Minds matters -
everyday mental health
Anger l Anxiety l Breathing l Burnout l Congruence l Counselling l Depression l Dopamine l Empathy l Exercise l Feelings l Fight or Flight l Grief l Guilt l Help l Hobbies l Imagery l Insight l Joy l Just Me l Kicking the Habit l Knowledge l Laughter l Letting Go l Love l Mental l Mountains and Molehills l (saying) No l Neurons l Open l Outside l Panic Attack l Person-centred Therapy l Questions l Quiet l Relationships l Rumination l Smartphones and Sleep l Speaking l That Time of the Year l Thoughts l Understanding l Unhealthy Habits l Vanity l Vygotsky l Who am I? l Willpower | eXpression l Youth l Zzzzzzzzz
26 top tips for improving your mental health
It has never been more important to take time out for yourself in these uncertain times. But, unfortunately, it's easier to say than do in practice.
While everyday worries can sometimes feel a little overwhelming, our emotions are further heightened by the doom and gloom of 24/7 news cycles.
However, help is at hand. Our ultimate A to Z self-help guide to mental health by Taigh Sàmhchair professional counsellor, Hereward Proops, is the first step to maintaining your mental health.
Here, Hereward, an accredited member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, comprehensively maps out today's top mental health issues. And what you can do to fix them.
Or by calling 01851 871094 / 07815 662208.
A is for Anger
"Most of the time, I've got the patience of a saint, and I can keep my cool. However, there are some days when it doesn't take much to make me mad. I find it pretty scary, it's like a dam has broken, and this sudden flood of rage pours out of me. I say things I regret; sometimes, I even throw things. There are more than a few occasions when I've smashed a mug or a plate and instantly regretted it. That's the worst part. Not only do I feel angry, but I also feel guilty."
Anger is normal. How does it feel to read those words? I'm sure there are some of you out there who have some difficulty accepting that sentence. From an early age,, we are conditioned to perceive anger as something unhealthy, something that we should avoid. We are taught that being angry is wrong and that if we feel that way, we are somehow in the wrong. We tend to only judge (and condemn) the fact that we feel angry instead of looking at the circumstances that led to the emotion.
The reality is that anger is normal. We all get angry from time to time. We might get angry when we’re stuck behind a slow-moving car and late for work. We might get angry when we switch on the evening news and learn of a certain injustice in the world. We might even find ourselves getting angry with our loved ones.
There are many different reasons we might get angry, but the one guarantee is that it happens to us all. When discussing anger, we tend to focus on the behaviour that follows the emotion, not the emotion itself.
At the start of this article, the individual speaks of how they sometimes say things they regret or smash plates - that’s the behaviour, not the emotion. People expend an awful lot of time and energy telling themselves not to get angry. This is a fairly pointless exercise. You may as well tell yourself not to get thirsty or not to get tired. What we should focus on is how we behave when we are angry.
We can deal with our anger in destructive or constructive ways. For example, a destructive way of dealing with feelings of anger might be smashing something or lashing out at someone with cruel words.
We often fall into the trap of relying on destructive ways of dealing with anger because they are quick and provide immediate gratification. However, they are not necessarily the healthiest ways to deal with these difficult feelings. Reacting to feelings of anger constructively is harder but ultimately more rewarding.
A constructive way of dealing with anger might be sharing our feelings with the person we feel angry with. Instead, we don’t lash out at them but attempt to remain calm and explain why we feel angry. Discussing ways in which you can rectify the situation might be challenging and require some compromise, but it serves to strengthen relationships rather than weaken them.
A is for Anxiety
Your heart races. Your palms are sweaty. Your whole body becomes tense, and even breathing becomes difficult.
What started as a thought has grown into something intolerable, and your whole body is reacting to it. So the question is, how do you make it stop?
We all experience anxiety. It is a normal emotion that humans have lived with for tens of thousands of years.
Anxiety is thought to be linked to a primitive survival instinct within us all, known as the fight-flight-freeze response. This response is useful in making us aware of potentially dangerous situations and priming our bodies to respond appropriately.
This response was undoubtedly necessary for the days of sabre-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths, but now it has a nasty habit of interfering with day-to-day life in the twenty-first century.
Occasional, low-level anxiety is unpleasant but generally tolerable. Most people will worry about something during the course of a day. However, anxiety becomes a problem when we spend too much time worrying, and we allow these negative thoughts to dictate our lives. Fortunately, there are 4 great ways to overcome anxious thinking and reclaim our lives.
Step 1. Learn about anxiety and how anxious thinking is cyclical in nature.
Our thoughts influence our feelings and vice-versa. For example, when we feel anxious, we worry more. When we worry, we feel more anxious. Through understanding how our thoughts and our feelings are related to one another, it is possible to see how anxious feelings come to dominate our minds.
Step 2. Start challenging anxious thoughts and see things more realistically.
Just because we think something does not make it real. Just because we are worried about our car breaking down on the way to an important meeting does not mean that it will. When we are feeling anxious, we engage in catastrophic thinking - we start to expect the worst-case scenario. Just because we can imagine the worst-case scenario does not mean that it will happen.
Step 3. Stop avoiding the things that make you feel anxious.
Our thoughts and feelings can influence our behaviour. We might start avoiding doing the thing we are worrying about, which can become part of the difficulty. If we are anxious amongst strangers, we might avoid going to parties or other social gatherings. Unfortunately, we only reinforce our anxious thoughts and feelings by avoiding something. If possible, we should aim to do the very thing that makes us feel anxious. We learn that reality is often far more tolerable than our negative expectations of how things might be by facing our anxieties.
Step 4. Reduce the amount of time you spend worrying.
Worrying about something achieves nothing more than focusing our minds on negative thoughts and feelings. With this awareness, we should aim to engage in activities that make us feel more relaxed. For example, do some exercise, talk to a friend, read a book, or engage in creative activities. Tai Chi, Yoga, and meditation are well-known relaxation activities, but simply the act of slow, measured breathing can help us achieve a state of calm. It is your mind, and you have control over it.
B is for Breathing
When I talk to children about mental health and counselling, they commonly find it most amusing when I point out that many grown-ups don’t know how to breathe properly. It sounds ridiculous, but there is some truth to this.
We all lead busy, sometimes stressful lives and do not tend to pay much attention to our breathing. It’s just something we do automatically.
Many of us are self-conscious of the extra weight we carry around our middles and spend a lot of time “sucking it in.” In other words, tensing the stomach muscles and breathing more from the upper chest and shoulders than from the abdomen.
However, anyone who has done any Yoga or Tai Chi will know the importance of abdominal breathing. This is where we allow ourselves to relax those tense stomach muscles and take bigger, deeper breaths that fill our lungs to capacity. It’s often called belly-breathing because, when you are doing it correctly, you can feel (and see) your stomach rise with each inhalation and fall with each exhalation.
We often take short, sharp breaths when we are tense or anxious. In contrast, when we are relaxed or asleep, we tend to take longer, deeper breaths. Controlled, deep breathing is a key component of meditation or relaxation exercises.
When we breathe in this way, we maximise the amount of oxygen that goes into our bloodstream and minimise muscular exertion. This is known as eupnea, the ‘natural’ way all mammals breathe when in a state of relaxation.
What’s really wonderful about abdominal breathing is that it can make us feel more relaxed, lower our blood pressure, and release stress-reducing endorphins. In addition, those who practice and develop the skill find that a few deep abdominal breaths can help them quickly calm their nerves and feel more comfortable and confident.
It can be beneficial to count in your head whilst practising abdominal breathing. Some people try to count to ten with each inhalation and exhalation. If this feels uncomfortable, counting slowly to four can work just as well.
Other people simply count each exhalation. However, counting doesn’t just help us keep track of how many breaths we have taken; it also helps focus our minds on the task. As mentioned earlier, breathing is something that we normally do without thinking about it, but counting can help maintain our awareness of the act of deep breathing and stop our attention wandering.
Try it now. Get yourself in a comfortable position, sitting or lying down.
Place your hands on your abdomen. Take a deep, slow breath in (through your nose, if possible) and feel your belly rise as your lungs fill with air. Hold your breath for a few seconds, and then exhale slowly through your mouth.
Don’t puff all the air out at once like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake! Instead, purse your lips slightly and gently exhale for as long as feels comfortable. Repeat this process four or five times. It might take some practice, but stick with it, and soon you’ll find yourself enjoying the relaxing benefits.
B is for Burnout
It's Monday morning. You are lying in bed, desperately trying to find the motivation to get up and face the day. The job has always been stressful, but you have never felt so terrible about the prospect of going to work. You are exhausted all the time, and nothing you do at work seems to make a difference. A job you used to be so passionate about has now become something that leaves you feeling utterly empty.
Burnout is an extreme response to occupational stress. It happens when excessive demands upon an employee reach a critical point, leading to exhaustion and feelings of helplessness. Other risks of burnout include:
- Reduced perspective and critical thinking skills.
- Emotional difficulties.
- Adoption of a negative worldview.
Burnout is most common for workers in a caring or supportive role, such as social care or education. However, it can affect anyone and significantly impact your mental health.
The good news is that employers share the responsibility to prevent burnout at work. Staff should always be appropriately supervised, and employers should recognise both the strengths and weaknesses of their employees. If possible, employers should always provide staff with 'time-outs' in their work schedule and adequate time to catch up on paperwork and relevant training.
Staff meetings should be used to identify problems in the workplace and seek solutions to them. Employees should feel comfortable being open about the difficulties they experience, and employers should ensure that their staff feel valued for the work they do. Most importantly, employers can provide proactive support to act as a preventative measure to avoid further stress and burnout. It is increasingly common for large companies to provide staff with therapeutic support to prevent excessive stress and burnout through employee assistance programmes (EAP).
Ultimately, the person with the greatest responsibility for avoiding burnout is yourself. Therefore, it is vitally important to understand the value of 'self-care' in today's busy and demanding work environments. It is your responsibility to look after and value yourself.
First and foremost, aim to achieve a correct work/life balance, especially if you work night shifts. In addition, having time away from your place of work is essential for personal refreshment and growth.
Enthusiastic employees often put aside their personal interests for the sake of their careers. Avoid being so involved in meeting the needs of your job that you do not attend to your own needs. Understand your capabilities but also your limitations. Overestimating or underestimating your skills in the workplace might lead to difficulties with self-esteem and personal effectiveness.
Six simple tips for self-care:
- Be mindful of your limits, and do not be afraid to ask for help.
Eat well and avoid 'self-medicating,' e.g. too much alcohol, chocolate etc.
Do not underestimate the importance of sleep. Running up a 'sleep debt' is never a good thing.
Be active; exercise is not just good for the body but also the mind.
Make use of your support networks, e.g. family, friends, and colleagues.
Every day, do something you enjoy. Read a book, watch a tv programme you like or have a relaxing bath. Little rewards can have a big impact.
C is for Congruence
“It is like I have two different roles to play, two sides of my life that you can’t ever join up. First, there’s the person I am at home… the laid-back, happy me. I can laugh and be really open with my family and friends about what’s going on and how I’m feeling.
“Then there’s the person I have to be at work. I have to dress up in a suit and tie - I’ve never felt comfortable in formal clothes - and I find that I can’t relate to people in the office the same way I would people outside of work. Everything is so ‘professional’ and stilted that I don’t feel I can communicate with anyone there. People in the office see me as reliable and a bit dull, but they don’t know the real me.
“When I step into the office, it’s like I have to wear a mask that hides my true self. I’m afraid that if they knew the real me, they wouldn’t take me seriously. So I have to keep up the charade, and it is exhausting.”
We can often find ourselves in situations where we behave differently from how we would naturally. This might be because we worry that people might reject us if we show them our true selves, so we adopt a way of behaving that we feel is more acceptable to the social situation.
It does not always feel comfortable to behave contrary to our true nature. As highlighted above, it takes a lot of effort to sustain this act. A common example might be someone who hides their true sexuality from their family for fear of rejection or someone who adopts their peers’ behaviour to gain acceptance, even if such behaviour is contrary to their own nature.
Congruence can best be described as genuineness - that quality where the person we present to the world is as close as possible to our true self. We make no effort to hide behind a facade or a “front” that we think people want to see.
Instead, we reveal our true selves to the world around us. This is not always easy. It can take a great deal of courage to reveal this side of our personality, as opening ourselves up to others in this way can leave us feeling quite exposed.
In her book “Daring Greatly”, the author Brené Brown describes how being openly vulnerable in this manner is empowering and can help strengthen our interpersonal relationships with others. For many people, being able to drop the “front” can be a real relief. When they see that other people accept them for who they are, it leads them to feel more comfortable in their own skin.
The psychologist Carl Rogers believed that congruence was one of the most important qualities for personal growth. He stated that our personality was made up of three parts.
First was the real self, the person we truly are inside. Secondly was the perceived self, how we see ourselves and assume how others see us. The third was the ideal self, the person we would like to become.
For Rogers, when individuals can balance all three aspects, they will have congruence. In other words, when an individual is comfortable with their inner self (the real self), self-image (the perceived self), and idealised self, they will be able to grow emotionally and develop as an individual.
C is for Counselling
Counselling is a “talking” therapy, bringing clients relief and psychological well-being by talking through their problems or difficulties. Counselling allows people to discuss specific issues and particular problems they are having.
Counsellors are specialists who work in the public, private and voluntary sectors, offering short-term help or support to clients. They are specially trained to help clients work their way through current difficulties by supportive listening and managing problem situations. In addition, counsellors find their skills employed in supporting people with drug and alcohol addictions, relationship counselling, and helping people deal with anxiety or stress.
People might seek a counsellor if they are experiencing some difficulty or distress. For example, they might find themselves dissatisfied with life or if they feel that they have lost direction or a sense of purpose.
Others might seek help to deal with more specific personal issues such as depression, anxiety, sexuality, addiction recovery, mental health, anger management or improving self-esteem. Some might have difficulties with interpersonal skills and seek help for relationship counselling, parenting difficulties or developing their assertiveness with others.
