Clinical psychologist, Joe Alberts talks to Leigh Hatcher about the difficulties many men have recognizing they need help, when they are conditioned to fixing things themselves.
When something deeply troubles you, how do you manage? Are your thoughts about yourself and your life at these times helpful or do they cause greater harm? Does the experience of pain open the floodgates for an onslaught of negative thoughts to fire away at you, cataloguing all the ways you aren’t good enough, or is it compassionate in its resolve?
If your thoughts are of the negative kind, then it is possible your brain has transformed your experience of pain into one of suffering and misery. How long this suffering persists for is defined and controlled by your own outlook rather than the severity of the event. This is because pain is a natural response to life being difficult or a problem being present, and is therefore inevitable for us all at varying degrees. Suffering, however, can continue long after the initial pain has eased. Some people live their whole lives in a state of ongoing suffering, either for past regrets and hurts they cannot accept, for all the persistent fears they have for their future or for the minor day-to-day stressors of life.
Learning to stop running from pain requires a basic acceptance of it as part of the awareness of a mortal being. This type of life skill is called Radical Acceptance, and it is one of the core components of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, a specific type of cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy developed by psychologist, Marsha M. Linehan. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) gets its name from the notion that the mind interprets life by appreciating its polar opposites. The therapy weaves in the dialectic between acceptance and change. So while we work towards changing our lives in a positive direction, we also work on accepting those unfavourable or painful permanent fixtures in our life or history. Embracing this dialectic is critical to our happiness in life, particularly when life has involved persistent and ongoing hardships or trauma.
Consider these 4 reasons why we must stay in the drivers seat rather than become a passenger driven by emotions running out of control.
1. What you run from, you strengthen.
You may eat away your sorrows or drink to deal with a breakup. You may work late to avoid fights at home or hang onto others to avoid your own company. Whatever distraction tactic you use, it’s all escapism with a neat little bow. The fear gives you an intense need to save yourself, to protect yourself from those feelings in any possible way. Enormous pain requires massive defense.
Numbing or running from pain may provide relief in the moment, however it strengthens your fear. And every time you run away, you reinforce the strategy to manage painful emotions. So the very next time you feel this emotion, you go to the lolly jar or packet of chips. Or you arrange a beer at the pub. Or you run to a friend to save you. And you keep going and going with these habits until it becomes an addiction. When you look at this pattern of addiction (to food, alcohol or work), you may start to realise that it’s not simply the taste of the food that drives you to this habit, but the need to escape feeling horrible, distressed or out of control.
The difficult thing about this pattern is that you cannot face an addiction without facing the truth. The food is not the problem. Running away from your pain is the problem. And there is only one answer: abstinence. It’s the only answer for a true alcoholic and the only answer for anyone addicted to escaping pain. You must literally go cold turkey on running away from pain. You need to learn to cope another way.
The study of pain is an interesting one. According to McKay & Fanning in their book Self Esteem, pain comes in waves. Perhaps the best illustration of this is in the pain of grief. With grief, a sense of loss whelms up, a feeling so intense that one cannot imagine an end to it. But then, after a time, a numbness comes, a period of calm and relief. Soon numbness is replaced by another wave of loss. And so it continues: waves of loss, calmness, loss, calmness.
This is the natural cycle of pain. As soon as you reach an overload, your emotions shut off. You literally stop feeling for a little while. These waves continue, with smaller amplitudes and longer rest periods, until the hurt finally eases. Both your body and mind have natural mechanisms that dampen pain for periods so you get a chance to catch your breath. Your emotional pain has exactly the same oscillations. When you face the pain, you’ll notice that soon enough the wave passes. Soon, the worst of it will be over.
2. Rather than self-harm, try self-love.
Self-loathing, self-harm and self-sabotage are all destructive means to cope with emotional pain. They compound your pain by adding another layer of negativity such as guilt or a sense of failure. These are all ways to attack yourself in a desperate attempt to escape pain. But instead of automatically going into attack mode when triggered, there is another option you could try; self love.
