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It has been a long time since I last wrote an entry here, and for the most part I would put that down to the vastly improved state of mind I have had over the past year to 15 months. There have of course been lows, but nothing in comparison to what I would usually go through in my yearly rollercoaster ride of mental state. 

So much has happened in the past year, I really don't know where to start, so in no particular chronological order, I will break it down into pieces, and have a ramble. 

RCGP. I have been working with them again this year, helping medical students better understand the presentation, diagnosis, and treatment of anxiety and depression. It never ceases to amaze me how natural some are with the situation, and show genuine compassion. While others struggle a little, almost suffering from reverse stigma, and feeling uncomfortable about discussing someone elses mental health. It is those I hope to make an impression on the most. This years sessions have been very different, moving to online Teams consultations. Which in itself has taught me a lot about myself, whilst making life a whole lot more comfortable. Mainly because it avoids the commute into town to the RCGP, which in itself is hugely stressful for someone with social anxiety.

Working from home has been a complete game changer for me, I should have started with this really, as it could drag on, but here goes anyway. 

Being quite and introvert and socially anxious person, personal interactions with others can be quite draining. Over the past year or so, I have felt much more alert, and fresh throughout the working day. Not spending mental energy on social things that actually have no impact on my working day, and rather spending the extra energy I find myself with, getting stuck into projects at work. The physical aspect of getting to the office has never been an issue for me, in fact I enjoyed my daily 10 mile each way commute by bike, as it gave me time and space to prepare myself for the shift ahead. The more exhausting part was being in an office, and that was purely mental exhaustion.

That is just the tip of the iceberg for working from home for me. There are SO many pros, and at best a sprinkling of cons. Being able to work whatever hours the day demands is no longer a stress. Getting a call to say there is a sickness, or something is up and I am needed in ASAP, once meant rushing my routine (which is very important to me) and driving into work. This was always the start of a bad day. Now, the same call means walking into my home office and logging in. Be it for 5 mins, or the rest of the day, I am in effect "on call" whenever needed. 

As far as mental wellbeing goes, I can honestly say, in 15-16 months now, I have had one dip. It lasted about a week, I had a lot going on at home too at the time, and at worst it meant a slight lack of focus for me, nothing more. Even through the winter months, which we have effectively had 2 cycles of during WFH now, I have been much better than I can ever recall being in many years gone by. The much expected low simply hasn't arrived. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever, that working from home has been the key to this massive shift for me. 

Although as I write this, I am more than aware that the end of June is just over a month away. This is the date for the next "checkpoint" for the UK Government, and indeed my employer to consider, and detail the next stages of what is to come for the "new normal". This in itself has probably wobbled me more than anything in the past year or more. The uncertainty of what comes next. Will it be all back to the office, will there be a choice? Flexible working from home and office throughout the week has been mentioned. As has the "choice" of home or office. Personally, for me, home is the best way, and the only way I can stay on this level. 

I know it is expecting way too much, and it is far from a demand. Having worked for the company for over 20 years now, I know how important oversight is for management, and appreciate the trust put in us to work from home, and be trusted to go the best possible job we can. But you cannot ignore the fact that during the pandemic, while it has suited, it has been OK. The idea for certain departments to work from home in the past was simply out of the question, and not a discussion even worth starting. However I think, if the recent events have shown us anything, it is that it IS possible, and the outcome is probably more a more productive, coercive workgroup.

I think it is clear from the paragraphs above, what my feelings are on returning to an office environment. I simply don't want to. I am happy to be checked up on, visited at home, or whatever other measures are required to keep me safe and alone in my home office. Which I have to say is a lot better equipped than my office based desk was. Mainly through buying things at my own expense, but something I am quite happy to do in the longterm. Heck I would even consider a pay freeze for a while, How's that for an offer?

Anyway, enough about working from home, for now at least.

In other areas of life, the fresher state of mind for me has allowed me to look after myself physically too. Cutting out a lot of the junk food, which was mainly whilst in the office at work. Taking the time I would have spent commuting to take better care of myself. Getting back into running has been huge for me. Since Xmas I have gone from doing Couch to 5K, to running a half marathon distance. A distance I have never achieved before, so to day I am feeling good is an understatement. That on top of working out, and still getting as much cycling done as I can, and that all rounds up to another huge tick in the box for this new normal.

