Mindfulness: What’s the Point?

Another link to a piece I wrote for my university magazine on the current generation and our interaction with mindfulness practices. Are millennials and centennials too cynical to benefit from it? Read more here

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Summertime Sadness: A(n Amateur) Guide to Mental Illness Management at Festivals

A couple of weeks ago now, a group of my uni friends and I went to Citadel Festival in London. Full of current and past favourites of mine including Laura Marling, Maggie Rogers, Parcels and headliners Foals, it was an instant yes from me when my lovely and always on-the-music-ball friend David suggested it. I’d been at home for around a month when Citadel rolled around so I was really looking forward to seeing some friends and getting back into city life for a bit. My brain, however, had a different opinion.

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@isabelsuzannah on Instagram
This is the part where I’d usually say ‘Without going into too much detail, blah blah blah’, but that won’t really work for what I’m trying to say here. So here’s the detail. For the past couple of years I’ve suffered with a variety of depressive and dissociative disorders that come and go in waves. Last summer I experienced a massive flare-up of depersonalisation in which I spent a good month seeing the world through a hazy lens, as if I was watching my life from behind a screen rather than actually existing in it. Since then, these periods of depersonalisation have returned every so often in a similar way to that summer. Going into this summer, I was already nervous about a possible resurgence and I wasn’t entirely wrong to be so. After a week or so of being back in Sussex, I felt that same, detached feeling creeping back in. Thankfully, I’ve learned slowly how to manage myself when this happens but with this festival and a week-long holiday with my friend and her family looming, I felt on unsteady ground.

Studies are still sketchy in these areas, but there has been research to suggest biological factors. Experiments involving neurotransmitters have shown that people with depression often have interrupted serotonin and dopamine levels – otherwise known as your naturally occurring happy drugs. Such is the problem with these kinds of disorders: the parts of your brain that access joy and pleasure can feel dulled or switched off entirely. You’re there, physically, but you might be mentally and emotionally somewhere else. They also make social and physical exertion really tiring and often leave you feeling trapped or like you shouldn’t be doing anything other than lying in a familiar bed, safe and alone. So, upwards of twelve hours on your feet in an unfamiliar place several hours from home surrounded by tens of thousands of people? Risky business. But I did it. And (after accepting my brain was just in that place) I had fun. So here I am today with some pointers on how to make the day go smoothly so you can enjoy yourself to the best of your ability and have a good old groove while you’re at it.

Phase 1: Before

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@claviclmason on Instagram

This is already sounding more dramatic than I planned. I’m gonna roll with it. Okay, so, you’re a week or so away from the big week/weekend/day and you need to start planning ahead. I cannot stress how important it is to plan the logistics of things like this. Planning well will reduce anxiety and make things easier in all senses, allowing you to focus on enjoy the present moment rather than worrying about getting home. Here are the things you absolutely need to do before you set foot out the door.

  1. Tickets. I’m guilty of this one. I once made it nearly all the way to a festival without realising I’d left my ticket at home. That was not a fun few hours. More often than not, when ordering a ticket for a festival or a gig, you can opt to have a paper copy delivered to your home. I always do this, because I feel safer knowing I have this proper physical thing to prove I’m allowed to be there. In addition to this, you’ll probably have an e-mail confirmation and an e-ticket. Screenshot these for easy access.
  2. Travel. Depending on how far you are from the venue, you may need to sort travel in advance. For Citadel, we got the train into London and back. You’re gonna save a load of money booking in advance with a railcard, especially when it comes to travelling in London. Another tip would be to get a solid group of you travelling together – this will soften your anxiety, get you in a good mindset and also provide the option of doing a GroupSave ticket if someone forgets their railcard (…totally not me). If you’re driving in, make sure you’ve booked a space in the festival parking. Check your route before you leave, and I’ll also suggest screenshotting this if you’re going to be driving through areas with little signal/travelling via the Tube. Know your options in terms of getting home, check the last train times and look up back up options such as buses and taxis in the area. Sidenote: my ever wondrous friend Bella introduced us to an app called Citymapper to help you travel around London.
  3. PackingWhether it’s a day or five, get your packing done in advance. For Citadel, a day festival, I took a backpack (check the bag size restrictions) with a water bottle (empty, there’ll be water stations inside the festival), tickets, travel purse (take out things/cards/change you don’t need in case you lose it), paracetamol, sunglasses, a jumper and your phone. Chewing gum has been proven to have calming effects, too. If you’re going somewhere like Glasto or Reading, make sure you’ve got your tent and toiletries stuff sorted and check the festival’s specific regulations when it comes to what you can and can’t have. In some cases, you’re allowed to bring food in, in which case, snacks. Snacks snacks snacks. Also, make sure you have a hairband to hand. For the love of god those crowds get hot.

