Refresh refresh refresh: how to live a calm IRL existence when you’re constantly online

Illustration by Rosie Henthorn

I’m trying to look at mental health in the same way I look at physical health. When you read the words mental health, you associate it with bad things: mental health issues, mental health problems, ‘I am struggling with my mental health’. But just like our physical health, it’s simply a part of us. It is perfectly usual, I think, to have a succession of good days, then bad days, great days, and sad days, and then do that all over again. We all ‘have’ mental health, and some days it is better than others.

Of course, it would always be preferable to have weeks upon weeks of blissed-out carefree livin’, instead of days where you’re racked with so much anxiety you think everyone in the office knows you didn’t have time to brush your teeth this morning. Weeks where you ace the job, exercise regularly and always have the right ingredients in your cupboard to cook the thing you want to cook tonight.

Being organised and having things in order feels great, but having a minor panic attack in the middle of Lidl because you can’t remember if you need to buy spaghetti (or if you have more than enough already), does not feel great. And with women being twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety than men, I’m probably not the only one feeling like everything could go wrong at any given second.

Once things start spiralling downwards, the worst, familiar feeling takes hold, an inevitably that you will have to spend the next However Long It Will Take, trying and trying and trying to do things that will make you feel better.

We’re living in an age where we have all the right tools to lead a perfect life. Selfie filters and apps that tell you exactly how long a journey will be to the second, for example, mean it is so easy to blame ourselves when things go wrong. We have all the tools/apps/life hacks available within seconds, when things don’t quite click IRL, it can make you feel inadequate.

I’m an ambitious person, which, in the digital age, means you have unlimited opportunities to realise this ambition at your fingertips. I’m a journalist, but I’d love to write another play in the next year; I’ve been meaning to start a new blog about relationships for months; I want to host a podcast about female friendships; I want to post at least three blog posts on here this month; I want to become better at guitar, find a group of muso-girls, and start the next Slits; I want to write about the books I’ve read, the music I’m listening to; I want to send out a newsletter sharing all the best stuff I’ve seen online this week, and while I’m doing all this, I want to be sharing it on four social media pages and building up a community of literal followers that can, I don’t know, envy how busy I am!

So yes, I’m ambitious, but I’m having to learn to rein it in a little. Aim high, believe in yourself, but don’t promise three editors that you can send them over a pitch that same evening if it’s already 6pm and you’ve got a deadline for another thing that night (and you need to do your washing). Or actually, do pitch those three editors if you’re feeling really excited and pumped up by the prospect of it, but don’t knock yourself down if you don’t manage to get around to it this evening, or even by the end of the week. You took on too much, and now your other work has felt the impact of it. That’s OK. Whatever. Slow it down, and learn from it.

The same applies not just to productivity, but to playing all the different roles you have to play in life. Best friend, colleague, girlfriend, daughter, neighbour, even. (Ffs, our bin was toppled over by foxes the other night, and I had the misfortune of leaving the house at the same time as my cranky-ass neighbour. There was rubbish everywhere, and we caught eye contact with each other as we left our respective houses, and I said “I’m so sorry!” Why was I sorry! I wasn’t sorry! There’s a difference between being a kind and respectful member of the community, and being someone who apologies to your tutting neighbour when a brazen urban fox leaves half-eaten creme caramels on your driveway).

Trying to do it all, have it all, and please everyone isn’t going to make you happy. Setting yourself sky-high expectations isn’t going to make you happy. Anxiety is something I’ll probably have to deal with, on and off, for many years yet, but I can at least try to come up with small changes to change my outlook that will help me to handle things better, or, at least, reduce periods of anxiety in my life to last minutes, rather than weeks. It usually starts with stepping away from the internet.

Here’s some totally ill-informed, non-medical advice that has worked when I try to do so much, that I can’t do anything at all:

1. Hydrate. Turn off your phone. Grab the nearest book around you (not a newspaper – the news is utterly anxiety-inducing – something fictional if possible) and put it down on the table in front of you. Get the biggest glass from your kitchen cupboard (I believe the pint ones stolen from pubs work well for this), run the tap ’til it’s freezing cold, and pour yourself a crystal clear glass of water. Sit and the table and drink it slowly.

