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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Protecting Factors – What Saves You?

TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE AND SUICIDAL IDEATION

It was not until very recently that I heard the term ‘protecting factors’ but immediately it made sense to me. I was having a mental health assessment and I admitted to having suicidal thoughts on a regular basis. The nurse then asked me what stopped me acting on those thoughts and attempting suicide. I asked myself this question and was slightly embarrassed to give my honest answer. However, I knew the truth and this was that my dogs are what stops me from acting on my suicidal impulses and thoughts. I felt embarrassed about saying this out loud to a mental health professional because human relationships with pets are so often trivialised and I thought that they wouldn’t take my bond with my dogs seriously. I thought that giving this answer would leave them to believe that my suicidal ideation could not be that strong in the first place – none of which is true.

Instead, the nurse told me that my dogs are what is called my ‘protecting factors’. They act as a release valve for my stress because playing with them is uplifting. They comfort me when I am low by nuzzling and cuddling me, letting me know that I am not alone. When I get anxious about having social contact with humans, they remind me I am capable of having a functional relationship because of the ways I have bonded with them. When I think about leaving this world, they tether me to it because I could not bear to leave them; my desire to protect them and watch them grow-up are what, at this moment at least, is still keeping me fighting for life.

The World Health Organisation works on the definition of ‘protecting factors’ as being those which “enhance the likelihood of positive outcomes and lessen the likelihood of negative consequences from exposure to risk.” They use this definition in relation to physical as well as mental health risks but ‘protective factors’ are always seen as what stops an individual’s situation from escalating to a dangerous or drastic level.

So, I would encourage you to think about what your protecting factors are, especially in the lead-up to the festive period which, for me, always adds extra stress onto my shoulders and makes my mood dip because I am hyper-aware of the fact that I am supposed to be happy. Hold your protecting factors dear and be grateful for their existence and what they mean to you. Feel free to share what your protecting factors are in the comments below!

 

Information And Resources About Managing Mental Health At Christmas:

Christmas and mental health – Mind, the mental health charity

Coping at Christmas (5 ways to look after your mental health) – Priory Group

Depression At Christmas Guide – Mental Health in the UK

 

Some Related Blog Posts Of Mine:

How Mental Health Stigma Has Hurt Me

Six of the Most Harmful Mental Health Narratives

Beauty is a Myth and Other Ugly Confessions

I have acne.

My head is unevenly shaved.

My lips are flaky from the time I’ve spent chewing them.

I am a permanent sweaty mess because of anxiety.

I pull out my eyebrows.

There is a scar where my nose piercing used to be.

At 19 I already have worry lines.

I wear glasses too big for my face.

My teeth are coffee stained.

These are all just facts – things I am supposed to be ashamed of and try desperately to hide. I have whittled away hours of my life fretting over everything that makes me ‘ugly’, all of the features which dump me in the category of the unappealing. Then, I began to wonder, why do I care? Who is it I am trying to impress? It certainly wasn’t myself. I know that my acne amongst my wild variety of other flaws are all natural pitfalls that accumulate along the journey of living. If it doesn’t offend me to see a scruffy so-and-so looking back at me in the mirror, then why am I wasting all of this energy worrying about the implications of my so-called ‘ugliness’?

If someone looks at me on the street and thinks to themselves ‘wow, they’re ugly’ or ‘I wouldn’t date them in a million years’, frankly I never have to speak to them or see them ever again and they are not going to make any impact on my life. They are as irrelevant as the crisp packet being blown by the wind down the pavement.

My New Therapy

I have never thought of myself as much of a cook. I’ve simply known the bare minimum about nutrition and basic meals to stop me from starving to death and that was the extent of my cookery knowledge! However, recently I have come to consider baking and cooking a form of both self-care and therapy. Becoming vegan has allowed me to research some really interesting recipes and taught me that my dietary differences do not stop me from having food which I have always considered as very far away from being vegan, like loafs and cakes.

