I'm Matt, creative, writer and illustrator of the book "Tell Your Negative Thoughts to STFU". This is an anxiety blog where you'll find my ramblings on mental health, with various book recommendations and some chill music thrown in.
My sleep’s all over the place at the moment, thanks to the uncertainty of the current job market (the UK’s in a major recession thanks to Coronavirus and our political overlords) and well, anxiety.
I woke up at 5.30am this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up and threw some shorts and a t-shirt on, to go running.
I’ve been listening to some new radio/podcast shows featuring downtempo music, that help to relax me and get me in the zone as I run. Unlike the ‘Future Astronauts’ podcast I mentioned in another post, these shows are more meditative. And at the risk of sounding like a wanker, I thought they were worth a mention.
The first is SOMA FM’s Mission Control radio station. If you like your space stuff (personally I’m a sci fi and space fan) then this is an interesting mix of ambient music and recordings from NASA mission archives. It’s quite fascinating to hear the astronauts reporting back to their control room, over some relaxing beats. Have a listen : https://somafm.com/missioncontrol/
The second podcast Ultima Thule is another great ambient and chill out podcast that is less concerned with what is cool, and more concerned with deep, meditative sounds and weird, mystical monologues from various poets and randoms, mixed in over ambient and chill out music. Check it out : Ultimate Thule Podcast.
adjective. Meaning not or no longer needed or useful; superfluous.
It’s something many people are facing right now.
And I’m one of them.
I only just found out this week that my company is making me redundant. With redundancy comes ‘consultation’ where you fight your corner after getting scored against your peers at work. It’s a stressful, and mentally challenging thing to go through.
If you suffer anxiety, it’s worse.
Because you have to fight against the critical opinions of those on the other side of the redundancy Zoom call, and then fight the critical voices in your own head, too.
“See?” they say, “this is what you were thinking, that you’ve failed. And here’s the proof!”
I’m not going to lie – I have got really pissed off and worried over the last few days. Getting emotional at times like these is to be expected. You shouldn’t push it away.
It’s difficult to deal with, but it did force me to make a pact with myself. That I’m not going to let this take my confidence. I’m good at what I do, and I’ll fight my corner. I’ll move on, and keep checking in with myself – letting myself know that this was not my fault.
And in the end, I’ll find something better.
Our anxieties make things difficult, but they also challenge us to think our way through things. They can make us consider all options and (for me) be creative people. But they can also overwhelm us, like feedback from a speaker that just gets worse until your ears bleed.
I’ve been fighting self-critical thoughts for much of my life, but at times like these, the stakes are high… so I need to fight, to not let those thoughts win. So, I’ll be spending some quality time over the next couple of weeks sorting out the shit thoughts, from the ones that hold me up.
This is just a speed bump for me, and if you’re going through redundancy right now, it’s just a speed bump for you, too.
I promise we’ll get through, and we’ll know ourselves better because of it.
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of DIY, gardening and for the want of a better description, digging and smashing stuff up.
This kind of manual work has been a great way to fend off anxiety during lockdown. But why? Well, firstly there are the proven good effects of doing something physical on mental health. Exercise lowers stress levels (via cortisol) and also gives your mind time to just focus on something else for a change. but there’s also something to be said for working outdoors in the quiet and peacefulness of nature. I love the feel of the wind or the warmth of the sun, and the fresh air. Not to mention, it’s almost carthartic too, to smash the living shit out of my old garden shed AND still receive praise from my wife for “getting stuff done”.
Smashing things apart is underrated , and it’s even a business – just look up your local rage room and you’ll see what I mean.
Lastly, there’s even a trend of “Care Farming” where people who suffer from depression or anxiety-related illnesses can work for up to months on small farms. It’s already a big thing in Europe. It’s been reported that “people valued, among other things, being in contact with each other, and feeling a sense of achievement, fulfilment and belonging.“ which is definitely my vibe while I’m gardening or pretending to know DIY.
So, get out there, smash up a shed or plant something and start to heal your mind!
If I think back about my first two months in lockdown, I’ve spent them pretty well. Gutting my garden… pulling six tonnes of concrete out of it. Drawing illustrations for buyers. And doing my best to be a decent father. My daughter who has just turned 13, looks after her own time mostly…. and even has a colour-coded schedule in excel (she didn’t get that from me!). My son though, needs interaction… he’s more extravert and misses his school friends. So I’ve had to adapt to being his friend as well as Dad. We have played Lego, thrown a frisbee, shot at wood blocks with a nerf gun, gardened, played hours of PlayStation game Subnautica together discovering virtual oceans.
Still, it’s been hard to measure time and so the days just seem to have disappeared.
One day it didn’t go so well, and we fell out over a game we were playing, with him swearing at me and then me getting angry at him … I became my Dad and shouted a lot. We were so angry… I shouted and he shouted back and I felt like a loser for losing my temper. And then 30 minutes later we were okay with each other.
But it was enough to make me want to write again because I think, as a man, there is so much you don’t share for fear of looking weak, because you were taught that to share your feelings wasn’t what was expected of you, to get a grip. At least, that was true for my generation (Gen X) whose parents grew up in the war and recession and weren’t really taught about mental health.
