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 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.

Untreated depression: It will damage your brain.

Image: Kat Jayne

It is a scary prospect, but it is something that has accumulated serious momentum. From a scientific point of view, I have to admit I do find it fascinating. However, from a health perspective, this is rather worrying. The conclusions being drawn? Untreated depression may be causing brain degeneration.

Considering one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, this might raise concern. It becomes even more alarming with the publication of a recent study highlighting that approximately 35% of people newly diagnosed with depression refused to seek treatment. Without professional help, how long can depression toxify and contaminate an individual’s identity? Easily an entire lifetime. Not seeking help for prolonged periods of sadness or emotional absence may not be just affecting your character, as was often thought for decades. 

The ‘all in the mind’ mentality is dead. The divide between physiology and psychology was clearly defined for many years. When patients were physically unwell – because of say, a broken bone or arthritis – any accompanying mental health instabilities were waived off. Depression often accompanied these ailments (and still does, of course), but the diagnostic significance of such was irrelevant. If a patient suffering from a chronic disorder like arthritis said they were depressed, the general consensus amongst medical practitioners was: ‘well you would be, wouldn’t you?’. The same conclusion was always drawn. The patient was simply depressed as a consequence of the pain associated with their arthritis, or their broken leg, and so forth. No real attention looked into the other potentiality; what if the depression causes physiological ailments? What if a psychological disturbance could be having serious negative effects on the body?

In the 21stcentury, the argument for this is strong. Chronic, untreated depression appears to have a degenerative effect on the brain, damaging it from the inside. Here I want to highlight some key pieces of research which link depression to neurodegeneration. The idea here is to help us all understand just how important seeking assistance might be if you think yourself or a loved one might be suffering from a chronic depressive episode. Trying out different methods to combat depression will be beneficial both for emotional stability and life fulfillment, but also for the health of our brains, too.

A major finding was published when discovering differences in the brain scans of depressed and non-depressed patients. Looking at cases of major (clinical diagnosis of chronic) depression which had lasted for more than a decade, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario, Canada identified that during episodes of major depression, the patients’ brains would show signs of inflammation. The study group identified that a key protein associated with the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) inflammatory response was approximately 30% higher in the brains of people who lived with depression for more than a decade. However, this isn’t the only study to report such a finding. Another study published in 2016 looked at the whole-body levels of CRP (another biological marker of inflammation) in patients with depression and those without. The observational studyidentified that depressed individuals exhibited CRP levels more than 30% higher than those without depression.

The results presented here are startling, collectively indicating that we may need to change our thinking about depression and its effects. The evidence strongly affirms that depression truly is a biologically based disorder, rather than something that only exists in the field of psychology. But how does this link to degeneration of the brain?

Whilst inflammation is used to protect the body from infection amongst other functions, excessive inflammation can cause extensive cellular damage. Chronic inflammation within the brain has been linked to several destructive neurodegenerative diseases. One of which is Parkinson’s disease, which primarily manifests itself as a movement disorder, wherein patients begin to show signs of slowed movement (bradykinesia), until movement becomes practically impossible without medication. This primary symptom is caused by the destruction of neurons in the portion of the brain which is essential for movement. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure.

Whilst the contribution of inflammation to Parkinson’s disease does not appear to be the primary causation, in Alzheimer’s disease it may be a different story entirely. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common neurodegenerative disease in the world. In the United States alone, approximately 5.7 million peopleare currently suffering with the disease, which is primarily associated with progressive and severe memory loss. Again, there is currently no cure. Recent researchpublished in the Lancetnow appears to highlight neuroinflammation as a central cause of Alzheimer’s disease, with many otherstudies further supporting this idea.

