I wrote an article about how A Level exam results are not the be all and end all that students believe they are. Check it out here, and thank you to Crowd H for the opportunity to write for them.
For a long time I have felt as though I am getting more and more stupid. I can’t think as quickly as I used to. I struggle to think of what I’m trying to say to people. I’m also extremely forgetful and my attention fades in and out, no matter how interested I am. I almost feel as though I’m a child again. Maybe I even act like a child more; I’m not too sure. But since being diagnosed with depression six years ago, it’s very clear that my mental capacity has taken a nosedive.
Why? Because depression shrinks the brain.
That’s right. The part of the brain responsible for emotion and long term memory – the hippocampus – shrinks due to depression. Studies across the globe have affirmed that the more episodes of depression a person has, the greater the reduction in the size of the hippocampus. The neurons slow down and die, and you can actually feel yourself shutting down. It’s associated with conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which is why a link between depression and dementia has been suggested. It’s terrifying.
I thought the reason I was slower at processing information and struggling to focus was due to being tired (I’m always tired), or maybe that I was always this slow deep down. This explains so much. It explains why I make so many silly little mistakes in some of my working out in maths, and why I feel so stupid all of the time. My brain isn’t working as well as it used to because it’s been shrinking on and off for the past six years.
And the terrible thing is that it then worsens my depression because I feel down and frustrated with myself…which then contributes further to my brain struggling to function. It’s a constant downward spiral. And it stresses me out, naturally, because it makes it difficult to complete academic work, take in information, and just think logically.
Instead of accepting and explaining that to people, I let my pride get in the way. I hide it and pretend that I do know what people are talking about. Admitting that I am struggling to think seems even more shameful than the actual diagnosis. I used to try to make mental notes about things mentioned in conversation that I had the feeling I should really know about but don’t dare admit to friends, but I always forget about them so I have since given up with that. It is such a huge deal for me when I do understand something. I get really excited, only for friends to respond as though it’s the most basic thing that everyone should know. That doesn’t help, but they don’t know, because I keep up this act.
This is the first time I’ve admitted this to myself, let alone telling anyone else. I must admit that I feel slightly comforted by the fact that my messy brain can be explained properly with science. However, it does make the future seem more bleak. On the plus side…
Hippocampus shrinkage IS reversible
The good news is that a shrinking brain is not the end of the world; it can be reversed. The reason the hippocampus shrinks in the first place during depressive episodes is because it is not being exercised. Your brain works a bit like a muscle: if you don’t work it, the less effective it becomes. Chronic depression causes the neurons to die, and long story short the brain’s functionality reduces in the areas where the neurons are dying (in this case the hippocampus). However, contrary to traditional belief, the adult brain does still produce neurons, but only in restricted areas such as (you guessed it) the hippocampus.
So how can we reverse the damage?
Well, one effective way is through medication. Scientists suggest that antidepressants can boost the rate new neurons being made. Of course, anyone who has taken antidepressants knows that these are not a quick solution. They can make it a little easier to get up in a morning and try out some personal hygiene; they are a little bit of a leg up and over the kicking-depression-in-the-goolies wall. You still need to do a lot of work to beat it, but as least they can help increase your functionality a bit. From there, it’s a matter of exercising the mind to reverse the reduction of hippocampal volume.
Reading, writing, arts and crafts, playing video games, and even going for a walk can help engage the brain. Learning a new skill can also help to give you a sense of achievement – keying into the brain’s reward system to give you the can-do attitude to do more things. It all sounds easy in theory, and I know that it can be difficult in practice. Nevertheless it is worth trying any of these things out to get over that wall.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD for short, is a type of anxiety disorder caused by a singular (or series of) traumatic events. The sufferer often relives these events through nightmares and flashbacks, which can lead to the sufferer feeling isolated and tormented.
Although military combat is the main traumatic event associated with PTSD, there are a number of other situations that can cause it. These include serious accidents; physical or sexual abuse or assault; being held hostage; witnessing violence or abuse; or experiencing a natural disaster. The symptoms can come about straight after the event, or quietly fester and traumatise its victim several years later.
So you guys know that I’ve been battling depression for a while.
