A word about Love Island

I will start by saying that I love Love Island. It’s the perfect thing to wind down the day with, and it’s put together well enough that I somehow care deeply about every single contestant, and the fates of their turbulent love lives, while watching it – but then it ends, I go to bed and I don’t need to give it another thought. Minimal headspace and maximum enjoyment: like I said, perfect.

But last weekend, a friend asked me if anyone could ever pay me enough to go on Love Island, and my response was immediate, categorical and unconditional. No, no, and no again. Not because of the risks of sudden and meteoric fame and celebrity (although I certainly have no desire to enter into that sort of world – which is lucky, because it’s somewhat unlikely ever to happen); not because of the objectifying, offensive aspects of the show (although these are significant and outrageous – lack of diversity being one of the show’s most principal flaws, swiftly followed by numerous others); and not because of the insecurities I have about my physical appearance (although this is certainly enough of a factor to dissuade me from wanting to parade around in front of a camera for 10 weeks).

No – as someone who already struggles with anxiety and intermittent sleep problems, I honestly cannot imagine anything worse than being a contestant on that show.

For one thing, I find it hard enough to sleep sometimes in my own bed, when it’s pitch dark and totally quiet; I cannot imagine (and frankly don’t want to) how little I’d sleep whilst sharing a room with 14 other people, several of whom are getting up to all kinds of misdemeanours just feet away from me. And imagine the snoring!

Apparently they never know what time it is in there; that’s just one of many more things that would stress me out astronomically (I’m getting stressed just thinking about it…). I’d be fretting about sunburn, about drinking every night…the list is endless. Already, the idea of staying in a luxury villa, for free, with guaranteed fame and money whenever I leave, is causing me more stress than my A-levels did.

Then there’s the endless cycle of people-pleasing. I am a chronic people-pleaser. I will inevitably tell people whatever they want to hear, even if I know full well that I cannot do what they want. “I’m sure that’ll be just fine”, I’ll beam, while inwardly knowing there’s no way to achieve that impossible task. “Yes, sounds perfect!”, I’ll tap away enthusiastically on WhatsApp to my friend who’s just asked if I’m free next weekend, while simultaneously working out if I have in fact said yes to three other engagements that day. It’s something I’m working on; but on Love Island, as we have seen this season, it’s not really possible to please everyone – and that would put a hell of a strain on my mental well-being.

Take Lucy, for example. She thought she was getting along perfectly well with everyone – until the girls laid into her for not spending enough time with them, for not being enough of a “girl’s girl” (and honestly, what room is there for that kind of phrase in a world which is beginning – at last – to embrace gender fluidity? Marie-Claire Chappet wrote a brilliant piece on this for Glamour – well worth a read) and for not making enough of an effort. This was a situation that, understandably, saw Lucy in floods of tears more than once, and was one that I completely empathised with. “Just leave her alone”, I growled at Amy, as I watched her criticising Lucy for friendship choices that didn’t affect anyone negatively in any way – at least not until all the bitching started. Poor Lucy, through no fault of her own, now has to bend over backwards in order to maintain her friendships with the guys, prove that she does want to be friends with the girls, and try to find a romantic partner – which all sounds like something that would send me into a pretty major anxiety attack.

I think the worst thing of all, though, is the way the show is manipulated by producers to highlight the character flaws of even the nicest, kindest, warmest, most generous people (with the exception of Dani Dyer, who managed to get away unscathed last season). “We’re all good people”, said Curtis to the group, during a rousing speech one night when everyone was feeling particularly despondent. That’s right, Curtis. You are all good people. Everyone has at some point demonstrated an act of true kindness, thoughtfulness or integrity– whether it was Tommy behaving with dignity and respect when Lucy said she could envisage their friendship turning into something more, or Amber insisting that Lucy wake her up if she felt sad during the night. And what woman out there wasn’t inspired by Maura’s response to Tom’s comment (“It’ll be interesting to see if she’s all mouth”), and her outright refusal to entertain his attempts to gaslight her (see Caitlin Moran’s perfectly pitched piece on this)? “Why can’t a woman talk openly about enjoying sex in 2019?!”, she lamented. Why, Maura. Why indeed.

But the producers don’t want contestants to be kind, or thoughtful, or even “loyal”. They want them to provide drama, and unfortunately that comes from presenting the worst of humanity’s flaws for viewer’s entertainment. Tommy was kind to Lucy when they had their chat – but then he did exactly what she asked him not to do, and told everyone about it. Amber might be a steadfast friend, but the way she treats Michael is often rude, passive-aggressive and sometimes nasty. And Maura didn’t exactly get off to the best start – when she straddled her 28-year-old self on top of Tommy’s 20-year-old self and tried to kiss him even when he kept turning his face away, Ofcom received 486 complaints asking for her to be removed from the show.

And you know what? These people are only human. As Tom Peck says, “they are real, surprisingly fragile people”. They mess up, like each and every one of us messes up every day. They say things they don’t mean, and they do things they know they’ll regret. But their mistakes and human errors are broadcast to the nation, in the worst possible light and context, to create drama. And that’s what really does it for me. Because as someone who often feels mentally frail and afraid of the world around me, I would so much rather celebrate the good in people, rather than be a part of something that makes a point of showcasing the bad.

So no, you couldn’t pay me enough to audition for the show (and good thing too, because it’s not as though the producers are knocking on my door…!). Like the hypocrite I am, though, I will continue to watch it and enjoy it – because, like the contestants, I’m only human. Tommy and Molly to win, anyone?!

 

So: what’s next?

