Coping with Brexit Anxiety

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What to do when you know the worst is coming 

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We seem to have fallen into a state of national anxiety. No one knows what’s coming next and neither side of the Brexit debate is feeling particularly cheerful. Except Nigel Farage. He is positively gleeful. But overall, winning has never looked less triumphant and assured. Those who feel that they lost are mournful, those who feel that they won are feeling attacked and demonised. Although I cannot speak for the entire country, it certainly seems to me that people on both sides of the debate are now confused and plagued with uncertainty about the future. The feeling seems to be that there have been too many lies, too much in-fighting, and too many brutal exchanges on facebook and Twitter. Not to mention the brutal crisis of faith happening to those of us who gaze at our TV screens and our newsfeeds and ask ourselves: “Is it really true that no one has a plan for what happens next? How can none of these politicians, who lobbied so hard and gave such passionate speeches, how can none of them know what comes next? Aren’t they supposed to know? Didn’t we elect them for this sort of thing?”

So whilst we stare and watch as each new day brings a new headline, and every hour a new fact, statistic, or story is revealed, we are left to dwell in our own fears about the future. However we voted, we are left to languish in the fear of what the follow-up will be.

Because no one knows what’s coming, and it may be much worse than we imagined.

That’s the reason I have called this post “What to do when you know the worst is coming” – It’s not because I necessarily believe we are headed for a political disaster that may split the government, Kingdom, and the EU in pieces, (though, coincidentally, that is what I believe) but because the nature of all anxiety is that we fear the worst. Maybe your worst fear is the opposite of my worst fear, but whatever the fear is,this prevalent insecurity over our collective future brings them all out front and centre. It’s the relentless comments we read on facebook. It’s the angry exchange we have with a friend we thought would agree with us. It’s the tense fights we have at the family gathering. It’s the fear that someone who disagrees with you over this referendum will demonstrate their disagreement in a violent, and unethical way. Whatever our fears are, they fester and grow in this period of uncertainty, as we wait, impatiently, for the consequences to arrive.

So what can you do when your mind won’t put down that worst case scenario? What can you do to ward off the fear and the anxiety about the future of our world?

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Post-referendum self-care. 

Does it sound over the top to say that some of us really just need to take some time to care for ourselves right now?

Maybe it does. Maybe it sounds unbearably new-world, or hippie, but to me, it really makes tremendous sense. Many of my friends have described their feelings about the results of the vote in terms of a type of mourning, and for some, it really is. Others have been so stressed about the outcome they have barely slept, barely eaten properly. Others have had relationships pushed to the absolute maximum – I know people who have unfriended people on facebook, engaged in harsh words with those that they love, and risked the disintegration of some of their precious relationships over this vote. Some people might say that we should just take it less seriously, but how can you tell someone to take their own future less seriously?

If it’s your livelihood, your children’s future, your pension, or your right to work, how can you tell someone not to worry?

Well, you could tell them not to. You could say, “Don’t worry, you’re nervous about nothing,” but any person who has ever done a tango with an anxiety attack will tell you that’s the emotional equivalent of punching someone in the face when they have a broken leg. It’s Mean, very unhelpful, and a little insulting. Mainly, because our anxieties about the future of our nation and other nations are real and valid, and saying they shouldn’t be there doesn’t make them go away. But here are some techniques to use that might help you feel more calm about the future, and might help you calm down your nervous friend. It’s self care, and also care for others. Because no one likes to be punched in the face.

Disconnect and Reconnect 

The internet is really really great. (Oh no you don’t, Avenue Q fans!!) Thanks to the internet I can buy a bikini without having to strip off in those horrifying, three mirror changing rooms that are about 40& responsible for negative body image in teenagers. Thanks to the internet we are a more connected, global community who can talk to each other and build friendships, businesses, and relationships across oceans and time zones. This is wonderful, but sometimes the rate at which we receive information is overwhelming. Post-referendum, the internet has shown it’s Jekyll and Hyde nature, as it often does following an important global human event, and it hasn’t been pretty. For me, it got a bit much around Friday night and I decided to disconnect for a while. Not because I don’t care, but because at a certain point I have to ask myself how all that bile and hate and fear is affecting me. Often, the answer is that it is affecting me, and not in a good way. At that point, it’s time for me to disconnect from the menagerie of social media platforms and news outlets that we have, and reconnect with real people. This weekend I have been visiting my hometown, catching up with old friends and family, and avoiding the internet. It has been really helpful. It’s not like I’ve been in a secluded bubble, the referendum has come up in every conversation I have had this weekend, but rather than being discouraged by the hateful words that can so easily be exchanged when hidden behind a screen, I have been encouraged. I have been encouraged by having real conversations with people who think differently to me, and have been assured that whilst it might seem like everyone’s lost their minds, we are still capable of relationships that extend beyond the EU referendum. Conversations instead of comments, that’s the way to go! Sometimes, an online detox is necessary. I say that as a woman posting things on the internet – if you do not see this because you are detoxing, I applaud you!