You may also know that I am currently in my longest ever relationship.
Two and a half years may not seem like a big deal to some people, but it is for me. My past relationships (if you can even truly class my couple of high school tonsil-tickles relationships) lasted a maximum of about three months before I became bored and broke up with them. I’m pretty certain my exes thought I was a heartless bitch and perhaps I was. I was too self-centred for a relationship and it’s something I still struggle with. After all, if you don’t look after yourself, who the hell will?
Have you ever felt suddenly so anxious and fearful that you find it difficult to breathe?
Have you ever felt this way for no apparent reason whatsoever?
Panic disorder sufferers experience recurring panic attacks, but have no idea why. Although it is not yet known what causes panic disorder in people, it is estimated that 2.7% of the population will experience it at some point in their lives. If left untreated, panic disorder can get worse and manifest in the form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and phobias.
Last Thursday I had an assessment/interview in London for a modelling agency. I passed the assessment, however it turned out to not be what I was looking for and I had to decline their offer.
However I can’t say it was a waste of my time or money because I met a wonderfully wise young woman.
Our assessment slots were at the same time so we got chatting. She was at the agency with her 5-year-old son; she wanted him to grow up to be confident in himself and therefore took him for some modelling. She actually did some modelling herself to pay her tuition fees when she was studying Medicine at university in Pakistan.
Somehow our conversation moved to how we both love writing and I mentioned my blog. I told her about my struggles with depression, and in turn she offered her own story with postpartum depression. That’s when she told me a fantastic self help tip.
I had a chat with my doctor, and he has recommended that it might be time to ween me off my antidepressants. The suggestion has left me feeling really apprehensive.
I’ve tried a number of different antidepressants over the past seven years of struggling with my mental health, including fluoxetine and citalopram. Sertraline was the first one that actually made a difference to my mood. I’m no longer bursting into tears at the drop of a hat. I was able to control my anxiety during my assessed presentations for my course. I can actually eat solids before an exam, which is huge for me. Overall I have become quite dependent on the way the antidepressants have flattened my negative moods.
The problem with sertraline, however, is that it flattens all of your emotions – not just the negative ones. It has put a dampener on my motivation and sense of achievement, which hasn’t helped with meeting assignment deadlines. I just don’t care enough. Another problem is that – like all antidepressants – they’re not supposed to be used forever. I have been on sertraline for nearly a year, and now apparently it’s time to try coming off them.
Part of me wants the chance to feel more motivated again. It would be nice to not feel so apathetic about everything. However I’m so scared of reverting back to the manic mess I was last year, who cries whenever someone asks me how I am, and has random anxiety attacks because I feel like a failure in life. It was horrible, and I just don’t want to risk going back there. But the doctor knows what he’s talking about, right?
So now I only have to take them every other day, and I have a follow up appointment in August to see how I’m getting on. Hopefully it will be okay, but right now I’m nervous.
Anyone who has suffered with depression knows how difficult it can be to reach out for help. Depression makes you feel completely alone in a well of hopelessness that goes so far down that there can’t possibly be a long enough piece of rope to reach and rescue you. So it can seem pointless or impossible to ask for help of any kind, especially when it comes to university. I get it. I totally get it.
So I am currently in my final year of my foundation degree, and I recently hit the biggest brick wall. This has resulted in an incomplete assignment that was due five weeks ago, and two reports and three presentations due in little more than a week that I don’t even really want to think about. I feel as though I may be drowning a little.
Mitigating circumstances and student welfare are available at universities and colleges for a reason. Awareness of mental health, family issues, and other problems that students might face has improved considerably over the years. Today, student welfare facilities work harder than ever to support students who are struggling during their studies. But in order for them to actually offer their help, they need to know that you need it. It can still be very daunting asking for help, especially if you’ve tried in the past only to be ridiculed. I remember one counsellor told me that they didn’t know what I expected them to do about my situation. However other members of staff in that welfare department were fantastic, and luckily I had met them before that small minority that could have ruined their image in my eyes.