Last year, I was at a birthday dinner in central London. We were having a great time – laughing, talking, over-eating, etc. etc., when I was suddenly struck by a panic so arresting and all-consuming that I think I physically froze. Realistically no one else would have noticed, and it was probably only about five seconds or so before I shook it off and re-joined the conversation. To me, though, I was completely frozen in time, struck by a thought that absolutely terrified me. The thought was: what’s next? As in: literally, what’s next? None of us here knows what’s going to happen in the next five seconds. Or the next ten, or the next minute, or hour. I felt, for a brief moment, as though I’d cracked some kind of mass thought-barrier constructed by humankind. How is it that we all walk through life effectively blindfolded, metaphorically bouncing off the walls, with no idea what’s going to come at us next? How am I the only person, in this moment, who is scared by that? How are we this blasé about our own existence?
Needless to say, I’ve come to terms with this strange and sudden form of existential anxiety since then. Now, I find the unknown exciting (most of the time, anyway). But this brief episode made me realise that existential anxiety – something I’d never given true consideration to before – is truly frightening, and can extend to more aspects and phases of life than a bizarre, five-second invisible panic attack at a friend’s birthday.
I think it would be remiss not to mention the shudders, groans and the oft-repeated “don’t talk about it, I hate talking about it!” that often accompany large-scale existential conversations about the universe and the cosmos. “What is out there, really?”; “Where does the universe end? And what starts after that?” But I’m going to leave that particular form of existential anxiety there, a.) because I’m scaring myself, b.) because I’m really not qualified to be talking about physics and cosmology (if those are even the right words…? I have no clue. I need to learn to stop whilst I’m ahead.) and c.) because I think there are more everyday aspects of this type of anxiety that are a tad closer to home, and therefore significantly more relevant.
“Existential anxiety” is usually described as a form of anxiety that “focuses on the identity and meaning of the self”, or that “involves apprehension about the meaning of life and death”. I identify with both of these. I’ve certainly had thoughts such as: “I don’t know what kind of person I am”, and “I really don’t see how anything I do makes any difference if we’re all going to die anyway”. My ability to bat these thoughts away varies depending on whether or not I’ve consumed alcohol the night before, or where I’m at in my cycle. But those thoughts do pop up, and what I’ve come to realise is that it’s perfectly normal, especially at this particular stage in life.
I’m aware that being in your mid-twenties is not old – nowhere close. But there is a difference between early twenties and mid-twenties (other than the obvious difference of the actual numbers). It’s a difference that has suddenly crept up on me, and many of my friends, and it’s a difference that has certainly given me personally a jolt of a wake-up call. There was something about turning 25 that made me question my identity, my existence and my calling in life. “Age is just a number”: but societal conditioning tells us that by age 25 we should have it all figured out; jobs, partners, families, housing – everything. I don’t have it all figured out. I’m doing a Master’s and working part-time, and I have no idea which industry I will eventually enter, or even what I’ll be doing this time next year. I’m single. The thought of me owning property at any time in the next 10 years is ludicrous. And, subsequently, I panic. I panic that I don’t know where my life is going. I panic that I’m not contributing enough to society. I panic that I’m just messing around, wasting time, whilst my contemporaries are making their mark on the world and setting themselves up with financial and familial security (I should make clear here: I am not remotely implying that others in my position should have the same panic. No one deserves to panic in this way – we are all making an impact on the world with every breath we take. But that’s the thing with anxiety: it makes you apply strict and unforgiving rules to yourself that you would never apply to anyone else!).
But what I’m gradually beginning to learn is firstly that everyone feels like this, at one time or another – just as I feel that everyone is sorted except me, everyone else will have moments where they feel lost, or as though they’re being left behind – and secondly, that meaning does not come from a job, or a relationship, or owning property. These things are meaningful, of course they are – they are full of meaning and importance, and help to craft us into the people that we are. But they are not the only areas from which we can derive meaning in our lives. Ultimately, meaning can come from wherever the hell we want it to.
The most beautiful, honest and hopeful description of existential anxiety I’ve ever read was written by a friend of mine for Bustle, about how the book “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” helped her restore meaning to her world after she became an atheist. “When I stopped believing in God after almost 20 years of being raised as a Christian, I lost a lot of things”, she writes. “I lost a sense of meaning or purpose to my life; I lost my feeling of unity with the world; I lost my infinity…Yeah, I wasn’t in a great place.” But then, she read “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower”, and this book – and one particular moment in it – helped her to restore meaning to her life. “Charlie’s infinite moment reminded me that I can connect with this world in a multitude of ways – not just in a church. It might be a song, or a stretch of road; it might be a night sky; it might be a friend laughing into the wind.”

I’m now over my limit of 1000 words yet again, so I’ll leave it there, on that beautiful quote. If you enjoyed this piece , please do follow the blog via email for weekly articles in your inbox every Tuesday!

Q&A: Lagom Mind

This week I interviewed Harry Rice and David Torkington, two members of the team behind the highly anticipated Lagom Mind: a unique mental health app that will equip users to safeguard their own mental health. In this ridiculously fast-paced, “information-overload” era, in which we’re all expected to be fully reachable 100% of the time, this app sounds to me like a hugely valuable resource for everyone! I chatted with Harry and David, both currently studying for PhDs, to hear a little more about the app’s conception as well as their personal opinions on the progress of the international mental health conversation. Read on below!

So how did you come to set up Lagom Mind?

Harry (CEO): Towards the end of my time at Durham, I was experiencing some mental health difficulties, which resulted in having to delay my exams, and I didn’t receive any joined-up help. I saw counsellors at Durham, but that wasn’t joined up with anything at home. I was placed on a long waiting list for my local GP, and the stuff I eventually got offered just wasn’t really appropriate; for example, I was offered online-based help but nothing face to face. I was feeling incredibly low and I was having suicidal thoughts most days; at which point it all reached a head and I was lucky enough to be able to see a private psychologist. This really helped, and Lagom actually stemmed from the techniques he taught me.
Once you start to read around it, you realise that there really is a big issue going on, and that a lot of your peers are actually going through similar things that you may not have known anything about. My psychologist told me his clientele were getting younger and younger, and that the methods he was using to help me weren’t really available in a good digital platform – which is when I started thinking about Lagom.

David (CPO): It was around May last year that Harry reached out to myself, and the other members of the team. We were immediately on board because we recognised these issues in many of our friends and in ourselves, and so we really did want to help and play our part. Harry also knew we had an understanding of programming, and so that was the start of it all really!

When you speak about the “issues”, are you referring here specifically to mental health issues among university students?

Harry: Yes, we are. But when we were thinking about it, we realised it does of course continue into the transition between university and work, and so on. Those issues don’t go away and, especially among our demographic, a lot of people go into high stress, high powered jobs. We were speaking to a few of these people, asking what sort of safeguarding is in place for them, and many responded saying things like [e.g.] they were working very long hours and that they just weren’t really coping. But that’s the corporate culture of today. If people can start being proactive with safeguarding their mental health at university then hopefully they’ll be able to take that with them into the working world, and that will start a culture change. Our philosophy is that if the people you’re employing are happier, then of course they’re going to be more productive and this will be of ultimate benefit to the company.