Self-love does not have to mean telling yourself how awesome you are each time you catch your reflection (that is, it’s not about being narcissistic or completely self-indulgent). It is about simply finding your middle ground between self-attack and self-obsession. It does not matter who you are or what you believe, we could all learn a thing or two about self-compassion. As the saying goes, “Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation” -Henry Ward Beecher
3. Whether you caused the pain or someone else did, it’s your job to fix it.
Come with me for a minute. Imagine you are wrongly accused for committing a crime and sent to jail. All attempts to legally challenge this fails. Every day you wake up and face the reality of your situation, being that the law has decided you are guilty and deserve the punishment the crime yields. Every day you wake up in prison, needing to decide how you will get through another day, another year, another decade with this life. Is it right that you are in jail? No. Is it fair? No. Is it your reality? Yes. So what do you do with this life? Do you live each day of your sentence writhe with anger, being highly distressed and agitated with your predicament, or do you work hard on focusing your mental energy on accepting your reality? Who is happier? Who is working on utilising his emotional resources for the things within his control rather than all the things outside of his control?
Essentially, we could all learn a thing or two from the person who works on accepting his reality. This is not about approval. Approval is a very different concept. It is about accepting what cannot be changed so you can focus your skill on what can change to bring about a sense of inner peace and contentment. Life does not exist in terms of absolutes like right and wrong. Reality is reality, and it is all that exists. Avoid adding on all the suffering of the past and future as well. You only have one life to call your own. It is your job to make it a good one. “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”– Jon Kabat- Zinn.
4. Even a moment of suffering can be deeply meaningful and a vehicle for greater self-awareness.
Emotional pain cannot kill you. It cannot destroy you, send you crazy or completely take over your life. However, learning how to manage emotional pain takes skill, and if you are someone who feels emotion intensely then you will need to master these skills in order to live a purposeful life. When you stop avoiding what makes you scared, you have a chance of overcoming your fear. This brings with it a chance to be free. What greater feeling exists than the freedom of truly accepting and embracing who you are?
Try these strategies to build your skills of Radical Acceptance in your life:
A. Thought Challenge. Rather than getting caught up in negative thoughts such as ‘It will last forever’ and ‘I can’t stand it’, use coping thoughts such as:
– It will pass
– The feeling comes from past hurts, it has nothing to do with my true worth
– I can FEEL bad and still BE good
B. Self Love. It can be as simple as telling yourself you are good enough when someone tries to put you down or buying yourself flowers or a small treat when you’re having a bad day. This strategy involves treating yourself to the same thoughtful acts you would give to a friend when they are down (if we do it for people we love, why can’t we offer ourselves that same level of comfort and consideration?)
C. Grounding Techniques. Grounding techniques teach you to anchor yourself as you ride the wave of emotional pain (sometimes we need to get out of our heads and into our body and the world). This could be via meditation, prayer, yoga, exercising, squeezing clay or mud or slowly tasting food. These strategies don’t solve the problem, but they could stop you from attacking yourself or others in a desperate attempt to escape pain.
D. Accessing Your Higher Self. This strategy helps to remind us that everyone has value and purpose that can be found in large and small things. It involves helping someone else, thanking someone for how they’ve helped you, volunteering or contributing in some small way to a greater cause. It could be making an effort to smile at strangers and seeing how many smiles you get back.
Ultimately, building the circuitry in your brain around coping with pain involves learning how you can get your needs met in other ways. The message is simple: stop running, because you’ll be running forever. Life is hard enough as it is, it does not need to be made harder by an inability to accept your reality, whatever that happens to be right now. By searching for the message in life’s lessons, you are well on your way to healing and growth.
DBT Skills Workbook, by Marsha Linehan
Self Esteem, book by Matthew McKay & Patrick Fanning
Coping Skills worksheet, by Indigo Daya. www.indigodaya.com.
The Complete Buddhism for Mothers, book by Sarah Napthali.
By: Alison Lenehan, psychologist
No one wants to be the toxic one. The draining one who exhausts all of their mental energy analysing the many different ways life has been unlucky or unkind to them. Or all the reasons they have to feel sorry for themselves. Let’s be real though, we have all probably found ourselves there on occasion, ultimately leading us down a path of damaging and self-defeating behaviours. But however strongly entrenched these negative patterns are, or however much we are hurting, we do not have to succumb to the allure of negativity, for overcoming misery and misfortune involves making a choice. An important choice. A choice that can remove the shackles keeping us trapped in a web of repeated failure, chronic guilt and pain. One that can help us foster enormous mental strength and acceptance of the person we are. Or the person we want to be.
