How to navigate relationships when you have anxiety

By Shehr Bano Hassan

CN: Anxiety, relationships, food

 

Discussions of intimacy, relationships, and sex, often leave out those of us that struggle with anxiety. In fact, when researching, I found that most articles on the topic only talked about how anxiety “kills the magic” of a relationship. This is not true. Anxiety does not have to be a formative feature of a relationship at all. You don’t need to “protect” your relationship from it. It may be a part of your life, but it does not have to be your enemy. It’s taken me a while to realise this, and here are some of the things I learned along the way:

 

1) You don’t have to tell them – but if you do, be honest and straightforward

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By Patrick Loonstra

Truly opening up to a partner takes longer and more energy because our minds have to process things more closely, focusing on the details. Many times, I found myself analysing each sentence my partner had said, or even a facial expression. But remember – your mental health is yours to disclose. Take your time, think things through and never feel pressured to open up prematurely. When you are sure, be as clear and as truthful as possible. Let them know at your own pace what it is that you want and need in the relationship so that you may be able to work with your anxiety, rather than constantly against it. Trust me, it’s exhausting and will rub off on your relationship.

 

2) Communication

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By Quincas Moreira

Communication is the antidote to overthinking. Saturating your partner with every stream of thought that passes your mind may not be the healthiest, but keeping them in the loop about your feelings, doubts and desires is the surest way that you remain on the same page. Begin with sharing feelings and asking for reassurances. If something bothers you or feels particularly triggering, tell them straight away so that you don’t have to dwell on it for long, no matter how trivial it may seem. Whatever is easily resolvable in the moment, make it clear so that you don’t have to carry the burden on your own. It’s not your job. A helpful tip for me was coming home at the end of the day and talking to myself in the mirror. I explained my feelings in detail to myself. Soon, it became easier to explain my feelings to others.

 

3) Avoid over-dependence

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By MIKI Yoshihito

Once you find yourself in a healthy, trustworthy relationship with someone you can depend on, it’s important to practise a healthy level of distance. No, you don’t have to distance yourself emotionally, but taking time out for yourself and your friends is an important way of ensuring yourself and your partner have lives outside of the relationship. During this time, engage in self-care. Working on eating healthy, taking up a hobby or simply meeting up with friends can help give you a new confidence to take into a relationship. In order to engage in a healthy relationship, we must learn to be on our own so that we don’t see our partners as the remedy to our ailments. It’s hard, but worth it.

 

4) Know when it is time to let go of someone who isn’t healthy for you

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By Tana Gandhi

This is something I wish every guide included. Recognise the signs. If your partner is not compassionate about your anxieties, it is time to let them go. Like I said, your mental health is yours and not everyone will understand it. Dependence may not be healthy, but empathy in a relationship is essential for someone with anxiety. If they are unwilling to communicate, listen and reassure you even if it feels tedious, they may not be a suitable match. It is so much easier said than done, but always put yourself first and thank yourself later. I promise, you will still be worthy of love.

 


Header image by Garry Knight

Emotional instability

CN: Blood, cutting, self-harm,

vomit mention

 

When the switch is on, you feel everything. When the switch is off, you feel nothing.

I am paralysed.
-What, you physically can’t move? she says,
I pause, unsure of whether she is pulling an inappropriate joke
Or is in fact
a simpleton.

No. I say.
Emotionally. Mentally.

Liar, liar
Pants on fire.

I meant it metaphorically.
Allow me to explain.
Or don’t.

Let me begin again.

I am paralysed.
I close the curtains, lock the door,
safe inside an impenetrable
pod, a membrane
of my own resilience,
and watch as I scratch,
scratch, SCRATCH;
an amused eyebrow poised in disbelief.
 

                 So there is essentially a disconnect in the way you experience emotion. Either, you psychoanalyse yourself, rationalise your emotions, think through them logically, without feeling, or you feel everything and it’s overwhelming.

Overwhelming. Yes.
Everything.

Let me begin again.

I am paralysed.
In my room

My room. I allow my feelings to fill the space I inhabit.
They are straining against the walls, clamouring to
GET OUT
I scream back at them
GET OUT OF ME
My heart is close to bursting,
My skin is close to breaking,
I am shaking.
They slam against the windowpanes as
I cut my flesh open.
I look inside.
-And what do you see?