Fast forward to last week, I was struggling with an overwhelming “I’m going to fail” feeling. I couldn’t breathe under the pressure of so many looming deadlines. I still am. I’ve been feeling very isolated for the past two years of my course. It’s been impossible to make friends and have therefore been unable to express how I’ve been feeling to anyone. But last week it was getting too much – tears-prickling-the-corners-of-my-eyes too much – so I knew I had to.
I eventually plucked up the courage to have a private word with one of my teachers. It turned out they had some idea of what I was dealing with because they had experienced similar issues when they were studying at university. Long story short, they now know that I am struggling, and I will be getting some support to get through these last couple of weeks of my course. It’s going to be okay, and my mind is not going to get in the way of that finish line.
My point is that mental health does rear its ugly head at the most inconvenient of moments, and can make everything seem hopeless and too difficult to do. But that’s only if you go it alone. So if you’re struggling in any way, please try and get help. If you fail in your first, second, nth attempt, please find the courage to try again. And finally, remember that you are not alone. I am here, and so are many others across the globe, fighting just as much as you are against an invisible mental monster that you can defeat.
Dermatillomania, also known as compulsive skin picking or excoriation disorder, is a mental disorder that causes sufferers to feel compelled to pick at their skin to ease anxiety. This is often linked to OCD and perfectionism, picking at every little imperfection on the skin such as scabs and pimples. The horrible irony is that the sufferer falls into a wicked spiral of creating more imperfections in the pursuit of perfect skin, and potentially leading to greater mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
While the hair pulling counterpart – Trichotillomania – has finally started receiving greater awareness, thanks in part to the increasingly popular YouTube channels that talk about it, dermatillomania is still not so well known. In fact, it was only because I was watching a video in which skin picking was mentioned that I realised that I wasn’t the only one who struggles with this compulsion. And it was just a matter of typing into Google for me to find a name for my odd habit: dermatillomania.
A guilty pleasure of mine that seems to ease my picking is a YouTube channel started by Dr Sandra Lee, aka Dr Pimple Popper. She is a certified dermatologist who films – with her patients’ permission – the removal of cysts, blackheads and other dermatological problems that her patients have, and then posts them online for educational reasons. She has over 2.5 million subscribers, and many of them have admitted that watching her videos help ease their anxiety or urges to pick. I am one of those viewers.
Around one in five people in the UK suffer from anxiety or depression, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Depression is slowly becoming more understood and accepted in society, and there are now some well-known ways that a person can use to overcome their battle with depression. I would like to share with you eight ideas for coping with depression.
Make exercise more of a convenience
We’re always told that exercise helps battle depression due to the release of endorphins that trigger a positive feeling in the body. The problem with exercise, for me, however, is the inconvenience of physically having to go out to the gym or out for a run, especially with it being cold. After all, it’s just me I’m letting down, right? Who cares?
If that’s the state of mind you’re in when you think about exercise, change it. Find a way to make exercise more convenient for you, whether it’s by getting a gym membership to motivate you to get your money’s worth or having a partner to exercise with on a regular basis (this can be running, or going to the gym, or playing a game like squash or football – anything).
If you have the money to splash out a bit, you could even start exercising from the comfort of your own home by buying your own personal exercise machine. I purchased a Ultrasport Home Trainer F-Bike on eBay (it cost me £40 second hand and is in fantastic condition) and try to do at least 2 km two days a week. Sometimes I come home from college or work feeling extremely annoyed and I take my frustrations out on the bike; 3+ km later I feel the euphoric rush of endorphins and no longer care about the exasperations of the day. And I haven’t even had to leave my house to get that hit.
I have also started completing some of the 30 day exercise challenges, which make me feel a sense of achievement, even if they do sometimes hurt like hell. These challenges give you targets to meet every day, whether it be lunges, push ups, crunches, or sit ups. There are rest days every five days for you to recover as well. I am coming to the end of the 30 Day Easy Squat Challenge, and although I am so looking forward to it ending, I can’t wait for the next challenge. I may do the sit up challenge next.
Even dancing around like a lunatic in your room is a form of exercise; plus it can be really fun and allow you to loosen up after a tense day. Do whatever you can. The idea is to make it as easy and as convenient as possible for you to exercise regularly. Get those muscles pumping!