So what exactly is the app, and how does it work?

David: The app has three core features. The first is our unique selling point, and it’s called “Perspective”. It’s an implementation of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), and it’s unique here because we focus on discussing why people are feeling good, and congratulating them for that, rather than on why you might be feeling bad (the traditional form of CBT). We believe that if you zoom in on negative emotions, there can be a tendency for people to ruminate on that too much, and so head further down the spiral.
The other two features are “Focus”, which is a mindfulness meditation that Harry has recorded and which is case-specific (e.g. students struggling with revision stress), and “Breathe”, which is a cathartic breathing animation. This is a visual metronome to help you with your breathing that you can whip out at any time, for any situation. “Focus” has a structure and is a guided meditation, whereas “Breathe” is purely visual.

What are your long-term plans for the app?

Harry: The difficult thing about apps like these is getting people to stick with them. CBT as an online version is known for being incredibly effective, but has a very high drop-out rate. We know these things work but it’s hard to keep going and stay motivated.

I know what you mean – I often think of meditation as being like antibiotics. We’re always told to keep taking antibiotics right up until the end of the course, even after we’ve started feeling better; and I know I’m the worst for doing a bit of meditation when I’m feeling bad and then thinking “Oh great, I feel better now, I’ll stop!”

Harry: Yes, exactly. These things don’t necessarily work when you’re in a crisis, and in fact that’s not really what they’re for.

David: Through using something like Lagom, you’re building resilience so that when something happens out of the blue, you’re equipped to deal with it.

Harry: But our ultimate aim is for the corporate side to fund the academic side.

David: We believe that students shouldn’t have to pay any kind of subscription. Of course universities have a responsibility for the welfare of their students, and so when the app is fully gamified, we’ll approach contacts we already have within universities with the goal being to have the university subsidise the app for the students – and this would be embedded into the welfare infrastructure they already have. The important thing is that it’s free for the students. But it doesn’t stop when you leave university – it’s a habit formed by practice, and so in theory, our subscribers would want to be able to use it as young professionals. So, eventually we’d like corporations to be using it, and, all being good, the corporate side will ultimately completely fund the academic side.

As we all know, there’s been huge progress in the last few years in terms of opening up the conversation around mental health. What are your opinions on this new era of mental health awareness? Do you feel as though enough is being done to increase awareness and support those who are suffering?

Harry: I don’t remember having any conversations about mental health at school, or even in my first two years at university, so obviously the current era is a brilliant thing as the first stage of – I don’t like the word, but – “stigma” is gradually coming down. I asked one of our podcast guests a similar question, and he’s International Rugby League; so five or six years ago you wouldn’t have thought he’s the kind of person who’d be talking about his mental health! But I guess the answer really is the fact that we’re talking on the phone right now about our experiences, which just wouldn’t have happened even a few years ago.
I’m not sure if enough is being done – there are still huge waiting times, there was a report this morning that said one in four young people with mental health issues get turned away. So there needs to be a transition from conversation into concrete action, and there needs to be a movement of people taking responsibility for their own mental health, safeguarding it so that it doesn’t reach a problem stage.

David: It wasn’t all going to change overnight. It’s a huge first step, but there is always more that can be done.

How do you envision the app fitting into this idea of moving forward past conversation into concrete action?

David: The app will hopefully provide the tool that people will be able to use to safeguard their own mental health. A really good qualifier that Harry mentioned earlier is that the app is not necessarily just for those who’ve already got a diagnosed condition, but for everyone, on a day-to-day basis, to care for their mental health. The conversational aspects (podcast and live events) will hopefully continue to improve the conversation around it.

Harry: It’s about enabling people to take autonomy over their own mental health. There will always, always be a necessary place in this for psychiatrists, GPs, etc., and that support needs to be available as well – but at our end of the spectrum, it’s about people taking control of their mental health and essentially preventing it from becoming a serious issue later down the line.

Do either of you have any final thoughts?

Harry: When you’re in a bad patch, you tend to think about how brilliant everyone else’s lives are, and how they all seem to be able to do anything they want – but as you grow with your own mental frailties, you realise that sometimes they can be a real blessing, and can completely change the way you view things. Having experienced it and come out the other side, I now know that when I walk into a room I’m most likely the strongest person in there.

If anyone wants to help test the app, you can email the team at info@lagommind.com. Otherwise, the aim is for the whole package to be available on both iPhone and Android in early 2019.

Enabled, not limited: how can we support those with mental health struggles without limiting their potential?

“Enabled, not limited”. I attended a mental health conference recently where this phrase was used, and it really stuck with me. My first thought was: of course. Of course we should all be striving every day to continue enabling people who suffer with mental health issues, rather than limiting them and thus making them feel incapable of achievement. My friends and family often say things like, “Are you sure you’ll be able to do that?”, or “But what if that sets off your anxiety?”. It always comes from a loving, supportive place but phrases like this, although well-meant, are fundamentally limiting.

And yet it’s when I get to roughly this point in my thinking that I start to question it all.

I am a passionate advocate of people with any mental health issue feeling empowered to do anything they set their mind to, rather than feeling as though they’re incapable, or that their anxiety might set them back, or that they’ll be judged, or discriminated against. No one should ever feel inhibited, limited or set back by any sort of mental health condition. And yet I just as firmly believe that no one with a mental health condition should ever feel pressured (by peers, colleagues, anyone) to do something they don’t feel they’re able to do. And so there emerges a slight dichotomy between these two approaches. How do we empower mental health sufferers to feel enabled, whilst also ensuring they don’t feel under any pressure to do something that will bring on difficult feelings or emotions? And how do we then remove pressure without inadvertently enforcing limits? As a sufferer of anxiety myself, I want to feel enabled to do anything I want to do without my anxiety setting me back – but I also don’t like being put under pressure to do things that I know will make my anxiety worse. But then again, I don’t want anything or anyone to make me feel limited by my anxiety. Hence, a conundrum. I may sound demanding, but isn’t this all anyone wants? Doesn’t everyone want to feel enabled, whether that’s by their family, their peers, their work or by their own sense of self-worth? Does anyone ever like being put under pressure to do something that may damage them? Does anyone ever want to feel limited, regardless of whether those limits are enforced by society or limits they’re enforcing on themselves?

