by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
As we come back from a well earned holiday break in early 2014 one cannot but note how for some they are struggling to hold their lives together. The press in the last few weeks has carried articles about the giving up or relapse into depression and alcohol abuse by several notable personalities in the community.
Many of us looking in on the world of Charlotte Dawson would have thought she had it all. She was intelligent, attractive, accomplished in the media having held down prominent roles on leading TV shows. She lived a life of luxury in a swank apartment, rubbed shoulders with the richest, most famous and connected in Australian popular society circles. Yet she committed suicide after a long struggle with issues.
Another one is swimming great Ian Thorpe who has struggled with the change of career and immense ongoing issues with anxiety and depression. Then there is Western Australian Under Treasurer Tim Marney, and his struggles with anxiety and depression related issues.
In a broader sense we also read that in the Western Australian public service that mental health issues such as stress are now becoming the largest payout issue for RiskCover who looks after such claims for the government. In addition there was the recent report of the emerging trend of people waking around 3am instead of 6-7am as their "normal" sleep cycle.
These unrelated events are but symptoms of a wider systemic malaise in our society that has been met with a medicated response or by denial for many caught in its web. Many are struggling and many are struggling to find sustainable answers to their problems.
Stress, anxiety and depression are not only becoming pervasive but they are becoming normalised if one considers how some of their symptoms (sleeping disorders) and the reliance on a life time of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication is assumed and accepted. The impact on the health and quality of life for sufferers of quick fix outcomes or a denial of the issue is a high risk strategy over time.
Take for instance where many of us are right now. If you just enjoyed a Christmas holiday break you may have found the first few days when you stopped work or running around you got mildly sick. This was probably no accident by in fact the stress outcome of slowing down often known as Executive Stress Syndrome.
This syndrome was coined to explain how executives who typically took all 4 weeks holiday at the end of the year found themselves collapsing into some illness in the first days of their holiday. This outcome occurs when the nervous system comes out of stress "fight or flight" state and then switches into a wellness parasympathetic state.
The problem is we get an enhanced immune system once we step down from the fight or flight state as the immune system is suppressed while in this mode. This normally means an immune system response to opportunistic viruses, bacteria or system damage which creates mild illness effects.
The problem is that for some when they collapse in this enforced downtime of the bodymind they may find there is no bounce or resilience left in their system. They may actually descend at this point into a health crisis such as chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue syndrome, depression, or a number of other signs of a system that is over-stressed and unable to restart again from a dormant state.
More and more people are living not in wellness but in the absence of illness as their normalised state that they accept as health. The two states are not the same and yet we may also support the absence of illness state as normal by taking a lifelong prescription of some drug that keeps the illness or its symptoms at bay.
This is not healing but instead it is managing the symptoms. For many such as Tim Marney there is a fostered belief that they need to be on anti-depressants or some other medication for life. This might be true for a few but the real worry it is becoming the mantra of the many and we accept and normalise rather than question our fate at outcomes such as this.
It is a lie or a myth that all of those put on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication need to be on these for life. The reason that many accept their fate is that it is easier to take a pill each day than to face the trauma, or the painful memories and associated feelings that lie under anxiety and depression, or the obsessive lifestyles that represent our running away and distracting ourselves from our issues.
We see this in therapy. I have a sixth sense now for the client who walks through the door and who will quit therapy if either it takes more than 3 sessions or it will involve working with their bodies, emotions or feelings. The reason is simple and that is they are not serious about facing their issues, or they want a quick fix that is painless, or they are locked into a learned victimhood and do not want to actually take responsibility for their lives.
This type of person actually wants a handout or a numb out which just stops the bleeding and gives them back some semblance of stability again. In therapy another group will abandon therapy as soon as they start feeling better. This group are those who are like people who quit taking their antibiotics medication half the way through the proper course of the full medical plan or proscribed dose just because the symptoms reduce as they get better.
We are in a society where we want to function and will give up a lot of our authentic self in order to be able to soldier on no matter how dysfunctional that marching step may be. We try to prevail and to keep going even as we are starting to fall apart.
The press is full of how Charlotte Dawson struggled with not only mental health issues such as depression, but she had previous traumas such as an earlier life sexual assault, attempted suicides, and bullying trauma from internet "trolls" who take their own mental issues out on others as hurtful comments, and other cyber-bullying strategies.
