Category Archives: Mental Health

Cutting Out Caffeine: One Week to Less Anxiety

It’s been a weird week.

I cut out caffeine.

Why did I do it? Well, I’m an addict you see. An addict, hooked on one of the last remaining socially acceptable chemicals.

I was so bad that I used to get coffee every morning before work, from fancy coffee places. My coffee was sweet, but my bank account was bitter! I was drinking 3-4 cups while I was at work. I was relying on it for focus, for energy and just to keep me moving.

And I was suffering from a whole range of anxiety related problems. Palpitations, chest tightness, muscle tightness, somatic paint, the list goes on and on.

Now, if you’ve been following my blog, I’ve been trying to tackle my mental health difficulties in a whole host of different ways. I’ve been eating vegan, meditating a lot, trying to follow my bliss, and lately, embarking on acupuncture treatments and chiropractic manipulations. I’m really making a concerted effort to become healthy again.

Caffeine is my substance. It’s my vice. I’m naturally a bit slow, a little bit spacey, like an astronaut on the moon, but this jet fuel helps me stay in tow with a fast moving world.

But at what cost?

Health problems? Anxiety? Over stimulation?

I wanted to see what it would be like to take it all away, just for a week and see how it felt. I’ve spent so many years buzzing about like a hyperactive bumblebee that I had forgotten what it feels like to not have that dynamo drink powering me up as I go.

So what happened?

Well, at first, as you can imagine with any kind of caffeine withdrawal, I felt a bit off for a few days. Headaches, lethargy etc. You know, the usual stuff.

But then, I really began to acclimatise and I noticed a couple of things.

I was eating more.

Something about caffeine suppressed my appetite enough that it was extremely noticeable when I took it away. I was eating more food and also food which was less good for me. So, in theory, that’s 1 for coffee and 0 for me.

I was spaced out all the time.

I was in a bubble. I felt like Kanye in Katy Perry’s E.T. video. And the strangest thing was that this never really wore off. I am naturally away with the fairies. I shouldn’t be so surprised, but I was surprised. I hadn’t felt like that in an age. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it put some things into perspective for me.

I work in an office. I don’t absolutely love my job, but I get by. But without caffeine, and me in my natural state, floating around like a bubble princess, I really began to realise how poorly suited I am for this kind of work. So many distractions, so many noises. So much shifting gears between activities and getting sidetracked. For me, bubble boy, this was a nightmare. I felt like I was the light silver ball in 3D Pinball, waiting for anything to space bar me into the stratosphere. Remember that game on Windows 98? What a time to be alive.

The most unpleasant side effect was anhedonia. If you don’t know what this is, it’s a total lack of interest in doing anything, even things you used to love or enjoy. It kind of fed into my realisation that my work was so unsuitable for my type of brain wiring. I was so tired with my job, tired with the same old cycle of Monday to Friday. Stopping the stimulant made this much more apparent. It was kind of amazing the extent to which I had been relying on coffee to hold my depression at bay.

In hindsight, I’m really trying not to beat myself up over this vice. My body craved it because my brain just isn’t making enough good-feeling chemicals on its own. It’s not my fault. That was a really liberating realisation to come out of the process. I have dependencies because I’m just trying to cope with a biological imbalance made worse by the demands of a modern 9-5 administrative job, not suited to my brain.

It also made me realise how much I needed quiet and solitude. I like to read, but it’s impossible for me to do it in noisy places. I need a quiet and calm atmosphere to do that. I could manage slightly better with coffee, but without, it’s just really good to know that I should be managing my environment so that I can be more productive. Maybe in the future, freelancing will be best for someone like me, where I’m in control of my space and can make the most of quiet time.

On the flip side though, my anxiety was down massively. I didn’t realise how much it was having an effect on me throughout the day. To feel genuinely calm and relaxed was a blessing. Tranquillity I had not been able to access for many years. And in a way, since my anxiety cleared up, I was able to think more clearly about everything. To really stew over my thoughts, rather than bouncing between them and losing track. It’s been really positive to slow down the pace and sit with ideas for just a bit longer.

