Tag Archives: mental health

The power to choose how we respond

There’s a popular line of wisdom that goes ‘we always have the power to choose how we respond’. For general purposes, it’s a useful line of thought. Often, when we have nothing else, we do still have power over our own reactions. What we say and do in response to circumstances is ours to decide, and how we act throughout an experience is our choice.

Except when it isn’t.

This failure to recognise what happens when you no longer get to choose how to respond is really unhelpful for people who experience that.

You don’t get to choose how to respond unless you are able to move or express yourself in some way. There are many physical conditions that can take some, or all of that away. You may still get some choice about what you think, but there are also illnesses, accidents and experiences that can rob you of this, as well.

Panic attacks are not a choice. Hiding them is feasible for some of us sometimes, but not for everyone. A severe panic attack takes away your choices about what you can do and say, think and feel.

Conditioning – which is most likely to happen in an abusive and controlling situation – takes away your ability to choose. If pain and fear have been used to train you to react in certain ways, you don’t have the freedom to choose your responses until you have first dealt with the conditioning.

Everyone has a breaking point. For all of us, there is scope for experiencing more than can be coped with and breaking down in a way that means there is no choice about much of what we do. Anyone can be driven mad by excesses of horror, and suffering, by gaslighting, by sleep deprivation and other forms of torture.

Not having the power to choose how you respond is a terrible thing to have to deal with. We do not have to add to that by repeating the lie that we all, always have the choice of how to respond. Sometimes there are no options available. Sometimes minds and bodies are too broken for choice to exist.

 

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Suicide and selfishness

Trigger warnings, in case the title of the post wasn’t entirely clear on that subject.

This week has seen World Suicide Prevention Day, and a lot of conversations around why suicide happens and how to stop it. The idea that suicide is an immensely selfish thing to do has been challenged a fair bit, but, I wanted to pick over the mechanics. I feel this one keenly.

I’ve had a lot of rounds of wanting to die – not necessarily wanting to take my own life, but just wanting it to be taken from me so that I might stop hurting. I have also had rounds of wanting to take my own life and moving towards acting on that. Those rounds had one thing in common – the growing belief that it was the best thing I could do for everyone else.

When depression gets its teeth into me, I feel awful, useless and worthless. I feel like I’m a burden to everyone else, a nuisance, a problem. If my being depressed has a negative impact on other people, if my not coping causes someone else a problem, that suspicion creeps in that the best thing I could do would be to offer my absence. Usually I just step back, go silent, disappear, but death is the ultimate absence, and sometimes it starts to look like the single best thing I could do.

There are so many things around how people often respond to suicidal feelings that really, really don’t help with this. Here’s a non-exhaustive list. Calling it selfish. Focusing on how suicide would harm other people. Demanding that you get meds so as to not make the other person uncomfortable. Shutting you down when you try and talk about what you’re feeling because it makes them uncomfortable to hear it. What all of this does, is to make the suicidal person the least important person in what’s happening.

If you’re staying alive so as not to inconvenience someone else or to avoid upsetting someone, this is not a strong position to be in. Whether it’s ok to keep living or not becomes an equation in which you weigh their comfort against what you do. The worse you feel, the more depressed and stuck you are, the harder it gets to persuade yourself that the upset you’d cause by leaving is not in fact greater than the harm you cause by staying. When you’re feeling awful about yourself, it is hard to see your existence as anything other than innately toxic.

If you want to feel comfortable dealing with someone who wants to die, you are not the best person to be talking to them. That might feel uncomfortable, but I think we need to ask people who are largely ok to think carefully about how they prioritise themselves when dealing with people who are desperately ill and in massive distress.

If you want to keep someone alive, you may have to engage with what’s going on for them, and that may hurt. Consider whether it hurts more than the prospect of losing them. Consider what you can say or do to boost their sense of self-worth so they might want to live for their own sake. If you make it about you, then you may well be piling on the pressure and adding to their stories about how little their own life is worth.