Feeling mentally strong is not necessarily an automatic gift bestowed on those who easily see the glass as half full. It is a choice that requires cultivation every day (despite what life decides to throw at us). Cultivating this choice repeatedly time and time again creates a habit. And it takes time, patience and a whole lot of hard work to create a new habit (just think of how hard it is to create a habit around regular exercise, eating well or quitting smoking). The good news? Once the new habit is created, the rest is history and we are well on our way to living the life we want.
So how do we train ourselves to exude a ‘can do’ attitude? Well, let’s be real for a minute. Part of this depends on how determined and committed you are to changing. Try to adopt the following principles and evaluate how they make you feel. Chances are you’ll feel a little better. The important thing is to persist- changing negative thought patterns takes time and causes discomfort initially. But practicing these principles repeatedly is a massive step towards breaking out of the vicious cycle of pessimism and toxicity.
1. Realise that the only one who can make yourself feel good is you. People with good self-worth foster internal validation that functions completely independently from others’ opinions of them (the flipside is where you only value yourself when others do, placing an overemphasis and even desperation on the need to please others and be noticed). As the saying goes, ‘what others think of me is none of my business’. Move away from worrying what others think of you and an unhealthy NEED to be liked. If someone likes you, that’s a bonus. If they don’t, move on because someone else will.
2. Avoid comparing yourself with others (this comes from a place of being unsure of your worth). If you find yourself doing this compulsively, you are probably always coming off second best. And how can you foster a positive self-image when you always tell yourself you aren’t good enough?
3. Stop watching for signs of rejection from others and avoid acting based on a fear of getting hurt. If you are acting with this as a motivator then you are ultimately making some bad and self-destructive choices. Be relaxed and confident in the wonderful person you are with your unique gifts and qualities.
Someone can’t get inside and change your feelings of yourself without you letting them.
4. See that no one has a perfect life and is able to be happy all the time. Therefore, when challenges arise they should be viewed as problems needing solutions. Just focusing on the problem and the pain (or the ‘circle of concern’) drains your energy and you will quickly and easily become overwhelmed (and probably build up the problem to catastrophic proportions in the process). Instead, focus on your ‘circle of influence’, or what you can do to solve the problem. If the problem cannot be solved now (or ever), then choose to focus your energy on working at accepting what cannot be changed, thus freeing up your mental energy to change what you can in your life and not stressing on all those things you can’t. The two mantras of the depressed and anxious are the ‘If Onlys’ relating to all the hurt and regret of bad decisions made in the past and the ‘What If’s’ which are the myriad of negative and catastrophic possibilities for the future. These two mantras will only serve to make you unhappy, negative and ‘stuck’.
5. Recognise that the only one responsible (and to blame) for your choices is you. You are not that vulnerable child anymore and you are not the product of other people’s opinions of you (sure these things could contribute to who you have become up until this point but ultimately the job is yours now and into the future). Take your life into your own hands and try to not blame others for your own choices and mistakes. It takes someone with good self worth to admit they are wrong (when this is justified) and to take steps to acknowledge this and repair the relationship (even when the relationship needing repair is with yourself!). Being free of the pressure to please others allows you to take on what you want to and leave the stuff you don’t (could it be that simple?). In the famous words of Dr Seuss:
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
6. Stay true to yourself by not fearing your uniqueness from others. For its this individual difference that makes you, you and not the person next to you. When we were children we could live disinhibited and free to play in whatever way we wanted. Then why can’t we accept all the facets of our character as adults? We all function best when we are slightly outside our comfort zones. So get outside of yours and take some calculated risks. It can be quite liberating when you do!
7. Leave others alone to steer their own lives as they see fit, not as you do. It takes a strong person to accept that others think differently to you and that’s ok. You can agree to disagree without sensing that as a personal threat. Others need to grow and learn from their own experiences just as you have. Let them do that and you will empower them in the process. Do not be the one who is a caretaker for someone because YOU have a need to feel valued (coming back to that unhealthy need for external validation). If you find yourself being the caretaker of another adult be warned: you risk not being appreciated. This comes from a view that your behaviour represents an attempt to control rather than to provide genuine support.
