Depression and loneliness are common bedfellows and often hide in plain sight. Not just at this time of year either, although the triggers are enhanced by the pressure of appearing seasonally happy and an assumed generosity of spirit.
This was further brought home to me when the heroic former president of the US Barack Obama made an appeal for us to spend less time on social media during his interview with HRH Prince Harry, who was guest editing BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today Programme earlier this week.
Mr Obama stated that ‘everything is simplified’ on social platforms whereas when you meet face to face you actually have to get out and ‘do something’, which he believes is essential to the greater good and future of mankind.
He hit the proverbial nail on the head for me – since the big heavy nail that really drives my current anxiety is undoubtedly social media and all the things that are said, often without consideration or forethought, or worse still that are left unsaid, leaving you feeling alone and stranded in the world of cyberspace. Social media simplifies things to the point that a lack of engagement with your friends, family and communities, can trigger the mother of all episodes.
25 years ago, I had a nervous breakdown at this time of year. There was no social media to fuel my anxiety back then, although the triggers came from the same sense of personal displacement and a lack of engagement with my colleagues about the various life pressures I was facing. I had returned to full time work as a director of a public relations consultancy three months after giving birth to my second child.
I felt lonely, vulnerable and isolated and the trigger had been the office Christmas party and an empty seat next to me. This had been reserved for a colleague who was still working on a presentation for a new client pitch that I had helped create earlier that same day. I felt guilty he was still working, then disenfranchised and disconnected from the jollity around me which manifested itself in an uncontrollable and, sadly, public display of silent weeping.
Diagnosed ‘officially’ by my kindly GP as post-natal depression, we both recognised the larger landscape of my depressive condition which had been a reoccurring pattern throughout my life. The release-valve of any kind of undue pressure had always been uncontrollable bursts of crying and in my childhood I was regularly chastised for my frequent emotional states. I was often told to ‘stop crying’ but why I was crying was rarely discussed.
In an effort to broker favour with my parents, the emotional overflow at home was often suppressed only to be triggered at school. Further indignity was then inflicted when these outpourings earned me the nickname of ‘crybaby’ and one unkind teacher would even make me stand over the class fish tank when my crying got out of control.
The die was firmly cast and the now apparent cruelty of how my condition was dealt with when I was a child, makes me angry. I still process this regularly even though I am grateful that our understanding of mental health is now far greater now that it has ever been.
For many of us depressives, loneliness and anxiety descends in a dark cloud when you least expect it and this time of year has so many of the trigger points conducive to bringing on an episode, or in my case a flow of tears. When I hit a low point, it feels like everybody except me has lots of friends, money, youth, beauty and all those things by which success is now so regularly and publicly measured.
Social media then exacerbates these feelings of inadequacy so it’s fantastic to see initiatives to help reverse the negative effects. For example, Sarah Millican invited people facing loneliness on Christmas Day to ‘chat’ to her via her #joinin campaign live over Twitter and it was good to hear Bryony Gordon talking to Jane Garvey on the Boxing Day edition of Women’s Hour about her much publicised Telegraph Mad World interview with Prince Harry discussing his mental health and setting up the charity Heads Together.
I have learned that a good cry helps to guard against the build-up of harmful stress hormones like cortisol, and a belly laugh boosts the production of ‘happy’ hormones including dopamine and serotonin. So, the holidays are a good time to watch movies and read books that bring your emotions to the fore.
The seesaw of human emotional expression is as essential to living a balanced way of life as regular exercise and it’s natural to feel isolated and lonely if you are prevented from sharing happiness or sadness.
Take a new year leaf out of former president Obama’s book, and use this time of year to talk to each other face to face and find out more about the lives and feelings of your friends, family and colleagues. They may make you cry about what they are hiding emotionally or, better still, they may make you laugh.