All in all, it’s been a mixed bag. Some things have become better and other worse. I got rid of a lot of anxiety, but I also became more spacey and depressed. But that state of mind allowed me to ruminate on what it is that I’m doing wrong in my life. How my job isn’t good for my type of mind. How I should find something I love to do, at a pace that suits me. How I’m trying to be someone I am not in a society where the norms don’t benefit me.

And I guess you’re wondering whether I’ll stay away from the stuff going forward. Well, as with most things in life, balance is key. I’m going to drink less of it, absolutely. I don’t want the reverberating, painful anxiety. But for the time being, I need to be able to focus a little in a job I am not suited for. Maybe a coffee in the morning and a cup of tea in the afternoon? No more caffeine after 4pm so I can sleep well? I think that sounds like balance to me.

J

The Flashforward: Psychic Projection Of Our Shadow Selves

You might be wondering what I mean when I say ‘flashforward’ so let me explain.

You know a flashback? That characteristic, often dramatic plot device, especially prevalent in crime films or thrillers. That device that takes a character back in time to a scene the audience didn’t know about, that now illuminates some feature of the character’s present predicament.

Not just a feature of films, but a very real, often tangible feeling we get as a memory from long ago comes flying into the present.

Triggers. A cat walking across the road. The smells from a bakery on a busy high street. The sounds of a bicycle bell, careering past.

And suddenly, we are back. Transported to a place we had not been to in forever, and a time we had long forgotten.

And sometimes flashbacks are trying to tell us something. They may indicate a desperate need for resolution. They may highlight a spiritual conflict that exists in the present. They may guide us to answers that solve our present predicaments.

But what then of flashforwards? Less thought of, but equally as important to reflect on.

Often the domain of anxiety and existential fear, the flashforward can paint an image of our future selves to us, which, unless we pay attention to, we may in fact inevitably become.

When I fear that I may become old and ill and alone, that I may die with nobody by my side, that is my soul warning me of a future I must work to re-write.

So I may project an image of decrepit isolation into my future, but that is merely a stencil of all of my unresolved fears, pushed forward through time and space.

This is the outline of my pain, the sharp curvature of my shadow-self which aims to rule my present and claim my future.

And like most things that are born out of fear, they have no more power and solidity than we choose to give them. Instead, as I have suggested, we should use this outline to understand our fears better, to address them before we meet that shape in the future and sink into it predictably.

Why do I fear illness?

Because it is painful? Because it is disabling? Because of the lack of control it threatens?

Is pain to be feared if it is inevitable? Is a loss of function really a loss of purpose and agency? Is giving up control always something to be feared?

Thinking about the shape of our flashforwards can guide us to happier futures. This silhouette shows us the edges of ourselves that hem us in in the present and constrain us. Through exploring our projected fears, we learn how to prevent them from becoming our future. We can change our relationship to them and so reshape our reality.

So, though often less mentioned, flashforwards are as important to becoming who we were meant to be, as the flashbacks that define who we are in the present.

It’s a psychic resonance with the future that is a gift, though often it feels terrible. Those of us who are sensitive and thoughtful tend to experience temporal shifts the most and we must embrace it if we are to become the best versions of ourselves. I imagine, like the oracles of old, this is a latent power in many of the more emotionally sensitive and it should not be feared, but nurtured and utilised for good.

Here’s an exercise you can try at home:

Cut out a paper man, just a basic template, a head, two arms and legs.

Write all of your fears around the edges of his/her body, the biggest ones, the ones that really hold you back in the present.

Then, in the middle, write all the ways you can begin to address these fears. You may want an A3 sheet so you have lots of space.

Sometimes, just getting your fears down on paper and creating a physical shape with them, can give you the perspective you need to begin to tackle them.

Or you can journal about them, writing down your most potent anxieties, especially the ones that enter your imagination and project a version of yourself in the future which you desperately wish to avoid.

It’s proven that writing down your fears actually decreases their hold over you. As if the transference from pen to paper offloads some of the burden on your mind. Think of Dumbledore in Harry Potter. Constantly he visits the pensieve to empty his memories into it using his wand. You are doing the same thing when you write down your anxieties.

