''... very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.''
The pressure that we may feel to be ‘happy’ can be problematic as we may side-step difficult emotions (sadness, depression, anger etc). And many of our difficulties may be related to avoiding difficult these feelings which can lead to an emotional imbalance. It is vital therefore to be able to accept and experience both so called ‘negative’ emotions as well as the more ‘positive’ ones as this is part and parcel of living life to the full. The intended outcome of psychotherapy is for people to become more balanced, integrated and independent in order to live an emotionally rich and ‘happy’ life. Therapy is a space where all feelings, thoughts and experiences can be accepted, thought about and made meaningful. Because difficulties are worked through, you may sometimes feel worse before you feel happier during therapy! Ultimately, however, you are likely to feel more stable and 'happier' overall by allowing yourself to experience whatever you feel and not avoiding challenging areas.
Despite the above, however, positivity and good habits which may foster a sense of well-being may have their place alongside or in between working through difficulties. There is evidence that happier people live longer and healthier lives. Here are some things which people who consider themselves to be happy do regularly.
Things happy people do...
Time spent with people who are caring, positive and happy can be immensely beneficial for our confidence, sense of self-worth and happiness. Building deep relationships with friends and family is perhaps both the most challenging and also the most rewarding of human endeavours. Here we can be open and vulnerable and we can learn, discover, grow and truly commune with others.
Being in the countryside, mountains, beaches, nature reserves, heath and even the garden or local park has a calming effect on us – the green colours, fresh air, sunshine and space are all natural ‘de-stressers’. It is well worth making this part of our daily routine and, when possible spending longer periods in nature and away from busy cities and towns.
Some people spend too much time on their own while others may be continuously with others. Some time to be alone every day is vital to recharge our batteries and return to commune with ourselves. We are constantly having a relationship with ourselves and awareness of this can help us to ensure this is a rewarding and supportive relationship.
Everybody knows that regular exercise is quickest way to make us feel good about ourselves. It is not good to overdo it but exerting ourselves physically for 20 -30 minutes a day and working through the desire to stop will not only release (‘feel good’) endorphins into our blood stream it will also give us a sense of achievement and build our self-discipline.
Finding a partner is not easy. And maintaining an intimate relationship requires hard work, compromise, creativity and flexibility. However, being intimate with someone - having someone to love and be loved by is perhaps the greatest of all human achievements. The psychological health benefits of a healthy loving bond are immense.
Of course, it is obvious but eating fresh, healthy unprocessed food makes us feel good. The way we feed ourselves is an act of self-care or sabotage. Over eating and undereating create physical stress and are likely to be the result of mental distress or poor habits.
Sleep is an important factor in mental health. Too little or too much sleep can be harmful and finding the right amount for you is key. The quality of your sleep is also important and a restful and replenishing sleep is best. Sleeping in a quiet, well-aired space after winding down, some time after eating and watching screens (tv, laptops etc) is ideal.
Being in water seems to be very therapeutic whether swimming, playing, paddling or relaxing in hot water. Even resting close to a river, lake or the sea or listening to the sound of running water or the sea is calming and inspiring. Swimming is a great way to combine the benefits of physical exercise with being in water.
Whether you are drawing, painting, building, fixing, writing, designing, making things or playing an instrument there is something satisfying and fulfilling about being creative. It is helpful to join with other creative people perhaps in a class or a workshop to get further inspiration.
In London there is no end of displays and exhibitions and many of them are free. Creating art yourself or going to seeing art can be very inspiring. For me, mother nature is the greatest artist and nature the most awesome exhibition of all!
Shakespeare wrote: If music be the food of love, play on! Even if it is not the food of love, some kinds of music can be at times soothing and uplifting. It can also sometimes bring up the full range of emotions we may be experiencing underneath the surface. It must be the right music and in the right quantity and the right volume for you, however, otherwise it may not be helpful.
Is Anger so bad?
Anger is a normal, healthy and helpful emotion! Many people are surprised by this kind of statement and consider anger to be a negative feeling which should be avoided or hidden away. This is mainly because people associate anger with harmful words or actions which of course is different from the feeling of anger itself.
