Stress – when is it a problem and what can we do about it?

We all get stressed out sometimes, or even a lot of the time. Stress, by itself, is not a problem – it’s the same inbuilt human reaction that made our ancient ancestors run away from things that wanted to eat them, or to fight when they had to.

Life is full of stuff that stresses us out: work, family life, money… But how do we know when stress is reaching a point that could make us ill? Here are some tell-tale signs that stress could be leading to depression or anxiety:

  • You’re not sleeping, and/or you always feel tired.
  • You’re constantly lurching from one thing to the next.
  • You’re always tense, worried or anxious.
  • You’re getting headaches every day.
  • You’ve stopped looking after yourself, and you’re not allowing any time to relax or recover.
  • You’re run down and getting a string of illnesses.
  • You feel overwhelmed.
  • You can’t switch off or wind down.
  • You’re not looking forward to anything any more.
  • You feel irritable.
  • You snap at people or get more emotional than usual.
  • You feel vague, forgetful or indecisive.

If you’ve been experiencing stress for a prolonged period, there’s more danger of it leading to a mental health problem. That’s what happened to me towards the end of 2009 – I’d never experienced depression until then, but it has since proved a persistent thorn in my side. I’ve experienced all of the above symptoms. I still experience some of them, but now I recognise them and have some ways of managing them. I’m better at some things than others, and keep learning new ways of coping and looking after myself.

We need to stop stress before it stops us.

What helps?

There are three important things I need to remember, and maybe these will help you too:

  1. You’re not alone. Mental health problems are very common, and there are people you can talk to, and who can support you.
  2. It won’t always be like this. You can get better, and you can manage the symptoms.
  3. There’s no shame in getting help. It’s not weak – it’s stronger to do something about a problem than to let it keep beating you. See your GP, see a counsellor, take the medication – different things work for different people. The important thing is to do something. Ignoring it is not dealing with it.

Stress, depression and anxiety are very convincing liars, and will tell you that you’re fine and should keep soldiering on. But be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. If you don’t make changes, and if you carry on doing the same things that have got you to this point, how can you expect to get any better? It’s like breaking your arm and then repeatedly smacking it against hard objects, expecting it to magically cure itself.

Here are some other small tips:

  • Plan some time for yourself. Think about things you enjoy doing, and allow yourself a chance to do them. It’s not selfish to put yourself first sometimes – sacrificing your health to please other people isn’t really helping anyone.
  • Tell someone. It’s the first step towards getting better. Don’t let your problems silently stalk you from the shadows like a bully – expose them.
  • Take care over how you speak to yourself. Don’t put yourself down or apologise for things that aren’t your fault. If you’re beating yourself up or always criticising yourself, that adds to a feeling that you’re not good enough and that you have to keep striving and ‘going the extra mile’. Learn to accept that ‘good enough’ is perfectly fine the vast majority of the time.
  • Getting out into nature helps me – it gives me a positive distraction, some exercise and fresh air, and some perspective.

There are more things I’ve learned in this blog post.

What doesn’t help?

Here are some things that people might say to someone who’s experiencing a mental health problem:

  • Be strong.
  • Keep a stiff upper lip.
  • Grit your teeth and get on with it.
  • We never used to complain.
  • Don’t make such a fuss.
  • Just have a drink or two.
  • Cheer up.
  • Just relax.
  • Man up.

People might mean well when they say things like this, but guess what? None of these things will reduce anyone’s stress. None of these things makes a mental health problem go away.

In fact, these sayings, attitudes and beliefs cause harm – people bury how they feel and avoid talking or getting the help they need because they don’t want to seem weak. They don’t want to be judged or pitied. By not getting help, we might suffer worse and longer – and that can have tragic consequences.

It shouldn’t be considered brave to talk openly about mental health problems, but it still is. The fear is real. The stigma persists. That’s why we still need to raise awareness through things like Mental Health Awareness Week.

A small wave gently laps the beach

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An intruder called depression

Five years ago, depression broke into my life.

Its partners in crime – stress, worry and exhaustion – distracted me at the front door, while depression sneaked round the back.

Once inside, he made himself at home, feeding off my anxiety and insecurity, and using up all my energy. He took me hostage and made my life his own. I wasn’t looking forward to anything – everything we did seemed to be on his terms.

After a while, I got some help. Citalopram, an antidepressant, gradually offered me some protection against the tension and headaches, but it was counselling that really started to make a difference. Talking through my problems and how I was feeling helped me come to terms with it and think about what I could do to cope better with my enemy.

