I have written on this blog previously regarding personal mental health struggles (http://www.tennetstravels.com/2014/11/a-reason-for-being.html) and in some ways this entry is an update on that. I still face similar difficulties but my own experience of these issues has evolved and morphed somewhat. In years and decades past, the regularly recurring dark spot on my brain would usually take the form of a numb depression, more recently this has been usurped by his spikier, adrenalised cousin, anxiety. I’ve no doubt depression and anxiety are two counterweights on the same spectrum, but the experience of either one elicits quite a different emotional response. For me, depression manifests as a fog across the mind, draining the colour and excitement from life and removing the motivation to do pretty much anything. Whereas anxiety is more of a pumped-up fight or flight response – it feels like a hand around the throat, a deep writhing discomfort in your own skin and a burning desire to remove yourself from yourself (which is obviously quite tricky to achieve!). As with most paradigms of the mind, one of these states only seems preferable when you are wading through the treacle of the other. Experiencing both in quick succession or even at the same time can be particularly traumatic.
Personally speaking, my past depression and current anxiety seem to have the same original source; rooted in a lingering fear of mortality – on an individual level as well as on a species-scale – which occasionally kicks off a whirring brain deeply worried by a lack of meaning and troubled by nihilistic existential thinking. I talked more specifically about where all this began in the previous blog already linked to above (it’s actually a lot more positive than this paragraph makes it sound!).
In the intervening years, my assessment of my own mental health and wider philosophical thinking has developed somewhat, and I feel very motivated to record some of this here. Partly for my own therapeutic benefit, of course, but more so on the off chance that it might help someone else in a similar condition. There is no doubt that everyone thinks about these things from time to time – mortality, meaning, life, the universe, all that jazz – but rarely with discussion in a public forum, instead just within the confines of your own head, which can make an already overwhelming subject matter at times unbearable, and in turn lead to longer-term battles with depression, anxiety and other cognitive issues.
So, in a sentence or two, have I figured out what it all means yet…..? Yes…. Well, no, of course not…. Although, maybe, yes…. Kind of…. No... Actually, it’s a misleading question. The line of thinking I feel most comfortable with nowadays is that there can be no universal meaning, no one size fits all answer; not when each individual is blessed with their own free will and open consciousness. Instead, on an individualistic level, each person must work to create their own meaning, which in turn leads to personal happiness and fulfilment. But this must be done without neglecting the collectivist level – there are rules to living in a harmonious global community and they aren’t particularly hard to follow: Be kind and understanding so as not to impede anyone else’s individual search for meaning and happiness; do your darnedest to move things along in the right direction during your short time on this earth; and strive to leave the world a better place than when you came into it. This is far from original thinking, but the best ideas never are.
“Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.”
Man's Search for Meaning (1946) by Viktor E Frankl (1905-1997), Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, holocaust survivor, author and founder of logotherapy.
“The trouble with life isn't that there are no answer, it's that there are so many answers. There's the answer of Christ and of Buddha, of Thomas à Kempis and of Elbert Hubbard, of Browning, Keats and of Spinoza, of Thoreau and of Walt Whitman, of Kant and of Theodore Roosevelt. By turns their answers fit my needs. And yet, because I am I, and not any one of them, they can none of them be completely mine.”All sounds painfully sincere, happy and jolly, right? So why on earth am I still getting so anxious all the time? Well, there is a cynical sidekick in my brain that often doubts, mocks and downright sneers at this positive line of thinking – I’m sure some of you may have felt exactly the same way reading just now! Just thinking this way isn’t always enough to guarantee anxiety gremlins can be kept from the gate. But even more so than this, I have realised that what is assumed to be the root of anxious feeling isn’t always necessarily true. In reality, it’s more of a chicken and egg situation – are these feelings of anxiety due to these negative thoughts, or are these negative thoughts arising because of the feelings of anxiety? The answer is never as clear as it first seems. Fairly bleak thoughts can occasionally arise without there being any corresponding rise in anxiety levels. Conversely, random feelings of anxiety can appear without any noticeable preceding negative thinking.
― Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), US anthropologist.
This suggests we should address the situation as two separate problems – for sure, continue your own search for meaning and always remain curious for answers, but don’t necessarily assume any mental health problems are directly related and rely on arriving at big picture answers before they can be solved. You can separate and deal with the feelings of anxiety and depression on their own, away from what you assume to be their triggers. We can’t always control all the thoughts we are having, but we always retain at least some level of control over our reaction to them.