All emotions have their purpose and they have evolved to help us. Anger is a normal response to certain situations. It tells us something is wrong and creates discomfort inside us (e.g. tension, higher blood pressure etc) which pushes us towards trying to change or resolve something. Anger then may help us to stay safe and protect ourselves or others from harm or danger.
Irritation, annoyance, boredom, frustration, grumpiness, anger, fury, rage are all versions of anger at different levels of intensity, and we have all experienced these feelings at times.
A balanced approach might be to:
If you have relatively minor issues with anger from time to time, there are various techniques which can usefully help you to become calmer and reduce the intensity and duration of your anger such as breathing awareness exercises, breathing regulation exercises and meditation.
The situation is more serious, however, if:
If your anger is impacting on the quality of your life in these ways, you could seek help from a counsellor in order to help you tackle the underlying issues which may be fuelling the anger.
If your anger is impacting on the quality of your life in these ways, you could seek help from a counsellor in order to help you tackle the underlying issues which may be fuelling the anger. If you are in this situation, it may be because you have been unable to work through certain painful experiences from your past. Or maybe you have come from a family where there was a lot of anger, hostility or aggression and you have not learnt how to manage these emotions. Perhaps your feelings seem to spiral out of control and it then becomes difficult to remain reasonable and see the other person’s point of view. Your body and mind may become flooded with hormones, making you feel physically ‘fired up’ and you may get ‘stuck’ in these feelings or in difficult situations where it is hard to ‘back down’ or ‘unwind’.
As mentioned above, if you are constantly or intensely angry, if it is difficult to manage or if you are turning to destructive or behaviours, it is important to seek help from a counsellor without delay. In the meantime here are some strategies to help you to avoid becoming overpowered by anger.
The more conscious and aware you are of yourself, your emotions and your difficulties, the more able you are to manage them and keep yourself from harm. Anticipating the feelings before - or as - they arise, allows you to take steps to ensure your emotions do not get out of control. Try to:
- see situations ahead which would typically make you annoyed
- notice that you are beginning to get irritated
- be aware of physical changes which accompany these feelings such as an increase in tension, irregular breathing, faster heart beats
Take action early to prevent anger getting the better of you and to keep yourself safe:
- avoid the situation by moving away physically
- if you can’t move away, give yourself time to think by counting
- 'stay with' the physical changes in your body without reacting to them
- speak to someone who is neutral about something unrelated to the issue to feel connected to others and take you mind away from the stimulus of you anger
- phone a family member or friend to get some support
- learn some breathing control exercises beforehand and use these as necessary
- learn some breathing awareness exercises beforehand and use these as necessary
- learn some relaxation techniques beforehand and use these as necessary
Once you have prevented the anger from overpowering you, you could try processing the feelings:
- acknowledge your anger and decide not to react as each time you react the pattern gets stronger
- be aware of your thought patterns and don’t respond as you usually would – try something new or challenge the typical thought patterns by having an internal conversation
- try to think about what feelings were around before you got angry and you may find that your anger is partly covering up other painful feelings which you have been avoiding but actually need to feel and process
Over the long term, you should try to make sure that you:
- have plenty of purpose in your life – do things that you love and that are creative and meaningful
- build a network of close and supportive relationships
- do enough exercise (to avoid having pent up tension and energy)
- get enough restful sleep
- avoid drugs and alcohol which may be masking difficult feelings which need to be experienced and be understood
See resources for further support.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety can be understood as agitation or concern that something is not quite right or something needs to be done. It is a normal, biological and mental (emotional) response to everyday events as well as actual danger. It prepares our body and mind to pay attention and perhaps be ready to take action. Understood in this way, anxiety is a normal and useful part of everyday life. Anxiety creates mental and physical tension which is normally relieved when appropriate action is taken.
For some people, however, anxiety can become unmanageable or overwhelming. We may find ourselves unable to resolve the apparent cause of the unease or we may find that everything causes us to worry excessively. We might then feel oppressed by the anxiety itself instead of responding to the problem and moving on. High levels of anxiety can prevent us from living a productive, creative and balanced life and
the tension associated with this can lead to other psychological and physical problems.
