Posts on anxiety
What does it feel like to be depressed? (20 October 2022)
People who don’t suffer from mental illness often think that being depressed is a bit like being sad, that being anxious is like having a touch of nerves before an exam, and that having a compulsion is simply an urge to do something. They’re all much worse.
Depression is very different from feeling a bit down, or having a moment of passing sadness. It’s an extraordinary “pain in the mind”. Imagine feeling sad, but much, much sadder than you’ve ever felt before. Imagine all the lights being turned off in your head. Imagine your mind turning black; black is the colour of depression. You’re living in a monochrome world where all feelings except pain have been turned right down. Imagine a dark ball at the centre of your being that is so cold it hurts. It’s like an icy knife in your soul; it’s worse than any physical pain. You just want to go to bed and cry, to fall asleep, or even die. Death would be a relief, because death is an end to the misery. In any case, who cares: alive or dead, what’s the difference in the end? And who would miss you anyway? You hate yourself and your life. The idea of doing anything is impossible to contemplate. There’s nothing to look forward to, and nothing gives you pleasure, not even the things that in better mental states you can rely upon to excite you. Your despair is utter. Everything is hopeless; and you are sure you’re never going to get better. You feel a terrible sense of doom, foreboding, and fear, not just that you’re never going to get better, but that the universe is a threatening, mysterious, evil place. And everything is such a fight; everyday life is exhausting. You can’t concentrate long enough to be able to complete simple tasks, and in any case you forget what you were going to do nearly as soon as you form the intention to do it.
Managing to do the little things can wipe you out after you’ve used up so much energy making yourself do them. You feel exhausted all the time; deep fatigue goes with severe depression. You make mistakes in the simplest tasks. You have no motivation do to do anything anyway, and no interest in anything. You feel nothing other than total despair, and feeling amazingly, incredibly guilty about everything, as though you’re lazy, incompetent and everything wrong with the world is your fault. So you deserve to suffer so much. Everything is overwhelming, and you are paralysed. You don’t just have very low self-esteem, you are also full of self-hatred. You are the lowest of the low and completely worthless; the world would be a better place without you. If you‘re depressed for any period of time self care tends to go out of the window: what is the point of shaving? Can you really be bothered to wash your face? Who cares if the kitchen sink is filthy? You overeat and overeat convenience food, because that’s all you can be bothered to cook. You sit, finding yourself in tears, and you’re not sure why. You feel completely alone; no one can possibly understand how you feel just now. You can’t bring yourself to speak to other people anyway. And in one final little trick of the mind, time slows down to prolong the agony. Every second is torture. So you try to sleep for as much of the day as possible, and you drink wine and take pills to try to ensure that you can sleep. You feel physically ill as well, with aches and pains exaggerated to distraction. There’s a tickle and lump in your throat. You perpetually tug at your eyebrows, and occasionally pull them out so that they contain strange bald patches. And the ear-worms - those annoying tunes stuck in your head - drive you even madder. You also worry that you’re a black hole of misery, sucking in joy around you, ruining the lives of others - so it’s fortunate that you prefer to suffer in isolation. It is paradoxical that you are lonely and yet want to be alone at the same time, but depression is full of paradoxes. When you’re severely depressed you can’t do anything. You just want to sit still and let the pain wash over you. Some people kill themselves because they can’t take the pain any more; and some people are so ill they can’t even initiate the act of suicide. You have contemplated suicide many times because everyday life hurts too much, and often you really don’t care if you wake up tomorrow morning or not.
That’s what it’s like for me at its worse, but fortunately therapy and medication has helped me enormously. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that bad, but I still get occasional relapses, occasional inklings of those feelings.
I find severe anxiety more difficult to describe. It is a bit like being anxious before an exam, or giving an important presentation or wedding speech, but much more intense and persistent. It is also highly visceral; it gets to your gut. You can’t concentrate on anything, but instead worry about everything. You’re completely on autopilot.
Anxiety often goes with depression, giving a condition imaginatively known as “anxious depression”. There is also agitated depression, which is similar but with more activity - of a bad sort.
