The toxicity of social media.

Over the past two decades, online social networking has revolutionized the way we communicate and interact with one another. Friends and relatives separated through vast geographical distances are now able to interconnect with technical ease. Overall, it has been a masterstroke in technological advancement. However, these changes may affect particular aspects of human behaviour, perhaps even contributing to, or entirely causing the development of psychiatric disorders. 

Excessive use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram appear to be associated with the development of low self-esteem, especially in children and younger adolescents. This doesn’t appear to be straight forward though, as evidence is available to support the opposite. As a result, the impact of social media on our mental health has been a controversial topic for many years. Due to this potential link between ‘social’ interactions online and our mental health, I feel it is important to lay out my thoughts. I believe that excessive social media use can likely result in insecurity, feelings of depression and anxiety, and contribute to the development of unrealistic expectations towards other people, and the world we live in.

One of the first studies which indicated that general internet use significantly affects social relationships and community participation was published over 20 years ago, in 1998[1]. The authors highlighted that for participants who spent more time online, a reduction in communication with family members was observed. In addition, the user’s social circle also diminished – a social change which can contribute to loneliness, which in turn is associated with the development of depression[2]. Worryingly, a further study published in 2000 suggested that increased internet use may have negative effects on the social development of children[3]. An obvious point to note here is that when these studies took place, the majority of the social media platforms available today did not exist. For example, Facebook was not founded until February 2004, and thus internet usage was likely infinitesimal compared with today. 

Since the development of social media platforms, the time children and adolescents spend online has exponentially increased. Although they enable us to easily interact with a large number of people, these interactions are often shallow and will unfortunately never replace face-to-face communication effectively. In a study published in 2012, investigators reported a positive correlation in a high school population between social media usage and depressive symptoms[4]. Conversely, in a 2013 study sampling university students, researchers failed to find a similar correlation[5]. These conflicting studies therefore put forward the idea that children and young adolescents may be more susceptible and negatively affected by social media compared to older teenagers. This could be linked to different responses by different age groups to social media content and challenges. Importantly though, those sampled at university in 2013 may have grown up when social media wasn’t really a considerable factor in their lives. For example, when I was between 8-14 years old (2001 to 2007), I did not really care for social media. Instead, my friends and I would see each other face-to-face daily, often playing sports or various other games to pass the time. Thus, my social development and interactions occurred in a natural interpersonal setting. 

Then, Windows Live Messenger happened. Previously known as MSN messenger – which was developed in 1999 – it rebranded in 2005. It eventually took over the brains of the adolescents. Instead of meeting up after school, many kids would go home and spend their entire evening on Windows Live Messenger, talking to people FROM SCHOOL, many of which they would barely speak to in person. This shift resulted in the development of online cliques, and it sucked the life out of strong interpersonal relationships. It wasn’t all bad however, and I think in some situations it provided some positives. For me, I was terribly shy at school. Online messaging allowed me to talk to people I thought were interesting, and it facilitated me to ask questions about their interests without me seizing up with anxiety and fear.

More recent studies, wherein social media has become a central part of the majority of young people’s lives, further strengthens the argument that it could cast a shadow over our mental health. The first, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 2018 asked 140 undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to either continue regular use of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, or to limit their use of each to 10 minutes per day – i.e. 30 minutes total. To confirm the conditions were being met, the participants provided data from their phones to show their precise overall app usage throughout the day, rather than relying on memory – an often unreliable feature for scientific investigation. After the three-week study period was completed, the participants filled out a questionnaire to help the researchers understand how they were doing psychologically, with particular interest in depression, anxiety, loneliness and “the fear of missing out”, often abbreviated as FOMO. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study reported that participants who limited their social media usage to 30 minutes per-day felt significantly better, reporting reductions in both loneliness and depression[6]. This change was particularly pertinent for those who came into the study with higher levels of depression. Interestingly however, both FOMO and anxiety were reduced in both study cohorts, suggesting that the participants might have had the resulting benefit of improved self-monitoring. “Some of the existing literature of social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours,” said study author Melissa G. Hunt.

This is further supported by a 2019 study conducted at York University in Canada. 120 undergraduate women were asked to use either Facebook or Instagram to find a peer that they perceived to be more attractive than themselves or a family member who they didn’t believe to be, and then leave a comment on their post. Interestingly, the women who interacted with a post of someone whom they perceived as more attractive felt worse about themselves afterwards[7].  “Even if they felt bad about themselves before they came into the study, on average, they still felt worse after completing the task,” said study author Jennifer Mills. It is important to note here however that the women may have felt generally happier engaging with a family member compared to a peer, and this could complicate the data presented in this study. Nevertheless, it is important to note that making any kind of comparison – not just people that we consider more intelligent or attractive, but also people we consider less intelligent, smart or anything else for that matter – is associated with poorer wellbeing. A 2014 study linked this association, reporting that the connection between social media and depression was largely mediated by social comparison[8].