I’m aware this is all coming across as more than a little convoluted (I’m currently typing this with an excitable puppy crawling all over my lap and trying to chew my fingers) and I’m asking a lot of questions here that I can’t answer. But essentially, I think we have to start with the word “enable”. What does “enable” really mean, in this context? Does it simply mean not discriminating against those experiencing mental health issues, e.g. in the workplace (in which case: while a positive step forward, is this really enough?), or does it mean actively encouraging those same people to push themselves out of their comfort zone, by saying things like “You can do it”, etc. (in which case: is this exerting undue – and possibly damaging – pressure?). This isn’t a hypothetical question; I’m genuinely asking, and would love to hear any thoughts people may have on this issue.

A lot of people reading this might think I’m over-complicating a very simple phrase, and maybe I am. But the thing is: mental health is complicated. The word “enable” will mean very different things to different people, with variables like the type of mental health issue, its severity, the strength of individual support networks and dozens of others.

I’m writing this not only with a puppy on my lap, but also with World Mental Health Day 2018 in mind (currently three days away). How can we use this day to keep making a difference? To keep shining a light on what it really means to suffer from a mental health issue? How can we help people feel enabled, without pressuring them into a dark or scary place – and how then can we subsequently leave pressure out of the equation without inadvertently creating limitations? I’m not asking these questions for a dramatic finish to this article; I really, genuinely want to hear any answers anyone may have. Because at the end of the day, we’ve got to keep talking about it – and when better to do that than the week of WMHD 2018?

Fault vs. responsibility

A friend recently said to me that he first started to cope with his anxiety when he realised that how he was feeling wasn’t his fault, but that it was his responsibility to do something about it. This is something that’s really stuck with me. I wholeheartedly agree and I’ve decided to bring this “fault vs. responsibility” idea into my own life, by constantly reminding myself of the following:

What I’m feeling isn’t my fault. But it is up to me – and only me – to change it.

Obviously, this is far easier said than done (like so many mental health solutions!). Blaming myself is pointless, damaging and a waste of time. At the end of the day, it’s all chemical. My anxiety is not my fault, and I need to constantly remind myself of this. I am not to blame, and I have nothing to apologise for. And yet I apologise for it all. the. time. Seriously. It doesn’t matter who it is, I will say sorry over and over again for this thing happening to me that I can’t control, that I have no say over and that I didn’t choose for myself.

My first office job was in client relations, which consequently meant I spent about 80% of my day apologising to unhappy clients. Sometimes the issue was my error, and sometimes it wasn’t. One day I was desperately apologising for something for which I wasn’t even remotely to blame and when I hung up the phone, my manager said to me, “You should never, ever apologise for something that’s not your fault.”

It’s difficult enough to adopt this mentality in a working environment, let alone when it’s a mental health issue – something that’s still a taboo subject and something I freely admit I’m still embarrassed and ashamed of. At the beginning of this year, I had an anxiety attack at work and was sent home by my very understanding boss – but not before I’d apologised about 15 times. Whenever I bail on an event because of anxiety, I apologise for said anxiety over and over again. A few months ago I ended things with a guy because of anxiety and I was shocked that my first instinct was to apologise for the way I was feeling. After a lot of drafting and redrafting, I finally came up with a text that explained honestly why I couldn’t see him anymore, that expressed regret and respect for his feelings – but that didn’t contain a single apology. This probably sounds incredibly insensitive and even rude, but honestly – apologising for feelings you can’t control can be so damaging and detrimental, and can inhibit recovery to a huge extent. Apologising essentially equates to believing you’re in the wrong, and no one is ever “in the wrong” for experiencing mental health difficulties.

I have no doubt I will continue to apologise for my anxiety countless times over the next few weeks/months/years. But I’m trying to be more aware of when I’m doing it, and to stop myself wherever I feel it’s appropriate. If I’m bailing on an event, for example, I will apologise for causing an inconvenience – but I’ll try not to apologise for feeling anxious.

So that’s the “fault” aspect of my new life motto. The responsibility is next, and this is something I’m also finding difficult. Accepting responsibility for my anxiety means conceding that all change needs to come from me. I can talk to amazing counsellors, go to wonderful yoga teachers and rely on great friends for support, but at the end of the day, all anyone else can do is help. The real change needs to come from me. If I don’t research counsellors, if I don’t take the time out of my week to go to yoga, if I don’t look to my friends for support, then nothing will happen. I’m the worst for thinking, “When A/B/C happens, then I’ll be fine”, or “If only I had X/Y/Z in my life, then I’d be fine.” But life doesn’t work like that. In order to actually create a change, I have to take responsibility and examine what’s going on in the present, not constantly rely on the unpredictable future.

It’s also not just about seeking help from others, although this is a big step towards making a change. It’s maintaining that discipline in everyday life which is, again, something that only comes from me. I’ve touched on this before, but in the context of this article – It’s not up to anyone else to tell me not to drink coffee, to think seriously before having a glass of wine or to use the Headspace app every day. My friends are amazing and will always be there to listen, but my daily routine isn’t their problem. Only I know what will affect my anxiety. Only I will know if I can happily go for a few drinks and be totally fine the next day, or if sharing a bottle of wine would be a really stupid idea at that exact moment. It’s up to me to work out all these things, and put them into practice myself.

So to sum up (and this is me giving myself advice here)…

Don’t: blame yourself. It will get you nowhere and will do more harm than good.

Do: accept responsibility for what’s happening to you. Know that change has to stem from you, and that it’s up to you to seek support from the people who love you and the resources that are there to help.

 

LOW OF THE WEEK:  PMS is a bitch. Just going to leave it at that…

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Curious Arts Festival! It’s a literary/arts festival in Hampshire and I went with one of my best friends. Such a happy day of DMCs/books/gin tasting hearing amazing authors talk about their books and feeling far more intellectual than I really am. 10/10.

