Talking Heads

Humanity is dealing with a crisis and there are a huge number of ways in which this is making people anxious. We’re all aware that there’s a lot of anxiety around at the moment: it’s on the news, it’s in the shops, it’s in our homes. However, what is lockdown like for those who were already anxious? With many years of anxiety and panic disorder behind me, I’d like to share a little about lockdown and anxiety as I’ve found it: the fear of it, the relief of it, and everything in between.

One really interesting thing about the current situation is that so many people are experiencing – and vocalising – anxiety. For someone who has spent most of her life clinically anxious, this generates mixed feelings and I’d like to try and explain them. Firstly, it’s incredible that there are so many conversations happening about this collective mental struggle. More than one person has asked me if this (the way they feel) is how I’ve always felt. The answer to that isn’t an easy one.

It doesn’t take very long on social media to stumble across people minimising the very anxiety that has coloured my life. I choose to believe that there is no harm meant by people advocating that we should all calm down or offering trite advice about relaxation or being good to yourself. They’re not wrong but, let’s be honest, it’s not as simple as that and superficial positivity has little to offer the truly anxious.

There’s a sense that the world is now behaving in the way that many of our anxious brains have for many years. Naturally there is comfort to be found in being part of something collective but, for me anyway, there is also an odd sense of grief that so much of my troubled past is now writ large in my community, my country, and beyond. Might it be worse to have people think that they understand how you feel, rather than admit to you they don’t? Or am I being weirdly territorial about my mental illness?

When lockdown began, I glibly answered the question of how I was with jokes about how I’d been in training for this for years. It wasn’t altogether untrue: my catastrophic thinking has meant that I’ve lived life in preparation for all manner of apocalyptic eventualities. It’s just that I was told they would never come to fruition. A lot of the therapy I’ve had has been to help me think more rationally. How then do you cope when the irrational voice in your head is proved right?

In many ways I’m coping very well, and it should go without saying how grateful I am for this. However, I can’t overstate how confusing and difficult to be encouraged by the government to behave in the self-same ways that a mental illness forced me to for many years: stay in the house, keep yourself to yourself, withdraw from others. The rational brain that knows why we’re doing this has to compete with the frightened anxious brain that screams, but what if we get ill again?

Approximately fifteen years ago, when I was at my most severely unwell, I barely left my flat for six months. It wasn’t that I wanted to hide away. Quite the reverse: I wanted nothing more than to be “normal”. I couldn’t participate in the world. Even now that I write and talk a lot about my mental health issues, I – slightly disingenuously – tend to write in the past tense. It’s time to get real: sometimes I still can’t participate in the world. And that makes it feel very odd and uncomfortable now that we’re put in the position of such confinement indoors. Frankly, it’s taken me years to broaden the scope of my world and there’s a small voice inside me, terrified that this is all a massive, irretrievable step backwards.

There’s another side to this though, and that centres on the comfort of the familiar, something I’ve found to be true even when the familiar is unpleasant. This is our new routine now, and I’ve adapted to new ways of living life. I’m scared at the thought we’re steadily approaching the day when things return to how they used to be (if they ever can).

The prevailing current narrative is that it’ll be great when lockdown is lifted, wonderful when life gets back to normal. However, what if normal life was hard sometimes? What if lockdown makes some things easier?

I want to confess a guilty relief at some of the limitations that lockdown has imposed. I’m also trying to deal with feeling ashamed of the part of me that is relieved to be inside again after all these years. The part of me that relishes not having to put myself in situations that frighten me on a daily basis: crowded shops, public transport, social obligations. The list goes on.

Of course, lockdown brings with it a huge amount of new anxiety and dread. Who knew that supermarkets could become scarier?! don’t think I know anyone who isn’t worried about the health of their loved ones. Over and above this though, many mental health conditions are being massively fuelled by our current circumstances: health anxiety, OCD, issues relating to food, and so on. For some people, lockdown may have triggered the start of a mental health condition. And, for others, it’s just making it all much more challenging.

So, what’s it like to be anxious in lockdown? I hate how many of us know the answer to that question. I hate that I can’t articulate it properly. It’s scary and frustrating; both harder and easier than normal life; it makes me oddly grateful for my ‘normal’ anxiety and maybe that’s the hardest thing to reconcile myself to.

by Rachel Alexander

Rachel lives in Edinburgh. Interested in writing, feminism and mental health, she’s an English teacher to trade, and passionate about learning as well as teaching. She loves stories of all kinds, and believes they are a uniquely powerful way of changing the world. Tweets at @rachalexwrites and Instagrams at @rachjanealex.

