Anxiety and me

You know when you grow up and you learn about something new, then you flashback to something that happened as a child and think “ohh, that‘s what that was”. I had one of those recently.

About four months ago I had a couple of nights of insomnia. Not unusual, but not something I’d suffered from before particularly. What (unexpectedly) followed was two months of near-daily panic attacks, constant anxiety, and a whole load of side effects too (depression, digestive issues, headaches/muscle pain, to name a few). I had to take a month off work, and my PhD is now part-time for my final year. I don’t know whether I’m out of it now, to be honest (and it almost feels like a jinx to write this post!), but I am getting better, and I haven’t had a panic attack in weeks (except when I was on a really rocky boat in Croatia, but that was because I was convinced we were all about to die). I’m getting better thanks to a combination of NHS and University mental health services, friends and family, and getting to know myself and my needs better.

During my recovery I was thinking how out of the blue this had been, this period of instability. I’d never suffered before. Apart from having counselling on and off over the past three years to deal with a whole bunch of pretty traumatic life happenstances. Apart from making myself physically sick with worry through every exam period of my schooling. Apart from crying at the drop of the hat for as long as I can recall. Apart from not being able to sleep as a tween/teenager because I was hyperventilating and my legs were shaking, because I was so scared of having nightmares (something I still have). Turns out, when I thought about it, I’d probably been dealing with anxiety on and off since I was about eight. Those shaky-legged episodes? Panic attacks, textbook. My constant worrying? Not just me being an idiot, a symptom of Generalised Anxiety Disorder*, the best way of summing up everything I’d been feeling for as long as I could remember.

This post might, in part, act as explanation for my behaviour and demeanour over the last few months – if you’ve been in touch and found me frosty, difficult, quiet, lax at replying, etc. then this is less an excuse, more an explanation. (Sorry.)

But mainly this post is a record for me, and – potentially – something that might help, resonate with or inform others in a similar situation. I should stress, this should not be used as a source of information on anxiety or panic attacks, or mental health more generally. There’s a few resources I’ve found particularly helpful in this respect, and they’re listed at the bottom of the page. I should also stress that very few of my symptoms/feelings have been depression-based. There are other people and resources much better equipped to talk about that.

This is a post about my anxiety – what I know and what I’ve learned. It’s a list of points, it lacks coherency, but it’s (as far as I can think of in this moment) the most important bits for me. It’s nothing new, it’s not detailed, and it’s not even close to being the best post about anxiety already on the internet. But whatever, it’s mine.

not everyone…
When you dip your toe into the wealth of information about anxiety, panic, mental health, depression, etc. ad infinitum, it’s tempting to write off how you feel because it doesn’t exactly match what you see. Please don’t. Life experiences, brains, hormones, all these things are wildly different and so are experiences of anxiety. You don’t have to have every symptom to be taken seriously. Just because you’re not struggling ‘as much’ as someone else doesn’t mean you don’t deserve help and support.

…but someone
That said, chances are someone will be feeling the same way as you. At my worst moments, I honestly thought I was going insane. I thought this was it for me, a lifetime of miserable days and nightmare nights. I thought I’d never be able to complete my PhD, hold down a job, have a child. I thought my loved ones would leave, all because I was broken, malfunctioning. You are not broken, and you are not alone. I had opportunities to meet and talk to other people who were experiencing similar things to me, and god dammit it’s a relief to realise you’re not alone in this. One in four people will experience some kind of struggle with mental health in their life. That’s, like, billions of people. You’re not the only one, and there is stuff that can help, like it’s helped people before.

you are not your thoughts (and you don’t have to believe them)…
I cannot explain how this one sentence has helped me. Possibly more than anything else. Summed up in this picture, this concept was first introduced to me in the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy resources provided by my GP, counsellor and at the workshops I attended (more on that later). I’d never thought about the fact that my thoughts are entirely subjective and not truthful objective fact, weird as that sounds. I trusted everything I thought, accepted it all, and then fixated on the worst ones until I reached a panic spiral. Turns out, I’m more than that. I’m more than my thoughts, especially the shitty ones. I don’t have to listen to them all the time. I can rationalise them, look at the facts and realise everything was okay. I don’t have to believe what I think, particularly about myself. Neither do you.