Putting yourself first

“I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.” – Elinor Dashwood: “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen

Putting myself first is something that often goes against all my deepest instincts. Not because I’m an unselfish person, but because I’m far too obsessed with what people think and usually terrified of offending. And yet self-care is absolutely vital in order to keep those anxiety demons at bay.

I find there’s a fine line between cushioning myself too much and unsuccessfully attempting to “push through”. I know as well as anyone that a.) It’s healthy and often rewarding to force yourself out of your comfort zone, and b.) We all have to do things we don’t want to do from time to time; shit happens, often at a time that’s not convenient to us, and we have to deal with it.

Having said that, I can normally inherently feel the difference between a normal reluctance or nervousness to deal with something I don’t want to acknowledge, and a very real anxiety. I’ve become obsessed with inspirational quotes on Instagram, and I saw one recently that said “If it feels wrong, don’t do it”. I 100% agree, and this is something I’ve tried to consider when debating whether or not to do something because of anxiety. Sometimes, I know deep down I’ll be absolutely fine – in which case I’ll propel myself out of the door and, more often than not, be very glad I did so. Other times I can barely move for anxiety and have an overwhelming feeling of foreboding. In darker times like this, I’ll try to listen to my mind and body, even if that means bailing, cancelling or letting someone down.

I should say: I HATE bailing. With an all-consuming passion. I hate having to send the text that I know will never be able to properly express how I’m really feeling; I hate appearing flaky, unreliable, pathetic, lazy or any of the other numerous adjectives that I have never applied to anyone who bailed on me, but that I unfailingly apply to myself whenever I have to drop out of an event that a friend has kindly invited me to.

Despite my hatred of bailing, so far this year I have cancelled on: two birthday parties, a day at Glyndebourne, a spa day with a friend and a long weekend in Salcombe. With each of those events, I left the actual bailing to the very last minute, sometimes because my anxiety crept up on me without warning and sometimes because I determinedly refused to acknowledge the anxiety I could feel building, until I was forced to admit that I would have to cancel at ridiculously short notice.

Every time I sent the text saying “I’m so sorry, I’m not going to be able to make it, etc.”, I was so worried the friends in question would be annoyed, frustrated or disappointed in me. None of them were any of those things. They were all incredibly kind, caring and were only concerned with my well-being. Consequently, I’m gradually beginning to realise something that should have been obvious for a long time: it’s ok to bail. It’s ok to not be ok. And it’s ok to look after yourself. My housemate has a saying which I firmly believe everyone should adopt (and which I am only gradually beginning to adopt myself): “You do you”. Not all the time, obviously – sometimes we all have to inconvenience ourselves to get something done, or to help others. But I know if I’m feeling anxious, or if the anxiety is persistently hovering just outside my thoughts, I need to put myself first – and have no guilt about doing so.

There was a great article by Viv Groskop in this month’s issue of Red. The article was called “Wave Goodbye to Mum Guilt” and was about taking time for yourself as a mother (so I’m not entirely sure why I was reading it – but, regardless, I was). I was struck by one of the points she made, in which she referred to the advice they give on a plane: “Put your own oxygen mask on first.” We have to look after ourselves first and foremost, not only for our own well-being but because it is only through self-care that we will be best equipped to help others. She went on to say “You’re more secure, useful and happy as a parent if you value yourself first.” If I substitute “parent” for “daughter”, “sister” or “friend”, this becomes incredibly applicable to my own life and also perfectly sums up why it really is so important to do what you need to do in order to be ok – whether that’s putting an oxygen mask on or cancelling on a party – not only to ensure your own well-being, but also to benefit those around you.

So to sum up, I’ll bring it back to Elinor Dashwood. She wanted to be happy, in her own way. If I’m going to successfully combat anxiety, I need to do it my way. I can’t live for others all the time. If I’m really to be a good daughter/sister/friend, I need to do what I need to do for myself and come back to everyone else ready and equipped to be there for them, in whatever way I can.

LOW OF THE WEEK: Thursday night, when I eventually – after a lot of indecision – decided to send the text bailing on the weekend in Salcombe. I was experiencing a tonne of anxiety, which was my reason for bailing, but I also felt so guilty for dropping out at such late notice and so sad that I’d miss out on such a great weekend. (I should say: the friend hosting the weekend was so kind about the whole thing that I felt a lot better the next day!)

HIGH OF THE WEEK: A day at Osborne House (on the Isle of Wight) with one of my best friends. We had such a great time (we both love wholesome days out), the weather was amazing and it was so good to spend quality time with someone I definitely don’t see enough of!

Excessive worrying

“I…have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened” – Mark Twain

What. If. When placed together, two of the most terrifying words in the English language.

I used to be incredibly impatient with anyone who started a sentence with “But what if…”. I had no time for catastrophizing, predicting the worst or worrying about things that haven’t even happened yet. Depending on the person in question, I’d either be upfront and say something along the lines of “I’m not going to listen to this ridiculous catastrophizing, you’re worrying about things that haven’t happened and that might never happen so pull yourself together”, or I’d keep those unsympathetic thoughts to myself and grow increasingly more irritated with this person/friend/acquaintance who was, I believed, indulging in utterly absurd fears.

Now, I know differently. I have experienced the utter terror that comes with a “what if” thought and I know you can’t just dismiss it. You can’t just pull yourself together, start thinking clearly or adopt any of the numerous ‘tough love’ phrases often used in dialogue accompanying “what if” conversations.

To give you an idea of the worries I often experience, here are a few of my scariest “what if” thoughts:

  • What if my anxiety gets worse and worse, to the point where I can no longer control it, go completely insane and have to be sectioned
  • What if I end up bailing on every social event there is because I’m always anxious, meaning I end up with a reputation for being a “bailer” which means no one will ever invite me to anything ever again
  • What if my closest friends and family decide they can no longer handle it and I end up completely alone with no one to talk to except people who are paid to be there
  • What if I forget everything I know to be true, lose all sense of self and forget who I am

I know these thoughts are absurd and ridiculous. I know that losing your mind doesn’t work like that and I know my friends and family will be hurt that I could ever think that of them. But knowing these things isn’t enough. When I’m in one of my most excruciating periods of anxiety, 1% of my brain is still being rational – but the other 99% completely believes the fear, and is paralysed by it.