Social networking and self-esteem

As we should all be aware, self-esteem is a crucial factor in developing and maintaining a good quality of life. In a 2006 study, when compared to adolescents with high self-esteem, poor self-esteem in young adolescents resulted in overall poorer mental and physical health, often contributing towards higher levels of criminal behaviour and worsening economic prospects during adulthood[9]. The authors emphasized that the long-term consequences of self-esteem changes could not be explained by adolescent depression, gender or socioeconomic status. Thus, low self-esteem in young adolescents can have negative real-world consequences upon reaching adulthood. Whilst this study underlined that the consequences of poor self-esteem appeared independent of adolescent depression, low self-esteem is associated with the development of various mental illnesses including anxiety, depression and eating disorders[10-12]

Why is social media contributing towards reductions in self-esteem? One possible relationship between these social networking platforms and emotional destructivity appears particularly pertinent: narcissistic behaviour. So, what makes someone a narcissist? Someone who displays narcissistic traits often has a grandiose sense of self-importance, regularly displays a sense of entitlement and also requires constant praise and admiration. On the other side of the coin, a narcissist often intimidates, belittles and bullies others. As you may have already guessed, social media platforms are perfect breeding grounds for this sort of behaviour. Unfortunately, numbers of followers, comments and likes can all contribute to the inflation of one’s ego. As an example, I can say with confidence that many social ‘influencers’ are awfully narcissistic, and they often harbour millions of followers. The problem here is that

many of these followers are often young, impressionable and easily manipulated. 

Is social media a toxin or an escape?

Overall, I think the impact of social media on our self-esteem and mental health is considerably complex. Whether negative or positive, it entirely depends on who we interact with and what we follow. For example, a young teenager only following models on Instagram – who will often have their pictures photoshopped before posting them – will result in the development of a false sense of realism. Following motivational and educational accounts however, may not have the same negative impact. As an example, think about following Kim Kardashian and Michelle Obama on Instagram. Who do you think will be more likely to post things with a positive message? 

Because of this, moderating social media usage of the younger generation may be a valid option. Not to inhibit their freedoms, but just to check on their health and wellbeing, and determine whether any negative changes are directly due to what is seen on the internet. From experience when I was a teenager, I know that seeing ripped and well put together men online really knocked my confidence in my physical appearance. So much so, it still occasionally bothers me today. However, I learned to understand just how irrational I was being, but it took me a long time.

We do need to look at the other side of the coin, however. Something we should immediately consider is correlation versus causation. Social media usage may indeed be directly associated with the development of mental health disorders. Nevertheless, it is crucial to distinguish this from the potential that adolescents increase their social media presence due to poor mental health itself, perhaps as some form of digital escape from the real world – e.g. socioeconomic status or bullying at school. Conducting longitudinal studies – whereby you follow participants over several years – on psychiatric patients and healthy volunteers, comparing those who regularly use social media to those who do not would be a strong experimental study to definitively determine whether social media can be associated with declining mental health.

Another important consideration is that not all social media platforms are created equal. For example, Facebook is focused around updating personal profiles, wherein users can create comments and status updates, alongside uploading pictures and videos. Twitter on the other hand is primed towards the posting of short messages (“tweets”), often expressing thoughts and opinions. This doesn’t mean that Twitter users are less likely to be mentally affected though, it means that study comparisons should be made regarding mental health changes and the utilization of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and various other social media sites. It is important that these studies also present exclusion and inclusion criteria for participants. In some circumstances, people with personality disorders will spend more time on social media compared to the general population because computer-associated communication can enable them to become more socially successful. This could complicate the data, wherein it may become unrepresentative of the population.

Regardless of what you think of social media, all platforms – especially Facebook and Instagram – forcefully incite constant self-evaluation on a daily basis, often resulting in unnecessary competition and comparisons of one’s accomplishments with those of others – in some circumstances, people we may not even know. To top it off, social media directly results in the incorrect perception of physical, psychological and social characteristics of others, often resulting in the manifestation of jealously and frustration. If you personally feel like social media contributes towards your own negative feelings, try to take a week away from it, perhaps more. You’ll be surprised by how much better you can feel when you aren’t constantly worrying about what other people are up to. 

References:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9841579/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30933717/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11255703/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22447092/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23260846/
  6. https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751
  7. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S174014451730517X
  8. https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jscp.2014.33.8.701
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16569175/
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24039896/
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23421697/
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5878202/

Social isolation and mental health.

Humans are social creatures. If there was any doubt in that before, the current isolation that many are facing solidifies this fact. We only need to look at chimpanzees, or the relationship between a mother and her child for verification as to where this characteristic manifested itself from. It is unsurprising then that isolation can have severe negative connotations. Currently, with the unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic, scientific experts and the majority of world leaders are highly recommending that everyone practice social distancing. This means staying approximately six feet away from others not within your household, alongside keeping public trips to an essential minimum (i.e. to get food if you cannot get it delivered). Whilst this may be an inconvenience to many, it is necessary to reduce viral transmission, protect the physically vulnerable and reduce the pressure on international health services. However, social isolation may have detrimental effects to those who are psychologically vulnerable; a category that I myself unquestionably fall into. 

Social isolation has definitely led to serious consequences. However, in psychology the term ‘social isolation’ is difficult to define. What matters the most is whether an individual actually feels lonely. Scientists have coined this ‘perceived social isolation, which can have negative effects both physically and psychologically. In young adults (18-27 years of age) for example, loneliness has been associated with poor sleep habits, depression and suicide. In addition, social isolation may increase the risk of illness and death due to cardiovascular disease. In the United States and United Kingdom, heart disease is one of the most prevalent killers of middle-aged and elderly individuals. At first glance then, these alarms should raise considerable concern.

However, things are never that straightforward. Researchers determined that isolated mice (which are highly social animals) have an increased risk of obesity and the development of type 2 diabetes. In some people, psychological distress can be associated with particular eating habits. For example, a bad diet is often associated with an increased risk of depression. This often results in a self-propagating cycle: depression facilitates a poor diet, and self-hate manifested as a consequence of this diet can fuel the fire towards further negativity.  

