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…
Full disclosure. This article is going to go full meta because the reason I’m writing this is because of what this article is about. That will hopefully make more sense as we go on.
I talk a lot about mental health. For the three(-ish) things I write for – this, the Student Minds blog and my university magazine, Impact – two are almost exclusively about mental health and the pieces I write for the other tend to lean that way. Write what you know. I don’t really believe anyone can be a proper expert in brain stuff purely because it is so varied and widespread and unknown and literally so neurologically complex we can’t comprehend it, but I like to think I have a good grip on the way my own brain works. I also love anything to do with cognitive processing so I know small enough amounts about psychology to understand why and how things happen to me. However. True to form, sometimes days happen where I cannot understand for the life of me why I feel the way I do. Today is one of those days and I could feel myself getting nuts. If I can’t analyse it, all is lost.
Not really. That’s way too dramatic for me. More like, all is confusing and thinking about how confusing it is is just gonna make you feel worse. Some days, thinking about thinking just doesn’t do it for me. So here we are. What I’m going to do here is talk about some of the things I do when days lie this happen – days that, for whatever reason, feel out of your reach.
One. Don’t freak out.
This is the biggest one, so I’m going to start with it. If, like me, you are prone to spiral when you can’t get a grip, this step is v i t a l. Things are out of your control sometimes. Deal with it. There’s no concrete way I can tell you to achieve this. It’s more a case of recognition, acknowledgement and acceptance. If your brain wants to be weird today, let it act out. It’s having a tantrum, so you gotta let it tire itself out.
Two. Figure out what is achievable and achieve those.
Even when you’re in the lowest place imaginable, some things are still within your reach. Having a shower, getting a glass of water, reading a chapter of a book, all these things are small, achievable goals you can set. Ticking something off a To-Do list gives you a little kick, enough to make you tick off the next thing and on and on. On days like today, when I purely cannot concentrate and am just feeling a bit blank, I’m lucky enough to maintain a fair amount of brain function. I tried to sit down and read a textbook chapter for my course (a chapter on ‘thought’, ironically) but it just wasn’t happening. I could, however, read a chapter of a novel for my course if I wanted to. Barring that, I’m sure I could find some video essays or reviews on Youtube that would err on the side of productivity. This post feels achievable to me, so I’m writing this instead of reading that chapter. Replacing tasks which are unsuccessful with ones that are is a great way to instill a bit of motivation and confidence.
Three. Take a step back.
There’s probably a reason I’m feeling like this today. I don’t really know what it is, but I’m sure it’s there. Taking a break every once in a while is important so as not to overheat the old brainbox. Making lunch, watching a video, playing a quick song on piano – these are all things I intersperse within my work to make sure I’m not overdoing it. Don’t wanna make whatever is up worse.
Four. Write it down.
Writing things down is notoriously useful when things are a bit fuzzy, and I do highly recommend doing it. As long as you aren’t getting carried away and spending four hours writing about how shit things feel, getting some sparse thoughts down on paper can work to clear your head of those things. Alternatively, channel that weird energy into something more creative and productive: poetry, prose or a blog post, perhaps. I told you it was meta.
Five. Get on and let up.
This is my favourite. Right now, I’m getting on. Doing this, putting my attention into something alternative but still productive. It might not make you feel much better particularly, but I know that I’ll be glad I did this instead of struggling with that chapter for another hour and getting nowhere. The next thing is to let up. Shit happens. Brains throw curveballs. It makes no sense but it happens to the most prepared of us. Usually I would try and meditate and clear my head and find some sort of silence but that won’t work today. So I’m just letting it happen. Trusting that things will go back to normal soon is the most powerful thought sometimes. I’m going to listen to what my body and my brain is telling me to do and follow that. In some roundabout way this might be my brain trying to assert itself – I’ve been pretty in control and on top of things lately. Okay brain, I hear you. I might have a nap.
Well, this worked I think. There’s too many levels now. Was that self-therapy? It’s like a step-by-step example of how my mind works. Is this performance art? Maybe I do need a nap.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Packing. Whether 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
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.
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!