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Wednesday, 10 October 2018

World Mental Health Day - Seasonal Affective Disorder

 I always end up doing some sort of body modification when the nights begin to draw in. 

Whether it's a piercing, a tattoo, a strange hair colour or even shaving all of my hair off. It all seems to happen around September/October time. The reason for this is my mood, and how low it tends to get around this time in particular. I start to feel like my life has become stagnant and like nothing is changing in the way that I would want it to. So, in the way a lot of people do, I combat that feeling of a loss of control by taking control of the way I look. If I can change that in some drastic, irreversible way I feel much more at peace in my own body.

The fact that it's always around this time of the year has me wondering about whether I am suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Being totally honest, I had always thought of it as a bullshit diagnosis.

The initials spell out SAD for God's sake.

 Not only that, but I assumed that everyone felt miserable around this time of year since I've felt this way for years and years now. It's cold, wet, grey, and miserable. You get blips of happiness, like Halloween and Christmas but for the most part, it's a crappy time of year. Even New Year's Eve can be miserable in a lot of circumstances.

That perception kind of changed with me using Social Media more and more often, especially with having more and more American friends. I could be generalising, but I feel like that idyllic, colourful, cosy autumn is much more of an American image than a British one. I do think changing leaves and conkers and warm jumpers, but I mostly think about rain and freezing weather and darkness. This season just doesn't fill my heart in that way, I spend Autumn and Winter craving sunlight.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The official NHS website describes Seasonal Affective Disorder as "a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern". In rare cases, it can affect people during the summer months but is more common during autumn/winter. Because of this, some theories are that it's caused by reduced hypothalamus function due to a lack of sunlight.  The hypothalmus is a part of our brain that can affect the production of melatonin (a hormone that makes us tired) and serotonin (a hormone that affects mood, appetite, and sleep). A lack of sunlight can also push our circadian rhythm out of balance, which is our internal clock determining when we wake up and go to sleep. All of these things being out of whack explains why someone affected would feel lethargic, depressed, and prone to overeating.

Do I have it? What can I do about it?

First of all: self-diagnosis is the enemy. I do not advocate for self-diagnosing which is why I've steered away from definitively saying whether I do or do not have SAD. The reason I haven't gone and got diagnosed by a medical professional is that I wasn't sure this was even a real thing, to begin with, but also because there is that fear of a professional actually confirming your fears. I've been pushing it to one side for years now, but as World Mental Health Day falls exactly when these feelings start to creep up on me I feel like it's a well-needed push for me to actually seek professional help for this.

I can't just turn around and say I'll go and get diagnosed tomorrow, it's going to take some mental work drumming up the courage so I want to be honest with you all. These things don't just flip overnight, becoming mentally healthy is a real process that takes willpower and patience.

Once you are diagnosed by a professional, in some cases medication can be an effective treatment. For others talking therapies, cognitive behavioral therapy, or practising Mindfulness techniques can be beneficial. For others, it's lifestyle changes like tracking how much you eat, forcing yourself to exercise or go for walks, and putting yourself in situations where you can absorb more sunlight.

Some people also have special light boxes or lamps they use that mimic natural sunlight, and another thing you can do is putting filters on your phone, tablet, or computer screens to make the light softer. Our electronic devices tend to have screens that put out a blue light which also throws out circadian rhythm off balance and can keep us up at night if we are looking at screens for too long. Some people even adopt a rule of putting screens away after a certain time of the night which is another effective way of managing SAD or even insomnia.

Lastly, something important to remember is that you're not the only person feeling this way. If you were, this feeling wouldn't have a name. It's a bullshit suggestion, and it's much much harder than it sounds, but there is nothing more frightening than the ugly, bottomless spiral of "I feel awful" to "Why doesn't anyone else feel awful" to "No one understands how I feel" to "I'm broken and I can't be fixed" and round and round again until you feel like you can't escape. On this World Mental Health Day, I'd like to try and be an escape route out of that spiral and into a much more promising headspace.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

The Complicated Business of Talking

No advice today! I’m working on another series on Mindfulness at the moment, so, for now, this post is more about me hashing out my own feelings and muddling through some thoughts!

 It’s a Complicated Business 

I’m finding, as I get older, that I want to be more direct in how I communicate with people. I still have an issue with social anxiety and it becomes much more apparent in situations when I’m on my own. However, if I’m in a familiar situation and something needs to be said I’m finding it easier to just say it without feeling discomfort. It’s a slow process, but a freeing one.

I’ve always found discussing my personal life tricky, especially…feelings. Ugh.

Very early on, I developed a way of giving just enough that it allows for people to unload their feelings without ever really addressing mine. I find that it helps people to just get things off their chest, and people do enjoy talking about themselves when given the opportunity which I’m more than happy to facilitate. The only problem with this is that I don’t know how to turn it off, so conversations often become me absorbing other people’s thoughts, feelings, and life stories.

 It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but as I’m very empathetic I tend to hold onto people’s energy whether I want to or not. It’s fine, except it’s not because all that stuff I’m holding onto piles up and up into just enough stress to push me into low mood or panic attacks. As much as I love people and care about them, there are very few people in this world whose worries are worth that kind of stress for me. So, I have some choices: learn when to switch off the part of me that coaxes conversation out of people or start talking things out so I have my own outlet. I’m working on the former, but as a writer it’s such a useful tool to have that it’s going to take me a long time to really find the balance there. What if I miss out on something truly beautiful? So, we go to the latter, and I begin to talk.

Social Media 

One personal prejudice I will admit to is that I often find it painfully uncomfortable when people share their feelings very openly and without a filter. I feel as though I’m watching something that I shouldn’t be allowed to see. Growing up, it was drummed into us to never let our business become other people’s business because that would be a disaster. Suddenly, people have all this information that they can use to judge you or throw back in your face. They have a power over you that you can’t afford for them to have. When I see people sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings on social media, for example, my brain is screaming:

What the hell are they doing? Do they know that people can see this?! Why would you want everyone to know these things about you?

It makes me cringe and feel embarrassed because I would be cringing and embarrassed if people knew that much about me.

While I know my feelings aren’t 100% healthy and borne of anxiety, I would still be cautious about how much you put out as part of your online persona. Social Media algorithms tend to create a feedback loop for people. If all you are putting onto your platforms is negativity, complaining, and misery that will be all that you end up seeing which will, in turn, make you more miserable…and the cycle continues. If anything, Social Media has more potential to be damaging to your mental health than healing. This is why I’ll always recommend journaling or close friends as a method of hashing out feelings rather than a tweet or a Facebook status.

 Once a Weirdo, Always a Weirdo

 Another one of my hang-ups is honestly that I’ve been a complete nerd my whole life, since before that was something you could be proud of. All the groups I’ve fallen into throughout my life have never been ones I could 100% fit into. As a result, I’ve tended to play my cards quite close to my chest out of fear that I’ll be made fun of. I feel like all this mistrust is a major part of what fuels my social anxiety.

Wow, that was weird to type out and read back to myself. However, talking my feelings out either verbally or through writing is how I’m going to learn more about myself. It’s daunting but necessary.

 I’ve become more and more open with my closest group of friends over the past few years, as we’ve been through so much as a group already, there’s not much worth hiding. I feel like I encourage them to hash their feelings out with me, and they encourage the same, but I hold back out of that fear. Not only that, but I encourage people to talk their feelings out and get them outside of their own head on this very blog! I need to start practising what I preach a bit. Here’s hoping I stay on the road to progress I suppose.