"You don’t need to change your negative thoughts. You just need to change how you engage with them. Observe them, choose not to believe them, then let them naturally pass like clouds in the sky. They will pass. They always do."
Lori Deschene, www.tinybuddha.com
Alright! That's enough of the highfalutin, quasi-intellectual, new-age mumbo-jumbo. Time to practice what we're preaching. That is, to stop waffling and put to one side for a moment these half-baked philosophies, and instead focus on practical methods to reduce anxiety in it's purest form - attack it directly at face value without agonising over why it might be there in the first place. Here’s a number of strategies that have been working for me during this trip...
“This too shall pass”
- Realise that your thought patterns and beliefs can and will change over time.
- No matter how low/depressed/anxious you are feeling right now, there is absolutely no reason things won’t improve in the future. In fact, they most definitely will.
- Be patient and don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over the way you are feeling, this will only prolong the negative emotions. Allow them to come and allow them to go.
Personify your anxiety
- A technique some people find effective when dealing with anxiety is imagining it as a companion, almost taming it through familiarity. Rather than fighting it; focus on it, feel it, and let it go (see Sarah Wilson's book in the media recommendations below).
- Imagine your anxiety as a wave that you are riding. It might take a while but it will eventually break on the shore. Here’s a couple of articles that discuss this sort of idea in more detail:
- There are a few activities that always give me at least a brief spike of serotonin and good feeling – running, hiking, cycling. It is a lot harder to be anxious when your heart is pumping and lungs burning from physical exertion. Try to make these your positive coping mechanisms, rather than the negative alternatives like drinking, smoking etc.
- Downloading mobile Apps that can help you to track such behaviours can be a great encouragement to keep them up. There are hundreds of options, but here's some recommendations:
- Intro to running (getting from the 'couch to 5k') - https://www.active.com/mobile/couch-to-5k-app
- General running – https://www.nike.com/us/en_us/c/nike-plus/running-app-gps
- Cycling – https://www.mapmyride.com/app.
- Mindful exercise is equally effective:
- Here’s a brilliant free yoga channel on YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/user/yogawithadriene
- I couldn’t recommend the Headspace app more for meditation - https://www.headspace.com/.
- For something a bit different – breathing exercises, cold exposure and meditation – have a look at the Wim Hof Method, http://wimhofmethod.com/.
- A good diet is as important as regular exercise:
- I’m not going to lecture people on the right things to eat, we all know that already, but I would recommend the MyFitnessPal app (https://www.myfitnesspal.com/apps/show/110) to track what you are eating for a few days. You might be surprised at what you find!
- Invest in a couple of healthy cookbooks and start the good habits at home. Anna Jones is superb - http://annajones.co.uk/books
- Finally, of the utmost importance possibly above and beyond anything above is getting enough sleep. Recent research (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/sep/24/why-lack-of-sleep-health-worst-enemy-matthew-walker-why-we-sleep) shows that sleep deprivation can have a major effect on anxiety levels and a wide range of other long-term health issues. Aim for a minimum of eight hours a night. Try sleep meditations (see headspace app above) to help you drift off. Phone and tablet screens in the bedroom are a big issue – disconnect before bedtime and charge them overnight in another room.
Keep the right company
Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people”. Despite, even, my experiences of rush hour London tube journeys, I couldn’t more vehemently disagree. Connection with other people is one of the key weapons in the fight against anxiety. Negative thoughts and emotions hold an immense power. When they are whizzing around your head, their weight can be overwhelming. However, if you can discuss even some of what is troubling you with a close trusted companion, these abstract thoughts become a lot less scary once they are out in the open, dissipating into the atmosphere. Spending time with friends and family whom you feel safe around can’t be valued highly enough. Don’t avoid situations that will likely make you feel better (e.g. meeting up with friends) based on current anxious feelings – embrace the opportunity for company that you know will make you feel good.
Keep a positive journal
This doesn’t have to be something as lengthy and painfully sincere as this blog. A simple therapy technique is to make a note each evening of three things you enjoyed during the day and one thing you are looking forward to tomorrow. Creating such a habit gently encourages positive daily reflection and positive planning for the future. If you have time, you could also note - one thing I learnt today and one thing I did to make someone else happy. You can buy specific journals for this sort of regular diary-keeping (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Five-Minute-Journal-Happier-Minutes/dp/0991846206 AND https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mindfulness-Happiness-Productivity-effective-Gratitude/dp/B076TP6G81/) but it is just as easy to achieve with a simple notebook.
