Friday, July 13, 2018

Breaking the mental health binary

Recently I was talking to a friend on the phone about a certain event in my life. I used the word "anxiety" to describe my feelings around the situation, to which they replied "oh but you don't have anxiety. You just felt anxious." This made me think. Is it possible to 'have' anxiety, or is anxiety just one feeling on the spectrum of human emotion? I tend to think the latter, but in today's culture where people are increasingly well-versed in psychiatric language, 'anxiety' is increasingly becoming a buzz-term which people are using to self-diagnose their perceived mental abnormalities.

This medicalised approach to normal emotions could be an issue for concern. According to a British Medical Journal blog post by psychiatrist Derek Summerfield, anti-depressant prescriptions have increased from around 9 million in the 1990s to 64.7 million in 2016 - without any evidence that mental wellbeing has improved. To quote Summerfield:

[When] the language of psychological deficit is inserted into the public imagination. People come to see themselves not as normally stressed, but as “ill.”

Psychiatric language around mental health has become so entrenched in everyday speech that normal emotions are being characterised as illnesses - you don't feel anxious, you are anxious. Overtime these narratives become entrenched into the way we think about ourselves and our behaviour. 

A few months ago I was at a party where I didn't know many people. I felt uneasy, uncomfortable, so awkward that I couldn't even make eye contact with anyone and just wanted to go home. This is something I've felt in various degrees of severity my whole life, but armed with the new language I've picked up from friends and the media I started telling myself that what I was feeling was 'social anxiety.' Naming this feeling had the effect of making me feel better ("I'm not alone in feeling this"), yet simultaneously creating a narrative in my head about the way future social events are going to go ("I have social anxiety, I'm going to avoid going to parties where I don't know people in the future to avoid this.") 

In his book How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics Michael Pollan explains one of the reasons that psychedelics have been useful in treating mental illnesses like depression and anxiety is that they break people out of these narrow ways of thinking about themselves and their minds. Rather than reinforcing the narrative ("I'm mentally ill" "there's something wrong with my brain") psychedelics break down the ego and force a different perspective on the self. “The ego is stuck in these stories,” he says. Substances like psilocybin seem to work because “they dope slap people out of their stories.” 

In the studies on psilocybin for mental health, participants often struggle to describe their experience using words. Perhaps it's exactly because these experiences seem to transcend the narrow confines of our language that they are so effective. In this space, a person is no longer able to hang onto their narrative and is therefore finally able to reconceptualise their story.

At the end of the day, mental health is just a construct which humans have built up in order to rationalise their experience of the world. These boxes can be useful but it's also important to get out of them every once in a while.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Washed up in Berlin

So after a few turbulent (to say the least!) months I've arrived in Berlin for the foreseeable future. As is fairly typical of me, I didn't plan this move too much and instead just went off of gut instinct - it's done me well so far and, to quote my dad, 'you should never waste a good crisis.' The crisis certainly would have been wasted had I stayed in London, the city I've been telling myself and everyone I'm trying to get out of for the past two years.

Fortunately I had the offer of a place to stay while I get myself on my feet, which for the moment involves looking for some work and somewhere to live.

I read a quote from Milan Kundera's The Joke recently which resonated with me, "I had several faces because I was young and didn't know who I was or wanted to be." Kundera's protagonist is probably about five years younger than me but considering everyone lives longer these days I'll take it. For me personally at the moment the main dilemma revolves around work. My interests span a broad category which I guess could be considered 'wellness', both of the mental and physical kind, but within that there's some broader questions. How do I make my life meaningful for myself and others? How do I make my life meaningful for myself and others and get paid?

The key, I think, is reconciling all your faces - including the ones that seem somewhat contradictory. In the 'about' section of this blog I wrote about all the different masks I've worn on my life journey so far, writing about food, fashion, fitness, society, art, culture... you name it. I have this unshakeable and annoying tendency to want to commit myself wholly to one thing or the other.

Which brings me to my next point. Before heading to Berlin I spent five days in Prague for the Beyond Psychedelics conference. The conference was fascinating and being surrounded by people so passionate about the cause of furthering psychedelic research and culture was incredibly inspiring. It's not something I've spoken about on here before, but I had an experience on a magic mushroom retreat in Jamaica earlier this year which had a profound effect on the way I think about my life. Mainly, I realised that in order to be more at peace with myself I needed to stop being so preoccupied with the 'being' and get on with the 'doing'. Who cares if I'm a Londoner that loves to spend time in the mountains, a yoga and healthy eating enthusiast who also enjoys going out to bars? A mix of contradictions doesn't an un-whole person make.

Anyway, I'll interrupt this self indulgent stream of consciousness now as I'm about to go and sit in a bar to watch England play Belgium in the World Cup.

Auf wiedersehen.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Many mountains to climb

Sometimes it's necessary to shake up your environment to remind yourself what it is you really value.

