Mo Problems..Dealing with Anxiety & Depression
The awareness of mental health has improved a lot, but it still has a long way to go. The charity Movember, which takes place during November and helps raise awareness of male cancers, has also started to raise awareness of male suicide, which is alarmingly high. Movember is a charity Ive got involved with for years but I didn’t think for one second I would ever be affected by cancer or even depression. For those that don’t know, Movember’s aim is to decrease the amount of men dying too young by raising awareness and money for male cancers and suicide by holding events and encouraging anyone who can grow a moustache to do so to help spread the word/ raise money. Im attempting to take part but growing facial hair whilst having chemo is proving difficult. Im just past the pubescent teen phase.
Before I got diagnosed I was very happy and didn’t have any real worries other than lifes usual ups and downs, and I felt like I could handle anything thrown at me. I had everything going for me. Young, physically fit, and an otherwise healthy 26 (now 28) year old lad I felt like nothing could touch me. Ive had to adapt to some big life changes and I’ve also had to learn to accept these changes. Will I beat the odds? Will I ever feel normal again? Will I ever be able to have children? Will all this shit I’ve been through be worth it in the end? Everyone has a breaking point and Im a little embarrassed to admit I felt so down there were times I thought death would be a better choice than the hell I was living, but I didn’t let those negative thoughts stick around for long.
Mental health issues have never been on my radar but now its something I’m very aware of. Ive battled depression and anxiety issues throughout this past year and I was adamant I wasn’t going to take any pills for it. We live in a pill popping society, everything has a pill to ‘fix’ it. Im already taking loads of pills just to combat the side effects of the chemo. I know anti depressants definitely have a place but I didn’t want to take them as I knew my depression and anxiety was just situational.
So, I thought I would share a few things that helped me pull myself out of a few dark holes (giggedy). If one person benefits from this it’ll be worth it as I know how horrible it can be to be depressed day and night. Ive always liked to keep my personal life behind closed doors. This blog is the complete opposite of that but it takes people to talk about these things to remove the stigma. That doesn’t mean I’m completely comfortable talking about this I certainly didn’t think id ever be dealing with these issues 2 years ago.
To start off, I’ll begin with the most obvious of the lot. The power of positivity. Its really hard to be positive when you have so much thrown at you and you’re depressed but its so important to break the downward negative spiral before it gets out of control. Its so simple and small but positive self talk is the first place to start. No matter how big the task is, it always starts with YOU making a conscious choice to make positive changes and to pursue happiness. It may not sound particularly nice but its important to identify anything toxic in your life and remove that negativity, even if its someone close to you. Its not going to help you heal and will hold you down. At least until you have fixed the depression. You need to understand these things take time, but being positive and consciously deciding to change is the first place to start.
2. Exercise and Yoga
Ive always been very passionate about exercise so this was my first port of call and something which I knew would have an immediate benefit. Not only does this help clear your head, but it releases endorphins and uses up adrenaline. This can help you get a better nights sleep. It can also help increase confidence and self esteem, lack of which sometimes go hand in hand with depression and anxiety. Especially if your body has been through some changes. Only my parents knew how serious it was when the doctor said I would never play rugby again. It had always been my world, my therapy and shaped who I have become. After the really aggressive chemo I had last year I was only able to walk for exercise. Its no way near the same but walking is one of the easiest forms of exercise and its also beneficial to get out in the fresh air. Ive recently been well enough to get in the gym between cycles of chemo and this has helped me so much. I always feel better after I’ve blown off some steam in the gym and its always good to get a change of scenery. Ive also found yoga extremely beneficial and I’m slowly becoming quite the yogi. When I was very ill it was the only form of exercise I could manage. But it can be as challenging as you make it. It has so many health benefits that will surprise you. Its part of my morning routine now, it helps with mindfulness and starts the day off in a very positive way. Its beneficial to have a topic to focus on during meditation. For example today I am meditating to be more calm and in control.
A study conducted by the University of Essex and published by Mind, the mental health organisation, found that taking a walk in nature reduced depression scores in 71% of participants. They compared the effect with a control group who took a walk in a shopping centre. Only 45% of the control group had reduced depression scores, while 22% of them actually felt more depressed (I’d like to know what shopping centre it was thought! I feel like ending it all when I see the Colwell Centre (you wont get that if you don’t know Weymouth). Getting outside for a stroll helps increase your vitamin D production, gets you blowing, gets your heart rate up and it will help improve sleep quality.
4. Having a Meaning
Everyone needs a purpose to get them up in the morning. It felt like I lost mine. When I was at my worse I couldn’t leave my bed for days. Crippled with sickness, pain and my thoughts. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t do any of my hobbies and the relationship I was in ended horribly. It felt like I was being robbed of everything that meant something to me. The depression and pressure quickly took over and consumed me. Its so important to have a purpose, and everyone will have different needs and aspirations. Ive always been a very proactive and enthusiastic person so not having a purpose really ate me up. If you’re content doing nothing, this wont be so much of a problem. Ive had to learn to listen to when my body has had enough and appreciate the down time a bit more. Everyone’s purpose changes from time to time. At the moment my sole purpose is to beat this and I’m directing all my energy into it. Everything else can be put on hold till I am better as survival is the most important thing. Ultimately all our purposes are to do everything we can to live a healthy and happy life and benefit the world around us and our relationship with others through our actions.