…but your feelings are valid
Nobody can tell you that you shouldn’t be feeling a certain way. Literally nobody. Fuck them all. Okay, that’s a bit extreme, but it’s true – nobody can tell you how you should and shouldn’t feel. Especially yourself. I spend so much of my time thinking “stop it, you’re stupid, you shouldn’t be feeling like that, get over it you idiot”, which only adds to the spiral. Your feelings are valid by virtue of existing: there is no right way to feel, you just feel how you do and deal with it. Whether the dealing takes the form of seeking out company, burying yourself in a duvet, going for a walk, talking yourself into a better place, whatever – you don’t need to feel guilty about how you feel, and how you feel is 100% valid.

getting help is good…
Terrifying, right? My GP has sat across from me countless times in the last few months while I wept and panicked and stuttered. Sometimes I did what she said, sometimes I didn’t, but most of the time when I tried, it helped. I wish there was a solution that worked for everyone, first time, god knows I do. I tried loads of things that didn’t work, and some that didn’t work straight away, and often felt worse in the short term. That suuuucks, but it also changes. For me, at the moment, a combination of group workshops, counselling, online courses, taking time off and distraction and relaxation techniques (many trialled, not all effective) seem to be helping me. I tried meds, but reacted badly to them, though I may try them again some day. Using some, any or all of the help and support methods available is fine and should be shame-free**  – keep trying as much as you can until you figure out a combo that works for you. Your GP should give you a few options to start with – if they don’t, go to another one. My first one was a tosser, and a kind friend helped me pluck up the courage to find another.

I should say, though, that I would recommend counselling to any and all people, regardless of mental state, just as an exercise in being healthy. It’s like a workout for your emotions, and god it’s got me through some shit.

…but you’re not ‘wrong’
I’ve been reading about and listening to a few things lately that critique the view of ill-health and how we frame it. A lot of the treatment for mental health can focus on ‘fixing’ yourself or getting ‘better’, as if the way you are when your mental health goes funky is bad, wrong, broken, etc. That often doesn’t help, particularly if your bad period sustains – it just contributes to your hopelessness. Regardless of where you are with your brain at the moment, you are no less the person you always are. You don’t have to get completely ‘better’, as long as you find a way to do things. The only important thing is living your life as best you can. (This comic illustrates what I’m trying to get at quite nicely, particularly about valid ways to handle your superpower.)

I can’t stress enough how Doing Good Things can help. I also know it’s fucking hard, particularly for people in difficult life situations, to find the time and resources. But if you can find something (yoga, singing, crafts, writing, reading, playing an instrument, running, swimming, making models, playing board/video games, literally anything) that a) brings you joy and b) distracts you, try and do it. My hobbies, new (embroidery, swimming) and old (bingewtching TV shows, making cards) have helped me so much. Also, it demonstrates, right in front of you, that you can do things, and you are good at things.

I almost hate myself for writing this, because I heard it and rejected it so much, but you gotta give it time. I don’t like thinking about how I was feeling four months ago, because it freaks me the fuck out, but I did honestly think it was over for me. I wouldn’t break the cycle, and I’d lose everything. But (slowly) realising that I didn’t have a deadline to be ‘better’ (and, in fact, realising that ‘better’ is kind of subjective in the first place, see above) was incredibly helpful – it helps you breathe a little deeper and lift your head above the water and look out, even if it’s just a few days ahead.

I’m also going to go full wanker and post some poetry here, but it’s from my favourite poem (Perfectly Human, by Miles Walser) and it sums it up nicely:

There will be days when you’ll wish you were numb;
when you’ll want to rip your heart off your body
and find something easier to take its place.
Collect those days like bricks
and marvel at the buildings you will make.

I think that’s where I’m at now. I’ve made a building, and I’m standing on it. A little one, but a building nonetheness.


*I know, it’s a Buzzfeed post, but it sums things up in the most accessible way I’ve found so far. I relate to literally every point.

**Particularly medication. Anyone shaming people for taking antidepressants can jog on. Looking at you, Kristen Stewart. (We were all rooting for you, Kristen.)

IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) Sheffield – info about all the stuff (courses, workshops, advice, etc.) available locally. I’ve used several of these services, and terrifying as they might be, they really helped.

Wellbeing services South Glasgow – this site was recommended by a few medical types, and is a great collection of resources, advice and information (and courses, if you happen to live in South Glasgow!)

13 Incredibly Smart Tips to be Happier from Mental Health Experts – I know, Buzzfeed again, but this is REALLY nice. Buzzfeed is an unexpectedly great resource for mental health stuff, and has never stigmatised it. Nice one.

16 Habits of Highly Sensitive People – not all applicable to everyone, but ready this made me feel like less of a weirdo for crying all the time and hating gory movies PLUS Facts About Crying, which is so helpful in understanding things and sticking up for yourself when people say you’re a dork for crying so much.

What it’s like to be in love when you have depression. This is brutal and honest and (for me at least) so so accurate. Your brain state doesn’t make you unworthy of love, and you’re not a burden.

Calming internet resources for when you might need a distraction, always helpful.

Keep It Bright and here2pep – social media feeds/shops dedicated to making people feel good about themselves. Yes, they can be saccharine at times, but honestly, having regular, empowering, calming and uplifting messages dotted through my social media feeds really, really helps me to keep my mood lifted. It’s like a little voice in your ear saying ‘it’s okay pal, you’re good’.

What Amy Poehler has taught me

I knew reading Amy Poehler’s Yes Please would be A Big Deal. I am already an enormous fan of Amy’s, both as Leslie Knope (be still my heart) and other comic characters, and just as a person, through stuff like Smart Girls at the Party, and her unrelenting excellence in general. I eagerly awaited her book and ate up any snippets that were released, but added it to my Christmas list rather than buying it myself, possibly to add to the anticipation of reading it. My excellent brother bought it for me, I unwrapped it on the 27th December and immediately started devouring it.

One thing you should know about me: I love defacing books. I imagine this will offend the sensibilities of some of my friends, convinced of the sanctity of the physical book as they may be. Not a bad way to live, I’m sure, but I’m more a fan of bending spines, folding corners and scribbling marginalia. Academically, it helps me take things in and reminds me of where I need to return when writing up notes. That filthy habit has trickled into my recreational reading, and so my copies of Mindy Kaling’s Is It Just Me…? and Owen Jones’ Chavs among others are peppered with underlinings, highlightings and exclamation marks.

I already knew that Yes Please would present countless nuggety quotes I would want to remember, which is why I started reading it with a yellow highlighter in my hand. But upon reaching page 101 on January 1st I knew I wanted to properly remember the parts I’d highlighted. I also knew I wanted 2015 to be a more optimistic year than the previous one, and keeping these quotes to hand might help with that. So, uncompelling as it may be, here’s everything I highlighted as I laughed, sighed, grinned and cried my way through Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.

“You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.” (xv)

“The open-faced sandwiches who take risks and live big and smile with all of their teeth. These are the people I want to be around.” (xv-xvi)

“We all have a tiny, whispery voice inside of us, but the bad ones are usually at a lower register and come through a little clearer.” (8)

“Sticking up for ourselves the same way we would one of our friends is a hard but satisfying thing to do.” (23)

“Going from crying to laughing that fast and hard happens maybe five times in your life and that extreme right turn is the reason why we are alive, and I believe it extends our life by many years.” (38)

“It takes years for a woman to unlearn what you have taught to be sorry for.” (65)

“Any painful experience makes you see things differently. It also reminds you of the simple truths that we purposely forget every day or else we would never get out of bed.” (88)

“Fighting ageing is like the War on Drugs. It’s expensive, does more harm than good, and has been proven to never end.” (98)

“I am interested in people who swim in the deep end. I want to have conversations about real things with people who have experienced real things. I’m tired of talking about movies and gossiping with friends. Life is crunchy and complicated and all the more delicious.” (101)

“Watching great people do what they love is a good way to start learning how to do it yourself…I remember thinking ‘You are all so good and I wish I were better. Now get out of here because I want to be where you are.'” (109)

The ENTIRE chapter on sleep. It was like reading my own diaries.