A bit of background: I’m currently reading “The Worry Book” by Will van der Hart and Rob Waller. It’s a beautiful book (though a tough read at times), and full of really helpful explanations for why the brain behaves the way it does. They provide a very useful analysis of why we get “what if” thoughts, and why these thoughts are so much worse for those prone to excessive worry (like me). I’ll use my own words here, but essentially: everyone’s brain has a limbic system, which is our safety mechanism; it alerts us to danger. It’s obviously an essential part of our wiring and if, for example, you were to find a poisonous snake in your bathroom, it would be your limbic system that would tell you to get the hell out of there.

However, those prone to excessive worry have a very sensitive limbic system, “part of which (the amygdala) tends to fire out threats that are either disproportionate or completely unrealistic” (Will van der Hart and Rob Waller, “The Worry Book”). Reading this sentence for the first time was like someone flicking on a light in my brain (I’ve always wanted to say that, but it is genuinely true here). I realised I wasn’t going mad. The terrifying “what if” thoughts that burrow into my consciousness and make me doubt my very existence are generated by my overactive amygdala. That’s all it is.

If I had to guess (and I’m moving on to my own theories now), I’d say my threat avoidance system may have become overstimulated by being on that tube at Parsons Green last September. My (very tentative) theory is that my limbic system has therefore become oversensitive and my amygdala has started generating more scary, unrealistic thoughts. Furthermore, because my strategy has always been to instantly distract myself (in other words, running away from the fear like I would a poisonous snake, or like I actually did from a bomb), my brain has interpreted the fears as real – fears to be taken seriously, and to be terrified of. Thus, my threat avoidance system continues to be overactive, my amygdala continues to generate the scariest thoughts it can come up with and I continue to experience periods of crippling anxiety.

So how do I move on from here?

The only way to convince my brain that these thoughts shouldn’t be taken seriously is to sit with them. Rather than going into instant panic mode and instantly rushing to distract myself with anything I’ve got to hand, I need to practise sitting with the fear, observing it and ultimately helping my brain to understand that it’s really not that scary. I don’t need to run from it; it’s just a thought, and thoughts are insubstantial; they can’t hurt me.

Obviously, this is far easier said than done. When I’m shaking all over and overwhelmed by wave after wave of crushing anxiety, I’d probably lose my shit with anyone who told me to “just sit with the fear”. It will take practise and patience, and it won’t happen overnight. But in the immortal words of Joey: “Face your fear. If you have a fear of heights, you go to the top of the building. If you’re afraid of bugs…get a bug!”. Don’t confront it head on, don’t run from it – just be with it.

There is a way to gradually prevent these thoughts from appearing at all, and that’s to practise being present and being in the moment. But I’ve already written a far longer article than I originally intended so I will save that for a future post!

As always, any questions/observations/corrections (especially on my cautious neurological musings), please do get in touch!

LOW OF THE WEEK: To be honest, there hasn’t been a particular low – but I’ve been feeling horribly anxious for about seven days now. It comes in waves and some days are better than others, but for some reason it’s been more continually present than ever before. But having said that:

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Seeing my little brother graduate on Monday was just the best. He’s come so far (see previous post) and was very nervous about the ceremony, but he pushed through and ended up having the best day. Seeing him so happy and confident was so great for all of us.

Q&A: Louis Price

This week’s post is a Q&A with my younger brother Louis, who went through a period of intense anxiety about three years ago. This is just a short chat we had about Louis’ experiences and we weren’t able to cover everything (it’s already a longer post than usual!). However, Louis is always very happy to talk about his experience of anxiety and answer any questions, etc., so please do get in touch with me if you’d like to ask him about any of the below!

When did you first start experiencing anxiety?

Probably around October/November 2014? I was in my final year at boarding school.

Do you remember the exact point it started?

Yes. It happened on a Saturday, and it had been building during that week, during the morning chapel services at school. Each morning, for reasons I still don’t really know, I’d start feeling nauseous during the chapel services. Through deep breathing and perseverance I could sit it out and it would just disappear…but then on this Saturday morning, I felt more unwell than usual, had to leave the (completely full) chapel, walk out down the middle of the aisle and was sick in one of the bathrooms. From that point on, I couldn’t really go into chapel without feeling ill. I went to the medical centre, said “I feel nauseous”, they couldn’t really work out what it was – and, after a while, after trying loads of different solutions – and I don’t know if it’s something I worked out myself, or if someone said to me “this is the case” – I realised it was anxiety.

After a family trip to the theatre during the Christmas holidays that year, when I had to get up and leave the auditorium just as the show was starting, this nauseous/anxious feeling spread to other areas of my life (before it had just been chapel). Lessons at school, stuff I’d done thousands of times, I just couldn’t really do any more, for fear of being sick in front of everyone. I remember the point when I knew it was bad: I was standing in a queue in a shop in Cranbrook (our then nearest town) and I started having a major panic attack. At this point, I wasn’t clear about what I was actually scared of. Towards the end, it became “fear of fear” but I guess initially it was a fear of being sick in public, of having to hurry away but not being able to escape. Either way, at that point I knew it was something very real.

I started to skip meals, my logic being: if you don’t have anything in your stomach, you can’t be sick. I would typically just pick at meals – at school it was compulsory to go to every meal – but I didn’t really eat the meals that were there.

After a while, I started to work out coping mechanisms and began going to lessons again. I’d take plastic bags with me, for instance, in case I was ill, and I’d sit close to the door. I’d try to arrive early so I could make my teacher aware. Bit by bit, it started to filter away so it didn’t affect my lessons too much. I still couldn’t go to chapel, but I think that was because I’d just built up too much of a stigma about it.

So would you say the anxiety was generalised, or more of a social anxiety? 

Depends on the social event. I think the reason chapel was so bad was because it was just boring. I had nothing to do except just sit in my own head, and then my thoughts could just run wild. With lessons, it wasn’t so bad after a while because you can just get stuck into taking down notes, or whatever. With parties, etc. – the anxiety didn’t make those kinds of events unbearable, I just often had to step outside a few times. When I felt the anxiety coming on, being inside just wasn’t really an option, and I had to take a break.

So – this was all a good three years ago, if not longer. You haven’t really suffered from anxiety since; what do you think made it go away?