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    @claviclmason on Instagram

In addition to these things, I have a few extra trips that I found useful for my day. Eat a good breakfast – a slow release one like porridge. My main symptom is that of feeling constantly spaced out so adding hunger wooziness to that is just unnecessary. Find a good meeting place if there’s going to be a bunch of you – a specific one. Like a local pub or a specific stand in the festival. You don’t want to be running around looking for two people among thousands. Something I usually find super creepy but actually proved really useful was SnapMaps. I turned it on and selected which friends could see me so that we could all track each other’s whereabouts just in case. This also allowed us to see when everyone had got home safely.

Phase 2: During

This is the hard part. A lot of the time I never know how I’m going to feel from minute to minute, let alone across the period of a few days. Managing your mental health is something that should always be your priority but doing it in a festival scenario can be hard. Here are some tips to do to keep yourself centred and solid throughout.

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@claviclmason on Instagram
  1. HALT. Bear with me, but this is a little trick I learned from The CW’s Jane the Virgin. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. In the programme, Jane is told to use this to assess her susceptibility for panic attacks but I think it can extend to all kinds of disorders. I know for a fact that when I’m any of those things my mental health can easily spin out. So, if you feel your brain fogging you out, take a step back and try to see if you’re any of those things. If so, do what you can to remedy them.
  2. Hydrate and nourish. Food and drink, people. I’m not going to stop saying it. Eat those snacks and make sure you drink water. I know personally that having a couple of drinks helps me out, so if you do drink alcohol it’s all the more important to stay hydrated. However, only drink if you know you can drink responsibly, never get more than tipsy and make sure your friends are all looking out for each other.
  3. Take a second. Throughout the festival I got these crazy waves of feeling trapped and wanting to go home. While these feelings are completely valid, they are not productive or gratifying in any way. At a house party, even clubbing, you have the options of going home safely but at a festival, you’re more likely to put yourself in a bad situation if you try to leave alone. In this case, you need to take a minute out. You can do this by escaping to the loo for a moment, refilling your water, or simply sitting out of a couple of acts. At Citadel, all my favourite acts were on in the first few hours, so by the time it got to the headliners, I was started to feel panicked and phased out. For one of the acts, we broke into two groups, one went in, one stayed out, and for the final act I went in, started freaking out, then took myself out and found a spot where I would be found easily later on. It’s okay to do this, as long and you do it safely and have people know where you are at all times.

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    @danlyonss on Instagram
  4. Calm down. During Foals, the final act, I felt a proper freak out coming on. Huge crowd, rowdy as heck, bottles flying everywhere and music that I wasn’t that into. One of my friends had to fight his way out of the crowd anyway to catch a train, so I decided to exit with him and sit this one out. I still had a good view of the big screens and could apparently hear better than in the actual crowd. I did feel instantly calmer leaving, but just in case I opened my Aura app and did a few mindfulness exercises. Things like mindful breathing and checking in with your body you can do anywhere and on the move, so I highly recommend learning a few of these before you go. I like to breathe in time with tracing my fingers up and down. Aura also provides quick, guided meditations if you need that extra help.
  5. Fight back. This sounds like the worst advice. I know it’s aggravating to hear sometimes but I’m a big believer in the power of acting like you want to feel. Whether or not you actually feel any differently, telling yourself you are going to enjoy yourself can have a big impact on the way you experience things. If you can, fight back. Do the things, take part in the activities, jump in the crowd. Smiling makes you and those around you happier. If you have to take yourself out, tell yourself that you just need a quick break and you’ll be ready to have fun again when the next thing comes along. It’s sort of like fake it til you make it (which has been proven to work, by the way) but internal.
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@claviclmason on Instagram

One last little personal thing for me was taking something to entertain me. Sometimes, especially at the end of long days, I feel like it’s almost impossible for me to make conversation but even more impossible to sit there in silence. Taking something to distract you is always a good shout. For me, when I sat out for Foals, I read a little. Thanks to the Amazon Kindle app, I had a bunch of course texts on my phone that I gave a little read. Cut me some slack, you know I’m an English student. One thing I would say is avoid using social media as this escape – it can often make you feel more detached than before. My friend Kate did a wonderful post on this over on her blog.