Somewhere in between a degree and the start of their careers, creative students in lockdown watch as what was an already fast-changing arts industry transforms beyond recognition, along with a clear view of their future in it. Having faced university strike action earlier in the year, cut short of a studio learning environment and with many now thrust into unfamiliar or uncertain living situations – it has been a particularly disruptive year of education for students across the board.

As the weeks begin to blur, what is clear is the need for individual creative responses during this collective emergency. Live performances, online exhibitions, Zoom seminars – the new digital venues for arts and culture, and a vital boost for mental wellbeing not only for creators but their online audiences too. Maintaining a creative output can prove fickle on the best of days, however, and we’ve certainly seen better days.

Speaking to three art students now two months into lockdown, they offer their insight into how they have managed to continue engaging with each other, deal with the daily discomfort as well as stay motivated artistically despite the phrase “uncertain times” ringing in their ears - and coping when they can't.

“I’ve been trying to allow myself to get really childish during the lockdown, which has helped me immensely staying in a creative mindset and to cope with the lack of human contact”

For Kris Sahlholdt, a 23-year-old in her third year, getting through the long weeks has meant channelling a playful and resourceful approach. Building costumes from cardboard boxes and exploring local areas as if for the first time have been just a few of her light-hearted responses to lockdown. However she admits its not always so easy, saying “there are the really long days where loneliness creeps in and I just miss people so much.”

Q: How have you found the transition to a quarantined way of living so far?

K: At first it was very strange. Just the waking up and not knowing what’s going to happen. I was pretty scared about not being able to access workshops and potentially not finishing my project. But my mindset started to change after a couple of weeks. By then I was so bored, because I had convinced myself that I could not possibly make anything good outside of my studio. I made excuses like: “It’ll be too messy in here if I make something, it’s not fair to my boyfriend to take over the flat!” But staring out of the window for weeks didn’t really appeal to me either.

Q: Was that the point at which you decided to get back into making?

K: I decided to take a few funny photographs of my half-finished woven basket on my head, just to do something silly. That opened a few new doors for me. Instead of only seeing the problems of the quarantine I started taking my project less seriously and used what I did have instead of sulking about what I didn’t. I’ve been trying to allow myself to get really childish during the lockdown, which has helped me immensely staying in a creative mindset and to cope with the lack of human contact.

Creatively Coping 2

Q: What else have you been working on?

K: During the past weeks I have been weaving a basket for an installation I wanted to make. The installation didn’t end up the way I had initially thought (it was supposed to be installed in my studio) so I had to rethink the potential for my piece. This was actually quite a fun challenge, because I had to go on a “hunt” for the right location. It was proper problem solving! I managed to finish this project and right now I’m quite happy it didn’t end up in my studio-space! I would never have put it on this beautiful brick wall if I hadn’t been forced to look for other solutions.

Creatively Coping 3

Q: Aside from your creative projects, what simple comforts have you found help your mental health the most these days?

K: During the lockdown I have redeveloped a very close relationship with nature. I used to have a very strong bond to it, which I have sadly neglected for many years. But that has ultimately been my best medicine for maintaining my sanity. There is a patch of trees which I like to visit if I have a rough day. It smells like the wood by my grandparents’ summer cottage. It’s like being home.

You can find out more about The Nose and The Basket and the rest of Kris’ work at sahlholdt.com or keep up to date with her makings on Instagram @krisaasahl.

“For me, creativity always, always seems to thrive under limitations”

With all those beyond our own households kept at a regulated arm’s length, the challenge of creating a sense of community within socially distant restrictions has been a large part of Tim Stuart’s motivation, a 20-year-old student based in Edinburgh. Although he feels that online communities shouldn’t aim to replace face-to-face connection, he has been confronted with the fact that “during quarantine online community is really all we have.”

Q: How have you found lockdown has affected your approach to creativity?

T: For me, creativity always, always seems to thrive under limitation. Quarantine has been one massive list of restrictions whether it’s not having quick access to art supplies or not having a studio. I struggle to think of a time where I’ve ever felt quite as inspired as I am now and I think it’s all because of the limitations surrounding us. I also think without having all the other distractions I’ve had almost limitless time to reflect. This has been important for me and has reminded me why I am doing what I am doing and why I care about making art.

Q: Those limitations led you to creating over fifty portraits of your friends and family, how did that start?