After a while, things seemed to be getting better, and I didn’t feel my intruder’s crushing presence as strongly. Had he gone?

Well, if he had, he hadn’t gone far.

Stress came beating on the door again, and this time depression’s attack was far less subtle. He flattened the front door, broke all the windows and beat me up. He cruelly brought insomnia with him. Sleep deprivation and dark moods are a destructive cycle. I had time off work, upped the dose of my Citalopram again, and returned to the counsellor a few months later.

I did find a new weapon against my enemy during that difficult time, though. I’d started a blog a couple of months earlier. It wasn’t about depression – it was about fun stuff like birds, Elvis and the seaside. But once I started to blog about my experiences of depression, I found loads of other people going through it too, or who had some experience of it – friends and strangers alike. Someone recommended a book called ‘Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong’ by Dr Tim Cantopher, and I found it was the only book on the subject that I could read and understand.

Along with these new allies, family and friends gave me invaluable support, and with further help from the counsellor and GP I started to fight back against depression. Eventually I was able to try reducing the dose of my antidepressants. It took a long time, but I stopped taking them last October.

So, does that mean depression has gone away for good? No, he doesn’t give up that easily. He keeps trying. He’s stubborn. Perhaps he gets that from me. There are times when it feels like he has gone far away, and other times when he’s got his nose pressed against the window, waiting for an opportunity to strike.

The crucial thing is that I know about him. I have exposed him and learned his tricksy ways. I know what he is up to. It is hard to keep an eye on him all the time, and it feels like I constantly have to outwit him, but now my intruder alarm is set to ring BEFORE he gets in.


Ten life-changing things I’ve learned from depression

I’ve learned a lot through my hideous experience of depression and my long, slow, bumpy recovery and, although I forget a lot of this new-found wisdom most of the time, I’m determined not to let it go to waste.

Putting this learning into action is my best chance of fending off any future attacks from my nemesis and staying well.

So, here are the most important things I’ve learned. They might seem obvious, but these are all things I couldn’t do when I started counselling in 2010.

I’m bound to have forgotten something vital, but, in line with point number 2, I won’t beat myself up about it.

1. Learn to accept ‘good enough’. You can’t do everything to the absolute best of your ability the whole time, Mr Perfectionist, and you can’t please everyone all the time. Most situations are not a case of all or nothing. Save your best for when you really need it. Imagine you’re a car – too many extra miles and you’ll find yourself in the garage.

2. Give yourself a break. Stop criticising yourself and putting yourself down. Stop setting yourself unnecessary targets and challenges. Work out what your strengths and qualities are, and remember them. Ask someone else if you don’t know what they are. I did. Write them down if that helps.

3. Don’t worry about what other people think. More often than not, you have no idea what people are actually thinking, and are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion, so you’ll end up taking everything personally. And don’t worry what people think of you. Define yourself on your own terms. Only you have the right to decide who you are and what you do with your life.

4. If something has happened to irritate, infuriate or upset you and it is festering in your mind, you either have to do something about it or accept it and let it go. Dwelling on it will do you nothing but harm. Nelson Mandela put it better than me:

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.

5. Don’t think when tired. Nobody is at their best when they’re tired. Tiredness really does affect your state of mind. If I start thinking when I’m tired, I end up in imaginary arguments, over-thinking everything and feeding paranoia. Distract yourself with some music or whatever works for you.

6. Find time to do something you enjoy. Do it because you love it. Not everything you do has to achieve something, so stop the striving – enjoying something is a result in itself. Everyone needs to relax. Nobody is invincible.

7. Savour the moment. Recognise when you feel good. Notice when you are enjoying something. Write it down – maybe in a diary, like the one I started keeping during my depression and still write in. Take a photo. Remember it. It’s your evidence against the voice that says everything is miserable and hopeless.

8. Live in the present. Don’t let the past rule your life now, and don’t worry about the future so much that it spoils today. Take some advice from Oogway, the wise tortoise in Kung Fu Panda:

You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There is a saying: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.

9. It’s not weak to ask for help. Talking to someone about how you’re feeling can change – or even save – your life. Don’t try and keep it in through some misguided sense that you are tough, strong and can handle anything and everything. That’s not tough or strong – it’s daft.