“…how a person treats their waitress is a great indication of their character.” (211)

“Everybody wants you to share your MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT all the time, and I am here to tell you that you don’t have to. You don’t have to tell it or tweet it or Instagram it. You don’t have to put it in a book or share it with anyone who doesn’t feel safe and protective of your heart.” (221)

“You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel but not about how good other people think you are or how good people think you look.” (225)

“However, if you do start crying in an argument and someone asks why, you can always say ‘I’m crying because of how wrong you are.'” (237)

“Emotions are like passing storms, and you have to remind yourself that it won’t rain forever. You just have to sit down and watch it pour outside and then peek your head out when it looks dry.” (238)

(If you think I didn’t cry all the way through the Parks and Recreation chapters, you’re sadly mistaken.)

“My life was an open suitcase and my clothes were strewn all over the street.” (305)

“There are so many people in the world with so little. Who cares why you decide to help?” (306)

“Spontaneous dance parties are important in my life. I have one in the makeup trailer almost every afternoon on Parks and Recreation. Dancing is the great equalizer. It gets people out of their heads and into their bodies. I think if you can dance and be free and not embarrassed you can rule the world.” (325)

“I arrived in San Francisco with that rare combination of sadness and joy. There should be a name for that feeling. Maybe it’s ‘intimacy'”. (326)

“The only way we survive is by being kind. The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others. No one can do it alone, no matter how great the machines are.” (329)

and Amy, elsewhere.

Q: What’s one thing every woman should try at least once in her life?
Amy: Treating herself as kindly as she would her own daughter.

“When you feel scared, hold someone’s hand and look into their eyes. And when you feel brave, do the same thing.”

“Continue to share your heart with people even after it’s been broken. Don’t treat your heart like an action figure, wrapped in plastic and never used. Don’t try to give me that nerd argument that your heard is a Batman with a limited edition silver batarang, and therefore if it stays in the original packaging it increases with value.”

“Any time you talk to anyone about something that they love they’re, like, their most beautiful. It’s a cool gift to get to talk to people about what they love.”

“I just love bossy women. I could be around them all day. To me, bossy is not a pejorative term at all. It means somebody’s passionate and engaged and ambitious and doesn’t mind leading, like, “All right, everybody, now we go over here. All right, now this happens.”

“You can’t look stupid if you’re having fun.”

Thanks, Amy Poehler. I’ve learnt a lot from you.

Totes emosh – on feminism, Taylor Swift, crying, and caring about stuff

“Emotional detachment from an issue is easy when you’re privileged” – tumblr user helruna

I am a crier. I have always been a crier. Things I have cried about (a condensed list):
– nature documentaries
– charity adverts
– The Lego Movie
– night skies where you can see loads of stars
– Masterchef
– Taylor Swift songs
– seeing Taylor Swift in concert
– being happy
– being tired
– being hungry
– being stressed

As Kristen Bell so succinctly summarises it (while talking about her extreme love for sloths – I feel you girl): “The first thing you should know about me – if I’m not between a three and a seven on the emotional scale, I’m crying“. Crying is my default reaction to emotional stimuli, good or bad. Like many people, if I’m distraught, I’ll be crying. Also, if I’m incandescently happy, I’ll be crying. If I’m mildly annoyed or somebody does something really nice for me, I’ll probably cry. I cry easily and often.

At school, this doesn’t work in your favour. I was lucky enough not to be bullied at school, but I was certainly mocked for being over-sensitive, for crying easily. I’ve cried when teachers have told me off, when I wasn’t made head girl (seriously), when friends have been mean to me, and people took this piss. I developed methods to quickly stop myself crying to save further embarrassment, and learned to hide it. As I’ve aged, my easily-provoked tears have not abated (though I can manage them better now), and in recent years, I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression, so naturally: more tears. (And let me tell you, nothing makes an anxiety disorder worse than a paranoia about being judged for crying in public.) As an adult, I’ve constantly apologised for being teary in PhD supervisions/heated debated in pubs/while watching movies/etc. And, more distressingly, I’ve had my opinions disregarded because my eyes have prickled with tears while I’ve been talking. “Woah, no need to turn on the waterworks! Calm down and lets talk about this rationally. You’re getting too emotional about this.”

