My first experience of creating objects and figures with my hands was probably when I was much younger, maybe around 10 or so. For whatever reason, I liked to create people and animals out of blu-tack and leave them in public places for people to find. I was always secretly happy when I would return to the libraries, shops and museums to find that they were still intact, which to me suggested that people liked them enough to leave them alone rather than squishing them into oblivion. Clay, however, is something I had never truly played around with as an art medium before. Unfortunately now that I have, I fear I won’t want to use anything else.
As soon as I rolled my sleeves up and held the thick, moist clay in my hands, my brain automatically went to work. Suddenly, as if by magic, all of the negative thoughts or feelings that I’m often burdened with slowly melted away. We felt like a perfect match – I would speak with my fingertips and the clay would mould along with me, as if to respond back with kind concern. The class I attended was also one centred around individuals with mental health struggles, so it was nice to not be so concerned with hiding any scars on my arms for example. Magic notwithstanding, the process was pretty much as basic as you could get. There were no fancy equipment or machines to help me along the way (this was art on a budget, after all). However part of me preferred this, as I think it helped ensure I learned with my hands rather than focusing on secondary materials.
When I first sat down, I thought for a moment and knew that I wanted to try and create an elephant’s head. I’m still not sure where the idea really came from, but I suspect it was a mixture of not wanting to make a pot or plate like everyone else, and being inspired by the grey clay to create a characteristically grey animal. I’m aware that for my first time, I probably should have been less ambitious and opted for something more straight-forward instead. In fact the teacher herself suggested so too, looking over worryingly as I zoned out into my own clay-elephant world. But in typical Ruth fashion, acting much like I did in my art classes during my GCSEs, I had an idea and I wanted to stick to it – regardless of how much more difficult it may be. I have a terrible tendency to compare my work to others, however on this occasion I can say that I’m pretty happy and proud of the result – especially for my first try.
Overall I am really quite, dare I say it, excited about discovering my love for this medium. I still enjoy painting and sketching too, however I sometimes struggle to remain focused which often allows my more negative emotions to creep back in. I’m aware that this doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t experience the same thing when I’m using clay – I’m sure everyone does at some point, regardless of how much they enjoy what they’re doing. But whether it’s the physical aspect of constantly using my hands, or the sense of calm that it brings me, I’m very happy I attended the class. Before I had even finished my elephant piece, I decided my next one will be a lego figure. I can’t imagine many people use clay to create lego characters and blocks, so the fact that this was the first thing to come to mind means either one of two things: 1) I am much too childish to be using this medium of art, or 2) everyone else is boring. I prefer the latter conclusion.
It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything to complement the alphabet series, so I thought I would get things back into gear by starting with something else I tend to struggle with alongside depression – anxiety.
I’ve tried thinking about the first time I truly experienced anxiety (and I mean really, really feeling it) and I came up blank. I believe it’s because the line between what’s considered normal, and what definitely isn’t, is quite blurred. I’m sure most people have had feelings of anxiety to at least some degree, as it’s common to feel nervous or fearful at the thought of a stressful decision or event. In my case however, the awareness of my anxiety came when I realised that the nervous feeling I had before an exam for example, was very far removed from the sickening, crippling feeling that I was waking up with every morning for no apparent reason. In this sense, anxiety tends to become a clinical problem when those normally understandable fears and worries become so strong and last for such a long time, that it becomes overwhelming. Mind, the mental health charity, defines anxiety in the following way:
“Anxiety is a word we use to describe feelings of unease, worry and fear. It incorporates both the emotions and the physical sensations we might experience when we are worried or nervous about something. Although we usually find it unpleasant, anxiety is related to the ‘fight or flight’ response – our normal biological reaction to feeling threatened.”
Now, upon coming across this a few weeks ago, it was actually the first time I had read any sort of definition of what anxiety is. To me it was just a feeling, but while reading the definition above there were many parts of it that I could relate to. For whatever reason, my anxiety tends to be worse first thing in the morning. In fact in most cases it’s the reason my body wakes up at all, as I slowly start to notice the sense of unease and fear. For lack of a better term, it often feels as though there’s a black hole right in the middle of my chest, slowly bubbling and growing as it takes in all my other senses and feelings until it’s the only thing left for me to feel. It usually slowly dissipates as the day goes on, however it will quickly return if I happen to remember something negative or sad, or if I’m in a particular place that holds a lot of memories for me. With regards to Mind’s definition, my experience of anxiety is definitely a lot more on the physiological side. I will often feel physically sick, and sometimes I actually am. I also tend to lose my appetite completely and I can get quite shaky too. On rarer occasions, if I’m particularly overwhelmed I experience full on panic attacks. In light of all this, I completed an exercise that allowed me to create my own personal definition of anxiety, which I’ve included below:
“Anxiety is a word that describes a general feeling of fear and dread, almost simultaneously. It can occur at any time, although I often experience it first thing in the morning, or in relation to a negative thought, memory or dream. It incorporates the emotional aspects, but is mostly very physical – it feels as though there is a constant black hole in the middle of my chest. I will often feel nauseous and uneasy, and will find it difficult to concentrate on other things.”