10. Don’t stop believing. When you’re in a dark place, believe the light will return. Keep hoping. Keep the faith. Believe things can improve and you can get better. You just don’t know what’s coming next, so don’t write off yourself or your future.

Savouring the moment on a trip to one of my favourite places - Filey Brigg.

Savouring the moment on a trip to one of my favourite places – Filey Brigg.


Play depression at its own game

A little over two years ago, I was off work with depression.

One day or night, I sat and watched 8 Mile, the Eminem movie, and took some kind of small hope from the underdog rapper’s never-say-die determination and ultimate triumph over adversity. My own determination wasn’t putting in an appearance at the time, and triumphs seemed in short supply.

Here in the present, it’s more than a month since I took my last antidepressant and there’s a part of 8 Mile that now seems particularly significant.

The film’s climax is a rap battle between Eminem’s character, Rabbit, and his enemy, Papa Doc. Now, I am no battle rapper or gangsta MC – I’m more Yorkshire Tea than Ice T – but I do know that the basic gist of such battles is to brag about your own greatness and insult your opponent as wittily as possible.

Except in this contest, Rabbit catches his opponent off-guard by confessing to all his own flaws and secrets – all the things Doc was about to hurl at him. It leaves his nemesis impotently lacking ammunition. And then he exposes him for the coward and fraud that he is. You can read the full lyrics here.

So, what’s this got to do with me and depression?

  • Depression is a cowardly bully that skulks in the shadows and messes up your head – and it thrives on the shame and stigma that comes with it. It knows everything about you – all your flaws and weaknesses – and uses them against you. By talking to someone about what you’re going through, you expose it and weaken its power.
  • You can also get to know your enemy, through counselling, talking to others (either in person or online) or reading about it. This helps to arm you against its dirty tricks. Stopping my antidepressants has been like taking down my shield. At times in the last few weeks, members of depression’s gang have roughed me up – stress, anxiety and insomnia have all had a go – but I am better able to fend them off than I used to be, because I know what they’re up to.

I’m not naïve about this, and will have to keep a look-out for future attacks, but for now this underdog has triumphed. I celebrated my first medication-free month with a glass of bubbly that had been at the back of a cupboard since before I started taking Citalopram.

Recovery from depression is slow. Even when you feel well, coming off the medication is tough. For an impatient patient, it seems like a never-ending war. But liberation from depression is possible.


Fighting fear and darkness with Yoda

If you’ve had depression, it’s hard to shake the nagging, niggling feeling that it might come back. Every bad mood, every negative thought, feels like it could be a way for this evil force to return. To help me fight the fear I’ve recruited a very wise consultant – Yoda (see my photo below).

Yoda is a tiny green chap with funny ears. He’s more than 900 years old and lives in a swamp. But his strange and underwhelming appearance is deceptive – he’s extremely powerful, with incredible knowledge and power.

OK, I know, he’s just a character from the Star Wars movies, but when it comes to understanding fear and the Dark Side of the Force (a perfect metaphor for depression) he’s well worth listening to.

Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.

He is absolutely right. The fear of depression at stressful times is the first step down a path to its return. That fear can make you tense and angry. And anger is a very destructive force that leads to suffering for you and others. Even the name of the film this quote comes from – The Phantom Menace – seems to describe depression and its stealthy, shadowy presence.

He also knows what it feels like when depression does strike.

Hmmm. The Dark Side clouds everything. Impossible to see, the future is.

Yes, Yoda. You’re right again. Depression possesses your thoughts, switches off your memory and clarity of thought, and makes you doubt and fear everything. I certainly don’t want to go back to that. Ever.

Yoda clearly knows his stuff, so I am going to listen to him.

Do, or do not. There is no try.

OK, Yoda, I’m with you.

Patience you must have.

You’re right again. It’s difficult though, isn’t it?

You must unlearn what you have learned.

True. I learned in my counselling to unlearn what I’d learned – to unravel the way I’d come to think of myself and my life and start again.

Always pass on what you have learned.

Yep, that’s what I’m doing. I hope it helps.

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Stop stress before it stops you

First published by York One&Other

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and, with The Apprentice back on the telly, now seems a good time to talk about stress.

No doubt the candidates vying for the dubious honour of a most-likely temporary and thankless job with Lord Sugar will be telling the business tycoon how they ‘go the extra mile’ and are ‘passionate’ about something or other.

For however long they stay in the competition, they will put themselves through all kinds of stress, trying to prove themselves.

