dealing with anxiety

Dealing with anxiety: just sit with it

Dealing with anxiety is a funny thing.

It isn’t easy, but for the most part, you have to battle against it. As exhausting as it is, if you want to live any sort of a life, you have to try. Take your medication, go for your run, see your counsellor.

Because usually, these actions will help—at least, that’s my general experience, as is probably evident from the fact I run a blog bursting with tips for anxiety relief.

But sometimes—when the weather is awful and you’re tired and you’re stressed—it still doesn’t matter. Anxiety is a sly bastard, and it can creep up on you no matter how well you look after yourself. You can expend so much energy trying to do everything right, and still feel wrong.

(Wrong, in this case, being a numb, foggy feeling in my temples. A rolling swoop of fear in my belly at the smallest confrontation or sharp word. A tightening in my chest, and an insurmountable feeling of paralysis that makes it hard to focus, work, get out of bed).

This seems unfair, I think: so deeply unfair. But (obviously) life isn’t fair, so there’s no point dwelling too much on this. And (as someone wise pointed out to me this week) there’s also no point in beating yourself up.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to give yourself a break and sit with it. This is counter to our culture: we value productivity and solutions, quick-fixes and a ‘doing anything you set your mind to!’ attitude.

We’re also not used to just hanging out with unsettling emotions, most of us having been trained from our earliest days to avoid unpleasant sensations as a simple act of self-preservation. Feeling anxious is deeply unpleasant, so I very rarely allow myself just to sit with my nervously pumping heart and general feeling of unease. My instinct, when I feel anxious, is to try and do anything to kick it into touch.

But this weekend—at a loss for a better solution, not to mention feeling very short on energy—I’ve tried a new approach to dealing with anxiety. When my thoughts have started racing, I’ve just let them be. Like I’d accept a headache: frustrating, but not something to fundamentally be distraught about. (I haven’t worried myself about the jobs I wanted to get done, either. They’ll wait).

Sitting with your racing thoughts and allowing yourself to feel nothing but your anxiety is like doing a deep, painful stretch. It feels uncomfortable, for sure. But if you find somewhere quiet, settle in, and let the thoughts and feelings roll through you—eventually, you might come to a quiet place in your mind. It’s almost meditative.

Kind of like letting a snowball gain steam down a mountain. It seems like you’re hurtling towards disaster, letting your mind have free reign like this—but eventually, it always come to a stop. (Or melts.)

It’s not always a solution. Sometimes when dealing with anxiety, you have to do the work. Eat your greens, move your body, see your therapist. Sometimes—most of the time, in fact—you have to keep on battling through whatever you’re battling through.

But not all the time. Sometimes, you can just sit with it, accepting that your anxiety can exist within you without the world ending.

Things might not get done. You might not be productive at work. You might not be great company. But when you’re on the other side of it—as you always will be, eventually—you’ll know something important. Your anxiety can never truly overcome you. But you can always survive it.

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Time to Talk in Real Life

Here is my truth: once upon a time, I was very ill. During and after my father’s dying, I suffered from heavy bouts of depression and anxiety. Eventually, I did not want to be alive.

I’m still here. (Obviously: this blog isn’t a nuts piece of paranormal activity). The people who love me pulled be back, and whilst they couldn’t fix me, they made me want to want to be alive. They found the time to talk with me.

I am now, mostly, better, although I have glitches and bad days .Sometimes my mind races so relentlessly it makes me breathless. Sometimes I weep without reason, without logic. I don’t think I will ever be as I was before. You can step back from the precipice but you can never forget the sight of it.

But talking helped. My God, talking helped. I started this blog because I thought it might help—even just one person—to know the ways I wound my way back from the edge, to a life with happiness and joy and possibility in it. It is a pleasure to write and share, although often awkward and embarrassing as I lay myself bare.

Here’s the bit I can’t say loudly enough: a huge part of my recovery was learning to talk as bluntly about my mental health as I would about pulling my shoulder. (PS: sorry to all of my colleagues who have listened to me moan relentlessly about pulling my shoulder this week).

Talking bluntly is so hard. Today is Time to Talk day, a fantastic initiative from Time to Change and a ‘chance for all of us to be more open about mental health – to talk, to listen, to change lives.’ Read their fantastic tips for how to start the conversation here.