Even though we can’t control the adversities that happen to us in life, we can control what lens we choose to see our lives through. Good decision making starts with understanding how powerful our thought patterns are and how closely they dictate our actions. Positive begets positive. Negative begets negative. Approaching life using the above principles helps to create more positive experiences into our lives. This typifies mental strength. And builds our sense of self-worth.
Every moment is a place we’ve never been. Meet today with expectation, enthusiasm and surprise. It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined!
Taming the Black Dog, by Bev Aisbett
All of IT, by Bev Aisbett
7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey
I came across a pretty inspiring book the other day. The book, Beating Bipolar, by Blake Levine, was located during my search to help a client who seemed to be stuck processing her bipolar disorder diagnosis. Recalling his own story of his healing journey, Levine provides an impressive account of how he managed to turn his bipolar diagnosis into strength by guiding others with this illness as a professional life coach.
Bipolar disorder is a condition previously termed ‘manic depression’ because the person experiences periods of depression and periods of mania, with periods of normal mood in between. Mania can involve racing thoughts and speech, irritability and little need for sleep that is not just a fleeting experience. Sometimes the person loses touch with reality and has episodes of psychosis involving hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t really there) or delusions (for e.g. the person believing he or she has superpowers). The combination of mania and depression can feel like a dangerous and destructive emotional rollercoaster.
Bipolar disorder, and in fact any mental illness, is described by Levine as a disease of choices. You can choose to take one path or another, and there will be many crossroads along the way. Ultimately, you have to choose whether you will stay stuck inside your own world of pain, or whether you are prepared to work towards emotional stability. This is your choice to make and no one can make it for you. As Levine notes, you cannot pop a pill and declare yourself well. Proper healing is not that simple. True, genuine healing is about being selective of how to live your life and adhering to those values.
In the process of exploring, learning and eventually accepting what it means to have a mental health condition, the book asks an individual to answer 7 truths. They are:
1. Accept or reject your illness. Any doctor or psychologist can give a diagnosis and tell you all about it, but you have to be the one to acknowledge it. And that takes an incredible amount of courage. Not for the sake of accepting a ‘label’ but rather in order to seek the correct treatment. By not being invested enough to take on the meaning of the diagnosis, chances are you will become stuck.
2. Accept or reject the work that comes with bipolar disorder (or your diagnosis). Life with a mental health condition can be so challenging that it appears insurmountable and unfair. It is true that maneuvering through substandard mental health units is devastating (and at times traumatising) for most people. However, being able to overcome the setbacks and learn from them, in order to continue to work towards emotional stability (and avoid inpatient mental health units in the process) creates an inner strength that will be able to see you through the lowest points of your life.
3. Accept or reject that you will most likely need medication. For bipolar, medication to tame the mania and lift the depression (and therefore bring increased emotional stability) can be highly effective. However, only if it is used consistently by sticking to the regime over time. Medication must be maintained even when you start to feel better. Finding the right combination takes time, persistence and patience (and close monitoring by your psychiatrist or treating doctor). Weight gain, a common side effect of medication, can throw extra challenges your way, however until emotional stability is achieved, attaining other goals will be futile.
4. Accept or reject that you’ll need therapy and peer support. Levine writes “We share many trials as bipolar individuals, but isolation may be the most profound among them. Feeling alone is a universal experience for people with any mental illness, particularly this one. Not surprisingly, there are many reasons for it. Perhaps you’re too embarrassed about your mood swings and the past damage linked to your illness that you don’t reach out to others. Or maybe you have too many bottled up feelings stemming from other personal baggage to connect easily. Whatever the driving force, working with a mental health professional will help you sort out your issues and learn to connect with people”.
5. Accept or reject that your family’s participation and role in your life and illness might have to be modified to suit your healing. Emotionally stable people have a support network. We all need one, no exceptions. If you have nourishing, strong bonds with your family members, they will play a crucial role in your healing. However, there could also be some family dynamics causing considerable pain and stress and you will be the one to decide whether you can rely on the people in your current network for the long haul. If there are things getting in the way of your connection with them then you will need to find and create a different type of support system. This need is critical for living life in a connected way.
6. Accept or reject that you have to change aspects of your lifestyle. The reality of the situation is this: your mental health condition and any medications you are on do not mix well with drinking and substance abuse. These both cloud your thinking and impair your decision making. If your moods are not regulated yet, they can be lethal. Even having a drink now and then should be discussed with your doctor. Abstinence or moderation combined with a healthy diet, exercise and plenty of sleep are part of living healthy with a mental health condition.
