Weeding out anxiety and depression

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My dear old ma and pa went on holiday for three weeks and asked me to take care of their garden with all its hordes of flowers and vegetable plants. My reaction? A grudging yes and visions of hours of watering-can drudgery. My folks’ back yard is a veritable wonderland of flora and fauna, a botanical smorgasbord for which I’ve actually had to compile a schedule to help me nourish the right greenery at the right time, at the right volume, so as to avoid mass plant genocide. I was to be Cinderella of the cabbage patch and my Mum’s courgettes wouldn’t be mutating into a horse-drawn carriage any time soon.

However, despite seriously cutting into my Netflix time, I’ve really grown to love the hours I’m spending tending the foliage. I don’t have a great track record when it comes to keeping plants alive – I’m more cack-handed than green-fingered – but the gardening stars must have aligned because I’ve had no trouble keeping everything in bloom. I began to notice that the plants weren’t just ‘not dying’, they were positively thriving under my care – and it felt fantastic.

Filling watering cans with freshly collected rainwater housed in clever little water-butts, drenching luminous window boxes in the sweltering July heat, plucking swollen marrows and leafy kale from the ground and slinging them straight into a pot on the stove – I feel like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (with better shoes) and I love it. There’s something about nurturing a living thing and watching it grow that’s very satisfying and nourishing for the soul; for the first time in a long time my anxiety and depression symptoms feel almost distant.

“It’s great, I’m really enjoying myself, having this relationship with the natural world is just so…therapeutic” I gushed to a friend yesterday. Then I paused. Therapeutic. Why did that word suddenly sound so ridiculous, and why was it making me want to throw up in my own mouth a little bit?

The thing is, nature is just what it says on the tin. Natural. It should be part of our life day in and day out – nobody was born to sit at a computer all day long, under artificial light like a human battery. And yet that’s what so many of us do. The concept of gardening as a ‘mechanism for wellbeing’ annoyed me because it highlighted just how much of a back-seat the great outdoors takes in modern lifestyles. We’re so concerned with what’s happening on our LCD screens that something as simple as watering the plants becomes a means of ‘therapy’ rather than simply part of our day. And I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to choosing the movie channel over tulips, having only been spending more time in the garden under duress these last few weeks.

Before the advent of globalisation and the international import/export industry we wouldn’t have had a choice when it came to communing with nature. Our ancestors either harvested the land for all it’s worth, or lived off nuts and berries – I for one know that the prospect of life without potatoes would have pushed me into the ploughing fields. These days if we want Argentinian blueberries in February we just have to trot on down to Sainsbury’s, without so much as a sideways glance at a grain of soil. Yet we still love to extol the ‘therapeutic’ qualities of getting out and about in mother nature. Even the smallest amount of exercise can apparently boost our mood – as long as it takes place in an outdoor green space, experts have claimed that gardening not only helps us to feel better but it can ward off clinical depression and green has long been touted as one of the calmest, most soothing colours on the spectrum.

It’s no wonder I’m feeling so content and relaxed – I only wish I’d paid attention sooner to what’s right under my nose and currently brings me so much peace and joy. My own back garden.

 

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‘Bouncing back’ from burnout

Stress vs BurnoutRecently I saw a magazine article entitled ‘Bouncing Back from Burnout’ and I laughed so hard my lunch nearly flew out my left nostril. Why? Because you don’t ‘bounce back’ from a state of exhaustion – you crawl back very slowly, on your hands and knees, pausing only to weep hysterically on the shoulder of a sympathetic friend, family member or passing stoat. In this sorry state you’ve got less ‘bounce’ than Henry VIII attempting the pole vault.

I should know – when I reached the point of no return when it came to my health, I wasn’t just burned out. I was charred to a crisp. I was wired but exhausted, angry, inexplicably driven and hyper, sleepless, and my emaciated reflection resembled something that could have been Voldemort and Gillian McKeith’s love-child. It took a long time for my body to reach such a critical state. A long period of self abuse through poor diet, high stress levels, inadequate rest and far too much adrenaline – and it’s taking a long time to recover too. I’m learning patience, the importance of balance, how to say no, as well as how to relax properly – and I won’t be walking, skipping or bouncing back to my old, toxic lifestyle. Not ever.

I’m currently chugging about eight vitamin supplements a day, and even this concentration of vital nutrients speeding towards my ailing internal organs won’t make palpable changes to my health for a little while. My nutritionist still thinks it will take at least three months of this regime before I start to see any positive transformations whatsoever. I’m in it for the long haul, whether I like it or not.

The same goes for exercise. Currently I can manage about four lengths of my local pool before the lifeguard starts to look nervous that I may drown in less than a metre of chlorinated water. If I can extend this feat to eight lengths before Christmas, I’ll be happy.