Multiple lines of research therefore support the idea that ignoring a potential major depressive episode could have considerably devastating consequences for the long-term health of the brain. What can we do to fight back? Alongside seeking professional support, as little as 20 minutes of exercisecan reduce your bodily levels of inflammation. This is alongside the general health benefits of exercise, including reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and cancer. Diet is the next big consideration. There are several foods which should be avoided due to their contribution towards inflammation, including red meat and refined carbohydrates. On the other hand, there are many foods which are considered to be anti-inflammatory, including green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, fatty fish like salmon, and a range of berries. A more exhaustive list of pro- and anti-inflammatory foods can be found here. Supporting this switch in diet, women whose diets include more foods which trigger inflammation and fewer foods which restrain inflammation have up to a 41% increased risk of being diagnosed with depressionthan those who mostly eat a less inflammatory diet.

Depression is a biological disorder and we all need to take this into consideration. Its link to inflammation and bodily damage cannot be underestimated, and it is something we must consider when either ourselves or a loved one is currently suffering a major depressive episode. If you are adamant about not seeing a professional (I highly advise you do, however), exercising more and switching up our diets may provide an answer that we desperately need.

A new year should never mean a new beginning.

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The new calendar year… a time associated with celebration yet often tainted with the thought of beginning anew. As January rolls in, many of us are overcome by feelings of starting over, in correlation with forgetting of the past. Whilst new year’s resolutions should often to be employed if you believe you have the ability to become a better person, trying to forget or ignore previous life experiences would be cheating yourself. Continue reading “A new year should never mean a new beginning.”

Anxiety: How it links to our future.

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“After all, what is happiness? Love, they tell me. But love doesn’t bring and never has brought happiness. On the contrary, it’s a constant state of anxiety, a battlefield; it’s sleepless nights, asking ourselves all the time if we’re doing the right thing. Real love is composed of ecstasy and agony.

― Paulo Coelho, The Witch of Portobello

This quote really stuck with me. Love is an incredible thing. Whether that feeling is for a significant other, or perhaps for work or even an environment, it is an emotional rollercoaster. You appreciate how fantastic that person/thing is. However, at the same time, it can cause a sense of worry and sadness. What happens if things change? How certain is the path that I currently walk on? What if change detrimentally alters my current position or relationships? Continue reading “Anxiety: How it links to our future.”

It is time to crucify the self critic.

Self-criticism. It can be one of the most disabling components of our psychological wellbeing. Unfortunately for most of us, we will always be our own worst-critic. Relationships, friendships, work progression; self-critical thoughts can make us second guess our ability and worth in all of these areas. Continue reading “It is time to crucify the self critic.”

The disaster of getting inside your own head.

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I am sure we can all relate to this. Whether it’s insecurities which have built up as a direct consequence of our scrambled society, or perhaps due to previous exposer to a singular toxic perpetrator; self-criticism can cause undeniable havoc and internal conflict. The constant flux within our culture, alongside a concurrent addiction to unrealistic expectations has led to the manifestation of many young individuals feeling like they will never be good enough. Continue reading “The disaster of getting inside your own head.”

Don’t let the past dictate your future.

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Most of us understand that an upsetting childhood can affect our adult lives. Depending on the nature of the trauma and the resilience of the individual, resulting consequences can sometimes lead to misery, which often manifests itself through extended depression and anxiety. This is especially the case if no professional help is sought. Continue reading “Don’t let the past dictate your future.”

Never Rush Into A Relationship.

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The end of a serious relationship can cripple us emotionally. I am sure you, at some point in time, have been on the receiving end of ‘This just isn’t working’, or ‘It’s not you, it’s me’, or perhaps even ‘I don’t want to risk destroying our friendship’. There are definitely more stereotypical lines that are used by both sexes, but I hope these are enough to provide you with a sense of relatability. Continue reading “Never Rush Into A Relationship.”

It’s Not Immigration, But AI That Will Inevitably Take Our Jobs.

aiImage Source: Gerd Leonhard/Flickr Creative Commons

In 2013, the combined wealth of the bottom half of the global population was the same as that of the world’s eight richest people. This statistic alone is enough to highlight the extreme vulnerability at the bottom of the spectrum, alongside the extent of wealth at the top. Continue reading “It’s Not Immigration, But AI That Will Inevitably Take Our Jobs.”