Anxiety At Christmas

The festive season comes with all sorts of pressures and expectations which is a shame because these details detract from what should be a relaxing time in the company of loved ones. The ideal Christmas image leads us to think that we have to achieve perfection in everything we do; in how we decorate our homes, buying expensive ornaments and gifts, maintaining completely harmonious family ties, being a social butterfly and flitting from one Christmas party to another and immersing ourselves in an environment centred around food, alcohol and indulgence. Whilst all of these things are part of the Christmas image we are sold and look good in the Instagram pictures we are inundated with, they can also produce a lot of anxiety in the many people who worry that they cannot achieve or keep-up with this level of so-called perfection.

Christmas isn’t supposed to be about competition; who’s got the best Christmas tree or how many designer gifts someone has received but the airbrushed images we are presented with lead us to believe that there is a certain standard we have to live-up to, no matter how unattainable it really is. For many, anxiety can be produced as a result of fearing failure or worrying about external expectations. When it is expected for people to attend their big work Christmas parties, for example, fear of being overwhelmed by the hectic environment and the unnecessary pressure to do everything in excess are not a part of the conversation. So, each person who struggles with anxiety at this time of year feels isolated and alone, like no-one else is going through the same things as them.

The following can be sources of anxiety during the festive period:

  • Christmas shopping in busy areas
  • Seeing relatives you do not meet with often
  • Christmas parties
  • The expectation to be festive and merry in all of your interactions
  • Buying gifts and worrying if they are adequate
  • Receiving gifts and stressing about opening them in front of the giver
  • The expectation to indulge in food and alcohol when, for many, our relationships with these things are complex

And so many, many more situations, which others may view as tiny details in the bigger picture of their Christmas, can be anxiety-provoking.

Christmas is meant to be a time we feel the opposite of isolated and fearful of judgement. So, let’s make mental health and inclusion a part of the discussion within the bigger picture of Christmas this year and make sure that no-one feels iced-out of the celebrations.

 

If you want to hear my daily ramblings, follow me on Twitter: @RyanBInNature

 

Here are some more of my Christmas-related posts:

The Christmas Tag

Unpopular Opinions – Christmas Edition

 

Don’t feel alone this Christmas (resources about the festive period and mental health):

Support at Christmas – Mind, the mental health charity

Coping at Christmas – The Priory Group

Real Christmas – Samaritans

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Finding Comfort In A Bottle – Part Two

I love the seizing ache
As it spreads across my chest,
Powerful and raw like wildfire;
It blazes a trail down my body
Resting in my stomach where it burns
As my whole body yearns towards it.

The longing to seize this power
And draw it down me never ends –
It’s a part of me –
The portion of my whole which craves
More destruction, the release
Coming from such sickly, manipulative liquid.

Despite the warnings, the stop signs,
Before it reaches my mouth,
The liquid release settles inside me anyway,
Leaving it’s mark burnt into my being
And caressing the lost parts of me
Which it makes a point to find and seek.

 

The first instalment of this poem can be found here: Finding Comfort In A Bottle

 

 

Flawed Hope

I might suck the vitamins from my tongue
Lame as a tamed, feral animal,
However, their colourful bottle fools me;
When promise comes in a capsule
Your ground has already slipped away.

How Mental Health Stigma Has Hurt Me

TRIGGER WARNING: REFERENCES TO SELF-HARM.

When I was 15, I was told by a family member that I was ‘over-sensitive’ because I had completely shut down whilst suffering with depression. My memory of that depressive period are incredibly hazy. When I try to think back to that point in my life all that really springs to mind is a cold, heavy feeling in my chest which takes me back to the days on end I spent sitting on my bed in a grey, miserable bubble. I remember glimpses of conversations I had with people at the time, such as when I was labelled ‘over-sensitive’, other than that it is a chunk of my life which remains shrouded in a cloud of fear I’m not really ready to make my way through just yet. However, the phrase ‘over-sensitive’ still hurts me to this day. It is an obvious example of someone buying into the stigma around mental health and trying to tell me that it was a character weakness of mine which was causing me to suffer, erasing the fact that depression is a serious illness.