Find something you can do 

We have done a huge thing as a nation in the last week. We showed up and spoke on an issue, and gave our voice to an enormous political decision. Now, it’s out of our hands. The die has been cast, the votes have been counted, and even those of us who wish magic was real and time turners had really been invented cannot unwrite the historic moment that took place in the early hours of Friday morning. So as the politicians work out the next bit, we can all end up feeling a bit helpless. We’re involved now, we’ve actually voted on this thing! We want to get in there, make sure things turn out our way. But we can’t, and that sudden helplessness again can be a bit disarming. So find something you can do that calms down that nervous feeling that you have. Maybe you want to sign a petition, maybe you want to protest. Maybe you have an MP you want to write to, maybe you want to get involved in local politics. Maybe, like me, you don’t need more politics to feel better. My job involves working with young people and children, and for me to feel better, I need to get stuck into that. Because whilst the future is uncertain, teaching kids and connecting with them, making their day more exciting, is something I can do to affect change in the world. Maybe it’s making your Nan a cup of tea, maybe it’s ringing an old friend for a catch up, maybe it’s a hobby that you love to do or maybe it’s just showing as much kindness and love as you can to the people who around you who are so anxious and worried at this time.  Find something you can do to affect change and remind yourself that whilst it will probably do nothing to influence how the politicians move on from this point, it is changing someone’s life. At the end of the day, isn’t that just as, if not more, important?

The Bigger Picture 

Whilst it isn’t helpful to tell someone to get over their anxiety because it’s stupid, it is quite helpful to help them see the bigger picture of the situation. It’s sort of the same, as the end result is that the anxiety is revealed in its futility, but this way nobody feels like they have been emotionally belittled. For me, it helps to put this moment in the context of the broad sweep of history. When I was a child I lived in fear that we would be propelled into the dark ages again. The dark ages sounded like the worst period in history to me because common people couldn’t read. As a young bookworm, that fate seemed worse than death itself. So for me, it helps to see this moment within the context that the dark ages. It helps to tell myself that humanity once dragged itself slowly up by its bootstraps after civilisation, education and culture were brought tumbling down, and the now we have things like the internet, and Spotify, and coffee makers. Nothing seems as bad to me once I have reminded myself of the inscrutable persistence of humans to keep surviving!

For you, it might be a lot less abstract. Maybe it’s helpful to look at this current uncertainty in terms of your own family, and remind yourself that whilst you are unsure about the future you do still love one another and that is all that matters. Sometimes we do need a bigger perspective, especially when our information outlets are flooded with overwhelming uncertainty. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that the world still turns, even when it feels like the world has stopped. That we still have to wake up and get on with our day, that people still love us and need us, and the bins still need taking out. That, my friend, is always a certainty.

 

If none of these things help your anxiety about the future, here are some quick-fire practical tips for how to survive anxiety:

  • Have a cup of tea. Two, if you need to.
  • Find a pet and stroke it.
  • Binge watch the West Wing on netflix and pretend that you live in a universe governed by politicians as morally guided as Jed Bartlett.
  • Get some friends together, have a rant, and get a bit smashed on gin.

And above all, remember that tomorrow you will get up and live your life much the same as you have always done. And maybe getting up and focusing on this one day that you have to live today is more helpful than wondering what’s going to happen or how you are going to live in the future. And remember the very wise words of a young woman who had hope in circumstances more extraordinary and painful than any we are currently facing:

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The world is indeed full of peril

 

 

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There are days when I am so anxious I don’t want to leave the house. That’s because I have an anxiety disorder. Sometimes, I don’t even know what it is I am anxious about, but it’s there, like a dark cloud. However, this week, I have been abundantly clear about what has been making me anxious and depressed. It’s the same thing that has lead to my partner coming home and asking if it’s too early to start drinking heavily. It’s the same thing that is causing a lot of people to feel this way. Remarkably, this is one of the times when I’m not the only person worried about existing in the universe. Overwhelmingly, I sense that we are feeling a collective, painful anxiety about our world. Why? For oh so many reasons.