Now (obviously) I hope people read, like and share this post. But today what I hope more than anything is that you take the time to talk in real life. Social media campaigns are a fantastic method of raising awareness, but it has to translate into reality.

Because the stigma of mental health issues is decreasing, but this is noticeably more true in the online community than in reality. In reality, we still have a huge problem with talking.

So the problem is still there, still unspoken about, for many people. For the people who can’t access the services they desperately need because there isn’t enough funding, and are left with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

It’s there for the people who are too ashamed to access the help they might need. It’s there at the bottom of a glass or the 7am end of a drug fuelled night, the only oblivion some of us can find.

It’s there in the workplace. The fractious silence of colleagues who need help they have no idea how to claim, and who are too afraid to ask for fear of the response they’ll get. Mental health at work is extra tricky; understandably, people want to keep their private lives private. But it’s where most of us spend our waking lives. We can’t separate the two any more. I’ve been lucky throughout my life to work with compassionate colleagues and managers, but I appreciate for many this is not the case.

It’s there in too many of the men I know. Men who carry a private vulnerability and wear a public mask, only able to share their mental health struggle at four in the morning, eight pints down. Three quarters of suicides in 2016 were men. On that note, the latest Samaritans report shows female suicides are at their highest for a decade. 

It has to get better. We have to ensure that people do not feel discriminated against. Falling over the precipice should never be the end result.

So today, I add my voice to what will hopefully be thousands of others. It’s time to talk. It’s time to talk in real life. If you’ve read this, take five minutes to think and to ask—a friend, a colleague, a parent. Share your truth. Help someone share theirs.

It’s such a small thing. It’s such a huge thing.

#TimeToTalk

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Dry January: alcohol and anxiety

Here’s a really sad fact about me: I get chronic post-alcohol anxiety. So this year, I’ve done the unthinkable and committed to Dry January. This is very unlike me, because A) I generally advocate for moderation not deprivation and B) I bloody love a drink.

alcohol and anxiety 2This sounds awful, but it’s true. I love red wine and cold pints. I enjoy fruity, overpriced cocktails and the camaraderie of popping a bottle of prosecco in the office on a Friday afternoon. I like squeezing fresh lime into a rum and ginger on a sunny day, and I’m especially fond of a glass of Baileys as a nightcap in a hotel.

In light of this admission, I really don’t want there to be a link between alcohol and anxiety, because that spoils my fun big time.

Sadly, all too often after a glass or two, my sleep is strangely disturbed. I wake in a panic, heart pounding, mind racing. It makes sense, to be fair. Alcohol raises your blood pressure and reduces serotonin levels in the brain. The depletion of this feel good chemical is enough to give anybody a touch of hangover ennui.

Hangovers also make me scatty AF, so I spend the whole miserable time panicking I’ve forgotten to do something important; I once travelled 45 minutes back across London to check I’d turned the hob off on a hangover. I had. Dope. I’m usually happy to put up with this, given it clears within a day or so.

But managing my anxiety is a daily battle, and whilst 90% of the time I have it well under control, recently I’ve needed all the help I can get—so I finally decided to commit to a booze free month. So what are the results?

Actually, pretty good. I was worried it would kabosh my social life, but instead of avoiding socialising altogether, I’m still going to the pub for a ginger and lime so I don’t feel like I’m missing out too much. Actually, there are some really good low-alcohol alternatives nowadays–check out my favourites here! My sleep is less disturbed, my heart rate is under control, and I’m generally feeling less maudlin.

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I can’t promise never to do this again.

It took about two weeks for me to really start feeling better, so moving forward, I’m definitely going to try and incorporate some booze-free fortnights into my life. I can’t say I’d quite forever – I’m too attached to drinking rum out of coconuts – but I’ll certainly be more mindful now I know the benefits for sure.

If you’re suffering with anxiety, and tend to drink quite a bit, I’d definitely recommend giving a few sober weeks a whirl. If you’re worried about the peer pressure of drinking, or people calling you out, I strongly recommend dead-eying them and bluntly saying ‘I’m taking a break from drinking for my mental health’.