7. Accept or reject that Bipolar (or your diagnosis) isn’t an end; it’s a beginning. The choice is yours. Levine states that the knee jerk reaction to mental illness is to run, particularly if you feel there is nothing to be gained by fighting. But he states that every time we experience pain, we have a chance to see that our struggles in our lives are put here in order to teach us lessons and help us grow. You are stronger than you think, and as long as you have courage, you will face whatever comes your way. The payoff, according to Levine, is to have a life filled with the affirming 4 H’s:
Whatever your individual journey and constraints, to work towards wellness will allow you to master your illness and your life, and that has to be worth the fight. Staying balanced takes time, patience and unwavering commitment, however hopefully if you are up for the task you too can start the healing journey right now, without wasting another minute, by listening to, exploring and accepting some of these truths. I wish you wellness and great success in your quest for what we are all searching for in life: Hope, Health, Happiness and Healing.
Beating Bipolar by Blake Levine
Beyond Blue www.beyondblue.org.au
By: Alison Lenehan
This week I take the opportunity to share a client’s journey through depression with you, through their eyes. The writing process itself was part of our therapy and provides a poignant reflection on the ups and downs of living with depression, or as she says, ‘Snakes and Ladders’. I will let her words do the talking and would like to thank her immensely for giving me the opportunity to work with her. It has been a priviledge.
Psychologist, Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre
View Hazel’s Profile here:
Snakes and Ladders
It’s a splendid winter day—perfect blue skies, dazzling sunshine. People rush past me, all of them seemingly with specific destinations in their heads. I stay at a small intersection amid the hustle, my feet glued to the ground, limbs lead-laden. My mind is in pain. My jelly-like brain is wrestling with a simple decision. Should I go to the weekly yoga class, have a long over-due haircut, see my GP or head back home and straight to bed? Have I slept two hours or two minutes last night? I can’t tell.
Less than a year ago, I was diagnosed with moderate depression, which soon became severe enough to cause anxiety attacks at work, disrupt my sleep, deplete my energy reserves and erode my motivation and joy to live. I was functioning (‘being on autopilot’ is a more precise expression): looking after my family, barely managing the very minimum of regular chores, and appearing at work, pressured to maintain the crumbling ‘façade’.
I had just returned from overseas visiting my parents and sisters. Nothing went according to plan during this much-anticipated trip. I was sick with severe sinusitis for the entire time, and we needed to organise citizenship papers for one of my daughters. Most of the four weeks was spent sitting in endless queues at public clinics, hospitals and institutions, taking in the suffering of ill elderly people and confronting bad-tempered bureaucrats. Out came my magnifying glass of negativity. Everything I saw and faced was blown out of proportion. In hindsight, I could clearly see the mechanism of my undoing: the physical challenges of travelling with two children while feeling unwell, the separation from my extended family, guilt, massive disappointment, changes at work that occurred during my absence and the relentless carrousel of family life as well as negative thinking. This is the default mode my mind operates in during challenging times.
Initially I put the overwhelming tiredness and lack of motivation down to jetlag and the recent infection and tension. However, a few weeks elapsed. There was no sign of improvement. The symptoms I experienced were severe enough for my GP to prescribe antidepressants. In combination with Buddhist meditation, which I discovered in my search for mental peace, half a tablet of the lowest dose did the trick. Within just a few weeks, I regained control over my life, and things improved at work and socially. Fortunately, I was already on the way up when my father passed away, two months after our return to Sydney.
After less than half a year, I concluded that a new, confident ‘Me’ had emerged from the dark just as a phoenix from the ashes. I felt invincible pleading with my doctor to reduce the dose (to a quarter)…and relapsed.
This time, nothing out of the ordinary preceded the new episode. On the contrary, my mum had come over to visit us for the first time. On my days off work, she and I would stroll through a museum, have a cup of tea taking in magnificent harbour views. Then out of blue an overwhelming sadness and vast emptiness would hit me. Such moments started occurring more frequently gaining intensity. It is possible that I felt stressed before my mum’s arrival – organising her visa and worrying about how she would manage a long trip without speaking a word of English, trying to make her feel comfortable, planning outings, feeling guilty about not doing enough and, deep down, being already afraid of her departure. We also talked a lot about my dad as well as my mum’s plentiful problems and concerns, which I soaked up like a sponge.
