Tag Archives: mental health

Soothing the troubled mind

Person A: I feel terrible about myself.

Person B: I think you are an excellent person.

Person A: Thank you. I still feel terrible about myself.

Person B: Why do I even bother?

The thing to remember about hurt and wounded people, is that it was seldom one event. People who are depressed, anxious, who have no self esteem and who feel grim about life tend to have gone through a process. However much we want to fix and heal each other, saying one nice thing once won’t restore the brain of someone who has spent years under attack.

Helping someone rebuild themselves means being in it for the long haul. One complement isn’t going to change everything. Over-complimenting can feel weird and uncomfortable. 

The best thing you can do for a person is be affirming. That includes affirming that their responses to their own historical issues are valid and reasonable. Affirm that it’s ok if things are difficult now because of what happened before and be patient while they work on things. Affirm that their choices and decisions are good, whenever you can. Give positive feedback whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Saying things like ‘I understand why it might seem that way to you’ or ‘your response makes sense to me’ can be a good opener if you need to explain that they’re wrong. People can get trapped in perceptions of the world that really harm them and need help getting out of that.

“I can see why this is making you feel bad about yourself, but it was an honest mistake and we all do that.”

“I can see why this makes you uneasy, but this isn’t going to play out the way that other thing did.”

Affirming the other person’s validity as a person, affirming their feelings and reactions can go alongside gently challenging all of that baggage. When we feel valid and safe it’s a lot easier to do the work of healing and moving on from past woundings.


The art of mental hygiene

Humans are malleable. We’re influenced by our environments and by the things we’re exposed to. If we keep seeing something, we become persuaded by it. This is how adverts work. It’s also how misinformation works. We do get a say in what we expose ourselves to, and taking thoughtful control of that is important if we don’t want to be persuaded by problematic input.

Exposure to lies, misinformation, denial of truth, fake news, people calling real news fake news, and so forth acts on our brains in just the same way that gaslighting does. After enough exposure, this stuff will start to impact on your mental health. Either you’ll be persuaded of their reality, or you’ll feel increasingly stressed, anxious, disorientated and confused as you try to hang on to what you know is true.

People who wish to cause harm invariably demand that you hear them out. They tell you that their opinions are valid and deserve your time. They want you to debate them. They tell you to do your own research, by which they mean expose yourself to more of their ideas. At the same time they are entirely closed to everyone else’s ideas, having already decided on the conspiracy theory or propaganda they are invested in. Debating them won’t persuade them of anything, but it does expose you to their toxic thinking, and that is harmful.

A coherent relationship with reality is better for your mental health than being exposed to things that have you second guessing yourself. This has to be balanced against the need to stay flexible and open to new information, because genuine insight advances all the time. Pick your sources, and consider the reason that you’re picking those sources. It can be hard to know who to trust, but a conscious decision about that will do you more good than being buffeted about.

Watch out for people who deal in radical reversals. The people who tell you that other people with an obscene amount of money are able to represent you and that people who are a lot like you are out of touch elites. People who describe kindness and inclusion as though it was a vicious assault on your rights. Famous people using massive platforms to tell you they’ve been cancelled. People who think that cutting their workers’ paychecks and giving themselves a rise at the same time is justice. If the internal logic of someone’s arguments doesn’t hold up, it is as well to keep away from it because that kind of thinking will damage your mental health.

We aren’t always going to get everything right. If in doubt, choose whatever looks kindest. Even if it turns out to be naive, misinformed, overly optimistic or otherwise doomed to fail, you are better off in a kinder environment. It’s better to fail while meaning well than to be pragamatically horrible. It’s better for your mental health to focus on spaces where kindness dominates and people mean well. Anger can be attractive and it can feel powerful but no one can live there. Angry spaces rapidly become exhausting. Anger can be a great short term motivation, but kindness will keep you moving for the long haul.

Your mental health is vital. Speaking as someone who has suffered with mental illness and experienced gaslighting, I know what it costs. Protecting your mental health is essential, and picking the spaces to be in can really make a difference to that.


