Anxious about anxiety

Severe anxiety is just as crippling as severe depression. Depression and anxiety aren’t in opposition: they’re comorbid, with a person who suffers from one being much more likely to suffer from both.

It’s getting to be almost acceptable to be depressed. Public awareness has improved immensely over the last few years, and while people with depression still face a great deal of ignorance and discrimination, I think the corner has been turned. Every day sees some celebrity coming out as mad; even famous footballers are admitting to being depressed, even suicidal.

I can’t say the same about anxiety, particularly generalised anxiety disorder. Severe anxiety is just as crippling as severe depression. Depression and anxiety aren’t in opposition: they’re comorbid, with a person who suffers from one being much more likely to suffer from both.

And as I sit here writing I am really suffering. Anxiety is more difficult to describe than depression. Everyone is occasionally a little down, and can at least begin to imagine depression by magnifying the feeling. I don’t think there’s a healthy equivalent of anxiety. Perhaps the flutters you feel when you’re late for a train or plane or having to give an important talk or public speech. But for me anxiety and nerves are very different.

Severe anxiety is just as crippling as severe deoression. You don’t want to do anything because you can’t. You don’t want to travel. You don’t want to talk to people. You don’t want to catch a train. You don’t want to go into town. You don’t think you can give the talk you’re just supposed to be giving. You don’t want to go outside. I hate the outside. I can just about manage the garden, but the village shop? It might as well be Antartica.

The Wikipedia entry talks about excessive worry, and worry is part of the problem, but there is also a huge physical element: sweating, racing heart, breathing shallowly, and shaking. But the bit I hate most is the shrinking of consciousness, the narrowing of the mind, so that you can’t concentrate on anything. Oh, and the irritability. I am not a nice person to be around around at the best of times, but when I am anxious – avoid me.

I know there are things you should do, including mindfulness, relaxation, and deep breathing, but these activities all presuppose that you have enough focus to be able to begin to focus. There are drugs, but they make you feel sleepy and brain dead.

The academic life and mental illness

The academic life for staff and students defies common perceptions and is one of the most stressful jobs around. It contains many triggers for depression and anxiety.

My mother thought that being an academic was one of the cushiest jobs she could imagine – a couple of lectures a week and holidays for six months of the year. She thought students had it even easier having to go to those few lectures, take an exam or two a year, and spend the rest of the time travelling the world. She also thought they were out partying every night, finishing drinking at 3 a.m. and then trashing the town. I suspect she was not alone in her prejudices. How wrong these common perceptions are. I think being an academic, and being a student, is one of the worst careers for aggravating, even causing, mental illness. The job has the following triggers.