The article I read recommended taking a few consecutive days off work to cure this thing we call burnout. ‘You may even need an entire week,’ the writer posited, gravely. Man, if I could heal my wrecked body and mind in just seven days it would be like Christmas, all my birthdays and Chris Hemsworth declaring his undying love for me, all coming together at once in wonderful and wildly unrealistic symmetry.

Slowly slowly, catchy monkey, as our colonial friends used to say. There are no quick fixes for burnout and exhaustion. Now I’m not interested in trapping any monkeys but I am keen to change my life and reclaim my health for the long term – which requires a gentle, focused and sustained approach to change. Subtle changes, but change nonetheless. What I eat, who I spend my time with, how often I relax and what I realistically expect from my life have all seen alterations, on top of which I’ve had to seriously commit to seeing through these habit changes consistently – even when the trudge back to good health feels like a gruelling and thankless task along the road to nowhere.

It took me a very long time to really get to grips with the somewhat lengthy time-scale I was dealing with for my recovery plan – such was the deeply ingrained nature of our society’s ‘now’ culture in my consciousness. Three months isn’t actually all that long to wait for change, but these days everything we need is but a click of the mouse away – and we want it all faster, bigger, cheaper and closer to our lazy, privileged backsides. My health wasn’t going to come back to me at the speed of an Ocado delivery – expectations had to be seriously adjusted.

Our ancestors dealt with death and danger every day as they battled to survive fierce predators, vicious climates and scarce food supplies. These days our fight or flight response is more likely to be triggered by a shortage of organic quinoa than the appearance of a woolly mammoth and yet somehow, as purported cases of ‘burnout’ sky-rocket across the globe, we’re managing to wear ourselves out even more than ever through 24/7 emailing and burning ambition. When an immense tiredness comes along that we can’t instantly dispel with caffeine, we’re flabbergasted – and a five-point-guide to ‘bounce back’ within the week is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

There’s no bouncing back from burnout. These expectations of bouncing, swerving and speeding our way through life at 100 miles an hour are what make us sick in the first place. When your body tells you it needs a break, it’s time to listen – there’s no magic pill or wonder cure that will have us back on our feet tweeting, internet shopping and making business calls within days.

Instead of feeding us unrealistic quick fixes for our fatigue, the media needs to get real and tell us what we don’t want to hear. That recovering from burnout requires large and sustained lifestyle changes or the only bouncing we’ll be doing will be straight into an early grave.

Find me on Instagram – I’ll send you a tweet, then see you on Facebook, yeah?

 

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Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Myspace, Friends Reunited, Tumblr, Instagram – modern society is infinitely connected. Isn’t it fantastic? You’re never more than a swish of your iphone from the rest of the world. On the downside…you’re never more than a swish of your iphone from the rest of the world.

The modern culture of online sharing – or the endless sea of links to videos of transsexual dogs and articles slagging off David Cameron – has taken off like Apollo 11 in recent years. While this has opened us up to a glut of easy-access information and learning opportunities, there are drawbacks, especially for those of us vulnerable to depression and low self esteem.

Social media is a playground for narcissism. Every Facebook-status-updater, Tweeter and Instagram addict is in the business of marketing his or her online presence in the best possible light, aiming to incite news-feed wide jealousy and admiration, whether they’ll admit to it or not. Retweeting that filthy political joke Caitlin Moran posted because you ‘want others to enjoy it as much as you did?’ No. It’s a thinly veiled attempt to affirm your status as a hilarious wit who ‘gets’ high-brow comedy. Posting that selfie because your friend wanted to see your new haircut? You’re fooling no-one, it’s obvious you just want people to see how a bob sets off your delicious cheekbones. If instant gratification is measurable in ‘likes’ then Facebook is essentially the internet’s answer to crack cocaine.

The average person in the UK apparently spends 12 hours a day staring at a screen, and for some a sizeable chunk of that involves scrolling through their friends’ carefully edited digital lives, practically expiring with jealousy, before plotting clever status updates and uploading flattering photos to create the illusion their life is even more perfect.

Living in the moment, we are not – and it’s impacting our mental health.

I’ve never been a massive consumer of social media – I had a brief flirtation with Twitter but these days it’s solely Facebook that I dip in and out of – but even I’m not immune to being sucked into the narcissism vortex. Recently I noticed it had become habit to wander onto the Book even when I was working, and I was actually doing this several times an hour. I wasn’t even particularly enjoying this time – aimlessly scrolling through friends’ holiday snaps, reading boring status updates about cats, updating the online world on something I thought was hilarious – it had just become an ingrained habit, and it never made me feel particularly great about myself.

Luckily, just as you can create bad habits, you can undo them too.