Pain, fatigue and mental health

Pain and fatigue make moving unpleasant. However, if you’re dealing with them for the long haul, you can’t just rest. Too much rest costs you strength, flexibility, other kinds of body health and it also has a mental health impact. Pushing against pain and fatigue to be active can undermine your mental health too. There are no easy answers here, and I think some days there aren’t even any right answers available. You can only do the best you can with what you have. Anyone telling you that some fairly simple thing will magically fix you does not understand the nature of the problem.

When dealing with short term problems, ‘listen to your body’ is good advice. However, when the hurting is long term, and all your body wants to do is avoid pain, this doesn’t work. Modest exercise encourages blood flow which can help with healing. Lymph fluids don’t have any pump to circulate them and they need moving about – which means you have to move about. Muscles get weaker with lack of use, and everything gets harder and hurts more and you circle into even smaller spaces with less scope for living. Keeping moving is hard, figuring out how to do it safely is hard, and not everyone who is a professional in this area reliably knows what is safe for whom. Yoga and mindfulness are not actually good for everyone.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that it may be better to take risks with my body and focus on maintaining my mental health. If I can keep my head together, I can manage the pain and fatigue. If I plunge into depression and anxiety, bodily wellness cannot save me. So, when there’s a tension between different needs, I look most at what will best serve my mental health. There are so many days when listening to my body results in a set of contradictory messages. Bits of me need things that other bits of me will find difficult. I trust my head. In practice, my head is the bit of me that keeps the whole show on the road. If I can focus, if I have willpower to deploy, if I can reason well – I can manage everything else that much better.

It works for me – as well as I think anything can. It may or may not work for anyone else. What you’re dealing with is personal, and probably complicated in its own ways. How you navigate has to be personal, and it has to be based on your needs and priorities. Sometimes, no matter how positive you are, how much you focus on healthy life choices, doing all the right things, sometimes bodies still go wrong and hurt and decline to move much. It may mean you don’t entirely know how to manage some aspect of what you’re dealing with. It may also mean there are things that happen that cannot be managed, they’re just how it goes. When focusing on wellness, it is important to remember that there isn’t always a magic combination that will make you perfectly well, and if your body hurts it is not proof that you’ve failed in some way.

For some people, a change in diet or other lifestyle features can solve a problem – if that’s you, great. But I’ve also watched people trying to find magic bullets for problems and not getting anything to work. I’ve seen that turn into strange, faddish diets that rapidly caused more harm than good. I’ve seen it turn into a fear of doing all kinds of things. If trying to be well is narrowing your life options then it may not be working. Not everything is fixable, and learning to make the best of what you’ve got can be the most helpful and most liberating thing.


Work and mental health

There are all sorts of things I would like to do but can’t, because I know I don’t have the emotional resilience. It is, frequently, really frustrating. There are skills I have that I can’t always use to best effect because I can’t deal with certain kinds of situations. If there’s an aggressive tone to arguing, I won’t last long. I can’t cope with people who are controlling and like to run power-over – which does not make me easy to employ! If I need to stand up for myself, I can find I’ve got nowhere to go.

I’m fortunate in that there are a number of steady, small freelance jobs I do where I’m well insulated. I work for people who understand me, am left mostly to get on with it, and feel safe. I do some pretty good work in those contexts, too. If there’s nothing to trigger a mental health problem, I’m a good worker. I bring loyalty, dedication, willingness to go the extra distance to get things done. Frequently I also bring passion and creative thinking. What I don’t have is the capacity to fight people. I don’t have the means to deal with a lot of ‘normal’ human behaviour.

I hate how this makes me feel. I hate the feeling of inadequacy that comes from not being able to deal with more abrasive environments. I hate not having the emotional resources to face down someone who is being sexist, or unreasonably demanding, or domineering. I hate having to ask for help dealing with more challenging workspaces. I hate having to say to people that I know I am too fragile to do something.

