Tag Archives: mental health

External sources for internal viability

The advice around mental health is consistent. Don’t base your self esteem on external sources like approval or achievement. Don’t base your will to live on things outside of yourself, or other people. Don’t make your sense of self about how other people treat you. We’re encouraged not to be too focused on things we see as evidence of success or on the opinions of other people.

All of which assumes you have some kind of internal resource to draw on where you can realistically base those things. I blogged a while ago about what it’s like having nothing to reboot from, and this line of thought follows on from that. 

Internal resources are something most people will build during childhood. The experience of feeling secure – practically and emotionally – is a key experience. The child who grows up feeling loved and wanted, respected, valued and worthwhile will internalise those values. If you grow up without those experiences, all of your sense of self worth depends on the conditions you are in, and the conditions placed on you. The less-functional childhood doesn’t offer unconditional acceptance, instead the child learns the terms on which they might earn praise, approval and other affirmations.

For some children, there is never the experience of being good enough. This can particularly impact on children who show early signs of being talented, gifted or unusually clever and who are then burdened with high expectations and come to feel inadequate as a consequence. I hear from my neurodivergent friends about the ways in which not being able to do what the neurotypical kids did impacted on their childhood. It’s not always about deliberate cruelty, control or neglect – although it can be. Well meaning parental ambition can really mess a kid up. 

If you have nothing to reboot from, you may find it really hard as an adult trying to build a sense of self worth from scratch. But here’s the thing – happy children don’t actually do that by themselves. They develop self esteem from the supportive, encouraging feedback they receive from the people around them. Trying to grow confidence or a feeling that your life has meaning as a solitary, inner process is hard, perhaps impossible. The key is to find people who can help you with that.

Unconditional care isn’t something that only parents can provide to children. Your true friends will value you for who you are, and they won’t make you jump through hoops to win approval. There are many people out there who will treat you with respect and dignity simply because you exist. There are people who default to kindness. If you grew up without this, you may find it hard to trust or recognise, but that’s the inner work to focus on. Work out how to find the people who make you feel good about yourself. Start imagining that you are allowed to feel good and be happy, and that you don’t have to jump through hoops to earn that. Find the people who don’t want you to jump through ever more hoops.

Mental health is not something that exists in  isolation. There’s always a context. How we treat each other has huge implications for our wellbeing. Some people grow up with the confidence to know that they deserve kindness and respect. Some people don’t start from there, and can struggle to imagine deserving to be treated well. No one can fix that on their own, but we can do a great deal together. 

Crafting in self defence

I get a lot of mental health benefits from crafting and most days I’ll have some textiles in my hands for at least a little while.

I upcycle a lot, so crafting helps me keep usable fabric out of landfill. This helps me feel like I’m doing something virtuous with my time and that can be a mood improver. I take in other people’s dead things and give them new life, and give away some of what I make, so that all feels good too.

Depression tends to bring feelings of uselessness. There are lots of simple ways of crafting that don’t call for a great deal of cleverness or concentration once you’ve picked up the skills. I benefit from being able to look at what I’ve made. Knowing there is something useful or pretty that exists because I made it, can help ward off despair. Making things that cheer other people lifts my spirits.

While I’m making things, my brain gets time to process stuff. This can help me deal with situations where I feel overwhelmed. If I’m trying to work something through, the rhythms of crafting can really help me with that. It also creates a space where much of my brain isn’t occupied, and things can just float to the surface. I find this really helps me with figuring things out. Distracting myself with craft actually lets me get important thinking done that I can’t do in a totally conscious way, and also can’t do if my brain is too busy.

For most of human history, most of us have been makers. When you think about the kind of work historically that went into meal making, textile creation, tool and weapon making, ornament making, ceramics making… it becomes obvious that it must have been normal to our ancestors to make stuff. It’s really only since the industrial revolution that the majority of people have stopped being makers. As an aside, Marx has some really interesting things to say about the psychological impact of factory work, of only making a part of a thing, not the whole thing. We become alienated from the work.

I find crafting restorative. I think we suffer when we spend too much time doing work that doesn’t produce tangible results. We’re too cerebral sometimes. We need to do things that result in something we can see, or hear, touch or taste. Craft gives you a meaningful relationship with physical reality, and for me that’s been a sanity saver on many occasions.

Helping your suicidal friend survive

The most important thing to know is that if one of your friends is suicidal, you probably won’t know. You might even have no idea that they were depressed. People hide their issues and often suicide comes as a massive shock to everyone who knew the person. Encouraging people to reach out when they need help isn’t that useful.

If you know that someone has suicidal feelings, the single best thing you can do in the short term is keep them talking. Any topic will do. A person who is talking isn’t dead. Don’t judge, undermine or belittle anything they tell you. Don’t make light of things. Don’t argue with them by telling them they have so much to live for. Don’t make it about other people – being told to endure unbearable pain for someone else’s comfort doesn’t actually make people feel better. Don’t make it about you. 

Most of the time you won’t know if someone else is struggling. What this means is that helping your suicidal friend survive actually depends on what you do all the time. How would you speak and act if you thought anything you said or did might be a life or death issue for someone else? With this in mind, perhaps we’d see fewer people on social media telling others to delete themselves or get in the sea. Perhaps we’d see less violence in language. Perhaps we’d cut back on the mockery, ridicule, shaming, put downs and other casual forms of cruelty.

When we make nasty comments about celebrities for being fat, or depressed, or not looking pretty enough – they will probably never know, but your suicidal friend might think this is what you think of them. 

It may sound like a lot of work to have to pay attention to everything you say and to act like someone’s life could depend on it. One of the contributing factors to people being suicidal can often be that maintaining the comfort of comfortable people is treated as more important than taking care of the person in crisis. I’ve seen this kind of shut-down many times. When people tell you they are tired of your gloom, bored of you talking about your issues… depressed people often hear that someone else’s comfort is more important than keeping them alive. It’s done so casually, carelessly and off the cuff, often, that I’m not even sure most of the people doing it have any idea that they might be pushing someone towards the edge. And some of them do know, and fat shame and disability shame people they know under the banner of ‘only trying to help’.

Saving lives means being as actively kind as you can manage. All the time. It means thinking about how your words and actions might impact on other people. Paying lip service to mental health does nothing. Caring for people actually takes effort and attention. Finding out how to support people takes effort. Finding out what allegedly normal speech can do to vulnerable people is uncomfortable. Damage isn’t all about big drama, it can be the cumulative effect of countless small woundings.

You probably won’t get a cinematic moment when you grab your friend and bodily prevent them from jumping off a bridge and thus heal their pain and make them want to live again. You probably won’t ever know if what you said or did made a difference, either to save someone, or to push them closer to death. What you do, matters.

How to cope

Balancing health – mental and physical, with work demands and rest isn’t ever easy if you’ve got any challenges going on. Sometimes there are no right answers. Resting can help, because exhaustion makes everything worse, but too much rest and your body will suffer from the lack of movement. Anxiety and depression can be eased with rest, but they can also be eased by feeling like you’ve achieved something.

There’s no definitive answer here, and what works for one person on one day might not work for that person on another day.

I find that ‘doing’ often helps in the short term. What self esteem I have depends on getting things done, making things and feeling useful. If I don’t feel useful, it’s not long before this deepens the depression and/or increases the anxiety. However, it doesn’t have to be a high set bar. Getting one useful thing done in a day is enough, I have decided, and I hold myself to that.

Trying to rest doesn’t actually work if you’re fretting about something you think needs doing. If that thing is important – as well it might be – not having the energy is a massive problem. The longer it takes to be able to solve an issue, the more terrifying and anxiety-creating it can become. This often isn’t irrational and can trap people in vicious cycles of fear, illness, inability to act and increasing problems that feed the stress. Too often the assumption is that anxiety is a brain problem, but more usually it’s about how we’re interacting with the world. Fear can be a very rational response to out of control problems.

So you may end up self medicating to get through. Sugar and other stimulants can be used to push through exhaustion. Alcohol and other substances can be used to force rest. More and less legal options exist. Formal and informal medications exist. Sometimes, buying time in the short term to solve the big problems is worth it. Sometimes the big problems don’t go away, and every day is like running through a burning building and then you end up doing it while also dealing with addiction, or self-care strategies that have become problems in themselves. 

