Posted on August 8, 2020
Trigger warning: This post contains details of an emotional breakdown and mentions of self harm.
So results day is coming up. The timeframe is much as it ever was: school grades will be released as planned: A Level results will be released on the 13th August and GCSE results will be released on the 20th August. Degree results tend to depend on the specific university. Despite all of the upheaval over the last several months and the changes made to the expected academic year, many people still took exams of some kind, worked hard on projects or coursework, and pushed themselves to attain the highest marks they could so, regardless of the unusual circumstances, the anxiety around these days is no doubt mounting.
As I’m in the middle of my course, I’m not currently awaiting any grades. I completed my second module back in April and received my marks not long after. But every August (and to an extent, January, when some modules are assessed), I think of all those anxiously anticipating those numbers or letters that they’ve been working towards for months, that their lives have revolved around for so long (not a healthy mindset, mind you, but one that society has entrenched in us and one that I’d like to talk about further at a later date). I think of those young people and hope that, whatever grades they have received, they are coping in a positive and healthy way.
What with my GCSEs, some in Year 9 and some in Year 11, my AS Levels, my A Levels, all the results during my degree, and now my Masters, I’ve had many, many a results day. And the majority of them have been absolutely fine, if not better than fine. Some of them have been downright amazing. But I do have one very negative experience that I think is important to share because chance are, at some point or another, we will all have a bad results day that comes as a shock. So I want to tell this story and then share some advice for dealing with a similar situation…
It was a chilly morning in March 2013 and I was anxiously awaiting the release of the Autumn module results with my friends. The only course I’d had an exam in was Physics and although I’d found it difficult, I finished it feeling like I’d done okay. Having been absent for a lot of secondary school due to ongoing illness, I’d missed out on a lot of foundation material so I’d found the course difficult but during the most recent parent-teacher evening, my teacher told us (me and my Mum) that she had absolute confidence in my abilities and that I was on track for a high grade. So when I opened my results and saw the little printed ‘u,’ I was initially confused. Surely it was a mistake. I’d always gotten good grades and my teacher had said such positive things. I waited restlessly for the mark to be confirmed and when it was, it felt simultaneously like everything went still and like everything was crashing down around me. I made my escape and headed for the more secluded of the two toilet blocks – I felt like every emotion I was feeling was visible on my face and I had no idea how to talk about it or how to pretend that I was fine. I needed to be alone.
I was crying before I even made it into the toilet stall and I sat on the lid, sobbing so hard that my chest hurt. I was gasping for air but it was like my lungs had pinprick holes in them, the air rushing straight out again. Even to this day, I’m not sure I can explain exactly what I was feeling. It’s not especially subtle and sounds very dramatic but it felt like the world was ending. I felt like a failure and I felt like the only thing people would see when they looked at me was a failure. All I was was this ‘u.’ All I was was ‘unsatisfactory.’ I couldn’t move past that thought. Everything else disappeared.
I don’t know how long I sat in that cubicle, crying and self harming, before my friends tracked me down. I wanted to stay there and hide forever but somehow, I dragged myself up and walked out to face them. I still remember the shock on their faces; I still remember looking at myself in the mirror, my face a mess of thick, mascara stained tear tracks and my arms covered in scratches. I looked as bad as I felt.
One of my best friends – someone I still consider a good friend despite the fact that we don’t see each other as often as we used to – took control of the situation, taking me off campus to a coffee shop where she gently coaxed the story out of me over hot chocolate. We both had to go back for classes but she arranged for us to talk to a mutually beloved and admired teacher at the end of the day. I wasn’t convinced but I was operating on autopilot, drained of the will to protest. So after my lesson (a lesson in which I didn’t say a word), we went to see this teacher and in her typical fashion, kind but direct, she told me about some of her experiences and talked me through my options. Then I went home and didn’t return for over a week.
It’s worth noting that my mental health had been deteriorating exponentially over the previous year, so this happened at a time when I was completely unequipped to handle it and it was a catalyst for a lot of big decisions. I dropped out of the physics course, partly because I wasn’t mentally healthy enough to manage the number of courses I was taking and partly because I was so distressed by the experience that I felt completely incapable of going back into that classroom and continuing with the course. Just thinking about sitting in that room triggered anxiety too extreme to function. And I can admit now that there was some shame involved too: I couldn’t bear the thought of my teacher and my class looking at me and seeing a failure. So I dropped Physics, completed the rest of my courses, and started seeking professional help for what were now obvious mental health problems.
To this day, I still struggle to open exam results. I work extremely hard and then, when the results are released, I’m very careful to open them at a time when I feel emotionally equipped to handle whatever they’ll say and when I have the time to process the emotions that I’ll potentially experience. I’ve talked about this a lot with my therapist, in general terms, but then we talk about it every time new results loom. Not long ago, she referred to the experience as ‘a trauma’ and the relief of having it validated for the distress it caused and continues to cause was so overwhelming that I swear my heart stuttered in my chest. After having so many of my experiences (and the ongoing problems they caused) invalidated, it was a really emotional moment. That day had a massive effect on my mental health and my relationship with education and still triggers debilitating anxiety.