Once you’ve finished the glass, pick up the book and begin to read. If you struggle to concentrate, or had the misfortune of James Joyce’s Ulysses being the nearest book to hand, don’t get mad. Take a deep breath. Instead, enjoy the new-found hydration. It is good to drink water.

2. Do things you always used to do, but haven’t done in years. This is less of a mindfulness exercise, and more of a nice thing to do if you’re feeling a bit lost or existential. It is reminding yourself that you were a person who existed, probably really quite well, before you got into a spiral of bad thoughts.

For me, I like to do things that I used to do as a child or teenager. Without regressing into wearing a nappy or whatever, I like to sit and draw for 10-15 minutes, or get some paints out and dance my fingers across some paper. I really like to listen to The Beatles. Yep, I might have had Yorkshire puddings and chips for dinner, and no, I will never stop biting my nails, but I am a really fucking good Beatles fan. If the Beatles were a pub quiz round, you’d want me in your team. Guilty pleasures are your best friend. Spend your evening or weekend being truly kind to yourself, and play some ABBA.

3. Look at those around you. When you pencil in so much stuff, you’re often putting yourself first. You have to, babe, you’re the CEO of your Filofax! But when you’re smashing glass ceilings, working your fingers to the bone, but still feel like everyone’s got their shit together in such a coherent way, that’s probably when you need people around you, to realise that a) you’re doing a stellar job, b) everyone’s flawed. I’m pretty introverted at the best of times, and when I’m facing a lot of stress, my communication skills wobble. I’ve had a very slight stammer since I was a kid, emphasised by stress, nerves and tiredness. When I’m ‘busy’, I think I don’t have the time to ask someone how their weekend was, lest they go on about it for more than 30 seconds. But I think (and hope) we do all have time to do those little things. Adam J Kurtz wrote this perfect little motto to live by in his latest book Things are What You Make of Them: Life Advice for Creatives: ‘Whatever you think you are, be a person first’.

If the last thing you want to do is be around people, but you’ve found yourself in a situation where you have to, strive for kindness above all else. And maybe mention how you’re feeling to someone else. They might offer to buy you a pint.

My dear friend Rosie, who drew the image for this piece when I told her I wanted to write something about frazzled minds, gave me some great advice when I was feeling pretty self-important and sad. She said: ‘Make use of lovely people’. So, I implore y’all to look after yourselves, look out for your friends, and look at your diary for the week and write ‘REMEMBER TO REST’ in capital letters across the top of the page.

Buy some of Rosie’s artwork here. It is very good.

On not having constantly brilliant moments, and why that’s OK – 23/03/17

I’ve hit a bit of a low point during the past month or so, something I can now admit to with conviction (which means I must be coming out the other side). The reasons behind it I won’t disclose, but I felt compelled to share my experience of waiting for a bad period to pass, because being ‘strong’ or, like, going for a run, haven’t felt like viable (or at all possible) options. I began to come out of a drawn-out mopey period last week while I was washing the dishes. It sticks out in a blur of a week because I forced myself to remember how it felt, and it was only then, after days of feeling nothing, when I began to regain control of my thoughts and moods. I was washing up day-old plates looking out to the many back gardens I can see from my kitchen window, where a cat was licking itself clean on top of a shed. I could have been standing there for 10 minutes, just staring, although it was probably just a few seconds. I remember thinking ‘I’ve never felt like this before’. Or at least, not for a long time anyway, not since I was 16 years old, struggling at school, and kicked around the place just trying to get by every day. What did I have to worry about at 16? Well, nothing I suppose, in the same way I’ve got nothing to worry about today. Of course, there’s always minor things going on: money worries, relationship doubts, friendships drifting; although these things shouldn’t encapsulate your whole life and make you afraid to leave the house. But sometimes they can, and it’s really very hard to explain why. Mental health’s a difficult thing to open up about; you can’t see negative feelings, so will people even believe you? Will they care?

It’s also a hard thing to write about, because when I feel ready to form a sentence about tangled thoughts in a coherent way, I’ve usually come to resolve a tiny aspect of it. I can now detangle and rationalise how I felt and get it down in a way that half makes sense. But of course, when you’re at the bottom of the slump, nothing makes sense. I’ve been unable to write anything of any worth for weeks and although that sounds melodramatic, it hasn’t felt like it. I didn’t care. I’ve been feeling lousy, not in in a loud, hysterical kind of way, but in a very different way altogether. No energy, no desire to do the things I know that’ll make me feel better.