If you are overly anxious, you may:
- feel restless and have difficulties sleeping
- have obsessive, intrusive or incessant thoughts
- catastrophise everything and always fear that the worst will happen
- experience physical symptoms such as indigestion, stomach aches, IBS, issues with breathing, perspiration, heart palpitations etc
- find it difficult to make decisions
- fear and avoid change, and stick to fixed routines
- have panic attacks
If you are experiencing levels of stress and anxiety which are debilitating and prevent you from socialising, sleeping, working, doing everyday tasks or leaving the house, you should consult a trained therapist to help you as there are likely to be underlying issues which need to be worked through.
Complaining may not be helpful as it makes us feel as if we are victims of what is being done to us and we cannot do anything about it. Talking about our feelings, however, with someone who is sympathetic is helpful especially if we are prepared to also take steps to deal with what is troubling us. Suffering in silence is not going to work!Accept anxiety
It is part and parcel of life. A ‘can do’ and accepting attitude means that you are not exerting energy trying to avoid reality – stressful things happen and the biggest problem may be either trying to avoid them or how we are seeing them. Try to keep things in perspective and avoid catastrophising everythingPrioritise
Try not be overwhelmed by each challenge, change or misfortune - or allow it to ruin your day. Avoid feeling that there are too many things manage by prioritising - deal with the most pressing issues first. And don’t feel that everything has to be sorted out completely or perfectly. Accept some improvement.Accept the difficult emotions
Accept the difficult emotions that may accompany anxiety. Try to spend some time accepting, feeling and staying with these difficult emotions and to balance this by then spending some time taking care of yourself by doing things you enjoy which are calming, relaxing and fun.Be aware of negative thoughts
Noticing thought patterns about yourself is a very important step which can then be followed by challenging these thoughts.Exercise
Getting fit makes you both more physically and alos more mentally resilient and able to manage anxiety, stress and tension. Work towards developing a regular – ideally daily – routine with a variety of ways of exercising so as to use/rest different muscle groups and also to keep it interesting.Sleep
This can be a little ‘chicken and egg’ as anxiety can make it difficult to sleep and a lack of sleep can cause anxiety. It is worth investing time, however, in finding ways to get enough restful sleep. Do some research and experimenting on what to do to wind down before sleep, what time to get to sleep and how much sleep you need.
Panic is a sudden, intense and unexpected rush of fear and anxiety in relation to a dangerous or worrying situation. Everyone feels panic from time to time and this feeling is usually momentary. In a ‘panic attack’, on the other hand, this feeling remains for a longer period of time, and perhaps even seems to become more and more intense before it diffuses. This ‘attack’ can makes us feel more and more anxious and frightened or even overwhelmed. This in turn causes our body to react as if there was a real threat or danger. Physically our heart rate and breathing might increase or become irregular, adrenaline is released into our body, and we might feel tense, dizzy or faint.
A vicious circle
A vicious circle can then occur which prolongs the panic attack. Initially it is our thoughts which cause our body to react with physical symptoms. The physical symptoms then cause our mind to generate even more worry and fear, which then cause more bodily reactions and so on! A panic attack can be a very frightening situation and at the time it can seem as if we are going to come to actual physical harm. We may feel, for example, as if we are going to have a heart attack, lose our footing or faint.If you are suffering from panic attacks regularly, you should consider seeing a counsellor as they can seriously impact on the quality of your life. Having panic attacks suggests that there are likely to be feelings or deeper anxieties which you may be avoiding. Or perhaps you have had experiences which could be have never been fully worked through.
The good news
Fortunately, panic attacks are not physically dangerous or harmful and it is important to try to remember this when they are happening as this is the kind of thought that can help to weaken the vicious circle as described above. There are also many techniques for managing the attacks such as distraction, breathing exercises and body and mind relaxation (see NHS leaflet). These may be helpful until you are have been able to resolve the underlying worries which may be causing the attacks.
If you feel unwell you should always seek medical assistance unless you feel certain you are experiencing the symptoms of a panic attack.
Men and Masculinity
Be a man! Toxic masculinity and mental health
‘Toxic masculinity’ is an emotive and controversial term. But there is evidence to suggest that male and female children are treated differently and that this gendered treatment seems to transmit expectations for males to be stronger, more confident, resilient, and entitled, and to be less emotional. Does this conditioning for boys and men to aspire to an ‘ideal’ of masculinity prevent men from thriving as happy unique individuals? Does it contribute towards men being less able to identify their own needs and get those needs met? Does it also increase violence in society?