I remember the first time I went to see a counsellor. I was scared stiff and my anxiety was the only thing my mind and body had space to feel. She asked me what I was worried about and I told her that I was scared she would think I was ‘pathetic’. I was 16 at the time and my self-esteem had been completely decimated by the narrative that suffering with your mental health makes you less of a person. I carried that weight around with me everyday as I avoided people’s eye contact at school and went to elaborate lengths to hide the fact that I was having to leave lessons early to go to counselling sessions. Stigma had taught me that my mental health was something to be ashamed about and a part of me to be hidden at all costs.

How many other people in the world have felt that way too?

Stigma around anxiety led me to skip school rather than tell my teacher that trying to make me do a presentation in front of the class was unacceptable when he knew that I was suffering at the time and could barely vocalise my thoughts in front of one person let alone a whole class. I thought that he would laugh it off or tell me that I would have to grow-up one day and make me do the presentation anyway. So, I missed a whole day of school because I knew how widespread the stigma around anxiety was (and still is).

I waited for years to tell anyone about my OCD because I thought that they would call me ‘crazy’ once I explained my rituals and intrusive thoughts. Stigma around OCD means that it is not talked about much in society other than in regards to people who clean obsessively when, in reality, the disorder is a lot more complex than that. So, I purposely did not mention these symptoms throughout all of the counselling, therapy and assessment sessions I had. If I had not been so worried about the labels which I thought people who attach to me due to my experiences, I could have gotten my OCD diagnosis so much earlier.

The stigma around mental health led me to suffer with self-harm alone. I was petrified about what people would think of me if they found out and I imagined scenarios in which people would call me an ‘attention seeker’ for what I was doing. So, quickly my habitual self-harming thrived in my silence as keeping it a secret meant that there was no way for anybody to intervene or convince me to stop. Reaching out for help seemed like an insurmountable task because of the judgements I knew people held about self-harm, such as that it is ‘a trend’ or ‘a cry for help’. When I finally did tell a family member, I got shouted out and had angry, accusatory words thrown at me which felt like a slap in the face when it had taken me so long to open-up.

The stigma around mental health is dangerous. These experiences I have documented above affect millions of people in varying ways across the world. The stigma ingrains in us a shame around talking about our mental health and makes us feel weak for struggling. People die every year because they cannot face telling people about what they are feeling – these are the real effects of stigma. It’s time that we all break down these barriers, no matter who you are or where you come from. Normalise conversations about mental health, make it a topic that you talk about often so that others will hear and begin to think that, if they needed to, they could talk about it too. Don’t let people suffer in silence, reach out and offer an understanding shoulder to cry on. Start the conversation and others will follow.

 

Resources for help with mental health:

Information & Support – Mind, the mental health charity

Samaritans

Contact – Childline (for under 18s)

Why Anxiety Sufferers Are Misunderstood As Rude

During my course of CBT a couple of years ago, my therapist warned me that I probably come across as rude to other people whilst I am fighting off my anxiety in a social situation. In fact, she said that it’s likely I put people off and make them wary of me because they will view me as cold and distant. To a certain extent I can understand what she was saying, however I also maintain that people with anxiety should not be blamed for the way they appear during social interactions.

People who do not have experience of social anxiety can often misunderstand the internal workings of anxiety sufferers. For example, I fidget quite often during conversations and constantly try to avoid eye contact, so others can perceive me to be disinterested and aloof when really I am just battling to keep control over my mind as anxiety increasingly eats away at me. At other times, I have difficulty vocalising what I want to say; the words may be begging to be said at the front of my mind but they feel like they get stuck in my throat. As I panic more and more, I am unable to speak, my throat constricts further and the waiting words get squeezed so much that there is no hope of me getting them out in the air. Whilst all this is going on for me internally, the person awaiting my response in conversation may misunderstand me and think that I have nothing to say or believe that I have abandoned the interaction. Again, this situation ends-up in me being viewed as rude when really I am trying desperately hard to stay in the social situation whilst all my impulses scream at me to run away immediately.