I’m sick of this. So I did some research. This blog post explains why
1) I cry because I’m a woman,
2) I DON’T cry JUST because I’m a woman, and
3) I shouldn’t be fucking dismissed because I cry.

I cry because I’m a woman
It’s kind of hard to be a feminist and despise when people excuse shitty behaviours and systems of oppression with “well men and women are just different!!”, yet proceed to write a blog post about how men and women are different. I’m not sure of a way to rectify that hypocrisy. Basically, if you try to tell me that women should always stay at home and raise children because that’s just what women are good for, or that they shouldn’t join the army because they’re not up to it (etc.), then I will kick you in the throat. However, I’ve been reading up on the science of crying, and have found out some Actual Science Facts that contribute to the gendered differences between the way men and women cry[1].

Firstly, there are two types of tears. There are instinct-tears, secreted when you have dry eyes, get something in your eye, chop onions, etc. Then there are emotion-tears, secreted … well, when you’re emotional. These tears have a different cellular makeup.

Women tend to cry more emotion-tears than men. Biologically there are reasons for this. The hormone that is responsible for lactation (prolactin) is found in emotion-tears, a hormone that women have 60% more of coursing through their veins during and beyond puberty. This hormone literally makes crying easier, so the more of it you have, the easier – and more likely it is that – you’ll cry.

ALSO, men literally have bigger tears ducts than women in general, which means that, when tears are formed, it’s easier for them to keep them in. For ladies, with our puny tear holes, the tears spill over far more easily. We literally have a smaller bucket to hold all our cries in.

Biologically, in this way, men and women are different, and there are actual, hormonal reasons why women tend to cry more often irrespective of their own volition. But biology doesn’t work alone! These biological factors reinforce, and are reinforced by, societal structures, in a big symbiotic soup of that is 64 parts lady tears to 17 parts male.

Because women tend to cry more, the act of crying (and being emotional in general) becomes associated with womanhood, and NOT with manhood. Women cry, men don’t. “Man up”, “grow some balls”, etc. This means than, on the fewer occasions that men feel the need to cry, the shame associated with the act means they often repress it, making them better at stopping themselves crying in general – practise makes perfect. Women crying, on the other hand, is tolerated and expected, so the need to shut it down is exercised less frequently, meaning women may often be worse at not crying.

While the excess of prolactin in lady-bodied people can result in the need to cry more frequently (to empty the surplus) it is socially acceptable for a woman to “have a good cry”, seek out emotionally stimulating media in order to provoke one, and even undertake the ritual in groups. Because of the bullshitty, sexist way our society operates, men dealing with their emotions in this way is frowned upon, with disastrous consequences.

Suicide is the highest killer of young males in the UK. Suicide is the option of a person with no more options, who thinks the world is better without them in it. Now, I’m not suggesting that if young males felt more able to talk about things they were struggling with that all suicide would stop instantly, because mental illness is far more complicated than that. But if men didn’t feel pressured into keeping their emotions to themselves, didn’t have emotional reactions dismissed as girly or pathetic, didn’t feel they couldn’t seek help from friends or professionals, then maybe those figures wouldn’t be so heartbreakingly high.

I DON’T cry JUST because I’m a woman
Obviously, the science bit above treats “men” and “women” a) as the only two gender options, and b) as two homogenous groups, which is Not Cool. We’re not slaves to our biology and – to nick a phrase – Not All Women (cry). In fact, it’s perfectly normal for women to not cry easily, or often, or at all, just as it is for men to blub at the slightest provocation. Just like me at one extreme of the spectrum, sobbing about the bit in the first Harry Potter film where Neville gets 10 house points and wins the cup for Gryffindor (gets me EVERY TIME), there will be women chilling out at the other end, unmoved. People process emotion differently, and unfortunately for women, being less emotional carries as much stigma as being super emotional.