It is my misfortune to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as well (which is occasionally co-morbid with depression). An obsession is not just like a pre-occupation; it is all-consuming, and you can think of nothing else. A compulsion isn’t simply an urge to do something, or check that you really did lock the door; you must do it, usually many times. My OCD started when I was about 11. I would repeatedly get up in the night to check that my bus pass was in my jacket pocket, and go downstairs to check that the front door was shut. I think it was about fifty times a night, possibly more. Why didn’t anybody notice? Then when a passenger in the back seat of my uncles’ cars I would worry that passing drivers would be able to read my thoughts (even though I knew that was impossible), and might be insulted by them, so I had to apologise to them by saying “sorry” mentally - in powers of three. Occasionally I would reach 243 sub-vocalisations. I suffered greatly performing these compulsions, but the prospect of not doing them filled me with even greater pain. Performing these compulsions also releases the mental pressure somewhat, perhaps in a similar way that self-harm makes some people feel a little better. Eventually the compulsions faded away, to be placed with slightly less compulsive compulsions, such as hand-washing (but much less excessively). I still tend to do things in multiples of three (such as checking the front door is locked behind me nine times), and I am still a very obsessive person, with curious obsessions like having to have complete sets of things such as books all in the same format.
Please pass details of this blog on to anyone who might find it useful. There is no need for anyone to suffer in silence. If you are depressed, anxious, or suffer from OCD, contact your GP, or NHS 111, or a psychology or medical practitioner, or call Samaritans or Samaritans USA.
Anxious about anxiety (August 2019)
It’s getting to be almost acceptable to be depressed. Public awareness has improved immensely over the last few years, and while people with depression still face a great deal of ignorance and discrimination, I think the corner has been turned. Every day sees some celebrity coming out as mad; even famous footballers are admitting to being depressed, even suicidal.
I can’t say the same about anxiety, particularly generalised anxiety disorder. Severe anxiety is just as crippling as severe depression. Depression and anxiety aren’t in opposition: they’re comorbid, with a person who suffers from one being much more likely to suffer from both.
And as I sit here writing I am really suffering. Anxiety is more difficult to describe than depression. Everyone is occasionally a little down, and can at least begin to imagine depression by magnifying the feeling. I don’t think there’s a healthy equivalent of anxiety. Perhaps the flutters you feel when you’re late for a train or plane or having to give an important talk or public speech. But for me anxiety and nerves are very different.
Severe anxiety is just as crippling as severe deoression. You don’t want to do anything because you can’t. You don’t want to travel. You don’t want to talk to people. You don’t want to catch a train. You don’t want to go into town. You don’t think you can give the talk you’re just supposed to be giving. You don’t want to go outside. I hate the outside. I can just about manage the garden, but the village shop? It might as well be Antartica.
The Wikipedia entry talks about excessive worry, and worry is part of the problem, but there is also a huge physical element: sweating, racing heart, breathing shallowly, and shaking. But the bit I hate most is the shrinking of consciousness, the narrowing of the mind, so that you can’t concentrate on anything. Oh, and the irritability. I am not a nice person to be around around at the best of times, but when I am anxious – avoid me.
I know there are things you should do, including mindfulness, relaxation, and deep breathing, but these activities all presuppose that you have enough focus to be able to begin to focus. There are drugs, but they make you feel sleepy and brain dead.
The future is bleak (September 2016)
As regular readers will know, I am obsessed with death, and I do not understand why everyone else isn’t too. What could be more depressing than the knowledge that it is all going to end for each of us relatively soon, and that eternal annihilation is all that lies in wait for us, whatever we do? I saw a very old gent in the café last week, and he was enjoying his coffee and smiling beatifically at all around him. Was he perhaps just simple, I wondered? Why isn’t he petrified by the imminence of his extinction? I spoke to my therapist about it, and she pointed out that perhaps he was just enjoying his remaining time (how, I wondered), and was practising radical acceptance of his situation rather than thinking so catastrophically. It’s true that it seems to me that most people I talk to just don’t to give a damn about their own death. And I agree that it is bizarre that I am so afraid of dying that the existential despair sometimes almost drives me to suicide.
On the other hand, in a way I am glad I am not young in these troubled times. Life must surely be much more worrying and stressful for people in their teens and twenties than it was for me, in the good old simple days before pocket calculators. There is so much pressure on you to do this and that, so much political presence and political correctness in your lives, “free space” that are really prisons, with mobile phone cameras you can be in the public eye all the time in an instant, you have social media contributing to enormous peer pressure and perpetuating your simplest most honest mistakes for eternity. And then after working your way through university while building up enormous debts you might struggle to find a good job – or any job at all. But then there’s plenty else to worry about; the end of the world is near for you. I doubt if many of the young today will die a natural death. The things below worry me, and I think I’m rational to be scared by them, even if I am a nutter; they would terrify me if I were any younger, and probably just immobilise me with fear. Or drive me to suicide.