I cannot blame other people for wrongly perceiving me as rude or distant because I display all of the normal signs of being exactly those characteristics. People judge each other on first impressions and keep those judgements in their minds for a very long time. The problem is that when I meet someone for the first time, my anxiety symptoms are often at their most extreme and pronounced. As a result, I come across as the most rude I can possibly be and, after that, I am condemned to glares across the lecture hall for the rest of the academic year all because of the disastrous first interaction I had with someone.

It’s difficult to conclude this post. If general society was more aware of the effects anxiety can have on the whole of people’s lives, then maybe these misunderstandings could be avoided and the pressure on sufferers to act okay when they are not could be eased. However, everyone has some measure of insecurities during social interactions, so we cannot pile all of the blame on people who become offended when they see the person they are talking to start to shuffle and look away into the distance.

I would love to know everyone’s thoughts about this topic and what people think can be done to ease the pressure on anxious people when they are in social situations.

Here is a link for information about anxiety and panic attacks if anyone wants to read-up on this further:

Mind – Anxiety and Panic Attacks

CONTACT ME:

Twitter – @RyanBInNature

Instagram – @awalkwithnature00

The Gender Tag / Coming Out

This is a really big post for me to publish, it feels like I am revealing a massive part of my identity to you guys which, up to this point, I have felt too scared to admit to because I was worried about what other people would think and being rejected. I thought that using a tag to do this would be an easy and simple way to ‘come out’ because it will break down my experiences into little chunks and make it easier for other people to understand me (hopefully). So, without further ado, here is my take on the Gender Tag (please be nice in the comments and if you have something judgemental to say keep it to yourself).

1. How do you self-identify your gender, and what does that definition mean to you?

I am transgender, female to male to be specific. Being a trans man means that I have felt suffocated in the body I was born into, everyday I have got up in the morning knowing that I have to live and function in a body which does not feel like it belongs to me and which I often feel repulsed by. The definition ‘transgender man’ does not however equal to me the criteria of toxic masculinity we see in society these days. Whilst I am a man, I will refuse to conform to the hyper-masculine stereotypes which are so emphasised in the media. Refusing to cry and suppressing vital emotions is not what being a trans man means to me. Personally, identifying as a trans man means that I finally have the freedom to be who I truly am without imposing boundaries and limits on my character.

2. What pronouns honour you?

He/him is music to my ears. Whereas I cannot be referred to as she/her without flinching. However, being referred to as they/them does not offend me, especially if someone does not know me and isn’t prepared to ask me my pronouns outright. Hedging your bets on they/them in my personal case is much better for me than risking misgendering me.

3. Describe the style of clothing you most often wear.

Quite literally every day I wear jogging bottoms, a baggy t-shirt (most likely Harry Potters  themed) and a hoodie unless it’s warm in which I case I drop the hoodie. On a daily basis, I wear clothing which doesn’t show my figure, meaning that I feel loads more comfortable in oversized items.

4. Talk about your choices with body hair. How do you style your hair? Do you have facial hair? What do you choose to shave, or choose not to shave?

In regards to the hair on my head, it is very short and I do the bare minimum with it. I literally just wash it in the morning, run a comb through it and let it dry naturally which does not take long at all. I do not shave, although I used to when I was at school because otherwise the other girls would have stared at me like I was a foreign species and the boys would have undoubtedly have had something/a lot to say about it (the atmosphere of my school was literally that petty).

5. Talk about cosmetics. Do you chose to wear make-up? Do you paint your nails? What types of soaps and perfumes do you use if any?

I never wear make-up. I used to wear it occasionally when I was younger because I thought it would make me feel more confident by allowing me to fit-in more but, in reality, it just made me feel more uncomfortable and like I was only doing it for everyone else around me rather than myself. I do not paint my nails, however this is more down to me being lazy and impatient because I can never be bothered for nail varnish to actually dry properly. I also do not use perfume because I am very sensitive to smells, so overpowering scents tend to just annoy me during the day. The types of soaps I use are usually quite neutral fragrances which do not linger long after using them.