After she left, my thinking became increasingly irrational: even the simplest decisions like what to cook for dinner were agonising. I was helplessly sliding down the depression spiral, in disbelief that it was happening to me again. I felt tearful, empty and very raw inside. My reflection in the mirror said it all: dull eyes, the worry lines on my forehead, a sorrowful tight mouth.
Positive words deserted my vocabulary. Food tasted bland, colours lost their vibrancy, sounds their volume, as if all my senses went on a simultaneous strike. In weeks, I didn’t open a book—once one of my prime pleasures—or listened to music. Even going to the movies with a girlfriend felt like hard work. I felt detached from my family, as if separated from them by a thick glass wall. I could see their expressions, make out their words but felt miles away.
Needless to say, my sense of worth (shaky in better times) nose-dived again, undermined by self-defeating thoughts and self-talk. Absolutely nothing felt right. Life started appearing pointless like the Sisyphean labour. Insomnia plagued me, leading to further exhaustion and bleak views and becoming a vicious cycle. I was struggling to open my eyes in the mornings, let alone lift my head from the pillow. Soon I was dreading every day, every minute of interminable days that were presenting insurmountable challenges. I lost interest in the world around me – there wasn’t any need to follow news. All I wanted to do was to curl up in my bed, to be cradled like a baby, relieved of all obligations and chores.
I was fortunate to have love and the great support of my husband, children, other family members and close friends. I was also fortunate to find a caring psychologist at Alpha Psychology. This time around, the ‘magic pills’ didn’t do the trick, at least not instantly. I have developed much deeper appreciation of the healing process, which has been gradual; a battle or a ‘journey’ in my psychologist’s words. Hazel pushed me to scrutinise and challenge my negative thinking patterns and deep-seated beliefs, to force myself to do things that I didn’t feel like doing including swimming outside on a chilly winter day, to appreciate small joys and to focus on positives, to not write off whole days as bad and to be kind to myself. Buddhist meditation showed me how important it is for one’s inner peace to accept our imperfect world including oneself and to live in the moment. My Buddhist teacher once compared life to the snakes and ladders game: one moment you cruise along, so close to the end of the board, and the next you come across a ‘snake’ and slide down, needing to start over again from scratch.
I’ve just managed to come up to the surface, and the medication I’m taking daily is still niggling at the back of my mind. I’m also well aware of my emotional frailty, of how one negative thought leads to another forming a never ending train. Depression is so adept at tricking you, incessantly whispering in its sufferers’ ears nasty ‘truths’. But for now, I am glad to be rid of the horrible whisper that made me doubt every decision, every step and ultimately myself. ‘Great’, ‘awesome’, ‘fantastic’ and ‘beautiful’ are in my vocabulary again, and I want to proclaim that life is worth living after all. I look at my children feeling gratitude and joy. It’s a work in progress but I view it as a great challenge, not a tedious chore!
“I can never do anything right” . “I always say the dumbest things”. “Why am I so stupid?”. Have you ever said these things to yourself? If you’re like the rest of us, chances are you have. Often. However, if these thought patterns continue as a form of running commentary all day every day (meaning they are left virtually unattended), they have potentially damaged your sense of self. We get so used to these whisperings that we do not even notice they are there. So they shape our lives.
According to a type of psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), our mind is like a master storyteller continuously telling us stories. It is in a constant monologue with us from the second we wake until the second we go to sleep. In fact, even as we sleep our storyteller continues to tell its stories or replay memories (often painful ones). According to this approach, very little of what your ‘storyteller’ (your mind) tells you (via thoughts) is fact where there is a ‘true’ and ‘false’. Rather, the stories are opinions, judgements, criticisms, beliefs, assumptions, and ideals. They are simply a reflection of the way you see the world. And these stories can be changed. So, the mind creates a narrative based on interpretation. Once formed, this narrative is hard to dismantle.
A thought is just a thought. It is neither ‘you’ nor reality. It arises, lingers in consciousness for a relatively short while then fades. It is just a mental event that passes through the mind like clouds or weather patterns passing through the sky. We are always explaining the world to ourselves, and we react emotionally to these explanations rather than to the facts. All the feelings we feel are brought on not by the events in our lives, but rather the interpretation of these events.