Baking especially makes me feel productive because the process leaves me with something I have created with my bare hands, a physical embodiment of all of the effort I have put in. It also makes my environment feel a lot more welcoming and comfortable because the smell of baked goods drifts throughout my kitchen and beyond whilst my food is in the cooker.

All forms of cooking appear to me to be a fundamental (yet often overlooked) example of self-care. When tidal waves of mental health issues are weighing you down or feeling sad threatens to overcome you, one of the first things we begin to cut corners with is our nutrition. Cooking from scratch seems like too much of a mountainous task and instead we would much rather curl-up on the sofa around a bowl of cereal (or at least that’s what I do anyway!). This sparks a vicious cycle of feeling bad about ourselves because we know that we are not eating properly or getting what we need from the food we are consuming. Therefore, cooking and baking always feels like a step in the right direction during these moments.

Working with ingredients and following a recipe gives you a structure, so that you are not drowning in your own thoughts, at least for a period of time. Then, your concentration becomes so enveloped in what you are trying to achieve, you stop having to ruminate on whatever feelings and emotions are burdening you at the time. You are simultaneously doing something good for your body, by making proper sustenance for it, as well as doing something good for your mental health as the process occupies your mind and offers you a sense of achievement when you reach the final product.

My personal favourite items to bake at the moment are vegan fruit cake and banana breakfast bars. Evidently, I have a ridiculously sweet tooth which I am trying to satisfy without processed sugar or the chunks of vegan chocolate which are taunting me from the cupboard. I save these shop-bought sweet treats for rewards for when I achieve something, like tackling the grocery shop in a crowded supermarket or making myself engage in small talk with the person next to me in a queue.

I don’t know if this post made much sense, I just wanted to share this newfound sense of joy I have been getting from baking. Let me know if you have any vegan recipe recommendations and I will leave some of my favourite recipes linked below…

Banana and Raisin Loaf – Deliciously Ella

Fruit Cake – The Vegan Society

Vegan mushroom risotto – Elavegan

An Explosion From a Lifetime of Being Manipulated

Spoken words are glaring and sticky,
With no canvas base for testing.
Emotions are not linear or following a pattern,
But a framed mess of jaunty angles;
Haywire, impossible, jostling,
All competing for human attention,
The room in my head not enough –
A dissatisfactory stage for their being.

 

 

Today I feel fragile and all my thoughts are tinged with guilt for letting myself feel so on edge and breakable. I am angry at myself for not being better, not being indestructible or able to rise above the white noise. Objectively, I know that I am setting my standards for myself way too high, almost like I want to have a reason to criticise and berate myself. Maybe this is what enduring a manipulative relationship leads to; the more time you spend being made to feel unworthy, the more you want to punish yourself for being so unlovable. In reality, I know these things, these judgements which are made about me are untrue and that I have pacified these waves of self-hatred which a toxic relationship has stirred-up before. I just need to find the courage to do so again. In the mean time, I will continue writing out my feelings to make sense of what I am going through and how I am growing as a person. I am sure that in the not too distant future, I will write more about this situation, to help educate others about the emotional torment of feeling trapped by a manipulative figure in your life. For now though, I will leave resources below for anyone who is being affected by this problem at the moment, as well as a promise to you that you are not alone.

NHS resources for cases of abuse

The Samaritans’ helpline and email address

Resources from Mind, the mental health charity

Labels Are For Clothes

Labels are strange. It’s almost like they bring a competitive edge with them – you have to prove yourself worthy and cleave fully to every facet of your label. These terms, they leave no room for grey areas, expecting human beings to fall into cemented categories and know exactly who we are. But two people standing under the same label are never the same and they never experience that label the same either. We all have baggage and unique parts that make-up our whole and there’s no room for those things in one clean-cut word.

