Tag Archives: stress

Woman looking out the window calmly

Should we be normalising mental illness?

Awareness around mental illness is certainly getting better, reducing stigma and discrimination is important but are we doing the general population a disservice?

1 in 4 mental health awareness. 4 silhouettes, 3 are blue and 1 is has words such as “there’s too much to do” and “why does it always happen to me?”

The figure is 1 in 4 people will suffer with a mental illness at some point in their lives. There are also statistics out there about how many anti-depressants are prescribed each year or the number of sick days mental illness costs companies. Some say “mental illness is on the rise”, perhaps due to the state of our economy, social media or life stresses from other sources.

But, perhaps we need to stop and think. Not coping is different from mental illness.

Talking recently to someone working in Child and Adolscent Mental Health, she said she is seeing a rise in children being referred to her service but this is not due to a rise in mental illness, she is seeing a rise in children not coping and a decrease in resilience.

This seems to be the same across all sector of the population.

The phrase “panic attack” has become synonymous with feeling anxious. Now, I do not want to diminish anyone’s anxiety but if you’re stood in a queue in the supermarket “having a panic attack” but you “kept it in” – you did not have a panic attack. You may have experienced extreme anxiety, and I’m not saying that is ok, you may need to learn some techniques to manage feeling anxious but please do not use a medical phrase for a normal emotion.

An outline head and shoulders with thought bubbles saying, “worry”, “anxiety”, “fear”, “tension” and “panic”.

The language around mental illness is diffciult because they’re standard English words. You can feel depressed without being diagnosed with depression, you can feel paranoid without suffering panaroia (a symptom of mental illness), you can feel anxious without having a diagnosis of anxiety. By raising awareness, we’re making all these words more accessible and they’re falling into common use. But bandying medical words around in common parlance diminishes their meaning in the context of illness.

If you suffer severe fluctuations in emotions that feel uncomfortable, please do talk to someone, you are allowed support, I do not want to take that away from you. After all, apparently Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living”. You do not have to be ill to access support, explore yourself and your life and to develop better coping strategies. Nor do you need to justify your struggles by using medical terminology.

I started training to be a counsellor because I want to help people diagnosed with mental illness but the more I learn, the more I see how incredibly helpful it can be for people who’re struggling with life’s ups and downs. It’s ok to seek counselling or other support when things just don’t feel right.

Words on a rainy back ground, “it is perfectly okay to admit you’re not okay”

It’s great that people are getting more comfortable in talking about their emotions but we need to be able to differentiate between people who’re struggling and people who’re ill. It’s ok to say “I’m having a bit of a tough time” or “I’m not feeling so great today” – the #hashtag #itsoknottobeok is falling into common use and this is helpful for everyone’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

If you’d sprained your ankle, you wouldn’t say you’d fractured it, put it in a cast and use crutches would you? A sprained ankle needs appropriate support. If I had a sprained ankle but I acted as though it was broken and treated it as such, i.e. immobilised it etc, it would get worse, not better.

By normalising mental illness and by normalising the language, we risk normal struggles being treated as illness. Since recovering from mental illness, I’m not immune from normal life struggles but I’m acutely aware they are just that.

By raising awareness of mental illness, we need to be careful we don’t label all emotional struggles as “illness”. We need to make sure we’re also raising awareness of the differences between illness and not coping.

Quote “The unexamined life is not worth living” accredited to Socrates. On a black and White Sea scape background
Pencil drawing of eye tearing

Is it ok to cry?

Recently, work stress got too much for someone I know and they broke down in tears but instead of blurting out everything they were upset about, through their tears they were saying things like “don’t tell anyone”, “don’t let anyone see me” and “I was in the army, this isn’t like me”.

I found it very sad that instead of letting herself express her emotion naturally, as she needed to, she was desperate to cover it up and pretend it wasn’t happening. As it turned out – someone did see and to cut a long story short, the biggest stressor was removed and issue was resolved. I’m not saying that crying was the only way to solve the problem, it would have been better if her rational requests for more support and time had been heard but since they hadn’t, if she’d hidden her tears at home or in the toilet (as so many are), she would still be in the same ridiculously stressful situation with unrealistic expectations being placed upon her.