Tim Marney outlined how the overwhelming nature of his critically important job led to fainting spells, panic attacks and crippling anxiety attacks. He reportedly had over the years developed a perfectionistic nature that was high achieving and highly driven which is by its nature a precursor to more anxiety and stress.
He called his disease the "disease to please" and what it represents is a combination of driven perfectionism wrapped around a form of co-dependent "giver" or caretaker traits. Both these traits are known breeding grounds for both stress and anxiety due to self- imposed demands for performance levels that are unsustainable, and the neglect of self while you attend to everyone else's demands.
Like many of us, Tim Marney found his anxious origins in his childhood, which is a common source of many adult issues behind stress, anxiety and depression. Like many, he also has been sold the myth that in his own words "it's just my brain chemistry", which in translation effectively means he is a victim to some chemical in-balance and so has no choice but to take anti-depressants for life.
This is a line increasingly sold by drug companies through doctors in ignorance or collusion, and which guarantees life time profits to drug companies and regular prescription repeat visits, and so a Medicare rebate, for doctors and psychologists. All very cosy and professionally lazy.
If you live or work with adults on these drugs it's a bit like living an episode of the "The Living Dead". Adults tend to become numbed out to feelings and emotions, and that dulls life experiences and joys. Life become a zombie existence and over time as the milligram dosage increases as our tolerance to them increases we start to risk side effects and toxication where there is a drug cocktail present.
Yet we would trade away the essential joy in life just to overcome the symptoms. The zombie outcome is not the only non-human fate we can create though, as perfectionism creates the god like super human who also loses themselves in a perfectionistic cognitive disorder and defence against painful feelings.
In a way when we become more than human and lose our humanity we setup the basis to then burnout both due to expectations of oneself and others that accrue with a superhuman strategy. Once we start to "think" long hours as Tim Marney did admit to, then we are living in our heads in a form of hyper-arousal or hyper-vigilance which is a precursor to both stress and anxiety.
If one considers Ian Thorpe we also see a super human who created a curse with their own high expectations, added to the expectations he felt to achieve the hopes of a nation, and the toll the nature of his chosen profession would take on his bodymind.
Ian Thorpe started competitive swimming at about the age of nine. He had to give up part of his childhood to achieve his goals and after a while what we know from neuroscience is that the drudgery of repetitive actions can start to affect the happiness of the person. Swimming certainly has that mundane factor of looking down at the black line at the bottom of the pool for day after day, year after year.
The brain can find the lack of novelty and diversity of sensory experience a factor in the loss of satisfaction and interest which can be the start of a progression towards depression. Our brain becomes bored which creates low energy hypo-arousal. Meanwhile the stress of top level performing can create anxiety and so different threads can start to come together and create negative outcomes.
Any top level athlete also becomes lonely when their sport is a singular effort and not a team oriented experience. Swimming is certainly a solo experience and the early morning starts and the later day starts can destroy the important socialisation experiences we all need to thrive and feel good about ourself and life as we grow older through childhood and teenage years.
Often the lifestyle as well curtails the approval of social nights out, alcohol, partying and other life rituals of bonding with peers. A lonely but busy and stressful lifestyle can develop which is both potentially an enabler to the onset for anxiety and/or depression.
If one becomes famous or carries huge responsibilities as a result of their success or their role, as both Marney and Thorpe have experienced, then once the applause stops when their careers end, or success deserts them, there may be a coming down off the pedestal of public applause and recognition which can trigger depression.
The reason is that the meaning making part of the brain no longer has the basis for understanding a meaning in the life of the person. Often high achievers such as athletes may also have missed out on being taught or developed life skills and social skills due to the sacrifices made when young to build their career.
They may now feel like a fish out of water and may have no resilience or the tools to cope and make the successful transition to the next stage of their career and their life. Many athletes such as AFL and NRL footballers fall into a black hole after they finish their sporting careers and the incidents of post career depression are well documented in this group.
There is also the possibility that a certain form of learnt narcissism can develop in acclaimed athletes that starts over their career to feed their ego and self- worth. For this group there is the loss of narcissistic ego supplies as there is no longer an audience and they are no longer winning on the big stage, which can prove devastating for some.