Nothing.

I hear. I hear the silence, throbbing,
deafening and bloody.

The deeper I cut the greater the volume of silence that is
vomited, yes, vomited from the mouth of the wound.

I fumble about in my cupboard for a measuring glass,
I pour the silence into the measuring glass, but, of
course, the glass
overflows.

The corner of my mouth twists.

  Don’t try to quantify or qualify your emotions and don’t try to get rid of them; just let them wash over you; accept them.

Blood washes over me instead. I am cleansed of my sin of feeling.

The switch is off.

I feel nothing.

I can begin again.

By Rosa Thomas

 


Header image by Ben Seidelman

There’s no ‘right way’ to do uni. I’m tired of defending mine

By Hina Khalid

CN: Alcohol

 

So, a while ago I met up with a friend – for a casual chit-chat catching up on our respective times at university. I asked him how he’d found the past year. He proceeded to narrate everything he’d got up to and how much fun he was having. I asked him if he was ever homesick. He said no. When I told him I was regularly homesick, he said, ‘Wow that’s sad, you must have had no fun’.

But I have had fun. What irks me is that when I told this friend that I missed home a lot, and the fact that Cambridge was often alienating, frustrating, even oppressive – I was suddenly made to feel like was at fault. Like I was the one who hadn’t lapped up all the exciting adventures university life had to offer – forcing myself to question the validity of my own feelings. Am I entitled to feel down sometimes? Am I entitled to be grateful for being at Cambridge, and yet feel utterly alone and exhausted at times? Am I entitled to enjoy things the way I want to enjoy them, in a way that might not reflect the ‘normal’ university experience? I wasn’t so sure.

As a Muslim student coming from an ethnic minority background, Cambridge has not always been the easiest place to navigate. With dated portraits of old privileged men decorating the college halls, with all-white supervisors and professors, and with the drinking culture being so prominent, it was often difficult to cultivate a sense of ‘belonging’ to a space that was palpably never built for me. I was grappling to stay true to myself and yet not be seen as the ‘odd one out’.

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By John Kroll

My friend’s remark is perhaps a mundane example, but it got me thinking about the many ways that we are, subconsciously or consciously, almost forced to buy into narratives that aren’t our own as well as grant them a superior status. The fact that you’re not going out as much, the fact that you miss home so much more (and must make regular visits back for the sake of your own wellbeing), makes you feel like you’re somehow doing university ‘wrong’; as if there is a way to do university ‘right.’

But I have come to realise just how damaging this whole binary of ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ really is. I do not constantly need to justify why I don’t drink, or have others tell me how much I’m missing out on because of certain lifestyle choices – because, simply put, I’m not here to ‘prove’ or ‘validate’ myself. Sometimes we aren’t out to secure the ‘victory’, if that means achieving the archetypal university experience. Most of the time, we’re just out to make the most of what we’ve got and hope that others can respect us for it.

The way I see it, to truly care for another person isn’t just to be ‘there’ for them in that wishy-washy ‘I’ve got your back’ kind of way, but is to truly be there and nowhere else, to truly listen and shut out that voice in our own head that’s always internally comparing someone else’s experiences with our own. The power of listening to a voice that’s not ours – and I mean truly listening – can be transformative.

“I do not constantly need to justify why I don’t drink, or have others tell me how much I’m missing out”

 

Meaningful dialogue isn’t a kind of competition where one side must win against the other, where I must show you how to really have fun at university because you’re doing it wrong – it is one where I can recognise that there is no overarching, universal ideal that relates to all people. It is one where I can meaningfully relate to the other person in a way that transcends how I want to understand them. A kind of attention and awareness that doesn’t depend on anyone legitimising their feelings or the superior worth of their own experience.

To truly be with someone, to truly listen to someone, is to let go of that self-referential imprisonment we are almost always locked in. It’s risky because we are suddenly confronted with a worldview that is alien to our own; and that can threaten what we have come to see as binding. But the power of doing so can be eye-opening. For that reason, I’m done questioning whether my feelings towards certain things are valid, or justified. I’ll just carry on feeling them anyway.