And lastly…

Phase 3: After

See, you did it! Wasn’t that bad, right? Okay, you’re exhausted, you’re covered in glitter and you haven’t done any exercise in a month so your muscles and falling apart from the exertion but you had a good day. Even so, making sure you’re okay afterwards is imperative.

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@claviclmason on Instagram
  1. Get home safe. As I said earlier, plan plan plan. Getting home is maybe the most important plan to have, as you’ll already be exhausted and probably just wanting water and bed at this point. Know which train you’re getting, how to get there and who’s coming with you. Try and travel in a group (as always). Get a group taxi home and drop people off in an order which means at least two of you are at the final destination so no one has to be in the taxi alone. Text people when you’re home safe. Maybe get your parents to leave a spare key somewhere or leave the back door on latch so you don’t have to take your keys with you.
  2. Let yourself sleep in. If you possibly can, don’t set an alarm. You’re going to be more exhausted than you usually are, physically and mentally, so let your body take as much time as it needs. Make sure you’ve drawn your curtains and…
  3. Give yourself the next day off. I know this isn’t possible for a lot of people. You might have work or school or social engagements but if you at all can, let yourself have a recovery day. After a solid period of time in constant contact with people, I often find I need to be alone for a good while. Even extroverted people need this sometimes. Have a chill day watching Netflix or relaxing in the garden or catching up on some reading. Have a really good bath or a shower because you’re going to be disgusting. Just let yourself exist for a day before re-entering the real world. Reboot yourself.
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@elisejackoon on Instagram

So, there it is. My advice to surviving a festival if you’re prone to a little madness. The last thing I want to say is keep your expectations optimistic. It can be so, so hard but you have to go into these things expecting to have a good time. If you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s harsh but true. It’s a whole mode of thought called learned optimism! And I know, it doesn’t seem possible sometimes. But it is, I promise. You’re going to have fun. You’re going to make memories. You’re going to be alright.

Love, Elise.

If any of these things resonated with you and you feel you may have mental health problems, please seek help from a doctor. Getting counselling comes with unimaginable benefits and no one should suffer mental illness alone. In the meantime, check out these resources:

All photos are mine or courtesy of David Mason (@claviclmason on Twitter and Instagram), Bella Brown (@bellabrwn on Twitter, @isabelsuzannah on Instagram, bellevernacular on WordPress) and Dan Lyons (@dantheli0nman on Twitter, @danlyonss on Instagram and danthelionman on WordPress). Thanks for reading and please feel free to message me with questions or leave a comment below. This is my first attempt at something semi-personal and I’m thinking about writing another similarly themed to this. Thanks!

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig – A Review

Story time.

As an unwritten rule, once it gets above 22 degrees Celsius in Britain, we freak out. If it gets above 25, the old ‘Hot, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah, might be too hot’ conversation starts emerging. And then you get this past week. Consistently hitting between 26 and 31 for a full five days, people have NOT been handling it. Despite loving the sun in my head, my body hates it. I burn, not tan, I get heat induced headaches after half an hour in the sun and for some reason I look super tired all the time when it’s hot out. So this morning was a glorious surprise. I woke up, or should I say was woken up, by the sound of rain. Heavy rain. Then a breeze came through my window – a cool one. Then there was thunder. And as I lay there, listening to the sounds of stormy weather, I realised how lovely it felt to be awake and alive and feeling all those feelings and hearing all those sounds. Not least because I was excited by the prospect of being able to actually go outside for more than 20 minutes unprotected.

