Tag Archives: depression

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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Landscapes of the mind

The way in which we use the language of ‘up’ to express positivity has been on my mind since I read Ecolinguistics (review here). Moving forward, going up, rising – these are all presented as good things both in mental health, and in other aspects of western, capitalist society. Growth has to go up to be good. Sales going up are good – and no matter the reason or the cost.

I can experience entering a state of depression as a sinking feeling or a fall – there is a bodily sensation I associate with it that has a definite trajectory. However, that’s just the beginning, and it is normal for me to stop falling. Once I’m in depression, I may experience it as being more like a confined space that I don’t know how to leave, or a plateau in a landscape where all the colour is washed out.

Imagine only seeking an upward trajectory. That means constantly seeking a new high, and when we use that language, what is evoked is not bliss, but addiction. If you are always trying for a bigger high, you’re probably using substances, or addicted to adrenaline. In the landscape of the mind, always going higher isn’t a good thing, but we don’t talk about the process of feeling good as much as we talk about depression, so beyond the uplift of recovery, it’s not really explored.

Our natural emotional states fluctuate. Our inner landscapes tend to be like physical landscapes that have some diversity in them. We go up and down. We have awkward bits and easy bits, fertile bits and arid bits. In a physical landscape, the highest places you can go are mountains, and it is worth noting that people don’t tend to live on the tops of mountains because while they may be exciting, they are neither safe nor sustaining for us.

In a physical landscape, the furthest down you can go is into cave systems – which can be dangerous, but people have lived in caves. Down at the lowest level on the ground tends to be where you find the most fertile soils and the river valleys that have supported human civilizations for a very long time. Low ground tends to be suitable for us, sustaining and inhabitable. Has the metaphor broken down now, or is there more to it?

We use ‘high’ and ‘low’ to describe power, status and value. High is always good, low is always bad. Even when we’re talking low cost to the buyer, we all know that it means a lack of quality, it’s the crappy stuff for the poorer people. In terms of our inner states, high and low are both problematic. Most of us do not thrive when living at emotional extremes.

Sometimes, the dark journeys through the cave systems of our mind are necessary. The Dark Night of the Soul is a spiritual experience. Sometimes we have to break down to break through. Our ‘negative’ emotions are part of a healthy and engaged response to life. Grief, fear, pain and anger aren’t things to reject, but to acknowledge as part of what it means to be human. If you care, you will also worry, and hurt and grieve. We would be better off if we did not treat our own ‘low’ places as states to avoid, but were able to make room for them.


Being crap together

Being professional means putting a brave face on it, feigning competence when you feel you have none. Smiling at people because it’s your job to smile at people and not because anything inside you feels like smiling. It’s not necessarily just a work issue. Maybe in your family you are the one who is always calm, clever, able to figure stuff out. Maybe in your friend circle you’re the joker, the one who cheers everyone else up.

When you’re depressed, the roles that you usually play can feel like awkward masks. Taking the mask off and showing what’s really going on may be unthinkable. Playing the roles you’ve got when you don’t feel equal to any of them takes a toll, and that emotional cost can push you further into the dark places. Depression can tell you that no one would accept you if you took the mask off and showed them what was really going on.

What happens if we are crap together? What happens if you spend some time with other people and no one has to be clever, or shiny or on top of things? If it’s ok to be tired and have poor concentration, and the conversation lurches awkwardly and is slow and full of gaps… but those gaps aren’t awkward and no one is jumping into the spaces to make anyone else feel small or useless.

Imagine a social space where showing up as you are is totally fine. Where you sit at the table all evening and barely manage a word, but that’s ok, and no one judges you for it or makes anything of it. Imagine not having to pretend to be upbeat for the sake of those around you.

Feeling safe, feeling honest and able to be as you are is a huge gift. It is worth taking a look at the expectations we pile onto ourselves and asking if that’s really how it is. Sometimes it is worth taking the risk of showing up feeling crap and with nothing much to offer. It is always worth embracing other people’s crapness and just having space for them even when they aren’t up to much. It is a huge gift to give. Low expectations can be generous blessings in other people’s lives.

When we move away from ideas of who we are supposed to be in our social lives and make space for where we are, connections with people become deeper and more authentic. If you’ve bought into ideas about presenting as clever, successful, socially potent and all the rest of it, this is a hard crossing to make. On the other side there is more peace, ease, relief and far less stress. When we can be real with each other, when we can be crap together, the world is a far kinder place.

Depressed people are often encouraged to get over it, make an effort, give more in social situations and are often pushed (including by CBT therapy) to try and act ‘normal’. What I’ve found in practice is that if the people around you have room for you to be as you are, however gloomy that is, things get easier. Permission to be your real, hurting self and feeling seen and accepted in that state changes so much. A fake it until you make it approach does not, in my experience, fix depression. It may hide it, but it is only adding to the emotional burden. The person who can be real may find a firmer footing from which they can get back on top of their life and feel better about things.