 


Header image by Hina

Now I am a Vegetarian

By Sophie Nevrkla

CN: Knives, blood, food

 

When you and I were happy,
we were even happier
not to be
one-of-those-couples-who-sat-down-to-dinner-and-said

nothing

‘We’ll never be like that!’
we promised,
and shook our napkins out in unison
before
chopping and
slicing
our meat, twin vultures
in bloody communion

Knife slipped
through
artery and vein,
cracked gummy, translucent skin

White plates filled with fleshy juice,
potatoes soaked red,
splintered bones pushed to
one side –

Now, I am a vegetarian.

You say things like
‘Pass the salt’
and gaze
blankly
at the

space

above

my head

unsmiling

‘I’m just sad that we wont be able to eat the same food anymore’,
you sigh

 


Header image by Wilson Hui

Keeping panic attacks at bay

By Toni Stanger

CN: Panic attacks, suicide

 

For me, a panic attack is the worst feeling in the world. They are ruthless, tormenting and shattering to the soul. They are so debilitating that they often make me feel suicidal, and many others report feeling like they are having a heart attack. I’ve been enduring them for over ten years and, whilst it doesn’t make them any less terrifying, I’ve learnt some effective coping strategies, from mental health professionals and online resources, which have allowed me to have some control over them, and keep them at bay.

Using coping methods isn’t always easy, especially when you’re in the height of a panic attack and are experiencing many different symptoms at once. You feel out of breath, lightheaded, your heart begins palpitating, the chest pains kick in, and suddenly you’re shaking and your palms are sweating. All logic is gone in these moments.

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By Khánh Hmoong

With that in mind, you may feel as though these strategies “aren’t working” the first few times around, but I’ve found it’s important to keep trying. You aren’t going to be an expert straight away, as it’s a skill you have to learn, so they often take a bit of time and practice before they start being effective. The ultimate goal is to prevent a panic attack or keep them at bay, so these tips are useful for the onset of a panic attack in attempt to stop it before it peaks. However, they can also be used during the peak of a panic attack to help you calm down. Find what works for you:

 

BREATHING TECHNIQUES

Breathing exercises are a commonly used and helpful technique. During a panic attack, you may find yourself hyperventilating; this means you’re getting too much oxygen. To try and resolve this, breathe in you’re your nose and hold it for 10 seconds, then release through your mouth. Keep repeating this until you feel your breathing stabilise and you start to feel calmer. If you feel that your breathing pattern is irregular a lot of the time, the best way to ‘reset’ it is by doing regular exercise. This may be difficult, but even brisk walks or jogs are enough.

 

GROUNDING TECHNIQUES

A good way to try and calm down is to distract yourself. One way of doing this is to focus on one or all of your five senses.

Sight: If you feel the early stages of panic coming on, a good distraction can be to change your environment and do something. Take a walk, sit in the garden, read a book and take in your surroundings. Watch a film, light a candle and notice its flame.

During a particularly debilitating panic attack, focus on a specific part of the place you are in. It can be anything: a photograph, a pet, a television show or even a spec of dirt. You can also try imagining something right there in front of you. Focus on this image and consider trying breathing exercises in addition to this technique.

Sound: Listen to your favourite song, soothing music, sounds of the ocean, rain or waterfalls. Listen to someone chopping wood or a crackling fire. You can find sounds like these on YouTube easily. You may even find the activity of finding sounds you enjoy calming.

Smell: Notice all the different smells around you: flowers, perfume, scented candles, or food. Perhaps spray your favourite perfume or put on some scented lotion. Take it one step further and spray pillow mist onto your pillow. Lay down, take it in and focus on your breathing.

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By Laura D’Alessandro

Taste: Have a drink or something to eat. Cook something and take your time. Eat slowly and savour the bites. Is this one of your favourite foods? Why do you like it so much? Drink something calming such as herbal tea or hot chocolate. Focus on the taste. Does it feel hot? You can even focus on the current taste in your mouth, without eating or drinking anything. Is what you last ate or drank still lingering? (You might want to avoid drinks that may trigger more anxiety such as coffee and energy drinks.)

Touch: Pet an animal, play with your hair, change your clothes. Take a bubble bath or shower and feel the water against your body. Change your bedding and climb in afterwards, take in the gentleness and the freshness. Buy a thicker duvet and feel its softness, lay on it like it’s a cloud.