When traumas collide

This winter, Tom and I have done a lot of very deliberate work on changing our relationship. We both came to this marriage with a lot of history and with triggers – some of which we knew about, and some we didn’t. 

Usually when people talk about triggering, it goes like this: There is a person with a trauma history who encounters something that evokes that trauma. They are then thrown back into that history, like a soldier thrown back into the trenches by the sound of an explosion. Once you’re back in the trenches, everything you experience seems to be part of that scenario, and the original terror takes over.

When the trauma involves relationships, and when both of you have triggers, it’s entirely possible for both parties to set each other off. One person’s trauma response can become the other person’s trigger. Historical coping mechanisms can also be a big issue in all of this. If you have one person with a freeze response to panic, and one person whose emotional abuse history includes being totally ignored as punishment, that can be a messy combination.

It’s taken us a long time to get to the point of being able to talk about what happens when historical experiences collide like this. When it happens, we’re effectively functioning in two totally separate realities, not making sense to each other, unable to help each other and often adding to each other’s distress. It’s been messy at times. It’s taken work to get to the point of being able to pick it open and make changes.

One thing we’ve found that helps is to flag up problems as fast as possible. Tom tends to freeze around panic, and that intersects with what his ADHD brain does when he’s not coping. However, if he can tell me that he’s having processing issues, I don’t then take it personally, and we’re better able to work things through. 

I tend to make things worse because, thanks to my history, I act from the expectation that basic needs won’t be met and that in asking for small things I will be asking for too much. This creates the impression that the help I need would be impossibly difficult to achieve – an easy thing to persuade someone of if they’re used to being put under pressure to deliver impossible things. This means I don’t get the help, reinforcing my feeling that I don’t deserve to have my basic needs met and thus making me less able to ask for help. It’s really easy to get stuck in vicious circles like this.

I’ve learned to push back against my panic to ask clearly for what I need. Often it’s things like needing to be talked to so that I’m not simply trapped inside my own head with my escalating panic. You can see how well that works with Tom’s tendency to freeze when panicking…

Mental health problems aren’t solitary, personal issues. We didn’t get into this on our own. Much of where we are both struggling has everything to do with what happens around other people and in the context of relationships. Healing as a single-person project has never really worked. However, working together to support each other, deal with difficulties and find strategies for coping, is proving really effective.


The spiral nature of humans

We tend to think of cause and effect as linear. A thing happens (or fails to happen) and this has consequences, which in turn can create other consequences. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking doesn’t help much when it comes to human minds and bodies.

A lot of what goes on with us has a spiral quality to it. Many of our body systems – perhaps all of them, I’m no expert – involve feedback loops. The more I read about hormones and body chemistry, the more I appreciate not only that those loops exist, but that we don’t really know enough about them. Have a look at serotonin in the body if you want to poke about in a good example of this.

It means that looking for a root cause doesn’t always make sense. We ask what causes mental health problems, or diabetes, or obesity, as though we could deal with the cause and that would sort things out. Bodies get into habits – we have habitual pathways in our brain, and habitual responses to stimuli. Hypervigilance is what happens when your body is in the habit of being afraid all the time. It may have been caused by a specific experience, but you can’t uncause it in a simple way. Being stressed because of hyper-vigilance will keep you locked into the stress that is fueling the hyper-vigilance.

When things are cyclical, that can mean that changing any point in the cycle will change the cycle as a whole. So sometimes it’s not about finding the root cause, but finding the point in the process that you can do something about. This in turn means getting to know the system, the cycle, the feedback loops because if you don’t know what’s going on, you won’t find a place you can change things.