Although it is often difficult to talk about one’s problems, the client needs to trust the counsellor and be open and honest with their feelings. Undergoing a course of counselling is a commitment. Some people can feel overwhelmed by their problems, and taking time over each one is important.
Counselling courses can last months or even years, and clients must be ready to commit to the process. Unfortunately, results are rarely instantaneous, and clients looking for a “quick-fix” solution are commonly disappointed.
Ideally, counselling should happen regularly each week and last for around fifty minutes. This provides sufficient time to explore and discuss the client’s thoughts and feelings in detail and to reflect upon any issues which might have arisen between sessions.
Clients should not expect the counsellor to possess a “magic wand” that will immediately solve their problems. Also, clients must understand that they cannot expect the therapist to “heal” them.
Rather, engaging in counselling will provide the client with the tools to “heal” themselves. Counselling works best when the client realises that they are the only one capable of making positive changes in their own life. They can then make an active commitment to a course of therapy and engage in a process to help themselves move forward.
D is for Depression
Not a day goes by nowadays without reading an article about the prevalence of depression in modern society.
One in four people will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year. Depression, alongside anxiety, is the most common mental health difficulty globally. It is estimated that one in ten people will suffer from depression at some point in their lives.
A Labour Force survey found that 9.9 million work days were missed in the UK alone due to stress, depression or anxiety in 2014/15.
But what is depression, and how do we know when we suffer from it?
Our mood fluctuates daily. Some days we feel great, full of energy and positive thoughts. On other days we might feel completely flat and lethargic, unable to muster the energy or enthusiasm to pull ourselves from beneath the duvet. There are times when we all feel low or unhappy. This, however, does not necessarily mean we are clinically depressed.
We might feel depressed, but it takes a medical professional to diagnose depression as an illness. The difficulty is, unlike other illnesses, there is no simple blood test that can be carried out to determine whether you are suffering from depression. More complicated still, the symptoms of depression can vary from person to person. What one person experiences might be entirely different from another when they are depressed.
Common symptoms of depression are:
- a continuous (persistent for several weeks or even months) low mood or sadness
- feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
- low self-esteem
- difficulties with sleep, e.g. sleeping too much or too little
- unexplained aches and pains
- changes in appetite and weight, e.g. eating too little or too much
- feelings of guilt
- problems with family/ friendships / other relationships
- irritability or intolerance of others
- an inability to make decisions
- no longer getting enjoyment out of things which you previously found enjoyable
- a lack of energy
- a lack of motivation or interest in things
- anxious or worried thoughts
- thoughts of self-harm or suicide
There is no single cause of depression. However, some people find that a traumatic or upsetting event (such as a relationship breakdown or bereavement) can be the trigger that causes them to become depressed.
Other people find themselves suffering from depression without any good reason; the low mood crept upon them without warning but has dramatically impacted their lives.
Some people claim that the large rise in diagnosed cases of depression since 1945 shows that depression is a modern illness that can be blamed on the fast-paced, high-stress lifestyle of the twenty-first century. However, others point out that it is more likely that professionals have simply gotten better at identifying and understanding the symptoms of depression and that it has always been a part of the human experience.
However depression develops, it can be treated and overcome. In cases of mild depression, many doctors avoid medication and recommend a combination of exercise and “watchful waiting”. The GP monitors the patient’s progress over several weeks to see if the symptoms of depression lift naturally.
For moderate to severe depression, GPs can prescribe antidepressant medication. Antidepressants can help with the symptoms of depression but might not address the underlying issues that have caused the individual to become depressed in the first place. This is where talking therapies such as counselling or psychotherapy can be beneficial, but for such treatments to be effective, the individual must be prepared to commit both time and energy to the process.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter chemical that is released in the brain. It is sometimes called the “motivation molecule” as it can boost our concentration and motivation.
Dopamine is also responsible for our pleasure-reward system. It gives us that great buzz of satisfaction when we achieve something we have set our sights on.
Because of its links to the pleasure-reward system, dopamine has a bad reputation. Behaviours such as alcoholism, drug misuse, compulsive gambling and binge-eating can all lead to dopamine release in the brain. It is the feel-good boost that dopamine provides that can lead to addiction.
However, you can release dopamine in the brain in a multitude of different ways, many of which are perfectly healthy.
In the post, E is for Exercise. We explored how physical exercise leads to the release of dopamine (and several other feel-good chemicals) in the brain. For example, the “runner’s high” experienced by people after exercise is partly thanks to a dopamine boost. Best of all, the exercise you take does not have to be strenuous. Low- and no-impact exercises like walking, tai chi, and yoga can also release feel-good neurotransmitters.
As already mentioned, dopamine is part of the pleasure-reward system and so can be released through engaging in activities which we find enjoyable. This might be playing a game or knitting a scarf, drawing a picture or writing a poem. If you get pleasure from doing it, your brain will release dopamine.
Dopamine is also released by taking on new challenges and working towards them. For example, listening to music might be enjoyable, but learning to play a new instrument is more challenging and ultimately more satisfying. It is possible to train your dopamine reward system by setting yourself a goal and working towards it, spending some time practising or working on it each day.
In “Four Ways to Click”, Amy Banks M.D. explores how engaging in positive relationships with other people can also lead to a dopamine boost. She believes that the hectic pace of modern life encourages us to live separate, fiercely independent lives. Unfortunately, this leads to people being increasingly socially isolated or disconnected from others. When not receiving the dopamine boost from positive relationships, the primary healthy source, people will seek out the dopamine boost in unhealthy, self-destructive ways.
This doesn’t mean we have to live like monks and wholly abstain from alcohol or sex or chocolate. For many of us, those things are a source of pleasure. As long as we are mindful, we do not develop into a destructive addiction. It is worth thinking about the healthy ways in which we can stimulate the release of dopamine in our brains and engage in activities and relationships that leave us feeling enriched, rewarded and alive.
E is for Empathy
“I was a bit worried about starting to see a counsellor. I knew that what I’ve been through in the past often elicits a ‘poor-you’ response from other people. When I’ve tried to open up about these things to others, even my friends, I always get a sense that they are feeling sorry for me. But I don’t want their pity.
“So when I first met my counsellor, I was worried that I’d be on the receiving end of the same kind of sympathy. But it wasn’t like that at all. He listened to me, he understood me, and I felt accepted by him. After years of people feeling sorry for me, it was genuinely refreshing to feel like someone really ‘got’ me and where I was coming from.”
Empathy is often confused with sympathy, but the two states are very different. Whereas sympathy is an emotional response to another person (for example, we might feel sorry for someone who tells us about an upsetting event that has happened to them), empathy is something a little more complicated.
Empathy involves trying to understand the other person’s experience from their subjective point of view. Another way of describing it is imagining what things would be like in the other person’s shoes. Not ‘How would I feel in this situation?’ but rather ‘How do they feel in this situation?’
Empathy involves putting yourself, your thoughts and beliefs, preconceptions, and personal emotional baggage to one side.
Psychologist Carl Rogers believed empathy to be one of the core conditions of successful therapeutic growth. He highlighted the ‘as if’ quality of it. The therapist endeavours to sense the client’s emotions as if they were their own emotions.
Whilst some people are naturally more empathic than others, we are all capable of practising and developing empathy towards other people. A key element of empathy is understanding your frame of reference.
Your experience of the world around you is based not just on what happens to you in the present but also on a multitude of experiences (both good and bad) in your past. These experiences are made all the more subjective by your own beliefs, your sense of who you are and what you feel is right and wrong.
With such a diverse range of factors to consider, it should come as no surprise to learn that your frame of reference, how you experience the world, is wholly unique to you.
When practising empathy towards others, we must learn that we each have our subjective view of the world and that one person’s frame of reference may be radically different to our own.
Being on the receiving end of such empathy can be a powerful experience. Many have described it as akin to being understood at a deep emotional level. For those who have found themselves frustrated by the inability of their friends or family to “get” where they are coming from, an empathic encounter can feel like a breath of fresh air.
E is for Exercise
“Hold on!” I hear you say. “This is a mental health article. We exercise for our physical health. What has exercise to do with mental health?”
To put it simply…a lot.
We are all well aware of the benefits of physical fitness. For years we have been told the benefits of cutting down on eating so much sugar and saturated fats or lowering our cholesterol.
Even the youngest child at school will learn how exercise, even a gentle stroll around the playground, is good for our hearts. As adults, we are encouraged to engage in at least 15 minutes to half an hour of moderate physical exercise at least five days per week. In reality, how many of us out there manage to cram at least two and a half hours of exercise per week in between the commitments to work and family life?
However, we should never underestimate the benefits of exercise. Exercise is not just good for our bodies, but for our minds. Although it can be difficult to make time to go to the gym or participate in a sporting activity, when we finally manage to force ourselves to go, we often find it enjoyable and rewarding.
Some people feel the time spent exercising gives them an escape from the day-to-day grind of modern life. Others feel that exercise can be empowering - they discover that facing up to physical challenges and overcoming them is rewarding and can help to improve their sense of self-worth.
Exercise has been shown to reduce the harmful changes in the brain caused by exposure to high-stress levels. In addition, moderate exercise can stimulate the growth and development of brain cells.
In addition to this, exercise affects the release of neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain. Serotonin is the brain’s naturally occurring “happy drug”; it decreases feelings of depression and helps to improve positive social behaviour. It has been shown to be produced by long-term cardio exercise. Dopamine is a chemical that can stimulate feelings of extreme pleasure and could account for the “runner’s high” when exercising.
Another benefit of exercise is that it can provide us with enjoyable social contact with others. Humans are naturally social creatures, and we need contact with other people. Joining an exercise class or a sports team can provide us with a healthy level of social interaction and cooperation.
Exercise does not have to involve a solitary person pounding away on a treadmill for an hour. Instead, exercise can be an interactive, social occasion. Indeed, it is far easier to motivate ourselves to head out to the sports centre or the running track if we know that we will be meeting other people there.
We do not have to be top athletes or finely-sculpted gym enthusiasts to benefit from exercise. Just because we aren’t ‘into’ sport does not mean that we cannot take ourselves for a walk or spend some time swimming a few lengths in the pool.
It might seem like a chore when you try to squeeze exercise time into your busy schedule, but the benefits will soon become clear.
F is for Feelings
Much of my therapeutic work is spent exploring feelings with my clients. Most people are comfortable articulating their feelings, such as giving a name to a feeling such as 'happiness' or 'anger'.
However, being able to name a feeling or emotion is much easier than understanding its source of origin. In a psychological sense, feelings can best be described as the individual's own experience or perception of the world around them. Most importantly, one's feelings result from how we each interpret or process the information of the world around us.
A good example would be two people listening to the same piece of music. One person loves it. They describe how the music makes them feel happy and full of hope for the future. The other person hates it.
They describe how the music leaves them feeling irritated and unhappy. Two people, therefore, experience the same piece of stimulus (the music) but respond to it (their feelings) in wildly different ways. This is because feelings come from within, not from external factors. If feelings were directly linked to external factors, the piece of music would make everyone feel the same way.
When we understand that our feelings come from within as a response to outside influences, we can find ourselves liberated from the belief that other people are in control of our feelings. We are used to saying that someone or something made us feel a certain way.
The truth is that other people might behave in a certain way, but how we feel about their behaviour comes from within ourselves. This knowledge removes the accountability for how we feel from other people and places it, quite correctly, as one of our own responsibilities.
This doesn't mean that we should turn a blind eye to the impact our behaviour might have on the world around us.
On the contrary, just because we aren't directly responsible for the feelings of others, we shouldn't assume that our behaviour will have no impact at all. Being thoughtful and considerate of other people's feelings is undoubtedly a skill we would all wish for our children to develop.
As an adult who wishes to function effectively as part of many different social groups (family, friends, work, etc.), we should never ignore the impact that we might have on other people.
The knowledge that feelings originate from within does not guarantee that we aren't going to feel negative emotions such as anger or sorrow, or jealousy from time to time. Unfortunately, negative feelings are as commonplace as positive ones, and they are all part of the human experience.
Understanding the source of our feelings is often an important step toward learning to manage them.
F is for Fight or Flight
There’s a part of our brains called the amygdala. It might sound like something from Star Wars, but it plays a very important role. The amygdala’s job is to respond to any potential threats in our environment.
When it does this, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. We take shorter, shallower breaths, and our heart beats faster. Our muscles tense, and we begin to sweat. Our digestive system shuts down, and our liver releases glucose for energy. We also experience a surge in adrenaline which gives us yet more energy and focus. In short, our body is preparing to meet this life-or-death environmental threat with action.
Our response to this perceived threat might be to stand our ground and face up to it (the fight response) or to run away from the threat (the flight response). Either way, our body automatically prepares itself for physical exertion.
The term ‘fight or flight response’ was first coined by American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon in 1915. It is a primitive survival mechanism which has undoubtedly been one of the reasons why the human race has survived. To put it another way, you are here reading this today because your ancestors were worried about sabre-toothed tigers and rival tribes.
The world that we live in today is a radically different place from the world of our ancestors. Civilisation and society have changed enormously in the past ten or twenty thousand years, but, fascinatingly, the essential structure of the human brain has not.
We possess the same amygdala that served as an “early warning system” to our distant relatives, but rather than it being attuned to dangerous predators or threats posed by other tribes, it is now attuned to social threats such as embarrassing ourselves in public or not being accepted by the popular clique at school.
While our amygdala might be tuned into more modern threats, it still responds in the same life-or-death fight-or-flight manner as it always has. The physiological symptoms (racing heart, shallow breathing, butterflies in the stomach, sweating, muscle tension etc.) are exactly the same.
The amygdala is the biological root of our anxieties. Human beings are very good at worrying about things. We have always done it because our brain is hard-wired to do it. Understanding this might not stop us from worrying, but it can give us insight into why even our smallest worries can feel so significant and why the body’s physical reaction is so powerful.
G is for Grief
Grief is a commonplace response to loss. We normally associate grief with the death of a loved one, but you can experience grief after any significant loss in someone’s life. This might be the loss of a job, a divorce or the end of a long-term relationship. Although a painful experience, it is rare for anyone not to experience grief regarding a significant loss in the course of their life.
