Emotions Are Physical

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I write and talk a lot about mental health and mental illness, which means I spend a lot of time talking about emotions. In response to one of my recent posts about trigger warnings, someone pointed out that being triggered is a physical as well as an emotional response. This is a good clarification, and something I should have said in the first post, but the comment illuminated to me a bizarre divide we have in common parlance: emotions do not include physical components in most people’s conception.

When I talk about emotional responses to stimuli, I almost always am including a physical component in my conception. While most people don’t notice or recognize that their emotions are expressed in their bodies, there are few emotions that come without a physical component. These vary slightly based on the person, but think about the last time you felt excited or anxious or sad. You probably had an elevated pulse if you were excited, tensed muscles if you were anxious, or a tight chest if you were sad.

Our brains like to reuse neural pathways, which means that emotional and physical pain get processed by the same brain bits. The bifurcation of these realms of life is not accurate to the actual experience we have of them. Bodies are what tell us that we’re feeling things through tensed muscles, pulse changes, tears, clenched jaws and hands, and all the other little things our bodies do to express emotions.

Why does it matter if we don’t recognize or talk about this?

For a lot of people, identifying emotions is hard. But knowing what you’re feeling and why can be very helpful for addressing problems or just riding out the emotion. Knowing what your physical tells are is a useful way to approach your emotions from a new perspective.

It’s also a useful way to bypass your emotions if you want to change them. Our bodies and minds are pretty closely linked, which means the influence goes both ways. If you can relax your muscles, take a few calming breaths, and take on the posture of an emotion that you’d like to be feeling, your emotions are more likely to stabilize or move towards the thing you want to be feeling. This is actually a technique in DBT, and has been studied fairly extensively (as DBT is an evidence based treatment).

When I talk about emotional responses, I include physical responses, because our brains and feelings don’t exist in a realm separate from our bodies. I blame Descartes for all the dualism. Stupid Descartes.

You’re Wrong: Talking To Family

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It’s not an outlandish statement to say that many families have serious disagreements about basic questions like religion, medicine, race, and politics. It’s also not outlandish to say that most of us value our relationships and aren’t too interested in spending our family interactions in confrontations about the fact that Uncle Joe believes in crystal healing. This would lead to the conclusion that most of us should remain quiet when our family members say something we disagree with.

But most of the skeptic types I know also strongly believe that we have some moral imperative to tell people when they believe things we know to be false. This is especially true when it comes to harmful beliefs like anti-vaccination bunk or that super racist thing Grandma said. Live and let live is all well and good, but if someone else harbors bigoted beliefs or is putting themselves or their family in harm’s way by ignoring modern medicine, what’s a person to do?

I’ve been struggling with this question for the last couple of years, particularly around the holidays. There are some people you’re close enough to that you don’t worry about calling them out (my father once off handedly said “Muslims are so violent” and once I managed to pick my jaw off the floor I quickly corrected him. Five minutes of conversation and he conceded the point). The problem is the in-betweeners, the family members you see only once a year or every few months, the in-laws, or the family friends. The people you will in all likelihood continue to have a relationship with, but that you will probably never be close enough to speak openly, honestly, and vulnerably with.

Underlying this issue is a serious problem with how many of us are told to build our relationships: on obligation. It seems as if we’re slowly learning that you don’t owe anyone your time and attention but that those are things that are freely given to people who treat you well. But in the land of family, we’re still clinging to the idea that there should be people in our lives that we love and care about simply because of biology. This might sound somewhat heartless, but in no way am I advocating for ignoring your family. I’m advocating for better relationships with family.

If you want to have a relationship with someone, I suggest you commit. This is also a goal that I am setting for myself. There are family members that I want in my life. If I want them in my life, I need to put forth the effort to build and maintain a relationship with them. Family relationships require work, and when we put in the work we are more likely to be able to have difficult conversations together.

America is hardly a culture of vulnerability, but conversations like “hey, homeopathy doesn’t actually work and I’m really worried about you if you choose homeopathy instead of a doctor” require vulnerability. They require letting out that you care, whether about the person you’re speaking to or about the people they’re hurting. On a larger scale than just conversations with your family at awkward holiday meals, the discomfort and fear of openly saying you disagree with someone is rampant (ironic considering how quickly the internet will disagree with all of us).