Not all results days are like this. In fact, most of them aren’t and I hope that you – you, reading this – never have to go through an experience like this one, but just in case you do, here are some of the things that I’ve learned about coping with difficult results…
IN THE MOMENT
ONCE YOUR EMOTIONS HAVE SETTLED
Despite the trauma of that day and the vivid images that come to mind whenever I recall it, there are three things that I actively choose to focus on:
This post turned out to be a lot longer than I’d intended but I hope it has been somewhat helpful. I hope you remember that whether your results are good or bad, whatever you feel is valid. You have spent years working towards this moment and it’s natural and totally okay to have strong feelings about them. It would be odd if you didn’t. You’ve worked hard for this. So feel what you feel and do what you need to do to make sense of this big, messy experience that you’ve gone through. It will be okay – maybe not in the way you expect but it will be okay. I can promise you that.
Category: covid-19 pandemic, emotions, event, meltdowns, mental health, self harm, therapy, tips, treatment, university Tagged: a levels, advice, anxiety, as levels, asd, autism, autism spectrum disorder, autistic meltdown, coping skills, coronavirus, covid-19, exams, fail, failing, failure, feedback, friend, friends, future, gcses, grades, kindness, meltdown, mental illness, pandemic, panic attack, processing emotions, resit, resits, results, results day, safe place, school, secondary school, self injury, sixth form, sixth form college, talking, teacher, trauma, traumatised, trigger, trigger warning, tutor, tutoring, tw, undiagnosed autism, validation
Posted on August 1, 2020
Since the pandemic began, many people seem to have been having trouble sleeping, from not getting enough to getting too much to having vivid and often scary dreams. It’s been well documented – scientifically and anecdotally via social media. I’ve had problems with fatigue for years but over the last several months, my struggles in the sleep department have dramatically increased and so I thought I’d do a bit of research into the subject and see how my experiences compare to those of others.
We all know that sleep is massively important to our wellbeing. It’s vital to the functioning of our immune systems, the health of our organs (especially our brains), and the maintenance of our mental health to name a few. The ideal amount of sleep ranges from person to person but most adults need seven to nine hours in order to perform at their best, with children and teenagers requiring even more. But during the pandemic, most people are getting far less than the amount they need, making it even more difficult to handle the stress and uncertainty that have become the norm over the last several months. Personally, I’ve spent much of the pandemic and lockdown either getting less than five hours sleep or getting nine hours but waking continuously and struggling to get back to sleep.
It’s not surprising that the pandemic has had this effect. The loss of time anchors like scheduled work hours, anxiety over you or your loved ones getting sick, economic instability, isolation, and increased screen time are all factors that are contributing to this surge in disturbed sleep and continuing lack of sleep can cause real problems. In the short term, it can become difficult to concentrate and make decisions and can contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. I’ve definitely experienced these effects (despite already struggling with anxiety and depression, they’ve both become much more significant and life altering since the pandemic began). In the long term, it can put you at risk for dramatic and dangerous health problems.
Fortunately, there has been a lot of research into sleep and the factors that affect it…
ADVICE ON IMPROVING YOUR SLEEP
STRANGE DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES
Along with difficulty sleeping, a significant number of people have reported struggling with nightmares, or more nightmares than usual, and I’ve definitely experienced this phenomena. Here’s a few examples of the dreams I’ve been having:
I also often wake up feeling unsettled and anxious, sweating from dreams that are already fading, disappearing before I can figure out what had happened in them.
There are multiple theories for why we dream but the most common seems to be that, while we’re sleeping and our consciousness is resting, our subconsciousness is processing the events of our day, the big events in our lives, our emotions, our stresses and anxieties, and so on. We’re all obviously dealing with elevated levels of stress and intense emotions during this time so it’s not surprising that our brains are working overtime trying to make sense of it all, producing vivid and often weird or disturbing dreams. Our brains are trying to process something that it has no context for.
While the exact cause and content of these dreams is still being debated, there’s a lot more research into why we feel like we’re dreaming more in the last several months. On average, we dream four to six times a night but most of the time, we simply don’t remember them; but due to the disturbed sleep that many of us are experiencing (caused by stress, massive changes to lifestyle, and social isolation to name a few), we’re waking up during our dreams and that’s why we’re remembering them. Therefore, it seems as though we’re having more dreams when really, we’re just remembering more of them.
If you’re interested in sharing your experiences of these types of dreams or learning about the dreams of others, a website, I Dream of Covid, has been set up to do just that. You can submit your own dreams and read through the dreams of others. It’s really fascinating.
Here is a fascinating interview with Dr. Deirdre Barrett, the assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, about pandemic dreams. She obviously has a much greater understanding of dreaming and of these dreams and offers some valuable thoughts and advice. She’s also running a research study into these dreams that involves an open survey where you can share your experience of pandemic dreams, adding to her data if you feel comfortable doing so and want to help.