My Dad became so isolated when he retired. He just used to sit and drink. I finally figured out that he had anxiety after he admitted to me that he was on medication. But he drank to not feel anything because his generation were never taught to talk about how they feel. Men need to be stoic and strong, and they shouldn’t feel.
But we do feel. And holding on to all that stuff isn’t healthy. I’m not talking about everyone wearing tie dye pants and acting like hippies. I’m talking about just being straight with each other now and again…. at least the ones that love us.
So I talked to my boy later after our argument, but I didn’t chastise him further. I just explained my feelings that led to me shouting, because he needs to know that men can share how they feel and still be strong.
You see so much rage out there on and offline these days. And I am convinced it’s partly because of the male attitude that exists … they simply won’t communicate when they have thoughts that they perceive to be weak. I am no different, and find it difficult.
But, even if we talk about feelings, we can still be men. Good fathers, good workers, good soldiers, good people.
Yes it shows strength when you ‘buckle down and push on’, but not at the cost of your mental health. Because the truth is, that a healthy mind makes you stronger.
When you deny or resist feelings of sadness, depression or fear, they just have more power over you. That’s why it’s important to not judge these feelings, but just acknowledge them and then move on.
There’s a meditation technique about this – it involves visualising yourself sitting by a stream, and watching as these feelings arrive on the current, observing them, and then letting them pass.
I think this new animation I am Square from Benoit Leva is a super cool way of showing a range of emotions, and how they make the difference between an inanimate box, and something that seems to have sentience.
So next time you feel ashamed about feeling something, remember that it’s just because you’re a human, and not an empty box.
A few weeks ago I was listening to a talk by an ex airforce test pilot and astronaut (sorry I can’t remember the podcast, it was probably the Moth or TED). He was very humble as he told the most spellbinding story about such an amazing career. Admittedly I forgot his name as soon as he uttered it, but it was obvious that he was a great man. A good and wise person.
“Some people are just better” I thought to myself, and “I have to be better”.
But wait. This is the kind of “should, must” thinking that anxiety loves. Putting pressures on ourselves to measure up to unrealistic standards is unhealthy for our mental wellbeing. Not that I couldn’t have been an astronaut … oh who am I kidding. I can’t even see across the road without my contact lenses and I have the reaction time of a piece of granite.
So I adjusted my prep talk to something more constructive. “I have to be a good communicator.” I told myself.
Something I did at first in lockdown, is keep a diary. I used to rate my feelings and thoughts on a scale. Then reassess them with a more analytical, objective view. This kind method is a cornerstone for CBT which teaches you to reassess all your thoughts and feelings. And it helps you keep all your aspirations in their place.
It’s absolutely essential we have hopes and dreams. That is our difference as human beings. But they are there as a ‘North Star’ to guide us. They are not a mandatory for us to have fulfilling lives.
If you want to address this kind of Cognitive Behavioural Therapeutic way of thinking in your day to day life, I strongly recommend the “Catch It” app which is offered by the NHS. Find it here.
I’m currently on furlough, which is bizarre in the way that I’m getting (a little) money, and yet I’m not allowed to work (for my existing employer, anyway).
It also adds to the anxiety that already exists if you’re socially distancing in lockdown. The highs and lows can come thick and fast, fuelled by uncertainty of when we will come out of it, whether we will have a job at the end of it and if you’re getting used to isolation like me… the fear of being around people again.
I’m actually lucky. Because I have a family around me, and a decent amount of space amidst countryside where I can go for long runs.
Others aren’t so lucky. It’s a no brainer that the medical professionals that have been dealing first hand with the virus and its effects have had to face daily trauma. I listened to a doctor talk on LBC telling us that his colleagues ‘will be changed after this’. PTSD will be widespread amongst the medical front line.
Then there are those that live alone, who have had to face the echo chamber of their own minds, with little day to day conversation. And it’s this echo chamber that I think sometimes fosters anxious thoughts.
The number of infections and deaths from COVID-19 are showing signs of slowing. But the mental health fallout will last longer.
So, last night I took a first step in a long term plan of mine. I joined an open day for a psychodynamic counselling course. I hope to (part time, maybe) do my bit in the future to help others face the shitty business of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses.
It was either that or start a micro brewery, but beer makes me flabby so….
In 2015, a study* was performed using 200 cataract operation patients where patients were given meditation music before their operation, and their ‘stress coping skills’ measured. The results showed the patients with the music had lower stress levels before surgery.
That’s just one of boatloads of studies that show how great music is to calm an anxious mind.
So, I thought I’d give you a little recommendation of some music I use to chill out.
Future Astronauts podcast is in my opinion, the absolute dogs bollocks of chill out stations.
Forget all of that hotel chill-out playlist tripe that they play to sun-baked oldies around the pool (apologies if you are a sub-baked oldie). This podcast contains 100% decent tunes that even a pilled-up Ibiza DJ who is half dead on the beach at 10am after a particularly emotional 10 hour set would listen to.
And even better, they have created an album to raise funds for mental health charities in the UK and the US.