I’m tired all the time, my body is sore and stiff. If all I do is rest – which is all I want to do, I lose further muscle strength and stamina. If I move too much I will become even more exhausted, sore and stiff which maintains the problems, not solving them. To change things I have to spot the points where I can take small actions that won’t simply create bigger problems. I’ve found that tackling problems in my thinking, trying to change my emotional landscape, and dealing with other health issues all works in roughly the same way. There aren’t any simple answers that break the cycles without potentially causing other problems. It’s a delicate process, but sometimes there are options. Those options aren’t always obvious, and are less so if you’re taking a linear cause and effect approach to looking for them.


Work as a coping mechanism

I’ve always turned to work as a way of coping. That can mean paid work, volunteering, housework or making things. It’s something I can put between me and the teeth, and the teeth are very sharp and have been with me my whole life.

The theory is that if I can make enough, do enough, be good enough then I can stay out of the teeth. It doesn’t work, and I know it doesn’t work, but I’ve never found anything that does. The problem with working as a coping mechanism is that it can add to the exhaustion and make things worse. I’d be better off with some sense of worth that doesn’t depend on doing stuff, or being validated for doing stuff but I’ve never figured out how to have that. Self help articles and books are all about increasing your self esteem, not how to start from scratch.

I suspect the trick is to have a sense of self and self worth rooted in who you are, not what you do. It’s just that I’ve never felt intrinsically good enough. It’s hard to imagine feeling good enough without having to be useful, helpful or productive. I’m also no sort of ornament.

It also doesn’t help that every single thing I might do to try and keep myself out of the teeth depends on confidence. The worse things are, the harder it is to believe that I can do anything to offset it. The more in pain I am the less able I am to feel or appreciate any wins I might achieve.

It’s not a good way to be. But here we are, and I can still write blog posts,so there’s something.


Health crisis, mental health crisis

I’ve been seeing a lot of comments from medical professionals all around the world – that they can’t cope emotionally or psychologically with what’s being demanded of them.

We forget at our peril that humans are finite creatures. No one can work all the hours there are, indefinitely, without consequences. We’ve asked our doctors and nurses to hold the front line against a disease that kills, and that is more likely to kill you if you get a high exposure to it. Many of them have died. We’ve asked them to work without the proper protective equipment – especially in the UK. Also in the UK we’ve declined to pay them properly so that nurses can end up at food banks.

People become mentally ill when too much is asked of them for too long. Even people who expect their jobs to involve death and distress can only handle a finite amount of that. 

Exhaustion, burn out, overwhelming fear, and unbearable pressure can have an array of impacts on a person. It becomes harder to make yourself move or to act. Decision making becomes harder, even impossible. Every situation becomes overwhelming and impossible. Clearly it’s not possible to keep doing a job where you need to think quickly and act decisively to save lives if you can barely function. And yet that’s exactly what we’re expecting people to do.

At the beginning of the pandemic we were talking about slowing the curve, because there are only so many beds and ventilators out there, and if we have too fast a spread we’ll overload the system and people will die. If we overload people, that also matters.

All too often,mental health is treated either as a luxury, or as a problem for people who are just weak to begin with. Everyone has a breaking point. There is only so much stress, pressure, misery and exhaustion that any one human can take. We’re approaching the two year mark with covid and it’s amazing really that so many people in the medical profession have held up for so long in face of all this.

But they can’t do it forever. 

We need to recognise the humanity of our medical professionals, and that we have asked too much, and we need to do what we can not to end up in hospital. We’re all in this together, we are all impacted by each other’s individual choices, but we’re asking one group of people to bear the brunt of the consequences. And then, ill and unvaccinated, the most selfish amongst us show at the hospital expecting to be helped by the very people they’ve accused of genocide, sometimes while shouting abuse and demanding miracles. 

I don’t have any large scale answers to this, but as individuals we can at least try not to be part of the problem, and to be kind to the people we hope will save our lives.


Punching the Inner Nazis

I’m never going to punch an actual Nazi. I’m not strong enough, or violent enough. I like to imagine that if it came to it, I would put myself bodily in the way, but that’s about all I can do.