All of the above: Take a moment to describe five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

 

POSITIVE AFFIRMATIONS

When having a panic attack, your rational thought has gone out of the window. In fact, not only has it gone out of the window, it’s walked down to the local store, bought a can of Redbull, grown wings, flown down to the docks and gotten on a boat to travel far away.

It’s important to try and bring back your rationality, and a great way of doing this is coming up with positive and calming statements to tell yourself when you’re having a panic attack. Repeat these statements to yourself either out loud or in your head as many times as you like. Some examples:

  • “No one has ever died from a panic attack.”
  • “I can breathe, even though it feels like I can’t.”
  • “This will pass. It always passes.”
  • “I am okay. I will be okay.”
  • “Panic attacks end.”
  • “This has happened before, but I didn’t have a panic attack. I don’t need to have one now. Everything is fine.”
  • “This might be uncomfortable, but that’s all it is: discomfort.”
  • “I am in control of my mind and body.”

Panic attacks are scary, there are ways to help manage them. I didn’t think it was possible, but I am proof. They no longer control me – I control them.

 


Header image by Khánh Hmoong

‘We don’t need this stuff, we have faith’: Mental health in the Muslim community

By Shehr Bano Hassan

Cambridge

CN: Anxiety, depression,

schizophrenia

 

It’s no surprise that mental health issues in South Asia are considered seriously taboo. Growing up in Pakistan, there were no charities dedicated to mental health, no courses or classes you could take. I didn’t even know what most words like ‘anxious’ or ‘panic’ meant, other than when complaining to my friends about school. When talking to my mum about the absence of these facilities and education, she said ‘we don’t need this stuff because we have faith’. Alarmed at this statement, I realised that somewhere along the road, the love of God, and having a mental illness, had become mutually exclusive.

The shame associated with mental health disorders is a predominant feature of the Muslim community. Sufferers often choose not to disclose their stresses for fear of chastisement or ostracisation from their loved ones. Many are told to ‘pray harder’ because their ailments are seen as signs of ungrateful rebellion away from God, the only one seen as capable of “fixing” them. It doesn’t help that there is a preoccupation with spirit possessions and black magic in many South Asian communities. Sham doctors that treat the spiritual poverty are popular, feeding into the culture of blaming the victim amongst Muslim families.

 

“I could not pray the depression away. It was looking at me, dead in the eye, begging to be seen.”

 

For years, I ignored my own mental health for fear of looking weak or being alienated by my friends. It is only when I got to Cambridge that I realised the problem could no longer be ignored. I could not pray the depression away. It was looking at me, dead in the eye, begging to be seen. Naturally, my first instinct was to hide it. Ignore it in the hopes that I could fool everyone around me, including myself. The only one who could see me for who and what I really was, was God. The guilt of disappointing my family, who expected me to be the pious stable Cambridge girl, ate at me every day.

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Image: Shehr Bano Hassan

I became angry at myself and afraid of who I could become. I began bribing God. I would pray 5 times a day if I could have one full night’s sleep. I would fast for 30 days if my friends would hate me less. I begged and pleaded for a solution. It was only until I went to a real therapist that I realised I was being crushed by the stigma under which I had been raised. I did not love God anymore, I feared Him.  

Don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting that faith in God is an inaccurate reaction to stresses in life. Many people I know have found solace in the arms of religion. Not only does religion provide guidance in the absence of community support, it encourages the idea that someone is always listening, something that I found comforting at times too. However, that does not change the fact that stigma around mental health leaves little room for frank discussion in families, let alone the wider Muslim community.

A dismissal of someone’s experiences of mental illness can be particularly debilitating and discourages openness. Attributing serious ailments such as depression or schizophrenia to a lack of belief in God only works to alienate the most vulnerable in our society. Islam encourages a close-knit community where supporting the wellbeing of your fellow kin is paramount. We must begin to use these teachings as a way of encouraging open discussion about mental health issues, so that young people like me never feel embarrassed at asking for support. Love of God and mental health problems should not be taught to be mutually exclusive. God will love you no matter what, right?

