Tag Archives: mental health

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.

Advertisements

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.


Tommy Catkins – a review

Tommy Catkins is the new novel from Stephen Palmer, whose Factory Girl Trilogy I was very taken with. It’s a story that mixes history and fantasy, and does not encourage you to feel confident about what’s real, and what’s delusion brought on by trauma.

The central character – Tommy – is a massive enigma. The odds seem good that his name is not really Tommy Catkins at all. He’s lied about his age. He doesn’t remember a lot of what happened to him. He doesn’t know if he’s mad, or too afraid to go back to the trenches. He doesn’t know if what he sees in the puddles and river are real, or manifestations from his own broken mind. In some senses he’s an everyboy, all the kids who signed up to fight in the First World War, and who paid with their minds and bodies. There are hints about a personal background, but we’re never allowed to see it, we can only wonder. The story keeps us very much on the outside of his experiences, which of course we are bound to be, because we weren’t there, and we don’t understand.

For me what was most interesting about the story is the way is catches shifts in mental health understanding. Up until the First World War, mental anguish was often treated as a female issue – hysteria – and not taken very seriously. The impact of shell shock on officers and men alike changed public and medical attitudes to the issue of trauma. We went from shooting men for cowardice to taking their broken nerves seriously. The novel explores some of the appalling methods that were attempted as ‘cures’ and the pressure to get sick men back to the front. The idea that mental anguish in face of experience might be the root cause, not a physical reaction, is something the book explores.

This isn’t a comfortable read. It’s a haunting and deeply uneasy book that won’t offer you tidy solutions. If you’re looking for uncomplicated escapism, this isn’t it, but it is a book that can speak in some unsettling ways to that urge for escapism.


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.


Trees for mental health

Trees in our environment improve mental health. Walking, and being amongst trees can also help with mental health. Trees are good for us. They don’t solve everything – if your brain chemistry needs changing, a tree won’t do that for you. If the rest of your environment is hostile, stressful and making you sick, then the reprieve of tree time won’t fix that. However, we do all benefit from access to trees.

Trees are good company. They don’t judge, criticise or demand. They’re usually full of birds and other wildlife. They give us soft, generous light, protected for the greater part from sunstroke, heatstroke, and sunburn. In autumn they bless us with colour. They are beautiful as they age, beautiful when diseased, when gnarly, or twisted, or stark in winter. They help us challenge our limited ideas about acceptable physical shapes.

One of the big problems with mental health care at the moment is the emphasis on individual responsibility for good mental health. Let’s look at the tree issue again. Access to trees is not purely an individual issue. If your council cuts down all your street trees, the loss is yours, but the choice wasn’t. Planning decisions that destroy green spaces are often beyond our control, however much we might protest. Industrial landscapes where there are no trees probably aren’t your choice either, but you may have to work there. Affordable public transport to access green spaces isn’t something you get much say in. Accessible treed spaces for people who are less mobile are also not individual choices.

Our mental health is profoundly affected by the physical environments we inhabit. The role of green space in alleviating stress and promoting good mental health isn’t factored in anything like enough. Being in poverty increases the chances that you’ll have trouble accessing green space because you just won’t be able to afford to get there. It’s no good telling people to walk under trees to help with their mental health if they don’t have any trees they can get to. It’s no good assuming that everyone has a car and can afford to drive it to their nearest wood.

Our systems aren’t run to maintain good mental health in the populous, and what happens around trees is an example of this. We tell people to spend time with trees, but governments don’t enable that in any way. Trees should be readily available to all people, you should not need to make an effort to seek them out.


Healing challenges

When there’s just the one thing wrong with you, healing can be fairly straightforward. However, when multiple things go wrong, there can be conflicts within your body. To give a simple example – if your back needs you to lie flat, but you have a stinking cold and can’t breathe easily unless propped up. When the side effects from the ideal medication interact with some other problem and you have no options.

There are a number of things I need to maintain my mental health. I need to walk and spend time outside. I need social time. I need to be creative and I need things that are mentally stimulating. None of this goes well with any kind of bodily illness. Needing bed rest and needing time with people do not easily combine. If I stay put and focus on getting my body well at the expensed of my mental health, this doesn’t go well for me. Equally, poor bodily health will undermine my mental health every time.

This is one of the reasons that unsolicited medical advice from random people can be such a miserable nuisance. Especially when said people are pushy and adamant that they have the magic cure for your ills and get angry with you if you say no to them. Because they didn’t know about the inner conflicts you have, or the things that won’t work with the magic cure. It’s no use telling someone to do yoga if being told what to do with their body is a major panic trigger (this has happened to me). It’s no good telling someone who also struggles with low blood pressure to take something that will, as a side effect, lower their blood pressure.

People with complex, multiple illnesses don’t tend to list off everything that’s wrong. Sometimes, people just want the relief that comes from being able to say ‘this is really shit right now.’ It’s no good insisting they should cover their face in bees if you don’t know how they respond to bee stings…

Pushing medical ‘solutions’ onto people who are ill can be incredibly bullying and demoralising. It’s the kind of bullying that hides behind the lies of ‘I’m only doing it to help you’ or ‘for your own good’ while offering no help and no good. Sharing information is always a good thing. ‘This helped me’ can be useful. The problems start when we insist people act on our information and refuse to hear their reasons for not wanting to.