  1. The work is open ended. How I used to envy people with 9-5 jobs. Academics and students are never finished because there is always just one more job to do, whether it’s another paper to read or write or a textbook to go through again. When I was Dean it amused me that HR had a workload model for academics of 40 hours a week. I don’t know anyone who worked less than 50, and many did much more. What is there to stop us? We don’t leave the building and down keypads just because the clock moves on to 5, or because it’s the weekend. And if you should finish one job, there’s always another to do. There’s nothing to stop us doing more. Few things are more stressful than knowing you have an uncompleted task to do, and that you could be doing it, and that you have the time to dot it.
  2. What is work anyway? The same analysis is true of holidays as is true of the working week. I know of several academics who have booked annual leave in order to carry out research. When I go on “holiday” I read psychology articles and books, as do most people I know. When I was a student I would spend the vacation working in a factory in order to earn money as well as studying while travelling and in the evenings and weekends. Those maths worksheets seemed never ending. Christmas will find us reading and writing. For us there’s no such thing as a proper holiday.
  3. The work contains contradictory elements. We’re expected to carry out world-leading research as well as teach to the highest standard, and you get evaluated on both. I know there is some carryover between teaching and research, but time you spend teaching is time you can’t spend doing research, and vice versa. Contradiction is stressful.
  4. Giving a lecture or presentation or tutorial is stressful. Fear of public talking is one of the most common fears, being strong enough to count as a phobia for many people. Yet we have to do it all the time. Training is often inadequate. Some students find they’re not really prepared and although they might be taught how to organise their material and how to use Powerpoint I don’t know of anywhere that teaches them about the fear of speaking and how to overcome it. I’ve known of several students being physically sick before having to give a seminar. Speaking feeds fears.
  5. Deadlines. The life of the teacher and student are very similar in they they’re both full of deadlines. You have to give that lecture tomorrow or hand in that essay by 4 p.m. You can’t decide you’re going to take the day off instead. You need to be really, really sick before you call in. Deadlines are often too close together or even on the same day. Deadlines are exceptionally stressful.
  6. You have to organise your own time. One day you think you’re settling down to finish writing your 4 p.m. lecture, or finish your essay, when something happens. Your manager or supervisor wants to see you urgently (and it’s nearly always urgently). Your car won’t start. Your child or dog is unwell. There are suddenly 15 new pressing emails. Someone wants to see you and just won’t stop talking about their problem. And worse than deadlines are jobs with no deadlines because unless you’re very careful they never get done. You live from one deadline to another, one essay or lab report handed in to the next. So just when do you do that background reading, or write that important paper that could help you get promoted? When there’s no deadline and you’re tired and fed up it’s easy just to stop. And many deadlines aren’t real, anyway: do a a journal review by the end of the month? Sure, I’ll agree tot hat. Get to the 31st, and no problem, because everyone knows that if you send the review on the 1st it won’t matter, and what’s the difference between the 2nd and the 1st? When I was Dean I was always giving deadlines for jobs that I needed to follow up on, and less than half the staff would do the job before my deadline. What was I to do? Fire someone for being two days late with a document? In any case they were probably just busy with the last thing I asked them to do. The problem is that delays cascade. No-deadlines are often worse than deadlines.
  7. There is far much more rejection than praise. Journal acceptance rates are very low and grant rejection rates are very high. I’ve known people to send off an excellent grant proposal ten times before it gets accepted, and much outstanding research never gets funded. How demoralising it that? Feedback for students is mainly a long list of things you’ve done wrong. Of course that’s good in a way because you want to learn and improve, but persistent negative feedback gets to you. After a while people develop learned helplessness. Continual negative feedback is stressful and causes depression.
  8. It’s an exceptionally competitive environment for staff and students. Not everyone can get promoted every year. Not everyone can get a grant. The top journal can’t publish everything. Not every student can get an A every time. Perpetual competition is stressful.
  9. Some people are stars (but you’re not). But if you don’t succeed you sure will be aware of someone who has. You have to congratulate them through gritted teeth. Although you are struggling just to manage, you will know at least one person who seems to sail though. In every field or every department or ever class there is at least one Einstein. We admire them, we have to praise them, but really they just make us feel worse. Comparison makes us feel sick.
  10. EMAIL is evil. When I was Dean for every email I had to send I would get at least three back. It would be easy to spend all day doing nothing other than email. I am not alone: everyone I know is dreaming in a sea of email. And then there’s social media which some find compulsive. Often when lecturing you suspect every student is checking their messages or Facebook status. How demoralising is that? How do we cope when we’re striving in a sea of email that gets deeper every day? Smash up every computer or phone you see.

These triggers are more numerous than in many jobs. You might say other careers are bad too, but often they are better paid, and students aren’t paid at all – in fact they have to pay to have all this fun. And staff and students are often the sort of people who are least able to cope, having been brought up learning to expect to succeed.

I have no solutions. If you decide you’re going to take a real holiday for a month, you know that the departmental Einstein won’t, and they’ll have a stronger case for promotion than you at the end of the year. Off sick for a week and dare not to do that marking? When you come back that marking will still be there, but with another pile to join it, now with the same deadline. Oh, and whatever you do there will be two hundred emails in your inbox.

One thing we can do is face our weakness and admit we’re struggling, that we’re feeling anxious, that our agoraphobia has been triggered and we’re scared to go out, that we’re too depressed to talk, that our OCD has come back and is making us check every mark ten times (actually for me it has to be a multiple of three). To return to where I started, my mother thought mental illness, unlike physical illness, was a weakness. She was very, very wrong. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and talking about it is better than getting so bad that all you can think about is suicide.

 

I wish

I wish I had blue eyes.
I wish I had a smaller nose.

I wish I wasn’t depressed.

I wish I had brilliant blue eyes.

I wish I had a smaller nose.

I wish my thigh bones were two inches longer.

I wish I didn’t have a psycho tummy.

I wish I had had a better relationship with my mother.

I wish I had just 10 more IQ points.

I wish I had children.

I wish I had a strong jaw.

I wish I had been to Australia.

I wish I had just a bit more money.

I wish I wasn’t pigeon chested.

I wish I had tracked down my friend Carl before he died.

I wish I wasn’t crippled by anxiety.

I wish I had known my father.

I wish my mother hadn’t died last year.

I wish I had more friends.

I wish I hadn’t messed everything up

I wish I could go outside.

I wish my mind wasn’t mud.

I wish I wasn’t depressed.

I wish quite often that I was dead.

 

 

 

Getting things done when you can’t do anything at all

The world is awash with books and articles by people out who are depressed and yet who have done so much. I wonder if they are so depressed, how can they do so much? Yet they hold down careers, raise children, write books and talk on radio and TV about their experience of depression, and maintain an amazing social media profile.

You might think I get by OK, being a professor of psychology and having written a few books, so I assume most of these people do the same as me: periods of miserable inactivity punctuated by spells of being able to get something done. And of course there is always the possibility that these people are now no longer ill.