Despite my previous chirpy positivity about the winter weather, all it took was a couple of nasty colds to make me retreat indoors and stay there. In fact, until this weekend away in Snowdonia I don't think I'd so much as even set a foot in my local park for over a month. Now, for some people I'm sure that's just fine, but if I've learnt one thing about myself over the last five years it's that if I spend too much time in the city, or doing city things, then I go a little nuts.

One of the biggest revelations I had on my year abroad was that I wasn't as much of an urbanite as I thought I was. Living outside of London for pretty much the first time in my life, suddenly all the things that made me anxious at home didn't seem so important any more. In London there's a lot of pressure to 'be' someone, and maybe it's just that I'm a little too inclined to narcissism but it gets me every. time.

It's a huge cliché, but something about fresh air and wide open spaces always helps to put things back into perspective. It's a combination of the reminder that to be warm, comfortable and fed are all we really need in this life, the physical challenge and the sense of insignificance against something so permanent and so old that helps me feel - for lack of a better or less annoying phrase - at peace.

Since returning from Colorado this little glimmer of fundamental truth I believe I discovered has been the driving force behind quite a lot of life decisions. When I left my job in content marketing in 2016 my boss asked me what it was that I actually wanted to do with the journalism MA I was just about to start. "I want to write for an outdoor travel magazine!" I replied. At a Halloween party last year, a much cooler and more successful journalist than me asked the same question. "What I reallllly want to write about is adventure travel" I drunkenly gasped. She looked horrified.

This weekend in Snowdonia reminded me about all of that in a big way. Considering I was just starting to feel as if winter was going to go on forever, this could not have happened at a better time. Not to sound too British about it but we were incredibly fortunate with the weather, and the day we hiked Cnicht was still and sunny. We didn't make it up snow-capped Snowdon this time, but I'm fully intending on returning for it sometime in the Spring.

And the best realisation of all is that with so many mountains to climb on this planet of ours, I've got a whole lifetime of adventures to keep me busy!

Platitudes aside, though, I'm definitely still narcissistic enough to make sure I get a good photograph for Instagram. Which just goes to show that some things will never change.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Sometime last year I was subscribed to an email newsletter called Well + Good, a US based health site 'obsessively covering the wellness scene.' After a few months of receiving really important information about the superfood supplement Jennifer Aniston swears by, or the exercise routine of Gigi Hadid I started to notice a pattern. 'The key thing French women use to wash their faces', 'the super simple way French women get radiant skin', 'things I learnt eating like a French women for a week' etc etc. It seemed to me that aside from setting an impossibly aspirational stereotype of French womanhood, the purpose (intentional or otherwise) of these articles isn't so much as to provide women with skincare advice so much as to make the rest of us feel anxious that we're currently doing it all wrong. We couldn't possibly be doing it right already, you see, because we're not French. This isn't something confined to Well + Good, either, once you're aware of it you start to realise that francophile media directed at women is all over the shop.

Needless to say, I totally bought into it until I went to France (not for the first time, but the first since I started subscribing to Well + Good) and realised/remembered that French people actually aren't all that different from Brits after all.

C'est la vie.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Finished with my MA!

On the 4th December I finally handed in my MA project. For this project, I spent six months researching the topic of social housing in the UK. For the purpose of this piece I chose a local angle by focusing on one particular ex-local authority estate in East Dulwich, using that estate to explore the wider issues around social housing, and particularly the Right to Buy policy.

Take a look at the website I created for my piece here, which includes some photography and video.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Facing the elements

In the UK we have a well documented tendency to talk about the weather, often in negative terms.

Like Goldilocks said, when it's hot, it's too hot, and when it's 10 degrees it's too cold. Whilst I recognise that this is often as much conversational glue than anything else, it can lead to an undue negative outlook on the day - especially during the winter. "Brr" said the barista today as I ordered a tea, "it's bloody freezing". "I know, it's horrible" I replied, on-cue. But as I was cycling home wearing my waterproof jacket and ski gloves with cold, fresh wind blowing in my face, I thought is it really that horrible?

The problem with this negativity is that it often comes hand in hand with a defeatist attitude, and this is especially true when it comes to doing things outdoors. We'll decide not to go to the park/climb a mountain/go for a run and instead opt to hide in a warm pub and wait for it all to blow over.

The thing is, we actually have relatively mild winters here in the UK and provided we wear the right clothing (especially waterproofs) there's not really much we can't do. As Alfred Wainwright once said, "there's no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing," and as a man who spent a lot of his life in the one of the UKs wildest and wettest landscapes he should know.

Anyway, in my experience choosing to embrace the winter rather than avoid it is often pleasantly surprising. Last February, we drove to Devon to do a 10k run and on the day itself it was sunny, and even warm. This year, I'm heading to Manchester in January to visit a friend and I'm hoping to get up to the Peak District, then in February me and Kristy are aiming to climb Snowdon.

It will inevitably be cold, yes, but it will make the warm pub afterwards that little bit sweeter.