My sister put me onto an interesting book called ‘Mans Search for a Meaning’ by Victor Frankl. He was a psychiatrist who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl wrote examples of how people who lost hope could not find a meaning of the suffering in the camps and ultimately gave into death. Frankl said that the biggest cause of psychological stress was the unknown and not knowing how long the suffering might last. A man or woman who was not able to see an end to the suffering, was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. People with this mindset were often prone to unraveling internally. He also said suicide often occurred when people had a lack of hope and meaning to their life. He explains how to use logotherapy (finding the meaning to ones life) to help suicidal individuals find a purpose, even in their suffering.
Frankl’s main manta was “any man who has a why, can endure almost any how”. This basically means that if you know WHY you are working towards something and you keep that in your mind and use it as inspiration, the things that happen to you along the way can be overcome with the power of having that meaning and purpose. HOW you get to your goal, whether its beating a serious illness or surviving a concentration camp becomes attainable if you have the WHY. For Frankl it was seeing his wife again and writing his book. For me its been my family, my friends, my dog, keeping myself healthy and helping others through this blog. Ive got a bit too deep and need to come back up! Obviously facing up to cancer is nothing like what happened in the concentration camps but this is a good example of using hope and meaning.
Its good to create little projects for yourself so you don’t get bored. But be cautious not to burn yourself out. To give me something to do between bouts of chemo I started this blog, Ive decorated parts of my house, built things, landscaped my garden and I’ve started doing some art again. However I’ve still not been patient enough to learn the guitar or another language…one day! Im very inpatient so tend to do things I can throw myself at and get instant reward from. I cant wait to return to work, proper training and I’ve got so many challenges and holidays I want to do when I am better. If having cancer doesn’t give you a kick up the ass to make the most out of life then nothing will.
Something else I started a while ago that I have mentioned in previous posts is meditation and mindfulness. It has really helped me. Again, it will surprise you how many health benefits meditation has:-
• Reduces stress
• Improves concentration
• Encourages a healthy lifestyle
• Increases self-awareness
• Increases happiness
• Increases acceptance
• Slows ageing
• Benefits cardiovascular and immune health
Its like the gym for your brain! When I was down and needed some help I started to use an app called Headspace. Its fantastic for anyone that doesn’t know where to start, like I didn’t. It uses breathing techniques, imagery and simple daily tasks to help you train your brain to be more mindful and at peace. Trekstock, the fantastic charity that supports young people with cancer, gives all its members a Headspace membership for free! Its usually £70. I paid for it a long time ago before I joined Treckstock but its well worth it. Headspace also does a free 30 day trial.
Something else linked to meditation is the benefit of breathing. Ive never been conscious of my breathing and its something I am a lot more conscious of now. When we are stressed we breath faster and shallower. This has many negative effects on the body. Worse of all is it kicks in the sympathetic nervous system which releases the stress hormone cortisol. Simply slowing your breathing down and making it deeper can help you relax and engage your parasympathetic nervous system. A really easy way to introduce breathing techniques is counting to 4 for an in breath, then count to 4 again while you exhale. Do this ten times and you will be calmer and more focused. I always try to do it while I’m walking the dog for 5-10 minutes.
Getting quality and quantity is important when it comes to sleep. Staying up too late increases the stress hormone cortisol and reduces the hormone melatonin and growth hormone, which are essential for repair and recovery. Sleep deprivation leads to the body slowly shutting down. Being depressed/anxious and having insomnia are common and make the situation so much worse. If you cant sleep, don’t force it. Make a comforting drink and listen to some music or a pod cast as bright lights from a tv/tablet can increase cortisol release. This is why its important to avoid using devices with blue light 2 hours before bed, but we are all guilty of it. People going through chemo are significantly fatigued so they may need to get extra sleep, this is something I am still terrible at. Einstein was a firm believer in a siesta and he was pretty switched on bloke! Your body will also thank you for cutting out caffeine and sugar. Even just abstaining from having any in the afternoon will significantly improve your sleep quality.
8. Healthy Gut
Science has shown a correlation between gut health and anxiety. It may sound strange but the gut is the foundation for a healthy body. Its very important to have the correct micro-organisms in your gut, both probiotics and prebiotic. I get mine from organic live yogurt. I try to stick to goat or sheep yogurt as its more alkaline than cows. I also make a mean bone broth which is packed full of gut friendly nutrients. You can find the recipe here. If you need a boost, for example after a course of antibiotics, which kills the good and bad bacteria in your gut, you can get probiotic supplements from a good health food shop.
9. Family and Friends
Lastly spend time with your loved ones. They are the people that know you best and know how to cheer you up! These methods I’ve mentioned will not only benefit you but also those around you. I feel so bad if I am down and it causes me to be a dick to a loved one, but obviously they understand. Lastly just getting out there helps increase your world. When you are depressed, ill and stuck at home your world can become extremely small very fast. This makes your problems seem even worse and they can consume you. Helping others out can be beneficial because you take the focus off yourself and you realise other people have shit going on in their lives too…hopefully that doesn’t sound selfish.
Nothing happens immediately and it can be an ongoing process. Its also important to say there is also professional support available like talking therapies and CBT. If you want to try this then talk to your GP. Im not embarrassed to admit I got support as it was available and I was told by others that have been through cancer that it was very beneficial. I didn’t find it as helpful as the things Ive mentioned but everyone is different and what works for one person may not work for another. And if all this doesn’t work just put on your happy song and dance around like no one is watching! 🙂