T: I decided to start a series of portraits on a request-based system on my Instagram. Initially, it started off as a small project assuming I would only do a few people’s faces. However, as requests poured in and encouragement along with it, I set about completing all of the portraits I had been asked to do.

I think the heart of this project was all about connecting with others during this time of otherwise disconnect, fracture and distance. Doing a portrait of someone is an intimate act because you are trying to translate someone’s face onto a page – It’s a part of everyone's body which is heavily linked to our identity and when looking at someone is what makes them them. In these kinds of moments you notice how unique everyone’s features are. By the end of each portrait you know them deeper than you knew them before you started - and that feels like a great success during this disconnected time.

 

Q: The disconnection is getting to many of us at the moment, has this project brought a relief from that?

T: The portraits led to more than drawn faces, they helped me reconnect to old friends and have countless conversations with those who I drew. In other words, these drawings helped build an online community - a term I don’t particularly like (as I think online communities should never aim to replace face to face connection). However, during quarantine, online community is really all we have and it was a pleasure to facilitate that.

Q: Is there anything else you feel is worth a mention in getting you through this experience?

T: Keeping my curtains a crack open. Maybe a slightly specific thing to mention, but doing this with the current spring light means I wake up around 7am or 8am. There’s no alarm blaring at me in the morning - it just wakes me up peacefully, and I can get to work after this.

Follow Tim’s on-going portrait series on Instagram @drawn.lives.

“With the current situation I feel that managing to make work, any work at all, is great – nobody really knows what they should be doing or how much they should be aspiring to create”

For the final student, finding themselves at the opposite end of the country far from University has led to a pause from the usual pressures and expectations of a degree. Mariella is a 21-year-old student entering her final year.

Q: You were studying in England pre-lockdown, and you now find yourself back home in Scotland. How has that change been for you?

M: I have found the silence away from University has in fact allowed me to feel comfortable to make more work and have a new motivation for keeping myself healthy and happy, as well as finding a routine. More importantly, with the current situation I feel that managing to make work, any work at all, is great – no one really knows what they should be doing or how much they should be aspiring to create.

Q: What has kept you going creatively?

M: What has become an underlying stress is wondering whether you’re doing enough to help others. My sister is a Doctor currently working in London and every night she rings up with what’s going on for her, it sounds very different to what the news reports. So I decided to start selling some of my prints; with each print I donate 20% to the NHS Charities Together and include a handwritten letter with some words of support as an extra personal touch to help with that feeling of disconnection.

 

Q: What do you find helps you on the difficult days?

M: I live in the countryside – I’m surrounded by animals and gardens which need to be tended to so they keep me busy, and waking up before 10.30 definitely helps me feel like I haven’t wasted the day. I also don’t listen to the news as much anymore, I still don’t want to be completely ignorant of what’s going on so I’ll listen to it maybe once a week now.

Q: We’ve all been left with a lot to think about as a result of this experience, how do you feel about things looking forward?

M: I think I’ve changed during these weeks - It has forced me to address how I value my life and what I really want to achieve after this is over. It also seems to be universally understood the significance of the timing of this pandemic - I think and I hope this will change the way we live, I believe we are in need of evolving our approach and this might be a start to that.

Keep up to date with Mariella’s sculpture and print work on Instagram @mazzinherjazz.

For each in their own circumstances comes a completely individual set of challenges, and the reality is lockdown may not ever be a way of living we settle into. The adjustment period is looking much more like an open-ended series of ups and downs than a set timeframe with a resolution. This surreal pocket of time requires the most gentle and kind approach to both our own mental wellbeing and those in our wider circles.

For these three creative students, as well as artists and arts organisations at all levels, continuing to respond creatively or providing the platform to do so is a lifeline in more ways than one.

Amy Ortiz is a Glasgow-based Illustration student. You can follow her on instagram @a_swo_.

Lockdown is a scary and unsettling time for everyone. Living in isolation, away from our friends and family, unable to go where we like. These are difficult times and although we are all in the same storm – not all of us are in the same boat.

Kindness is having something of a moment: hashtags on social media, acts of kindness on the news, rainbows in windows. It seems that we are all in agreement that kindness is worth spotlighting whilst we’re all in lockdown. However, our need for kindness goes beyond this moment in time and this is especially true for those of us who struggle with our mental health. Kindness really matters, and not just whilst we endure this pandemic.

Our time in lockdown seems to have amplified regular emotions. We need each other more than ever before; in practical ways and - most definitely - in emotional ways. The early days of the coronavirus pandemic may have brought out the worst in some people (where did all of that toilet paper go…?) but, undoubtedly, it’s brought out the best in others. Good news stories are going viral across different mediums and they provide a wonderful tonic to the bleak news bulletins and updates constantly broadcast across all channels. Even in the tiny microcosm of my block, people in my stair are shopping, cooking and baking for each other. My local shop remains open because one of the owners is staying away from his family in order that he can continue to provide groceries for the community. We are smiling and talking to people we don’t know. In a time of uncertainty and fear, these things are very consoling.

We can still do more. At a time when there is so much that we cannot do and so many places that we cannot go, it’s worth thinking about what we can do. If you are in a position to extend some kindness to others, do so. The smallest gesture will undoubtedly make a difference to someone who is struggling and, if we’re honest, aren’t a lot of us struggling?

Each one of us has mental health, and, like our physical health, it can wax and wane across a lifetime. It’s very easy with all manner of mental illnesses to get lost in your own head and to feel a sense of worthlessness and purposelessness. Certainly, as someone with an anxiety and panic disorder, I can completely lose faith in myself when I’m unwell. For people like me, I like to think that kindness has a particularly significant role.

When somebody actively and deliberately treats you with kindness, it has the power to undermine any harmful self-beliefs and imbue you with a sense of worth. Long term, it’s probably not healthy to get all of your validation from external sources, but we’re talking about when you feel very low. At these times, I don’t think it matters where it comes from; feeling like you’re worth something is so valuable.

Kindness needn’t be anything life-altering. It might be patience, a kind word, or an offer of help. Some of the kindest things people did for me when I really needed it were very small things. I remember my sister hovering just outside my bathroom door as I showered, because I was scared that I would die in the shower. When I finally had to move in with them as I wasn’t coping, my mum and dad celebrated every tiny achievement, despite my frustrated eye rolling. They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

Kindness from strangers can also be vital. Some of us struggle to leave the house, to step into a shop, to quiet the voices, to exist in the world. How damning a tut or an eye roll can be. The opposite is also true: how encouraging a smile, how helpful when someone patiently waits as you fumble, when someone pretends not to notice that you’re crying at the cashline. You really don’t know what someone else is dealing with: err on the side of kindness.

It’s a lot easier to think about how and why to direct kindness towards others than it is to turn it inward. When someone else is hurt or scared, we comfort them, offer them reassurance, kind words and help. When we are frightened, many of us only add to our own fear and speak unkind words about the worst possible scenarios. I know, because I’m one of those people. If someone I love is fearful about something, I will talk kindly to them, comfort them, encourage them. A couple of years ago, a counsellor challenged me to try and notice the way I spoke to myself. It’s not really any exaggeration to say that I was shocked and upset by the vitriol I spoke to myself in my weakest moments.

Self-care is a term that is being bandied about a lot at the moment, touted as a lockdown essential. Perhaps this conjures up images of indulgent bubble baths and face masks, yet, I’ve learned embarrassingly recently is that this needn’t be the case. Treating yourself with kindness might mean getting enough sleep; asking for help; preparing a meal; paying your bills. There’s nothing wrong with a lovely bath either!

Fundamentally, treating yourself with kindness means treating yourself like you matter. If you find this difficult – and who doesn’t? – think about how you would treat a close friend or loved one. Would you tell them they were useless? Tell them they were a failure? Tell them that they didn’t deserve good things?

Genuine kindness is a radical and wonderful act. Real kindness helps people to see and to be seen. By all means, stick that rainbow in your window and offer to walk Betty from number 8’s dog, but also try to embrace the fundamentals of what kindness means. In particular, think about treating yourself with greater kindness. It would be a better world – and we’d all be happier and healthier – if kindness was a more fundamental part of all of our lives. Let’s prioritise kindness, and not just for lockdown.

by Rachel Alexander

Rachel lives in Edinburgh. Interested in writing, feminism and mental health, she’s an English teacher to trade, and passionate about learning as well as teaching. She loves stories of all kinds, and believes they are a uniquely powerful way of changing the world. Tweets at @rachalexwrites and Instagrams at @rachjanealex.

In this post, Talking Heads volunteer Stephen Higham explores lifestyle choices which help him to stave off the worst effects of depression and assess how lockdown complicates the maintenance of a positive mood.