Then comes the temptation to model ourselves on the word that speaks to us the most. We become a caricature of ourselves as we contort and morph into a warped perception of what we ‘should’ be. The sickened feeling in the pit of your stomach doesn’t go away though, not until you stop measuring yourself against a typecast character which other people have placed in your mind. You shouldn’t model yourself on the stereotypes of a word so far removed from the complexities of humanity that it seems to define and confine you for the comfort of others. We are all messes, so why put yourself in a labelled prison of your own making unless it feels right and natural to you? Just do what you want, don’t hurt others, then your position as a good person will matter one hundred times more than any category you can squeeze yourself into when you feel forced by society but reluctant in yourself.

It’s interesting that us humans love labels so much. We are infatuated with the ideals of kinship and belonging, so much so that we can lose ourselves in the rush of our identity crises. Having a label you can relate to is nice, stabilising even, as long as you possess it rather than it possessing you.

I think back to my 15 year-old self, desperate to understand who I was, willing myself to have a discernible identity to meet others with. In many ways, my confidence rested on finding a label even though I knew at heart that my search wasn’t stemming from my own desire but instead it came from social pressure to associate myself with a category which others could judge me on. I worried about the implications of every decision, action or thought, self-policing myself until any comfort I had in my own skin was gone. I just wish that life didn’t have to seem like such a rush, a sprint race to every milestone, full of competition and aggravation along the way.

Comparison is scary, we should stop that.

My Thoughts on Skin-Care

Everyday, we are inundated with adverts promoting skin-care products promising to ‘transform’ us or ‘correct’ our skin, as if our natural state is a mistake to run away from as quickly as possible. Treatments for acne-prone skin are advertised alongside models without a single blemish or mark upon their skin, creating the illusion that a certain cream or face wash will completely change the natural basis of your skin. It is ingrained in us that any deviation from ‘perfect’ skin must be relentlessly pursued and hidden from public sight, pouring shame on those of us who dare to feel comfortable in our own skin.

The expressed aim of skin-care brands is to cultivate a culture of perfection in which everyone strives to become an ‘ideal’, regardless of the fact that they have to airbrush models until they look like wax work figures to convey this ‘ideal’ image in their ad campaigns. The vast majority of such products are crammed full of chemicals such as sulfates and parabens, in addition to other chemicals that I cannot spell let alone pronounce. Then we are commonly expected to pay irrationally high prices for the pleasure of possessing these products so that we can smear these chemicals across our face as we chase skin-perfection with ever increasing desperation.

For me, years of longing for my acne to clear and my numerous trials of consistently failing skin-care products has left me very skeptical and resentful of the beauty industry (maybe you can tell!). In my opinion, the narrative around skin-care should focus on nourishment rather than perfection. We should focus on taking care of and protecting our skin which will be ours to the day we die rather than damaging it in the pursuit of perfection at any cost. Our bodies and skin are things to be cherished and appreciated rather than scorned and hated. Yes, skin problems can be painful and annoying to deal with but they are not the sum of who we are and do not warrant us feeling worthless and ashamed. Caring for ourselves rather than constantly criticising is innumerably more rewarding.

‘It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.’ – Leo Tolstoy

‘Beauty is a radiance that originates from within and comes from inner security and strong character.’ – Jane Seymour

Self-Care

In my eyes, ideas of self-care have become convoluted paths to luxurious experiences or funnels through which substantial amounts of money are spent which only leads to increased stress in the long-term. For this reason it seems that we have drifted so far away from the fundamental basis of self-care; to create time and space for ourselves in which we can prioritise our health and happiness during which we answer to no-one but our own needs and desires.

Mainstream ideas about self-care have morphed away from prioritising the search for peace and love within ourselves to the prioritisation of material things, such as extortionately priced bath bombs and candles, so that our sessions of self-care will be ‘instagram worthy’. I frustrate myself when I realise that, in my pursuit of self-care experiences, I overlook and disregard the simplest of things which are usually the most enjoyable and rejuvenating:

  • Sitting or reading a book under a tree with the sun shining upon you
  • Dedicating time to reflective journalling so that you can listen to your mind once more
  • Having a solid hour-long yoga session in which you set your practice intention to be calm and ease
  • Cherishing a new bunch of flowers you cultivated in your garden or picked yourself
  • Re-connecting with your all-time favourite book by re-reading it again and embracing the nostalgia which comes with it
  • Changing your bed clothes and sheets so that you can indulge in the experience of clean, crisp material when you go to bed that night

All of these small and simple things are gentle and easy ways to re-energise yourself after you feel ground down by the daily toll of life. When you come to reflect on your efforts at self-care you can appreciate the simplicity you have introduced into your life through that process rather than burdening yourself with superficial extravagance.

