From Qi Gong to blogging: How the Millennial generation are beating their blues
Short of money, jobs and security… no wonder Generation Y has mental-health issues. But, says Daisy Buchanan, she and her peers are getting their heads straight using any tool to hand: from alternative therapy to smartphone apps
Sunday 27 April 2014
When it's bad, breathing feels like trying to drink a gin and tonic when there's a lemon pip stuck in the straw. You feel as tense as you might when jammed between several sweating bodies on the Tube. It's turning up for the first night of the school play and realising you don't know your lines, you're being given an exam at the same time and you've just looked down and discovered you're completely naked. It's every single bad bit of being on drugs.
Like about three million people in the UK, including growing numbers of people in their teens and twenties, I have anxiety. This January, Anxiety UK experienced a record number of visits from young people, with the number of users aged 16 to 25 growing by more than 40 per cent on 2013. "Young people have it tougher [now]," Emma Rubach of YouthNet commented at the time. "You have your phone in your pocket, you're on social media all the time and it's really hard to step away from all that sometimes."
As a child, I was "the worrier" of the family, afraid of death from chickenpox or exposure to Dettol. But if nature gave me a tendency to be extra-anxious, society has nurtured it.
As a 29-year-old, I'm a fully paid-up member of Generation Y, also known as the Millennials, and we're notorious complainers – we won't stop whinging that we've never had it so bad. We're delaying our life goals, fretting about having families of our own and failing to plan our futures because we're underemployed and broke. When my head isn't full of fearful thoughts about being poisoned by household-cleaning products, it's hissing, "You'll never buy a house! Or have a pension! When you have babies, you won't be able to afford to feed them! In fact, you're a freelancer – can you even afford to feed yourself?"
Anxiety seems commonplace among everyone I know. Ironically, though, the problem is also the solution: we Millennials are resourceful creatures, and keen to use every tool available to us to tackle our mental-health issues, and the social networks that exacerbate our issues by exposing us to endless noise can also offer comfort and practical support.
I've turned to Twitter when feeling especially anxious and been thrilled to discover a community of kind, like-minded people who can discuss using antidepressants as casually as you might talk about Lemsip.
More specifically, a range of dedicated meditation and mood-measuring apps have turned my phone into a source of calm, not worry. Andy Puddicombe's Headspace app was created to "demystify" medication and is loved and used by thousands, including "celebrity Millennial" Emma Watson. Another app growing in popularity is Moodscope – a site with a daily mood-measuring questionnaire that asks members to rate specific feelings. The idea is based on the Hawthorne effect, which shows that people's behaviour improves when monitored regularly. It means you can work out whether any strong feelings are connected with specific events, and there's a social-network function that allows you to link up with a buddy who will support you and encourage your progress.
Many Millennials find that these apps offer a jumping-off point when it comes to getting help, while others use them to complement their medication and counselling, as well as embracing a wide range of hobbies and creative practices as part of their personal therapy, from art to dance to gardening.
When my anxiety started to get bad, I ignored it for too long, writing it off as a natural reaction to London life as a twentysomething. But when the constantly overwhelmed feeling led to panic attacks and had me weeping in corners at parties, I knew it was time to call in the professionals.
If I were of a different generation, I might have felt the stigma of seeing a doctor about it, but I felt I could be frank about my feelings, as mental health is becoming so widely discussed. When I plucked up the courage to talk to my friends, some told me they had seen their GPs about similar issues and some were using mental-health medication themselves.
The NHS did a magnificent job of helping and healing me. Of course I was worried my doctor would tell me to calm down and stop making a fuss, but she fell over herself to reassure me I had done the right thing in coming to her.
I was prescribed Citalopram (a drug prescribed for depression, anxiety and panic, which addresses the chemical make-up of the brain and redirects serotonin to where it's needed most) and put on a waiting list for a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I wasn't instantly cured, but the diagnosis made me calmer. I remember walking back from the surgery, feeling disproportionately proud of myself. I was scared of my feelings, but I'd managed to leave my flat, put one foot in front of the other, articulate my problems to a stranger and make myself understood.