Close up of eye with tears

When working as a doctor I would frequently feel overwhelmed and would have to dash to the toilet to compose myself. I would take a few deep breaths and prepare myself to face the patients again – this was a holding pattern – nothing was being resolved. I hid it for as long as I could but one time when I broke down in front of a colleague, it was such a relief when she insisted I talk to her about how stressed I felt. She couldn’t solve my problems, I was ill and needed professional support, but it was really helpful knowing she was knew what I was going through and she was there for me when I needed her.

No one should have to resort to crying at work to resolve a stressful situation but just as laughter is a way to express joy, happiness, confusion or embarrassment, tears are a way of expressing sadness and pain.

Tears are the words the heart can’t say

When I feel especially passionate about something, often, I will get chocked up. I get frustrated, feeling concerned that my tears my detract from my words. But in truth, it’ll be the fact that I’m stopping myself from tearing that will detract from my words. If I let myself express my passion using my words and my tears, perhaps the power of my passion would be communicated.

As well as emotions, we also tear up in response to compassion, morality, sympathy and physical pain – these are automatic responses. Our eyes also tear in response to irritants such as smoke, pollen or onions, this is to protect the eye.

I’d not do this subject justice if I didn’t comment on the male:female divide – females cry 3-4 times more often than males. In the story I relayed above, why was it relavent that she’d been in the army? My question is rhetorical, I know exactly what she meant. My point is, why is it considered “strong and manly” to be able to not cry? As I explained in this post about men expressing their emotions, it’s human to express emotions. It’s unhelpful and unhealthy to keep emotions locked away.

I think we’ve got a long way to go but I’m just trying to say we should not be afraid of tears. As a side note, physically, tears are healthy for our eyes, they keep them lubricated, protected from irritants and have antimicrobial properties. Tears contain stress hormones and some studies have shown that this can be a helpful way for them to leave the body.

I’m not saying “go on everyone, have a good cry”. The support we receive when we cry is important. A good cry can feel cathartic but if we cry and don’t receive support, we can be left feeling shame. Perhaps we all just need to have a little more understanding and acceptance of crying, it is just a natural way to express an emotion.

Work stress nearly cost me my life

As Mental Health Awareness Week comes to an end I thought I’d write a bit about my personal journey and (hopefully) warn against the dangers of work stress.
I struggled with my health all through uni. As an introvert, I found the social life expected was too much for me, it was so far out of my comfort zone, I had to pretend to be someone else and that cost me more energy than I had. Team this was a course (medicine) that I found very difficult; the high proportion of patient contact was great experience but, again, cost me energy I didn’t have.
With my commitments sapping me energy, my mood plummeted and my thoughts followed. I felt I wasn’t good enough, I couldn’t cope, I was completely useless and I had imposted syndrome – someone was going to find out, I was a fraud and discover I didn’t have what it takes to be a doctor.
I got through medical school thinking “I just need to get through, it will be better when I qualify, there will be fewer assessments and I can get on with doing what I want to do, be a doctor”.
Unfortunately, when I qualified, while the daunting exams were over and I felt relieved that I’d made it, the stress did not stop. It might sound silly but until I qualified, I don’t think I realised that people’s lives were literally in my hands!
Yes, as a junior doctor, you have the support of a team but when on call or, as I was, working in a hospital with few doctors, it was down to me. I felt completely overwhelmed with the responsibility and felt I didn’t know enough. Imposter syndrome was crushing my confidence, the anxiety was crippling. Every time I needed to think clearly and quickly, my brain froze. Literally, no thoughts would come through my mind and I struggled to take action.
I spent many moments crying in the toilet. But this just led to guilt, I couldn’t do my job hiding and crying, so I’d dry my eyes and put on a brave face.
I still thought, “if I just get through this stage…” but I couldn’t survive thinking that at every stage. I tried to confide in my colleagues and they reassured me and supported me as best they could but my health couldn’t hold up.
One day I was a doctor, the next I was a patient.
My depression was severe and I was experiencing psychotic symptoms with my anorexia. My life was at risk with self harm and suicidal behavior. Of course, there were many contributing factors but work stress was right up there!
If you’re feeling work stress, please talk to someone, don’t hope it will get better, it needs managing. Your health is more important than any job.