This leads me on to the book for this review. This book is one that I actually read last summer, during what, in retrospect, was a really bad brain… two months. It was lent to me by a friend who was lent it by his parents who said it was amazing and that everyone should read it. I don’t often pick up this kind of format, but this guy NEVER recommends books so I was kind of amazed enough to try it. Now, in a much more positive place, I read it again just to see. Here’s what I found.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

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The blurb of this book states it is ‘more than a memoir. It is a book about making the most of your time on earth’. It’s non-fiction but written like a diary format novel – think Bridget Jones, Sufia Khan is Not Obliged or the Georgia Nicholson series (there are a lot of nervy bs in this book too). It consists mostly of linear storytelling with inserts of lists, experimental stream-of-consciousness passages and internal dialogues reported in a playscript format. You follow Matt through 8 years of his life and various mental breakdowns. You meet his parents, his colleagues and his wonderful girlfriend-now-wife Andrea. You see, step-by-step, his ebbing and flowing, his sinking and rising and, finally, his recovery and stabilising. And it gets you, it truly does. I cried, I think. I remember feeling so relieved and pleased for him, but mostly I felt hope. I didn’t realise it at the time, but so much of Matt’s experiences were a little too easy for me to empathise with. A favourite quote is ‘I had never been one of those males who were scared of tears. I was a Cure fan, for God’s sake. I’d been emo before it was a term.’ My parents both love The Cure and when I was growing up my mum used to play their video albums to get me to go to sleep. Alongside The Smiths who, admittedly, I was listening to a bit young for how nihilistic they are, I always had that understanding that having emotions is fine! Expressing your emotions is cool! Cry if you want to, saying boy don’t cry is dumb! It’s those little things sprinkled through the book that make this so easy to engage with – Matt is real, you can feel that in the writing, and it makes his journey all the more engaging.

In terms of connection, Matt Haig really nails how to communicate complex states of mind. There’s a part where Matt lists what it feels like to have a panic attack, then recalls a time where he couldn’t go to the corner shop at the end of the road alone without having one. He gives you a clinical-looking list of steps or symptoms, then chucks you into a scenario in which those things happen like an unstoppable tide. The combination of objective understanding with emotional reaction means we, as readers, can feel just as frustrated as Matt when we can’t control the outcomes. We start expecting the worst before it can ever happen, and that, my friends, it what depression feels like. He uses a metaphor of the demon on his back, licking his ears while he’s at the theatre or in bed with his girlfriend. Matt Haig’s writing is nothing if not to the point and to the heart. His language isn’t fancy, but it is poetic and emotive. You understand everything that is going on at every stage in the process, something imperative for people to read. His simplicity and honesty translates so well because it provides the experience he had to other people in understandable and relatable terms. A Sunday Times bestseller, this book has reached not only the percentage of people who suffer from mental health problems, but the 2 in 3 people who don’t. It creates such an inescapable empathy through genuine care for him and his family that you find yourself completely understanding his brain along the way. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

I did, however, have some problems with it. Matt says himself in the book that we like to compartmentalise things and give labels to what is a much more complex set of factors than just OCD, schizophrenia or depression. I get the feeling that reading this book again would be a completely different experience each time, depending on the place that you’re in when you read it. When I read it, in the midst of a suffocating bout of depersonalisation and anxiety, it made me angry. I knew I had some of these things Matt was experiencing, but I didn’t react in the same way. I didn’t lash out at my family, I could go to the shop, I didn’t feel a demon licking my ear. I found myself getting defensive that I was doing it wrong. That my brain was faulty, but faulty in the wrong way. I couldn’t relate, and I was tempted to discard the book as reductionist because of this. But on a reread, I felt entirely different. I thought Matt relayed everything perfectly, sensitively and delicately to his own truth. I found it smart and funny in ways I didn’t during the first read. This reaction, to me, is fascinating. It’s a super quick read – it only took me a few days – so i’s definitely worth trying more than once to see if the same thing happens to you.

This makes it hard for me to really review it one way or the other. Reasons to Stay Alive is a brilliant memoir of one man’s experience. In one way, it felt isolating and confusing to someone who refused to acknowledge their own struggles. In another, it is gut-wrenching and close-to-the-bone but ultimately hopeful. Most importantly, it is educational and aware. Matt Haig is careful to insert lots of information and offhand advisory sentences to those who suffer from mental illness as well as to the carers of those who do. For everyone, it is worth reading. For some, like me, it is worth reading a couple times. It is honest, brutal, and, dare I say it, a really important signpost towards a larger conversation. This book opens avenues for discussion and understanding for both people who suffer from anxiety, depression, or any other manner of mental illness, and those who don’t. All aboard the empathy train, people!