It’s easy to look at someone else’s life and see the mess and dysfunction and blame them for getting into that much trouble. Without seeing the process, you can’t see what was once a viable strategy that has now become part of the problem. So often, it’s the things we do to survive what we thought was a short term crisis that trip us up for the longer term. It is so easily done. Bad choices often don’t start out as bad choices, sometimes they were the best choices we could make at the time, but they too have consequences.

Make good your escape

I’m very much a fan of escapism. Sometimes we all need to get out of our own heads for a while. A good distraction can give considerable respite from mental and physical health problems. When we’re burned out, emotionally exhausted by the state of the world, or struggling with despair, escapism can restore us, and can be really helpful.

I’m not here to judge where anyone else escapes to. If you find something soothing, restorative, uplifting or otherwise helpful, then do with it what you can.

However, it’s best to avoid the things that numb us out or kill time. It’s easy to fall into using distractions that don’t give much, and that don’t leave you feeling better afterwards. It’s especially easy to end up watching crap just because it’s there and isn’t what’s going on in your head. While there’s some gain sometimes in any kind of break from what’s going on in your head, it’s worth paying attention to what you are feeding yourself.

It’s a lot like junk food, and having the odd days where you comfort eat or comfort watch things you know aren’t so good for you, is no big deal. Sometimes you just have to get through as best you can. Living there takes a toll and will grind you down and undermine you, physically and emotionally. Brains need a good and nourishing diet, too.

I find it helps to have some ideas of where to escape to in place so that they can be easily deployed at need. That might mean having a few unread books stashed and ready to deploy. I’ve found National Geographic documentaries to be a good resource in an emergency, and there are many of those on their youtube channel. I’ve had some serious sessions with The Magnus Archive podcast, and I go to the Shrewsbury Folk festival youtube channel for folk fixes. There are other podcasts I’ve worked my way through at need. It’s as well to have something to deploy.

Killing time is an emotionally dangerous thing to do. It gives us nothing in exchange for the most precious thing we have. Escape can be a good and necessary thing, but it is so important to escape to somewhere that will do you some good. Don’t take your brain vacations inside a dumpster fire!

Mental Health Awareness

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. One of the things I wish to make people particularly aware of, is that for many people, mental health problems are not some kind of tragic accident. There are people for whom wonky brain chemistry is to blame, but for many of us, mental health problems have causes.

Trauma causes mental health problems. This should be pretty obvious. Consider (or look up) the figures for domestic abuse, and sexual violence. Have a look at some of the definitions of borderline personality disorders and ask how those might relate to traumatic experience.

Work stress causes mental health problems. You can’t run people like machines and expect them not to break down. Inhuman work practices (Amazon, I am looking at you) destroy mental health.

Poverty causes mental health problems. Firstly because poverty and insecurity are immensely stressful. Secondly because if you are poor, you’ll have less access to resources that might help you. There will be no money for sport and fitness – activity often being recommended to help with mental health problems. You’re less likely to have a garden or to be able to access green space. Your poverty diet will undermine your physical and mental health. You may be socially isolated as a consequence of poverty. In societies that punish poverty, your self esteem and confidence will be harmed by the stigma of being poor.

If you are disabled, your long term condition may well also be undermining your mental health. Further, being physically disabled radically increases your chances of being in poverty, see above.

We have seat belts and safety rails, lifeguards, firemen, laws about smoking, workplace health and safety to reduce accidents. We take the protection of bodily wellbeing reasonably seriously. We don’t have the same attitude to mental health. We treat it like an individual problem, and not like something that could be damaged by the crimes and negligence of others.  We treat poverty as a personal failing, not a societal one.

Please be aware that mental health problems are not tragic accidents suffered by the unfortunate few. It’s not weakness, or lack of resilience. Unless we take stress and poverty seriously, we’re going to make ourselves ill. Until we deal with abuse in our societies, we will make people ill. When we shame people for being poor, we promote poor mental health.

What if we took mental health seriously?

At the moment here in the UK we have badly funded mental health resources and long waiting lists for anyone in crisis trying to get help. It’s an appalling situation. But, what if we didn’t even start at the point of trying to fix people’s mental health? What if we took mental health so seriously that our laws, culture and ways of living actively supported us in getting to be well? What would need to change?

Stress, and particularly stress caused by poverty and insecurity undermines mental health. If we wanted as many people as possible to be as well as possible, we’d have to deal with those problems. The money and resources exist. Universal Basic Income would remove a lot of fear from people’s lives, which would have wide reaching mental health benefits. 4 day working weeks, and work policies that promote mental health would be great. Shorter shifts, better breaks, kinder and more humane working conditions would all help considerably.

We’d have to take the climate crisis seriously. Distress around the loss of species and habitats is affecting many people’s mental health – especially young people. The insecurity and uncertainty caused by climate change impacts mental health. Flooding, drought, hazardous heat waves, crop failures – we can’t afford this level of uncertainty and threat. We can’t protect our mental health without protecting the environment.

Everyone needs green space where they live and free and easy access to that space. The relationship between mental health and green space is known. We also have better mental health when we have time, energy and opportunity for exercise – being able to move about outside is the cheapest and most sustainable kind of exercise available. That should be on everyone’s doorsteps. To improve everyone’s mental health, we would have to fill our towns and cities with plants and set more space aside for walking and cycling.

We need healthy bodies – good food, clean water, prompt medical care. We need the time and resources to be able to take care of ourselves, which isn’t available if you work long hours for not much money. A great deal of depression and anxiety is caused by being ill and being in pain. Taking mental health seriously means we need a culture of physical wellness too – you can’t separate body and mind.

Good mental health also requires social engagement and feelings of belonging. It calls for dignity and a sense of self worth – much of which would be tackled by dealing with the points I’ve made above. We need laws that uphold dignity and treat people as valuable and not disposable. We need systems that do not punish people for the accident of their circumstances.

We have to stop seeing poor mental health as a sign of personal failing or weakness. It’s a symptom of sick systems, broken relationships and inhuman ways of treating humans. To change that, we have to start thinking that kindness is better than exploitation, that wellbeing should not be a privilege for the few and that consumption is not the answer to everything.

Different flavours of panic

Not all panics are the same. I’ve been exploring the different ways in which panic shows up for me and what the implications are for dealing with it. Panic can happen for all sorts of reasons, and my list won’t be exhaustive or true for everyone but I hope by sharing it I can give someone else a place to start.

Hormone panics. I’m somewhere in the menopause sea (I have no idea where). I get intense hormone blasts sometimes, and they tend to make me panic. Recognising them as hormone-induced helps me weather them. Otherwise, soothing drinks are about the only thing I’ve found useful.

Overload panics. These happen when I’m exhausted, mentally or physically. Just hitting exhaustion can be enough to do it. If some extra thing needs doing when I’ve already hit my limits, this will also really panic me and make me largely useless. My best coping methods are to be clear with the people around me when I’m approaching the edges, and to be clear that I’m having overload panic if it kicks off. I have to accept that I can’t push through these to do the things, I have to wait until I’m better resourced and calmer.

Panic caused by triggers. These are often much harder to explain to anyone else while they’re happening because they bring up intense intrusive thoughts and flashbacks. The first priority is to get away from whatever seems unsafe. I’m working on being clearer with anyone who might come into contact with these that I need them to help me feel safe and to be quick to react if they’ve accidentally triggered me. Feeling safer will bring the panic down, and without that I’m stuck and can spiral through panic, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks for hours.

Triggered panics fall into two broad categories. One is where I feel to blame over things that aren’t my fault, or responsible for everything. The less power I have to sort things out, the more triggering this is. The second area is around loss of body autonomy. The conventional wisdom around this sort of panic is that it is down to the person experiencing it to work on recovering. On the whole I think I’d do a lot better without being triggered in the first place, so, I’m talking more about my boundaries, what its fair for me to take on, and what I need to have change. I’ve dealt with people in the past who triggered me and were very clear it wasn’t their job to do better. I’ve come to the conclusion that if anything of that shape happens again, I will remove those people from my life with all speed.

Part of what got me damaged in the first place was people ignoring boundaries and forcing unreasonable responsibilities on to me. This in turn makes it hard to flag up distress in those areas, making it harder for anyone who wants to not get into that kind of mess with me. With a back history full of being trained that people who hurt me were entitled to do that, I’m re-drawing my lines. People who want my time, care, energy and resources are going to have to treat me in ways that make that possible. Anyone who tells me they can’t be walking on eggshells all the time, or anything similar, will be out of the mix. I can’t afford it, and I recognise, finally, that no one is entitled to treat me as disposable in that way. Feeling worthless is part of what underpins the panic, but I do not have to accept being treated as worthless and I can say no.