There are many theories as to what grief actually is. Some claim that it is the mind’s way of adjusting to sudden or unexpected changes. Others believe that grief is how experiences create memories from which we learn vital life lessons.
For example, someone who undergoes a traumatic separation from their partner might learn to be warier in relationships in the future. When looking at grief from the theory of attachment, it can be seen as the painful by-product of the human capacity to form close relationships. However one chooses to look at it, grief is a natural, inevitable part of life.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a popular approach to understanding grief and the stages of grief in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying”. Kübler-Ross wrote of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) and how people deal with grief or tragedy in their lives.
Whilst the five stages have undoubtedly helped bring theories of loss and grief into the mainstream, not everyone experiences all five stages when going through the grieving process. Furthermore, many people do not experience the five stages in order. As with so many things in life, we all experience grief differently.
Kübler-Ross’ five stages might highlight some of the things people experience when grieving, but it is not a definitive or comprehensive guide that perfectly encapsulates the experience of grief.
One of the most important factors when coping with grief is that you shouldn’t suffer alone. Although it may be difficult to talk about how you are feeling, a beneficial part of the grieving process happens when we can talk about our loss. Turn to friends and family for emotional support and companionship.
Support groups can be a useful way of contacting other people who have experienced a similar loss. The group can become a place where one’s own story of loss can be shared, and advice can be sought from people in the same situation. If your grief feels too much to bear, therapy or grief counselling can help you work through the powerful and difficult emotions.
Most importantly, grief takes time. Grief is a process that one needs to work through. It might take months or even years to work through. During this process, it is important to look after yourself.
As mentioned earlier, exercise is known to impact one’s mental health positively. Avoid self-medicating with alcohol or drugs; numbing the pain won’t make it disappear.
Finally, understand that grief is complicated. You might feel a whole range of negative emotions (such as anger, sadness or disappointment). But you might also experience moments of laughter or joy amidst the unhappiness.
It can feel like a rollercoaster with all the ups and downs and twists and turns. It will, however, come to an end. Whilst the pain of losing a loved one might never go away entirely, it is unlikely to remain at the centre of one’s life. However, there will come a time when the grieving process plays itself out, and you will be able to get on with living.
G is for Guilt
“I hate feeling this way. Whenever I am depressed, I become convinced that I’m useless and no good to anyone. So I lose all my energy and motivation and sit around the house all day doing nothing.
“I know I should be out there working and being productive. Because I’m not doing anything, I know my family has to work harder. I can see how my problems are affecting them. At the end of the day, I shouldn’t feel this way - there are people out there who have it much worse than me.”
Guilt can be a really problematic emotion. Looking at the example above, the individual feels pretty low and struggles to find the motivation to do anything. Their lack of energy and thoughts of low-self worth are common symptoms of depression, but their situation is made all the more challenging by the secondary emotion of guilt.
First, they feel guilty because they are not working. They feel guilty because their family is supporting them. Finally, they feel guilty because they believe that there are people out there who are suffering more than they are.
The individual is already feeling unhappy and disempowered, but these waves of guilt will only serve to drag them deeper into depression. Guilt becomes even more tricky to handle because we tend to keep such emotions hidden away from others. Secreted away deep inside us, feelings of shame and guilt grow.
The more guilty or ashamed we are about what we are going through, the less likely we are to seek help. It’s a cruel downward spiral, an emotional trap that is easy to fall into.
So, what can we do?
The first thing to accept when suffering from anxiety, depression or other mental health issues is that you are unwell. You aren’t mad or somehow irreparably broken. You’re just not functioning at your best at that moment in time.
Would we expect someone with two broken legs to crawl into work every day? Of course not!
We would expect that person to rest and recuperate until they can walk again. During that time of healing, it is likely that they will need extra support from family and friends. Isn’t that what family and friends are for? Would we not do the same for them?
The next step is to challenge our “shoulds”. When we think rigidly in terms of “I should do this or that”, we open ourselves up to feelings of disappointment, shame or guilt when we don’t reach our target.
It is far healthier to approach things with a more flexible and self-forgiving attitude (“It would be nice if I could be more productive, but I might not be up to it now”). By avoiding “all or nothing” rigid thoughts, we give ourselves the freedom to be ourselves without being weighed down with unrealistic or unhealthy expectations.
Finally, we should talk to someone about how we are feeling. Feelings of guilt and shame can seem overwhelming when we keep them to ourselves. Simply sharing these emotions with someone else can help lighten the load. Although we are getting better about discussing mental health issues, it is our duty to address the ongoing stigma as a community.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been able to stand on my own two feet. I’m proud of that fact. No matter how great the challenge, I’ve always found myself able to overcome it. Whether it be sitting an exam, running a marathon, or finding the solution to a tricky situation at work, I’ve always felt confident enough in my abilities that I’ll come out on top.
“I suppose that’s what makes it so scary right now. I don’t feel confident; I don’t feel good about myself. What will other people think about me if I have to ask for help?”
In Western cultures, individualism is seen as a positive quality. From Odysseus to Jason Bourne, the heroic ideal of arts and literature is the strong independent spirit single-handedly battling against overwhelming odds.
From an early age, we are peddled the myth that being able to do things on our own is somehow more of an achievement than working as part of a team.
Unfortunately, as much as it would be great if we could do absolutely everything on our own, it’s just not possible. Humans are social creatures; we thrive in relationships with others. The great achievements of human history - civilisation, science, the arts, technology - would simply not be possible without collaboration, people putting their heads together and working in unison to solve a problem.
Asking for help can be a real challenge for some people. As with the person speaking at the start of this article, we often spend so much time focusing on shaping our sense of a capable, independent self that asking for help suddenly seems like an admission of defeat and becomes an insurmountable obstacle.
We convince ourselves that others will view us as weak and that they will judge us for asking for assistance. Then, assuming that others will behave this way towards us, we disempower ourselves further. We tell ourselves that when we ask others for their help, they will judge us and, worse yet, reject our request.
Taking a step back from this fearful thought, it is possible to see how this is a fairly unlikely outcome of asking for help. Being a social species, we humans like to help one another. We are naturally altruistic, and being able to help another person makes us feel good.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
The ability for someone to look realistically at themselves and conclude that they need some support should be seen as a strength. As I write, I am reminded of the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, who, after losing all of his limbs in combat, boldly (and deludedly) states, “Tis but a scratch!”
Asking for help does not mean we are weak - it means that we are strong enough to identify our vulnerabilities and brave enough to share these vulnerabilities with another.
Seeking out the help of a counsellor or therapist should not be seen as a weakness; it is a sign that the individual is willing to face up to a challenge with courage and honesty.
H is for Hobbies
There’s an old saying that goes: “The Devil makes work for idle hands.”
Whether you believe in the Devil or not, it’s hard to deny the truth of the statement. But, unfortunately, when people are bored, they are prone to getting up to mischief.
The same can be said for our minds. Our minds tend to wander when we aren’t focused on a task. It is then all too easy to get lost in our thoughts. This is fine if we are engaged in idle daydreaming, but if we are worrying about the future or obsessively dwelling on regrets in the past, then our thoughts are likely to lead us to uncomfortable and upsetting places.
Hobbies or pastimes can be really useful ways to refocus our attention on a task or an activity. A mindful approach and awareness of your thoughts is undoubtedly a positive thing.
Still, when we find ourselves introspectively wandering the halls of our minds too often, it can lead to problems. To put it simply, if you find yourself over-thinking, it is possible to refocus your mind on something external. For example, having a hobby that you can throw yourself into can be useful for distracting yourself from unhelpful negative thinking.
Hobbies aren’t just useful means of distraction. If your hobby is a sport or involves some form of exercise, you will be benefitting from the physical and the mental benefits (see E is for Exercise).
If your hobby involves engaging in an activity with other people, you will benefit from the social interaction and potentially find comfort and support from your network of friends and acquaintances.
It is known that people with a hobby which involves creating something (photography, music, art, writing, knitting or any other kind of craft) can take great pride in their creations and find such creative acts to be both satisfying, enriching, and a positive means of self-expression. Moreover, such a creative hobby can help shape someone’s identity and become a means of positive self-worth.
When we engage in something we enjoy, our brain’s nucleus accumbens is activated. This part of our brain is important for processing rewarding stimuli, and it makes us feel good about life.
Another area of our brain called the septal zone is also stimulated when engaged in pleasurable activities. The septal zone is the brain’s “feel good” area, and when it is stimulated, we feel happy. When engaged in an activity that we are focused on, the levels of ‘happy’ chemicals in our brains (such as dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins) are raised, leaving us feeling great.
Doing something we enjoy is also relaxing. This can help lower blood pressure and reduce our stress levels.
If you don’t have a hobby, think about what you like to do. This might be listening to music, gardening, or reading.
Perhaps you already have a hobby, but you just haven’t realised it! Look at the different weekly events and groups that take place around the island. For example, participation in groups (a reading group) can be a great way of meeting people with similar interests and sharing your passion with others.
For those who have a hobby but feel that they don’t have any spare time to dedicate to it, read through the list of benefits above once more. You should not view a hobby or pastime simply as passing the time. It can be an essential means of looking after your physical and mental health.
So read those books, write those poems, paint those pictures, collect stamps, fly kites, go fishing, play sports, potter in your garden, climb those hills…do whatever makes you happy. It won’t be time wasted.
I is for Imagery
Picture yourself lying on your favourite beach. It’s a sunny day, and the air is warm and still. The sand is soft beneath your body. You can hear the gentle hush of the waves as they lap on the shore. The sky is blue, and there isn’t a cloud to be seen.
A lone gull glides lazily above you, calls out once and soars away. The warmth of the sun and the softness of the sand leave you feeling relaxed and comfortable. The tension in your muscles is soothed, and each breath you take leaves you feeling calmer and more content.
Our imagination can be a powerful tool and can be put to good use to improve mental well-being with a bit of practice. We all can use our imagination in this way.
Children, in particular, are adept at transporting themselves to other places using just their imaginative powers. It might look like they are running around the garden in circles. But in their mind’s eye, they are dancing with a fairytale prince or fighting the galactic emperor aboard his starship or leaping from building to building like their favourite superhero.
It’s a sad fact of life that as we grow older and ‘put aside childish things,’ we also put aside a skill that can be very useful to manage our moods. But, like any other skill, if you don’t practice it, you get rusty.
Using our imagination to picture a relaxing or uplifting scene can be a useful therapeutic tool. For example, when working with clients who find their minds preoccupied with negative, intrusive thoughts that are both upsetting and frightening, I find it useful to encourage them to use their imagination to picture a happy memory or a pleasant scene.
This might be an incident from their childhood, a memorable holiday destination, or even a scene from their favourite film. Regardless of what their piece of imagery is, by holding it in their mind, focusing on the little details and fully engaging with the positive feelings it stimulates within them, the client can think themselves into a better place.
It isn’t easy. Most people are far better at dwelling on negative events from their past or visualising potentially problematic obstacles in their future. However, with practice, many people find that they can redirect their thoughts towards positive, helpful imagery that uplifts and empowers them.
When we think about something upsetting, depressing or frightening, we end up feeling depressed, upset or frightened.
Conversely, when we think about something uplifting or relaxing, we feel happier or more relaxed. But, again, this is because we feel the way we think.
This is a basic principle of cognitive behavioural therapy, and understanding how our minds work in this way can be enormously beneficial.
The next time you find your thoughts dwelling on unhappy memories or worries about the future, consider the effect these negative thoughts will have on your mood. If we are capable of thinking ourselves unhappy, we are also capable of using positive imagery to lead us in the other direction. It just takes practice.
I is for Insight
“I’d always found social situations a challenge. I hated going to parties - even small gatherings caused my anxiety levels to rocket.
“My husband is a sociable, happy-go-lucky guy, so I often found myself in these situations where I didn’t feel comfortable at all.
“Of course, there was rarely any specific reason I felt so tense and panicky. After a little while and some friendly conversation with others, I would start to relax and realise that I wasn’t in any danger.
“The next morning, I’d look back on how worried I’d got about going to the party and wonder why I was making such a fuss. However, the next time my husband dragged me to yet another party, the same worries and doubts would surface in my mind, and I’d go through the motions once again.
“I started attending counselling because I wanted to deal with my anxiety. I couldn’t explain why it kept happening, and, to be honest, I just wanted to learn some techniques to manage.
“This is what the first few sessions with the therapist were about. We looked at relaxation and deep breathing techniques and ways in which I could challenge intrusive thoughts. During the third session, I started to talk about my past, particularly a painful time in my early twenties when a number of people I thought were friends turned their backs on me.
“I still don’t know why I brought this event up, but we spent most of the session exploring it. At first, I couldn’t see how it was related to my anxiety in social situations. But, that evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Over the next week, I realised that my anxiety in social situations and the falling-out with my friends were inextricably linked.
“Although I had always worried about going to parties, it was only in my twenties that I started actively avoiding them. We spent the next session exploring this in detail. I spoke about how I spent years making excuses not to go to these events, but when I met my husband, I found myself being dragged along with him.
“I always thought moments of insight hit you like a bolt from the blue, but this wasn’t like that… it emerged over time and at a pace that didn’t feel overwhelming.
“I came to realise that my anxiety in social situations, whilst a challenge when I was younger, had become unbearable after the event in my early twenties.
“Since then, social events have become linked to the feelings of abandonment and isolation. I had started to believe that everyone would turn their backs on me as my so-called friends had done.
“If the therapist had just pointed it out to me, I don’t think I would have believed her. But instead, my understanding of my behaviour emerged over the course of the sessions and came from within.
“That’s the most valuable thing I’ve taken away from my counselling sessions, a better understanding of myself that has come about from having the opportunity to explore and consider my past at my own pace.”
J is for Joy
We all know what it feels like to be happy. We will have experienced at least one moment of pure, unbridled joy at some point in our lives.