‘There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth’ – Leo Tolstoy

5 TIPS FOR THE SLEEP DEPRIVED…

I am one of those people who really struggle with getting enough sleep. Every night, I lay in bed for hours waiting to fall asleep, I wake-up multiple times, toss and turn and then I wake-up in the morning feeling the opposite of refreshed. As with lots of people, this problem becomes a lot worse when high levels of stress are thrown into the mix as I cannot stop my mind from buzzing during the night and jumping from problem to problem which I feel like I have to fix right there and then, even if the situation is out of my control. My University exams are quickly approaching and I approach this period with a sense of dread that I will be a walking zombie throughout it because I will only manage to grab a few hours of sleep here and there. So here are five tips which I have been given along the way during my trials and tribulations with poor sleep which I have found really help if I actively discipline myself to act upon them rather than reverting to my own bad habits…

1) Do not go to bed earlier than you usually would

This may seem counter-intuitive because your mind tells you that if you are going through a period in which you are not sleeping well then you should go to bed an hour or two early to counteract your lost sleep. However, often your body-clock will not agree. Your body gets used to the time that you usually go to bed and settle down for the night and so even if you feel that you are tired enough to go to sleep your body may well resist you. Then you might start a snowballing feeling of frustration as you toss and turn in bed for longer than necessary and get yourself annoyed rather than relaxed which is obviously what you need to drop-off during the night.

2) Read for a bit

When you get into bed, don’t instantly try to fall asleep, give your body and mind time to relax and switch-off instead. Personally, I find reading very therapeutic especially if I am reading from a physical book rather than a device like a kindle. You do not have to work your way through masses of pages or delve into a heavy-going classical literary masterpiece, this shouldn’t feel like school homework or a burden in your evening. Instead, pick a book you find genuinely interesting and hopefully you will find yourself getting so lost in the words of the book that anything weighing your mind down will disappear.

3) Jot down a list of your worries

If stress is what is restricting your sleep then roughly jot down a list of bullet points about whatever is occupying your mind. Any thoughts that occur to you, just scribble them down and do not worry about writing in flowing prose or making grammatical sense, this is purely an exercise to relieve your mind of the issues which are bouncing around inside it, demanding your immediate attention and distracting you from falling asleep. Once you have written them down make a conscious decision to leave the issues until the morning and give your brain the chance to refuel and recharge during the night so that you can tackle them the next day.

4) Do yoga or stretch of an evening

Especially if you spend your days huddled over a desk or scrunched up around your laptop screen, your body develops a lot of tension during the day which can be another thing which weighs your mind down as well as making you feel uncomfortable. So, of an evening try to do a few stretches or, if you’re into yoga, roll out your mat and get to doing a quick twenty minutes of yoga to relieve your muscles of their tightness. Whilst you are doing this, focus on your breathing so that you give your mind a break from being occupied by stressful thoughts. This is also beneficial because it will boost your sense of accomplishment of what you have managed to do during your day if you can incorporate an exercise such as stretching or yoga which are both good for your wellbeing.

5) Do not clock check

I am awful at taking my own advice on this one! When I am lying bed waiting to fall asleep, my head pops up every ten minutes or so to check the time and I mentally calculate how much sleep I am losing and how long it is until I have to get-up in the morning. It is blatantly obvious that this is unhelpful. Constantly looking around at your clock is only going to build a sense of frustration and annoyance in you, as well as anxiety about the sleep you’re missing out on. In the end, checking the clock only makes you ruminate harder on your sleep problems which has the adverse effect of making them worse.