January tinted glasses

Calvin and Hobbes

Humans are a predictable bunch, especially at this time of year. After the alcohol-drenched din of festive season revelry has dwindled and eventually died, those of us fortunate enough to have spent the last couple of weeks overindulging with loved ones are generally doing one of three things. De-toxing, wallowing in a pit of January depression or searching for The One.

For many the new year is a time to wipe the proverbial slate clean, boot the previous year into oblivion and seek the kind of change that promises to make us deliriously, over the top, Jessica-Simpson-on-fruit-pastilles, happy. And this change comes in the form of The One – something we desperately seek as a quick fix for all our current problems and a guarantee for future bliss.

The One comes in many varied incarnations but being as simple as we are, there seem to be three main things we tend to place at the epicentre of our potential for happiness – relationships, where we live and what we do for a living.

Take relationships. Statistics dictate that the period between Christmas and New Year is the busiest time of year for online dating sites; with around 350 per cent more traffic expected post Crimbo. With one in five relationships now starting online it’s not surprising that the masses are flocking to their laptops, ipads and smart phones to cure their loneliness – Match.com reports typically seeing a 25 to 30 percent increase in new members registrations between Boxing Day and Valentine’s Day.

If we’re not looking for Mr or Mrs Right to top up our happy meter, we might be turning our attention to our careers. If you’re looking to ensure joyful living through snapping up an exciting and meaningful new job, then now is a good time to iron the interview trousers and practice your most sincere ‘my biggest weakness really is my workaholism’ face.

In fact if you’re really smart you’ll have got ahead of the game and already started looking. Employers are increasingly mindful of the January recruitment rush and, according to a recent Monster report, December is becoming a much more active month for HR departments advertising job vacancies. In fact applications are tending to slow down more than openings do during the holiday season – tipping the balance in favour of those mentally strong enough to put down the mulled wine and work on their CV.

Finally, it’s common to be looking for The One in the form of a dream living location at this time of year. In my corner of Berkshire the luminous, multi-layered colours and textures of autumn have given way to an all-consuming and oppressive greyness and a damp chill that even seven gallons of Earl Grey can’t rectify. If you’re not fantasising about migrating to some far flung spot in the southern hemisphere where your days comprise trips to a sun drenched beach to be served mojitos by an Argentine model named Diego, then there’s something wrong with you.

It’s not a coincidence that mid January is the most popular time of year for lucky gap year students to leave the country and skip off to warmer climes. Mid-winter in this country is undeniably shite. But for those of us that actually need to work for a living and have family attachments here, running off into sunny oblivion just isn’t realistic. However for some people, simply moving within their own country is enough to shake life up a little. If you really are suffering from new year dissatisfaction and want to get on the property ladder, apparently January is the best time to make an offer on a house.

While the above are all valid mechanisms for improving quality of life, there’s also a strong chance that anyone hell bent on dramatically changing one of these three things right now is suffering from gin and mince pie overload and a bout of rash and idealistic daydreaming. Unless you’ve been seriously thinking about finding love, moving jobs or relocating for some time, you might find that in a few weeks – after your liver and digestive tract have a chance to splutter back into life- you don’t feel so anxious to upend your life.

Searching for The One can also be a symptom of ‘I’m Not Happy Because…’ disease – a terrible affliction which causes us to blame a variety of external causes for our flagging wellbeing and self esteem. Anything but ourselves.

How to Win Friends and Influence People author Dale Carnegie once said: “It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.” And from one wise author dude to a slightly less wise custard cream lover, I would have to agree.  It’s very easy to look to others to solve our problems, when maybe we simply need to look at things from a new perspective. That being said, if you’ve given serious, well thought through consideration to making major change in your life – go forth and conquer. I salute you.

Christmas marketing and the hysteria illusion

Bad Santa

“Why do they call it ‘Christmas time’, when ‘time’ is the one thing you don’t have at Christmas?” sighs the Curry’s voice-over man on the radio. Before we have a chance to ponder whether this is true, he’s chipper as a grotto elf and explaining how the electrical shop plans to make buying their wares ‘stress free’ this party season.

It’s December, and if mass media is to be believed there’s an unspeakable force of evil in town – jolly ol’ Saint Nick.

We all know that things can get a little stressful at this time of year, what with all the panic sock purchases, the inexplicable need to photocopy your bum at the office party and limited time to eat your body mass in mince pies. The last thing we need is a constant reminder of just how tense we should be feeling. Except, unfortunately, the big brands have long since figured out a way to make cut prices and next-day-delivery all the more appealing in their festive advertising campaigns – by pretending Christmas is the worst thing to happen since the Holocaust.