I started by setting myself a strict thrice-a-day Facebook check in policy – only allowing myself to log in once after breakfast, lunch and dinner. Initially I had to exercise a modicum of self restraint and resist the urge to stray into social networking territory while working, but after just a couple of days I found I wasn’t even thinking about who might be checking into Heathrow on FourSquare, and I was much more focused on work projects. After about a week I started to find that looking at Facebook three times a day was too much, so I cut back to two browsing sessions. Then one. Now I probably log in no more than once a day and my primary objective is to read any private messages that have come my way – I’ll take a cursory glance at the newsfeed but to be honest it doesn’t really interest me any more.

The hyperactive stream of status updates, news stories, photos and videos that used to assault and engage with my brain every time I looked at Facebook has become like the gentle hum of background noise in a cafe. I’ll occasionally tune in to the clinking of china and distant sounds of chit-chat, but primarily I’m focused on my own space in the room.

Do I feel any different for my less socially-networked life? Yes. There are palpable changes for the better – I’m calmer, more focused and I feel far less compelled to tell the online world every time I think of or see something amusing. I don’t need to write something witty and have people ‘like’ it to feel validated, I’m just happy to enjoy the moment by myself, or maybe with a close friend. By spending less time peering through the keyhole into my friends’ fabulous online lives I’m less concerned with how my own life compares. My self esteem is actually higher.

All this from just spending less time on social networks? It seems crazy. But it just goes to show what kind of effect these sites have on the psyche – and serves as a reminder that the only person I need to impress is myself, not a virtual room full of online ‘friends’.

That’s not to say we should all forever avoid Facebook like it’s an overly handsy Uncle – it certainly has it’s place for occasional fun and boredom alleviation – but you know what else is fun? Going outside. Where there are actual trees, not just the kind that adorn your screensaver. Do it.

 

Workplace robots and weeping in the boardroom

 

Have you ever cried in front of your boss, marched past a crowd of colleagues with your skirt tucked into your knickers, or accidentally said ‘penis’ to a client? If, like me, you can answer with three yes’s, then you’ll be very familiar with this boardroom juggling feat – being professional, while also being human.

As a teen, I remember when hitting 20 seemed so very distant and grown up. I also recall making the vague assumption that leaving University and getting a ‘real job’ would mark a significant milestone in my life – leaving the petty squabbles of student days behind, for the serene, conflict-free vista of office life with the adults.

Fast forward a few years and I soon discovered that people out in the real world – earning money and holding down posh sounding job titles – were just as childish as me and my fellow students.

One shred of wisdom I’ve picked up along my 29-year journey, is that age doesn’t always beget wisdom. Unfortunately getting older doesn’t mean we experience any less anger, irritation or irrational jealousy towards the people we spend time with; we just try to be mature about it. Cloaking ourselves in a veneer of professionalism at work, in theory, allows us to control our wayward emotions better. But in fact bottling up negative feelings can simply push us closer to boiling point. Or it can push that colleague you hate down the fire escape.

Nicollette Sheridan, better known as Edie from Desperate Housewives, once became embroiled in an off-set cat fight with the show’s creator Marc Cherry, when she brought a lawsuit against him for unfair dismissal. Sheridan alleges that her character was killed off from the show after she complained that Cherry had hit her on set, which he denies. Cherry then listed a catalogue of unprofessional actions, including punctuality, forgetting lines and being rude to a prop worker, that lead to Sheridan being let go.

Unlike Edie, you probably won’t be killed off if you act up at work, but you could find yourself having to resolve serious office politics, which have come as the result of pent up emotional outbursts, in an employment tribunal. The Ministry of Justice recorded 831,000 cases received by the Tribunals Service in 2010-2011, which marked a 31% rise since 2008.

We spend so much of our lives on the employment hamster wheel, often seeing our colleagues more than our own families, so it’s hardly surprising that things can get a bit tense in the workplace. And yet the traditional paradigm, that home is our realm for emotion and work a space for rational thought only, still seems to rule office life.

Which leads me to that ultimate career kiss of death – weeping at work.  Nobody wants to break down into tears during a meeting, but it happens, more often than we might think. Author Anne Kreamer, in a study of 700 Americans, revealed that 41 per cent of women had shed tears at work, compared with nine per cent of men.  And yet losing control is still seen as a real weakness in corporate culture, and a fast-track to losing the respect of fellow employees. Especially for women – even though we actually have much smaller tear ducts than men, so it’s physically harder to hold back the waterworks.

Over the last decade the world has been undergoing a well-being revolution. Ideology on how to look after mental health, fit relaxation into daily routines and better express emotions has permeated our hectic schedules, and the only facet of modern life that has yet to really catch up with this is work. If we’re all meditating before breakfast and finishing the day sipping green tea in downward dog yoga poses, the notion that behaving like a robot in the office is preferable to the occasional display of real human emotion just doesn’t make sense any longer.

Some things really are just better out than in, even when you’re wearing a power suit and playing at being an adult in a world where nobody really, truly seems to grow up – the office.