I think one of the strangest parts of the whole thing has been the social isolation. Something I crave most of the time, suddenly became something everyone was doing. No longer was it a fight to get personal space, in fact it was insisted upon. It has been quite incredible, and I know that there have been other friends of mine who have found it equally as much of a relief.  That is not to say the isolation for many has not been crippling. 

I am not going to sit here, and selfishly say how great things have been. The pandemic has been horrific on so many levels. Losing loved ones to a cruel virus, being kept apart from those we crave to be with, for long durations, business collapses and so many other horrible effects from it all. The pandemic is not one of those things this generation will ever forget. But on the flip side, some people learned what it is like to feel detached from society, unable to engage, as much as you would love to. A greater understanding has been found of what social anxiety feels like. In this case, afraid to go out in case of catching the virus, but to many like me, the same anxiety is found simply by going out and interacting with others, even when they are perfectly healthy, and of no threat.

OK, my brain is a little fried from this sudden outburst of expression, so I am going to leave it there for now. But will come back to this soon, and carry on my catch up on how things are. 

Thanks as ever for reading.

Take care

Riding home from work one evening this week, something suddenly came to me. A moment of clarity, a rare thing these days! Triggers! What are they, and starts my anxious mind spinning. 

Whilst having a late night Netflix binge at the start of the week, I got watching "Your Mind, Explained". A series of shorts I have to recommend, especially for anyone trying to get to grips with any mental health issues.  One episode in particular resonated with me, surprise, surprise it was the one about Anxiety. In a couple of minutes, with a couple of simple diagrams, the process which causes anxiety to be an issue is explained brilliantly.

To recap, anxiety is a natural feeling, which is why everyone at some point refers to moments of anxiety. From remembering to doing things before leaving home, to triggers which help up make decisions in the blink of an eye (cross or don't cross the road etc), identifying danger, using our past experiences, or things we have learned growing up. Anxiety is a necessary process to keep us safe and functioning. 

The problem arises when that process is used irrationally, albeit unintentionally. There is a time and place for genuine anxiety. Most will know the unwanted kind which tends to pop up when you are in a new environment, or in a situation which could change things for you, exams etc. This is usually a short lived thing, but it triggers all sorts of physical actions. Upset stomach, dry mouth, you know, all those things which you really don't need right there and then. 

For others, these moments are all too frequent, and triggered by what most would deem the most insignificant of events. Getting on a crowded train or bus for example. For me, this can be complete hell, for most it is just an unwanted situation, but one you will get through with little more than a little reluctance. 

As I was taught by Netflix, this is Social Anxiety, and quite simply, it is the feeling of being judged and watched by everyone around you. Fearing that you are not worthy, not wanted, or just don't fit in. Simple eye contact can turn into a fast spinning whirlwind of panic. Of course, eye contact is something 95% of people avoid in confined spaces anyway, which is demonstrated by our love of phones, games consoles, and newspapers when using public transport. Not to mention my two favourites, headphones and sunglasses. 

Then there is the sort of anxiety I noticed on the ride home, and a far more common one for me. Situational anxiety. Have you ever had a confrontation with someone, and found yourself replaying it in your head? The confrontation lasted 30 seconds, a quick exchange of words, and it's over. But for you, in your mind, the next 20-30 mins are spent dwelling on it. Replaying it, rethinking what you could have, or should have said or done? I am guessing at that time period, as for me, it can last a few hours or a few days. I kid you not. Revisiting the situation, going through the whole thing from start to finish, examining what was said by the other party, exploring what could have been meant by every word. Wondering what that person is thinking or saying about you, how could you have handled it differently. Wondering if they are even bothered about it, or simply moved on. 

An exchange on social media last week is a great example of that. And for the few words that were said, their meaning was chewed over for a couple of days at least. With the intentions towards me,  of the person saying them mulled over too. 

Anyway, back to the ride... 

