubt, what I hear in my head are the voices of the people who explicitly rejected me in the past, for being too much trouble. But there are people who have been patient with me, and just kept giving me reasons to keep trusting them, to keep talking, to stay. People who are generous with their affirmations make worlds of difference. Thank you.

To know where I belong is to be able to put down the utter shit of the past, and let it go, and do something better, with people who want to be doing things with me.

Survival tips for people who are on fire (metaphorically)

Some weeks ago I procured and read The everything Guide to Adrenal Fatigue. One of the main consequences, is that I’ve changed how I think about my body. Rather than just experiencing how I’m feeling, I’ve started to consider it in terms of chemistry. Not very sexy, but a good deal more useful! Here are some things I have learned so far that may help other people dealing with forms of burnout, stress, and depression.

I cannot tell the difference between depression and exhaustion when I am feeling them. I also often confuse anxiety with pain. If I tackle the pain and the exhaustion, I feel less depression and anxiety. If I take the pain and exhaustion seriously as issues, I am less likely to want to call them depression and anxiety, and thus I feel more able to do something about them. I have stopped thinking of myself as a person suffering from fatigue and started thinking of myself as a person who really needs a rest. This is helping me make changes. Other people’s mileage will vary depending on what the underlying issues are.

Thoughts and feelings are connected. If I let panic get a hold of me, I can run my body into the ground. If I let myself feel pressured, even making lunch can bring the threat of burnout. I have to slow down, take deep breaths, try to put things into perspective, and not let myself be panic stricken about what I haven’t done yet. I’m not actually on fire, it just feels that way. If I can control my thoughts, I can get in control of everything else and change something of how I am feeling. I have been in situations I could not control, this fear is a legacy from that, but I am not there now and need to learn to be gentler. People who are actually on fire need actual help, and will not be able to change things by thinking about it. I have been there, I need to recognise the consequences.

I need the good stuff. Happiness is not a luxury, not something I have to earn, not an optional extra. It is key to my viability. I need things that make me happy and leave me feeling good. I must not, therefore, squander my precious downtime on things I find stressful or miserable. I have to stop doing what other people want me to do and start doing what I want me to do. I have to trust the people close to me to support me in this and I must be less willing to tolerate people who don’t really care whether I am happy or not.

I have to stop using sugar and caffeine as a crutch to keep me upright when I’ve burned out. I need to handle exhaustion with rest, not with using stimulants to keep pushing myself ever onwards. I can have sugar and caffeine, but I need to treat them as recreational drugs, not as things I am dependent on.

I have to recognise when I can’t do what’s wanted, or don’t want to, or haven’t the energy, or the inclination and so forth, and say ‘no’ to people sometimes.

I have to be aware of the pressure I feel around money, work achievements, social engagement, the need to be a really fantastic activist and all the other things that would cheerfully suck me dry if I let them. I have to hold my own boundaries. Other people cannot be relied on to hold those boundaries for me, or to respect them. My body is a finite resource and needs treating that way.

Drowning, Lying, Waving

“You know what your problem is? You’re too proud to ask for help.” This was some years ago. I was burned out, exhausted, crying and my then-baby had just thrown up in a really unhelpful way even by the usual standards of baby vomit. Oddly, these words did not uplift me or inspire me to feel more able to seek help when I needed it. Quite the opposite happened.

Of course this event was one amongst many, and they all turn up in my head in moments of dark depression when I desperately need help. The times I most need care, comfort, support, a friendly ear, companionship and distraction are the times I am least able to mention it. Based on observation, this is true of a lot of people struggling with depression and anxiety. When we are drowning, we lie, we pretend we’re waving really. Ask us and we’ll tell you we were waving even as the water fills our mouths.

Some of this, no doubt, is to do with the very nature of depression. You look around and there’s all these other busy people with important things to do, and all these manifestly more worthy people with bigger problems, and how can you ask anyone to prioritise your small malfunction? So you don’t mention it. Pride may enter the equation sometimes for some people, but I’m prepared to bet most of the time it’s not the main reason for silence. Unfortunately silence makes it easier to stay in the bottom of the hole and increases the chances of wanting to die. Breaking the silence is hard. I can’t talk about it when I’m in the bottom of the hole. Only at times like this, when my head is in a passable state can I talk about the mechanics of what goes wrong.

Some of it is to do with why we are depressed in the first place. Like a lot of troubled people, I have a head full of other people’s voices. Things that were said to me that demoralised me when I needed support. Don’t make a fuss, don’t be such a nuisance, stop feeling sorry for yourself, lots of people are worse off than you are, stop playing the martyr, stop with the crocodile tears and the emotional blackmail. Pull yourself together. And if we haven’t heard it directly, we’ve picked up that vibe form how our government treats the sick, or we’ve run into the positivity brigade telling us the only real problem is our own attitude. It feels safer to be silent. Speak, make the misery visible, and there’s every chance someone will tell you something they think is helpful – like the quote I started with – that will leave you feeling more inclined to top yourself.

And then, the people who do break and take their own lives, lead to comments about why did they never ask for help, why didn’t they tell anyone? If you think saying ‘I feel suicidal’ will get you a ‘stop being so melodramatic’ then you don’t say it. If you think it will be treated as ‘a cry for help’, or a way of manipulating someone to get your own way, you don’t say it.

If you can, find allies who have the strength of heart and guts to hear you without judging.

If you’re on the outside of this, of course the questions go, is this person seeking attention, trying to manipulate me, lying, some kind of drama queen. They could be – it happens. However, if you’ve got to step back, try and do so gently, because these things take their toll. I’ve been the melodramatic fuss maker for a lot of people in my life, and that judgement of me has made it considerably harder to seek help when I needed it. I’m sure the people making the judgements were confident they were right, and that it was fair to not just refuse help, but also to give me a metaphorical slap, for just these reasons, but it is a bloody awful thing to be on the receiving end of when you’re already down.