 


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.


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.


Finding energy

Experiencing a lack of energy can become a problem for all kinds of reasons, without those reasons being obvious. I find it pays to start with the physical considerations and work from there when trying to deal with this.  It isn’t always possible to figure out the cause and deal with it directly, but these sorts of things are always worth checking and tend to help.

Getting more rest and more sleep can help a lot, even if the problem isn’t a lack of them. Emotional and mental processing can take time and energy, so gentle down-time can help fix a number of things that may be exhausting you.

Good food, being properly hydrated and being at the right temperature for you, are all really helpful things. If I’m low, I’m more likely to feel cold and will benefit from warming up. Washing may be restorative.

Sometimes it helps to stimulate yourself with some moderate activity. I suffer poor circulation and I definitely benefit, some days, from being more active rather than less. It’s a case of determining whether it will benefit you. Moving the blood around can encourage healing. Sometimes a bit of adrenaline is the right answer.

If my brain is tired then I try to do things that are mentally restful – here physical activity can be a great help, especially anything you can do at a gentle pace. I find crafting helpful, but reading isn’t reliably good when I’m brain-tired. Also be wary of mind numbing responses – shite TV, alcohol and the like can feel like a relief at the time but they aren’t giving you anything restorative. Escapism is fine, but make sure it feeds you.

I can feel low when I’m under-stimulated mentally. In which case, a creative challenge, exposure to creative work, or something I can get my teeth into is the answer. Boredom can also suck away energy, and generate apathy, so needs watching for – if you’re dealing with yourself as though you are exhausted when really you’re just devoid of enthusiasm, you can end up doing all the wrong things and making yourself feel worse.

Low emotional states can be protective. They can be a response to overload and be a way of stepping back from more than you can bear. The answer to a loss of emotional energy is seldom to be found in pushing against that. Often the best answer to look at your simplest and most physical needs and take care of those, and wait for your feelings to catch up.

Sometimes there’s a degree of trial and error in finding out what you need to change in order to improve your energy levels on any given occasion. There’s no universal right answer here, and what you need may vary from one occasion to another. Even if you can’t pull yourself up, taking care of your most basic needs will give you the best possible resources to help you cope. Take it gently. Be patient with yourself. Don’t imagine you should be other than you are, and don’t feel if you can’t find a reason, there isn’t one. Humans are complicated things, and perfect self awareness in times of difficulty is ambitious to say the least.


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.


Depression and the loss of meaning

One of the things I find hardest about depression is the way it strips the meaning out of everything. All efforts and hopes seem futile. It’s not something I can write about when I’m in there because the feeling of pointlessness is silencing.

Loss of meaning brings a loss of direction. It takes all the energy out of anything you might have been doing. It makes it impossible to see what any action might achieve or how it could be useful. On bad days, this can mean even basic self care. Why get dressed? Why eat? Why bother? What’s the point, even?

When nothing I do seems meaningful or relevant, the world around me seems different to me, too. It’s just a cold, mechanical universe in which my actions have no consequences. All the love and light and colour are stripped out. I am at my least able to do Druidry when this happens. I cannot do relationship, or wonder, or magic, or possibility. I feel very alone, and it does not seem that there is any way out of it.

I don’t have firm beliefs about the meaning of life. I don’t have rules to go back to so that I can get through the bad days. My uncertainty is really important to me because it keeps me non-dogmatic, open minded and able to change. Uncertainty offers few comforts in times of mental anguish. When I’m at my most certain, I think that meaning is a human thing and that we make it, or don’t. On good days I find meaning simply in experiencing life, interacting, creating, doing stuff. On my good days I need very little meaning at all to keep going.

I don’t experience meaning, or the loss of it, as a solitary issue. When I have no sense of point or purpose, I depend on other people. I might not feel like doing anything for me, but I’ll get up and go through the motions for the sake of the people around me. Sometimes, not making things worse for those closest to me is all I’ve got. I keep this blog going because if there’s any chance I can say something useful, there is a point to trying. I couldn’t create that on my own. That sense of worth and possibility is held for me by everyone who leaves comments here.

When depression destroys my sense of worth, it is other people who keep me going. It is through the words and actions of others that I find reasons to try. Sometimes all it takes is not giving up, to eventually pull through to a better state of mind.

We never know really what someone else is experiencing. I do know however, that the gestures we make to each other in small, everyday ways are incredibly powerful. I don’t think personal affirmations will save anyone from mental health struggles, but other people’s affirmations can really help. You are loved. You are wanted. Your work makes a difference. Your presence is valued. We find you useful. You brighten my day. I am glad you are my friend. You’ve made a real difference to me. And so on. These are words of power and magic, that can save someone and ease their suffering.


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.