Riding along a quiet road, decent pace, I noticed a few young lads by the side of the road throwing conkers at each other. From about 50-100 metres away I could see what they were doing. Playful, laughing, no aggression.  However as I got closer I started thinking they might throw something at me as I passed. A lone cyclist, quiet road, I mean, why not, that's what kids do, right. 

Now I KNOW this isn't what all kids do, and I know it is completely irrational to assume something would happen, but that is how this mind works. So now I am getting tense. Remember this is all happening within 50-100 metres at about 20mph! Getting closer I can feel my grip on the bars increasing, shoulders tensing, waiting, preparing for something to be thrown my way. 

Will it hit me, will something bounce on the ground near me, will it make me fall off or wobble. Just the one or multiple, if they do, should I stop, should I just shout, maybe just ride on. If I stop or shout, what do I say, do I swear and become immediately aggressive, laugh it off, turn around and confront them. 

If I say something, what if they reply, would it turn physical, 3 onto 1, confronting is a bad idea, but why should they get away with it... And so on.
10 seconds later, I have passed them, stiff as a board, stressed as I can possibly be. Breathing out for the first time since seeing them.... NOTHING! They are still messing about, play fighting among each other, probably didn't even see me pass by. A few deep breaths, the cycle of anxiety broken this time around, and I carry on on my way home. 

Within a minute of this happening, my mind is busy, writing this blog entry in my head. It's a breakthrough! Finally I have a perfect example of how the anxious mind works, and how quickly normality can become hell for some people. Similar cycles pop up repeatedly for the remainder of the ride home, and every ride which has any kind of interaction or even just potential interaction with people along the way.

Now imagine that thought process, almost ever present, ready to leap out at you and start spinning. Any situation is a potential trigger, it just takes the wrong word, look, or environment for it all to start spinning. Shopping, travelling, driving, the list is endless. And the list is very different for different people. 

So finally after almost a week, here I am writing this, hoping that it once again strikes a chord with one or two people out there, and makes some sense of what they are feeling. Or in some cases, makes it easier for others to understand how some peoples minds works. 

Anxiety and avoidance go hand in hand for this exact reason. It is not the fear of the activity or event, not the lack of will to participate. But instead the fear of the unknown, unplanned, unforseen. Being unprepared for a situation which might arise, and the subsequent spiral of thoughts it will induce. 

Meeting a stranger for the first time. I can outwardly appear fine about it. My natural defences will help me fight through the situation with some dark humour, a little laughter and finding a way to speed my way through the encounter. Like a duck in water, on the surface, all seems calm, I am gliding along through the conversation or situation. But below the surface, all hell is breaking loose. Legs kicking like crazy, struggling to stay afloat and present.

While I may glide through a situation with apparent ease. By the end of it I am absolutely exhausted and drained. Needing some me time to recharge, regroup, before I can even contemplate being in a similar situation. The natural ability to fight through a situation can become a serious drain on the mind, and if put in a situation too many times, in too short a period of time, can lead to a complete shutdown. 

This is something I try and avoid putting myself through. So if ever you see me being quiet, doing my own thing, not being too chatty or getting into big conversations, that is more than likely all that is going on with me. The same I would guess would apply to some others too. 

To put it into context, when the average person has a physically exhausting day, it is nice to put your feet up in the evening. When the same person has a long week, it is nice for them to take the weekend to themselves to get their energy back. When you do that for too long without a good enough rest, you become weak, exhausted, and unable to function correctly..

Welcome to my mind.... It is exactly the same, you just can't see the soreness, or massage it away. It just takes time. 

Phew, speaking of exhaustion... For once, it is physical for me, and that is a nice feeling. Doesn't mean I will sleep any better, but it is nice to physically feel recovery once in a while.

Speaking of sleeping, before I go... YOGA!

I blogged about relaxation the other day, with James and his reflexology being one way to recharge. At the moment yoga is my thing. Spending time with yourself, relaxing the mind while working the body hard, all in the privacy of my home, and not moving an inch. The best part being, with no risk of encountering anyone in the process. 30 minutes of a near state of meditation is an amazing thing, and something I am really benefiting from. So if you get a chance, relax, be at one with yourself, and take some time out to relax your mind. 

A few deep breaths here, and I am done.... 

Namaste