It’s a shame we can’t remain in this joyous state forever, but it simply isn’t possible. To truly enjoy those special moments of happiness, when we are filled with a sense of sheer joy, we need the times when we don’t feel so good. In other words, to know joy, we also have to know unhappiness. It’s about balance.
Interestingly, it is easier to come up with a list of negative feelings or emotions than to create a list of positive ones. I often encourage new clients to do this to get accustomed to exploring and articulating their feelings.
While many people can write a fairly lengthy list of negative emotions (such as sad, unhappy, depressed, anxious, jealous, angry, bitter, tense, grumpy, and so on), when it comes to positive ones, most people write “happy, excited, relaxed” and then pause to think. Why is this?
I often wonder why our emotional vocabulary, the words we make use of to identify and articulate how we are feeling, is so heavily weighted towards the negative. Does this mean that there are more negative emotions than positive ones? Or is it that we simply experience more negative feelings than positive ones?
The conclusion I have reached, after much deliberation, is a linguistic one. We have many different words to choose from when describing or discussing the emotion “sad”. One person might say they are “unhappy” or “miserable”. Another might feel “low” or “flat”. Others might describe themselves as being “down”, “depressed”, or “melancholic”.
However, flip it around to look at the polar opposite emotion, and most people would plump for one word: “happy”.
A short, simple word that even very young children understand. “Happy” is a far more flexible word than we might give it credit for. Although a single word, “happy”, actually covers a whole range of different emotions.
There’s the sort of happiness you feel when spending time with good friends. There’s a different sort of happiness we experience when engaged in an activity we enjoy.
Another sort of happiness can be experienced when accomplishing a challenging task. Yet, another type of happiness we feel when watching those videos of cute kittens on Youtube.
My conclusion is that while we have lots of different words to describe all the different kinds of upset or sadness we might experience, we have one magnificent, all-purpose word to encompass a far broader range of emotion.
Perhaps this is a problem. We have so many ways of expressing our unhappiness, our upset and our frustrations, but by reducing positive emotional states to just one word, perhaps we spend too much time dwelling on the negative and not enough time focusing on the positive aspects of our lives.
Maybe if we were to broaden our positive emotional vocabulary, we would spend more time focusing on excitement, serenity, elation, blitheness, glee, wonder, satisfaction, cheerfulness, bliss, rapture, thankfulness, joviality, and joy.
J is for Just Me
“I had been struggling with low moods and tearfulness for several years, but it had gotten worse in the past couple of months. The GP offered me some tablets, but I didn’t want medication.
“She suggested I go and talk to someone about my feelings. This took me aback - I’d been quite open with people about what I was going through. I’d talked to my boss and my partner. I’d talked to my friends and family members. I’d even get into a conversation with my elderly neighbour about it! Still, I made the appointment with the counsellor because I felt it was important to give it a go.
“Someone once said to me that all conversations are just two people waiting for their turn to speak. So when I talked to my partner or my mother, my sister or my elderly neighbour, they were all full of stories of when they felt unhappy or when their cousin was depressed.
“One might tell me to come to church with them whilst the other might say I should take St. John’s Wort. I was recommended to drink less coffee and more water, camomile tea, or peppermint tea.
“Talking to the counsellor wasn’t like this at all. He listened to me… really listened, without telling me what I should do or sharing their own experiences of depression.
“When the counsellor did talk, it was to show me that he had been listening… from that point, we started exploring ways in which I wanted to address the situation. It was a really curious experience. We weren’t talking about depression. We were talking about me and how depression has affected my life.
“I’ve been going to the counsellor for six weeks now. You’d think that after that amount of time with somebody, you’d know all about them, but I know very little about him, in all honesty.
“From his wedding ring, I can guess that he is married, but I don’t know anything about his partner or life outside of the counselling room.
“However, after six counselling sessions, I feel I know a lot more about myself. We’ve spent time exploring how my depression affects me and how the roots of the problem might lie in my past.
“We’ve looked at how relationships from my past continue to influence how I perceive myself and how I might approach relationships in the future.
“It’s been a strange experience, going somewhere every week and talking about myself for the best part of an hour. Far from being an exercise in navel-gazing, it’s been a great chance to explore who I am and gain some understanding of how I tick. It’s time spent focusing on me, just me.”
“I’d tried to quit many times before, too many times to count if I’m honest. It got to be a bit of a joke amongst my mates…I was very good at quitting, just terrible at staying that way. I’d never thought of it as the sort of thing that people see a therapist about, but I reckoned it was worth trying. After all, I’d tried patches and gum and vaping and all manner of other gadgets.
“Therapy wasn’t what I was expecting. I suppose I thought it would be someone telling me not to smoke, but instead, we spent a lot of the first few sessions exploring what smoking meant to me. How I got started and when I find myself smoking most heavily.
“The way we looked at the issue was really interesting. I’d heard all that stuff about the addictiveness of nicotine and finding substitutes to replace the cigs hundreds of times before. That’s all very well, but it never got to the root of why I smoked. So these sessions weren’t about the cigarettes so much as they were about me.
“There was no condemnation or disappointment from the therapist when I slipped up and had a few smokes in between sessions. Instead, we looked at the circumstances around why I had smoked and what I felt and thought.
“When I went two weeks without a cigarette, the therapist was genuinely supportive and pleased for me. But what helped the most was how he encouraged me to look at those two weeks and identify how I’d managed. The therapist wasn’t analysing me so much as encouraging me to analyse myself.
“Over the course of the sessions, I stopped looking at cigarettes as the problem and started looking at myself. I started to understand what situations left me feeling really stressed and how I smoked in order to manage my anxieties. I picked up different therapeutic tools: relaxation strategies, deep-breathing techniques and grounding exercises to help me cope with stress and trained myself to use them rather than reaching for a cigarette.
“Most of all, what I feel I’ve taken from the sessions is a sense of my strengths. It’s not always been easy, but I’ve come to see that my previous attempts at quitting were because other people wanted me to. The reason I was never able to quit for long was that I wasn’t ready.
“My time in therapy has allowed me to take responsibility for quitting… it was something I wanted to do, and we explored the best ways for me to go about doing this. The whole experience was very personal - it was about me and what works and doesn’t work for me.
“I’ve managed to be cigarette-free for six months now, and I know who’s responsible for that. I am.”
K is for Knowledge
Knowledge, they say, is power. I’m not going to disagree with that statement.
Imagine you are one of your distant ancestors from thousands of years ago. You have left the comforts of your cave and have gone out to hunt deer.
All of a sudden, the sky begins to darken. You know that it isn’t the time for the sun to set, yet the day is becoming night before your very eyes. You look up and see a dark shape moving across the sun, and you start to panic.
Have you angered the gods in some way? Is this a punishment for the paltry sacrifice you offered yesterday? Will it ever be daylight again, or has your world been plunged into eternal darkness?
From our twenty-first century perspective, such fear and panic over a harmless solar eclipse are ridiculous. Our understanding of the movements of the universe has led to us having the knowledge to comprehend what happens when the moon passes between the earth and the sun.
We aren’t terrified by eclipses because we know why they happen, we can predict when they will occur with scientific accuracy, and we know how to view such events safely.
Knowledge or understanding of why something happens can provide us with a sense of security and control.
I believe that when dealing with mental health issues, a little knowledge can go a long, long way. Some of the work I do as a psychotherapist involves psycho-education. This is teaching clients a little about the workings of the human mind and the theories of how certain habits or behaviours come to develop. Such knowledge can be hugely liberating.
For example, a client who finds their anxious thoughts are beginning to dominate their day-to-day life can benefit enormously from learning about anxiety - how everyone is affected by it - how it is an inbuilt defence mechanism in our brains, designed to warn us about potential dangers and how this isn’t always useful for modern life.
Understanding anxiety can help individuals from being overwhelmed by its negative effects. When they start to feel anxious, rather than allowing themselves to be carried away by a surge of raw emotion, they reflect on their knowledge of anxiety and can rationalise the experience. They might still feel anxious, but they find the feeling does not control them.
This does not just apply to anxiety. There are a whole host of mental health difficulties that become easier to manage when we know more about them. It’s the difference between experiencing a condition and understanding it. When we experience something, we might be able to talk about what it feels like but cannot explain why it might be happening to us.
Once we understand something, we don’t just know what it feels like; we are equipped with the knowledge to consider why it is happening and how we might overcome it.
L is for Laughter
Therapy is a serious business. Clients come to talk about depression, anxiety, grief, low self-esteem, anger, jealousy and countless other challenging topics.
As a therapist, my role is to help the client explore these issues in a safe, non-judgemental and supportive environment. But unfortunately, there is not always room for levity or humour.
Sometimes we use humour to mask how we are feeling. For example, we might joke about something in an attempt to shrug it off or to convince others (and, perhaps, ourselves) that we’re okay.
The situation we find ourselves in might be so distressing and so challenging to our sense of self that we use humour to protect ourselves. At other times, making light of something can prevent us from getting to grips with it…we joke about things to keep our emotions about them at arm’s length.
In a therapeutic sense, this use of humour is not necessarily ideal. While it might keep us ‘safe’ in the short term, the problem is that such a jocular approach will prevent us from being in touch with what we are feeling.
However, once in a while, there’s a session where the client cracks a joke or makes a witty observation for one reason or another. The clouds lift, sunlight pours through, and both the client and I allow ourselves a moment or two of laughter. We should not quickly dismiss such moments of connection.
When we share a moment of warmth and humour with someone, the relational bonds grow stronger, and we get closer to the other person. When we laugh in the presence of another, we are, in a sense, letting our guard down. We relax and show a little more of our true selves in the relationship.
Laughter in a therapeutic setting can therefore be seen as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, humour can be detrimental to the therapeutic process if it’s used to prevent us from really engaging with our emotions. But, on the other hand, it can be a wonderful means of bringing people together and forging a strong, empathic relationship.
L is for Letting Go
“I had never thought of myself as a control freak, but I was aware that I always felt better doing things my way.
“Whether at work or home, if I felt that something had not been done right, I’d do it myself and sort it out. I wouldn’t make a fuss about it. At most, I’d just mention it in passing.
“Inside, I was always a bit frustrated that I would have to be fixing other people’s mistakes when I had plenty of work to do, but I kept these feelings bottled up.
“I first noticed a problem when I felt tired all the time.No matter how much sleep I managed to get; it never seemed like enough. With the tiredness came irritability - I grew quite short and snappy with people. Then after I’d snapped at them, I’d feel terribly remorseful and apologetic. Finally, one day I broke down in tears at the office and couldn’t stop crying, even when they sent me home.
“That was when I realised I needed some support. It felt strange seeking out a counsellor and talking to them about the problems. I’d never really been all that open with people about my emotions, which I had to face up to in the first few sessions.
“The counsellor didn’t challenge me with that fact. I realised it myself, and then we explored why I felt so uncomfortable sharing my emotions with others. It all comes down to a fear of vulnerability.
“I had gotten so used to being seen as the strong, capable one that the idea of showing any crack in my armour was terrifying. My tiredness was because I was wearing this armour all the time, and it was exhausting. It got so that there was not a single moment of my day that I was lowering my guard and just relaxing.
“My time with the counsellor helped me understand the importance of letting go. Letting go of this notion that I had to do everything perfectly and that I had to sort out things when people were not doing them correctly, according to my exacting high standards.
“Letting go also meant letting go of my fear of showing my vulnerable side to others. It meant taking off that armour that I had built up over the years, piece by piece until I felt comfortable showing myself to another person and having the experience of being accepted for who I am, not who I felt people wanted me to be.”
L is for Love
The author Ken Kesey wrote, “People think love is an emotion. Love is good sense.”
It’s a simple statement but one with quite profound meaning. Love is, indeed, good sense. As social creatures, love is one of the fundamental building blocks in human relationships and society. Without love, our world would be a very different place.
First introduced by John Bowlby in the late 1960s, attachment theory highlights how important loving, nurturing relationships are to people. Extensive research into attachment has shown that a child’s brain is shaped by the experience of love and nurture from a primary caregiver such as a parent.
Developments in psychology and neuroscience (the study of the brain) have enabled us to understand how the absence of a safe, loving relationship with a parent can lead to significant social and emotional difficulties later on in life.
In the foreword to Sue Gerhardt’s excellent book “Why Love Matters”, Steve Biddulph states that “Love is the key to all mental health, intelligence and functioning as a human being. If someone is a great human being, it can only mean one thing. They were loved.”
Love doesn’t just shape us in our formative years. How we can love – both giving and receiving love – shapes our identity. Who we love and who loves us is inextricably linked to our sense of self.
One only has to look at the disastrous emotional consequences when an individual is denied (or denies themselves) the opportunity to love whoever they please. The increased tolerance shown towards same-sex couples in modern society is a testament to this growing understanding that people have a right to seek out love in whatever way they see fit.
Even more significant are the benefits that a loving relationship can bring to our mental health. As already mentioned, human beings are social creatures – our greatest achievements and accomplishments are made when we work together.
Loving, stable relationships (whether friendships, familial relationships or sexual partnerships) provide us with valuable networks of support that we can turn to when needed.
Positive relationships help us improve our ability to manage stress – a key protective factor against mental ill-health. In addition, loving relationships can help reduce anxiety and depression and are often a significant aspect of an individual’s recovery from a period of mental illness.
Love helps to shape our brains. Love helps us find our true identity. Love protects us against mental ill-health and can aid our recovery. With these facts in mind, the Dalai Lama’s words seem a fitting way to end this article:
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
M is for Mental
We all know about the benefits of healthy living. From an early age, we are taught about the importance of exercise, a balanced diet and good hygiene.
We know that if we look after our bodies, we reduce the risk of illness and feel better about ourselves. As a result, people are not threatened by the word “health”, and most people are willing to talk about it. However, place the word “mental” in front of it. People are suddenly much less willing to open up and share their experiences.
Perhaps the word “mental” has negative connotations. It conjures images of a hockey mask-wearing psychopath wielding a machete as he stalks down the dark and gloomy corridors of the abandoned asylum.