So, could this become a serious problem during viral-induced self-isolation? Should we be worried about people who are living alone, and for people with a history of mental health problems? Yes and no. From my perspective, I feel a bit stir crazy. However, I am otherwise fine. I have suffered with major depressive disorder for my entire adult life. I have lived on the razor’s edge for many years, attempting to take my own life on several occasions. As you can imagine then, my mind is often akin to a bag of f***ing cats. Despite that, my mental health during isolation has been relatively manageable. It is important to note that I do live with my long-term girlfriend. Nevertheless, I often prefer being entirely isolated. Many people who go through depressed episodes often want to be left alone. So being in close-quarters with the same person for so long with no reprieve could be considered as quite the challenge. That is partially true. I think the one thing for me which has helped me rationalize the situation and keep my mental health in check is pretty obvious: there is a global pandemic. We are all affected by the current situation. Because I can appreciate that, I think it removes some of the stress and self-destruction that would have otherwise lingered. I am not isolating and hiding away whilst others are out and enjoying themselves (unless you are being a selfish p***k). All of my friends and family are doing the same thing: watching terrible television and investing in toilet paper as their new international currency. 

In association with this pandemic, if you do not suffer with a pre-diagnosed mental health condition, please do not try and raise your arms up in solidarity with those who do, declaring you ‘now totally understand’ the difficulties associated with psychological illness. From a personal standpoint, it is patronizing beyond explanation. A few months of isolation is not even remotely comparable to the years of self-disregard and harm (whether physical or psychological) that many people may have (or currently are) dealing with. I am not taking aim at anyone specifically here, either. I just believe true empathy is more helpful to those in need. For me, I prefer it when people show genuine care. Talking about your mental health revelation on social media doesn’t help anyone. If you truly empathize and you believe someone is in need, why not call them? What about sending them a surprise gift in the post? Knowing that someone is thinking about me through direct displays of affection reduces that ‘perceived social isolation’ quite remarkably. 

That is what I want to accentuate. Just because someone is physically isolated, does not mean they have to become emotionally and psychologically isolated, too. Talk to your family and friends regularly. Organize an online pub quiz, play video games together with some headsets. How about sending pictures from the last time you saw each other? Perhaps even make plans for the end of the year when you can see each other again. Start preparing things you can look forward to. 

I do appreciate the concern for people struggling, but I also fully understand the risks if social distancing rules are not followed. Unfortunately, I have lost all my grandparents. I know the heartache. I would not want to see that happen to anyone close to me, but this virus appears to be particularly fatal in the elderly. Strikingly, of the people who were hospitalized in the New York City area, around 88% of patients on ventilators have died due to COVID-19. For some, this solidifies the virus as being a death sentence. Is isolation comparable to this for those who suffer psychologically? No. Just because I am unable to physically interact with the people I love does not mean I am unable to communicate with them. I am pretty isolated right now, geographically speaking. I live in the United States, whilst my family are back home in the United Kingdom. If one of them were to get sick, I would not be able to fly home due to flight and VISA travel restrictions. Whilst that is upsetting of course, I am determined to keep to a routine. I stick to activities that I know make me feel good: exercise daily, make music and of course, write these articles. 

I do acknowledge that some individuals may be particularly fragile during this time, such as a recovering self-harmer, alcoholic or drug addict, all of which may find self-isolation unendurable. These are the people that we must prioritize; protecting those most vulnerable in our community. This is no time for a ‘ME’ mindset. Selfishness is not needed or warranted here. It is time everyone started to develop a ‘WE’ mentality. With that in mind, please focus on the health of yourself and your loved ones during this difficult time. However, do so with some physical distance. If you stand in solidarity with those who suffer with mental illness, I would like to say thank you. Nevertheless, please do not paint everyone with the same naïve brush.

Do not let our insecurities define us.

Insecurity is something that we all face. It is an inevitable part of life. Whether it is a physical or personality trait, it can be something that hinders us from progressing forward with our daily lives. It is inherent to the human condition.

To this end, I wanted to emphasise to my readers the commonality of insecurity and inhibition. To do this, I asked people of different ages and job descriptions to open up about their biggest insecurities, so I could accumulate their responses anonymously, before posting them here.

However, I feel it important to first open up about my own biggest insecurity. For as long as I can remember, I have had this intrinsic yet entirely irrational hatred towards myself. I am not entirely sure when it manifested, but it is something that I just cannot shake. I am 27 years old, and a post-doctoral neuroscience researcher.

Here are individual responses:

“I would say my biggest insecurity is my shyness, especially when meeting new people and starting conversations.”Age: 19, Profession: DJ.

“I think it’s the lack of being confident in the work I produce and being nervous about what people say about my work.  It’s mainly the confidence and uncertainty that play with my mind when it comes to work. Hence why I haven’t applied for bigger jobs or positions. It is a ‘am I good enough’ to push onwards and upwards.” – Age: 26, Profession: Graphic Designer.

“My biggest insecurity has always been other people’s perception of me. Whether that be friends, family or another professional.”
Age: 25, Profession: Clinical Animal Behaviourist. 

“I would say my greatest insecurity is “imposter syndrome” or the constant feeling I’m not actually capable of being where I am, and that I have deceived everyone into thinking I have, or it is chance.”
Age: 22, Profession: Trainee Accountant.

“I do not like my lips. It is where my eyes immediately go in every picture.”
Age: 26, Profession: Public Relations.