My proactive baby steps gave me the confidence to look into supplementary means of support (something that the case studies on the following pages have also done, with remarkable results). I took the pills, waited for therapy sessions to start and thought about something that had been mentioned to me with increasing regularity over the past few months: meditation.
I talked to friends and read about celebrities who had dabbled and reported that taking time out to meditate was helping them to sleep better, think more clearly and resist the temptation to blot out the bad feelings with booze. (As I occasionally self-medicated only to wake up at 4am with a pounding head, bone-rattling white-wine hangover, the latter appealed enormously.) After a few false starts with free apps that were a bit heavy on the wind-chime front, I invested in Headspace. I was sceptical about the rumoured results, but I felt transformed after about a week.
For many people in their twenties, abandoning the social networks that cause so much tension isn't an option: if being online is bad for my anxiety, switching off and worrying about what I'll miss is worse. Pre-Headspace, I was constantly "on", constantly reacting and constantly fearful I would miss a message or news item with career-ending consequences; meditation allows me to cope with that stress of always being on. It hasn't emptied my head, but it's given me the ability to slow everything down.
Some days are easier than others, but when life feels hard, I know that whatever is weighing me down today doesn't have to dictate how I am feeling tomorrow. Sometimes I still watch my feet when I walk, and marvel at how simple and how powerful the motion is. If I can keep putting one foot in front of the other, I can summon the strength to look after myself and ask for help when I need it.
For more information, advice and help regarding mental health, visit mind.org.uk
Roshni: 'I do Qi Gong every day, often twice a day. It makes me feel extremely grounded' (Dan Burn-Forti)
A copywriter in the commercial world, Roshni found herself overwhelmed by peer and parental pressure following a relationship break-up. She was until recently living with her parents; she now lives in a flatshare in London. She tackles her anxiety with kinesiology – the study of movement – and Qi Gong, a practice that aligns body, breath and mind for meditation
"Until a few months ago, I was living with my parents, which made me anxious about my lack of independence and control. They culturally disapproved of me moving out when I wasn't about to buy a house or get married.
"Following a big break-up, I spent months planning to leave my job and go travelling before going freelance. It should have been an exciting time, but during the winter of 2012, I felt increasingly isolated and suffocated with a feeling of impending doom, panicking every time my phone or the doorbell rang.
"I didn't recognise myself any more. As well as feeling constantly fearful, I suffered a lot of tension in my back and jaw. I doubted every decision I'd made, and started to avoid socialising because I found it so exhausting.
"Though I didn't go to the doctor, listing my feelings and doing a bit of Googling helped me realise I needed to do something to address the issue. I saw a kinesiologist – someone who deals with the movement of energy through the body. I actually went to see her about my back, but I spoke to her about my anxiety and she recommended Qi Gong – specifically a video on YouTube called 'Seven Minutes of Magic', which I do every day, often twice a day. It makes me feel extremely grounded. And hearing about other people's experiences and knowing most of my friends can relate on some level has made a huge difference, too."
Amy: 'Video-blogging helped me become more at peace with how I look and how I treat my body' (Dan Burn-Forti)
A digital-strategy manager, Amy lives with her boyfriend and another couple in a houseshare in south London. She suffers from depression and anxiety, and has a history of disordered eating. She treats her condition with CBT, and blogs at shecookssheeats.co.uk, which has given her confidence in her own abilities
"My depression really started in 2012. It was triggered by moving into a London houseshare after uni with my boyfriend and six other people. I was in a job where I worked from home, so I spent the majority of my time alone. I quickly gained weight through stress-eating, worried I was gaining weight and was ugly, felt awful about myself then over-ate to 'punish' myself for being overweight.
"I worried about money and how it didn't seem like we'd ever be able to move out of our hellish houseshare. I worried I wasn't working hard enough so I would put in 12-hour days, then feel exhausted the next day.
"After about four months, my boyfriend told me I needed to go see a doctor. When I was referred for a CBT course, it changed my life. I had an amazing healthcare professional who helped me break circles of sad thoughts. I was taking antidepressants for a few months, but I've been therapy- and medication-free for around eight months. I still have bad days, but I know the things to do to pull myself out of it.
"I also started doing things to make me feel good about myself, such as my blog. The calming nature of cooking helped, and the sense of achievement I get from posting a new recipe and getting responses is exhilarating. Video-blogging [at youtube.com/shecooksshe eats] also helped me become more at peace with how I look and how I treat my body."