It’s also surprisingly easy to be at the pub and have nobody notice you’re not drinking – nowadays, there are all sorts of great low-alcohol options that look and taste surprisingly similar to the real deal, like Kombucha.

I’ve still got another ten days, but the mixture of my mental clarity and my noticeably healthier bank balance is spurring me on no end. So next time you’re going through a bad anxiety patch, give it a go, even if it’s just for a two weeks—because if you’re anything like me, the relationship between alcohol and anxiety might be stronger than you think.

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Just a Bad Week

I like to keep Nicer Thoughts as positive as possible, because dwelling on my problems is boring for you and unhelpful for me. But I’ll come out and say it: I have not had a good mental health week.

As if the post-Christmas period wasn’t miserable enough, it’s been a fortnight of absolute faff. I moved house, only to discover the flat had mistakenly been advertised as furnished when it was in fact completely empty, leading to plenty of arguing, sofa building and some sleepless nights on the floor. My exercise regime—the cornerstone of my mental health maintenance—fell by the wayside as I waited in for deliveries and trawled John Lewis.

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This is actually the oven we have: Neff have a lot to answer for.

Then the oven door fell off on my foot (ruining my roasted aubergine dinner plans in the process). The Internet router got lost in the post, so I haven’t been able to work on Nicer Thoughts, one of my favourite hobbies. I had a tough few days at work. My bankcard got frauded. All things that, individually, I could have laughed off; combined, my anxiety levels shot through the roof.

I started to catastrophise, which is a common behaviour for many anxiety sufferers. This wasn’t just a Bad Week, the voice in my head told me: this is the end times. You’re going to get ill again. You’re walking back into the underworld. You’re going to be jobless and friendless and penniless, and your boyfriend’s probably going to dump you too.

Logically, this is all quite silly, because I have a loving family, compassionate friends, supportive colleagues, and am generally quite good at my job. If my boyfriend’s going to dump me for anything, it’s my strange tendency to squirrel weird shit under the duvet, like clothes hangers.

But, exhausted as I was, I just couldn’t help it. And then, stupidly, I started beating myself up even more—because I was too tired to exercise, too agitated to meditate. I was anxious about being anxious, feeling like a failure for not managing my mental health as well as I usually do. The further the week went on, the worse I felt. And I didn’t have the energy for my usual tricks. This all culminated in me crying on the bedroom floor this morning after accidentally smashing myself on the brow bone with a plug. So what could I do?

The answer is simple: nothing at all. When you’re truly shattered, and deeply stressed, sometimes you just need to kick back and do nothing at all. (Sorry: I don’t have anything insightful or thought-provoking to say this week; I’m too tired.)

Today, I’ve lain on the sofa, drank cups of tea, done some yoga. I’ve had a little cry and a cuddle, both of which made me feel better. Then I ate a fuck load of pistachios, which made me feel better still.

I’ve still got a shedload of things that need sorting, but I’ve given myself the weekend off to do nothing but recharge and chill. Every time my mind starts to race, I have another cuddle and remind myself of my favourite cliche: it was just a bad week, not a bad life. And if you’ve had a shitty week, I firmly advise that you find some time to do the same.

Lots of love,

Nic x

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Fighting the stigma of antidepressants: a crying shame

Even as the conversation around mental health opens up, we still have a worrying attitude towards methods of getting help – particularly the stigma of antidepressants.

Obviously, I’m not a Doctor, or qualified to comment on anything other than my own experience. I can only say that even as the mental health awareness movement gains steam, there’s definitely still a huge stigma about taking antidepressants.

It’s little wonder. The Daily Mail recently charmingly referred to them as ‘happy pills’ that Brits demand to ‘avoid feeling down’. I personally have never met anybody who was desperate to be on antidepressants because they’re a bit glum.

I’ve only met people who are desperately ill (me included, once upon a time) but don’t want to take them out of shame. And people who are on them but will never, ever talk about it.

Unfortunately, I’ve also met some people who are judgmental of those who do take them, as if this somehow makes you less capable of being a good friend, partner, parent, colleague, human.