“My biggest insecurity is probably me not achieving enough. No matter how much I do in a day, I berate myself internally, telling myself that I could/should have done more. This is tied in with the constant desire to be productive, which can be harmful, as I know rationally that it’s important for our mental health to not be ‘productive’ all the time.”
Age: 27, Profession: Composer.

“I have body confidence issues.”Age: 37, Profession: DJ.

“I got good grades in school and university, but I am not sure I’ll ever do anything that makes a lasting positive impact on this world. I am also afraid that people doubt my intellect, either because of my gender, race or job. They do not hand out grades when you are an adult to prove you are smart, and my job does not actually require intellect.”
Age: 24, Profession: Advertising.

I would have to say that I am very insecure about whether people like me or not.” Age: 25, Profession: Lecturer in Bioscience. 

“I work in the beauty industry so I would say body image. I’m constantly around beautiful, almost perfect looking people. It can sometimes make me feel like I’m lacking something.”Age: 25, Profession: Aesthetician. 

“Whilst I have many insecurities, there are two main ones. My first is constantly suffering with my body dysmorphia, no matter what I do I’m never satisfied about how I am. Second, I always feel inadequate, again this is because of number one. It is a constant cycle.”
Age: 26, Profession: Warehouse Assistant.

“I am worried that I will go nowhere, and I won’t succeed in my chosen career and will not achieve my aim in life.”
Age: 24, Profession: Medical Systems Specialist. 

The commonality of insecurity within society is undeniable. It is important that we all communicate more openly about what inhibits us, as this may eventually help to set us free.

Fear of the unknown.

Fear of the unknown.

Many of us are creatures of habit. If everything is going according to plan, we feel in control. Unfortunately, this status-quo often degenerates when a curveball presents itself. In some circumstances, this kickstarts a fear response. In the eyes of many, this is often considered an uncontrollable thought process. Fear has often been described as a self-protecting mechanism, through elicitation of the scientifically characterized ‘flight-or-fight’ response, which prepares the body for action. Whilst this is beneficial in many situations, such as being confronted with a potentially dangerous scenario, it can also become crippling for many of us. In some instances, this crippling fear associates with the uncontrollable. In fact, several anxiety disorders including social anxiety and panic disorder share an underlying trait: increased fear of the unknown. However, the manifestation of fear is becoming an increasingly common trait within society, often associated with what has been coined the ‘victim mentality’. It is an acquired personality trait, wherein a person often considers themselves a victim of the negative actions of others, despite all the evidence to the contrary. For many years, I thought this. I truly believed I was the victim of some cruel universal joke. 

Due to negative and destabilizing life-events that I neither acknowledged nor dealt with, I assumed the worst in many situations. This was especially the case for scenarios I had absolutely no control over. As you may have guessed, I feared the unknown to a disconcerting extent. I feared the future. I was scared of the uncontrollable. I have always been meticulously organized and driven when it comes to work. Because of this, I would often eat myself alive when fear disrupted my flow and motivation. The worst thing? Fear would consume me about scenarios that I either had no control over, or worse… things that may not arise. I feared things that did not yet exist! Future career aspirations, ending of relationships, death of family members. Why was I so consumed by these destructive thoughts and fears?

Fear of the unknown is an acquired trait. It is learned. Because of that, we all have the ability to unlearn it. For many of us, we often allow the past to dictate our opinions on the future. We apply previous worst case scenarios to new situations, often assuming that the past will inevitably repeat itself.  ‘I was in a relationship once… they broke up with me. I had a job interview like this before… they didn’t want to hire me.’ Why should any of us believe that it will not happen again? This thought process can often lead to chronic indifference and lethargy about the potential progression in our lives. We can lose all interest in skill development because of the manifestation of fear. How is that a good life? That isn’t living at all. 

For the best part of a decade I let fear dictate my path. On several occasions I decided to choose security over the prospects of greatness. Why? Was it the fear of embarrassment? The fear of failure? I think it was a combination of the two. I was heavily bullied in school, so when I was in my late teens, if there was any instance whereby I would potentially embarrass myself, I would avoid the situation entirely. The fear of failure had become more prominent during my early twenties. Truly believing failure would extinguish any potential success, I would often avoid new scenarios in which the potential for failure manifested. Because of that, I missed out on some incredible opportunities. 

Things in life which are worth having are never easy. If they were, then we would all have them. I think this is crucial to underline. Does stress contribute to your fear? If aligned, it is important to approach and manage challenges in bitesize chunks. This makes tackling a new situation far more manageable and may consequentially help suppress the development of an exaggerated fear response. Are you worrying about the long-term consequences of failure? In many instances this is an entirely pointless process, often fueling fear, anxiety and unmanageable stress. Focusing on fear linked to things you cannot immediately control is a fruitless endeavor. 

Fear and anxiety many times indicates that we are moving in a positive direction, out of the safe confines of our comfort zone, and in the direction of our true purpose.

– Charles F. Glassman

In some circumstances, fear manifestation can lead us to develop the ‘if it is meant to be, it is meant to be’ mentality. Relying on this internal monologue results in the manifestation of laziness and reluctance. Dedicated and consistent hard work is required for success. The universe will not run that race for us. Because of this, fear in many ways is our mortal enemy.  If unharnessed it has the potential to inhibit our ability to strive forwards. So, what can we do about it? I have listed a few different approaches that may help.

How to tackle our fear.