Because millions of displaced people are straining against the borders in Europe, and the eurozone is shredding itself at the seams. Because extremists are emerging from the woodwork all over our world and spouting a diatribe of hate. Because a large proportion of British politicians are turning to fear-mongering and scare tactics to influence vulnerable voters rather than inform them. Because hundreds of children are dying in Syria because their homes and hospitals are being bombed. Because an American man has decided to run for president of the most powerful nation on the planet on a platform of hate and disdain. Because more often than not, we see people reaching for their basest instincts and their least compassionate responses. Because football fans in Marseille have turned to brutality, racism and cruelty as part of their pre-game antics. Because on the weekend, a young man shot up a club in Orlando. Because yesterday, a man walked up to a compassionate and empathic politician in Birstall and murdered her.

This has been the second time in a week when I have felt this terrible sadness and despair about our universe. The second time I have cried. Part of me feels remorse for my tears, because there is just so much sadness in the world at the moment, to shed tears for one tragedy seems almost unfair to the others. But I think the tears are partly due to the fact that it feels like I have personally reached a breaking point. Not that there is too much tragedy, because there always seems to be too much, but because it feels as if the balance has somewhat tipped in the favour of tragedy. I do not feel the same optimism about our world that I usually do, and I believe that is the source of my deep anxiety.

So what to do?

Part of me wants to withdraw. To step away from social media and the news websites and just stop. Stop reading, stop commenting, stop caring. Whilst storms rage and the world darkens, our day to day lives continue and maybe that’s where I should focus. But is that really the right response to tragedies that affects us deeply?

At times like this, I turn to the person I have always turned to. Tolkien.

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The first book I read and loved was The Lord of the Rings and I was seven years old. From that point, I knew I wanted to be a writer and would fiercely devour everything he wrote in the rest of my young life. He would become the subject of my academic study, his work occupying two dissertations. I intended to specialise in his work for my phD, and my geekery for all things Tolkien has been the subject of many jokes by my family, and especially my husband. He likes to watch the Peter Jackson movies with me just to watch how angry/passionate I get. Most of all, however, Tolkien’s work has been the most potent comfort and anti-depressant I have experienced. In his words, I find peace and solace and his model of faith has very much guided my own. I also find a model for a type of courage that I want to reflect in my own life.

To shut myself off from tragedy would be relieving, but when the very minimum I can give (and sometimes, unfortunately, also the maximum) is empathy, why would I take that away from those who are unable to shut themselves off from the tragedy? The victims of Orlando and their families, Jo Cox’s husband, children, and constituents, and the thousands of families displaced by terrible persecution and violent wars cannot turn off their tragedy. It’s happening to them all the time. The road is indeed dark, and I am tempted to turn away and say, “It’s not my place to walk this path with you.” But then I would be faithless indeed. I would be saying to all of these people who are suffering that I no longer have faith for the future. I would be taking all my empathy and my care and my sadness and saving it for myself. My withdrawal would only say that I think there is so little hope, that I no longer have enough compassion for anyone else. I would seem faithless, when in reality, the one thing I do have is faith.

I’m not talking about Christian faith, although Tolkien and I do share that, but faith in this:

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Though it is hard at the moment, I do have faith that love is possible in times of brutal grief. I do believe that the right response in the face of tragedy is more love, not less. More empathy, not less. Leaning in, rather than pulling away.  Yet this can be a hard thing to do.

One of the poems that resonates deeply with me at times like this is “What they did yesterday afternoon,” by Warsan Shire. The poem is amazing, and ends with two stanzas that always get me:

 

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It can often feel like that inside for me. That whilst the world is screaming in pain, I am hurting too. Sometimes, so much that I do just want to turn away and not care and not give any more compassion. At those times,Tolkien reminds me to have faith and in order to find it,  I try to look outside of myself for the other instances of kindness and faith in the world.

Here are some stories that have encouraged me to keep the faith this week:

  1. People lined up around the block to donate blood in the wake of the Orlando shooting.

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2. People of all creeds and colour showed up to honour Jo Cox in her local community, demonstrating to everyone that whilst she had passed away, the effect of her work had not. 

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3. A program in Pittsburgh has a team of volunteers who cuddle opiate-addled babies.

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4. Prince William was featured on the cover of “Attitude” and said that “No one should be bullied for their sexuality or other reasons.” 