6. Have you experienced being misgendered? If so, how often?

Yes, for the vast majority of my life I have been misgendered because I have not been comfortable enough in my identity to come out as trans, even though I purposely dressed in a androgynous way and attempted to present myself as masculine. On the occasional times that I have been referred to as a guy, it has made me really happy, although once I have spoken in my high to the person they become horrified for ‘mistaking’ me for not being a girl and I have to repeatedly assure them that I am really not offended.

7. Do you experience dysphoria? How does that affect you?

Yes, dysphoria is a daily sledge hammer which attacks my self-confidence. Sometimes it prevents me from leaving the house because I cannot bear being seen by other people and feeling their eyes on me. Dysphoria is very damaging to my mental health and general mood because it makes me feel disgusted by my own body and plunges me into self-loathing.

8. Talk about children. Are you interested in having children? Would you want to carry a child if that was an option for you? Do you want to be the primary caretaker for any children you have?

In all honesty, the idea of having children really does not interest me and it never has, I’m just not a child-orientated person and it has taken me a long time to not feel bad about myself for being this way. The idea of carrying a child is also not for me, especially as I would wish to to have a hysterectomy in the future.

9. Talk about money. Is it important to you to provide for a family financially if you choose to have one? Is it important to you that you earn more than any partner you may have? Do you prefer to pay for things like dates? Are you uncomfortable when others pay for you or offer to pay for you?

This question makes me cringe because it just screams to me of outdated tropes of nuclear families and gender stereotypes. Concern about money and paying for things just seems to me to be ways of enforcing your own power and dominance in a relationship which is an uncomfortable and weird thought. I really think that it can only be an insecure relationship in which someone feels the need to earn more than the other.

10. Anything else you want to share about your experience with gender?

It has taken me a very long time to come to a place in my life in which I feel even remotely comfortable with myself and my gender. I have experienced years of confusion and self-hatred but now there is a positive at the end of the story. I am proud that I have given myself the freedom and licence to be the person I know I am rather than self-imposing constraints upon my character and personality or following the caricature of male and female characteristics portrayed in the media.

 

If you have any questions or are struggling with anything gender related, although I am not an expert, feel free to contact me via the links below or drop me a comment.

TWITTER: @RyanBInNature (I recently changed my Twitter handle by the way)

INSTAGRAM: @awalkwithnature00

Six of the Most Harmful Mental Health Narratives

TRIGGER WARNING: IN THIS POST I DO DISCUSS TOPICS SUCH AS SUICIDAL IDEATION AND DEPRESSIVE THOUGHTS

Recently, I have seen a lot of dangerous ideas regarding mental health being circulated on social media. I have seen posts which have blamed sufferers for having mental health issues and statuses which have suggested that people with depression are ‘choosing’ not to be happy. People have been insulting anxiety sufferers for being ‘self-centred’ amongst other things. Essentially disrespectful people who lack any understanding of mental health have chosen to spread their harmful narratives of what they believe mental illness to be. I am here to call BS on their idiocy and share why I believe these narratives to be completely false and hopefully spread some education about mental health.

1. ‘Choose happiness’

I appreciate the significance of shifting your perspective and adopting a mental outlook which emphasises gratitude and acknowledgement of positive things in life. However, the phrase ‘choose happiness’ seems to me to be a kick in the teeth for anyone suffering with a mental illness. This phrases is slung around without a care by people who preach that they want to help people achieve better mental health when really all they are doing is invalidating the experience of people who are struggling. If it was so easy as ‘choosing’ happiness then nobody would be depressed! If there was a switch which could be flicked which would allow people to not feel sadness or experience dark thoughts, then people who are suffering with depression or any other mental illness would flick that switch immediately. It as if the people who tell others to ‘choose happiness’ think that people who are suffering are simply wallowing and that recovery from mental illness is as easy making the decision to not be ill anymore. Either way, I have always found the ‘choose happiness’ slogan to be both condescending and insulting whether the people who use the phrase intend it to be or not.