When I look back over my life I’m amazed I’ve ever achieved anything. I have always felt a fraud, fearing that I’m soon likely to be caught out. Reading about academic impostor syndrome over Christmas I realised I am not alone: many academics seem to feel that they’ve cheated their way to the top (or at least somewhere near the top). I can never decide if I have overachieved or underachieved: I think on balance I have failed to deliver my schoolboy potential. I was at my best when I was 17, when I was anxious and obsessional but not too depressed. I wonder what things would have been like if I had had a full life, rather than half or even a quarter of a life, the rest stolen by depression. I envy people who can get up every morning knowing they have a clear mind and will be able to work for as long as they like. If you’re one of these fortunate people, cherish it: you don’t know how lucky you are.

It’s been some time since I’ve written, and it hasn’t been because I’ve been very depressed. First writing about psychology and the weather, and then about the science of consciousness, has taken priority, with other book projects have been piling up behind it. Being owned by Beau, a poodle, has taken up a lot of slack in my life. Perhaps more on how being with a dog changes your life later. So perhaps I have answered my own question: most of us scrape by.

Depressed people who get anything done deserved to be lauded. But I think if you’re ill and don’t feel successful, the last thing you should do is feel worried about it. You have enough problems already. Hopefully one day you will feel better enough to find some peace.

Is this all there is?

The holidays are over; normal life is resumed. We are heading towards Blue Monday, the third Monday in January, the alleged day of the year on which most people tend to be most miserable, and for which there is no scientific evidence at all. (I’m happy to be proved wrong.) Nevertheless there is a sense that people are ground down by the lack of sunlight at this time of year, the absence of anything to look forwards to after Christmas, with work or school to resume as normal, and perhaps left to reflect on having spent money over Christmas that they didn’t really have on things they didn’t really want. What can cheer us up?

I enjoy Christmas, but as I said in my previous post I don’t make too big a thing of it, or overdo things. Even so I am left feeling both a bit empty apart and full of dread. The rest of the year stretches ahead. Maybe I’ll go away a few times. I might enjoy a few days in the sun in summer. I might finish writing a book or two. But soon the days will start shortening again, and then it will be my birthday. Another year since the last one. And not long after that it will be Christmas again. A year nearer old age, a year nearer infirmity, a year closer to death. And so the cycle repeats.

People tell me that this is a negative, depressive way of looking at things, to which I say: this is exactly what it means to be depressed! “Normal” people often appear to think that a person who says they’re depressed won’t have any symptoms.

I realise too that I am luckier than most: I’m in relatively good health, I achieve some fulfilment in my work, and I’m not struggling to eke out a tough existence doing a biring repetitive job (which is one of the things I dread most in the world). That knowledge doesn’t help. I feel lonely and I feel alone, an alien on the sidelines watching everyone else enjoying life and finding meaning in mundane things, helping giving their children a good life, or comfort in their God.

I can’t even imagine what meaning there could be to make up for the grind of everyday life. THIS is all there is.

An interesting seeming paradox then is my Kurzweilian obsession with life extension. I don’t think there is in fact a paradox: who wants to go to a football match if you know it’s going to be abandoned because of a water-logged pitch after ten minutes? Part of my ennui is because it hardly seems worth starting anything if I’m going to be dead in forty years. (Again, please don’t tell me this is crazy messed up thinking.) I’ve got to rush to finish writing my book on consciousness and the next one on weather and psychology because bits will start falling off me in a few years. So yes please, sign me up for freezing my head, having my blood vessels cleaned by nanobots, neural implants, and uploading my intellect to cyberspace. To paraphrase Woody Allen, I don’t want to become immortal just through my work, I want to become immortal through not dying. Life extension would give my life real meaning.

Scientific progress in the quest for eternal life is one of the few things that stops me from killing myself at this time of year.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas comes but once a year – thank God

I am no grinch who wants to steal your Christmas. In fact I love many aspects of it; I love the lights, the colours, a nicely decorated tree, an opportunity to drink champagne before lunch, and thinking about the turning of the seasons as the winter solstice at last arrives. But I don’t feel the joy of anticipation and the frenzy that many people, perhaps most people, apparently feel. It is one of many events, like parties and family gatherings, where I feel like an alien.

Why do people get so worked up about Christmas? Maybe I’m very lucky in having such a good life that I don’t need special days; maybe it’s because I don’t have children; maybe because I’m not so conditioned by the insane advertising that tries to force us to think the event is the most important thing ever. Or maybe it is because I’m an insane alien. Sure, it’s nice, but the reaction of nearly everyone else seems so over the top  to me, particularly given that most ignore the religious aspect. (Indeed usually the more religious people are, the more restrained they are about the commercial aspects.)