Jack, 20, treats himself by writing poetry and comedy about his experiences (Dan Burn-Forti)
A comedian and student who lives with his mother, Jack started to suffer from depression and anxiety after experiencing bereavement in his teens; he treats himself by writing poetry and comedy about his experiences, which lets him reach out to other people in similar situations
"My father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away suddenly when I was 15, making me feel deeply isolated. I experienced an extreme period of depression and wasn't motivated to do anything for a long time. People avoided me as they didn't know what to say or how to act around me. I think the lack of information about how to discuss death is one of the key factors in the mental-health issues that affect bereaved young people.
"To deal with my feelings, I began writing poetry, which soon turned into performing comedy, often based on the quirks of bereavement. My aim was to destigmatise death so that an audience felt more comfortable starting conversations about it.
"I write every day as a release, whether it's a funny story or a couple of lines that help me sum up an experience. As an ambassador for a male-suicide prevention charity called Calm – Campaign Against Living Miserably – I genuinely believe that any form of creativity is conducive to positive mental health.
"I also host a comedy, poetry and music showcase called Save the Male, which encourages young people to put pen to paper, while raising awareness that suicide is the biggest killer of young men. A poem isn't a solution in itself, but it can offer an outlet."
Jack hosts stand-up poetry night Bang Said the Gun (for more: jackrooke.tumblr.com)
Jack, 28, finds that songwriting and creativity is the most effective way of allowing him to deal with his feelings (Dan Burn-Forti)
A singer/songwriter, Jack supplements his income as a musician with temporary office work. He lives in a houseshare in London. He suffers from depression, triggered by anxiety, and has treated himself with therapy as well as antidepressants, but he finds that songwriting and creativity is the most effective way of allowing him to deal with his feelings
"A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with moderate depression, rooted in anxiety. I started getting panic attacks. On anxious days, I'm totally incapacitated. Prolonged periods of unemployment, especially when the music's not paying, definitely make things worse. Money worries are one of the more tangible forms of anxiety. I'm an Oxford graduate with a lot of office experience, but finding even basic, entry- level work is very difficult.
"I can't afford therapy, but I did receive 12 free sessions through the NHS. These were good, but I would have liked more. I'd come away with some useful insight about why all this was happening to me but it was like holding sand; a week later it had all slipped through my fingers. I took antidepressants for a year or so, and they helped keep my mind from racing with worry.
"Songwriting helps. When you get to the stage when you're saying what you want to say, it's so rewarding. When I'm getting somewhere with the guitar and the words and melody, my self-worth goes up. I can use writing to frame my own experiences and understand them, which is pretty much the main aim for anyone who has mental-health issues."
Jack, 28, says: 'By far the most effective way I've found to deal with my mental health has been to talk about it with people' (Dan Burn-Forti)
An administrator who lives in a houseshare with friends, Jack has suffered from depression and anxiety since he was a teenager, and self-harmed. As well as discussing his mental health with his GP and attending counselling sessions, he keeps himself on an even keel by talking to peers who are in the same boat and getting support online
"I've had varying levels of depression and anxiety since my early teens, though I didn't get a formal diagnosis until three years ago. The early days were the toughest as there really wasn't any clear line between 'teen angst' and actually being quite isolated and mentally unwell. Back then I dabbled in self-harm, had moments when I was so panicked I'd think I was about to die and went for periods of time avoiding social situations, as I felt totally numb and detached inside.
"My first step to taking control of my life was learning about mental health on mind.org.uk, which is nothing short of a treasure trove of support and straight-talking info.
"There are two parts to the way I now look after myself. One is taking up the support available from the NHS: finding a GP I get on well with, getting different forms of therapy, such as CBT and counselling, to address deep-seated problems, and taking medication.
"But by far the most effective way I've found to deal with my mental health has been to talk about it with people. I genuinely believe that one good thing about being a Millennial is that we're one of the first generations that can genuinely own the task of destroying the taboo around mental health.
"One in four of us will experience a mental-health problem, and we shouldn't face it alone. If we wanted a mission for our generation to get behind and own, this is it."
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