Being Productive

Honestly, a part of me is disappointed not to have written the great British novel by now. I’ve often thought to myself, “If I could just spend a month alone in a cabin with a typewriter, I’d get so much done.” If I lived in a film, it would be easy. I’d skip weeks in a montage of shots, portraying me late at night, running my fingers through my hair, making coffee, typing away, but film skirts over the work and focuses on the cathartic result. Reality is not so accommodating. Activity breeds activity and inactivity feeds my anxiety. One of the exercises I did in therapy was an hourly diary, recording work, exercise, entertainment, and skill development. This helped at the time. I took up swimming, planned a festival with my film-club and rejuvenated the podcast which I co-host. Lockdown has made these things either difficult or impossible. I’ve got a brain which obsesses and interprets. It can be self-destructive but when it comes to media it can be pleasurable to turn stories over in my head. We’ve adapted to distance-recording for the podcast, even moving to a weekly schedule that shapes my time, culminating in a Sunday release. I have also digitised my film-club output, moving from physical screenings to daily Instagram recommendations. It’s not the same but responses have been good and it’s always nice to apply the analytical part of my brain to snappy copy. If you can combine a passion with an outlet it will be helpful. Happiness is internal, so if you can find small things which make you feel more productive and satisfied, then you’ll be doing yourself a favour.

Employment

There’s a pernicious myth that people who have bad jobs or no jobs at all are naturally lazy, that they just do not want a job. It’s rarely true. From an early age we are taught to conceptualise our sense of identity in terms of our careers. I worked in kitchens before the outbreak and so lost my source of income. I wasn’t alone but I do still connect my self-worth to that sense of societal contribution. I wanted to do something to help. I applied to volunteer for the NHS but I fall into a major at-risk group for Covid-19 so I wasn’t eligible. Another service I could offer was working in the food supply chain. Supermarket employees are key workers and were in demand. I updated my CV, made some calls and ended up on the employee register of a major retailer. This, however, came with its own set of problems. I was a nightshift worker, with long shifts, doing repetitive and physically demanding labour. Socialising doesn’t work on ten-hour night shifts, you dip into a fugue state which is only exacerbated by a disrupted sleep cycle. Sleep is vital for good mental health. It’s important to maintain a sense of normalcy in the current state of affairs, but so many of the jobs available, when they are available, are menial and either lack human-contact or include a dangerously high amount of it. Despite their necessity, retail and warehouse jobs rarely offer full-time hours or accordant benefits and retain a social stigma. What’s important is to remember that these are difficult times for everyone and that old-fashioned notions of value are not objective fact, nor must someone’s value system influence your own.

Socialising

It’s hard to imagine the current situation without digital space to keep new voices coming in from the outside world. People are social animals. At times of crisis there is an urge to take “coming together” very literally. During the war, workers came together in factories, soldiers in brotherhood; a unified drive in companionship. If we did that now, the death rates would skyrocket. I’m an introvert, which means I have always appreciated the value of podcasts, documentaries and YouTube round-tables as a social nicotine-patch. I think that many are learning a similar lesson. Fortunately, Zoom has risen from the ashes of the old world to the bewilderment of Skype. I join Scalarama video calls, have fallen for the charms of “pub” quizzes and maintain group chats. I was struck by how unnatural digital communication is some weeks into the lockdown. I went to safely pick up recording equipment from my fellow podcasters and realised that my friend Eva was the first new, friendly face I had seen for five weeks. It was a surprisingly emotional moment. Faces on a computer screen are not the same as sharing physical space. Written words lack the immediacy and energy of a conversation. They are a small part of the social exchange which includes a thousand imperceptible nuances of expression, movement, and tone. We crave variety. So even if you get on well with your housemates, which I hope you do, you shouldn’t feel guilty if the repetition gets to you every once in a while. Just try not to let the resentment build up. Communication is as important now as it has ever been for our mental health.

I find that film stands as a compromise for the reality we’ve left behind. It skips over monotony and speaks about our experiences in a visual language which we all share with fluency. The close-up reveals thought, the edit reveals a connection, the montage evokes experience. Watching films is a creative experience as we fill in the time between frames and the space beyond shots. I’m looking forward to viewing the art in this year’s SMHAF as I know that there’s a lot of quality work out there. Isolation can exacerbate several mental health problems and I hope that sharing art can make us feel less alone. Artists express the feelings behind words and appreciating that can bring us closer - though not physically - together.

by Stephen Higham

Stephen Higham is a graduate of Glasgow University. He once volunteered at numerous film festivals and arranged public screenings under the banner of the Red Thread Film Club. He co-hosts the weekly Spectacles: A Pop Culture Podcast