Limiting exposure to uncontrollable situations. Many of us can get worked up by situations we cannot directly or individually resolve. In terms of global issues, newspapers and news websites are the perfect ingredient to whip up a fear storm. For example, whilst I have been living in the United States, I can say with utmost confidence that Donald Trump has exclusively installed anxiety and fear in the hearts of many Americans. His off-the-wall opinions and abuse of power have many people anxious about their futures. Unfortunately however, the presidential situation can only be resolved on election day. For now, it eludes our control. Excessively worrying about things like this during a period wherein you cannot do anything about it is psychologically and physically draining, and it’s definitely not good for anyone. Focus on the things that you have direct control over. The world is too big to worry about everything.

Seek support. Communicating with others who may feel similar bouts of fear and anxiety can be beneficial. I quickly realized that I was pretty good at giving advice to others about their own anxiety. However more importantly, these conversations helped me understand that I was ignoring my own advice. Eventually this changed, and it has assisted beyond description. 

Reflect on past successes. How many times have we all worried about something only for it to totally work out? Whether that was studying for exams, preparing for a job interview, or organizing travel preparations, we often like to dramatacise and imagine the worst-case scenario. Whilst a realistic approach often helps avoid excessive disappointment if something doesn’t go out way, this thought process is imminently heading towards pessimism. When fear hits you regarding a new opportunity, remember to look back at your previous successes. I hope this reflection will help you realize and understand just how suitable and ready you are for this next experience.

It is important to remember that fear is an entirely natural response, especially when we enter a situation we are not immediately comfortable or familiar with. That doesn’t automatically mean that it should be considered a negative emotion. Many of the best things in life are on the other side of fear. Harness it. Embrace it. The unknown may be terrifying, but it is also totally magnificent. 

The science behind SAD.

Because I am British, it probably comes as no surprise that I unequivocally understand the heartbreak of traditional rainy weather. An indestructible stereotype of the UK, bad weather has never really manifested the ability to catalyse happiness during the morning commute. Whilst the occasionally odd shower is often welcomed, consistent wind and rain provokes noticeable negativity in people – have you ever been in central London during commuting hours? Yikes. Why then, for many of us, does our mood shift in association with the weather? Interestingly, science may have the answer! This discussion is dedicated to what has been coined seasonal affective disorder. Here I will survey some of the evidence surrounding the condition and describe what we may be able to do to fight back against it!

Seasonal affective disorder: what exactly is it?

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression otherwise referred to as SAD or seasonal depression. As you may have guessed, people who suffer with SAD tend to experience mood changes and symptoms similar to depression. These symptoms appear to correlate with the changing seasons, primarily beginning in the autumn and winter months, before alleviating during the arrival of spring. With this in mind, it is important to note that SAD is more than just “winter blues”. The symptoms can be distressing, debilitating, and can significantly interfere with daily functioning. Nevertheless, various treatment options are available.

Causes

Unfortunately, the biological cause(s) of SAD is still relatively unknown. However, some evidence suggests that it is related to the body’s level of melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland. Melatonin regulates the sleep-wake cycle, and darkness is known to stimulate its production, preparing the body for sleep. Because more melatonin is therefore produced during the winter months (when sunlight hours are diminished), people tend to feel sleepier and more lethargic. 

In addition, research suggests that some people who develop SAD may produce less Vitamin D. Interestingly, Vitamin D has been suggested to play a role in serotonin activity, a key mood regulating neurotransmitter which is reduced in some depressed patients. 

Treatments

Interestingly, human clinical trials have identified that both cognitive behavioural (e.g. talk) and light therapy improve the symptoms of SAD, wherein the latter may be more effective for reducing four key signs of the disorder: early insomnia, anxiety, hypersomnia, and social withdrawal. So, if you needed a sensible reason for an expensive winter holiday to the Bahamas… you are most certainly welcome. However, more practical approaches to tackling SAD symptoms include taking care of your general health and wellness, which involves (yep, you guessed it…) regular exercise, good nutrition and getting enough sleep. Spending time outside and rearranging your office space so that you are exposed to a window during the day may also be of benefit.

Does blindness contribute?

From a scientific perspective, there are many interesting questions arising from SAD research. For example, is it more common in people with serious visual impairment? Does the likelihood of developing SAD increase as eyesight progressively degenerates? What about people who are blind and have been since birth; do they develop symptoms of SAD? These are all interesting research avenues which are currently being investigated.

It is important to seek help

Whilst it is thought-provoking topic to discuss, please remember that If you feel like you or a loved one has experienced depressive symptoms for an extended period of time, contact your nearest doctor for support.

Is Grief a Mental Illness?

Image from Pixabay

For the majority of us, grief is an inevitability. 

If you have ever experienced grief, you may be familiar with questioning your own sanity… ‘Did I just fleetingly see my loved one wade through a crowded street?’

In some circumstances it can even result in us questioning our own reason for living. Whilst disturbing, these thoughts usually diminish over time, becoming less consuming and intense. However, sometimes these thoughts can pass the line into pathology, wherein treatment may be required to help alleviate and remove the developing problems. 

Pathological grief disorder (PGD) is a condition which is a fairly new addition to what has been dubbed the ‘bible’ of psychiatric disorders – referred to as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This disorder is commonly known as traumatic or prolonged grief, wherein it typically lasts for longer than six months. However, the addition of the disorder to the DSM has been a fairly controversial one. The reason for this being because it allows for medical treatment of grief related depression within the first few weeks following a bereavement. Diagnosing someone with depression so quickly after a significantly traumatic event is, in my opinion, not the correct decision. 