Breathe: Yoga or Meditation
Yoga and meditation can be used to train your mind to dismiss negative thoughts that can worsen your anxiety or depression. Just ten minutes of yoga or meditation a day can be enough to reduce your anxiety, improve your sleeping patterns, and relieve any strain in relationships with friends, family and co-workers.
Yoga and deep breathing classes are a great way to maintain a routine, learn different poses from a professional yoga trainer, and meet new people. However, if this does not suit you, there are other alternatives. Does anyone still have the WiiFit? If you do, there are a number of different yoga poses to try on there. There are also a number of YouTube channels to choose from for your yoga fix. YogiApproved.com have a list of 18 recommended YouTube channels to suit your needs.
In terms of meditation, again there are a number of meditation classes and YouTube videos to choose from – check out Mindful Muscle’s 7 Best YouTube Guided Meditations for some inspiration and see what fits your needs. There are also a number of apps to choose from. I personally use Headspace. It’s available both on iPhone and Android and each session is just 10 minutes long – ideal if you don’t have a lot of time.
This probably seems an obvious one, but I’ve still put it on the list because it’s incredible how many people dismiss it for whatever reason. There is no shame in asking for professional help. Some people just need a leg up, and some need a bit more assistance. Either way, counsellors and antidepressants are there for a reason. And if something isn’t working, don’t do what I did and give up: try something else.
I tried a number of different counsellors in my area, as well as fluoxetine and citalopram, and nothing was making me feel better, so I just gave up and somewhat submitted to the dark cloud of depression over my head until my boyfriend pressed me to try again. I have now been on 50 mg of sertraline for about 6 months and I finally feel like I can start to overcome depression with these different ideas. So definitely go back to your doctor if you feel your prescription isn’t working for you.
Your doctor might also suggest you set a monthly or bi-monthly appointment with them to monitor your progress on the medication, which you should definitely do if possible. Note any side effects and hopefully you will find an antidepressant that works for you. If not, don’t worry – there are other types of treatment out there, which I’m sure your doctor will go through with you.
Counselling aims to talk through any problems you are having, identify key events that may have lead to your mental illness, and coach you on how to challenge any negative thoughts that you may be having. Just because the counsellors in my area didn’t suit me doesn’t mean that they won’t be useful for you.
There are a number of different types of counselling to choose from, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Interpersonal therapy, and Psychodynamic therapy. Talk through your choices with your doctor and see how it goes. And if you do go to counselling, try to be as open as possible with your feelings and requirements as possible (I asked my counsellor to be less sympathetic because I got enough of it back home, and he was actually really great about it). And if you feel you’re not progressing with that counsellor, try another. They are paid to help you, so shop around as much as you can.
Animals might be the key to your recovery – how amazing is that?
A therapy pet’s duty is to give a person struggling with mental health issues a loyal companion while also helping to boost their confidence and reduce their anxiety. The fact that a living creature depends on you to feed it and look after it can give a person a strong sense of routine, something that they may have lost track of if they are struggling with depression or anxiety, and the reward of gaining their love and trust is inconceivable. Just simply stroking an animal or watching fish swim around is well known to lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
Therapy pets can be any animal you wish, and since the needs of different pets vary widely there is no need to worry about biting off more than you can chew. Whether you want a dog to help you to start walking every day, or a goldfish that just needs a pinch of food every day and regular tank cleans, a therapy pet can help significantly with your mental health.
I have five rats as therapy pets (I know, that sounds absolutely insane!), and they brighten up my life so much.
The reason I chose rats is because I missed having rodents in my life, and rats are perhaps the most rewarding rodents you could keep as pets. They are extremely affectionate (I just wanted all of the love), and highly intelligent – you can train them much like you can a dog. They also really love to play, so I knew I would never feel alone with them in my life. They don’t get overly grumpy or judgemental like humans can, and their love is unconditional. Basically whenever I feel down I turn to my rats to cheer me up, and they haven’t failed me yet.
Another great thing about rats is that, like dogs, you can enter them into shows! I am a member of the North of England Rat Society, which is fantastic for meeting new people and giving and receiving advice on looking after your rats.
There are a lot of pros and cons to each animal, so it’s always worth doing some research before you choose a therapy animal, and make sure that you can afford potential vet bills.