I also know that mental health is fragile. We’re all breakable. We can all be ground down by too much pressure, by inhuman treatment, unreasonable demands, constantly shifting goal posts and toxic environments. There’s so much mental health crisis in the world today and it is in no small part because we insist on maintaining toxic workspaces. There is shame in saying ‘I can’t take this’ and so often the feeling that you should be able to, and that not being tough enough to handle the poison is your failing, not the failing of your situation.

I am too fragile for this. I hate being too fragile. I will however, keep talking about it, keep owning the shame I feel and the difficulty I experience. I don’t want to work in environments where any sensitivity gets you labelled a snowflake and treated dismissively, or further bullied for being in trouble. I know it isn’t necessary. There is no job, no working arrangement where efficiency is improved by giving people a hard time. There is no job where bullying makes people better at what they do, and having to fight every inch of the way ups your creativity. It’s a rather nasty myth that keeps certain spaces in the hands of the most aggressive and toxic people. Politics being a very obvious example of this.

If you can’t stand the heat, there’s something wrong with the kitchen.


Working hours and mental health

One of the things I worry about, because I suffer from assorted physical issues and poor mental health, is not being able to work like a ‘normal’ person. This can mean pushing harder to try and do at least as much as I think a person in regular employment would do. Whatever that means.

Last autumn I established that I can do 40-50 hour weeks. I sustained that kind of workload for about five months. I watched it undermine my physical health and wipe out my mental health. On reflection, I don’t think is purely because I was fragile to begin with, but because long working hours are detrimental to mental health.

A long day leaves a person with no energy in the evening – or what’s left of it. You can only recover. If you can recover. You can’t do anything much to lift, cheer and sustain yourself. It is difficult being sociable or physically active when you are exhausted. The same thing happens with weekends – if you can take them. Being too tired to do anything much and not even having the energy to try and think of something it might be good to do.

In a counterpoint to this, I’ve seen a few articles floating about online regarding companies who have cut down to four day weeks without cutting pay. Productivity and enthusiasm go up. Sick days are reduced. Happier and more motivated staff turn out to be better workers.

When you are exhausted, it is harder to make good decisions. It is harder to plan for the long term or to take the time to examine your work life balance. Exhaustion as your normal state, is a toxic condition to live with. It sucks the joy out of life and turns everything into a chore that will take energy you can’t afford. Exhaustion makes it harder to engage with others, harder to care and harder to give. When you feel under-resourced, you are more easily persuaded of scarcity and the need to make sure you are protecting yourself from others. Exhaustion makes us easier to control.

When you have energy and time in which to deploy it, you can make more informed life choices. You aren’t just fighting for the next breath or staggering towards the next sleep. People who feel well resourced feel more able to share and give and are less likely to be frightened or persuaded by emotive, unevidenced arguments promoting hatred and division.

As the UK has shuffled towards the brexit cliff edge, I’ve noticed how many people I know are simply exhausted. I hear myself saying ‘just make it stop’, conscious that torture works by getting people to the point where they will do anything, say anything to make it stop. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Exhaustion works in much the same way. We don’t make our best choices when we are exhausted, and when we would do anything to just stop suffering for a little while.


Working while anxious

Experiences of panic and anxiety can make working difficult, or impossible. It’s hard to think clearly when anxious. Decision-making, prioritising, and concentration can all be impaired, which makes getting anything done difficult, and also makes it hard to trust that what you have done is right. Here are some strategies I’ve found helpful for working with anxiety.

Invest more time in planning how and when you are going to do things. I use a physical diary and I allocate work to specific days. Having moved to this from an endless to-do list, I find it helps me stay on top of work and not get overwhelmed. Also use your diary to plan rest time, time off and restorative activities. Time spent planning is a good investment because it’ll help you avoid being overwhelmed. It helps with making more realistic decisions, and monitoring progress. It gives a much needed feeling of being in control.