2. Exercise is the ‘cure’

Again, I understand the sentiment and the intention behind this claim when people say it but I maintain that people who think that if someone does exercise then they will never suffer from mental health issues have a fundamental misunderstanding about what mental illnesses are. Exercise can be used as one part of a larger recovery programme or adopted as one element of a healthier lifestyle which can help people with mental health issues but that does not mean that going for a jog everyday will suddenly cure someone. I cannot deny the existence of endorphins but mental illnesses are deeply ingrained in sufferers’ psyches. So, harmful thought patterns, intrusive thoughts and other symptoms of mental illness will not disappear after a zumba class. Also, just because exercise worked wonders for one person, that does not necessarily mean that it will have the same positive effect for someone else; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to recovery. 

3. Choosing medication is a weakness

Every time I see someone pushing this narrative, it makes me so disheartened. I take medication for my mental health issues and let me tell you that the medication people are given are not magical ‘happy pills’. I do not take my medication then suddenly feel on top of the world or cured. Medication is not simply for people who do not try enough on their own to get better. Trust me, I tried every option available to me before I chose to go on medication and the stigma surrounding antidepressants (amongst other drugs) is part of the reason I suffered for so long before accepting medication. Accepting that you need medication in order to help put yourself on a more even keel before then working hard to improve your mental health is actually a strong thing to do. For me, medication serves to give me a basis from which I can work from, it allows me to function at a certain level which then facilitates any other therapy I chose to pursue as well. Medication is not the ‘easy way out’ or a sign of failure.

4. Mental health is an excuse for being lazy

Increasingly, I am seeing people accuse mental health sufferers of simply being lazy and using a medical label to disguise the fact that they cannot be bothered to do certain things. For example, when someone struggling from depression confides that they struggle to get out of bed in the morning or gather the energy to do domestic tasks, people respond saying that this behaviour stems from laziness and that no-one wants to get out of bed in the morning. However, these accusing people miss the point that if they do not get out of bed when they are supposed to, they are doing so because they want to, whereas someone who is depressed is not getting out of bed because they cannot force themselves to however much they wish they could. An inability to do certain things is not a choice for people with mental health issues; their illness dictates to them what they are able to do whilst they desperately fight against it. Some days the illness wins and they have to cancel plans but this does not make them lazy. Try to show some understanding and compassion rather than anger and disrespect.

5. Your case is not serious enough unless you are suicidal

This narrative has stopped so many people from seeking help until their mental health has deteriorated to a drastic point. People fear that doctors will turn them away for wasting their time because the case they present them with is not ‘serious’ enough. Saying that only suicidal people are worth treating makes people doubt the validity of their own feelings and wonder whether they are over-dramaticizing their condition. This self-doubt and shame can in turn have a negative effect on a person’s mental health, leading to a toxic situation where people keep their problems to themselves which can only be detrimental.

6. Mental illness sufferers are selfish

The misconception that people suffering with mental health issues are self-centred has been circulating a lot at the moment. People have been arguing that they are entitled to ditch friends who are suffering because they find them ‘boring’ due to their illness or a ‘drag’ to be around because they are not bubbly and happy all of the time. Again, to me this screams of people who do not exercise enough compassion and who do not make an effort to understand what their friends are going through (which is what a real friend would do). People with mental health issues are not ‘bringing the mood down’ on purpose. To be honest they are showing how strong they are by making the effort to socialise anyway which can be an incredibly draining exercise for people who are struggling.

 

I would love it if we could show some solidarity as a blogging community down in the comments or continue the conversation on twitter. You can find my twitter here and please do not hesitate to contact me if you have been effected by any of these harmful narratives and want some support.

What Is Wrong With My Voice?

People who spend any time with me will most likely notice that my voice is, in many ways, unusual. My voice is very soft. When I talk outside my words can get blown away by the wind and no mater how much I believe that I am elevating my volume people will continue to have to go through the futile effort of straining to hear what I am saying. Also, my voice tires after a short amount of time. Speaking a few sentences out-loud leads to my throat becoming sore and tightening-up, then my voice disintegrates and it is an effort to produce words.

Over the years this has become a problem when I have met with counsellors or therapists. The whole point of attending such therapies is to talk through your problems, which is a struggle when your voice gives out and your words become dry husks which only distantly relate to the sounds you are trying to make! More recently, I have started driving lessons which are two hours long. My instructor remarked that I am very quiet, little did she know that I would have no voice left if I attempted speaking regularly throughout a two hour period.