Take Amanda Knox. Deliberately NOT passing comment on her debated innocence, I highlight the fact that people assumed her guilt because of her seemingly stoic reaction to some events, her lack of tears and physical signs of emotion. She was deemed an ICE-MAIDEN (yes, really, in all caps), who then turned herself into a “teary-eyed victim” in order to manipulate the jury and public. See that? LITERALLY damned if we do and damned if we don’t. There was an excellent episode of The Good Wife which addressed this issue: a young woman accuses a famous politician of sexual assault, and her lack of visible distress and emotion is seen as a reason to doubt her claims.

Not cool world. I cry because I am very susceptible to emotional stimuli – it’s a fact of my personality just as much as my biology. Female-bodied people with female hormones are biologically and socially more prone to crying, but that’s not to say that all women are (or should) cry with frequency or reckless abandon.

Don’t fucking dismiss me because I cry
Women, their opinions and their achievements have been dismissed for centuries because of their perceived irrationality and extreme emotion. It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that female hysteria stopped being considered an actual medical condition that, previously, women had been committed for.

Even today, being ‘over-emotional’ is enough to discredit women’s opinions on a wide range of topics, from atheism to feminism to pop music. Recently, atheist writer Sam Harris was asked why a lot of prominent atheist scholarship was written and read mostly by men, responding with such astoundingly arrogant sexism it’s almost impressive. The link between women, emotional reaction, hysteria and irrationality has a sister in the link between men, stoicism, rational argumentation and being correct. All too prevalent is the perception that an argument presented in a “rational” manner (usually typified by long words, pseudo-science and a complete lack of emotional response) is by default better than one delivered by anybody who shouts, cries, waves their hands, or emotes in any way. It is basically assumed that anybody who has an emotional reaction to the thing they’re talking about can’t possibly be worth listening to, because the presence of an emotional reaction in the first place nullifies their opinion’s validity. If you can’t be reasonable about it…

Feminism has suffered from this perception for YEARS. When Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse in an attempt to draw attention to women’s Suffrage in 1913, she was dismissed as an idiot. The portrait of the Angry Feminist has plagued the movement from the outside, with emotionally-expressed opinion dismissed as another feminist rant not worth heeding.

That is, until Emma Watson came along. The speech Emma Watson gave at the UN was excellent, and the campaign she is spearheading is excellent. But heralding this speech as “redefining feminism” because of Watson’s measured, eloquent, “classy” delivery is bullshit. Feminists have been saying the same things for years, but have been dismissed for having the audacity to show emotion about it, or deliver their opinions in a way that doesn’t disrupt the status quo. These excellent girls put it succinctly:

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 15.06.59 Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 15.07.28 Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 15.07.41

As they express, feminism shouldn’t have to be enacted in a non-confrontational, man-friendly way in order to be taken seriously, and Emma Watson shouldn’t be the first feminist to be listened to because she’s famous and pretty (though that’s also not a reason to dismiss her). Feminism can and should be heard from the mouths of all women: pretty women, ugly women, women of colour, women with disabilities, poor women, non-straight women, fat women, thin women, trans and non-binary women, ALL WOMEN, regardless of whether it’s delivered at a UN conference, written in all caps online or shouted through a megaphone. Don’t discredit years of people saying the same, logical, progressive things as Emma Watson because people cared enough to be emotional about it.

Emotional detachment from an issue is easy when you’re privileged. As Jess (above) puts it, the reason women get angry/teary when they talk about feminist issues is because they make them angry/upset. If something affects you directly (and this goes for issues of oppression far beyond sexism), you’re likely to be emotional about it. When women go through life being sexually assaulted, ignored, subjugated, earning less, missing out on countless opportunities and even murdered because of their gender, we’re going to be fucking upset about it. The voices which are the most emotional are often the most desperate for change.

So, if I get into a debate with a friend about how frustrating I find it that female pop stars are dismissed for writing emotional songs (yes, of course I managed to talk about Taylor Swift twice in this piece, how could I not?), and how that contributes to the instant dismissal of the feelings and legitimate emotional responses of young females in particular, I might get upset about it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t deserve to be listened to. Or that I’m not right.

I’m a crier. I cry because I’m a woman, but not just because I’m a woman. And don’t fucking dismiss me because I cry.

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