At some point we might just have to bite the bullet and accept that someone might like us a little less if we openly admit our beliefs, or if we correct someone on their facts. But we also have to accept that if we care about people we should be willing to tell them when they’re misinformed. I don’t imagine anyone can jump straight to this place. But I’m making it my goal to say something real and honest to someone I care about this week. We’ll see where that leads.

Boundaries Mean Cruelty

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One of my favorite blogs in the world is Captain Awkward. It’s an advice blog, a format I rarely read, but in this case it deals primarily with scripts and suggestions for setting boundaries. Sure, there’s lots of variations on that, but almost across the board it’s about making space for yourself, aimed at introverts, weird and awkward types, the socially anxious, and those who live in the world of oppression. It’s fantastic and you all should check it out.

Thanks to the help of Captain Awkward, a lot of DBT, and a pile of friends who openly talk about self care and openly asking for what we need, I’ve started to practice boundary setting as often as possible. It’s amazing how difficult it is to open my mouth to simply say something like “please don’t talk about calories around me,” but there you go. The internalized people pleasing is strong in me.

I’m getting better. I can tell friends that I’m not up for hanging out if I need to, I can tell my boyfriend when I don’t feel comfortable with something, I can even to some extent enforce my boundaries in the online world. But for some reason it all breaks down when it comes to my family. My family has always been pretty close, and we like to get together. We like to party. We like to eat a lot of food together. And we like to spend a great deal of time together, especially around the holidays.

Now through the process of reading about the fleeting thing called “normalcy” I have gleaned that my family goes a bit above and beyond in terms of holiday activities. I, on the other hand, am fairly socially anxious and spending many days in a row with the extended fam can be a drain.

So this year I’m opting out of some of the festivities. I’m making sure I see all the out of towners, get some immediate family time in, and trying to fit in friends too. But I’m skipping almost half of our events.

Part of me is convinced that the message I’m sending by setting this boundary, by saying that I am an adult with a job and friends and responsibilities and in order to take care of myself I need to take these steps, I am telling my family that I don’t love them. Part of my brain still reads “setting a boundary” as “cruelty”.

I know that by taking time to myself I am doing my best by everyone. I’ll be a happier, friendlier, more outgoing human being in the times that I do see my family. I’ll be able to be more present with them and actually (hopefully) have good conversations and interactions instead of living in a state of stress and anxiety that makes me antisocial and cranky. I know that one day of good time together is better than a week of time struggling to cope.

So why is it that I still read it as inappropriate? Why do I still read the boundary setting as taking something away from other people when in reality my time is not something that I owe anyone, it’s something I choose to give to others? Somewhere along the line society has convinced me that certain people deserve my time, no matter what that means. Not only that, but they deserve my time in a fashion that is acquiescing and non confrontational.

This is not to say that my family demands some sort of creepy submission, but that challenging your family, setting boundaries, or even just asking someone not to do something is viewed as hostile by many people. Not showing up is seen as a sign, and it’s not a good one.

I don’t know what it is about family that triggers the “you should not be an independent human being, you owe all your time to these people” script in my brain. I don’t know if this is something that happens to others, the selective way the mind chooses people you cannot be an adult with. But I know that it isn’t healthy to feel like I’m five again whenever my family asks me to do things, certain that I don’t actually have any choices but petulantly running to my room or doing what they ask.

So I’m sticking with my boundaries. Discomfort be damned.

No, This Is Not How To Raise Awareness

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Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. Eating disorder coverage has been getting better in the past few years. I’ve seen stories covering orthorexia, binge eating disorder, bulimia, and EDNOS, as well as some that include the oh so shocking fact that eating disorders don’t just happen to people who are skinny, and sometimes they’re not motivated by weight loss, dieting, or models.

So I was deeply unhappy to see this art series that purports to draw attention to eating disorders but is exclusively composed of skeletal Disney figures. Sure, it’s great that it includes men and women of color, but there is such a small percentage of people with eating disorders who actually look like that, whose BMIs have dropped down into the “you need to be hospitalized” realm that I can’t help but feel that it just limits our perception. Beyond that, it perpetuates the horrible, horrible idea that you can diagnose a mental illness by seeing how skinny someone is.

Newsflash: eating disorders are not defined by someone’s weight. Weight is actually one of the smallest components of diagnosis (there are lots of other criteria! And lots of different disorders! Some of which include NO weight component!)

It is not outreach or advocacy to continue to portray eating disorders in stereotyped ways. This is not helpful.

For real information on what eating disorders are and what they’re like, try NEDA, Science of Eating Disorders, or just check out my back log of blogs tagged with “eating disorders”.

Yes, Mental Health Stigma Exists

I am all about speaking openly about mental illness and mental health. I love doing it. I do it constantly. I practice it in person and on my blog and in my social media. Aw yes, mental illness talk.

So when I saw an article yesterday entitled “Talking About Your Mental Health Isn’t Brave” I couldn’t help myself. I had to click. Sometimes I’m a masochist. It wasn’t quite what I expected. The thrust of the article is that it should be totally normal to talk about your mental health. Great! Awesome!

But underlying that was a secondary thrust that suggested there is no stigma about talking openly about your mental health because the writer has never experienced it, and so the REAL stigma comes from people saying it’s brave. That logic pretzel there guys, it is a doozy.

It’s one thing to say that you think talking about mental health should be normal and that you don’t want to be called brave for doing it because you don’t want to draw attention to it. It’s another thing to deny that discrimination and stigma exist when thousands of other people have anecdotal evidence and there is evidence from psychological studies and surveys suggesting that it’s very real.

When people can still be fired for their mental health, when physical health problems are routinely ignored if someone has a mental health diagnosis, when shooters and violent criminals are labeled “crazy” without any evidence, when misinformation abounds, it is simply irresponsible to suggest that stigma doesn’t exist because you personally haven’t experienced it.

It might not seem like a big deal, but for an already vulnerable group of people who don’t think they can trust their emotions, being told again that their experiences of prejudice and discrimination don’t exist can have lasting consequences (along the lines of gaslighting). It also signals to others who might have discriminatory attitudes that they can just keep doing what they’re doing because nothing is wrong. And worst, it suggests to those who have experienced stigma and discrimination when they come out about their mental illness that they really shouldn’t say anything because if they did it right then nothing would have gone wrong.

It’s great to tell the stories of being open. It’s great to let people know that there is the possibility of a good reception. When I’ve been open with my friends and family and even coworkers, they’ve been understanding and sympathetic. But in no world do I imagine that means that everyone will have this kind of experience, and if I did then I’d need a serious refresher on “not being the center of the universe”.

So no dude, it isn’t boring or normal to talk about your mental health. For lots of people it is brave. Get over it.

Navigating the Holidays with Social Anxiety

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It’s almost Christmas, or whatever midwinter holiday you might celebrate. It is the season of parties and socializing and food. In the next two weeks I have almost an entire week’s worth of days that include a family social event. I love my family, but it is a rare month that I can handle that much socializing with any group of people, much less with the extended family that I see once a year at most.

I know that I am not alone in finding the whirlwind of mandatory socialization stressful. I’m sure I could duck out if I needed to, but I do love my family and I certainly don’t want to insult or offend any of them. So what’s a girl to do when saying yes all the time will result in mild insanity but saying no means making people sad?

The holidays are essentially the perfect mix of things to set off anyone with a mental illness. Lots of people, lots of demands, high expectations, low tolerance for unhappiness, and lots of different personalities crammed together means tension. There’s lots of food, lots of alcohol, and often many small children heaped into a small place. There’s noise. There’s smells. There’s the probing questions about what you’re doing with your life (not much thanks).

I haven’t yet figured out how to do the holidays since realizing that I’m constantly stressed out and being around lots of people I don’t know that well stresses me out more. But I’ve found a few techniques that are helpful. Most of them center around boundaries.