 


Header image by Dylan_Payne

I don’t want to think about my trauma anymore

Anon

CN: PTSD, suicide

 

When will it end? How do I know when I’ve thrown myself into it, embraced my emotions, and felt it enough?

I understand the Freudian notion of repression, and it being the enemy of all ‘progress’. I get that if I hide my trauma under the bed, I’m still sleeping on it every night – if I shove it in the closet, one unsuspecting day it’s going to tumble out on me as I go to get dressed in the morning. But also, how do I know when mulling it over and over, and what feels like repeatedly re-traumatising myself by thinking about it, is no longer productive?

It’s got to be ready for archive one day. I thought it would be strikingly obvious when this day came – I would feel ‘over it’, and it would just no longer sting me like it did before. I thought that it hinged on lingering feelings, or a backlog of emotions that just needed to be let out in a flood, or silly sharpened memories that would eventually fade to fuzz. I expected that the poisonous thoughts and nightmare-fuel that occupied most of my miserable time would eventually take up less and less space, until eventually I didn’t even realise that it hadn’t crossed my mind in days, weeks even. I hoped that when I reached this stage, even when I brought it to mind and tried to think it all over, tried to relive it, tried to give it a shake, it would just rattle, hollow, like it was empty.

More than a year on, and it is not so. Whenever I even try to pick it up to shake, it’s so fucking heavy that before I know it I’ve dropped it, and it’s floored me with it.

But I’ve never done trauma before, so I really had no idea what to expect. I was trying to apply rules of logic and of normal, everyday human behaviour to what is quite objectively an unfair, illogical, irrational situation. The nature of this beast feels like new territory.

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Forgetting feels like the easiest option. (Credit: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Focus Features, 2004)

I hate the word PTSD. It seems to rope together concepts of the frantic and the shocking, and the clinical, all at once. It feels like sudden, clear, black and white movie-style flashbacks, and shrinking into the foetal position in tears in the middle of a shopping centre. It feels loud and aggressive, when what happened to me was slow and insidious – it still almost killed me – but it wasn’t wailing or shouting or glass shattering. It was being confused, weak, misdirected, helpless, exploited, prodded and poked until I was suicidal. Do I even qualify? What will my recovery be? What’s my trajectory?

Georgia says that progress isn’t linear, and she’s right. Part of this, for me, is reflected by the fact that the general trend of me feeling better has been undermined by many bumps, major setbacks, and even starting from the beginning again a few times. Sometimes I do go long stretches without it hurting me. But I still have nightmares, and at least every couple of weeks there will be a few days where I can’t do much – can’t get out of bed or wash or feed myself like I’d like to. And they’re always triggered by the same thing: I’ve allowed myself to indulge in thinking about it –  really thinking about it – for any longer than a few minutes.

 

“It’s always triggered by the same thing: I’ve allowed myself to indulge in thinking about it –  really thinking about it – for any longer than a few minutes.”

 

I struggle to conceptualise the way my brain works sometimes, but as you might be able to tell, metaphors help me iron things out. I’ve recently developed a new metaphor for this process that works quite well. I feel like my mind is a bit like a big stretch of space, with a number of big black holes in it. A lot of the time, I’m okay floating around in the expanse, but if I get a thought that is anywhere near any of the black holes, I start down a spiral and before I know it, I get sucked in and can’t seem to climb out. There’s no light in there, in fact there’s nothing good or productive in there at all, but I’m pulled deeper and deeper and resurfacing seems all the more impossible. Some black holes are bigger, and have a bigger pull than others. This one is the strongest.

Sometimes I just want to repress it. I’ve done the therapy and the talking to friends until they tell me it’s time to let it go and grow from this and the crying in the library and the diary entries. I’ve done the I’m an inspiration because of what I’ve been through and still picked myself up on the other side pep talks in the mornings. But I don’t want to be strong anymore. I don’t want to throw myself into my feelings or embrace the pain or be fucking mindful about it. I don’t want to face it. I just want to forget it. There’s nothing at the bottom of any of the black holes; it just keeps going and going until I can’t remember how I got there but it’s all around me. I just want to forget it. Is that really so unhealthy?