I’ve accumulated a lot of different coping mechanisms, for example breathing exercises. So if I’m sitting idly in a situation and I start to panic, I find it helpful to do “7/11s” – when you breathe in and count to seven, and breathe out counting to eleven. When I went to uni, I tried to work out the worst case scenario for a given situation. If you work this out, you can plan. If I’ve planned for the worst case scenario, then I don’t really have a problem. Being prepared for the worst before I got to that point sort of mentally prepared me, and often all I’d actually have to do, in this hypothetical worst-case scenario, would be to just calmly stand up and walk out of the room.

Did you say this out loud to anyone, or did you work it out for yourself?

I started sort of subconsciously working it out by myself, but then at uni I was helping out a couple of friends who were going through similar issues. The more I talked about it out loud, the more I realised it just didn’t make sense to be worrying about the things I was worrying about. Talking out loud put things in perspective, and after a while my fears just stopped being so scary. It helps to know that other people are going through the same thing you’re going through, because it makes you think: if other people have gone through this and have come out the other side, then I can too. Now, I can’t remember the last time I had a severe panic attack.

So how did you find going to uni?

Home was the safe spot – but I knew that the more I could endure leaving the safe spot, the easier it would become. That was sort of my reasoning for going to uni – I decided to just go for it, give it a go, etc. I still had anxiety when I went to uni and it was bad on the first day – but I was lucky in that I had quite a small flat, only about seven people, so it wasn’t too overwhelming.

Lectures were tricky at first. I’d try to sit at the back of the room, close to the door, on the end of aisles, etc. There were times when I didn’t want to talk about this to anyone…I thought asking to sit on the end of a row would be seen as a bit of a weird request, and sometimes I’d walk in to the lecture hall with someone, they’d say “shall we sit there” and I’d think “Oh god that’s the middle of the row”…but then I’d just say to myself: in the worst-case scenario I can ask to leave if I really have to, but in the meantime I’m just going to focus on the lecture. And that really worked. The moment my mind can think about something else, I’m absolutely fine.

Once, I actually heard someone in a lecture voicing the exact thoughts that were going through my head. They were asking to sit on the end of a row because they had anxiety, and I just thought: “Wow, that’s a complete stranger who’s going through the exact same thing I am”. This helped me realise that I didn’t have some rare condition that was entirely unique to me.

So to sum up: what do you think helped the most, when your anxiety was at its worst?

Overall – talking about it helped. The more people that knew, the better I felt. The breathing tactic was always very useful, and trying to rationalise the situation, preparing for the worst, was always really helpful.

Then: when Louis was revising for his A-Levels, he didn’t think he’d even be able to leave the house. He was struggling to bring himself to attend school lessons and at the lowest point he couldn’t see a way out of the never-ending cycle of panic attacks.

Now: Louis’ life is no longer controlled by anxiety. He has just graduated with a 2:1 in Ancient History from The University of Royal Holloway, where he held down a uni job for two years. He has a wonderful girlfriend, a close circle of friends, and is incredibly excited to begin the next stage of his life.

Dissociation

Imagine for a second that you’re going about daily life and then suddenly, out of nowhere, feeling as though your body is no longer your own. It’s as though you’re simultaneously completely disconnected from your body and from everything around you. You’re not really there, but equally the world surrounding you isn’t real. There’s still a part of you that knows this is ridiculous, that thinks “of course I’m here, of course this is all real” – but somehow that part is overshadowed and silenced by the overwhelming fear that either you, or the world (I can never decide which) doesn’t really exist.

That’s what dissociation is like for me. It’s one of the scariest aspects of my anxiety, although ironically is one of the body’s defence mechanisms (more on this below). I’ve spoken a fair bit about it in previous posts, so thought it was about time I dedicated a post to explaining what exactly what this means for me, and how I cope with it.

I normally only experience dissociation in flashes, and then it’s often when I’m on my own (for example on the tube, on the way to work) or when I’ve actually stopped to think about my anxiety, and so allowed the thought to take up room in my brain. I haven’t yet been able to pinpoint what causes these flashes, although I’m hoping this will become clearer with counselling.

I’ve only really experienced two episodes (I don’t like using that word, but can’t really think of a better one in this context) of dissociation that have lasted more than a few minutes. The first was in a play rehearsal earlier this year. We were rehearsing my death scene (which is interesting in itself – I’ll talk more about this in a bit) and for nearly the whole three hours I felt so removed from everything that was going on, and as though it was all totally artificial. It was very scary, but I didn’t know how to even begin articulating what I was feeling to the others (although I know they all would have been incredibly understanding regardless) so I just carried on. That’s one of the most unnerving things about it; despite having these terrifying thoughts whirling around in my brain, I can still function and carry on as normal, and so no one would ever guess.

The other time I’ve experienced an extended period of dissociation was a few months ago at my parents’ house. It was late at night and I was talking about my anxiety in general with my mum. I remember saying “I just feel so trapped in my own head”, and suddenly realised I felt like I was floating apart from everything around me.

When I’m experiencing a longer period of dissociation I also find it very difficult to process thoughts. My thought processes feel clouded and I find it much harder to establish “links” between thoughts. This is usually much easier to ignore when I’m immersed a conversation with someone, but not always.

I believe there were clear reasons why I experienced these longer periods of dissociating. The first time, I was having to pretend I was in fear of my life, and then actually had to pretend to die. A few months previously, I’d gone through a near death experience when I genuinely believed I was going to die (see my previous post) so it’s not surprising that my mind reacted violently to being sent back to that place again.

When I was at home, talking to my mum, I was expecting my period. Again, not surprising; my dissociation is always worse during PMS. All those hormones rushing around in my brain no doubt contribute to unwanted, scary thoughts.

When I feel a brief flash of dissociation – or, to describe it more accurately, a flicker of the terrifying feeling that I’m not real – I need to distract myself. If I’m on the tube, I’ll check my phone. This is unlike me, as I normally try very hard not to be glued to my phone – but when I feel that feeling hovering above me, I need to establish a connection with someone. This is a distraction and also to some degree validates my existence, thus banishing the disturbing thoughts that do their best to convince me I’m not really here.

Another thing that helps is gentle mindfulness. I focus hard on my senses – the feeling of my feet on the floor, what I can smell, what I can hear around me – and force myself to focus only on those sensory feelings. This is actually very effective and normally brings me back down to earth.