If there are family members who know you have anxiety or an eating disorder or depression or whatever, have a little pre-holiday check in to see if you can make some plans. Is it possible for you to disappear to a bedroom for an hour or two to read if things are getting overwhelming? This is how I first read The Fault In Our Stars (I do not suggest this as “emotional downtime” reading material), and also how I got through Christmas day two years ago. I’d also suggest prepping an excuse if you need to make a dash. There’s nothing wrong with coming to a gathering for an hour or two, deciding you’ve hit your limit, and saying you have somewhere else to be/aren’t feeling well/have a really important hairwashing date.

It’s also ok to pick and choose which events you want to attend. There might be relatives who are only in town for the holidays, or friends you haven’t seen in a year, and you may want to prioritize those people. But if you have a limited supply of holiday cheer and your best friend invites you to a holiday party with people you’ve seen once a week for the last two months, you can put them off until next week. Sorry to everyone who got me at Thanksgiving. I’m saving my energy for the family that’s only in this state once a year.

One of the hardest parts of the holidays for me is that many of my family members are utterly unaware of the things that are important to me and end up saying incredibly hurtful things without realizing it (especially surrounding mental illness). Sometimes there isn’t any way to escape those comments, but often there will be another conversation going on, someone will be cooking, or you can escape to the bathroom if someone’s conversation is particularly triggering. Even if it’s just for a little bit it can help to move to a different setting. Last year I even went and spent time with children (of whom I am entirely terrified) to get away from some conversations that were too much for me.

Consider also planning some self pampering time. I’m aiming to schedule a massage, buy myself a kitten, get a new (and larger) bed, and also wear fuzzy pajamas as often as possible in the next couple of weeks. Your self care might look a little different, but if you know you have a stressful holiday party, make sure you’ve got a hot bath or a cup of hot cocoa waiting for you.

And most importantly for me, also consider cutting out a swathe of time to celebrate in the way you want to. For me, this will probably mean my D&D crew and my boyfriend, some handmade presents, and hot beverages. Low stress, low expectations, and the same kind of chilling that makes me happy all year round.

I also intend to spend as much of January as possible hermited away editing my book, so I have that to look forward to.

Leave your suggestions in comments, I’m always looking for more tricks.

Intersections: Mental Illness and Allyship

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I consider myself a white ally. I know I don’t get to pick this for myself. It is not a label but an action. I need to back up my attempts at anti-racist thought with behaviors. Trust me, I am well aware of my shortcomings as an ally: I have never been to a protest, march, or rally on behalf of people of color. I don’t write nearly as often as I should about questions of race. I rarely collect my people. Sure, I start conversations about race with my friends, I call out my family when they say utterly stupid things, and I try to make absolutely certain that everyone on all my social media platforms knows where I stand on racism. I try to retrain my brain whenever possible, educate myself, and question my problematic opinions.

But I know I could be a lot better. There were protests in the last few weeks for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, protests that I should have gone to. There was a conversation with a friend that I gave up on halfway through because it was too hard.  I know that at least one person in my family still holds to the belief that African American Vernacular is incorrect English, and I’ve stopped trying to correct them.

There are easy excuses. I’m tired. It’s hard. I’ve tried already. These are bullshit.

But where I hit a fence is this: that conversation that I gave up on last week? It wasn’t because I didn’t want to figure out how to get my point across, or because I thought my friend was entitled to their opinion. It was because my anxiety and depression took over halfway through and convinced me that if I didn’t agree with him, he would hate me and I was being a bad person. Like a very capable and competent adult, I spent a few hours crying instead of being the good ally I was trying to be.

The reason I didn’t go to the protests? The fatigue from my depression has been catching up with me lately and I’ve been sleeping 10+ hours every night. I haven’t been able to get out of the house to do even the basic tasks I need to complete for my own life. I tried to convince myself to get there, and I couldn’t escape my own malaise.

I don’t know if this excuses or exempts me from certain forms of allyship. Probably not. I don’t know if the intersection of my mental illness and other causes changes how I should behave in situations like these. Probably not. But I also don’t know how to practice self-care and prioritize my health while also working hard for others.

This all sounds like excuses to my ears, but I know there are others out there who expect themselves to always be the perfect activist. The conversation needs to be had.