I think that’s the problem I have with dealing with spells of depression as I’ve grown older, I know exactly what would help me to feel better (getting out of bed before 8am, going for a run, showering, putting on a killer outfit to meet friends), but actually going through with any of the above is so out of reach, despite how routine it might seem when your mind’s being kind. Ellen Scott touches on this in a brilliant article posted on the Metro last week: ‘[Telling me to go for a run to fix my depression] is a reminder that I’m failing to do something everyone else finds simple, that I can’t do something that could help.’

And despite its immeasurable benefits on your self esteem, the endorphins released from exercise are more of a quick-fix mood boost than a long-term solution. Definitely – if I feel up to it – it can help, but it’s not always the answer and can make me feel worse about myself. It’s the horrible feeling of helplessness, knowing that getting your body moving will help give your overwrought mind some balance, but you’re stuck within yourself and your body and mind aren’t working in sync. So you just sit and maybe read and try not to feel, and think about perhaps having a shower (but then probably don’t).

It’s not as simple as doing something that might have worked before either – your circumstances might have changed since your last really low spell, so how you’re going to deal with it will have to change too. Perhaps once, your mental health hack was to pencil in some me-time where you could bob around in your own company, away from other people; but now you’re in a position where you need to surround yourself with others and feel more connected to your friends. If you have a bad day, but then those bad days merge into a string of bad days, and carries on into a bad month, you’re not going to feel that great about yourself. But as you’re already feeling shitty, beating yourself up for feeling bad and not your best self isn’t going to help you get out of that rut. It’s OK to feel quiet and tired and go through a bad patch without wearing make up and trying to put your game face on every day. Instead of constantly being angry at how you feel (‘Why do I feel so fucking awful! If I don’t buck my game up soon, how do I ever expect to achieve anything!’ etc) maybe try accepting that you’re not always going to be 100% fine with life every day of the year, and it’s a feeling that will soon and gradually pass.

I feel much better now, (the looming thing I was so dreading has passed, my friends are awesome, I’ve been extra kind to myself). I started reading fiction again, something that, in hindsight, helped me to crawl out of the hole a bit. I guess it makes sense, when you’re spending a lot of time with only your own thoughts for company – reading a book gives you another voice to listen to. And what joy at finding a sentiment within its pages that feels so right for how you’re feeling at that exact moment, and having that moment all to yourself (rather than seeing it’s already been retweeted hundreds of time). Ah, you think, someone knows exactly how this feeling-I-can’t-quite-articulate feels, and they knew how it felt in 2007, when they wrote this book. That always gives me a bit of a hope, if just for a second. It also makes sense that getting nose-deep into a book is a good way to spend time on your own, because people have been doing it for hundreds of years. Books are great if you crave company. My friend and I used to joke in A-level English that the only reason Tess of the D’urbervilles was considered a classic was because people’s attention spans in the ‘olden days’ could get through 600 pages of Hardy. Sorry if that’s sacrilege and it’s actually a really great read or whatever, I just lost interest four pages in and there was no going back from there. Anyway.

Spending less time in real company and more time scrolling through social media will rarely make us feel better if we’ve hit a bit of a slump and have been holed up inside with unwashed hair for three days. Ways to get around this: Switch off your phone, read for a little while, prioritise dental hygiene, try to leave the house today.

Writing this hasn’t helped me discover anything, really, I just had to write some words down to make something out of what’s been a pretty mopey fortnight. I feel like there’s lots of shareable/wannabe-viral ‘girl power’ posts on the internet that make you feel a little inadequate when you’re feeling down, rather than providing solutions to miserable moods. While the intentions are probably good, there’s less people going ‘I’m struggling right now… but that doesn’t mean I totally suck’. It’s unrealistic and boring to have constantly brilliant moments. Bad feelings will pass, let yourself feel how you have to feel for a little while and I promise, it won’t be forever. You’re doing fine; you are enough.

Here’s something suitably Neil Young to sum up the above: