Tag Archives: Fear

An ambush

Wolf,

I sense you lurking in the shadows

Behind my path

Watching

Waiting for another chance to attack

To beat me around the head and knock me down again.

As long as I keep walking on

You stalk me

You have control.

But what if…

What if I could lead you into a trap?

Lure you towards some waiting ambush?

Let a cage drop and catch you behind bars?

And then turn and face you

Who is in control now?

Shall we talk?

Living in the now

The biggest lesson I’m learning this year is this: ‘Now’ is the only moment that is in your control.

The unfortunate mixture of depression and political upheaval I’ve been battling this year are drilling it into me. I look away from the moment I hold in my hands right now, and the world becomes very overwhelming. But when I focus on this present day; minute; breath, I begin to see ways through; ways to make creative and beautiful responses to the ugliness I see around me, be that an untidy house or a xenophobic society.

Whatever your ‘now’ looks like, be creative with it and make it sing. What can you make out of the raw materials this moment presents you? What’s the best way you can handle this situation? Who would you want you to be right now..?

It’s easy to worry with the world looking as it does, to look back and find people to blame and make the enemy, or look at the future and be paralysed by fear. Even looking at my social media feeds I see a lot of sharing of angry or fearful articles, but much fewer practical suggestions for what to do now. There’s a lot of uncertainty around. But so much of that uncertain future is in reality out of our control. And the past has happened. What we have is right now.

What’s the best we can make of it, to shape the part of the world, and its future, that we can influence? Let’s look for all the positive moves we can play, to break down hatred and division, to spread hope, to fight for what’s right and campaign hard against bad policies as they come up. Whatever the future looked like, we’d still have that task before us.

So we don’t know how our country’s climate change policies will pan out – so, now, let’s do what we can; keep on doing what we can to minimise our own impacts, encouraging others, turning up the volume to make sure our leaders know it is an issue we care about… and doing what we can to actively stop things sliding in the wrong direction. We don’t know what will happen to our immigrant friends; so, let’s ensure they are welcomed, challenge hatred, and stand up for their rights in the media and with our politicians. We don’t know what will happen to our healthcare; so, let’s support and listen to those working in healthcare, and echo their concerns to our government, and maybe find ways we can step up our practical care for others ourselves.

I’m now making a conscious effort not to share in the speculation, but to spread both hope and practical responses. We don’t know; but we have ways of doing good today.

And should we worry? Of course Jesus taught us not to worry. But I think there’s a difference between being concerned and heartbroken over injustice, and being so preoccupied with material concerns (Jesus was speaking about concerns over money, food and clothing for example) it stops us from following God, especially where that challenges our comfort and convenience*. Should we worry about terrorism for example? On the one hand, yes; we should be concerned that this is happening in our world and allow it to move us to prayer and action, perhaps doing what we can to support refugees fleeing danger, support the persecuted Church, or build bridges across society’s divides. On the other hand – no. It shouldn’t make us so afraid we fear to live the daily lives we are meant to live.

Living in the past or the future can steal the potential from the present if we let it. I’ve written this from a political perspective as I’m seeing the impact of the Brexit vote, and political uncertainty at home and around the world, on both my own activism and that of others; so many of us stuck between anger and paralysis we’re not quick to respond to today’s challenges and keep our eyes on the current work to be done. But in my own context of learning first hand how mental ill health can send us into an unhealthy vicious cycle of worrying about the past and the future until we feel too overwhelmed to face the present, I think this applies far beyond ‘politics’.

Breathe.

What is in your hands right now? What is one thing you can be, or do, right now?

Just do that.


* There’s also a huge difference between a healthy person being preoccupied with their own worries, and having a clinical anxiety disorder. Jesus never instructed us not to be ill, that just happens; instead we need to support one another going through illness…

Self-help for anxiety and depression; part 2

I’ve now finished the CBT self-help classes I have been taking this summer. I wasn’t sure how to write this post as it isn’t such a personal perspective as the last, and I’m reluctant to turn this into a mental health blog in general; my aim is just to keep sharing where I’m at. But I felt I wanted to follow up my previous article on techniques for managing depression by sharing the treatment techniques we learnt on the remainder of the course, as I feel the more this information is shared about, the more we can help each other overcome our illnesses.

The second half of the course looked more at ways to overcome anxiety – first a session about understanding and handling panic attacks, then a session looking at worry and how to manage it healthily, and finally a short session on recovery and avoiding relapse*. I’ve been experiencing more anxiety than is normal for me since being ill, but not to the extent of being diagnosable, hence this being much less of a personal perspective than part 1; I haven’t had to deal with the symptoms to know how effective these treatments are. But here they are; they’ve helped me to understand anxiety more, and I hope they will help us to overcome any anxiety of our own, and to help others experiencing it:

Panic attacks – ‘Panic’ is one of those words that is in everyday use, and yet has a very specific meaning when talking about mental illness. We all ‘panic’ at times. But not everyone experiences panic attacks. Panic attacks are very common, affecting maybe 1 in 20 of us; they are extreme anxiety attacks, usually lasting just 10-20 minutes, that cause physical symptoms such as a pounding or skipping heart, breathlessness and/or hyperventilating, sweating, shaking, feeling like you will be sick or need the loo urgently, or feeling dizzy or faint, and feel terrifying. When a person is having a panic attack, they often feel like something awful is happening to them, for example that they are choking or having a heart attack. They feel so bad, people become anxious about having another.

The course leaders described what is going on here as being like a household smoke alarm, which goes off if there is a fire, but also reacts to burnt toast! Basically our brains interpret something as a threat, even if it may be a non-physical threat such as a deadline or a crowd, and release adrenaline, which would prepare our bodies for ‘fight or flight’ responses. The physical symptoms experienced in a panic attack are the direct result of this adrenaline, which increases heart rate, breathing, sweating etc to prepare our bodies for action in response to this ‘threat’; the symptoms may be scary but they are not dangerous, and the worst is not going to happen. Knowing this can in itself help break the fear cycle.

The anxiety the onset of a panic attack causes can cause a vicious cycle of panicking thoughts and symptoms, and afterwards, the fear of a repeat can mean that consciously or even unconsciously a person can begin monitoring their body for small changes – which can trigger the ‘smoke alarm’, and mean a panic attack can seem to come on out of the blue. And so, we start to avoid certain situations we fear may bring on an attack or be hard to cope in if it happened, and develop ‘safety behaviours’ to cope, things like staying near to exits, having something to distract us like a phone or music, or seeking reassurance. In the short term, they help us feel less anxious; but in the long term they reinforce the problem. What if these things were not available to you? Could you cope? If not, it is a safety behaviour. Using it is training your brain to be dependent on it and that without it you would be unable to cope, whilst never giving yourself a chance to prove that you can cope.

To regain your independence from safety behaviour and feel able to cope in situations that made you anxious, the treatment is again going to involve hard work and perseverance, but apparently really does help people overcome crippling anxiety. It involves facing your fears in a very careful way. The aim is to retrain your brain not to be afraid of fear, but to accept that anxiety subsides with time and doesn’t need to be run from. Anxiety symptoms are caused by adrenaline, and adrenaline wears off; this treatment teaches you to feel the adrenaline wearing off and become used to that as a normal follow-on to the feeling of it increasing.

Firstly, grade the situations that make you anxious – give them a score out of 100 for how anxious they make you feel and rank them. Find one thing that ranks about 40-50, and work with that until it stops causing you anxiety before moving on to something tougher. Identify any safety behaviour you use, and perhaps incorporate that into your scores; maybe something is easier to face with a friend than alone for example, so would score lower. Taking that situation that scores about 40, work on putting yourself in that situation regularly, at least four times per week, scheduling it specifically into your diary to make sure you do it. Do not allow yourself to do anything to lessen the anxiety of the experience or distract yourself; you need to be able to feel that initial anxiety to feel it coming down with time. Stay in the situation long enough each time to experience the anxiety levels reducing to about half what they were initially. This way you teach yourself by experience that if you expose yourself to this situation, the anxiety will reduce.

We discussed reasons it may not work, and they mostly came down to not staying in the situation long enough, masking the anxious feelings, or incorrectly grading our anxiety, which obviously takes some practise (if you pick something you think will be a ‘40’ and it turns out to be much more anxiety-causing than that, you may not be able to handle sitting it out long enough to let the adrenaline come down and feel that effect, whereas if you go for something that turns out not to make you very anxious you won’t feel much either). Basically this aims to retrain our brains out of triggering the ‘smoke alarm’ over situations that are actually not dangerous, and get used to the physical sensations of increasing and decreasing adrenaline, whilst increasing our self-confidence.

This obviously only works for situations that we can experience regularly; for one-off situations such as a job interview or party for example, we were taught to try behavioural experiments. The first step in this case is to identify the anxious thought (perhaps ‘I won’t know what to say if I’m asked a question and will look stupid’ or ‘no-one will talk to me’). Then identify any safety behaviours you might use (maybe taking in notes to read from, or taking your phone to hide behind). Then plan an experiment (Can I do this thing without my safety behaviour?). Plan out how you will do it, then predict exactly what you think would happen if your anxious thought turned out to be true. Write it all down to keep a record of to refer back to. After the event has happened, come back to your experiment, and note down the actual, honest outcome, and exactly how it worked without your safety behaviour. How does it compare to your prediction, and what does that say about your initial anxious thought?

Finally, when we came to discuss this as a group, several people said that the controlled breathing techniques we learnt previously really helped overcome panic, firstly by shifting the attention onto the action of breathing, and secondly, physically working with the adrenaline by increasing oxygen intake whilst slowing breathing down, which helps the heart rate to come down and stop hyperventilation.

Worry – When we’re ill, our worrying can feel out of control. There are basically three types of ‘worry’: Practical worries (about something we are able to do something about); Hypothetical worry (‘what ifs’, which we can’t do anything about), and ‘Rumination’ (going over past events and thinking what you ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ have done or wishing it had been different – which again we can’t do anything about). We handle worry differently because of differing basic beliefs about it – some negative (for example ‘I shouldn’t worry’, or that it will get out of control), some positive  (for example thinking it helps motivate or prepare us for things).

We all worry, and that’s ok, but we can’t deal with worry by simply trying not to worry; that just makes us worry more. To deal with excessive worry healthily, try keeping a diary for a short while to identify your worries. Are they practical or hypothetical worries, rumination, or negative thoughts? Negative thoughts are better dealt with by thought challenging.

Set aside a short period 15 minutes of the day as a worry time – a time when you won’t be busy with other things and not too late in the day so you go to sleep with anxiety; you need time to relax afterwards. Through the day, write down all your worries as you go, maybe on post it notes so they can be discarded once dealt with, and put them aside to look at in that planned worry time – that way you acknowledge them rather than trying not to think about them but can shelve them for later; you can think about them but don’t have to think about it right now. Practise drawing your attention back to the here and now after writing down a worry, perhaps by focussing on your breath or on your physical senses (what can you physically hear right now for example). In the worry time, allow yourself to think about the things you’ve written down, but discard them at the end of the allotted time.

Any that turn out to be practical worries, you can think through a strategy for how you will deal with them. When you do this, think as creatively and even outrageously as possible to list all the possible ways you can think of to solve the problem: For example, if the problem is having no money for the bills, solutions could be to change jobs, cancel a subscription to something you don’t use… or rob a bank! Then go through the advantages or disadvantages of each, make a plan, schedule it, and once you’ve done it, review how it went.

I’ve found a massive difference in my own excessive worrying simply from categorising my worries; once I’ve noticed what I’m thinking it seems to have interrupted the worry process enough for me to bring me out of the worry. The techniques we’ve already learnt for motivating ourselves and challenging negative thoughts have also really helped me with worries too, meaning I get on with addressing practical stuff rather than getting into a cycle of letting tasks become overwhelming. As for rumination… I’m going to need counselling for some of that.

Recovery – It is normal to experience both good days and bad days during the recovery process. Keep a diary and monitor how you’re doing to see if the bad days are increasing or decreasing, and to keep a record of the symptoms you experience. If they’re increasing, you may be able to troubleshoot by looking to see if there’s a technique you’ve forgotten that could help, or maybe you need further help – in which case, do seek it out. The treatment techniques require a lot of practise so keep trying, and monitor how they are going alongside how you feel. Keep practicing them until they become second nature again.

So, how am I?

As I write, I am doing really well! For the past three weeks I’ve been feeling far more myself than I have for maybe a year or more. Maybe all my self-care efforts are paying off; maybe prayers are being answered; maybe the CBT is having an effect; maybe these are good days, interspersed with bad days on the road to recovery, or the end of the first wave of illness before the next hits. Maybe it’s the season – I find it hard to feel down when the autumn is coming in, although it’s also a season when vulnerable feelings make more sense. Maybe it’s a combination of things. But I’m feeling good just now. That said, I’m taking one day at a time; I can feel the depression-monster lurking somewhere behind my back, and I’m having to keep checking over my shoulder the whole time to stop it sneaking up on me again. I can still hear it feeding me lies, and it’s still taking deliberate effort to put these things I’ve learnt into practise and stay healthy. I’ve now started seeing a counsellor. CBT treats the symptoms of mental illness really effectively, but many of us need more than that to fully recover; counselling aims to address the underlying causes. I definitely feel in need of both tackling the symptoms and the causes. I feel now like I have strategies for coping and re-developing my resilience to pain. But I am still carrying that pain around, and I really want to address that, to dig underneath and understand what’s really going on. I’m hoping counselling will help with this. Another step towards kicking this thing!

 


 

*We also had a quick look at medication; I’m absolutely unqualified to talk about this medically, so if you want to know more about it, please speak to a doctor or pharmacist for advice. I can’t tell you about all the different types of drug, how they work and what they do, except that it’s to do with healing the way chemical messages are passed within the brain, which gets disrupted when you are ill. But the main points I’ve learnt are that there are many different drugs out there, which work in different ways and have different associated side effects. Most take a few weeks to take effect, during which time they may make you feel worse before you get better, so you may need to persevere to get the benefits. Most of the side effects subside in that time too. Different people’s anxiety and depression illnesses respond differently to different medications, so you may need to try more than one before you find one that works, and that may mean finding a good doctor to work with you and be understanding of you. They are not addictive. Most people are able to start coming off medication after six months or so, some need longer. Those I know who do or have used medication are really keen to tell me the difference it has made to their lives, that they are able to feel like themselves again and live a normal life. As for the stigma attached – if you had cancer, and were recommended medication to treat it, you would take it and no-one would criticise you for it. If you had a condition, diabetes for example, that meant you needed to take medication daily to be able to lead a normal life, you would take it and no-one would criticise you for it. Mental illness is illness. Mental health medication is medication. Let’s not treat it any differently.

Guilt and innocence

Last month I was found guilty by a court for taking part in an action I firmly believe was right by God (more about that here), and I got thinking about what that means, to be on the one hand judged guilty, and on the other, innocent.

I’m sure as far as UK law goes that the judge was right to find us guilty, but my conscience is clean; I’m aware there is a Law higher than UK law. It’s a strange thing to know that you’re breaking the law, but acting within the greater Law, to know in fact that for you, you would be breaking that greater Law to remain within the immediate law. Our legal case was thin, but our moral case was strong.

Our human courts are themselves subject to a higher law of justice; God’s Law. What does it really mean to be found guilty by a human court, when under God’s authority you are innocent? To me it’s more important that I am found innocent under God’s Law than under human law. This is far better than to be innocent according to human law, but guilty in the eyes of God, even when human punishment and God’s mercy and forgiveness are taken into account. I want to be actively living in God’s service, a living sacrifice, sacrificing my rights and freedoms where necessary to live a life that better honours God. Heaven’s perspective is far more important than earth’s.

It’s a funny thing; this is considered a ‘loss of good character’ by the courts. And yet, in the Kingdom of God, what ‘good character’ did I have? I began guilty, from the first moment I had the smallest selfish thought, and I’ve proved over and over again that my character is capable of terrible things as well as great good. I had already broken the greater Law before I’d spoken a word. Christ alone is my innocence. When I handed my life over to Him I was joined to His innocent status before God, regardless of the flaws already present in my character. Through the Holy Spirit’s work in me, I can see His good character increasing in me, and that includes the surrender and submission to Him that led to this, the passion for His Kingdom of true justice that drives me, the integrity that drives out fear. Trust me, I have an extraordinarily long way to go before I’m ‘there’, and there’s still plenty of bad in my character. But that was already there, and this action and subsequent judgement have certainly not increased it. My conscience is clean before God in this.

This was a small way of ‘burning bridges’ or ‘faking my own death’. I hope gaining a criminal record helps me stop fearing human authority and learn a greater ‘fear’ (awe) of God, die to human law and live more consciously under God’s rule (which will almost always mean keeping human law – but not always). There are times following Christ may result in a criminal record – after all, that was His journey, He Himself had one – in which case, that record cannot stand in the way of His plans for our future. So I need to be able to step out where He calls me and not be tied down by fear. This is part of the journey. I hope I am faithful to following where He leads me from here, whatever that looks like, and that His good character continues to increase in me.