Terrorism. Surely top of anyone’s list of worries? I worry about being personally involved every time I fly or catch a train, drive over a bridge, or visit London, but I’m sure I’m not worrying enough. They will find a way to get to us in places and ways I can’t imagine. And that’s just in the short term. Surely in the long run terrorists will acquire biological and nuclear weapons; we only have to wait long enough for the worst to happen. So in a hundred, too hundred, three hundred years, whatever, they will lay waste to London, Paris, New York, and doubtless many other places. It’s just a matter of time. Verdict: grim.
Russia. Now even as a proud liberal I’m more pro-Russian than most people I know. I appreciate its geography and history, and therefore that they feel threats many of us can’t imagine. I can see why they needed Crimea as west Ukraine headed in the direction of even more west; Sevastopol is their only warm water port, and not a particularly good one at that. I also am a great admirer of Mr Putin, and have my own ambition to be photographed naked holding a machine gun one day. Oh those Russians. And if Russia doesn’t scare you, what about China or India? And the Middle East isn’t going to become a happy place anytime soon. Apologies to all my readers living in those countries; you’re probably worried about us (as well as each other). Yes, the geopolitical situation keeps me awake at nights. Scary.
Viruses, biological, and chemical warfare. We don’t even need people actively searching for ways to kill us; accidents and mistakes will happen. But why people would want to unleash a virus that is just as likely to kill them in the end as kill us in the short term is a mystery to me, but that’s nihilism for you. Perhaps they’re just hoping for a little local mega-tragedy. But if the terrorists don’t get us first then nature surely will; new viruses are always appearing and mutating, and even good-old fashioned bacteria are becoming increasingly antibiotic resistant. Eventually something really bad is bound to turn up. Yes, a pandemic such as the Great Plague of 2026 will wipe most of us out, probably in an unimaginably horrible way. Boils on the brain or something. Time to prep! Frightening.
Nuclear explosions. See also under terrorism. With a new cold war round the corner, and rogue states acquiring weapons, surely it can only be a matter of time before something happens somewhere. And if countries somehow manage to restrain from throwing their nukes at each other, and if mad men (and men they always are) don’t take charge of the arsenal, mistakes will happen; we’ve come surprisingly close to accidental nuclear war before. Within the next millennium it’s almost certain to happen. Megadeaths will leave humanity looking like the worst kind of survival disaster movie. I expect to see a double flash most days. Horrifying.
Nanotechnology. Now we get to future technologies that most people don’t worry about much at the moment – but they should. Nanotechnology means lots of very tiny things that may be able to replicate and might turn out not to be that controllable. Nanobots crawling around your veins and arteries scraping away cholesterol and plaque sounds wonderful, until as a result of some coding error they start scraping away at your artery walls too. Who you going to call? Perhaps we should retrain the unemployed (everyone – see worry below) as Botbusters. And nanobots munching away on rubbish and plastic bags turning them into compost is an excellent idea, until by mistake they decide that everything organic, including humans, is there to be munched on as well. Disturbing.
The disappearance of work. Jobs are disappearing all the time. Those that can be are being outsourced to countries where the wages are much lower and where they don’t have troubling legislation such as a minimum wage. Computers and online resources are claiming many other jobs – when was the last time you went to a travel agent? Robots already do much manual labour in garages, and I see that they are now taking over the jobs of at least some surgeons. What will be left for us to do in a few decades? A few high tech jobs; some teaching; creative work; maybe. Politicians, for sure. The overall effect will be to reduce the availability of work and so drive wages down. But there is a problem here that I don’t think has been much thought about: the owners of most of the computers and robots are making products for people to buy. But what will happen when the people can’t afford to buy anything because they have no money because the robots took their jobs? The whole system will collapse. We will be reduced to a nation of people working in coffee shops so that we can earn just about enough to go and buy coffee in another coffee shop in our breaks. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about starting out on a career just now. Unsettling.