Of course, there are people out there who can’t get their own therapy pet due to living circumstances or just not having the time or the money to keep them. However there are other ways in which to get your furry fix. Going horse riding has the added benefit of fresh air and exercise.
Do things that make you feel good – even if you don’t feel like it
One of the ways in which depression makes us feel utterly alone and useless in the world is by making us lose interest in the things we used to love. It makes us feel too overwhelmed to even think about doing those fun things, and before we know it life just seems pointless.
While you may not be able to force those feelings away and have fun, you can push yourself to do things that you enjoyed once, whether that be a sport that you enjoyed, a walk in the park, some music or art, or just going out with friends. Set yourself little goals that are really easy to achieve and you could be surprised by how much better you feel for it. You might even start to have some fun again!
I used to do a lot of writing, which I haven’t done for a good couple of years due to my depression. I recently decided to set myself a daily task of 100 words a day – or more if I feel like it – just to get back into the habit of writing again. It didn’t have to be good or make much sense. It just had to be a minimum of 100 words each day. Sometimes I don’t manage it, and I have to remind myself that it’s okay to not always meet this target – it’s a work in progress to make this a habit again. But the fact that I am writing – somewhat – again feels amazing. I feel as though I’m slowly seeing the real Claire again. I try not to think about the fact that this post took me three weeks to write!
Learn something new!
What better way to earn a sense of achievement? It can be absolutely anything and has the potential to become a new hobby for you to turn to in times of need. I’m learning how to knit and crochet and it’s actually been so ideal for me. I can do it whenever I want, whether it’s while I’m watching TV or working out on my exercise bike, and it also gives my hands something to do – I have a condition called dermatillomania, which causes me to obsessively pick at my skin, so knitting and crochet have reduced this significantly for me.
You could also try learning a language, photography, sewing, a musical instrument, anything that is doable for you and that will give you a real sense of achievement.
Stay connected to friends and family who can offer you support
This may seem like an obvious one, but one of the biggest things that depression does is make you feel alone in the world. You don’t feel like going out with friends anymore because you feel like you’ll just be a constant downer and they won’t want to hang out with you.
You are WRONG.
We are fortunate today that society is becoming more aware of mental illnesses, and understand better that depression is a whole lot more than just “feeling down”. There is more respect and support now for those who struggle with mental illnesses than ever before.
The worst thing you can do is shut yourself away from those who can help you overcome this. Friends and family are there for us to reach out to when we’re in the darkest of places, just like we are for them in their hour of need. You are not a burden; you are a human being fighting a mental illness. The fact that you have decided that you have accepted this and decided to find ways in which to conquer it just shows how strong you are. But a battle is never won alone. You need comrades.
Going out with friends can take your mind off your depression for a little while and make you feel better about yourself. You can also confide in them about how you’re feeling, and maybe help support them in their woes – if you’re anything like me, then you can deal with anyone’s issues but your own!
Social support is essential to your recovery, so make the time to call or hang out or send a message.
Keep a Bullet Journal
This is a fantastic way to plan your days, set goals for yourself, and unleash your creative side. As the Bullet Journal website puts it, “The Bullet Journal is a customizable and forgiving organization system. It can be your to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, but most likely, it will be all of the above. It will teach you to do more with less.”
Your bullet journal can be as simple or as extensive as you want it to be. You can jot down a list of things to do and goals to aim towards each day and places you need to be. You can also create ‘collections’ of information you want to keep a record of, such as books you want to read, movies you want to see, new healthy habits you want to start up and maintain, and savings goals. It can also help you to introduce the previous coping ideas into your life without you having to remember it all in your head.
It is your own planning and creative haven for you to do as you wish with.
If you’re still not sure about bullet journals, there are plenty of websites and YouTube videos out there to help you figure out if keeping one would be useful for you. Boho Berry is a particularly good channel to go to in order to gain a good idea of how to start and use a bullet journal.
I hope that these ideas help you to get onto the road to recovery. Regardless of whether you have suffered with depression for a day or 10+ years, you are not alone and you can get through this. You just need love and support, and with that you can get through anything, even this horrible chapter in your life.
And remember: you are worth every second that you are in this world.