Tag Archives: depression

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.

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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.


Rest, action and illness

When ‘normal’ people are ill or tired, they rest. What do you do if ill and/or exhausted are your normal condition? I go round this one a lot, and while I’m not able to offer definitive answers, I think there’s mileage to be had in framing the questions and possible answers.

Rest helps us recover faster from illness. Not resting when ill not only slows recovery, but also undermines mental health.

However, being physically active helps move the blood and lymph fluids about, which can also help. Too much inaction leaves us with weakened muscles, reduced stamina, less healthy hearts. Not moving much can also make mental health issues worse. Physical activity is encouraged as an answer to depression and anxiety. Being as fit as you can be helps you stay resilient.

Except if you always hurt and you never have much energy, being active is hard. It isn’t easy to tell if a sudden loss of energy is because you have energy issues, or because you are coming down with some simple ailment like the flu. If you are used to pushing to get things done it can be hard to work out when not pushing is the better answer.

Depression causes loss of energy. Depression is a common consequence of living with long term pain and illness. It isn’t easy to separate the heavy lethargy of depression from the physical experiences you may be having.

It is easy to get into unhelpful cycles. If you push all the time to keep going, you learn to ignore what your body tells you. You become alienated from your body and fight against it continually. You don’t notice when things go wrong that need some response other than pushing harder. This puts you at risk. Perhaps in the end you run out of the will to keep pushing yourself onwards all the time. That can be very hard to recover from.

If you rest too much, you lose, or do not develop physical strength, stamina and co-ordination. Depression may increase. Increasing your feelings of lethargy. You feel powerless, you may feel increasingly intimidated by the idea of trying to do anything. You may just keep spiralling down in this way until you aren’t really living your life at all.

There’s no simple solution to this that I can see. Listening to your body is good and so is trusting your body, but depression and exhaustion don’t make you into a good listener. Often the opposite. Other people will have advice for you, maybe some of them will think they know what you need better than you know. Sometimes they may be right, but not always. Other people will have magic cures and absolute certainties for things that will change everything – but your body is unique and what worked for one person is not guaranteed to work for you.

There are no simple answers. Keep questioning. Keep trying things. Don’t give up on yourself. You may never be able to get so that your body works in the way a normal body is assumed to work, but that’s not the only good outcome available. You can find combinations that serve you best, and that improve your quality of life and you can do it on your own terms.


Pondering Friendship

I remember going to playgroup as a three year old and having no real idea what to make of other children or how to connect with them. There seemed to be rules, codes, secret understandings that I knew nothing about. That feeling lingered all through primary school where I made few friends. At secondary school I managed to find my way into a couple of social groups, but it was still a bit of a mystery. At college I found myself feeling exactly the way I had as a three year old at playgroup as the people around me rapidly befriended each other.

I’m terrible at making friends with people. However it’s not simply that I’m an introvert. I like people. I’m just not very good at being around people.

During my twenties, I discovered social spaces where the rules are explicit. Folk clubs, jamming sessions, rituals, meditation sessions. Give me a structure I could easily see, tell me who I’m supposed to be, or a job around which the social contact revolves, and I do ok.  I feel more secure when I know who I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing. I also feel more able to cope in social situations if I have a large piece of wood (aka a bouzouki) between me and everyone else.

When I landed in Stroud some years ago, there wasn’t a folk club I could get to and I didn’t really know anyone, and I had to build a social life from scratch. It was very slow, and I found it really hard. How do you ask people to make room for you? How do you tell where you fit? In the end, it wasn’t me, but Tom who made most of the key moves that got us into some kind of social relationship with others. That and a few people who made moves towards us.

I like people, and I like being in social spaces, but I find being sociable very hard work. Part of it is that I often don’t have much energy to start with. Part of it is because I dread being asked how I am – most days I’m not ok, I’m usually in pain and/or dealing with depression and anxiety. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to lie about it. I also hate being asked how the work is going – there’s one exception, one friend who I don’t mind asking, for all kinds of reasons, but generally it’s something I don’t want to talk about. Mostly I go out to get away from the work. Mostly my writing is slower and more sporadic than I want it to be.

I also dread being drawn into any kind of debate, or intellectual knock about. I’m often tired by the time I go out, and not at my sharpest, and deep discussion can be beyond me. I hate point scoring and one upmanship and people playing devil’s advocate. I don’t have the spoons for it.

I’m very lucky at the moment in that I have some people to spend time with who never ask me to be bright or clever, are never combative and don’t even seem to mind the fact that I’m not always very communicative. It is like being Eeyore in the hundred acre wood. No one seems to expect me to be anything other than Eeyore, but they still invite me to parties.


Depression and exhaustion

Lack of energy is often treated as a symptom of depression, when a person is depressed, but I am entirely convinced that exhaustion is a major cause of depression. Often it seems like depression is understood as an internal event, but my experience is that it is often caused by external things. We make the problem, and the solution personal because looking at the collective implications would be hugely political.

Over worked, over stressed by increasingly difficult commutes, it’s easy to get into situations of not eating well enough to maintain energy and not being physically active enough to look after your body. That in turn all feeds into poor sleeping and further energy loss. Poverty and lack of work are also exhausting and the government is doing its best to make it so. Depression can be a kind of forced stop, when body and mind won’t take it anymore and just can’t do any more things. Rest at this point is essential.

However, if all you do is recover and head back into the fray, the next round is inevitable. If the way we live makes us ill, brief respites won’t solve anything.

Proper rest and relaxation has to be part of normal life. It’s not some kind of luxury add on bonus thing, it’s not a reward, or a distant goal. It has to be an every day thing to keep mind and body well. It also has to be good quality. Rest is like food – some things are more nourishing than others, and what you really need is the good stuff that will feed you, body and soul.

For me good books and films, beautiful anime, and lots of sleep works well as down time. When I’m a bit more lively, live music and other live entertainment, and time with friends is good. When I’m really low, I find socialising exhausting, even with the people I find it easiest to be around. But then, when I’m really low I find most things exhausting and I can get to places where I don’t have the concentration to read or to watch a film. While I know the theory of how to look after myself, I don’t always do a great job of it.

One of the issues for wellness, is how much slack you have in your systems. I tend to run close to the limits of what I can get away with. When things go to plan, this is fine. However, all it takes is one surprise energy drain and I can be in a lot of trouble. A cold, an unexpected job, or someone needing my emotional support in a big way can all tip me over. I’m not good at saying no to people, especially when I know those people are in trouble, and I’ve found it hard to really look at the costs of some things. But, I can do more good stuff and be of more benefit to others when I’m not dragging myself along the ground, and that logic has helped me make better choices. Like a lot of people, I find it hard making self care a priority when faced with someone else’s need, but I can think about overall effectiveness.

Which brings me round to another underpinner for depression – low self esteem. If you are the least important thing, if everyone else’s wellness and happiness are more important than your own, if every last job you might do is more important than whether you can do it… depression is inevitable. Not getting exhausted all the time in the first place requires you to be worth more than the things that are wearing you out. That’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s not even possible. If, when you are under so much pressure to do all the things and you fall apart, you are then blamed for falling apart, that really doesn’t help at all. It can in fact keep the cycles of exhaustion and depression firmly in place. Blame confirms that if only we’d tried harder it would have worked. Blame confirms that we should be able to do all the things with no respite. This piles stress upon stress and offers no way out. Sometimes, a little recognition that what you’re up against is shitty and unfair can be a life saver.


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.