This is ridiculous. For certain mental health disorders, medication is often completely essential, like insulin for a diabetic. For those whose anxiety and depression is stopping them from functioning—or putting them at risk of suicide—it seems horrendously worrying that stigma, shame and misinformation might prevent people from getting the help they need.

Yes, there are other routes people can take to conquer their anxiety and depression first, particularly in less severe cases. Counselling, exercise, meditation. It’s certainly true the NHS is under huge strain and can’t provide the levels of counselling and support required, meaning medication could end up being prescribed where talking therapy might work.

But that’s not the point I’m making here—my point is, if you’ve reached a point where you can’t even begin to fathom those activities, medication may help you get back on the even keel you need.

That was certainly the case for me. Here’s my history, for context: at my absolute lowest point (clinical diagnosis: severe anxiety and moderate depression), after several months of counselling, I was prescribed an SSRI called sertraline.

One reason people often don’t want to take them is the side effects, and I won’t lie, the first two weeks were horrendous. Shakes, shivers, retching, dry-mouth, constipation (cute), hot flushes, night sweats, sketchy dreams.

But then… clouds parted, albeit onto a still fairly miserable sky. My problems didn’t go away, but the mental fog and crippling anxiety gently abated. The issues in my life were still there, and I still had to deal with them, but the physical symptoms of the anxiety I’d been experiencing decreased hugely, meaning I was able to crack on with the business of sorting my life out.

I stayed on them for seven months, then slowly tapered off my dosage over three further months. I had resisted it for so long, afraid of the stigma, propped up by my own belief that tablets were just a temporary panacea and would somehow make me a shell of myself. They didn’t. When I was on them, I travelled, fell in love, was a bridesmaid, got a new job, took up a yoga habit. I lived my life. They helped me to live my life.

So whilst I’d love to say, ‘there’s no shame in taking antidepressants if you need them’, that would be wrong; there clearly is a stigma. I certainly felt ashamed, and put off taking them for a long time because of it. But, also: fuck shame. Shame also tells me I shouldn’t have little belly rolls on a beach, or dance really badly when I’m drunk, or fancy Dimitri from Anastasia as much as I do. (He’s a cartoon.)

The real shame is that people feel pressured to resist the help they might need.

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Disclaimer: I can only ever write my own experiences. Antidepressants react differently with every individual, so what worked for me may not work for you. They can have adverse side effects, such as temporarily increasing suicidal thoughts, so always pursue any course of medication with correct supervision and an open dialogue with your Doctor.

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Fighting thin: weight and the mental health crisis

The summer my Dad died, my Mum booked for my boyfriend and I to go on a lovely holiday. Obviously, holidays don’t make up for the untimely loss of a parent—but let’s face it, we’d all rather grieve on a sun lounger.

It was the summer between my third and fourth year of studying; I had a good eight weeks to ‘get ready’ for the trip, so like a million women before me, I decided to take up a fitness regime. I’d like to say I exercised repeatedly that summer to offset my grief with endorphins, but that would be rewriting history. Mainly, I wanted to look good in a bikini.

My Dad had just died, but what I really wanted was to look thin in a swimsuit. I did not feel I was allowed to go on holiday with a plump stomach and rounded knees.

But I digress. I probably lost half a stone that summer, and looked pretty good for it. I wasn’t actually medically overweight to begin with, I should add. But when I headed off to start my Masters that September, I was fit and tanned, despite my grief. Having always struggled with my weight and body image, I felt pretty damn pleased—I’d been trying to lose my ‘freshman fifteen’ (read: thirty) for the last few years, without much success. On top of everything else, at least I didn’t have to worry about my weight.

Fast-forward a year of grief-driven terrible decisions. I was (somehow) starting a PhD, living on my own in a flat in Nottingham. That September, I got tonsillitis and lost my appetite. What happened next was peculiar: it simply didn’t didn’t come back. As physical and mental illness collided, I completely lost the ability to eat.

Speaking as somebody who once melted a crumbly Cornish cheddar onto an M&S cornflake bite (no, really) I can categorically say this was something I had never experienced before. When I forced myself to eat, it came back up within the hour: I once threw up a mouthful of scrambled eggs, back onto the plate, in the middle of a restaurant.