- Technology can be our friend as much as our foe in the modern world, but you can make it work in your favour against anxiety using the sort of Apps I have linked to above.
- Wearable Tech is a huge new industry. One piece of kit I recently invested in is the Doppel – a small wristband that pulses a silent vibration on the inside of your wrist. Put simply, if you set the beat to a rhythm slower than your natural heartbeat it calms you down. You can read more about this intriguing mental health/tech crossover here - https://feeldoppel.com/pages/science.
Get involved in something bigger than yourself. There is a great liberating ego-reducing effect that comes out of investing your time and effort into something that will be of benefit to people other than yourself and endure for longer than you will be around. Find a cause, a charity, an activity that you can truly believe in, and invest your time and effort in that. If you are struggling to create happiness in your own reality, creating it in someone else's can be equally rewarding.
- All is well and good with the various methods outlined above to improve your own mental health, but there may come a time where the best option is to seek professional help. There might still be some enduring (but rapidly reducing!) stigma around mental health, but there is definitely no shame in receiving therapy and/or medication. The easiest place to start is with an appointment at your GP surgery. Realistically, in the modern world, we may not all have personal relationships with our local doctors that allow us to feel comfortable doing this, in which case, have a read through this brilliant list of resources on the NHS website - https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/. You can also search for professional therapists and counsellors local to you (UK-wide) on this website - https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/.
- A simple yet effective technique you can try is to imagine a close friend coming to you to ask for help on the same issues you are currently dealing with - just considering the sort of advice you would give them can be a real eye-opener in terms of searching for ways to address your own problems. Therapies are actually being developed right now that allow people to provide themselves with this sort of support using Virtual Reality technology. Check out this recent podcast from Radiolab for a fascinating insight (listen right to the end!) - https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/more-or-less-human/
- There is growing evidence that certain recreational drugs which are currently illegal (particularly MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin) could actually have strong therapeutic benefits for people suffering from severe depression and anxiety. It's not my position to advocate for illegal drug-taking, but this is an area I am very interested in and following closely. There are so many articles covering this topic, here's a short selection if you want to read more:
Sometimes the simplest things can be the most effective. An enlightening, absorbing book, a beautiful piece of music, a compassionate heartfelt podcast or interview, can have the most profound effects on immediate mental health. Making you feel more connected, more supported, more positive, more human.... just better. Here's a list of whats been doing it for me recently:
- Stephen King books - in particular, the mighty tomes of The Stand and It. Also, the short stories in Different Seasons including the classics The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. He is so much more than a horror writer.
- Other 'fantasy' books can be a good healthy escape too – Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and the Lord of the Rings are both up there.
- Comedy books – James Acaster's recent publication Classic Scrapes is downright hilarious.
- There are also many books to help in the search for your own personal meaning and also looking directly at beating anxiety:
- Man's Search for Meaning by Josef Franzl - if a neuroscientist who survived the Nazi concentration camps can remain positive about the world, then so can you!
- Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig - a wonderful life-affirming memoir from someone who suffered from severe depression, and how his triumph over the illness taught him to live.
- First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story about Anxiety by Sarah Wilson - a candid and insightful memoir on not necessarily "beating" anxiety, but befriending it and living a fulfilling life with it by your side.
- Overcoming Anxiety: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques by Helen Kennerley - a reassuringly clinical and no-nonsense look at what anxiety is and how you can reduce it.
- By the same token as books, if there are movies, TV shows or music that make you instantly feel better, then don't question the why too much - just embrace that it is working!
- Finally, I'm a big fan of podcasts and believe that having the right companions in your ears during difficult times can have hugely beneficial therapeutic effects. There's a huge list I could recommend but here's just a couple of the top ones:
- Elis James and John Robins on Radio X - Two hilarious and wonderful men discussing everything from frivolous made-up-games to dealing with 'the darkness' and 'living your best life'.
- Russell Brand on Radio X - The definition of a marmite character. You either love him or hate him. I'm unashamedly in the former camp and his various podcasts over the years - effortlessly flitting from deep thinking to childish whimsy - have often been a constant light in murky times.
- Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast - A seriously funny man and a huge back catalogue of interviews with equally hysterical and fascinating guests.
- Kermode & Mayo's Film Review - Two lovely men with great affection for each other and their listeners discussing the latest cinematic releases. An absolute must for film fans, but a comforting listen for everyone else nonetheless.