 


Header image by A. Tag

Self-care is hard when you hate yourself

By Florence Oulds

Cambridge

CN: Depression, anxiety, food

 

Earlier this year, I pre-ordered a copy of Ruby Tandoh & Leah Pritchard’s zine Do What You Want. I really like Ruby’s writing on food and ‘health eating’ culture, and think it’s wonderful that all of the profits from the zine go to charities like Mind, Beat, and Centre for Mental Health.

However, when the book actually arrived, and was in my hands, and was no longer the vague idea of charity and wellbeing, but instead real words, thoughts, and feelings about the practicalities and complexities of caring for yourself – I realised the book was not for me at all.

This is not a critique of Tandoh and the book’s other contributors, but of me: I can make no use of what is essentially a ‘self-care’ book, because I don’t want to care for myself.

Yes, I eat at least three meals a day, and try to get in a decent amount of fruit & veg despite my sweet tooth. I shower every day (otherwise I feel dirty) and clean my teeth twice a day. I know I need to get a good amount of sleep otherwise I’ll get ill, so I always try and prioritise that.

But, also, I really deeply hate myself and have incredibly low self-esteem.

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By Ali Edwards

I’ve been fairly active on Twitter and Tumblr since around 2012, and from the very beginning it’s been evident that the majority of the people in these communities that I’ve grown up with are in some way mentally ill, especially those who experience multiple intersections of oppression.

Seeing the long term effects of illness and societal pressures on lives is a complicated thing, and I don’t think I could really talk about in any succinct way, but I was very glad when I noticed a culture of self-care emerging: the people that I loved were learning that it was a good and radical thing to love themselves in very productive ways.

It’s just never been for me.

I’m a very impulsive person. Not in the sense that I will just decide to buy plane tickets to Australia or get a drunken tattoo, but when my body suddenly wants something, I give it to it because it’s easier than the constant nagging of want. When I eat something that I crave, the ‘part’ of my brain that hates my Self and my body gets to tell me that I’m a disgusting piece of shit, and I feel awful about every bite I take.

From this removed and simplified perspective, it’d be easy to say that the solution is to sever that connection between what can be viewed as the ‘illness’ and the ‘craving’, justifying the ‘natural’ wants of a body from the ‘invader’ of mental illness.

 

“Once you’ve ‘had’ something like this for so long, you get attached to it, and it does form part of your identity.”

 

But of course it’s not that simple, mostly because I’ve been living with this illness for a long time. When I was 15 or so I looked up to a lot of artists who very clearly had depression or similar issues, and the art I loved was all about that pain, and the complexity and beauty of the Self in pain. I needed that torture, and like a spoiled kid on Christmas, I got what I really wanted.

Depression, and varying states of ill-health, are things I’ve been living with for at least 5 or 6 years, and the problem I have is a very common one, that once you’ve ‘had’ something like this for so long, you get attached to it, and it does form part of your identity. The idea of changing myself from what I am now seems genuinely horrifying, even though my now means constantly feeling despair, self-hatred, and anxiety.

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By Yasmeen

Part of knowing mentally ill people for so long has been learning how to care and be supportive of people, and for a long time this was the only way I could feel good about myself, which it turns out is distinctly unhealthy, as your happiness preys on others’ unhappiness. What has taken me a very long time to learn though is that if someone is ill and doesn’t want to get better, you really can’t fight them for their own health, or force them to heal in any way that they’re not comfortable and committed to.

And sometimes that person is you.

In this situation you end up living in a way that is not so much living but avoiding the worse feelings, avoiding yourself and your own issues, living for other people and what they want (or you think they want) from you. This kind of living feels inherently thin and false, as you’re aware of the great gulf beneath you but looking anywhere else but down, you’re aware of how every eye watching you must see through the thin, pathetic veil of your personality, but you are unable to meet their gaze honestly without totally falling apart.

This morning while scrolling through Tumblr I saw this post, and it was one moments where a brief piece of information finally gives voice to what you were thinking:

 

“not to sound like jenny holzer but instant gratification is the enemy of self care”

-Tumblr user imanes, July 7th, 2017

 

Aside from the hilarious notion of someone being self-conscious of their truisms because of Jenny Holzer, this really drove home for me the difference between the things I do for myself out of want or even self-pity, and the actual productive healing that self-care requires.