Grief is a natural response the naturally diminishes over time. This is particularly pertinent to individuals who believe the ‘strong’ and ‘stable’ approach for other family members following a fatality – primarily being men. In 2017, Prince William discussed the destructive nature of the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality, admitting that it had taken a devastating toll following the death of his mother, Princess Dianna. Thus, relying on medication to potentially numb the emotion of someone in grieving may only exacerbate the issue, especially when the medication is eventually withdrawn. If that was me, I would probably start to believe that prescription drugs were the essential crux for any potential happiness. Whereas in actuality, any recurring negative emotions would have likely reemerged due to not having sufficient time to process the death prior to pharmaceutical intervention.

Whilst immediate medication is not advised, it is crucial to identify signs of chronic psychological distress following a bereavement. Here are a few PGD symptoms to be aware of:

  1. Concentrating on little else apart from the deceased loved one
  2. Extreme focus on reminders of the loved one or excessive avoidance of reminders
  3. Intense believing that life has no meaning
  4. Inability to enjoy life or reminiscence on positive experiences with the loved one. 
  5. Wishing to die to be with the loved one.

Pathological mourning is not a new concept, with publications discussing its commonality and treatment options in the 1980s. The primary problem is that the DSM does not discriminate PGD from intense ‘normal’ grief, thus likely yielding huge false-positive diagnoses from psychiatrists. This is likely to cause additional stress to an already vulnerable individual.

A major reason for this is because the signs between PGD and ‘normal’ grief are practically identical. However, in PGD the symptoms are considerably more prolonged, debilitating and intense. Numbness and detachment can last for over six months, and perhaps extend considerably longer. It is in considerable contrast to feeling sensitive after being exposed to emotional triggers of that loved one – for example, videos and photos or anniversaries.

Nevertheless, ignoring any type of grief is potentially an extremely hazardous choice. The severe consequences of losing a loved one can, without intervention, manifest in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Whilst primarily associated with individuals who have worked within the military, PTSD is common amongst various groups, including the bereaved. A recent study looked into the rates of PTSD in 132 people who had lost a close relative due to cancer. Strikingly, at one month 30% of the volunteers were rated as having PTSD, with another 26% displaying pre-clinical signs of the disorder.

Interventions for pathological grief disorder

Because the diagnostic criteria for PGD is lacking, many suffers are instead diagnosed with major depressive disorder and are ‘treated’ with antidepressants. Whilst this is sometimes beneficial for the patient, evidence is lacking as to whether this is successful for PGD sufferers. 

On the other hand, grief counselling is available. Therapists for this type of support are widely knowledgeable and understand that each experience of grief is entirely unique, complex and emotional. Your culture, personality and individual experience will all affect the grieving process. A ‘one size fits all’ approach in terms of medication is unlikely to help the majoring of us. Grief counsellors on the other hand will intricately tailor treatment to meet your specific needs. 

I would strongly recommending reading about grief counselling if you believe there is a loved one who requires it. Communication with health professionals (alongside loved ones) is absolutely crucial for healing and recovery. Unfortunately, grief is a normal and upsetting part of life. Instead of immediately jumping towards medication as a potentially damaging crutch, take the right initial steps following a bereavement: Emote and communicate with friends and family. But remember, never be ashamed to seek guidance and support if you think you need to. 

Social anxiety and loneliness.

Image: Pixabay.com

Fearnounan unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm. 

Does that sound familiar to you and your experiences? Perhaps it may. Anxiety is often coined to be a particular type of persisting fear, wherein we worry about potential future outcomes associated with specific events. In fact, the way we feel when either frightened or anxious are extraordinarily similar, because the basic emotion for both remains the same. So, despite not being in any immediate danger, anxiousness can result in similar symptoms to that of fear: increased heart rate, feelings of sickness and/or dizziness, and a loss of appetite. For many, new social situations can be a common trigger of these symptoms, often termed as social anxiety. 

Social anxiety: what is it?

Also labelled as social phobia, social anxiety presents itself as a long-lasting fear of being humiliated or scrutinised by others. It is sometimes (and incorrectly) compared to general shyness. However, whilst shyness often manifests for many prior to an unfamiliar situation, this usually dissipates following exposure to the new social situation. This is not the case for social anxiety. The latter often manifests during adolescence, when the opinions of friends and peers become increasingly important. This impairment can continue into adulthood, wreaking havoc on a wide variety of important life events. Separating social anxiety symptoms from those of general shyness is thus essential before discussing management and treatment options. 

The symptoms

Symptoms of social anxiety (as with any form of anxious behaviour) can be wide ranging, and it is unlikely that any one individual would experience them all. All anxiety disorders can be associated with the symptoms mentioned previously. However, common identifiers for social anxiety usually include the feeling of dreading everyday activities, such as starting up conversations with strangers, speaking on the phone to unfamiliar people, or even going into work. As a consequence, social anxiety can result in the avoidance of many social activities such as eating out or going to parties.

Can social anxiety effect my health? 

Because of the primal need for social interaction between humans, the consequences of social isolation on both physical and emotional health can be catastrophic. A recent meta-analysis – a statistical approach which combines data from multiple studies – identified that a lack of social connections can heighten health risks as much as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day or having an alcohol consumption disorder. The analysis suggested that social isolation can significantly increase the risk of premature mortality, with the magnitude of risk exceeding that of other common leading health threats. A recent study in 2019 analysed the data from more than 580,000 adults, finding that social isolation increases premature death risk for every race.

The negative impact on both mental and cognitive health is also apparent. Evidence supports a link between social isolation and adverse health effects including poor sleep quality, depression and accelerated cognitive decline, the latter of which is associated with problems in memory, language and judgement. A 2018 study also discovered a clear association between loneliness and dementia, increasing a person’s risk of developing the latter by up to forty percent. Examining data from more than 12,000 U.S. adults aged fifty or older, participants rated their loneliness and social isolation alongside completing a battery of cognitive tests every two years for up to ten years. 