At the time, this was the least of my problems; my daily panic attacks and 3-hour bedtime crying jags were a bigger source of concern. I was getting thinner, but it was hardly the number one issue on my agenda. But then a few pounds turned into a stone. Bones emerged from cavities I’d never seen before. It was an interesting turn of events. But it wasn’t a choice.

For the first time, skinny was not a battle I was half-heartedly waging—it was a thing I couldn’t stop.

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Hadn’t kept a meal down in two weeks, but was buying size six skirts, so smiles all around.

Friends tell me now I was too thin. I never felt that way, but there are a few photos fromthe time where I can see it, although I cannot reconcile those jutting elbows and scrawny neck with my own sense of self. I only remember the persistent cellulite of my thighs, the soft white rolls of my admittedly shrinking stomach. I was buying smaller sizes, of course; I went from a 12 to a 6. But the truly disturbing part is how it made me feel.

I revelled in it. I might have been suicidal, but at least I was skinny.

There’s a casual, dark glamour in whittling yourself away to the bone. Here’s the worst bit: did you know strangers are nicer to you when you’re thin? Isn’t that sick? The world is kinder to women who take up less space. As much as I was suffering, I felt rewarded for unintentionally stripping my body back to bone and sinew.

My feelings were not unusual. I have friends who have lost weight after anxiety stopped them from eating, and they have quietly admitted how good it can feel. How the rest of the world unwittingly praised them. I know too many women, and some men, who think their value in this world increases as they diminish their physical selves.

I also have friends—intelligent, kind, wonderful people—who have starved themselves, flayed themselves, binged and purged and exhausted themselves. All in the pursuit of Skinny and the strange rewards it brings. And this is endemic: our attitudes towards our bodies and the food that fuels them are broken. There are now many millions of us who on some level believe we are worth more when we take up less space.

It’s just… exhausting. Before my illness, I was on a lifelong semi-diet. What a depressing sentence (I LOVE food). 1200 calories a day, aged 16, to fit into a prom dress (which, in hindsight, made me look like a wedding cake-topper). Zumba five times a week to go on holiday with a man who already wanted to have sex with me when I was thirty pounds heavier.

Years of my energy wasted on striving to be thin. All those opportunities to eat pastries, wasted. I never saw my body as a thing that carries around my brain, and deserved to be nourished. I saw it only as a thing I had to make smaller. I had internalised fatphobic attitudes so, so badly.

I only truly began to understand all of this when, having turned the corner of my mental health crisis, I decided—for the first time in my life—to try and put a few pounds back on.

Only when weight gain became a sign of my recovery did I begin to forgive myself for the crime of taking up space.

Excuse my language, but this is fucked. No wonder we’re a society undergoing a mental health crisis. It’s a marvel more of us aren’t completely batshit—we can’t even go on a nice holiday without torturing ourselves for a month beforehand about the state of our thighs. Worst yet, we treat fat like a crime—like a personal failing. We literally ascribe morality to food. PS., ‘naughty’ is bunking off work for a netflix binge, not scranning a chocolate brownie at your desk.

It’s exhausting, this notion of fatness as failing. I’ve been overweight and underweight. But I was still able to be a First class student, and a good friend, and quote all of the really bad funny lines from Star Wars. But when I think how differently people treated me, I shudder. When I was a size 16, people’s eyes slid past me .When I was a size 6, people couldn’t do enough to help me. I cannot imagine how how horrendous this experience is for larger fat people. I am trying to learn and grow, on this subject.

My own body is now nothing of note; a size 12, a little wobbly in places, a little muscular in others. Work-out endorphins are incredibly important for my mental health, so I endeavour to do that. But I am also constantly reminding myself that my weight is the least important thing about me. I let myself enjoy the food I love, and try not to critique this shell of mine too harshly. My wonderful, strong body, that has survived all I’ve put it through. I exercise now to keep my demons at bay, not my thighs.

I’m still battling with this revolutionary idea. Sometimes I cry when I feel a little fatter. I don’t think it will ever really go away; that feeling of my body being unworthy when it gets bigger. But I try to remind myself every day that my worth is made up of a thousand things that aren’t my weight: I am smart and well-loved and kind. I stand up for people who need it and I can dance on stilts, and do obstacle courses, and raise a laugh in the office a few times a day.