Overall, it’s been very easy for me to convince myself that the destructive, self-sabotaging things I do to myself are okay because they’re #SelfCare, and that’s what we’re all supposed to be doing, so instead of going to therapy, I’ll just stay at home and destroy my body.

If there’s any conclusion to this it’s that while it’s incredibly important to have a positive, present culture of self-care that acknowledges its necessity for oppressed groups in an oppressive society, we must also acknowledge that this practice in its many forms really is not for everyone, and we can’t pretend that it is.

Whether self-care is a quick band aid for a bad day or a more sustainable structure of recovery, sometimes the impetus for ‘making yourself better’ just simply does not exist.

 


Header image by Patrick Copley

‘Go talk to a war veteran about PTSD, kid’

By Izzy Smith

CN: PTSD, rape, harassment,

graphic violence, suicide

sexism, stigma, victim-blaming

 

Post-traumatic stress disorder seems to be one of the few mental health problems that people actually believe can be severe and debilitating, and not simply a sign of weakness or attention seeking. This is probably because, unusually for a mental health problem, it always has a clear external cause, and because it is commonly associated with men, and ‘masculine’ experiences like combat. This association is so strong in the public consciousness that PTSD caused by forms of trauma more commonly experienced by women is often dismissed or disbelieved. It seems that respect for the seriousness of PTSD comes at the price of constant vigilante gatekeeping regarding which trauma is really severe enough to cause it.

PTSD is ‘an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events.’ It is characterised by re-experiencing the traumatic event, for example through flashbacks; avoidance and emotional numbing, as well as hyperarousal (being anxious, highly aware of threats and easily startled). While men and women are comparably likely to experience a traumatic event, women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD as a result (20.4% vs 8.1%). This is primarily because sexual assault, the leading type of trauma among women, is more likely to cause PTSD than most other traumatic events, including accidents, the most common type of trauma experienced by men. Rape, which is experienced by one third of women, is a form of interpersonal trauma, the type most strongly associated with PTSD, and also imposes powerlessness, considered central to the development of the disorder. Half of rape victims develop PTSD, compared to one fifth of firefighters. Other trauma more commonly experienced by women, notably, child abuse and domestic violence, are also examples of interpersonal trauma.

 

‘You will soon forget about it in the joy of motherhood’

 

The US National Center for PTSD also cites the fact that women are ‘more likely to blame themselves for traumatic experiences’ as a reason for their heightened risk of PTSD – a mentality that is encouraged by a culture of victim-blaming and slut-shaming. It also finds that women are more likely to develop PTSD if they suffer further stressful events after trauma, certainly a common occurrence when we consider this victim blaming that rape survivors are so often subjected to, even within the courts, and the low prosecution rates for rape (2%). Only prisoners of war experience similar risk of PTSD.

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By Elias Quezada

However, despite the fact that more women develop PTSD, and that trauma most commonly affecting women proves more likely to result in PTSD, it is widely considered exclusively a veterans’ disorder. Civilian female PTSD sufferers are often dismissed or even attacked. The mental health charity, ‘Mind’, notes regarding PTSD following birth complications that ‘The impact of these experiences is often underestimated, as people may feel that the baby is adequate compensation for the trauma and that…you will soon forget about it in the joy of motherhood.

 

‘She’s confusing PTSD with menopause’

 

Melody Hensley, an executive at the CFI, who was diagnosed with PTSD after ‘a vicious flood of online and social media attacks that included threats of rape, murder and photographs of dismembered women,’ has been widely disbelieved, ridiculed and further harassed. The Pew Research Centre for Internet and Technology found that ‘young women experience particularly severe forms of online harassment,’ with 26% having been stalked online, and 25% having been targets of online sexual harassment, compared to 6% and 7% of the general population respectively. Even though her employers confirmed her diagnosis, and psychologists such as Caleb W Lack agreed that PTSD can be caused by extreme bullying, including online, the Daily Mail published an article entitled: ‘”Twitter gave me PTSD”: Woman claims mean comments and “cyberstalking” gave her an illness usually suffered by WAR VETERANS.’ Twitter users declared ‘You’re a disgusting and horrible human,’ ‘Kill yourself please. You are a dumb bitch,’ and, ‘She’s confusing PTSD with menopause,’ their expressions of outrage taking distinctly misogynistic directions. Users seemed to take her diagnosis as an insult to veterans, and as belittling the horrors of war, telling her, ‘Go get blown up and see your friends die, then you’ll understand true PTSD,’ and ‘Go talk to a war veteran about PTSD, kid.’