Do you think this applies to you?

As reported by a 2018 survey, loneliness levels have reached an all-time high. Of the 20,000 U.S. adults approached, nearly half reported feeling alone, with the youngest generation being the loneliest of all. However, isolation is also well characterised in the elderly. According to Age UK, over two million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, with over one million stating that they go for over a month without conversing with a friend, neighbour or family member10

It is essential to determine whether social anxiety and/or loneliness applies to either yourself or a loved one, and then take appropriate action. It is important to try and communicate with friends and family where possible. However if this is hindered, it is imperative to seek out advice from a qualified medical professional. 

The Tale of the Academic Black Dog.

Image: Matej.

The idea that mental health issues are more common amongst university students has gained traction in recent years. Identifying this problem has led to the much-needed development of support systems for students whilst they study towards furthering their promising careers. However, psychological distress is running rampant at a much deeper level within our university culture, wherein the urgency cannot be understated. 

I am talking about the academics – the pillars of higher education. Yet, despite their obvious essentiality to students’ success, they are often overlooked by the people they teach. Comparatively to their students, research into the poor mental health of academics has received little attention, despite its clear importance. As with any individual, if you suffer in silence, understanding that you aren’t the only person with a seemingly unshakeable black dog can provide a form of release from some of the distress you may be feeling.

Acknowledge the Academic

During my undergraduate degree, I inevitably looked towards my lecturers as sources of extensive knowledge. I was always fascinated by their research and scientific interests. Yet, I never considered the amount of stress that they were likely under, and the personal impact associated with this. In many scenarios, the increasing workload of academics, alongside the lack of job security and the extensive demand to publish, has led to many academics suffering with some form of mental health disorder. A 2017 survey highlights this, wherein it was identified that 43% of academics (including senior and principal lecturers) exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental health disorder1. This is nearly twice the level of prevalence in comparison to the general population. An Australian study further validates this, finding that the rate of mental illness amongst academic staff was up to four times higher2

Suffering with mental health difficulties will predictably hinder professional performance. Nevertheless, the support options available for academics remains rather limited. Many universities offer mental health services, but these are primarily aimed at students. Some services are available, such as the option to see an occupational nurse, but information regarding these services are often obscure and difficult to find.

The Stigma Survives

In 2014 a survey was carried out to determine the attitudes and experiences of students and staff surrounding mental health problems, which included the completion of a “stigma scale”. The study highlighted that “silence” surrounding mental health issues permeates throughout the university culture, impacting on help seeking behaviours alongside the support and recovery of affected individuals3. It is not surprising then, that only 6.7% of academic staff in the United Kingdom have ever opened up about a mental health condition4.

The Guardian online have a blog entitled Academics Anonymous, whereby academics can discuss work difficulties without disclosing their identity. One such post in 2015 suggested that HR departments within many universities remain unsympathetic and often fail to recognise a mental health disorder as a legitimate illness5

Overworked and Underpaid

Clearly more needs to be done to support our academics. Structural changes are desperately needed to address many of the factors associated with poor mental health, such as job security, pay and work load. Unfortunately, these changes are unlikely to happen quickly. The high costs of education put many institutions under extraordinary pressure to satisfy students and their parents with educational excellence, with this putting further stress on academics. In one example from 2017, some “overworked” lecturers at Queen Mary University London were caught sleeping in their offices overnight, before being threatened with disciplinary action6 – which would only result in further psychological distress.

Supportive Strategies

Like the work currently used to support the wellbeing of students, academics need more information surrounding mental health to help change their attitudes towards seeking support. One study emphasises the benefit of exercise, where academics were more likely to report lower levels of distress if they undertook 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week1. Thus, the creation of physical activity options for staff, such as free exercise facilities and subsidised cycle to work schemes may provide some benefit.

Regardless of the strategies selected, we all need to be aware of the non-selective nature of mental illness. It affects men and women from all backgrounds, in all professions, and at all stages of life. We need to understand this before working together to provide strength and support when it comes to fighting back against mental illness. For students, I have previously written an article on the BPS blog talking about my personal experience of battling with mental illness whilst completing my PhD, which can be accessed here.

There is a heavy cost to getting a PhD that nobody talks about.

Image: Tim Gouw

Embarking on a PhD is a journey of epic proportions. Initially filled with excitement and enthusiasm, students are compelled by the idea of pushing the frontiers of human knowledge.In time, this enthusiasm can fade. Devoting three to five years of your life to such a tiny subject niche has the ability to do that, even to the most devoted of individuals. Unfortunately, the long and winding road takes both a physical and psychological toll. Stress management will inescapably take centre stage, and your ability to manage it will be extensively tested.

In 2011, a study carried out by the University of Texas found that 43% of their graduate student participants reported experiencing more stress than they were able to handle, with PhD students expressing the highest levels. This likely explains the high attrition rate. In 2013, it was estimated that 30% of students who embark on a PhD in the UK leave university without finishing. This statistic was worse in North America, where in 2008, almost 50% of students left graduate school without their doctorate. However, research has shown that the majority of students who enter doctoral programs have the academic ability to successfully complete the degree. Therefore, it is likely that the culture of PhD programs are to blame.