‘Oh isn’t Christmas horrible,’ we chortle, as our chapped, bleeding hands get to work on wrapping present number 73,’ but thank goodness all these random brands are here to whip up some festive hysteria and get us to spend loads of money on things we didn’t know we needed!’

I recall Morrisons doing a particularly spectacular job of aligning Christmas Day with Dante’s seventh circle of hell a couple of years ago. ‘Here it begins. It’s everywhere. There’s so much to do…’ whispered a possibly clinically depressed Mum, who morosely trudges through her Christmas ‘to do’ list with all the festive enthusiasm of a dead kipper. She literally gets in the boxing ring with the turkey, practically has a nervous breakdown while peeling the spuds and eventually proclaims: ‘It’s hard work, but it’s Christmas and I wouldn’t have it any other way.’ Did we believe her? I put it to you, readers, that it was actually Morrisons that ‘wouldn’t have it any other way’ otherwise who would be bulk buying their cranberry sauce on Christmas Eve?

If you’re battling mental illness the holiday season can be tricky enough to deal with, without the big corporates trying to make you feel even more overwhelmed. So I try not to let myself within a cubic centimetre of the TV at this time of year, even if the John Lewis ad really does embody the ‘magic of Christmas’ and will make you cry snowflakes.

If you weren’t already feeling a little strained, fear not – crimbo advertising will have you hyperventilating into a paper bag before the year is out. Next are touting their next-day-delivery as the eighth wonder of the world, Ocado promises to ‘take the stress out of Christmas’ and Aldi warns you to stock-pile novelty napkins at once with their creepy ‘once they’re gone they’re gone’ mantra. Forget Yuletide joy – if the marketing Gods are to be believed it’s all about burned out shoppers beating each other out of the way with Advocaat bottles before flinging themselves off Rochester Bridge in despair. Tis the season, indeed.

Is Christmas really so terrible? Of course not, we’re being duped. It’s not about buying everything in sight until your home resembles an Ikea catalogue page. It’s about quality time with loved ones, going to stare at the twinkling, luminous Oxford Street lights, making mulled wine at home, badly, hanging up tacky, fluorescent paper chains and mopping up the dog’s puke when you forget to hang the Christmas tree chocolates above snout height.

This Christmas, instead of battling fellow shoppers for the last cut-price pigs in blankets, I’ll be tuning out the avalanche of bile taking over the TV and radio waves and actually enjoying myself. Spending time with people I care about, exchanging sloppily wrapped gifts and not having a hernia because someone forgot to buy the Pringles. It may not be as ‘perfect’ as the Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference advert, but I’ll bet it will be traditional.

Waging war against the winter blues

hibernation

All my friends seem to be on holiday at the moment. Thailand, Bali, the Caribbean, Spain…they’ve rejected England’s soggy, grey autumnal landscape for sunnier climes, and I don’t blame them. However the most exotic trip I’ve made recently is to my local Tesco Metro, so I’m a tad jealous.

It doesn’t help that we’re speeding into that point in the calendar that spurs even the most sensible Brits to make like a hedgehog, hunker down under a pile of blankets with large supplies of tea, hobnobs and five seasons of Breaking Bad, not to emerge until March. Today the outside world is cold, dark, wet and generally hostile. That alone is enough to inspire most people to dive under the duvet – if you suffer from anxiety or depression it’s yet another reason to seek refuge and withdraw from real life.

If there’s anything I’ve learned during my long walk with the black dog, it’s that when it comes to the instructions anxiety and depression send you – ‘you can’t do that’, ‘retreat’, ‘stay at home’ – a good rule of thumb is to do the complete opposite. If your frazzled nervous system tells you to cower in the corner because it’s miserable outside, then it’s ruling you. If we let anxiety and negative thoughts dictate our actions then we’re just opening the door to further isolation, depression and fear – and mental illness is winning. However if we can muster the strength to turn anxiety on it’s head and expose ourself to life outside in deepest, darkest winter, even though we’d rather hibernate, we might realise it’s not so awful.

Want to stay in on Friday night, become one with the sofa and watch re-runs of Friends until your eyes bleed? Get up and go to that party you’ve been invited to. Talk to strangers even though it’s scary, connect with other human beings, laugh, dance and you might just enjoy yourself and sleep deeply and contentedly when you get home, as opposed to the fitful, broken rest you probably would have got if you’d spent the night as a couch potato.

Feel like eating your body mass in macaroni cheese, chased down with chocolate fudge brownies? Have some broccoli. Go for a run. I guarantee looking after your body reaps massive rewards when it comes to mental health. It’s not easy to pick fruit and veg over takeaway at this time of year, but stodgy comfort food just makes you more lethargic and unmotivated in the long run.