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5. A team of therapy dogs were flown to Orlando. Dogs are amazing. They bring joy.

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We can’t guarantee anything about the future. I often feel tremendous despair. But in spite of this despair, there are people lining up to give the blood in their body to people they’ve never met. There is a hurting, grieving community that has come together to say that they will not be beaten back by fear. There are tiny babies, who did nothing to deserve their sickness, being cuddled back to health. There is an influx of famous and influential people standing up to say that the LGBTQ community is valuable to them, and should be respected and protected. And there are dogs. There are lovable, fluffy, gentle animals who bring us joy and remind us that this world is not just about us. Other creatures live here too, and they can be sources of encouragement and inspiration. For though the world is indeed full of peril, these are some of the things that restore my faith. I have faith that when the road darkens, the love that is mingled with grief and tears will grow.

The beach body that could have killed me.

Heads up, this a long post and has been germinating in my mind for a while. I have a lot of thoughts about body image and society’s view on it, and this is sort of the result. Please feel free to ask me any questions you want. 

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I am ten years old. In the last year or so I have had a growth spurt. I have become tall and chubby whilst all my friends have stayed slight and childlike. I envy their concave stomachs more than anything. I covet their fragile looking wrists and thighs. I am ten years old and I love ballet; it is one of my favourite things. But my best friend and I, as the tall girls in our dance class, quickly come to realise we are no longer the right shape for ballet. There is more tummy to suck in, there is more thigh to be turned out. Without even realising it, we adjust our expectations. Tall means back row. Heavy means doing the lifting, rather than being lifted.

Our body awareness adjusted too so that by the time were sixteen and were forced to wear tutus for the first time (our dance school had always been more Rambert than Royal Ballet) we nearly rebelled. We hated how they showed our bums and sat on our waists and made us look top heavy at best, and like the hippos from fantasia at worst. We called ourselves the blueberry and the ugly ducking (they were white and purple) and hated every minute we had to wear them. But why? Did we really look that bad? No, but that didn’t matter.  We had been told we were the wrong shape for this. No one had ever said it out loud, but we had always known. Only the slim girls look good in tutus.

After all, isn’t that the joke? Isn’t that why the hippos wear tutus in fantasia? Because when you wear something outside of what you’ve been told by society you are “allowed” to wear, then that’s what you become. A hippo in a tutu. A joke.

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Are you beach body ready?

God, has there ever been a worse phrase?

Because every advertising executive in the country, in the world, knows that the modern woman has been conditioned only to have one response to this question: No.

It’s the only accurate response when someone holds up, not only a standard of beauty but a standard of happiness, and tells you that you have failed unless you achieve it. This is what pisses me off so very much about this time of year; when magazines tell you a million products you need to be prepared for summer and when every gym has an advertising slogan designed to put the fear of god in you. What pisses me off if the implied standard of happiness. Thinner is better. More toned is more pretty. Better body equals better lifestyle. Do all of these things, and you will be happy with your body.

I can tell you from experience that happiness with a body does not come from changing it. Not ultimately. Happiness with a body comes from accepting it.

When I was about twelve I had a beach body, I was what modern media would classify as beach body ready. I had just enough adolescent curves, I had a flat stomach, I had slim thighs. (At this moment I will pause so that we can please take note of the fact that the time in my life when my body was most akin to the body-type deemed as appropriate for a grown woman at the beach was when I was an adolescent minor!) I had a beach body, but I wasn’t happy with it. I wasn’t even okay with it. I hated it.  I was at peak anorexic and I couldn’t see myself in anything other than a negative light. I shunned photographs, I wore cover ups, I never stood up on the beach in my bikini. The one time I did, my mum snapped a photo of me from behind, walking into the sea. She wanted to show me how lovely I looked.

I wanted to burn the picture because all I saw was “ugly.”

Having an archetypal perfect body is not enough to satisfy a person. Because how can you be sure that you are perfect? I looked at myself and thought I was too square and that was ugly, and my neck was too long and that was ugly. I didn’t care that I was skinny and my stomach was flat. When I look back on the picture now, I see that I was thin. And even today, I am capable of pulling the wool over my own eyes and whispering “If only I was that thin now!” In my worst, darkest moments, I can still use that picture as a tool to hate my current body, even though I am under no illusions about the severity of anorexia and the sad, awful deaths it can create. My anorexia made me sick and thin and is a lasting mental illness, but I saw people go through worse. Lusting after a bikini body means one thing to me: wishing for something that can kill you.