AI and robots. I have recently finished reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, which talks about the threat posed by the development of artificial intelligence (and the associated robotics industry). Apparently the average prediction by “experts” of when we will develop an artificial intelligence with intellectual abilities greater than that of a human is 2040. Now of course as a professor of cognitive psychology I foresee all sorts of difficulties: our intellectual abilities and our consciousness arise because we develop from birth, endowed with genes that prepare our brains and intellect for life that have been honed by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, grounded in the world, surrounded by other people, and with five sensory inputs (with feedback). I think 2040 is very optimistic. But I don’t see that as “in principle” argument against the development of super-intelligent conscious artificial intelligence – just that it’s more difficult than many people image. It isn’t merely a question of developing a computer with enough megaflops. Some might be surprised that I accept the idea of a conscious computer so easily, but if it has the right stuff, I don’t that it’s possible, I think it’s inevitable. You can’t have a zombie that acts as though it’s indistinguishable from a conscious being but isn’t conscious. (More on this topic in my forthcoming book, The Science of Consciousness, due to be published in 2017.) But what reason do we have to suppose that when we develop a real AI that it will be friendly towards us? Might we not instead face a Terminator-like future where the missiles are fired and machines turn on the remaining few? I don’t find there to be much comfort in ideas such as those proposed by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov that if we programme machines with his three laws of robotics (“a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”; “a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law”; “a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws”) that all will be well. Humans live by laws, and they do a lot of people no good at all. People can’t even manage to drive without using their mobile phone. Why should a super-intelligent AI, with its own personality, life history, and at least the delusion of free will, feel obliged to do whatever we do them? We act in accordance with our own best interests (or at least think we do), so why shouldn’t an AI? I see disaster down the line. And will AIs suffer from existential despair? Will they worry about the power supply being switched off? And will they act to stop that happening? And then we’re assuming that intelligent AIs which have their own goals and personalities will be sane. Humans aren’t, so why should artificial humans? Why shouldn’t an AI become traumatised, or suffer from depression, or anxiety, or even personality disorder? Doesn’t mental illness come with the territory of being conscious? What would a psychopathic super-intelligent AI connected to the internet do? Or a suicidally depressed AI in charge of nuclear weapons contemplate? Alarming.
The network of things. My central heating is connected to the web, so when I’m in California I can play with turning the heating up to 30C back home. My pressure cooker is already pretty smart, but presumably the next generation will be networkable, so I will be able to cook my beans at a swipe of my iPhone from anywhere in the world. There are already robot vacuum cleaners, and fridges that check what you put in and take out and order food automatically for you. What happens if your fridge goes haywire and refuses to open, or if it orders a million toilet rolls instead of a nice piece of cheddar? Will you starve to death? So if terrorists, Russians, germs, the plague, nukes, tiny things, and robots don’t get you, your fridge probably will. Terrifying.
… To which I add a few weeks later:
Genetic engineering. How could I possibly overlook this one? I foresee nothing but trouble. Bring on the Daleks. Worrying.
Social media and surveillance. Isn’t Britain already the most watched society in the world? Aren’t there many calls of many people who should know better to monitor the press and curtail freedom of speech? Don’t we already have libel laws so draconian that people flock here from other more liberal counties (e.g. the USA) to press their grievances? I have just finished reading David Eggers’ “The circle”; although I think it is a flawed novel in some minor ways, it is immensely readable and thought provoking. With our obsessive use of social media, our pursuit of fame without effort and the idolisation of celebrities, and our ignorance of how our liberties are being eroded, we are sleepwalking to the sort of disaster chronicled in “The circle”. China is apparently working on a scheme that sounds like it should be left in science fiction where citizens accrue points for “good citizenship” (see this BBC article for example) – well, you can guess the sort of thing that makes you a worse citizen than your neighbours, and some of the possible consequences. Scores in the first instance might affect your credit worthiness or enable you to jump a queue for a good flat. But you can imagine a society where our Facebook posts and blogs are monitored, and all of a sudden things happen like your bin is “accidentally” not emptied one week. Or you get carted off to a gulag at dawn. Perhaps we already are monitored in this way and it was no accident that my supermarket home delivery last week didn’t include macadamia nuts. Thought provoking.
And then if we do somehow manage as a species to survive all that, and colonise space avoiding the doom of the solar system, we will eventually face the heat death of the universe. Surely anyone rational should all be very depressed.