It doesn’t always work, but it’s the world I want to live in—and I have to start building that world with my own actions and words. Yes, look after yourself. But please know: you are not worth more just because you have made yourself smaller. You are allowed to enjoy the simple pleasures of toast and chocolate and blue cheese and red wine. It might feel like you shouldn’t, like you aren’t allowed to take up space—but I promise you, you are.

You are, you are, you are.

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The day I find this level of body confidence again is the day all my demons are laid to rest.

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Surrender your joy: how to improve your mental health by learning to let go

If you’re looking to improve your mental health, happiness seems like a good place to start.

What comes to mind, when I ask you to imagine happiness? What do you think of, when I ask you to describe your ‘joy’?

When I was eighteen, I could have told you in a heartbeat. ‘Happiness’ meant success. It meant fulfilling my ambitions. And (lucky me) I knew just what my ambitions were. I wanted to be an academic, to lecture in English Literature at a top university.

I’d excelled in the subject from a young age, so I was quietly confident. I knew it’d take a huge amount of hard work, but I was sure I could do it: one day I’d have a PhD, and this would make me happy. Success would be my joy.

Reader: this was not my joy.

Because I did it, you see; I got a First class degree and a Masters. I was accepted onto a prestigious PhD program, working with two eminent supervisors. But along the way, I picked up some emotional baggage—and by the commencement of my Doctoral studies, that baggage had pushed me to the brink of collapse.

In November of 2015, just three months into my PhD, I sat in a Doctor’s office and sobbed out my shameful secret: my anxiety and depression were so bad I had recurrent thoughts of suicide and could barely leave the flat.

This wasn’t a case of ‘improve your mental health’. This was do or die. Tablets were hastily prescribed, and a medical note excused me temporarily from my studies. Before long, I was bundled up in the front of my Mum’s Honda CRV, waxy-faced, dry-tongued and sweating profusely from the new chemicals in my system. That winter, weight dropped off my bones like candle wax as I tried to work out how to make my way back to the world of the living.

Eventually, the pills did their job. By Christmas, I resembled something like a human. I had done the work of pulling myself out of the pit. What came next was harder: I had to decide what to do—how to find joy again.

To give myself breathing space, I took a half-year sabbatical from my studies. For the next six months, I dismantled the blocks that made up who I thought I was. In the meantime, I worked in a furniture store. At first, this felt like failure. I felt like a quitter. Just two miles down the road, in the literal ivory tower of Nottingham University, the world I’d worked so hard for continued on without me.

Acquaintances would blithely ask how my PhD was going, and I never quite knew how to explain that actually, I was working for minimum wage after suffering a mental health breakdown.

But strangely, for the first time in years… I was happy. I felt joyful. I worked with wonderful colleagues who made me laugh every single day. I was good at the job; I mean, I do have a passion for cushions and bedding that verges on the insane, so as retail jobs went it was pretty spot on.

The months passed, and the time came to make a decision about returning to my PhD. My pride wanted me to do it—the ego of my 18 year old self. It was so much a part of who I thought I was; the academic, the student, the life-long learner. But then, serendipity struck, as it often does when we need it to: I stumbled across a quote from the marvellous Cheryl Strayed.

‘Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true any more.’

This was enough to stop me in my tracks—to make me realise how foolish it would be, to risk my hard-won health by returning to the path I’d been on. Two years on, I still think about this quote regularly. And I stand by the fact we should reassess our attitude to quitting. Because if I could give one piece of advice, this would be it: don’t surrender your joy for your pride. You can improve your mental health by quitting.

We all have an idea of what will make us happy, but so often ‘what we think gives us joy’ and ‘what actually gives us joy’ aren’t properly aligned. How many of us have pursued a goal or a job or a relationship, thinking it will bring us joy—only to discover along the way that we’d made a wrong choice?

This in itself is fine; it’s how we learn. The problem comes when we refuse to turn back. Sometimes we need to quit. I had seen the warning signs even before I started my PhD; I was going down a very dark path, and whilst the PhD didn’t cause my illness, the environment of Doctoral study (lonely, high-pressure, introspective) really isn’t the best for mentally unstable people.

