I’m currently taking a course at Stratford College on writing for newspapers and magazines. Each pupil was asked to write a feature on a specialist subject. This is Keep calm and carry on by Diana Humphries
You would have to have had your head buried in the sand lately to have missed seeing this phrase, emblazoned as it is on everything from tea-towels to tote-bags. A gentle poke of fun at just how busy our lives have become as we all endeavour to do more, have more, ‘be’ more. But amusing as it may be, there are those of us for whom it presents a crueller message as we attempt daily to mask the mess inside and show the world that we are sailing serenely and successfully through life and all that it throws at us. It is now estimated that over 9 percent of the adult UK population suffer from mixed depression and anxiety at any one time, and that of that figure more than 60 percent are women.
Aren’t we supposed to have got it together by now? A recent newspaper article reported that British women are the ‘multi-tasking queens of the developed world’ successfully combining jobs, most of the housework and childcare and busy social lives, whilst still finding several hours of leisure time and 8 hours of sleep in every 24. Really?
I have struggled with bouts of depression and chronic anxiety since my teens (finally getting a diagnosis of Bi-polar and General Anxiety Disorder some 5 years ago), and reports like the above leave me feeling hollow inside. It is no joke to wake up every morning physically trembling and dreading the day ahead, because you know that your every move will be stalked by a very real feeling of impending doom and that you run the risk of bursting into tears if anybody makes an unexpected request of you.
I wish from the depths of my being that I could Chair a company, run marathons, throw dinner-parties and decorate mountains of cup-cakes for school fetes. In reality I work part-time, run in terror from tastefully laid tables and eat far too many cakes as I reflect with relief that my children are now adults.
And yet, on my good days, I do feel successful. I’m still here after all; still holding down that part-time job, walking and swimming fairly regularly, meeting with friends, and doing low-key but worthwhile voluntary work. I even join in occasional work-related social events (heart in mouth and adrenalin flooding my system it is true, but nevertheless I do join in).
There’s no way of knowing if I will ever return to the terror of that sofa-bound duvet-covered existence but in the degree of anxiety I now experience on a day to day basis I have learned the truth of the maxim that you can get used to (almost) anything. With help. Here’s some of what I’ve learned:
1) Keep taking your tablets. If you have been prescribed medication, do not reduce or discontinue the dose without your doctor’s knowledge. I learned this the hard way, yo-yoing over several years, eventually becoming so ill that I was prescribed extra medication that I have only recently been well enough to reduce slightly.
2) Don’t beat yourself up. What you are experiencing is punishing enough in the first place. Anxiety and panic do not make you a bad person, or mean that you are not living a worthwhile life. You are trying to get through this. That actually makes you a hero, so accept that even seemingly serene people have bad days and tell yourself things will improve.
3) Go with the flow. An awful lot of current thinking about depression and anxiety coping strategies centres around mindfulness, or living in the ‘now’: gently concentrate your thoughts on the task in hand, and when your thoughts wander (as they invariably will) bring them back by saying to yourself, “I am doing …, I can feel …,” etc. Practising this for a few minutes every day will give you some much needed relief from the ‘trapped moths’ in your mind.
4) Don’t go compare. Comparing yourself to women who appear to be doing all the things you ‘should’ be doing only overloads an already fragile mind-set. Whatever you see in the workplace/playground/supermarket, those seemingly carefree women also have problems, it is all relative. Should and ought are the rock and the hard place of our vocabulary and when you find yourself using those words, question them. Aloud.
5) Find the sweet spots. Dealing with anxiety on a daily basis makes it hard to remember that good things also happen daily. But recognising those things/moments makes a huge difference. During my very worst times I found it hard to be thankful for anything other than making it through another day but as the worst of the darkness and panic abated I began to find things I enjoyed. Some were so small as to be almost ridiculous, such as putting a new cleaning tablet in the dishwasher as soon as I unloaded it (ready for the next cycle), but it helped me feel that I was in control of something! Other ‘sweet spots’ in my day have varied from feeding the local ducks to singing along to Michael Buble CDs in the car! It doesn’t matter what helps only that it does.
6) Finding the humour. A big anxiety antidote is humour. When I eventually started to laugh again I began to believe I could recover, something I’d seriously doubted. I found that certain things really lifted me and that laughter gave me hope. I began to actively hunt out humour – Dawn French’s autobiography Dear Fatty and a boxset of Black Books got me through some particularly difficult periods. Now if I feel low I avoid the news and reach for PG Wodehouse.
Last but not least, I’ve learned that even now I am relatively well there will be what I’ve come to think of as ‘snowstorm’ days when I have to put my head down and just get through. But that’s ok because after the storms there will be calm again. And I will carry on.
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