As a child, I recall myself and my contemporaries using it as an adjective to describe something unreasonable, out-of-control or just plain crazy. Nobody wants to be seen as “mental”, and this stigma may make it difficult to engage in a sensible, open discussion about “mental health”.
The reality is that mental health affects every single one of us. The word “mental” simply refers to aspects or functions of the mind. Very few people would claim that they don’t have a mind, so why should we feel unable to discuss it? This is one of the reasons I started writing “Mind Matters”, to raise awareness of mental health issues and encourage open and frank discussion on the topic.
One in four people will be affected by mental health problems at some point in their lives. That’s 25% of the population. One in twelve children and young people in Scotland are affected by mental health difficulties that negatively impact their relationships, education, and general well-being on a day-to-day basis.
Depression and anxiety are now the number one cause of long-term absence from work. Mental health issues are estimated to cost Britain £70 billion each year. With so many of us affected and with such a cost to the economy, you would have thought that we would at least be able to talk openly about it.
In recent years, successive governments have become aware of the growing need to address the country’s mental health difficulties. As a result, money is often pledged to tackle underfunding problems, and targets are frequently set to reduce waiting times for patients to access counselling services. This is all beneficial (when the politicians deliver on their promises), but the stigma will remain unless people become more willing to discuss their individual experiences of mental health issues.
We are quite happy to share our efforts to be physically healthy. Nobody thinks twice when talking about their exercise regime at the gym or the latest diet they are trying out. Indeed, some people talk about little else!
I often wonder how empowering it would be for people to be similarly open about their efforts to sustain good mental health. For example, to share hints and tips for relaxation strategies or mindfulness practices as we do with healthy recipes.
To talk about the hard work we have been putting in with our counsellor or therapist the same way we brag about our exertions with a personal trainer at the gym. To listen without judgement to family members, friends and colleagues when they have the courage to share their stories of anxiety or depression.
When we can hear the words “mental health” without panicking or assuming that the person we are talking to is “mental”, we will have taken a big step forward.
M is for Mountains and Molehills
“I suppose I’ve always done it. When I was a child, I would worry an awful lot about the smallest of things. I remember finding a loose thread on my favourite teddy bear and how I convinced myself that the whole toy would fall apart. I was inconsolable until my mother double-stitched the whole thing!
“As a teenager, I would look at the amount of hair that came out when I brushed my hair and was certain that I was going bald. I spent huge amounts of time on the internet looking at articles about alopecia and exploring the available types of wigs. Of course, I didn’t lose my hair, but I did lose many nights’ sleep worrying about it.
“In my adult life, this habit of blowing my worries all out of proportion has been most noticeable regarding my work. I know it’s unhealthy to take your work home with you, but even if I leave the paperwork at the office, I can’t stop my mind from dwelling on the day’s events.
“I find myself taking fairly innocuous situations and turning them into complete disasters. I might be struggling to get a report written, but I convince myself that I’ll never get it finished or, worse yet, finish it, and it is so awful that my boss fires me on the spot.
“I’ve always kept these worrying thoughts to myself. I haven’t even told my partner or closest friends about them. When I started seeing my therapist, it took me a few sessions to pluck up the courage to tell him about them. I thought he’d think I was really crazy or not know what to do with me. Ironically, I was doing the same thing there - expecting the worst possible outcome to a given situation… making mountains out of molehills.
“Imagine my relief when I finally did share these thoughts and learned that they are very common! My therapist explained that it’s called “catastrophic thinking” or “catastrophising”. We spent several sessions exploring my thought processes and challenging these negative expectations with balanced thoughts.
“If I was worried about being late to a meeting because of a traffic jam, I was encouraged to think of all the times when people had not been bothered in the slightest by me being a few minutes late or how my boss is frequently late for meetings.
“I’ve also learned some really good techniques to help me relax and ground me in reality and not the dreadful ‘what-if’ situations I conjure in my mind.
“It’s still early days, but I am already noticing the difference in how I respond to things. I don’t feel I lurch from catastrophic thought to catastrophic thought anymore. Instead, I feel calmer and happier. Most importantly, I now feel I have control of my thoughts rather than allowing them to control me.”
N is for (saying) No
I wake up early and make coffee for my husband. Then I sort out breakfast for the kids, help them get dressed for school and prepare their lunches. Finally, after dropping them at the school gates, I head to the office. When I’m there, I do my paperwork and find myself helping poor Morag with her workload.
“Although I want to go to the gym during my lunch hour, my friend Julia calls me in floods of tears, so I meet up with her to discuss the problems she is having with her partner. I get back to work ten minutes early, and the boss asks me to take some paperwork home with me to do over the weekend. I don’t really want to, but I agree anyhow.
“By the time I get home, I am exhausted, but someone has to get dinner ready, clean up after the kids have eaten, and supervise them doing their homework. My husband comes home at half-past six and is so tired from his day at work that I don’t want to ask him to help put the kids to bed. By nine o’clock, I’m all done in.”
Do you spend a significant part of your day rushing about doing things for other people? Do you find other people come to you because they know you will always help them when they ask? Do you feel that you do more than your fair share of work at the office, at home, and in your relationships?
Maybe you are a pleaser.
Don’t get me wrong; doing things for other people is not a bad thing. But, on the contrary, the desire to support others and help them can be very positive. After all, it feels good to lend a helping hand, and people can appreciate you for it.
However, a pleaser is someone who is stuck in a negative pattern of helping behaviour, consistently putting the needs of others before their own. Such behaviour is not sustainable over a long period, and it is not a healthy way to live.
Pleasers tend to behave this way because of a deep-seated fear of rejection. Their desire to be liked and accepted by people means that they believe others will reject them if they do not comply with their wishes.
For example, the woman in the example above wants to spend her lunch break doing something for herself but cannot say no to a request from a friend. As a result, the needs of others are put before her own, which can lead to exhaustion, frustration and unhappiness.
If you feel that the demands of others thwart all your efforts to do things for yourself, perhaps you need to consider how easily you accede to their demands. Saying “NO” can be a liberating experience.
Your own needs are just as important as the needs of others. Pleasers tend to lose sight of this fact. They believe that it is “selfish” or wrong to behave this way.
As mentioned earlier, this is not a healthy way to live. Pleasers tend to ignore the importance of self-care - putting time aside in their busy days to attend to their own needs. Self-care isn’t selfish; it’s sensible.
If you are so worn out and emotionally flattened through not attending to your own needs, then you aren’t going to be much help to other people. People who engage in acts of self-care find that they are happier, healthier and more in touch with themselves.
A quick Google search will bring up dozens upon dozens of websites offering self-care tips for better emotional well-being. Self-care is a big topic, so I will be returning to this subject again in a few weeks when we examine “S is for Selfish.”
N is for Neurons
Your brain is amazing. You might not believe that, but it is true.
If you think the smartphone you carry around is the most amazing piece of technology in the world, you're overlooking just how complex and powerful the human brain is.
The human brain is made up of many different types of cells. The most important are the neurons (commonly called 'brain cells').
Neurons are the cells which process and transmit information to one another. The average human brain is estimated to have between 86 and 100 billion neurons.
The neurons connect to one another via synapses, the gap between neurons through which neurotransmitter chemicals travel. Each neuron is estimated to connect between 10,000 and 40,000 other neurons, bringing the total synaptic connections in the average brain to over 100 trillion. This makes the brain one of the most complicated structures in the universe.
Unlike a computer or a smartphone, a healthy human brain has a seemingly unlimited memory capacity. While the internal memory of a phone may be filled with several hundred songs, videos, and photographs, the human brain's storage is unknown. We are constantly learning and assimilating more information throughout our lives. Even the storage capacity of a top-of-the-range computer pales in comparison to how much information the human brain can hold.
Whilst in the womb, there are times when the brain creates 250,000 neurons every minute. By the time a baby is born, their brains will have created most of the neurons they need, but comparatively few of them are connected to others.
For the first ten years of a child's life, their brains develop by forming the many trillions of connections between neurons. By the time a child is two years old, their brain is 80% the size of an adult brain.
Although the brain stops developing at a certain age, recent studies of neuroplasticity have shown that our brains continue to reorganise themselves throughout our lives.
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to form new connections between neurons and accounts for our ability to learn new skills. The brain's ability to form new neural connections and pathways also allows the brain to adapt to injury and respond to changes in the environment.
Understanding the structure of our brains and appreciating how our experiences' wire' each of us differently is becoming increasingly important in psychology. While psychotherapy and neuroscience have formerly been two distinct fields, many neurologists and therapists are now seeing the importance of understanding one another's work.
Developments in the field of neuroplasticity are now highlighting how an individual can adapt to change, even later on in life. For many therapists, an individual's capacity for change is at the heart of the counselling process. We appear to be moving towards an exciting future where the benefits of psychotherapy can be explored and validated at a neurological level.
O is for Open
"The most wonderful thing about my counselling experience was how open I felt I could be in the sessions.
“I’ve always considered myself quite a private person, so talking to someone about my problems felt unnatural. It isn’t like talking to someone you know… it isn’t really like a regular conversation because the focus is completely on you.
“It feels strange at first, but once I got my head around the issue of confidentiality, it became clear I could be really honest about myself and my life without fear of offending or hurting anybody. The time in the sessions was just for me to explore issues in my life. The more open and honest I was about what was going on, the better I felt.
“It was like a trickle at first, just a few moments of real honesty here and there. Then, I realised that it felt good to try and articulate the things troubling me. Most importantly, it felt safe to share them with my counsellor confidently.
“The next session, the trickle became a stream, and I found myself opening up more in the session. For the rest of the week, I felt freer than I had done for years.
“It was as though having the opportunity to speak had liberated a part of me I had kept bottled up for too long. But then, the floodgates opened in the next session, and I was taken aback by how transparently open I was. I don’t think I’d ever shown myself so honestly to anyone before. It felt a bit scary but also empowering.
“I had finally permitted myself to be the real me when engaging with someone else. The me that I keep hidden away deep inside because I’m terrified that the other person won’t like who I really am. I stopped trying to be the person I believed others wanted to see and became more open.
“It’s been a challenge, but I am finally starting to be this open with other people in my life. First, I started with my family and then my friends. It isn’t about just blurting out what you are thinking but being honest with them about how you are feeling.
“Before counselling, if someone did something that upset me, I would internalise my feelings and wind up feeling tense and frustrated with them.
“Now, I make an effort to explain to them how I am feeling. Most of the time, people have been very understanding and appreciative of how honest I am being. When I realised that they weren’t horrified by my behaviour or rejecting me, I felt safer trying out being my true self in other relationships. I no longer feel like I’m ‘faking it’ at work or when I’m out and about… it feels safe to be the real me.”
O is for Outside
When I first meet clients suffering from persistent low mood or depression, a common question I ask them is about what hobbies or activities they are interested in and that give them pleasure.
A previous section (H is for Hobbies) looked at the benefits of having a hobby or pastime. My question to new clients is not a mere idle topic of conversation. I am particularly interested in hobbies, pastimes, or interests that take the individual outside - physically outdoors and outside their minds.
It is undoubtedly a positive thing to be aware of one’s thoughts. Mindfulness-based practices (meditative or contemplative tasks that enable us to become more in touch with our thoughts, feelings and the relationship between the two) are enormously popular at the moment. They have been proven to have benefits for one’s mental health.
However, there is a fine line between being aware of one’s thoughts and feelings and becoming completely absorbed in them.
A common symptom of depression is the individual’s inability to see beyond their thoughts and feelings at that time. It has been likened to being trapped in the prison of one’s own mind. When someone is suffering from a low mood, their negative feelings lead to negative thoughts, which, in turn, reinforce the way they are feeling. It becomes a vicious circle from which it can be extremely difficult to break free.
This is where an activity that takes you outside your mind can be a welcome respite. The ability to ‘lose yourself’ in an enjoyable task can be extremely therapeutic. When we are absorbed in a pleasurable activity, we can ‘switch off’ that cycle of negative thoughts and feelings. We allow ourselves to step outside the prison of our minds.
Sometimes, stepping outside your mind might also involve leaving the house and engaging with the world outside your front door.
When suffering from low mood, anxiety or depression, people tend to shut themselves away from the rest of the world. This is an avoidant behaviour, normally with the intention of self-protection (“the world is a scary place, but it can’t get to me here”).
Unfortunately, when people shut themselves away, they often shut themselves in with their negative thoughts and feelings. The trap is sprung - they are now likely to continue to isolate themselves as an endless rumination on their thoughts and feelings will reinforce the sense of threat from the outside world. They find themselves stuck in both their house and their mind.
The only way to challenge the belief that the world is a scary place is to step outside and experience some of the world’s positive things. This is not easy, particularly when you have been hiding away for a long time. The first stage of freeing yourself from a trap is understanding that you are stuck in one.
P is for Panic Attack
Your heart is racing so fast that it is beating irregularly. You are drenched in sweat but feel cold. You are trembling, and the tips of your fingers are tingling. No matter how quickly you breathe, you can’t seem to get enough air, and you are feeling nauseous and dizzy.
You wonder if you are having a heart attack, and this terrifying possibility only makes things worse. Your legs turn to jelly, and as you slump to the floor, you are convinced that you are dying.
Only you’re not. You’re having a panic attack.
Panic attacks are terrifying for the person experiencing them (and those around them) but are not dangerous. People don’t die from panic attacks, although the physical symptoms can be very distressing at the time.
A panic attack is one of the body’s ways of dealing with a stressful or anxiety-inducing situation. It originates from a part of our brain called the amygdala, whose primary role is processing memory, decision-making and emotional reactions.
During extreme stress, the amygdala triggers the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. It takes over from the rational part of our brain. To put it simply, our brains automatically trigger a means to protect us from the threat.
Our bodies go into ‘autopilot’ with what is known as the fight-flight-freeze response. This is the primitive survival instinct in all of us. Some people describe it as their ‘inner-caveman’ who seeks to fight the perceived threat or run away from it (flight). The ‘freeze’ aspect comes from a mixture of ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ signals which overload the brain and lead to us being incapable of either response.
