One of my “soap-box subjects” is that - outside of a clinical setting - we need to stop assuming that mental health conditions are always caused by events; to stop asking “why” people feel the way they do.
Whilst some (e.g PTSD) obviously relate to a specific event or situation, for many people their mental health condition is just a part of their being and there neither is, nor needs to be a specific causal event.
A recent moment in my life, however, reminded me that - whilst I stand by the point above - we should still pay attention to what is going on in our lives.
I went into employment at the beginning of the year, my first “proper job” after nearly two decades of working for myself. It has been a big shift for me, being simultaneously constrained and liberated by the corporate environment I now inhabit.
Slowly, even insidiously, I noticed symptoms of anxiety in myself with increasing frequency. Nausea, raised heart rate, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance. A feeling that there is a knot deep in my stomach and a general feeling of worry. Nothing major, no cause for concern. Not a medical condition but an altered state of mind that, whilst it did not interfere with my life, made it uncomfortable.
I put it down to deadlines, the pressure of building and managing a team, that type of thing, and decided to keep an eye on it.
A couple of weeks ago, I went for a morning run whilst working away. I reverted to an old behaviour, which is to grab a coffee and a slice of toast before I run, and then breakfast properly after my shower.
It was then that it occurred to me. Until recently I considered myself a racer (I did triathlons -I should point out that I have never won, or even come close!). As a racer, I never touched caffeine outside of competition. Doing this prevents building up a tolerance, through which regular consumption negates the performance -enhancement of a well-timed caffeine gel.
But since January my coffee consumption has increased by easily 1000%. And on reflection, the very edginess, nausea and increased heart-rate that I find uncomfortable at my desk, was what spurred me on to complete races in my best time.
On this realisation, I limited my coffee consumption to an absolute maximum of one per day. And those symptoms disappeared overnight.
My story is not intended to suggest that cutting down on caffeine is a panacea for anxiety disorders, or that we should take a carte blanche approach to demonising caffeine. In fact, caffeine withdrawal may cause symptoms similar to depression in others. However caffeine-induced anxiety is a recognised condition, and has been noted at daily intakes of only around 200mg.
For comparison, some large big-chain coffees can contain over this amount, as can two-and-a-half energy drinks.
My intention in sharing my own single-case history is to illustrate that, whilst the causes of mental distress are complex, our own actions (or inactions) play a big part in how we are on a given day.
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