My inner Nazi is a whole other issue. It’s taken a while to recognise and acknowledge him, but there he is, inside my head and sorely in need of punching. In recent weeks I’ve realised that I’m not the only person with an inner Nazi, and that those other ones urgently need punching too.

The inner Nazi says that your right to live is conditional on being good enough, doing enough, being  useful, productive… I wouldn’t measure anyone else by those standards because while I live with the inner Nazi, I am not a Nazi myself. I don’t think anyone’s right to life has anything to do with anything except their being alive in the first place. My only exception is me.

I watch friends with mental health problems beating themselves up for not being good enough, useful enough, not earning enough money. As though these things are the measure of a person. As though worth could be something other than intrinsic. The right to live is not something we should feel we have to earn.

I’ve found that identifying him as my inner Nazi has helped me shout him down when he kicks off. I feel more confident about coming back with the kind of verbal abuse I think that kind of outlook merits. I will punch the inner Nazi until he shuts up. I will punch him down every time he surfaces inside my head. I will keep punching him until he dies, because it’s the right thing to do in this context, and I will get out there and see what I can do to help with the punching of other inner Nazis.

And if you find you’ve got an inner Nazi who does impact on how you view and treat other people, definitely punch that one as well. Destroying bigotry, hate, oppression and intolerance is something we have to do within ourselves, and that calls for self-scrutiny and a willingness to evict anything that isn’t part of who we want to be. 


Survival strategies

CW Eugenics, self harm, suicide.

I can’t imagine considering another human being undeserving of life on the basis of how useful or productive they are. And yet, here I am with this incredibly fascist piece of thinking lodged in my head, but only applicable to me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like I had to justify my right to exist. Certain things – failure, uselessness, feedback that I am worthless or unloveable – inclines me to think that I’m not entitled to exist. Too much of that pushes me into self harm and suicidal thoughts.

I don’t know where it came from originally, but it is old and deeply rooted. My sense of my own right to live is dependent on other people finding me useful enough. This is a painfully subjective measure and leaves me ridiculously vulnerable to any kind of negative feedback. It’s taken a long time to unpick what is going on for me when I crash into the worst and most dangerous levels of depression. I experience a terrible rage, inward facing, over the things I cannot fix or make good enough. I know there is no one else I would judge on such terms as these, and no one else I would have any wish to hurt in the ways I hurt myself.

I’m trying a new approach to deal with it. I’ve found with internet trolls that if they call me ugly or stupid or worthless, the best move is to agree with them, because it stops them in their tracks. So, whatever this voice in my head is, I’m trying the curious process of agreeing with it when it launches into telling me that I am useless and unloveable and deserve to die. I say yes to it.

And then I visualise Boris Johnson.

The UK’s current Prime Minster is useless to the point of being a danger to people. He is arrogant, uninformed, reluctant to make decisions, and as a consequence of his poor choices there have been a lot of needless deaths in the UK, and will likely be many more. And yet there he is, still running the country. And while I think we’d all be better off without him, there’s no desire for violence in that thought. 

So I visualise Boris Johnson, and remind myself that however awful I think I am, I haven’t killed thousands of people with my incompetence. 

I’ve learned over the years that positive affirmations don’t work for the stuff in my head. Trying to be nice to me can actually make things worse in here, increasing both the rage and the panic. Being nice to myself doesn’t reliably feel safe. What I need most at the moment is to build the confidence that it might be ok to be useless. That being unloveable should not be a death sentence. That a mistake is not a reason to punish someone. I’m slowly building the thought that I can be crap and still be allowed to live.

In the past I spent a lot of time and energy trying and failing to be good enough. Because there’s always going to be someone for whom I’m not good enough, no matter how good I am. I’m flawed and faliable, I don’t know everything, I can’t see the future – I am bound to get things wrong, we all get things wrong. The idea that if I’m not perfect then I don’t deserve to live sets an impossible, tortuous standard. There is no winning at this. The only way out is to stop playing this toxic game.

I am frequently crap. It is ok to be crap. 


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.