So what stopped me from saving myself sooner? Pride. My ego prevented me from quitting, and having to admit to everyone that I wasn’t capable. (After all, I’d done a Facebook status about getting my PhD funding, which we all know is basically a legally binding contract).

And you know what? That was a seriously stupid thing to do, and had a seriously adverse affect of my mental health. I think it’s a lesson we can all stand to learn. Don’t stay in a relationship that makes you unhappy because you’re afraid of what people will say, or because you’re scared to be alone. Don’t stay in a job that damages your mental health any longer than you have to.

That’s not to say we should quit everything we don’t enjoy willy-nilly: you can’t throw in the towel on your marriage because you’ve had a bad week and your partner’s been a bit of a knob. It’s often important to go through hardships to reap a reward.

But we should keep an eye on the paths we choose to walk down, instead of stumbling blindly on. My litmus test now is to ask: what’s my motivation for continuing? I might keep doing something I don’t enjoy if I can see the positive reward. But if the reason is ‘because I’m afraid/embarrassed/too proud’ to quit, then maybe it’s time to reassess. Not just for the sake of my joy, but also for my mental health.

Because I deserve joy. And so do you.

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We need to talk about… Grief, mental health, and Holly Willoughby

Grief and mental health have an important and interlinked relationship. As I write this, I’m watching Holly and Phil. They’re lovely, aren’t they, Holly and Phil? They glow with health and giggles; if I was crying on my own in Costa, I think Holly would come over and give me a nice big hug, and the sensation of being nuzzled in her bosom would probably fix my anxiety forever. But I don’t usually get to enjoy their mid-morning hilarity, working as I do in the sort of office job that precludes proper enjoyment of English daytime telly.

But at the time of writing, instead of enjoying an 11am banana at my desk (I’m a passionate believer in an 11am pick me up), my scratchy chest, blocked nose and aching muscles have rendered me bedbound. So I’m watching morning TV and I’m shocked by the level of quiet understanding and brave expression I’m witnessing on that most awkward of subjects: grief and mental health.

It’s a ‘life after loss’ segment. A woman is on the line to Holly, Phil and the nice TV Doctor, voice cracking even as she murmurs hello. It’s her story to tell, not mine, but suffice to say she has been shattered by grief, anxiety and depression. Death has left her utterly alone. It’s hard to watch, the very antithesis of that great viral clip of Holly pissing herself with laughter during a feature on tantric orgasms.

This caller is hurting down to the sinews of her being. My bones tingle at the raw loss in her voice. Holly and Paul scarcely know how to arrange their faces, such is the agony in her words. I’m simultaneously awed by her bravery and saddened by the fact there’s nobody in her life for her the share this with.

Sadly, I can also see why she would feel that way—because in Britain, in 2017, we don’t like to talk about grief. And this seems dangerous. Grief can (understandably) easily tip over into mental illness, and whilst I’m glad we’re making a place (on national television, no less) for people to find help, we need this across the board.

We’re an awkward bunch, us Brits; talking openly about death is not the done thing. My Dad died in 2014, and I have horrified many of my fellow countrymen with stark admissions of my loss. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it’s bloody awkward. It’s deeply uncomfortable to have frank conversations about death, and the raft of emotional issues that follow.

If you’ve never experienced grief, it can be almost impossible to know how to respond. But it can’t be healthy to live in a society where we feel like we can’t even say the word ‘dead’. No wonder grief and mental health have such alink.

Surely, surely, this inability to talk frankly must exacerbate the risk of grief turning into a mental health issue? Traditionally, grief was a shared activity. When families lived in close quarters and small-town life meant everyone knew everyone’s business, it must have been almost impossible to be left alone to grieve.

But in an increasingly insular society, it’s very possible for somebody to lose a close loved one and turn up at work three days later with nobody being any the wiser. Of course, you don’t have to go around shouting about it. Everybody has their own way of coping, and hopefully, most people do have a close support network to help them through. Likewise, although the former can and often does develop into the latter, grief should not be classified as a mental illness; it’s a natural and very important process.