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Public domain photography

Lady Gaga faced similar responses to disclosing that she suffers from PTSD, having been raped at 19. One commenter on the Guardian site asked, ‘How many more times will she bring up this story?’ continuing a clear trend of colouring women’s suffering as attention seeking. Piers Morgan evidently agreed, accusing her of ‘promo[ting her]self,’ and responding, ‘No, soldiers returning from battlefields do [have PTSD]. Enough of this vainglorious nonsense. Any suggestion of comparability between trauma from combat and from rape is seen to minimise the seriousness of combat-related trauma. This says a lot about how dismissive our society is about rape. Seemingly people only see PTSD as legitimate if they perceive the cause to be suitably traumatic, and rape is widely regarded as insufficiently serious.

‘Go get blown up and see your friends die, then you’ll understand true PTSD’

 

PTSD only being seen as valid for these ‘masculine’ traumas is not only counterfactual, but destructive. It functions to deny the severity of problems that disproportionately affect women, like sexual assault and domestic violence. On a large scale, this enables the underfunding of Rape Crisis organisations, and continued lack of consent education in our schools. On an individual level, it silences rape survivors from discussing how their experiences have affected them, branding those who do speak up as disrespectful to ‘real’ sufferers, i.e. veterans, whose trauma is supposedly more legitimate.

This also makes rape survivors, and other PTSD sufferers whose trauma is not considered valid, less likely to seek help, with 40% of adults who screened positive for PTSD not having spoken to their GP about a mental or emotional problem in the past year. Gendered perceptions of rape and PTSD most likely particularly affect male rape survivors, with men already significantly less likely to seek help for mental illnesses.

Interpersonal causes of PTSD, and PTSD in women, are also under researched. The illness was first recognised in First World War soldiers, and early studies were conducted on Vietnam veterans. It was only realised that rape could have a similar effect much later. Still, the majority of studies into stress responses involve male lab animals, and most trauma research on humans involves combat veterans and motorbike crash survivors. This is a particular problem, since recent neuroimaging studies show differences in brain activation patterns between PTSD dominated by hyperarousal and by dissociation. The latter kind is more common among women after interpersonal trauma, and carries an increased risk of developing into chronic PTSD, and resisting drug and psychotherapy treatment.

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By frankieleon

This scorn for PTSD caused by rape specifically is also symbiotic with a culture of disbelief and rape victim-blaming. If the arguments, ‘it probably didn’t happen’ (as Piers Morgan also said of Lady Gaga) and ‘it was probably her fault’ fail, then denying the traumatic nature of sexual assault is a third way to silence victims and protect abusers. When women are victimised, the public is quick to rewrite this narrative: she herself is ‘playing the victim,’ or she made herself too attractive a victim by being alone, or drunk, or pretty, or already vilified for promiscuity. Or, she isn’t a victim at all, and the real victim is the man who will spend six months in prison for raping her and no longer enjoys his favourite food, or who will lose his college scholarship – or veterans, who have to suffer her stating that she has the same condition as them.

‘It probably didn’t happen, it was probably her fault. She is playing the victim’

 

This is an example of how the underassessment and dismissal of problems commonly affecting women can cause real damage. We need to understand and admit that the shocking rates of rape and domestic violence, especially against women, are a serious issue. They require an organised and concerted response both preventatively, through consent education, and after the fact, through properly funding Rape Crisis and mental health services. We also need to understand the complexity of trauma and PTSD before trying to participate in conversations about these issues. I believe it would be useful to teach school children basic information about some common mental health problems, perhaps in PSHE (replacing a few of the hundreds of ‘don’t do drugs, kids!’ sessions). This would help combat stigma based on misinformation and a lack of understanding.

Our understanding of a common illness being clouded by gendered misconceptions feeds misogyny, mental illness stigma and low rates of sufferers seeking treatment.

 


Header image by isosceles