When you begin to perceive flashforwards as nothing more than the shadow of who you are right now, you can begin to push at the edges and open up your future to brighter possibilities.

J

 

Depression in the Eyes

A quick google search for ‘depressed eyes’ returns, to my amazement, eyes filled with anguish. Blubbering eyes, welling up with pain and steeped in comically exaggerated grimaces.

I find this perplexing.

Sure, depression for me has involved episodes of this pained expression, but for the most part, it’s something altogether worse. Something far more alarming, sinister and uncanny.

It’s the deadness. The total lack of spirit. The unending, unfathomable pit in the pupil, which reaches into the abyss.

For me, depression in the eyes is captured by a total lack of light. Like unspeakable black opals of drowning depth.

It’s one of the best ways I can tell if someone is drowning in anhedonia, the symptom of a total loss of enjoyment in life. You don’t have to ask someone, you can see it there, in their eyes.

I think having persistent depression is part of the reason I look into people’s eyes when I speak to them. They give away so much on the face. I have always become fixated by them as a well of emotional information. A font of pain, joy and intent.

The photo you see at the beginning of this post is my face a few years ago. My depression has been persistent and in some ways, it is worse than it was at the time I took this picture, but I am also working much harder to tackle it than I was back then.

I notice the emptiness, the exhausting droop that has always been characteristic of my sloping lashes. I notice the unfocused, drowning brown iris and the tired pucker of my lower lash line.

I suppose I wanted to make a point in this post, that depression as characterised by the internet or the media is so much more dramatic, superficial and comical than it is in reality. It fails to observe the sinister absence of presence, the artificialness of gaze, the ‘nobodies home’ glaze that really depicts the illness.

I think this is what frustrates me about perceptions of depression as an illness, as if it is personified by the ugly mask of tragedy, comedies miserable brother, when in fact, its depiction appears far closer to comedy than true misery.

How can we win more support for depression, more seriousness and thoughtfulness, when we are bombarded by ludicrous, sensationalised and dramatic visual depictions of it?

The fact that images of blubbering and anguish pervade the search terms suggests we have a long way to go before people begin to really understand what depression entails and how those who cope with it chronically have experienced it.

Depression is sometimes sadness and crying, I’ll admit that, but it goes so much deeper than that. It’s an affinity with death that the living who have not felt it’s dark grasp, will struggle to ever understand. For how can we understand death, unless we no longer feel alive?

J

Chronic Illness and Vital Acceptance

If you’ve developed an illness that is now invading your every day life in a way you can no longer ignore, it can begin to gnaw away at our sense of justice.

You’re a good person, you work hard and try to get by in a difficult world. People can treat you badly and not bat an eye, but you’re not like that, and if you are, your awareness ignites you to apologise or make peace with your victim.

And yet, even so, you’ve been stricken with bad karmic juju. You’re suffering, but you feel that suffering is unjustified.

Our health is so important to our quality of life that we often get wrapped up in the ‘why?’. ‘Why is this happening to me?’ ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ ‘Why couldn’t I be someone else?’.

The ‘why’ is fine when we are dealing with the things that we can change. There are so many good ‘why’ questions that can really change the world. To some extent, a little ‘why’ can be good even in exploring chronic health problems. After all, a better understanding of our ailments can mean we can better address them and find some balance.

I’ve even written on the ‘why’ myself, exploring how a largely vegan or plant based diet can reduce inflammation in the body and improve overall health and wellness for those with chronic illness.

But, the ‘why?’ only goes so far. At some point, it yields less and less, becoming an exhausting obsession of diminishing returns. When we personalise our why’s and make them existential, we lose more and more energy, time, and happiness, to an unanswerable set of questions. When we reach this stage, we need to consider how we will accept the things which we cannot change and work on making our realities manageable, even joyful.

Acceptance is vital to living with chronic illness. We cannot continuously snarl at our illness, hoping that eventually it will subside or diminish. We cannot keep it in a box away from visitors, a morbid little secret out of the public eye. Our illness will live with us and we must accept that it continues, as do we.