But a society which doesn’t like to talk about death and grief is almost certainly a breeding ground for mental health issues. Grief is incredibly isolating, despite the fact we’ll all go through it at some point. Was it loneliness that catapulted my own grief into a mental health breakdown? I was living alone, away from family, studying in relative solitude and most of my friends had recently left the city I was living in after graduating.

I tried to carry on as if nothing had happened, and failed spectacularly. I was so embarrassed, feeling that I wanted to do my Dad proud by cracking on with life. But why, in hindsight, should anybody be embarrassed of their grief?

Sharing and supporting each other through grief is a way to catch people before they fall into the pit. If you’ve lost someone, know that you aren’t obliged to bury your feelings for the sake of other peoples’ embarrassment. Reach out: to family, to friends. Know that crying spontaneously and loudly on the bus doesn’t make you a pariah.

Don’t be ashamed of getting help. Seeing a counsellor earlier rather than later is a fantastic way to process grief, and stop lingering issues from developing into a mental health crisis; Cruse Bereavement care offer free advice and support.  I found a fantastic counsellor through The Counselling Directory.

And if you know somebody who has lost a loved one, please: try your hardest to be compassionate. Try to listen without looking like you want to edge out the nearest window and sprint across the carpark. It might mean more to someone than you can begin to imagine.

Grief and mental health are topics I’ll be writing more on, including tips for how to deal with grief. But in the meantime, all I can do is send my thoughts of compassion to anybody struggling with the loss of a loved one. You aren’t alone. I’d also direct anybody looking for more information to the wonderful charity, Mind; this page discusses the range of mental health problems that can come about after a bereavement.

READ MORE FROM NICER THOUGHTS

A long-expected return

Two years ago today, I had a blog a bit like this one. It’s not around anymore. It was my academic blog, to be used alongside the PhD I’d just started. (The PhD’s not around any more either, funnily enough). I deleted the rest of the site, when it became apparent I wasn’t going to be heading back to academia any time soon—but there were two posts I felt a bit attached to, and couldn’t quite bring myself to bin.

One was a memorial for a man I loved very much. The other was a post where I spoke publicly, in quite some detail, about my views on mental health, and how we needed more awareness, more visibility, of this problem that seemed so rapidly to be becoming an epidemic.

nicer thoughts

It was a good post; lots of people read it, and told me so. (You can read it here, if you like.) I wrote about being a student and having poor mental heath; the negative effect of social media, the crushing weight of imposter syndrome. I also wrote, quite candidly, about the incident of poor mental health I had suffered. Had, past-tense, done and dusted. I was ‘feeling better’ now, I coyly suggested; I may even have buoyantly claimed to be ‘absolutely loving’ (!) where I was at. I was cured. Maybe even as happy as my former self. (But probably never as happy as my toddler self).

Hindsight’s a bitch. I was just warming up.

But, regardless of what was to follow (spoiler: HUGE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN!) I still remember a feeling from that time; of sharing my innermost thoughts, and being met with warmth and kindness. There’s much healing to be had in sharing. I didn’t continue writing publicly, busy as I was with the whole ‘constructing myself into something resembling a functioning adult’ business.

But I did continue writing, and learning, and talking. After hitting a rock bottom lower than a 2008 Flo Rida hit, and slowly dragging myself back up, I tried every method going to improve my mental health, and after that, my fundamental happiness levels. I rebuilt as a person, and I wobbled, and I dipped again, but every month was a lesson. And now, two years on, I know there is no such thing as cured. There’s only learning to cope, and more importantly, learning what you need to live a happy life after suffering with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Along the way, I’ve written thousands of words about how best to live my own happy life, and the mental health crisis currently on-going in Britain in the 21st century. I’ve also had hundreds of conversations with people across the world, who’ve shared their stories and their wisdom.

I literally get paid to spend my days writing, so I always had it in mind that one day I might find a place to publish some of these thoughts.* Like Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday, my return to blogging has been long-expected by myself if no-one else. Now, on the 2-year anniversary of that post, I thought it was about time I shared some of that good stuff. It will definitely help me. It might even help someone else.

*Also: opinions, rants, recipes, and potentially some snaps of me marauding around London, or going on holidays I can’t really afford.