The question of what is wrong with my voice is actually quite a simple one to answer. Essentially, my voice is very weak. This stems from the fact that, throughout my life, I have not used my voice enough to make it strong or able to withstand substantial conversations. Even as far back as nursery, I was so painfully shy that talking to the other children was a very rare occurrence for me. Therefore, I rendered myself almost wholly silent for the hours of the day whilst I was there. When I was young, I was most relaxed when nobody was requiring me to speak. If people left me alone for an afternoon, I was very happy to remain quiet and retreat into my own imaginary worlds. Again, this meant that I would not use my voice for stretches of time.

Whilst I could form words as a child if I wanted to, for the most part I decided that I would rather not. My primary school was very small and I was rigidly polite but would often not branch-out into the same socialisation that the other kids did with ease. I had a very small circle of friends and I saved my words up for conversations with them. Beyond that, speaking out-loud seemed to just be a way of drawing attention to myself and this was something I wished to avoid at all costs.

At my second primary school, I became even quieter, speaking less and less until it became a standing joke amongst my year group. I withdrew into myself and so my words were very few and far between. I did not know anyone at my new school and found it impossible to make friends. Therefore, there was no need to converse with others and I certainly did not volunteer any contributions in class. Again, my voice shrivelled inside of me, growing weaker with disuse.

At secondary school, I made a very small group of friends and I would largely hang-out with only two people at a time. We would find very quiet rooms away from the hustle and bustle of the over-crowded school hallways and chat to each other there. There was rarely ever a need for me to raise my voice within such situations. I did not have to elevate my voice to be heard because there was no other noise to compete with and again I resolutely refused to offer contributions in class.

Then, when I moved to college, I would spend my days being almost completely silent. Friends were very few and far between and I mostly spent my lunch breaks lost in my own thoughts rather than mixing with others. Back into the present day and I am still sensitive to noise and do not talk at length. At Uni, I can go days without uttering a word and whilst to others this may appear to be a sad admission, for me this is just me being my authentic self.

I prefer articulating my thoughts through writing rather than expressing myself verbally and personally I do not see why this should be viewed as sad or shameful. The world is made-up of a extremely vast range of people, it has to be because social progress requires variety. Some people are very extroverted and use their voice with great authority and they are valid in themselves. Other people, like me, chose other avenues which do not require so much verbal communication and we too are valid. There is whole host of different characters and personalities which fill the void in between these two extremes and guess what? All of those people are valid as well.

Things Anxiety Has Made Me Do

Anxiety is an often misunderstood mental illness. People think that those who suffer from anxiety are really just shy or timid. As a result, the majority of people do not appreciate the potentially debilitating effects of anxiety and how it can impact so many areas of someone’s life. To try and give an insight into the ways in which anxiety has distorted and manipulated my life experiences, I have compiled a short list of things which my anxiety has made me do:

  1. Violently vomit during an exam.
  2. Forget my own address whilst having to fill-in a form in front of a receptionist.
  3. Run out of shops before retail staff could approach me.
  4. Pretend I haven’t heard someone when really I just could not find the words to respond to their statement or question.
  5. Feign illness to get out of doing class presentations.
  6. Persuade my mum to order for me at cafes so that I do not have to speak out loud myself.
  7. Scream involuntarily when someone has spoken to me unexpectedly due to being so on-edge.
  8. Arrive 30 minutes early for everything in order to avoid the worry and stress of being late.
  9. Avoid going to events due to never having been to that specific location before and not being able to handle the ‘unknown’.
  10. Jump out of a dental x-ray because I felt trapped in the room (much to the anger of the orthodontist).
  11. Forget people’s names no matter how well I know them because of my mind being so scrambled.
  12. Wash my hands repetitively until they are red raw.
  13. Decline invitations to hang-out with my friends until I let them down so regularly that they give-up on me in the end.
  14. Lock myself inside my University room and not speak to anyone for days on end.
  15. Refuse to go to restaurants due to paranoia about the food and whether it will make me feel unwell.

 

Resources which give information about anxiety:

Anxiety and Panic Attacks – Mind, the mental health charity

Generalised anxiety disorder – NHS UK