Live better. Take care of your inner self.
We tend to go and seek medical advice when we are physically ill or injured. Why does the same not apply to our mental state? Mental health is still stigmatized. Mental health issues are seen as weakness. People do not want to talk about them. People are worried about being judged. People are told to “just be stronger” and “get over it”. Family, friends, and colleagues may roll their eyes and imply someone is getting “yet another free pass” to do what they want. These sentiments are toxic.
Mental health is real. Mental health issues are real. And they are not a sign of weakness. We are an interplay of thoughts, emotions, and physiology, all in order to aid our survival. Just like our physical health, sometimes this interplay goes wrong and causes dysfunction. Here are some ways that therapy can help us maintain and nurture our mental health:
1. Understanding our inner critic and making it work with us. We tend to have a voice in our heads that pushes us harder, yet also cuts us down. This voice may remind us of all the bad things that will happen in the future. Or it may judge all the things we have done in the past. This voice has a place in our lives, but it often becomes louder than it should be, causing distress, anxiety and other mental health issues. Therapy can help to identify how this voice was internalised, and strengthen our healthy voice to stand up to it when necessary.
2. Recognizing, acknowledging and validating emotions appropriately, so they do not take over our lives. Emotions guide our survival. Our memory capacity is limited and emotions can help us to encode things that are important for survival. If you almost get hit by a car on your way to work, that sudden fear gets encoded in our brain. When you walk along the same street corner, your body may respond with anxiety to remind you to be more careful. The more we suppress emotions and the information they hold for us, the louder they will speak. These processes can escalate, leading to overwhelming emotion. Sometimes these emotions are challenged into physical symptoms, like headaches, heart pain, stomach issues or breathing problems. Therapy can help to recognize, acknowledge and validate emotions appropriately, so they do not take over our lives.
3. Recognizing how negative life experiences have been encoded as templates. Our brains encode our negative experiences as a template for evaluating new experiences. This lens may distort reality. We react to relationships at home and work based on these negative templates. The brain does this as a survival mechanism: if we have burned ourselves on a stove before, we learn not to touch it again. Unfortunately, our brains often over-generalise. They may match up a single factor of a situation with previous bad experience, and thus, trigger us to react defensively. For survival, it is better to be safe than sorry. However, for our mental health, relying on these templates can lead to inappropriate behavioural patterns that keep us from achieving our goals and reduce our well-being. Therapy can help to properly process previous traumas and limit their negative effects on our lives.
4. Identifying when our brains alert us to threats. If our brains perceive a threat in our environment, they will trigger a cascade of hormones to prepare us for a survival response: fight or flight. This can happen before we even notice as our brains are always monitoring the world around us for potential danger. Therapy can help to recognize, pause and even stop this process before it takes control of us.
5. Acknowledging that chronic stress wears out our bodies. Chronic stress leads to chronic elevation of stress hormones in our blood, which messes with our physiology. Our body cannot function as well as it should. We heighten our risk for disease, including cardiovascular disease, digestive dysfunctions, headaches, and decreased immune-functioning.
6. Highlighting dysfunctional behavioural patterns that we were not aware of. More often than not, we have engaged in similar behavioural patterns over decades. They become second nature to us. We lose sight of when and how they are happening. Therapy can help to identify these and begin to change unwanted thoughts, feelings or behaviours.
7. Championing us on in what feels like an uphill battle. Left untreated, mental health issues slow us down. Clients tell me they feel like they are battling from the moment they wake up. Symptoms can include foggy thoughts, severe fatigue, low mood, lack of motivation, repetitive negative thoughts, turning to alcohol and drugs to take the edge off, or physical symptoms like racing heartbeat or nausea. These can be exhausting and it makes it harder to complete even daily chores. If you are pushing uphill in this battle, do not give up. Therapy can help not only to give you the extra push but also to reduce the symptoms and break down the hill.
We need to talk about mental health. Just like physical health, mental health is part of our biological make-up. Treatment for physical issues seems more tangible, while treatment for mental health may be harder to grasp. However, therapy provides assessment tools, concrete strategies, guided reflection, and evidence-based exercises to address mental health issues.
We need to talk about mental health as suffering is real. Suicides are real. Depression, anxiety, burnout, stress, and despair are real. Intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, phobias, and hallucinations are real. And all of these things can be debilitating and take away our well-being.
We need to talk about mental health to help stigmatize it. Because just like physical ailments, mental health issues can hit anyone. And when they do, we should be able to seek and provide help without judgment, just as we would for broken bones, pneumonia or cancer.