We can be drawn into thinking our thoughts are true and they are us and we are them. Once we become them we can fall into ruminative brooding, basically going over and over an event in our minds, all the while pushing our emotional buttons and increasing our stress and anxiety levels, causing overwhelming demoralising feelings.
The ‘blueprint’ for how we treat ourselves was formed when we were children via the emotional availability of our parent or main caregiver . When an infant cries, the emotionally attuned parent attends to the infant. The process that ensues of soothing, reassurance and nurturance are all displays of ‘love’ that, when repeated hundreds of times per day, are critical to that infant’s identity development and sense of self.
So, why is it that the same person with the same ideals can be the nurturing, kind, positive support to their best friend when something goes wrong yet be the harsh, rude and stern internal critic to themself when they face the same type of experience? Do you treat yourself the way you would like others to treat you?
Try these 5 immediate ways to challenge your internal critic as outlined in The Happiness Trap (they’re so simple they may seem unrealistic, but they work):
1. Anytime you feel stressed, anxious or depressed ask yourself ‘what is my mind telling me now?’ Then ask yourself “Is this thought helpful? Does it make me the person I want to be?” If it is unhelpful, practice being more mindful of it using the techniques below.
2. When a distressing thought arises, repeat the thought in your head after inserting this phrase: “I’m having a thought that…”. When you practice this repeatedly you will find some distance being created as if you have ‘stepped back’ from the unpleasant thought.
3. Identify your mind’s favourite demoralising stories then give them names, such as ‘The Loser Story or the I’m Worthless Story. Then, when they pop up say ‘Ah yes, I recognise this familiar story’.
4. When a common self-critical thought comes into your head, defuse its hold on you by singing it to yourself to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Jingle Bells’ or another tune. As you practice this over time you will realise the thought is simply a collection of words, just like the lyrics of a song.
5. Remember, the story is the story. The story is NOT the event. Avoid holding on to these too tightly.
By practicing letting go of disparaging and demoralising thoughts, we are removing the shackles that keep us trapped in the prison of our own minds. Only then can we begin to learn how to observe the same respect for ourselves that we so readily offer others.
As the common Buddhist saying goes: “You can explore the universe looking for somebody who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and you will not find that person anywhere”.
References and further reading:
The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris.
The Mindful Way Through Depression. Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn.
By: Alison Lenehan
Psychologist, Alpha Psychology
Registered Psychologist at Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre
Last week I was moved and inspired by the fragility and honesty shown by Australian VJ Ruby Rose in her public Facebook message about her ongoing battle with depression. Ruby’s story has been very public and her vocalism on subjects such as bullying, depression, gay and lesbian rights and surviving childhood trauma has been, still is, admirable and a source of inspiration to thousands of young people. What I most admire about her message however, is the way she talks about her illness as an illness. There is anticipated recovery and improvement just like there would be from the flu or an asthma attack. It goes to the very heart of how she views mental illness. The statement itself is, I believe, an indication of an evolution, dare I say revolution, in the way we are beginning to talk about mental health issues.
There is no doubt that those diagnosed and/or living with with a mental health issue experience stigma and challenge, we are not there yet. According to statistics from the National Mental Health Consumer and Carer Forum (www.nmhccf.org.au) people with a mental illness are among the most disadvantaged in Australian society. The severity and longevity of disadvantage very much depends on the condition. Social and economic hardship can be fleeting or a lifetime reality as people become vulnerable to isolation and discrimination at the hands of their families, communities and at times employers due to a lack of understanding of what living with mental illness means. Misconceptions are often perpetuated by the media and community jungle drums that favour sensational stories that end in tragedy and misery but do nothing to show us that people with mental health issues can live functional and fulfilled lives, and they can recover. The media portrays mental illness in a predominantly negative light e.g.in February this year over 90% of Australian media coverage of mental health issues was negatively reported (SANE StigmaWatch).