Take breaks. It is more efficient to take a break than it is to push on with poor concentration and mess up. It is more efficient to take a day off, get into a better headspace and carry on from there than it is to burn out, collapse or have a meltdown. If something seems impossible or overwhelming, stepping back to properly assess it puts you in a better position.

Look after your physical health. Eat good food, move about, get outside, stay hydrated, get enough rest and sleep. Don’t treat your body as a non-issue because the work is on top of you. Look after your body and you will be better able to cope with everything.

Don’t assume the problem is you. When you’re anxious, it’s easy to assume that the problems with stress and overload are being caused by your own mental health problems. This isn’t necessarily true. It may well be that stress has external causes that need dealing with. If you don’t feel able to assess this, check in with someone you trust and ask them how it looks. If your workplace is making unreasonable demands, even if you can’t get that changed it can help a lot knowing that the demands are unreasonable and that it isn’t coming from inside you. Feelings of failing only add to feelings of anxiety.

If you live with other people, check in with them too about balances of work and domestic responsibility. We have a household policy that the person who is having the easier time with paid work picks up the larger share of the domestic work – and we pass that balance back and forth at need. We re-negotiate regularly and we check in with each other to see what’s changing. If one person has a deadline, it might be a good week to let them off domestic responsibilities. I find that in the week or so after a big project, I’m more inclined to do the domestic things and may dig in for deeper cleaning and re-organising.

We don’t become anxious alone. Anxiety is the consequence of experience, and it’s often the consequence of having been put under too much pressure for too long a period. We don’t solve this on our own – even if all the conventional responses to mental health make it an individual issue. In practice, the solution to mental health difficulties is often team work. Wellness is a consequence of how we work together, how we share the loads, the stresses and the opportunities to kick back. If we all check in with each other to make sure workloads are shared fairly, anxiety is reduced. We can also help each other by working together to create peaceful, supportive environments and to plan ahead so that people know what they’re doing and when. Predictability eases anxiety.


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.


Rest and Happiness

There is nothing like being exhausted to bring on the depression and anxiety. There is also nothing like pushing yourself to work when exhausted to lower self esteem and make you feel awful. Rest is a basic human need, and if for some reason you can’t have it over long time frames, your mental health will suffer, as will the rest of your body.

We need rest to heal, to recover from illness. We need time to draw breath, reflect on life, make plans, regroup and digest what we’ve learned. Life without this is stressful and feels like constant fire fighting.

I’ve done seven day weeks and twelve hour days – when you’re self employed and not very well paid the pressure to try and do some extra thing for whatever extra pay you can get, is vast. Some years ago I ditched hard work in favour of smart work. I started taking better care of myself. If I’m not teetering on the edge of burnout all the time, I’m faster, more effective, and more efficient. I’m also happier and better able to enjoy what I’m doing.

I normally take weekends off. Sometimes I take afternoons off, or a day in the week. At the end of December I had the wonderful luxury of a whole week off. I plan rest and recovery into my week. As a consequence, I get more done and feel better while I’m doing it. I’ve also seen marked changes in my self esteem. I’ve spent most of my life with low self esteem, easily persuaded that my wants are irrelevant and that my needs aren’t proper needs anyway. Everything and everyone else has always seemed more important. In putting my own need for rest on the list I’ve challenged those beliefs head on. It’s been interesting.

Having made room for my own needs, I’ve become less open to people who want to run me until I break, or use me until I’m used up. I’ve chosen better, healthier and more supportive spaces to be in. This has also greatly improved my happiness and wellbeing.

When you suffer from low self esteem it’s hard to give any priority to your own happiness and wellbeing, or to get out of situations that aren’t doing you any good. Failure to meet basic needs makes you feel even less like a person. Something as simple as resting can have a massive restorative effect. Not only does it replenish the body, but you also affirm your sense of worth and personhood by doing it. You have the same needs as any other person and the same entitlement to meet them, and that can be a huge building block to better feelings about yourself and having better standards and boundaries that will serve you, not someone else.