Illness is unpleasant. It makes our lives hard, sometimes unbearably painful, both mentally and physically. It can be isolating, desperate and cold when so few understand how painful it is. But acceptance is part of changing that story. Don’t try to push it under the rug or pummel it into submission, but try to accept it as a part of you, aim to no longer fight with yourself.

In some respects, accepting chronic illness can make it easier to live with and tolerate. It can even contribute to recovery or partial recovery. The stress we cause ourselves when we are fighting our illness can inevitably strengthen it. The more you fight a thought, idea or perception of reality, the more power it gains over you and the more fear, panic and despair it generates.

Your reality needn’t be one of fear or aggression directed at disturbance and chaos. When you choose to allow or accept chronic illness to exist with you, rather than against you, you can begin to change your relationship to it. You can begin to be happier and lead a more fulfilling life.

We all want that, right?

J

Climb Your Ladder, Not The Ladder People Put In Front of You

I was having a deep discussion with my father a few days ago, a man filled with wisdom and silliness, a receptacle of obscure but interesting knowledge and possessing a remarkable long-term memory, much to my envy.

He said to me ‘I remember a quote from someone, I cannot remember his name (unusual, so that was for him), but he said: ‘People climb ladders, but often, when they get to the top, they realise they were somewhere they didn’t want to be.”

This seemed very profound to me and I thought about it a bit.

We seem to build ladders in the world, whether it be working up through a job, or getting married and having children, doing what is socially acceptable for us. We build our sense of progress in the world around us and showcase it to everyone saying .Hey, look at me! Look how high I am!’.

The trouble is, when we focus only on what we are to other people, we lose our ability to focus on who we are to ourselves. What authenticity can I have when I spend my life showing people what they want to see?

My father also said this: ‘When you walk out the door in the morning, somebody will hate you or resent you, even if you’re doing everything right’.

So who are we trying to be? Why do we try so hard to be loved by those who don’t even know who we are? Even still, there are those who will hate us independent of which mask we present, or even when we represent ourselves authentically.

So, I’m thinking hard about where my ladders are and what I should do with them. At the end, when all is said and done, the only thing I should be climbing is the effigy of my past selves. Up and up, I count forward from what I was yesterday and how I can become better today.

I want to climb a ladder to the best version of myself. Not the version of me people expect or want, but the version of me that allows me to be myself in a world filled with expectations about who somebody should be.

Whenever you feel that pit in your stomach or a darkness looming over your head, consider, ‘what wall am I facing and should I be climbing?’. Search for rooftops eclipsed in a halo of sunshine, warmth and bliss.

Put down your ladder down, and climb.

J

5 Signs Your Life has Become Overwhelming and How to Begin Restoring Balance

You wake up, having not slept restfully for a week now. Your thoughts are dim and dreadful. They simmer at first, then a slow-boil turns to froth and foam and flying spit in your mind’s pot.

How will I get everything done today? There is nobody to help me. What is happening? How do I stop it? The world is out to get me. I am struggling. What can I do?

Splish, splash, schloop, go the thoughts inside your head as you watch from above. There is no saving this soup now, spoiled for good. Let it all burn.

Many can relate to that boiling pressure underneath the surface. It can lead to outbursts, uncharacterful behaviour and alienation, both for the person experiencing the feeling of being overwhelmed, and for the people close to them. Here are five signs that you’re not coping well, and some suggestions to fix it.

1. You’re Acting ‘Out of Character’

We are all creatures of particular habits. Some of us are quite reserved and don’t go out very much, others are very much the opposite, seeking social events everywhere they can and many opportunities to be the centre of attention. When you notice your typical behaviours are reversing and flying to the polar opposite of your ‘normal’, you know there’s something up. As in the examples above, someone who is quiet and calm, with a smaller social circle, might decide to get drunk every night and meet strangers. This can sometimes be hard to spot from the perspective of the person who is feeling overwhelmed, but family and friends should make every effort to monitor this behaviour and offer support where possible.

2. You Don’t Care Anymore

Generally, you’re empathetic, kind, a listener and someone who is compassionate to the needs of those around you. Lately though, you’ve been feeling kind of ‘meh’. You see people in strife and it’s just not twanging on that cardio banjo in there. You know you should be feeling something, but you’re struggling to get that emotion to translate. No, you’re not a sociopath, you’re just going through a rough patch and sometimes this can make you appear distant, callous or unfeeling. It’s the people who care the most who tend to lose this ability most drastically under pressure.