Physiologically, what happens to our bodies during a panic attack is very clever. First, we take more breaths to flood our bodies with oxygen to prepare for physical exertion (such as fighting or running away).
Our hearts race because of the surge of adrenaline released for the very same reason, which can also cause our muscles to tense up. We sweat to make ourselves more slippery so any potential predator or enemy cannot get a firm hold on us. Although these facts might not help reassure you when you are breathless, tense and sweaty, it can be helpful to understand why your body responds in this manner.
So what can you do when you have a panic attack?
The first thing you need to remember is that it will pass. It might feel extremely unpleasant at the time, but it will end.
Running away from the situation that is making you anxious will not help. Confronting what makes you anxious is challenging but is more likely to prevent another attack the next time you are in a similar situation.
Panic attacks can last between 5 and 20 minutes, and you may be able to bring them under control by taking deep, slow breaths rather than short, quick ones. Focus on your breathing by counting up to five with each in-breath and out-breath. Remember that what you are feeling is merely the symptoms of anxiety.
P is for Person-Centred Therapy
There are many different types of therapy.
For example, a common misconception people have about therapy is that they will need to lie on a couch and talk about their parents. This is just one type of therapy known as psychoanalysis. It is the oldest “talking cure” developed by Sigmund Freud at the end of the 19th century. While some therapists practise using this approach, most modern therapists only use a couch when they watch Netflix at the end of the day.
A person-centred approach is a form of counselling which puts the client’s experience and innate knowledge about themselves at the heart of the process. After all, who knows the client better than themselves?
Whereas some other forms of therapy might involve the therapist assuming the role of an ‘expert’ and interpreting the client’s behaviour to fit in with a particular psychological model, the person-centred counsellor aims to work within the client’s frame of reference. In other words, the therapist does not lead but travels alongside the client as they explore whatever issue they have chosen to raise in the session.
The furniture used in a person-centred therapy session reflects the equality of the therapeutic relationship. Both client and counsellor sit in chairs facing one another. The chairs are comfortable but, most importantly, identical. No chair is taller or larger than the other, just as no person in the therapeutic relationship is ‘above’ the other in status. There is no desk creating an artificial barrier between the two chairs. Client and counsellor face one another as equals.
When working with a person-centred therapist, it is worth bearing in mind that the sessions can feel curiously directionless.
You might come to an appointment wanting to discuss a particular issue but find that the focus changes over the course of the session, and you end up talking about a completely different subject.
Many people get used to this ‘wandering’ approach quite quickly and embrace the fact that the sessions allow them to explore their thoughts and feelings with such freedom. It is up to them what they talk about, and they can take their time to explore themselves.
However, for those clients seeking a more directive approach, the person-centred approach can be a bit disconcerting, even off-putting. This is why many therapists, myself included, offer an integrative approach, using a mixture of non-directive and more directive approaches (such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), adapting their practice to meet the client’s individual needs. No one therapeutic approach can realistically be ‘better’ than another. The important factor when entering therapy is to find the approach that works for you.
Q is for Questions
Therapeutically, questions can be very useful. They can help us explore issues in-depth and gain a better understanding of ourselves.
But, of course, it can be somewhat disconcerting to be bombarded with questions by a therapist. It can feel more like an interrogation than therapy. Indeed, when undergoing training, counsellors are taught to avoid asking too many questions and to use open questions (that require more than a yes/no answer) when they do.
This isn’t to say that questions are bad - far from it. The fact is, the most useful questions are the ones we ask ourselves, the questions that get us thinking about who we are and how our experiences have shaped us. Indeed, these sorts of questions about the self often lead people to therapy.
While counselling and psychotherapy have been proven to help people overcome mental health difficulties, many engage in therapy not to fix but to explore themselves and better understand who they are and why they do the things they do.
This doesn’t happen by being asked questions by someone else. This happens by looking inwards and asking the difficult questions of ourselves. The therapist is someone who travels alongside the client on this journey and acts as a support when things get challenging.
Although they may have an idea of where the client’s journey is going, they will not lead the way. An analogy I often use is that a therapist can show the client the door, but only the client can choose to walk through it.
When asking ourselves questions as a means of self-exploration, we might use a dialectical approach known as the Socratic method. Developed by the classical Greek philosopher Socrates in the second half of the 5th century BC, the Socratic method requires the individual to ask a series of questions that do not just draw out a particular answer but encourage deeper insight.
In its simplest form, the Socratic method requires the individual to keep asking, “Why?” Invalid or contradictory answers are dismissed. In time, the respondent is forced to examine their core beliefs and the validity of such beliefs.
Traditionally, you would conduct this form of questioning between two or more people. But when engaging in self-examination, we ask the questions and provide the answers ourselves.
A quick search on the internet will bring up several sites and blogs that provide questions to start a journey of self-discovery. Here are a few questions that we can ask ourselves to get us started.
- Who am I?
- Who do I most closely identify with? What is it about these people that I cherish?
- What do I value most in life? Why do I attach value to this?
- How have the experiences of my past shaped who I am today? When did I become the person I am now?
- Where am I going? How will my future self be different from my present self? How can I get to this point?
Q is for Quiet
“At first, I couldn’t stand the silences in the sessions. I’d not know what to say, and I’d be really aware of the counsellor sitting there, waiting for me to speak. Sometimes, I’d laugh nervously and talk about something trivial like what I’d been watching on television to break the silence.
“For a while, I wondered if the counsellor was stuck for something to say and felt as awkward as I was. However, as the seconds crawled by, I realised that this wasn’t the case. They were not lost for words or struggling to respond to me…they were giving me the time and space I needed to find the right words to express myself openly.
“I came to understand that counselling isn’t about listening to someone else speak…it’s about listening to yourself. You take the time to explore your thoughts and feelings and, through doing so, gain a greater understanding of yourself and how you relate to the world around you. Sometimes, that means stopping talking and just focusing your attention inwards. My counsellor was well aware of the need for this.
“Those long silences in sessions gave me the time to really figure out what was going on in me. When I blurted out something just to fill the silence, it would rarely be me speaking openly and honestly. For a short while, I said things that I thought the counsellor wanted to hear. These words never felt true to me, and I would end up shaking my head and correcting myself almost immediately afterwards.
“It took several sessions, but I eventually came to embrace those moments of silence. I’d sit and turn my thoughts inwards. The clock on the wall ticked quietly, but that noise no longer felt so insistent. The counsellor was patient and relaxed in the silence, and I began to feel this way too. It actually felt really good to be able to explore myself in such an unhurried manner.
“Over the next few weeks, I began to notice that this increased tolerance of quiet moments began to spread into other aspects of my life. I felt less pressure to speak when I didn’t want to and used these times of silence to turn my gaze inwards and explore my thoughts and feelings in the moment. I started listening to people - really listening to them and not just waiting for my turn to speak. This had a real positive impact on my relationships, and I found that people began to communicate with me on a deeper level.
“Most importantly, I stopped feeling threatened by quiet. Now when I wake up in the morning, I don’t immediately switch the television or the radio on to create background noise. I don’t need that sort of distraction anymore; I am far happier listening to myself.”
R is for Relationships
I was listening to the radio last week. The presenter interviewed a man who rescued injured birds of prey and nursed them back to health. A noble cause, certainly, but one that the man admitted came at a cost.
His personal relationships had suffered due to his dedication to the job. His wife had filed for divorce, he never saw his children, and he didn’t even attend their birthday parties. Something about how he dismissed relationships left me feeling very sad. Here’s why: I believe that healthy relationships with others are among the most important factors of positive mental health.
We humans are relational creatures. Our great societies and civilisations were not formed from individuals all doing their own thing, but from people coming together, helping one another and working as a team for the benefit of everyone. Ten or twenty thousand years ago, our distant ancestors depended on their communities (whether that be families or the larger ‘tribe’) for their very survival.
Being cast out of the tribe would have been seen as a great punishment back in those days. Even today, one of the worst tortures used to break someone’s spirit is that of solitary confinement. Human beings need contact with other people. We thrive on it and suffer ill effects when deprived of it.
One possible explanation for this is that we only have a sense of who we are from our relationships and interactions with other people. Therefore, our very identity, our sense of self, is inextricably tied up with how other people respond to us.
From this perspective, you could say that other people’s responses to us are the “mirror” by which we view ourselves. Take away those all-important interactions, and we lose the means to see ourselves. Think of Tom Hanks in the movie “Castaway”. Alone on a desert island, the isolation begins to drive him to despair.
When he creates a companion in the form of the volleyball “Wilson”, he gives himself an other with whom he can interact. Wilson becomes the man’s salvation, and we know that without this companion, the man would probably have lost all sense of his identity and, with it, his rational mind. To put it another way, loneliness would have made him go crazy.
Social isolation is a bigger problem than most people realise. The modern world means that we can go about our business with far fewer ‘real’ face-to-face interactions than 30 years ago. Emails, mobile phones, texts, instant messaging, social media… all these tools mean that we can now get in touch with many people at the touch of a button, but they do not meet our need for relational depth.
Ironically, whilst we now have many more means of communicating with other people, many people are experiencing a greater sense of disconnection and loneliness. For some people, the counselling relationship between therapist and client can meet this very human need to be seen and experienced by another. The therapist’s non-judgemental acceptance and empathic manner enables the client to experience the positive relational depth, and a greater understanding of the self can develop. Through the relationship, we start to see ourselves more clearly.
R is for Rumination
Readers with experience in crofting or dealing with livestock will be familiar with the word rumination.
This is how cattle, goats, and sheep eat and digest plant-based food such as grass using a specialised stomach. The animal takes a mouthful of grass, chews it and swallows.
The pulped grass heads to a stomach compartment called the rumen, where it mixes with a cocktail of microbes that start a process of fermentation. The animal regurgitates this mixture into their mouth, where they continue to chew it some more. The cud is swallowed, regurgitated, re-chewed and re-swallowed several times until the plant matter is fully broken down.
In psychological terms, rumination has another meaning. In this context, rumination describes the act of an immersive, obsessional focus on a particular topic. It is often used to describe the behaviour of an individual who finds themselves “stuck” on a particular thought or feeling. The word contemplation might be used to describe a calm, thoughtful state where the individual deliberates on a particular topic and discovers a solution or a peaceful attitude from the experience.
Rumination is the antithesis of contemplation. It involves the individual repeating the same thought or feeling over and over again. Regardless of how often the issue is repeated, the individual finds no solution and their distress is seldom alleviated by such thoughts.
People engaging in rumination frequently find their attention drawn to the symptoms, causes and possible consequences of their distress. Rumination is mentally regurgitating the same thought or feeling repeatedly.
Whereas contemplation brings calm, rumination leads to anxiety. Whilst contemplation of a topic can lead to the discovery of a possible solution; rumination only serves to reinforce the initial difficulty.
Rumination is often linked to obsessive thoughts - those intrusive, frightening thoughts that can be very difficult to dismiss. Ruminating on such thoughts can be problematic. The more time we spend attending to such thoughts, the more real and plausible they seem. What might start as a small worry about a flight in a plane can develop into a full-blown conviction that the plane you are travelling in is definitely going to crash.
Just as the cud that the cow chews, swallows and regurgitates becomes more and more fermented by the microbes in the rumen, the ruminative thoughts grow more and more potent the longer we spend mentally regurgitating them.
As mentioned previously, a little knowledge goes a long way. If you are aware of your tendency to engage in ruminative thoughts, then you have made the first steps towards overcoming the problem.
The next step is to begin practising an alternative to rumination: problem-solving. If you find yourself ruminating over a particular difficulty, try to identify what aspects of the difficulty are within your control.
What can you change?
If there are changes to be made, focus your thoughts on how you will go about them. If you can’t change the situation, it is out of your control. Worrying about it will only waste your time and energy. Instead, try to accept the things you cannot control and develop a tolerance for the sense of uncertainty that goes with them. Endlessly thinking about these things won’t make them go away.
S is for Smartphones and Sleep
“I’m never far from my smartphone. I even keep it next to my bed. I do everything on it. Before settling in bed, I’ll generally check my emails (both work and personal accounts). Then I might visit a few websites, watch a video on YouTube, or waste a bit of time on Facebook. I use the smartphone as an e-reader, too. I try to read a chapter or two of a book before switching the lights off and trying to sleep. The funny thing is, even though I’ve been in bed for well over an hour and I feel tired, I just can’t get to sleep.”
If this sounds familiar, you probably need to think about your relationship with your smartphone. Although they are truly amazing gadgets - a camera, computer, entertainment centre, games machine, and phone all rolled into one - many people are finding that excessive use of smartphones or tablet computers during the evening affects their sleep.
Like television or a computer monitor, smartphone and tablet screens are light-emitting devices. This means that you can see the screen in a dark room without additional light.
What the makers of these devices don’t tell us is that the stream of light photons from the screen will send the message to our brain not to secrete melatonin, the hormone that tells us when it is time to go to sleep. To put it simply, the light-emitting device keeps the brain awake and active. Switching the device off is all very well, but it can take up to an hour after switching off the screen for the brain to relax and prepare itself for sleep.
Some devices are now equipped with a “blue light filter” or “bed mode”, which can help to filter out some of the light photons that affect sleep. However, if we are serious about improving the quality of our sleep, we should aim to avoid any light-emitting device (including televisions) for at least 45 minutes before ‘lights-off’ time.
Establishing a ‘bedtime routine’ may seem rather childish, but it can be a useful way to train your brain to prepare itself for sleep. Readers with children will know how effective establishing a routine can be and the challenges faced when the routine is interrupted.
The National Sleep Foundation claims that reading can be a part of a relaxing bedtime ritual that prepares the brain for sleep. Avoid reading from a light-emitting device and read from a book, magazine or e-reader (with a liquid ink display).
Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. Therefore, we should never underestimate the physical and mental health benefits of ensuring that we get a good night’s sleep. Healthy sleep hygiene is strongly linked to improved cognitive abilities, including memory, judgement and perception. In the short term, insufficient sleep can affect mood and the ability to learn and retain new information. In the longer term, insufficient sleep is linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other life-threatening conditions. \
S is for Speaking
“I had never felt comfortable speaking about how I was feeling. For as long as I can remember, I have always tried to maintain my composure by not telling people about my emotions. I suppose that I was a bit frightened about what would happen if I started to open up. If the floodgates opened, would I be able to close them again?
“I knew something about that approach wasn’t right, but I had bottled things up for so long that I didn’t really know how to express my emotions to people. It got to a point where I felt pretty out of touch with my feelings. I had gotten so used to hiding them from others that I suppose I was hiding them from myself.
“And then it happened; I woke up one morning and started crying. Even now, I don’t think I could tell you what I was crying about. I couldn’t go to work in that state. The doctor said it was stress and signed me off work.
“When I had been off work for about a month, the doctor suggested that I might benefit from talking to a counsellor. ‘That’s a laugh,’ I thought to myself, ‘I don’t even talk to my closest friends about my feelings, so how on earth could I talk to a perfect stranger about them?’
“Regardless of my misgivings, I made an appointment and met with the counsellor. It was not as strange as I expected it to be. He was very warm and friendly, and we spent the first session exploring my doubts about coming to see him. He emphasised that it was my choice if I wished to return, and I agreed that it might be worth trying for a bit longer.
“I arrived for the second session with a funny feeling inside, like I had something to share that needed to come out. So I sat down and started talking, and the strangest thing happened. For the first time in years, I started speaking about how I felt, how I felt frustrated with my job and angry with my parents. How I felt jealous of my friends and how I felt like nothing I did was ever good enough. It all came pouring out, and the more I spoke, the more I felt.
“I realised that, over the years, I had become numb to my internal emotional world. It was still going on, but I had just stopped listening.
“Having a place to speak openly about these things, without fear of being judged or criticised, enabled me to get back in touch with my emotions that I had denied for such a long time.
“And it didn’t stop there. After several sessions of expressing my emotions openly in counselling, I noticed that I began to be more able to express my emotions in other parts of my life. For example, if a friend’s habit of not returning my calls upset me, I found the strength to share my feelings with them. Likewise, if my partner said something thoughtless and hurtful, I could turn back to them and tell them exactly how it left me feeling.
“As I grew more in touch with my internal world and more confident sharing it with others, I noticed that people began to treat me differently. My friends seemed more sympathetic. My husband is more thoughtful…I even had an apology from my boss.
“I was no longer expecting them to read my mind or guess how I was feeling - I was spelling it out for them. The result was that they understood me better and were able to respond in satisfactory ways.”
T is for That time of year
“I love living in the Hebrides. There is something magical about the unspoiled landscape, the wide-open moors, the clear waters, and the beautiful beaches. I make the best of the good weather in the summer months, and I am out and about as much as possible… walking, climbing, and riding my bike.
“I spend weekends camping and exploring all the hidden corners of the islands. However, in the winter months, it is just not possible. As much as I’d like to be out exploring the moors, the cold wind, the sideways rain and the fierce winds force me to stay inside.
“Then there is the lack of daylight in winter… it isn’t bright until eight-thirty in the morning, and it starts getting dark before four o’clock. I seem to spend any time when it is light outside stuck at work in the office. I sometimes feel like I’m hibernating!”
It probably has not escaped your notice that winter is here with a vengeance. But unfortunately, the realities of living in this beautiful part of Scotland are that while we reap the benefits of the island landscape in the summer, our winters are often cold, wet, windswept and gloomy.
The long nights and short days, combined with the inclement weather, mean that many of us are not spending enough time outside, which can lead to a noticeable drop in our mood and overall emotional well-being.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression linked to the winter months. Sufferers notice a sharp decline in their mood from autumn onwards and find the symptoms (such as irritability, low mood, persistent negative emotions, and general lethargy) are worse in December and January.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is believed to be linked to the lack of sunlight. When we do not get enough natural light, our bodies do not produce vitamin D. A lack of this important vitamin leads to many health problems, including depression. A lack of sunlight is also thought to lead to lower serotonin levels (the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter chemical) and lead the body to produce too much melatonin (the ‘sleepy’ hormone).
If you think you might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, you can do a few things.
First and foremost, try to increase your levels of vitamin D. Look into eating more food rich in vitamin D or take vitamin D supplements. Although the weather is a challenge, sufferers should aim to make the best of what daylight there is. Some people find that greater exposure to natural light helps, but if you need that extra ‘boost’, you might find a SAD-lamp or daylight bulbs to be of benefit.
Exercise is always beneficial, even when it feels like the very last thing we want to do. However, if the symptoms persist, sufferers might consider visiting their GP or looking into talking therapies such as counselling to explore other means of managing their low mood.
Because of its cyclical nature, it can take a long time for doctors to diagnose Seasonal Affective Disorder (as opposed to other types of depression). However, a diagnosis can be useful as it can help the sufferer to gain a greater understanding of the condition and when they are at most risk of its ill effects.
T is for Thoughts
“It starts small. It always does. I might be on my way to a party, and a small thought pops into my head.
“What if there is nobody there to talk to? This little thought grows and grows. It takes root and multiplies. Pretty soon, my head is spinning with all manner of insecure thoughts.
“Nobody will want to talk to you because they think you’re boring. Your friends don’t really like you. They just tolerate you. You may as well turn around and go home now. This party isn’t for you.
“It’s happened like this a number of times. It’s gotten so bad now that I tend to avoid going to the party when the thoughts start. There is no point in going if I’m thinking like that.”
Thoughts are problematic. They are unique to us and are an entirely subjective experience. They happen in our heads, and, for the most part, we don’t share them with other people.
The way we think about something is very often entirely different from how another person will think. We think all the time, and it can be very difficult to control what we think about.
For example, try not to think about a monkey driving a red sports car. Now that thought has been planted in your head, the very act of trying not to think of the monkey makes it harder to stop thinking about it. You might try to focus your thoughts on something else, but that monkey will often drive right into the middle of the thought.
Thoughts and feelings are inextricably linked to one another. We feel the way we think, and we think the way we feel.
If we’re feeling upset or anxious, it is virtually guaranteed that our thoughts will focus on what upsets us or makes us feel anxious. As a result, the thoughts only serve to reinforce the feelings: we feel more anxious by thinking about what makes us feel anxious. This is known as a negative feedback loop, and understanding the links between how we feel and how we think can be an aid to breaking free from this vicious cycle.
As much as we might think that we can tell what other people are thinking, we can’t. I don’t believe that people are capable of reading another person’s mind any more than they are capable of flapping their arms and taking off in flight.
When we engage in ‘mind-reading’, we are actually just guessing what the other person is thinking. These guesses are often based on our worries and anxieties.
When the person at the start of this is thinking, “Nobody will talk to you because they think you’re boring”, they are expressing their concerns about themselves. An analogy I often use when exploring this with clients is: “When you point the finger at someone, three fingers point back at you.”
By avoiding going to parties and social occasions because of their negative thoughts, the person at the start of this article makes their problem worse. By not facing up to the thought that worries them, the individual cannot gather evidence to the contrary. If they had gone to the party and found people to talk to, these negative thoughts would be easier to dismiss.
However, they have no evidence to challenge such thoughts by not going to the party. Herein lies another important lesson. Just because you think something, that doesn’t make it real. Remember that your thoughts are subjective; they belong to you and you alone.
They might feel very real to you, but they are not necessarily an accurate representation of the real world.
I call ‘the elephant test’ a good illustration of this. Picture a close friend. Think really hard about what they look like. Now use your imagination to give them big floppy grey ears, a pair of tusks and a long trunk.
When you do this, ask yourself, “Is my friend actually an elephant?” No, of course, they’re not!
But you thought of them as one. Our thoughts about what other people think or what they might be doing or how they might respond to us are like this. They rely on our imagination and, as such, should not be taken as the ‘truth’.
Uh oh, here comes that monkey again…
U is for Understanding
“One day, he was absolutely fine. He was chatting and laughing as normal, playing with the kids, and making plans for the summer holidays. Then everything changed. It was like someone flicked a switch and the lights went off. He became sullen and quiet. He didn’t smile at the children or make any effort to engage in conversation.
“He’s not been to work in weeks and just lies in bed. It’s worse when he cries… I hate seeing a grown man in tears. What I find hard to get my head around is that nothing was going wrong - we were happy, and he has a good job and loads of friends. I just wish he’d snap out of it.”
One in four people will experience mental health difficulties at some point in their lives. So chances are, someone you know is suffering from mental ill-health right at this very moment. However, you may not be aware of this because mental illness remains somewhat of a taboo subject. We are getting better at talking about it as a society, but there is still a long way to go.
One aspect of mental ill-health that is seldom discussed is its impact on others. When someone experiences a period of clinical depression or has their ability to interact blighted by social anxiety, it will have a significant impact on the other people in their lives. The most important thing to remember is that it is not their fault.
Just as with any other form of illness, mental illness has symptoms that will interfere with day-to-day life. What makes mental illness hard for many people to accept is that these symptoms aren’t visible. We wouldn’t expect someone with two broken legs to hobble to the bus stop - it’s easy to see why that is unreasonable.
It can be harder to accept that someone suffering from depression and anxiety might be incapable of walking to the bus stop. It’s not that they can’t physically walk. But in the depths of depression, with the fearful, anxious thoughts swirling around their head, the person might well be unable to do it.
It has been said that telling someone with mental health difficulties to snap out of it or pull themselves together is akin to telling an amputee to grow another limb. However, people can and do recover from mental ill-health. The most valuable factors known to improve recovery rates and reduce the risk of relapse are strong, supportive relationships.
Understand that the sufferer is not putting it on or behaving this way to get attention. Understand that they may do or say things out of character and potentially upsetting to others around them. Don’t take it personally; that’s just a symptom of the illness.
Would you take it as a personal attack if someone with a stomach upset vomited on you? Of course not! It wouldn’t be pleasant, but you would understand that the person was sick and couldn’t help it.
Understand that the sufferer might need time to recover. For example, just as someone who has suffered catastrophic injuries may need extensive physiotherapy to get back to walking again, people suffering from mental health difficulties may require support from psychiatrists, psychologists or therapists to aid their recovery.
Most importantly, understand that the sufferer needs you. Sometimes people with mental health difficulties might push those close to them away.
Understand that this is just another symptom of the illness. The sufferer might believe they want to be left alone, but isolation does not heal - positive relationships do.
You don’t need to force yourself upon them. Just understand that your presence and emotional availability will help the sufferer and show them that they are supported. It will also show them that you are making an effort to understand what they are going through.
U is for Unhealthy Habits
When people make resolutions, it is not an understatement to say that the vast majority will be health-related.
Quitting smoking, doing more exercise, eating less junk food, eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, drinking less alcohol, drinking more water…The list goes on and on.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with making such resolutions. However, even if we only manage to maintain a few of the promises that we make to ourselves, we will experience some health benefits.
It is always interesting to me to see how so many of our resolutions relate to physical health and how few are related to mental health. Mental health issues (most commonly anxiety and depression) are thought to affect one in four people at some point in their lives. The Office of National Statistics (2014) highlighted that 12.7% of all sickness absence days from work could be linked to mental health issues.
With such statistics in mind, it would seem appropriate to consider resolutions that will benefit our minds and our bodies. Here are a few that you might want to consider the following.
A positive, optimistic outlook does not come naturally to us all. On the contrary, many of us consider ourselves to be pessimists and tend to focus our attention on the negatives.
However, it is possible to foster a more positive outlook through repeated practice.
One way of doing this is to force yourself to think of two positive thoughts for every negative one.
For example, you look out the window and see that it is raining. So, naturally, your instant (negative) thought is that you will get wet.
However, your positive thoughts could be “My plants will get watered” and “There might be a lovely rainbow afterwards.”
For those with a deeply embedded negative outlook, such thoughts will feel ‘false’ and will not come naturally. Stick with it; in time and practice, you will notice that it becomes easier. It might not turn a pessimist into an optimist, but it will offer a more balanced outlook.
Live in the present
Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher and writer, is reputed to have once said: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
There is indeed some truth in this. However, we cannot change the past, and obsessing over things that have happened is a waste of mental energy. Similarly, worrying about what could happen in the future will only mean that you live in a state of uncertainty and stress.
Therefore, when working with clients, I encourage them to focus their attention on the ‘here and now’.
Perfection is an impossible, unattainable goal. Just as no work of art can be considered ‘perfect” (look at the wonky smile on the Mona Lisa), nobody is a flawless, ‘perfect’ being. Understanding that the pursuit of perfection can only lead to frustration and unhappiness, we should focus our attention on self-acceptance and being more patient and understanding towards ourselves.
V is for Vanity
“I spent ages taking that picture. I was really careful with my make-up and hair. I must have taken twenty or thirty pictures before I found the one I was happy with. Then I experimented with effects and filters for a while until it was perfect. I uploaded it to the internet and only got five ‘likes’, and one of them was from my mum, so it doesn’t count. Now I feel rubbish about myself; I’m so ugly.”
The explosion in popularity of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has certainly made it easier to stay connected to others.
Those of us with smartphones can reach out to countless people over the internet at the swipe of a finger. Such technological progress is undoubtedly impressive, but it brings with it old problems in new guises.
The statement above, while fictitious, is likely to have struck a chord with many people out there.
One of the risks of social media apps is that the users begin to feel validated by the number of ‘hits’, ‘views’ or ‘likes’ that their post gets. Their sense of self-worth comes to rely upon other people reading, watching, or liking what they post. This might not be a problem if the person has a network of friends and family who regularly provide support and encouragement by ‘liking’ or commenting on every post.
However, when we rely on other people to validate our self-image and self-esteem, we open ourselves up to potential problems. This is known as an external locus of evaluation, where the individual can only feel positive about themselves if others are responding to them positively.
As social creatures, it is perfectly natural to seek approval from others around us. After all, it feels good to get a pat on the back or a “well done” from someone else. The problem arises if we can only feel good about ourselves when others praise us.