It is seen as opportunity for many to “let their hair down”, and have fun, a good “blow out” for a day or two. But why just one day? Why can’t our lives be full of meaning and pleasure all year round? Why can’t it be Christmas every day?

I know of several people of whom it is said “they live for their holidays”, among which I am including Christmas. I find that sad: the remainder of their lives is so unpleasant and has so little meaning that they’d rather they didn’t happen, but instead would pass as quickly as possible until the next special day. At this time of year it is almost impossible to get into Marks and Spencer’s food hall, and that’s assuming that you can park within ten miles to get in; what are you doing the rest of the year, shoppers? Where are you? What do you do the rest of the time? And why are you such bad drivers? I am supposed to be antisocial and depressed, yet I think your situation is the sad one. One day of joy and gluttony, three hundred and sixty four of misery. At least in good years I can manage five days of joy and only three hundred and sixty of misery. (Bugger leap years.)

Is it really that “work” you have to do really so unpleasant? It is clear that many people have really unpleasant jobs. It’s manual labour and repetitive, boring jobs that would get to me. Being an academic was good; working on a checkout sounds dreadful to me. Most jobs are in between. Yet the people who do them don’t seem that unhappy; they have friends, they chat, the time appears to fly by for them, although I would hate it. I am left confused. It doesn’t make much sense to me, but I am the unhappy one who is depressed. Is there some causal relationship here that I’m missing?

Is the experience of Christmas much worse if you are very depressed? I have been alone a few times on Christmas Day and it’s not nice. There are several good sites (here is another) talking about how Christmas and depression “don’t go” together. It is hardly surprising, because there are few things more depressing when you’re depressed than happy people.

If you are crazy about Christmas, good for you. I’m not trying to demean or cirticise you; I sometimes wish I could join in more easily. I’m simply saying that there are some of us who are cut off from normal life. I wish I could, if only once a year, let my hair down, as they used to say, but probably no longer do. But a very Merry Christmas to you!

Finally, a few notes. First, I am in the process of updating my website, so there might be a few hiccups along the way. Second, a little shameless self-promotion: my novel, Fit for a King, is available from Amazon for Kindle on special offer over the festive season for £0.99 here, or $1.32 on Amazon.com here. You can buy a paperback version if you prefer. A novel about how to be sane in an insane world.

Mental illness at work

The news that people with mental health problems suffer at work will not come as a surprise to anyone with those problems. In my experience it isn’t down to malice on any one’s part, but clearly something isn’t right if so much talent and money is wasted. Remember that people with mental health problems include some of the most creative people around.

One major problem at work is that mental illness …

“Mental health sees 300,000 people leave their jobs each year”

And I was one.

I should immediately qualify this statement by making clear that I was in no way forced to leave. I was one of the lucky ones: I just didn’t feel strong enough to do that job properly any more, and I had many other things I wanted to do instead. Like writing this blog, and producing the best book ever on consciousness. I was tired and worn out and lucky enough to have alternatives. But if I had been mentally stronger I might have carried on for longer.

The news that people with mental health problems suffer at work will not come as a surprise to anyone with those problems. In my experience it isn’t down to malice on any one’s part, but clearly something isn’t right if so much talent and money is wasted. Remember that people with mental health problems include some of the most creative people around.

One major problem at work is that mental illness is often not considered to be a “real” illness or disability. I know of many people with problems (including myself) who have never been asked what reasonable adjustments could be made to their work environment, and indeed whose requests for relatively minor changes have been met with something between pained resignation and aggressive exasperation. This aspect of things could be improved by better training of managers.

But the power of institutions and employers is limited: institutions and businesses are made up out of people. Generally instititions in the UK at least now have very good rules, and often there’s not much more they can do apart from making sure that they implement those rules, and to help change the attitudes of their employees.

It’s that final bit that’s difficult. How do you change centuries of stigma and ignorance? On the bright side things have changed for the better very quickly, but there is still a long way to go.

We can learn by looking at three areas where there have been enormous strides over the last fifty years: women’s rights, LGBT issues, and race. Again, I am not saying that everything is now perfect – clearly it isn’t, and there are still massive changes in attitudes to be made. They have all though made progress because those discriminated against have formed strong movements and taken direct action. We lunatics are hardly among the strongest people in society, but perhaps we have a duty to stand up and say we are ill, we are disabled, we need help at work. You wouldn’t treat someone with cancer or in a wheelchair this way, so don’t treat me like it.

I’ve lost track of how many mental health support groups and societies there are; there are too many. We need to unite, and we also need to mobilise. It’s difficult when you’re too depressed to move, and difficult when you’re worried everyone is going to mock you, but if you have the strength, it’s time to come out and be counted, and not let yourself be pushed around. Sing if you’re proud to be mad.