Dissociation is a symptom of PTSD, and so I suspect that’s where it stems from for me. Ironically, dissociation is actually one of the body’s greatest defence mechanisms. My counsellor described it very well; she told me to imagine my mind as a thermometer, with the temperature rising steadily upwards (the parallel here being rising anxiety). In order to avoid reaching the top, the mind naturally distances itself from the trauma and this distance manifests itself in a feeling of separation from the body and/or the world. If I think back to that rehearsal when I was trying to feel a genuine fear of death: my mind distanced itself from the traumatic feelings I have associated with a real near-death experience, thus making me feel wholly removed from everything going on around me. I didn’t experience any other disturbing feelings at all which means that my mind protected me from major anxiety and panic connected with a fear of death through removing itself completely from the situation. The lesser of two evils…?! The fear that comes with dissociation must, on some level, be easier for my mind to handle than the anxiety brought on by relieving traumatic thoughts and/or experiences.

To sum up: dissociation is often the mind’s way of protecting itself from disturbing thoughts and feelings, which I believe is usually the case for me. So, to some degree I’m grateful that it has such capacity for self-preservation, and such a sophisticated way of protecting itself. That’s not to say it isn’t incredibly frightening when it happens, and so I really have to try to distract myself or focus on my senses when I feel it coming on. It is manageable; I just have to stay calm and disciplined in order to manage those annoyingly persistent unwanted thoughts.

LOW OF THE WEEK: For the first few days of last week, I had a general overwhelming cloud of anxiety hovering over me. I couldn’t relax, couldn’t settle into activities I usually enjoy and I found it very difficult to distract myself. Deep down, I knew I’d been lazy with my coping mechanisms (mainly yoga and the Headspace app) so have resolved to be much more disciplined!

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Not sure if you could tell from my Insta but I had an all right time seeing Taylor Swift on Friday…jk that’s probably the understatement of the century. Such a fun night seeing one of my heroes (no shame) with one of my favourite people!

The “Why” Question: the (possible) root cause of my anxiety

I’m in two minds about how useful the “why” question really is, for me personally. When I say I have anxiety, or when I’m feeling particularly anxious, most people’s first question – family, friends, colleagues, counsellors – is “why do you think that is?”. That’s a perfectly natural and obvious question to ask, but I can very rarely answer it. Sometimes the answer is clear – when I’ve had coffee, for example – but most of the time I just don’t know, and I have to come up with several theories which may or may not be correct.

Don’t get me wrong; of course, it’s useful to diagnose a problem. It’s only by diagnosing a problem that you can start treating it. Personally, though, I find it easier to narrow possible causes down to one or two and then think about and discuss them with others, rather than rushing to identify any one single cause. For me, there is rarely one overarching reason; it tends to be a culmination of factors. But these are often only obvious in hindsight, and so my “policy” (for want of a better word) tends to be to just accept my anxiety when it comes and, in that moment, to just focus on a coping strategy, whether that’s heading home to be with family, going to a yoga class or colouring. With family, close friends and a counsellor I’ll discuss what might have brought it on this time, but I won’t pressure myself into identifying a single overarching cause, as this can lead to me just clutching at straws. My reasons will usually make themselves clear through gentle discussion and hindsight and, in the meantime, I prefer just to acknowledge the anxiety is there and then immediately engage in something that will help me deal with it.

That said – I believe there is a possible (dare I say obvious) cause that has in all likeliness contributed to my anxiety. I’ve deliberated for quite a few weeks now about whether to include this incident in the blog or not. It’s highly sensitive, very difficult for me to talk about and I’m unsure as to what extent it’s affected my general anxiety, particularly as I was experiencing flashes of anxiety before it happened.  However – I don’t think I can ignore something of this magnitude and I’m certainly not naïve enough to assume it hasn’t affected me at all.

For those who don’t know – I was on the tube with the bomb that partially exploded at Parson’s Green tube station last September. I saw the flash, felt the heat and have an image imprinted on my memory of a mass of people screaming and running backwards, away from the tube. I was very lucky in that I didn’t suffer any physical injury, either from the bomb or the stampede in the initial aftermath. I ran in the opposite direction down the tube track with around 10 other people and we waited some distance away from the platform until it seemed to be safe enough to go back and exit the station.

I have counted my blessings many times since that day. For the bomb not exploding properly, for the fact that it didn’t explode while the train was moving or in a tunnel – I can’t even imagine what that would have been like. I was very lucky.

I’m certain this experience has affected me (as is only to be expected), but I don’t yet know exactly how. I suspect it *may* be the cause of my disassociation – a particularly scary aspect of my anxiety. I’m going to go into more detail on this in my next post, but essentially it’s the fear that either I, or the world around me, isn’t real. From the reading I’ve done, disassociation can be a symptom of PTSD and so it’s something worth considering. To me, this makes sense. This is pure conjecture, but having a near death experience could cause my subconscious to doubt whether I’m really here.

I also have a new obsession with “making a difference in the world”, and this sometimes brings on a lot of anxiety. I think that’s largely to do with the fact that I don’t have a permanent job at the moment, so am lacking a purpose, but I also (and I’m completely guessing here) imagine that to some extent I feel guilty that I was a victim of a terror attack and I survived, unlike so many other victims of similar attacks. I wonder a lot these days whether my need to make a difference in the world, to feel like I’m changing people’s lives for the better, stems from a form of survival guilt. I survived, so I need to earn the right to my survival.

So now that I’ve outlined a potential cause, how do I now move forward? I honestly don’t know how much this experience has affected my anxiety, especially as I did experience flashes of anxiety for up to a year before it happened. However, if I am going to treat it as a potential cause (and I think I probably should), then I think processing and coping with it will come from counselling and from gradual acceptance.

LOW OF THE WEEK: Saturday morning. I had the worst anxiety attack I’ve had in a very long time and ultimately I had to cancel on one of my best friends and bail on what would have been the evening of a lifetime (literally) at Glyndebourne.

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Probably arriving into the Isle of Wight on the ferry and feeling the enormous sense of relief I feel when I’m arriving home after a really bad bout of anxiety. The Isle of Wight is probably my favourite place in the world (specifically my parent’s house) and it always makes me feel better, without fail!