Even though this is what anxiety feels like to me, it was interesting to read about some of the other ways that people experience the same thing. These included feelings of paranoia, doubt, catastrophic thinking, isolation and even compulsions and rituals – similar to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
However, perhaps it’s the psychology student in me but I couldn’t help feeling a little agitated at the last sentence of Mind’s definition. For anyone who hasn’t heard the term before, the so-called ‘fight-or-flight’ response is one frequently mentioned in psychology, particularly the area of evolutionary psychology that attempts to explain useful psychological traits, such as memory, as adaptations – that is, as the functional products of natural selection. If I remember correctly, the response is actually related to our autonomic nervous system (ANS). When presented with acute fear or stress, the two branches of the ANS take action: the sympathetic nervous system is activated due to a sudden release of hormones, which in turn stimulates the adrenal glands – triggering the release of neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. This is what causes our accelerated heart and breathing rates, as well as reactions such as tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. Meanwhile, the parasympathetic nervous system activates the “rest and digest” response and returns the body to its pre-arousal levels after the threat has ceased.
But somewhere along the line, this physiological response became a simple catch-all explanation for any general feeling of unease. When referring to anxiety as a disorder, I personally don’t believe it’s correct to say it simply stems from this response mechanism. There are countless theories and suggestions throughout the psychological world as to what ‘causes’ our mental health problems, and all of them come with their supporting evidence and criticisms. For example, within the branch of humanistic psychology popularised by the American psychologist Carl Rogers, anxiety is seen as the resulting effect when there is a disparity between our ‘self-image’ (how we currently see ourselves) and our ‘ideal self’ (an embodiment of the person we wish to be, which includes our goals and ambitions). Contrarily Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, suggested that anxiety is the result of conflicts between the conscious and the unconscious, or of some repressed memory/traumatic experience that we are refusing to bring into the present (which he suggested for pretty much everything, really). Whatever the likely explanation, one thing that is instrumentally clear is that anxiety can have a range of causes, if there’s any cause at all, and that people can experience anxiety in a wide variety of ways.
Quite predictably, anxiety can also have an effect on your relations with other people. I would say that after people get to know me, I am quite a bubbly and warm person. The problem it seems is actually getting to that point, as I’m usually too overcome with worry to open up properly. For example upon meeting new people, I can sometimes shut myself away inside, opting to listen, smile and nod rather than actually saying something myself. On the outside, I’ve figured I must seem abnormally quiet, or even just plain disinterested. On the inside however, my mind is actually doing something along the lines of this:
Right, new humans. We really want them to like you remember so let’s not screw this up. That’s it, no more shy girl, let’s bring The Cool Ruth out to play. Note to self: Don’t ever refer to yourself as The Cool Ruth out loud. Also, maybe don’t call them humans. How about you tell that funny joke you know? No not that one, the one that’s actually funny that you read on the internet that time. Yes, I know that there are many times that you are on the internet but can you just work with me here, we’re trying to build a conversation. Wait, wait they’re looking at you, what did you miss? Damn it OK be cool be cool, just smile and nod and maybe throw a little laugh in there. You see, this is why we can’t have nice things. Good, they’ve started talking again, try to pay attention this time so you can nip in with something witty. No, I said witty not silly. Well if you say that then they’re just going to think you’re weird. Oh great, you blurted it out anyway and now they’re looking at you funny. Just… just go back to smiling and nodding until this is over.
This is pretty much the cycle I go through every time I meet new people, especially if for whatever reason I’m trying to impress them or want them to like me. Although frustrating all on its own, it can be even more upsetting to know that others might think you’re disinterested or not paying attention, when really the truth is nothing like that at all.
Anxiety can be a very unpleasant condition to manage, as some ‘triggers’ are completely out of your control – if there’s even a trigger at all. Although I would say my morning anxiety has improved over the last couple of months, I still struggle with it on the off day and I always find myself desperately wondering why, even though in many cases I know there’s no real reason. I even feel it now as I’m writing this all down, on a rainy afternoon as I sit in a peaceful library in Euston. But I am hopeful that there are ways to effectively manage it that don’t utilise my current coping mechanism of trying to sleep it away.
I’ve recently started attending a course as part of a programme designed to contribute towards wellbeing. Throughout the coming weeks, I’ll be learning some of the (perhaps more healthy) coping mechanisms that can be used to help me manage my anxiety better. It’s not promised that all of the techniques will be of use to everyone, which I suspected anyway as people are different after all. But I will nonetheless try to share any new knowledge I come across. I’ll even throw in a few more of my annotated illustrations to help move things along. Stay tuned.