Resting gives you the time to look at how your energy is used and to reflect on what’s working. The person who is run ragged all the time doesn’t get space to plan an escape route, or energy to question what’s happening. Rest enables reflection, and reflection helps us make much better choices. Not only does rest help with mental health issues, it opens the way to being actively healthier and happier. It’s not a quick fix – the more entrenched the problems, the deeper the exhaustion the longer it takes to get on top of this. To begin, you have to treat it like it matters, and that can be hard. If you can’t treat resting like it matters, there are some huge questions to ask about your life, and you’re going to need to make the time to ask them. No one can run flat out forever.


Crazywise

Last night I went to a showing of Crazywise – it’s a film about alternative approaches to mental health crisis. It will be of particular interest to Pagans because it does look a bit at how mental breakdown is handled in indigenous cultures around the world. The website for the film has a lot of good material on it – https://crazywisefilm.com/

There’s also a great deal of material on Phil Borges’ youtube channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9yq8Z0q-3XAjNKcRxOpAPA

One of the things I found really validating is that this film talks about the need for community solutions to mental health crisis. There’s a lot of reflection on the way people become isolated through mental illness and the way isolation enables mental illness. Further connections are made between our relationship with the world around us and our mental health. To be well, we need people, and we need the natural world.

I’d come to similar conclusions based on observation and experience. It’s something I can feel more confident about expressing now.

For me, Druidry is very much about relationship – relationships between people, relationships between people and everything else. I know I’m not alone in finding Druidry to be a way of navigating through my own issues and wounds. Over the years, doing the Druidry – prayer and meditation, ritual, walking, contemplation, and all the community aspects – has been key to my overcoming trauma and getting depression and anxiety under control. Having that framework in which to approach what’s going on in my head and body has really helped me.


Dealing with being overwhelmed

The point at which you are overwhelmed is not the ideal time to be trying to find a strategy for dealing with this kind of thing. It is as well to have some plans in place before you are struck down. If you suffer from poor mental or physical health, you may be especially vulnerable to becoming overloaded. Here are some things I’ve noticed that I hope may prove helpful to others.

Rest is the best antidote to being overwhelmed. However, if everything is getting on top of you, then you may feel too panicked to rest, or unable to stop. If you are overloaded for too long, you may not remember how to stop, much less when to do it. It is important to plan rest time in advance if you think things are going to be tough. It’s good to be in the habit of planning rest time and setting time aside for it so that you have reminders that this is a thing you need to do. It’s surprising how easy it is to forget this in a crisis.

Good things can also be overwhelming. I find this one all too easy to forget and am often caught out by it. Good things need processing and digesting too, and need recovery time.

Know what helps you process things and cope. For some of us, reading, or walking, or crafting can be a quick route back to sanity. Know what works, and make sure that the people around you also know what works. That way, if you are overwhelmed and unable to think straight, someone else may be able to steer you towards the wool, or the woods, as required.

Planning ahead is good – if you know something is likely to be tough, planning the rest and recovery time is a good idea. Pacing is good – pay attention to your limits and respect them more of the time than not and you may be able to stay on top of things. However, it is so easy to be knocked sideways by the unexpected, and you can’t see everything coming. Try to keep some slack in your routines so that you can deal with the unexpected. Don’t be hard on yourself if you’re caught out by things you didn’t anticipate.

Anyone can be overloaded. A person who is overloaded too much and for too long will find their mental and physical health deteriorating. None of us cope with this well. There is no shame in being unable to bear the unbearable. There should be considerably more shame attendant on piling stress onto people, with unreasonable deadlines, impossible workloads, unfair demands on time and so forth. There should be considerable shame in asking people to act like everything is on fire, every day. Too many employers do it. The government does it to us as well.