Too afraid to go on a date with that hottie you met at the Christmas party, because depression tells you you’ve got the sex appeal of a mountain goat? Fake it. Go out anyway, pretend you’re the sexiest piece of ass since Megan Fox/Brad Pitt/Spongebob Squarepants, even if you don’t believe it. Flirt, allow yourself to be complimented, pretend you’re desirable even though depression tells you you’re not worth it, and who knows, you might just start to feel better about yourself for real.

It also helps to remember the great things about this time of year that those living the beach dream in hot, sunny climates never get to experience. Lovely winter coats! Hot chocolate! Warm knickers fresh off the radiator! I could go on.

So instead of crumbling in the face of the coming months of sofa-worthy weather, let’s stay active, keep having fun and give the winter blues the finger. Screw Thailand, it’s all about Slough, Bolton and Wraysbury in late November – who needs palm trees when you have sticky-floored pubs, tramps and Argos? Who’s with me? Guys?

My anxiety disorder makes me look like a shoe bomber

psychology

Cognitive behavioural therapy is making me look like a complete fruit loop, not to mention costing me a bloody fortune. The sessions themselves are totally gratis thanks to Auntie NHS – but it’s the ‘homework’ I have to carry out in-between sessions to challenge my anxious thoughts and behaviours that’s burning a hole in my wallet and causing me to behave like an amnesiac nomad.

A few weeks ago I paid six pounds to travel to Reading by train, only to cross over to the other side of the platform and ride back home. The next day I travelled to Reading again, had a cup of tea (£1.90) in the station cafe before again heading straight home (another £6). To the untrained eye I must have looked like a) a lost goat  b) a terrorist or c) someone who just really, really likes train journeys.

I’ve paid £2.20 to go and sit on a tube platform at Paddington Underground station and simply watch Bakerloo line train carriages rumble past, before heading back above ground without making any journey whatsoever. If any security guards were watching my little escapades on CCTV I can only apologise for the extra frown lines I’ve caused from the confusion contorting their faces while they try to figure out what this nervous looking female is doing. Scoping out the platform for future, sinister, terrorist activity? A bit of tubespotting? Or maybe she just doesn’t know where/who she is?

Why does any (sort of) sane person do these things?

I’ll tell you. Part of cognitive behavioural therapy involves plotting graded activity hierarchies around an area that causes you considerable anxiety, and gradually exposing yourself to these anxiety-inducing situations until your frazzled nervous system realises they’re not so terrifying after all.

It’s the psychology world’s answer to ‘learning by doing’ and the wonderful thing about graded hierarchies is that they allow you to take things at the pace of a disabled snail. Thanks to previous bad experiences when I was severely depressed, and having been unwell for a long time, I’m pant-wettingly afraid of navigating public transport solo – but in order to conquer this fear there’s no need to immediately fling yourself onto a train to Aberdeen. The first step of my graded hierarchy was to ride my local bus just three stops on my own, and the last step was to travel into London on the train and get on the underground by myself. There were many, many steps in-between and I never moved onto the next level until I felt truly ready.

Don’t get me wrong, forcing yourself to do something that frightens you over and over again is horrible and exhausting, but it works. After having many panic attacks on public transport in the past, my body had learned that being out and about by myself in crowds was a Bad Thing. The inevitable racing heart, sweating, shaking and dry mouth that appeared every single time I tried something new and mildly exciting would not dissipate no matter how many times I told myself that simply catching a seven-minute local train was nothing to get jelly-legs over. I learned that by staying with my anxiety and discomfort on these journeys until it shrank to a more manageable level, I could reprogramme my frightened brain. Forcing myself back into those situations and re-writing my experience of them compelled my nerves to admit defeat and accept it was safe for me to get back on tubes, trains and buses by myself again.

Anyone that’s going through CBT exposure therapy will know that the slow and necessary steps you must take to rebuild confidence and get back out in society following mental illness are some of the hardest, most gruelling strides you can ever make. And it often feels like an utterly thankless task. When a friend asks you what you did today and you proudly reply: ‘I went to Sainsbury’s, forced myself to stay in there for five minutes, stared at some kiwis and went home, weeping,’ you will be all too aware just how far depression or anxiety made you fall.

But you will be proud, and each minor victory will spur you on to your next challenge, and you’ll know that one day things will be back to normal. But you’ll never take being able to catch the bus alone for granted again, and before jumping to suspicious conclusions about that lone stranger loitering for far too long on the train station platform, you’ll wonder if, maybe, instead of planning a devastating terrorist attack, they’re just working through an anxiety disorder.

 

Getting back on the underground horse

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I spied her lurking in the newspaper-littered corner of Paddington Station; sneering, shining, defiant. Beckoning me to her shadowy depths. I paused, taking a moment to look up from my steaming tea mug and catch the full brunt of her steely glare. “So…” I mused. “We meet again.”