TIPS FOR MANAGING QUARANTINE DREAMS
Considering the fact that these dreams are most likely helping our brains (and therefore our entire beings) cope with this incredibly stressful, uncertain period of time, it’s not necessarily in our best interests to try and prevent or reduce these dreams. But, having said that, I’m pretty sure we’d all rather not have to experience them, remember them, or have them hang over us. So that leaves us with the option of attempting to avoid remembering them. Here are some tips that will hopefully help in that endeavour:
So here is what I’ve experienced and learned about sleeping and dreaming during the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. It’s been a really interesting blog post to put together. I hope it’s helpful and/or interesting and I wish you all sweet sleep and sweet dreams.
Posted on November 3, 2018
One of the most common pieces of advice with anything mental health or mental illness related is to exercise. And while that’s not bad advice, it’s not necessarily good advice in the practical sense. It’s about as helpful as saying, ‘eat healthy’ or ‘get enough sleep.’ It’s something that has to be tailored to you. Specific types of exercise will help where others may make you feel worse. So you need to find the one for you.
For example, I hate running. I would love to love it but I hate it. I find it at best uncomfortable and at worst painful: it’s like my bones are rattling inside my body. I’ve heard this from others with Autism but I don’t know if it’s specific to that or whether it’s a coincidence. But anyway, running is not the thing for me. Swimming however…
I have always loved to swim. I love the feeling of moving through water and when I was a kid, I loved the silence that comes from being underwater. I would’ve given anything to be able to breathe underwater so that I could stay in that silence. That’s pretty ironic given that I would grow up to develop anxiety that is triggered by a lack of noise and distraction.
I got back into swimming a couple of months ago. At the beginning, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t even swim: the lack of stimulation for my brain meant that I just spiralled and my anxiety became completely overwhelming. So me and my Mum would walk and talk, planning the day or talking through whatever thing was on my mind that morning. Eventually my anxiety mutated into a different state and I was able to swim. It’s had such an impact on my life so I really wanted to write about it.
Swimming pools have the potential to be very difficult for me, from a sensory perspective. When it’s busy, the sound bounces around and around, making it one big fog of noise, which makes me very anxious. And the fact that I’m so short sighted I can barely see without my glasses makes that anxiety even worse: I can’t see anything and the sound feels like it’s coming from everywhere and that causes me paralyzing anxiety. It’s how I imagine it would feel to be on a carousel but if the carousel was going at ten times the normal speed. It’s scary. The best times to get in a quiet swim seem to be first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I’ve been sticking to the morning; it makes for a more productive day for me.
Knowing that this is the time that allows for the best swimming experience, I’ve been getting up early and getting to the gym for about seven forty five (sometimes I even get the pool to myself, which is glorious). And knowing that I have to get up that early, I’m going to bed at a sensible time, rather than accidentally staying up until three in the morning. So a routine sort of formed by accident and that has been so good for me. My relationship with sleep has never been so good.
Exercise has always been difficult for me given my historic struggle with energy but also because ‘weight bearing’ exercise often feels very jarring. As I’ve already said, it makes me feel like my bones are rattling inside my body and each impact makes it worse. Sometimes it’s not that bad and I can be distracted by whatever I’m doing but sometimes it can actually be painful. So swimming is perfect. It takes that whole aspect out of the equation and makes exercise actually enjoyable. It reminds me of my arthritic dog: he goes for hydrotherapy and as soon as he’s in the water, chasing tennis balls, he’s like a puppy again. He loves it and I can totally relate.
The best thing about swimming is that it’s something that makes sense and that’s something I really need at the moment. The world feels hard and unfair and this is something that I can control. The more I swim, the stronger I get. I can see the results. I’ve been swimming most days for the last three months and I see my own progress: I’m swimming further; I’m swimming faster; I can see my body changing. It makes sense. That grounds me.
The one thing I do have to be careful of is my tendency to obsess: about the number of laps, getting to the next ten, getting to a hundred… Once it’s in my head that I ‘have’ to get to a particular number, there’s not much I can do to change my own mind and it causes me serious anxiety if I don’t reach the number I’ve ‘decided on.’ So I have to be aware of that. Sometimes I can avoid it by distracting myself or by deciding on exactly how long I’m going to spend in the pool but sometimes I just have to manage it. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
But overall, rediscovering swimming has been one of the major highlights of this year. It’s helped my physical health and my mental health, as well as my day to day life. So I feel very grateful to have found it again.
And since I can’t take my phone into the pool with me, here’s a photo of my dog, enjoying his fortnightly swim.
Hi! I’m Lauren Alex Hooper. Welcome to my little blog! I write about living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as several mental health issues. I’m a singersongwriter (and currently studying for a Masters in songwriting) so I’ll probably write a bit about that too.
My first single, ‘Invisible,’ is now available on iTunes and Spotify, with all proceeds going to Young Minds.
I’m currently releasing my first EP, Honest, track by track and the first three songs are available on all major platforms.