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 word 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 pass 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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.”