My personal experience

I have suffered with depression for my entire adult life. Worryingly, the stigma surrounding the subject remains rampant. Enough so that it doesn’t come into the majority of people’s conversations unless a suspected suicide hits the news. In academia, the silence is even more deafening. For myself and many other PhD students, our thesis hovers over us like the sword of Damocles, even in supposed moments of rest.

For me, paranoia proliferates. I become so fixed on what my supervisory team think of me and my thesis progression that I sacrifice most of my outside interests. Now, I feel guilty when I take time off, regardless of how essential it is to avoid physical and mental exhaustion.

For a long time, I assumed that I was expected to maintain a false illusion of mental stability and confidence when interacting with others within the faculty. Not only emotionally taxing, it was isolating – something which is already an inevitability as a PhD student.

Further, none of my closest friends or family have been previously exposed to what a PhD entails. Of my immediate family, I am only one of two who went to university. Of course, they have been nothing but supportive.  But in the majority of cases, the advice they have provided has unfortunately fallen on deaf ears, and has sometimes further contributed to my anxiety.

Luckily for me, my supervisory team are fantastic. With their extensive support, providing advice through personal experience, they are helping me through the PhD process. But this isn’t the case for everyone. As an alternative, talking with other PhD students can also help alleviate mounting stress. For me, the latter has been the greatest way to help break the chains of isolation, as the more students I talk to, the more I began to realise that I am far from alone.

We need to break the silence

Why does the stigmatisation of mental health still exist, when approximately 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem each year? Poor mental health within universities is an escalating problem. Not just because it affects how students learn, but it can also significantly contribute to whether students actually finish their degrees.

Disturbingly, in 2017 the All Party Parliamentary Group of Students found that 69% of students have felt depressed within an academic year, while 33% of students had experienced suicidal thoughts. The actual recorded suicide rate of students within higher education in England and Wales within 12 months ending in July 2017 was 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students, equating to 95 suicides. Although a relatively small number, this has increased on previous years.

Across the UK, universities are taking positive steps to help combat this growing problem. For example, the University of Bristol has spent £1 million on a new wellbeing service for students, following seven suicides within a six-month period. Such initiatives are to be welcomed, as are signs of coordinated leadership nationally, but much more still needs to be done. Hopefully raising awareness of students’ mental wellbeing, alongside emphasizing communication and increasing support can prevent the loss of life of more talented young people.

Keith Flint.

Keith Flint, The Prodigy

Keith Flint.

In my opinion, the king of the misfits. I was introduced to The Prodigy when I was still in nappies. My brother has always mentioned to me that I used to dance around like I’d been possessed every time he played one of their records. Their influence on my life has stood the test of time. I have listened to the band practically every day for approximately twenty years. From ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ and ‘The Fat Of The Land’ through to ‘Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’ and ‘Invaders Must Die’, their music has always been an instrumental part of my life, helping me pave my own path going forward. 

I remember seeing the Firestarter video when I was a kid. Keith wearing that oversized United States styled t-shirt. By societies standards, he was this freak. But to me, it helped me understand and conceptualise that being a bit different is more interesting and exciting than being like everyone else. That alternative look is probably why I never gave a shit about what others thought I looked like. Perhaps that is why when I grew my hair out to the point I looked like an unwashed willow tree, it still didn’t bother me.

As you may have now guessed, I was a fucking misfit in school. Alternative as hell, and not particularly liked as a consequence. Likely due to how weird I was… probably. When school became unbearable, music was both my defence and release. The Prodigy were the guys who topped that list. Often music that helped me lash out against the intolerable, it kept me focused on the bigger picture. As of right now, that focus has become slight overcast in shadow. Liam Howlett (Producer/Engineer of the band) has informed fans this afternoon that Keith killed himself. If I was in water, I think I would have sunk sixty feet. Keith, this enigma that I always considered to be larger than life, has now been engulfed by it. 

The best gigs I have ever had the pleasure to go to all had The Prodigy headlining the bill. Milton Keynes Bowl 2010, Brixton Academy 2012 and Creamfields 2013. All events that I will never forget. They have become pieces of my history which will inevitably shape my own future. The ‘we don’t give a shit’ attitude they repeatedly evoked towards negativity has been a driving force in my own life. The message helped stimulate movements to surround myself with people that actually matter, alongside changing and removing toxic parts of my life. Both of these actions helped to trigger movement onto the correct path for increasing my own self-worth and general happiness. You must think that I’m overexaggerating when I say that a band can have this ability, but they did. Re-listening to songs that I grew up with immediately induces memories. Happiness in some circumstances, and the feeling of growth in others. The latter particularly applies to the turbulent periods of my adolescence, wherein I would usually rinse either ‘Fat Of The Land’ or ‘Invaders Must Die’ on repeat if I had a shitty week. But that’s why it still invokes incredible emotions. It allows me to understand and accept just how far I have come, all the way back from starting out as an initially bullied, weird little kid, to now; wherein I am a successful young adult… and PROUDLY still a pretty fucking weird person.

Keith, you helped me pave my own way. I know the worth of being unique. I have embraced that, so thank you for being a core component to helping me identify and realise that fact. Rest in peace, you twisted instigator. 

If you haven’t really listened to The Prodigy before, please give some of their records a listen. If you wanted a top 10 list in terms of which songs impacted my life the most, I have left that below. I am sure that I’ll be listening to them over and over for another 20 years to come.

  1. Poison
  2. Voodoo People
  3. Breathe
  4. Firestarter
  5. Charly
  6. Their Law
  7. Serial Thrilla
  8. Diesel Power
  9. Smack My Bitch Up
  10. Out Of Space
  11. Bonus: Run With The Wolves