An internal locus of evaluation is when we can feel good about ourselves without the need for external support (i.e. the praise or approval of others). While it is unlikely that our self-image will rely entirely on an internal locus of evaluation, it is worthwhile to foster the habit of self-praise and try to seek less validation from others.
At the start of this section, the person could attempt this by simply feeling happy with her picture and pleased with how she looked in it. Expecting a certain number of ‘likes’ only serves to set an artificial goal which might be, depending on circumstances, entirely unrealistic.
A selfie posted online in the middle of the night will undoubtedly get far fewer ‘likes’ than one posted in the middle of the day. A selfie that gets thirty likes is not of any more value than a selfie that gets two likes.
Taking pride in one’s appearance and achievements is not necessarily a bad thing. However, vanity becomes harmful when our preoccupation with how others view us comes to dominate our sense of self-worth.
V is for Vygotsky
Social constructivism may seem like a rather intimidating mouthful, but it is quite an accessible concept. Essentially, it states that people are social creatures, and knowledge acquisition occurs through social interactions with others.
Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky was a key figure in developing the social constructivist approach. He believed that the skills we needed to make sense of the world were learned from our interaction with other people (e.g. parents, teachers, or peers).
He stated that our most formative experiences involved some form of social contact. Through such contact, we develop as individuals. His famous quote summarises this rather concisely: “We become ourselves through others.”
While I do not wholeheartedly subscribe to all of Vygotsky’s work, I do feel that this relational aspect of our individual development is important. Positive relationships at key stages of our development help us grow and learn more effectively.
A child raised in an environment of praise and encouragement is likely to grow into a well-adjusted, confident learner. Conversely, a child raised in an atmosphere of criticism and negativity is likely to develop into an anxious individual wary of attempting anything new.
However, it is not just our relationships with our parents or primary caregivers that are important. Our relationships with our peers help us gain an understanding of who we are.
Adolescence is about change and experimentation. Teenagers tend to change their hairstyle, wardrobe, hobbies, and interests - this is not mere fickleness; they are trying out new things to see how they feel. They are experimenting with their identity and, ultimately, making choices (both conscious and unconscious) about the adult they will become.
How people respond to individuals at this experimental stage is important. For example, the boy who dyes his hair bright colours and is ridiculed by his classmates could well take the message away from the experience that being different is bad.
The girl with a fascination for technology is condemned as a nerd and stops engaging in a hobby that gives her such pleasure. Yet, such experiences could have a significant impact on the lives of these young people.
The boy who dyes his hair and is accepted by his classmates learns that being different is okay and might grow up to be a famous fashion designer. The girl with a fascination for technology is praised for her interests and grows up to become the next Elon Musk.
Our interactions with others matter. How we respond to other people matters. When we interact with other people, particularly children and young people, we are helping to shape their future selves.
W is for Who Am I?
“I spent a lot of time as a teenager trying to figure out who I was. My parents used to joke that I changed my style as often as most people change their socks.
“I went through every fashionable trend possible…I was a skater girl, a goth, a trendy, an emo-kid. You name it, and I tried it out. Sometimes I’d feel comfortable with my new style for a couple of weeks, but more often than not, as soon as I had taken on that identity, I was looking around for a new one.
“I thought this was something I would grow out of as I got older, but this just hasn’t happened. As an adult, I find it difficult to stick to anything for any length of time. Relationships, careers, even where I live…I seemed to get restless really quickly.
“I realised that this wasn’t an ideal way to live and so started seeing a therapist. I knew I wasn’t depressed or anxious, but I wanted to spend a bit of time exploring myself and getting to grips with who I was. It was a really challenging experience but one that was extremely helpful.
“We spent the first few sessions exploring all the changes that I made as an adolescent and what was going on in my life at that time. Our exploration of this time led me to realise that it was about control. There were so many things in my life that were out of control at that age: puberty, mum and dad’s separation, school and exams…
“The habit of switching styles seemed to be some means of controlling one thing in my life - my appearance. I had never thought of it this way before and then started to look at my behaviour as an adult in the same manner. This was much harder, and there were times when I wanted to quit.
“However, I knew now that this would just be repeating the same jack-it-in approach that I have taken to jobs and relationships. When the going got tough and I felt that something was out of my control, I tended to re-exert my control by taking myself out of the equation. This might be dumping a boyfriend or quitting a job or moving house… whatever it was, it was my way of trying to protect myself.
“Through exploring the issue, I came to realise that it wasn’t protecting me at all… far from it. On the contrary, the fear of losing my independence in a career or relationship manifested itself as that restlessness. The problem was, all that chopping and changing of homes and jobs and relationships meant that I had never allowed myself to put down roots.
“Counselling and therapy are not just for treating anxiety and depression. I found it a useful means of self-exploration, and as a result of the sessions, I have a greater understanding of who I am and what makes me tick.
“I am now more confident in relationships, and I am beginning to feel able to carve out a career that suits me without fear of being trapped by it. I have managed to answer the question ‘Who am I?’ I am me, and I am comfortable with that.”
W is for Willpower
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had no idea that it would be so difficult. Not just being open and talking about the negative stuff, but finding the words to express how I feel.
“Sometimes, it just isn’t possible to put it into words. I thought the counsellor would tell me what to do to sort things out, but it doesn’t work like that. There were times when it felt so difficult I came close to quitting, but I’ve found the strength to keep going back week after week. It’s getting easier… I guess I’m getting stronger. “
Change is never easy. Think of all the times in your life when there has been a significant change—moving from primary to secondary school. Moving house. Changing jobs. Even daily routine changes can be difficult and throw up many unexpected problems.
Change is hard, but it can be all the more difficult when we seek to change an aspect of ourselves. It takes a great deal of effort and emotional intelligence to identify something within us that needs to change. After all, it is painful enough when someone else points out our faults - it takes a certain degree of inner strength to be able to look at ourselves in this way critically.
Once we have identified the part of ourselves that we want to change, we are then faced with the challenge of seeing it through. Most people who have quit smoking are unlikely to have succeeded on their first attempt. I recall a friend of mine who joked about how good he was at quitting as he had done it so many times.
Successful, long-lasting change can only come about through willpower. The old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” is very true. People might be able to identify the part of themselves that they want to change. Still, having the willpower - the dedication and reserves of inner strength - needed to make that change reality can be far more difficult.
Going to see a counsellor can be a bit like this. It takes enormous courage to seek out the support of a therapist in the first place. It can take time to build a trusting relationship where you feel comfortable openly sharing your difficulties with the therapist.
Over several sessions, you will have the opportunity to explore these difficulties. With time, solutions to the problems might well present themselves.
However, a good therapist won’t make you change. Real, long-lasting change only comes about from an individual making the choice themselves. A therapist might be able to help you find the door, but the decision to walk through it is entirely yours.
X is for Expression
“I’d always been told that if I can’t say anything nice, I shouldn’t say anything. I guess I took this to heart and probably took it too far.
“I’ve always tried to hide my feelings from others. I’ve got so good at it that most of my family and friends think I’m happy-go-lucky, and nothing gets me down. If only they knew! I’ve got so much frustration and hurt bubbling away inside me, but I’ve taught myself to conceal it.”
One aspect of counselling that many people find particularly beneficial is having a safe, confidential space where they can open up and give expression to their innermost thoughts and feelings. At first, this can feel unusual or even risky. After all, like the person at the start of this piece, many of us have grown accustomed to suppressing our painful, challenging thoughts and feelings.
In time, we begin to use the therapeutic space as a place to experiment, to reach out to those thoughts and feelings that had hitherto felt untouchable. We learn that whilst they might be uncomfortable; they aren’t dangerous to us.
With each session that passes, we grow more and more familiar with the very thing that we have spent so much time avoiding. We learn to explore the issue and our underlying beliefs that might have led to us suppressing it in the first place. We discover ways in which we can address the issue and develop strategies to make them part of our day to day lives.
Most importantly, counselling can enable us to find safe, constructive ways of expressing ourselves. This doesn’t just mean how we communicate with other people. Self-expression also includes how we are in touch with and responsive to the flow of different thoughts and feelings that we all experience daily.
Our emotions are not static things. They are as changeable as the weather. We can be calm one moment, frantic the next: despondent one day and ecstatic the day after. When we give ourselves permission to articulate and give voice to all these emotions, not just the ‘nice’ ones, we become free from the practice of concealing a vital part of ourselves from other people.
In Ancient Greece, the entrance to the Temple of the Apollo at Delphi was inscribed with the words: “Know Thyself”.
I believe that this simple instruction is a fine piece of wisdom that we often ignore. When we know ourselves, we are in touch with all aspects of our personality, including the parts that we might not be so fond of. Being able to take a step back and look at ourselves objectively, a “warts and all” appraisal of the self, is a challenging but ultimately enlightening experience.
Reports seem to appear monthly showing that young people are unhappier than ever before.
An annual report by the Children’s Society focused on how teenage girls are experiencing unprecedented levels of unhappiness. The report showed that one in three are unhappy with how they look and that one in seven girls are unhappy with their lives overall. Again, social media use is thought to play a key role in this rise (see “V is for Vanity”).
The 2015 Children’s Society report also highlighted some extremely worrying statistics. For example, children in England were among the unhappiest in the world. The experiences of 15 countries were examined, and children’s happiness in England was ranked fourteenth, just above South Korea but behind Romania and Ethiopia.
Just because Scotland was not included in the research of the Children’s Society does not mean that Scottish youths are somehow free from mental health problems.
On the contrary, other research indicates that one in ten children and young people in the United Kingdom suffer from a mental health difficulty that affects their home life, school life, or relationships daily.
The NSPCC reported that Childline received 934 calls from young people in Scotland contemplating suicide in the last year alone. That’s an average of 18 calls per week, a terrifying statistic and one that policymakers ought to be addressing.
Moves have been made to start tackling this issue. For example, several early years initiatives focus on infants’ emotional development to ensure that they are well-prepared for primary school.
The Curriculum for Excellence places health and wellbeing as a central component of the syllabus throughout a child’s time in school (both preschool, primary and secondary). In addition, there are other schemes, such as “Bounce”, “Roots of Empathy”, and “Seasons for Growth”, that aim to develop emotional literacy and resilience in young people.
Unfortunately, for all the solutions that successive governments have come up with for addressing mental health issues in childhood and adolescence, the statistics continue to show an increase in reported problems. The cash-strapped mental health services are struggling to keep up. Perhaps the time has come for policymakers to stop trying to “fix” the young people and instead focus their attention on the factors that create unhappiness or anxiety in young people.
Young people are under a huge amount of pressure. The expectations placed on them to achieve in school and the societal pressures to conform (which may or may not be at odds with pressures within the young person’s peer group) can seem, at times, quite a load for them to bear.
Combine these pressures with the surge of hormones in their adolescent years that can leave them in that uncomfortable hinterland between child and adult. It is no wonder that young people are unhappy. But, as adults, the most important thing we can do is appreciate the challenges that young people face and make ourselves available to listen to the needs of our children without judgement or condemnation.
Z is for Zzzzzzzzz
“By the time I’ve made sure the kids have done their homework and been fed, bathed, dressed in their pyjamas, it’s close to eight o’clock. Then I have to read them a story, put them to bed, deal with any of the (inevitable) drama that arises, and settle them down again… they normally aren’t all asleep until about nine.
“By this time, I’m exhausted, but I don’t want to just give up and go to bed - I want to have some time to myself. So I’ll have a glass of wine and watch something on the television for a couple of hours. I might get into bed at about eleven or eleven-thirty, and you’d think I’d fall straight asleep, but here’s the crazy thing - I don’t! I then spend at least another hour tossing and turning until I finally drop off. The kids wake up at about six-thirty, and I’m shattered…I don’t feel that I ever get enough sleep.”
Sleep is far more important than many of us give it credit for. Sleep is essential for a child’s growth and development, but it fulfils a restorative function. When we sleep, our body has time to rest and recuperate, providing a vital opportunity for our cells to repair themselves.
As well as being good for our bodies, sleep also fulfils several important functions for our minds.
For example, sleep is believed to be an important part of how we consolidate memories; that is, the process of transferring them from our short-term to our long-term memory. In this context, sleep is an essential part of how we learn. Research has shown that people who are deprived of sleep do not perform as well on memory tasks. Their ability to concentrate for long periods is also severely impaired.
Getting the right amount of sleep is essential; we all know how difficult it is to try and function normally when we’re tired.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, young children (between 1 and 5) need between 10 and 14 hours of sleep per night. School-age children need between 9 and 11 hours per night. Teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours whilst adults need between 7 and 9 hours.
These figures are, of course, just guidelines. Some people need more sleep than others, and we should always pay attention to the signals our bodies give us that we aren’t getting the right amount. There are obvious signs, such as drowsiness during the day, an inability to focus for long periods or clumsiness (when we are tired, we tend to become “all fingers and thumbs”).
However, signs of sleep deprivation can also be weight gain, decreased libido and changes in your mood (such as feeling increasingly irritable or unhappy).
A quick Google search will bring up countless useful tips for improving sleep hygiene. My personal favourite tip is to establish a “bedtime routine”. As parents, we often emphasise the importance of a bedtime routine to prepare the children for bed. The television goes off at a certain time. They have a bath and then put on pyjamas. They brush their teeth and then have a story read to them. The lights are switched off at a certain time.
However, adults tend to discard the bedtime routine and have a more chaotic approach to bedtime. We might go to bed at different times, depending on the day of the week. On one night, we might be in bed with a book by ten o’clock; on another night, we might stay up until midnight watching Netflix. Establishing and sticking to a routine can be a very useful way to “programme” your body to prepare itself for sleep at the same each night.
Our brains are equipped with a “master clock” called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that controls melatonin production. This hormone makes us feel sleepy. A bedtime routine can help provide the SCN with the right signals to prepare our body and mind for sleep.
Of course, there will be days (such as at the weekend) when we don’t stick to this routine, but one should aim to adhere to the routine for most nights in the week. However, it isn’t always easy to stick to a routine, those who do tend to notice the benefits within a week or two.
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