Mental Health Observations

I know why I’m in this mess, and there are two key strands. Strand 1 is my history, and the traumas and stresses in it. I did not get ill on my own. Strand 2 is that there has never really been a time when getting well and looking after me seemed like the most important thing. Strand 2 is very much a consequence of strand 1.

Being told I make a fuss is a whole-life issue. As a child I learned I had a low pain threshold, and over-reacted. Accusations of attention seeking, melodrama and emotional manipulation have happened repeatedly. So, my first response to distress is actually to hide it, partly because I’m afraid I really am doing all of those things, and partly because when I’m in distress, the last thing I need is to be accused of making a fuss for attention or being unreasonable. I’ve become the first person to diminish my own distress and I am easily persuaded that anything and everything is more important than whatever I happen to be feeling.

It doesn’t help that my work situation makes it hard to take time off. It doesn’t help that the publishing industry is a mess and it is very hard for anyone to make any money doing this – the stats are out there, I’ve talked about it in other posts. It doesn’t help that most outfits only want a few hours here and there of marketing and social media work so I have had to do lots of jobs to make ends meet, which takes far more energy than doing one job for the same hours because there’s so much more information to keep track of. At one point a few years ago I was doing 7 different jobs. It was hell and it still wasn’t enough to get close to an average wage.

I don’t get enough time off, or rest, or restorative stuff. I’ve known this for some time. The difficulty is turning that knowledge into action. Can I persuade myself that being well is more important than anything else that comes along? Can I hold boundaries when other people want more from me than I can afford to give? Can I deal with the voices in my head that yell ‘you are being emotionally abusive’ if I express distress or need? I don’t know. It’s a hard fight, and it’s a fight I have to take on when I’m at my most exhausted, currently. In many ways, accepting that everything and everyone else is more important than my mental health has always seemed like the easier, safer choice. In some contexts, that has definitely been true.

I’ve got to the point where not being able to push through is a real issue. I can’t keep going by will alone, because I’m exhausted. I don’t have resources to deploy, no matter how important situations seem. I’m struggling to work, and if this gets much worse, working is going to get ever more difficult. I am running out of options, and trying to persuade myself that this is not me making a fuss, or being lazy, or not trying hard enough. Either I get on top of this, or I hit the point where I really can’t get out of bed, and I do not think that point is so very far away.

What I’m hanging on to right now is a very powerful instruction to survive. It’s something to hold as a shield between me and all the things that push the other way. It might be enough to enable me to turn things around. It may not be melodramatic to say this is at a stage where ‘not survive’ is a potential outcome otherwise.

Beyond Burnout

At the weekend it dawned on me that I couldn’t imagine anything good. I couldn’t think of anything restorative that I wanted to do, or that might make me feel better. Nor could I imagine ever feeling good or happy again. I can’t carry on like this.

I’m not even sure when I burned out this time, except that it was months ago. Instead of resting and recovering – my normal burnout response- I kept slogging on. There were reasons and I know what they were. I’ve never been to the land beyond burnout before, but it is not a pretty place. There’s very little aside from distress that I can actually feel and I’m stumbling around like some kind of half dead zombie thing, and have been for a while.

This is not a place from which it is easy to plan an escape. I have no idea what would make me feel better, so I’m going for the most reliable responses to mental health setbacks – more time outside and more rest. My energy levels are very low and have been so for months. Aside from weekends, I’ve only had a couple of days off this year because I couldn’t get on top of things. So I’m going to push myself over the next couple of days so that I can have some days off, and maybe some rest will help me plan things a bit.

Everything feels like pushing a rock up a hill. The hill is steep. My boots are made of lead. The rock is angry and hates me. There’s no joy in anything, and I am perpetually exhausted, and it is pretty obvious at this point that pushing the angry rock is not getting me anywhere better. Helpfully there is a guest blog coming up and I’ve planned some smaller blogs, so, this continues as does the Hopeless Maine blog – thanks to contributions from others. I’m going to take a break from social media, and from news, and I’m going to try not to feel totally responsible for looking after other people. So if I am quiet other places, this will be why.