My nemesis? The London Underground. All I needed was a leather swivel chair, a cat to stroke malevolently, and my London transport face-off would have been Bond-worthy.

You see it’s been more than a year and a half since I set foot in the London underground system – and I have something of a chequered past with these subterranean trains. Multiple panic attacks have happened in-between Oxford Circus and Baker Street. The central line may as well be my own personal synonym for ‘hyperventilation’. Descending the steps at Mile End Station literally feels like my lungs are slowly filling with water. In short? I’m not a fan of the tube.

Over the last five years, every time a bout of depression/anxiety crept into my life the first thing to feel it’s toxic by-products was my ability to make underground journeys across London. Being trapped beneath the city’s streets in overcrowded, pungent and creaking carriages that rattle through darkened tunnels at break-neck speed can be somewhat stressful for those in good health. To someone suffering mental health difficulties, it becomes unbearable. The tube is actually a very successful barometer of where I’m at in my battle with the black dog – if I can manage a 40-minute stint in the bowels of the underground then you can bet I’m pretty in control of my adrenaline levels.

I don’t intend on moving back to London. Sure I want to visit every now and then, but I can always get a friend to accompany me underground, or just take the bus instead. So why such a burning desire to conquer my nemesis? They say suffering makes you more resilient and determined; I think that’s just psychologist talk for ‘pain in the arse’. I’m far too stubborn to let my fear of the tube defeat me, even though I could probably find ways to avoid going underground in the future. Depression robs people of so many things, not to mention entire chunks of their life, but I’ll be damned if it alters the way that I choose to travel across my nation’s capital city. I’ll be getting back on the horse, even though my horse resembles a rickety underground train.

Today I had no intention of actually making a tube journey. I was just checking in, saying hello to an old friend. Contemplating the idea of someday soon perhaps taking a very short jaunt along the Circle line. But the fact that I feel ready to even start thinking about getting back on the, er, horse marks a pretty significant stage of my recovery. And for now, that’s enough for even someone as stubborn as me.

Should we talk about suicide as ‘freedom’?

robin williams

Yep, that’s right, I used the S word. I want to talk about that most scandalous of taboos, the one only discussed in hushed voices in darkened corners in the wake of tragedy – that of taking one’s own life. Wilfully and deliberately choosing to take an early exit from earthly existence in favour of whatever might be waiting after the human body expires, as beloved actor Robin Williams so sadly did on Sunday.

As fans began to mourn the loss of one of the comedy world’s brightest lights, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted a well-known image of Disney’s Aladdin wrapped in an embrace with Williams’ hilariously voiced Genie, alongside a simple message: ‘Genie, you’re free.’

The emotional farewell hug, the starry-sky backdrop, the sense of hope and liberation – it seemed a poignant and fitting tribute, on the surface at least. But the viral tweet – while well intentioned, shared by over 300,000 people and viewed by countless others – has suicide prevention experts worried, and rightly so. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has warned that the image violates well-established public health standards for how we talk about suicide. They’re concerned that romanticising Williams’ death risks contagion of vulnerable children and adults – meaning the phenomenon of ‘copy-cat suicide’ where media coverage of one death can end up encouraging others already contemplating suicide to take that final leap.

The written implication that Williams’ death meant freedom from his suffering paints suicide in far too celebratory a light, said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the foundation. And let’s face it, anyone that’s dealing with persistent suicidal thoughts, who may already have made plans to terminate their own life, really doesn’t need much of a trigger to put these plans into action. I don’t believe that the Jumanji star’s untimely demise will have people lining up to throw themselves off bridges, but glorifying his release from a turbulent life as ‘freedom’ is certainly unhelpful – especially considering his status as a well loved and highly respected celebrity.

Rather than any intentional insensitivity or ignorance on the part of those that initiated this social media storm, what this highlights more than anything is the thorny, delicate and somewhat confusing nature of the public discourse we have when it comes to suicide. For those facing terminal illness, rapid degeneration of mind and body, chronic pain and relentless misery, ending life may actually represent freedom and liberation. I’m pro choice when it comes to suicide and the right to make a dignified exit from a life that, for whatever reason, is sliding into an intolerable abyss that really isn’t going to improve. But depression doesn’t have to be a life sentence – even though it seems that way when you’re in the throes of a bad episode – and that’s why we need to be so careful when considering those at their wits end. Suicide may seem like the only viable option when the black dog bites, but many people facing severe depression and thoughts of harming themselves can and will go on to make a full recovery. This is the optimistic and hopeful message we need to be spreading when it comes to mental illness.

We need to focus on the life and works of a fantastically talented and ferociously hard-working creative, whose bright light was extinguished far too soon, rather than romanticising his death as anything other than incredibly sad and tragic. Thanks for the laughter, Robin, and may you rest in peace.

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.

 

‘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.