3. You’re Getting Irritated by the Smallest Things

Did your housemate eat your last banana? Did someone take your usual seat on the bus? Are you about to burn to ash over the news that petrol prices are going up? Do these questions make you feel like wielding a sledgehammer of destruction, like a malevolent Thor, brimming with spite and rage? Thinking about how proportionate our responses are to the perceived inconvenience, of course, at a time when we have calmed down, can sometimes give us the opportunity to reflect on how overwhelmed we feel.

4. Australian Animal Syndrome

Like the black widow, who hides in people’s toilets to bite their buttocks, and the koalas climbing from the bush below, we begin to do one of two things, bury ourselves, or attempt to escape out of our situation. Are you hiding from your problems, getting poisonous when people enter your personal space? Or, are you fleeing up into the canopies? Hiding or running can be a surefire way of knowing you’re overwhelmed and in need of intervention.

5. Your Opinion Of People Begins to Change

People you have held dear for years can begin to become ugly in your mind’s eye. You begin to create gargoyles where angels once stood, and by the end, you are surrounded by warped caricatures of the people you once loved. This is a very disturbing and unsettling mechanism related to being in a state of overwhelm, that can begin to unravel your sense of identity, purpose and happiness. If the people you cared about are no longer friends, loneliness can set in and begin to eat away at your joy.

So, now you have a few ideas about what being overwhelmed looks like, here are some important interventions to think about, so that we don’t continue feeling this way.

Be Honest

Speak to the people around you that you feel you can trust. Tell them that you do not feel that you can cope and ask for any guidance, support or assistance they can give you. If they cannot, try not to take this personally, it may be that they have a lot on their plate too. Try to approach people who you feel will be compassionate and understanding to your plight, as some people can make their problems seem more important, which will only make you feel worse.

Seek Support Networks

At school, work or university, make sure to access any available resources. For work, it might be some time off sick, or booking a few days holiday. At school, seeing the school counsellor or speaking to a teacher you trust might help you on the path to improvement. At university, try to utilise the university counselling services and student support networks. If you’re not sure, bring it up with your personal tutor. Speak to a GP about how you are feeling and see if they can refer you for assistance. And, seek the local charity networks to see if they can help you with additional funded support.

Meditate

Meditation can be a great way to relax and calm down, but it is also an excellent tool to make breakthroughs with seemingly insurmountable life problems. One of the best techniques I find with this, is to visualise a pool, dropping in a question at the height of relaxation and inner calm, without the expectation that it will return an answer. You are trying to submerge the question into your subconscious, so that it can naturally provide you with an answer in a more intuitive way. I find the headspace app is really incredibly useful for this, so go ahead and try it out.

Are You Looking After Your Health?

One thing I begin to notice immediately when I am overwhelmed, is how it so often correlates with slipping into old dietary habits which are not good for my sense of wellbeing. If you are lucky enough to know what kind of diet works for you, then make sure to reflect on this when you feel overwhelmed. Am I cutting some corners? Can I try and cook a proper meal this week instead of dropping into a convenience store for a cheap ready meal. Often our bodies just need that little bit of extra support so that we can deal with what life throws at us.

Give it Time – Like, A ‘You’ll Still Be Here When The Sun Explodes’ Amount of Time

So, now you’ve heard me whittle on about this, that and the other, and it’s either helped you, or left you more enraged than you began (absolutely not the intention, but a hypothetically plausible outcome). Start asking yourself some questions, without demanding desperate answers. Try to give yourself time and the love and support from those around you, even if you feel that they do not always understand. Look after your body and meditate without expectation, as if answers can come between now and the squashification of the universe, which scientists are referring to as ‘the big crunch’.

I wish you happiness, fulfilment and the ability to overcome anything that life throws at you.

J

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How University Ruined My Relationship with Writing and How I Got It Back

Story time, handsome people.

I graduated with a History degree in the summer last year.

Three years. Three, gruelling, tedious, stressful years.