These candidates, along with conscientious or ambitious people up and down the land, will be constantly battling to meet and exceed expectations and targets, to make money, or to impress and please people. If it works, I’m pleased for them. But for many of us, one extra mile leads to another, and another, and those extra miles amount to a steaming mound of stress.

I’m cynical about these extra miles for a good reason. I’m one of those people who has always ‘gone the extra mile’, and it made me successful – perhaps seemingly invincible – for a while, but the extra miles became some kind of marathon effort to prove myself to… well, to myself. I felt that if I didn’t excel in every situation and please everyone then I was failing to meet my own punishing, perfectionist standards.

Yes, some stress is necessary in most jobs and helps to get the job done, but if it goes on and on unchecked and unbroken, that stress will get you. It will stop being your catalyst and become your nemesis. It can turn into anxiety and depression.

And once you’re in the mire of depression, there are no extra miles, because everything is too much effort. Goodbye energy. Farewell motivation.

Depression is not like most natural hunters, which prey on the weak. It targets the strong and brings them down. People who have coped with everything suddenly can’t cope with anything.

So here is my warning for Mental Health Awareness Week. Don’t let stress take over you. Don’t give depression a chance. Trust me – you don’t want it in your life. And you are not invincible. Nobody is.

Keep an eye on your stress levels. Be kind to yourself. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you’re feeling run down, frequently getting ill, getting regular headaches or interrupted sleep, give yourself a break.

Those who always go the extra mile often win medals, but they can also end up with a booby prize that hangs around their necks for years to come. By all means go that extra mile when it’s really necessary, but remember that it isn’t ALWAYS necessary. Sometimes ‘good enough’ is perfectly adequate.


The shadowy power of depression

First published by York One & Other.

When Darth Vader warns Luke Skywalker “You underestimate the power of the dark side!” in Return of the Jedi, he could very easily be talking about depression.

Until you have experienced it for yourself, or supported someone who has, it is very easy to underestimate. You can’t fully appreciate its insidious power – the way it takes possession of your head, your thoughts, your moods and your character.

It isn’t a sulk. It isn’t a strop. It isn’t the same as feeling fed up, nor is it the same as feeling a bit down. Depression is an illness – a debilitating and often long-lasting illness that torments the people it affects and those who love them.

It rots your confidence. It dissolves your self-esteem. It whips up rage inside you and turns it inwards. It clouds your memory, erodes your concentration and deprives you of sleep. It makes you anxious, irritable, vague, indecisive and susceptible to other illnesses. It makes it impossible to enjoy anything.

Considering that depression affects one in four people, it’s a remarkably misunderstood illness, loaded with stigma. It can be seen as a weakness or a character flaw, or bring shame and guilt. Phrases like ‘Cheer up,’ ‘Snap out of it,’ ‘Could be worse’ and ‘Man up’ are about as helpful to someone with depression as a punch in the face.

I was diagnosed with depression in early 2010, following a prolonged period of stress the year before. I was, as I told the doctor, completely frazzled. Since then, I have been taking antidepressants. I’ve had two rounds of counselling and, following a particularly severe bout of depression in autumn 2011, I had to have some time off work. I’m recovering well now, and trying to come off the medication.

It’s easy for me to share that with you now, but when I first had to cope with depression, I didn’t want to tell anyone. The ‘secret’ only ever came out when the time felt right with people I trusted. I carried on in that way for more than a year, until one day I decided to write a blog post about it.

People were surprised – shocked even – because depression is an invisible illness, and they only really saw me at my best times of day. I’d carried on as before, keeping it hidden.

But more importantly than that, friends and strangers alike supported me in my recovery and surprised me in return with their own experiences of it. I’ve carried on writing about it and found more and more people are fighting the same battles.

That, to me, is the main reason that the stigma of depression needs to be lifted. By feeling able to share their problems with other people, people living with depression can relieve themselves of part of the burden, and learn from what others have been through. You find that, far from being a weakness, depression is the end result of being strong for too long, and your body deciding it has had enough. It’s a physical illness as well as a mental one.

The antidepressants take the edge off the symptoms, the counselling certainly helps you to understand and handle the triggers, but support from other people is what makes the difference.

  • If what I’ve described sounds familiar, talk to someone. Start with your GP – it’s less daunting than it seems. There’s lots of extra help on the internet, from organisations like Mind, the Blurt Foundation and SANE. And I highly recommend Dr Tim Cantopher’s book, Depressive Illness: The Curse of The Strong.