1 in 5 of us WILL suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives (see www.oneinfive.com.au). Those statistics are real and have real people and lives behind them. Most people have many more than 4 other people that live, love and work close to them so even if you are in denial that it could ever be YOU then it WILL be someone close to you. Wouldn’t it be a great achievement if 5 out of 5 people were educated about mental illness and no longer felt afraid of talking about it openly or helping a loved one deal with it? Significant others, friends, family members, colleagues, who could be life changers often feel disabled and disempowered due to a lack of knowledge and understanding. We’ve all offered the consolatory, ‘let me know if you need anything’ to friends, after all, most of us are well intentioned people. However, the bit we don’t often remember is that our friends and family who are in crisis or, less sensationally, normalising what you can see is not normal behaviour or coping, then we need to step in without having to be asked. Here are some things to consider (they are not age specific):
TAKE IT SERIOUSLY – You think there’s a problem. Don’t tell them to get over it or presume they are attention seeking. If you notice something that is out of the ordinary for them or a pattern emerging that is out of character share your concern with them. Ask them if they are alright, really. And ask them again until you are satisfied. If you suspect they are not alright then don’t leave it at that. Don’t be aggressive and diagnose them, they may not be ready to admit there’s a problem, perhaps suggesting you both run it past someone else is a logical first step. This also shares the burden so you are no longer feel alone. Let them know it’s OK to talk about it, you are not judging them.
COMMUNICATION – Be persistent. Let them know you are thinking of them, call and drop by – don’t wait for an invitation. Continue to ask them over and suggest outings, even if just for short walks. Depression and anxiety love to stay at home. Be a good listener. Acknowledge things are tough but still be realistically positive and hopeful, things don’t have to be like this forever but right now you can see it sucks. Timing is crucial, don’t push someone to talk if they don’t want to but be ready to stay for awhile if they need you. Give them some helpline numbers they can chat to when you are not there. Often there is no answer to the ‘why’ question, so if it’s not immediately obvious leave it up to the professionals to work this out. You need to make the person feel supported and accepted, assured that you will not abandon them in tough times.
PROFESSIONAL SUPPORT – Many sufferers find seeking help difficult, it means acknowledging there is an issue and it is too big for them to deal with. You can be the person who does the research, finds the right professional, makes appointments, sends reminders. You can facilitate the process without being overbearing. Remember, there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to treatment or treating professionals. Personally, I love to meet my clients’ support team. I ask about them all the time in session and since we have the same objective it may be useful to offer to go along to some appointments. You don’t have to go in but waiting in the lounge area is always a mark of respect and support that I admire.
SELF CARE – you need to look after yourself first and your friend/loved one second. It’s like the air masks on the aeroplane, you can’t help someone if you are struggling yourself. If you have been through a similar situation, don’t presume it’s the same and don’t presume what worked for you will work for them, infact don’t presume anything. You also need to set boundaries. Some conditions are unpredictable and manipulative and may be around for a long time to test your limits. You need to be clear with yourself about what you are able to offer in terms of availability. Getting a group of like minded friends/family members together can help in this. Have someone who you yourself can talk to when things get difficult and you are emotionally challenged.
EDUCATE YOURSELF – You are not a professional (although maybe you are!) but living closely to someone with a mental health issue does make you an expert. An expert in how it effects them. You may need to learn about medications, strategies, warning signs, relapse prevention depending on what you are dealing with. There are lots of support sites and forums out there to connect with people who are walking the same path as you. It helps to know that you are not the first and not alone.
BE THERE – when you can. Don’t make promises that are unrealistic and you can’t keep. Having a safety plan for crises can be helpful and this should be negotiated with a mental health professional if your friend is suicidal or in crisis. Not everyone is equipped to be able to deal with mental illness as well as the next person. Just like my knees go to jelly when I see a child’s wobbly tooth, (I would make a terrible school nurse!); some people find it difficult to be proactive in support. Having said this, we all have a RESPONSIBILITY to treat people with respect, help if and where we can, give them space and support from afar if we can’t. We can’t afford to ignore problems or think they happen to other people. According to the World Health Authority the burden of mental health disorders is set to rise significantly over the next 20 years. The effects on family, friends and caregivers cannot be underestimated. The first step in reducing stigma and discrimination in order to increase helpseeking and support services is to educate our communities to be helpful and supportive rather than judgemental and powerless.
And to you Ruby Rose I say, thank you for once again raising awareness of such an important issue. I wish you well on your journey to wellness.
Hazel is a Registered Psychologist who works at Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre. If you would like to talk to Hazel about someone you are concerned about or receive some support yourself you can contact her here.