History is a great subject. I love it dearly. But, sadly, what I don’t love is the University system, forcing a sunshine child like myself to hide amongst the yellowing, withered tomes of a dusty library. I can feel my skin stretching into parchment just thinking about it. Moisturise me, I’m starting to look like Cassandra.

I just wanted to dance and sing and bask in the sunshine, the nature, moss, trees and birds. It was agony to be inside, a recluse tasked with reading volumes of books at such a pace that any and all would gasp for a breath.

Truth be told, I struggle with reading. The educational psych said something about my processing speed. I’m a bit slow you see, and reading is often exhausting and challenging, especially when I have to read anything that I don’t initially have an interest in.

I was constantly reprimanded by my department for going off topic, for flagrantly ignoring the essay question, but honestly? I didn’t care. If I couldn’t do just that at least sometimes, I would have turned to dust (melodrama who?).

My Universities motto was: ‘In Limine Sapientiae’. It means ‘On the threshold of wisdom’. Well, it should have been ‘On the threshold of boredom and¬†beyond‘. Reading was such a chore, an enforced chore. The worst kind of chore.

To add to all the laborious library prison time I was subjected to, I had fallen out with writing altogether.

Writing became, how can I describe? An extremely stressful, unpleasant and limiting exercise, all the things I have since realised it is not. Because support was poor, I was left to fend for myself, trying to gauge the right kind of style, direction and tempo for my essays. My anxiety levels were extremely high. It manifested in obsession with re-drafting minute word choices. With cutting and editing chunks of text. With a chronic sense of dissatisfaction in everything I produced. Writing was wound and bound with my ever increasing levels of depression and anxiety. They were inseparable.

My dissertation was, let me find a metaphor, like stabbing myself repeatedly and hoping to divine, from my own gore, the direction to take. I was suffering with the worst depression I have ever experienced for the entirety of my final year. Bringing pen to paper, even sitting down in this restless, unfocused and painful state was almost impossible. I submitted two weeks after the deadline. My final extension was not even enough to force me to work until the final five days. Something switched. The fear, sufficiently gripping, pushed me into a frenzy. I didn’t see anyone for five days except to leave my room for a bit of food. I was up the entire final night. I handed in my submission, exhausted, miserable and utterly finished with education.

The whole experience of writing at university had so upset me that I didn’t even go to my own graduation. These three years had been tiring and lonely, I had all but withdrawn from daily life. I was, at the same time, furious. How could the education system fail me so extensively? Support was minimal and I had even experienced cruel and callous departmental sanctions for my truancy (actually depression, dissolution and social anxiety). I would have burned that paper certificate, had I not worked so hard against these odds to complete the course.

Still, I struggled to reconcile the practice of writing, the stress of university and the cold overseers in the department, with the idea that I had succeeded. To this day, I still struggle to look at that certificate with anything other than contempt.

After this time, I began to work full time, not in a job I wanted to do, but in something with a routine that paid reasonably well. I started to heal a bit from the experience. I started to go to counselling, started to eat better, started to meditate more, started to be more comfortable around other people. My only real experience with writing had been as a student and within the frame of an essay. I had also written a few articles at university and some personal blog posts on this site during the time, however I had not reached a point where I believed that writing could help do anything other than prove a point. I had not reached the point I am at now, where I believe that writing is better used to heal and to teach.

I think a shift in perspective and being outside the bubble of the institution taught me to re-frame writing. To use it for myself as a way to learn about who I am and what I can do in this life.

I have to add that I do have University to thank for the discipline and development of my relationship with language. If I had not entered into it in this way, I do not know whether I would have gained so many tools to command it. I can communicate what I mean, but I am no longer confined by the restraints of a sluggish system which does not cater to someone like me. It is looking optimistic from here, as I continue to search for what inspires me. Christian Mihai’s blog, The Art of Writing, talks about pursuing your values in your writing and using it to help people. I hope that my experiences and reflections will help myself and others find and keep their passion in writing.

In time, I do not know what shape this blog will take, but hopefully, with a new found passion and enjoyment, a direction and purpose, it can only take even more beautiful forms.

Find your bliss and use writing as your map,

J