Does ‘toxic masculinity’ kill men?
Is there a link between mental health issues and even suicide and the toxic masculinity which teaches boys and men to suppress their emotions, deny their vulnerability and adhere to a rigidly ‘masculine’ gender role? In the United Kingdom, men are 3 times as likely to commit suicide than women (samaritans.org). Whereas women will typically feel more able to talk about their emotions, problems and vulnerabilities, men are more likely to respond to stress by taking risks or by turning to drugs and alcohol. When compared to women, men are less likely to ask for help, less likely to have a positive attitude towards therapy and mostly only turn to counselling once their issues have reached crisis point. 70% of male college students who experience mental health issues do not seek counselling services (Eisenberg, Hunt, & Speer, 2012).
‘Man up’! Toxic masculinity and depression
There is also evidence to suggest that there is a link between depression and conforming to certain masculine norms. By feeling that, as males, they should be self-reliant and independent, men may be more likely to hide ‘negative’ emotions (sadness, anxiety, depression etc) and avoid seeking help for emotional difficulties which can leave them more vulnerable to experiencing depression. Men who feel that they should conform to the male ‘playboy’ stereotype by having many sexual partners and may have difficulty forming intimate relationships heightening the risk of experiencing depression. Conforming to normalised male gender roles of avoiding ‘femininity’ and showing weakness, being dominant and aggressive, showing ‘toughness’, restricting their emotions and hiding difficult emotions are likely to lead to depression and other mental health problems. (Magovcevic & Addis, 2008; O’Neil, 2008; Vandello & Bosson, 2013,). There is some evidence to show that men with emotional problems men are more likely to turn to violence, risk taking, drugs and alcohol to manage distress, anxiety, anger and other painful feelings.
In an article in the Independent, DJ Mistajam discusses his perspective on masculine stereotypes, depression and bullying
Is misogyny and violence against women linked to masculinity
As mentioned above, out of desperation, men are more likely to turn to violence to manage painful emotions. As such violent behaviours may well be intrinsically linked to societal definitions and expectations of manhood. Violence against women (sexual and domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault), violence against other men and violence against the self (self-harm, suicide, risk taking, substance abuse etc) is linked to outdated constructs of what men ‘should’ be. If messages are transmitted to boys and men that they should reject femininity because it is ‘weak’ and the opposite of the sought after masculine ideal, is this the early sowing of seeds of misogyny?
Here is a link to a Ted talk by Jackson Katz who strongly suggests that violence is linked to definitions of manhood.
A short film sourced from the Washington Post in which a boy who is exploring what it means
to be a man is inadvertently challenged everything the boy thought he knew.
A youtube video which is part of a series on Modern Masculinity. Guardian journalist Iman Amrani interviews men who are involved with Football Beyond Borders which uses football to engage and support young people from disadvantaged communities. Amrani asks men who are typically excluded from mainstream discussions what masculinity means to them.
Post Partum Depression
The following is an extract from an article written by a psychotherapist – Annie Wright – who has experienced Postpartum Depression herself. Click here to read the complete article and go to her website for more helpful resources: https: www.anniewrightpsychotherapy.com
Postpartum Depression: “Did I ruin my life by having a child?”
….“when The Baby Blues persist after several weeks, when the symptoms start to increase in severity and intensity, when your experience starts to include depressed mood and severe mood swings, difficulty bonding with your baby, insomnia (even when you get a blessed few hours to sleep!), hopelessness, restlessness, severe anxiety, panic, and/or thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, you’re not just dealing with The Baby Blues anymore. You’re most likely dealing with Postpartum Depression.
One experience is normal and natural and fades relatively quickly after the birth.
The other I still think we can call normal and natural, but it’s much more severe in nature, more persistent, and it’s a complication of birth that can dramatically impact you, your wellbeing, and sometimes your ability to bond with your baby and weather the transition adequately.
I have a lot of advantages in being a licensed therapist and having been in this field for almost ten years to know about Postpartum Depression and to be able to track myself and my emotional experience closely (even in the postpartum hormonal and sleep-deprived haze that made me less than my most grounded, self-aware self!)….”