I feel the same when people talk about getting really fit and then can’t leave the gym. When people talk about eating super healthy and then panic about what they will eat when they go on holiday. When my friends talk about their fears of eating the wrong thing, of not exercising enough, or the deep disgust they have for their body. It’s not anorexia and we hide behind the fact that it’s not called anorexia. We clothe it in healthy living mantras and juice diets and tell ourselves it’s not the same. But when I hear them talk I think to myself “I’ve heard that before,” and I recognize the dark little voice of an eating disorder. You can tell me it’s different but I recognize the hatred, the dissatisfaction. It’s the same voice of the pro-anorexia sufferers, just refracted through Fitbit’s and 5:2 diets. Hating your body is the first step. The rest of the road is dark.

This isn’t about thin-shaming, or fat-shaming, or hating on people who want to lose weight or love exercise. It’s not about any of that. It’s about shame. It’s about the fact that millions of us, all over the world, live ashamed of what’s in and under our clothes no matter what size or shape or colour we are. When we are constantly told our bodies are only good for what they look like, not what they can do, then all that is left is

We are not ready for the beach so we lose weight and buy things.

We are not ready for the Christmas party so we lose weight and buy things.

We are not ready for a wedding, or a graduation, or a prom, or a promotion so we lose weight and buy things.

We are not ready for a relationship. For love. For following our dreams. We should lose weight, and probably by things.

When we are told we are not ready, what we really understand is that we are not good enough, and then we are ashamed of not just our bodies, but ourselves. We should be ashamed. We’ve been told that what we look like is all that really matters about us and that when we look “right” then we will be happy. We are the ones standing in the way of our own happiness. We should be ashamed. Shouldn’t we?

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I live in the knowledge that almost undoubtedly I will develop arthritis. Both my parents have it, and my grandmother has it. Both my mother and my grandmother have nasty cases that started when they were relatively young, particularly my mother. She has the type of arthritis that makes her hands and feet swell and her bones disjoint and deform. It’s painful to watch, and even more painful to endure. Last year, after spending a while at home taking care of my Mum after a particularly brutal operation to correct the bone damage in her foot, I began to think of my body less and less for what it looked like and more and more for what it was capable of. My Mum loves to walk and loves to swim and does these things even though, sometimes, they have caused her tremendous pain. I began to consider how miraculous it was to be able to walk for miles without pain! How incredibly amazing to be able to touch your own toes! I began to think about the future of my body, not for what it looked like but what I would like to be able to do with it. I would like to still be able to dance and do yoga. I would like to be able to swim comfortably. I began to think that those things might be more important than whether or not I had put on weight over the years. I began to ask myself: Why have I bought into this lie that what matters more is what something looks like than what I can do with it?

Why have we, as a society, bought into this lie?

We, who are people who can swim across oceans, climb mountains, and free dive to the depths of the ocean. We, who can dance, and run, and play and walk on our hind legs. We, who are capable of producing other humans in our bodies and then growing and nurturing them.We, who are capable of incredible human sacrifice, astonishing love, powerful forgiveness. We, who can imagine new worlds, who can explore galaxies, theorise, philosophise, and make art! We are capable of much more than manipulating our bodies into appealing to one certain standard of beauty or success simply because we were told that’s how we should be valued.

I am a human being who loves to visit the ocean, write about the sea, and swim with the fishes. I am a human being who fought a battle with an eating disorder, wrote a play, earned 3 degrees, and most importantly, is alive and free to make my own decisions. Also, my legs wobble and my stomach is soft instead of hard. Why does my body have to be a certain shape to qualify me for an experience of the beach?

After all, nothing in my life qualifies me for the experiences ahead of me, least of all my body. The beauty of life and grace is that I get to experience them anyway. Every day that I do not have crippling arthritis is amazing. Every day that I am not so depressed I cannot get out of bed is amazing. Every day that I do not have a debilitating disease and I am living in this particular body is a lucky draw from the great cosmic masterpiece because, by some miracle, we are all here. We are alive and breathing and able to stand on the beach with sand between our toes and the ocean air against our faces.

We are the only ones who get to dictate if we are ready for that.

I think back to those hippos in fantasia dancing in tutus. I think about how they are the butt of a joke, a consistently cruel joke about size that plagues our society, and I think that perhaps the joke is on us. Because the hippo looks great in the tutu, and even if I thought it didn’t, what would it matter? It would keep dancing. Because by some miracle, it’s a hippo in a tutu and it can dance. 

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