For many athletes the club and sporting industry "machine" is ruthless and simply moves on and dumps them with little adjustment and transition counselling. It is for some like being ejected and abandoned from a surrogate family where many of their only support networks and meaningful connections could be found.
For the average person in the street we may not face this dynamic but we may at some stage in our life face some form of loss of meaning in our lives. This may be a loss of job position, of a key relationship, in a key role as a parent or a partner in a family.
One of the key symptoms in our society in the personal short term or longer term is a sleep disorder. Sleep is simply a critical part of our human design and if we lose it or the quality degrades then quickly we feel its negative effects in our waking hours.
The sleep process is geared in part around the small pineal gland midway between our eyes but higher up just above the start of the nose on our forehead. The pineal gland is the master regulator of not just all our other glands but all the rhythms and cycles that we as humans live through as part of our 24 hour and longer cycles.
We unconsciously run as humans to cycles and processes that are quite inter-dependent and if one input or process goes out of synch then we go out of synch and out of wellness. Sleep is a primary process in the order of things human and this is why sleep deprivation is still used as a torture technique in many countries.
Sleep disruption creates hormonal disruption as well as fatigue, mental dullness and over time the potential for a number of major mental and physical disorders. Sleep deprivation creates illness and suffering yet it is becoming a bigger issue in society as our stress creates distress that is reflected one way in the manifestation of sleep disorders.
Sleeping tablets are not a long term answer to sleep disorders. The drugs affect the sleep mechanism and this is felt as the lack of quality sleep or as a sleep that does not refresh. The side effects of sleeping tablets then potentially create their own negative effect which medically is known as the iatrogenic effect.
Sleep loss can create anxiety and depression whilst anxiety and depression can affect the quality and ability to sleep. It is a bi-directional link that must never be trivialised when present as a problem. We are all aware of those people who famously can live day to day with 3-4 hours sleep but these situations are not that which most of us can thrive on.
This ability to live on minimal sleep is not the norm nor is it proven that those who disciplined themselves or developed the habit of reduced sleep did not create some negative bodymind outcome over time. The best outcome in terms of a reduced need for sleep seems to be that of advanced yoga and meditation practitioners who stay out of "fight and flight" state in a stable abiding way in their waking hours and the reduced sleep does not disturb that parasympathetic state of peace and wellness.
They are people in society who have created a new sleep equilibrium within themselves but that ability is normally beyond us average folk. Winston Churchill achieved such a state but from having deep depression and addictions such as smoking cigars and a penchant for whisky and alcohol. The reduced sleep was probably a symptom of this unhealthy lifestyle and so is not a role model to be emulated.
What is alarming is that many adults in society are resorting to alcohol and drugs in an attempt to fall asleep. This is counter-productive as alcohol itself affects sleep rhythms and is a mild depressive in most forms. What is best for sleep deprivation are typically a combination of reduced sensory and system stimulation before sleep, embodied activity that exercises and relaxes the system through endorphin release, good sex, meditative music, massage, book reading, yoga and meditation.
People with stress, anxiety and depression often complain that they have no time, interest or ability to do these types of activities from their current state. In a way this is a form of sabotage and represents resistance to taking ownership for addressing the core symptoms of whatever is ailing them.
Therapy is able to look at the core issues and the trauma that often exists behind the symptoms and is then the suitable platform from which to bring ongoing stress, anxiety and depression to cessation. The use of medication whilst starting and doing therapy is also a useful combination but the objective needs to be a targeted decrease and if possible a cessation of the need to medicate over time.
Tim Marney created resilience to the stresses of his job and his anxiety through having numerous interests, hobbies and activities he pursued outside the stressor (work) area of his life. This is a good strategy and probably explains in part why he could do what he did for so long.
But we are all human and even superman Tim Marney felt exhausted at the end and reported he just could not continue. He has got out while his health lets him but many more of us are mice on the treadmill and just keep running and running till we collapse.
How many of us collapse and are carried off with chronic fatigue, chronic anxiety, deep depression, burnout, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes type 2, or even glandular fever as the immune system gives up? How many more such as Charlotte Dawson just become overwhelmed and feel there is no point going on anymore?
We owe it to ourselves not to be a victim to our own overwhelm, ignorance or complacency around these key lifestyle diseases as SAD can be a killer combination for some of those affected. Getting support through a good counsellor or therapist who will not just prescribe medication as a generalised answer to your problems would be a good first step.