When life is at its darkest and we can’t find any belief in the future not just being this same place of pain and despair, that is when we most need the support and help of others. I have heard, and read, about so many people who have felt too ashamed or frightened to share what they are going through with others around them, or who have been met with disbelief, contempt or fear when they’ve been brave another to speak about their distress. So when I hear or read about someone who has had a different experience, who has been met with support, generosity and kindness from family and friends, and even strangers, during their most difficult times, I want to hold on to that hope.
What people truly need when at their most unwell is to know others won’t shy away; that they will listen, not define that person by their illness and wait patiently for them to get better. It may be hard, even impossible, to believe that we will ever recover, but it is the help of friends, family, mental health professionals – and the kindness of strangers we meet perhaps on the internet or in elsewhere – that helps us to re-connected with the world. Anyone experiencing a mental illness needs others to stay in touch in some way – through being there, calling, texting or emailing – to show that person they are valued and cared about. When we can’t hold onto hope for ourselves we need others to do it for us.
I’ve been reflecting on how many of us, particularly women, find ourselves focusing our energies excessively onto others, to the point that we lose our sense of having a self. These others are usually partners or children, although they can be friends, colleagues, parents. Often the experience of having had a parent who dedicates herself to the care of the family – seemingly asking or expecting nothing for herself except the role as caregiver – leads us to expect something similar of ourselves. So when we find ourselves as parents or partners we resort to that template of behaviour. However, being so eternally self-sacrificing can lead to a loss of self. I’ve witnessed others bewilderment when asked, ‘But what is it that you want?’; as if the concept of having their own needs and desires has fallen so far from view as to be virtually inaccessible.
Being able to balance listening to and understanding others with listening to and understanding our own concerns, viewpoints and preferences moves us towards equal relationships. I believe that we need to both listen to our own thoughts and our partner’s (or children’s, or friend’s), and respond to both with equal interest and care.
Shyness can feel crippling. Sweaty palms, heart beating too fast, mouth dry… it’s all too easy to avoid situations that make us feel that way. However, studies have shown that we can learn to stay cool under performance pressure. They found that all the participants’ bodies reacted to the stressful situation in very much the same way: the difference came from the fact that the people who were more socially anxious paid more attention to their bodies and magnified that response; perceiving it as greater than it actually was.
It seems that you can create a crisis of confidence by overreacting to your own normal heightened alertness. So you should also be able to teach yourself to react to those bodily messages differently – they aren’t signs that you’re failing, but that you want to do well and your body is ready to help. Professional performers report the same symptoms before they perform and some see their nervousness as a source of energy and commitment to whatever they do: they care enough to worry about it.
We can encourage the body’s self-calming process with techniques such as shaking joints loose and conscious breathing, and to keep reassuring ourselves that we can make a choice in how we react to our anxiety and shyness.
I read this Kurdish saying recently: The root of all health is in the brain. The trunk of it is in emotion. The branches and leaves are the body. The flower of health blooms when all parts work together.
It sums up so well how intertwined our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations are. There is no divide between mind and body. Each emotion we feel has a corresponding sensation in our bodies, if only we are aware enough to recognise it. If we are unwell in our bodies, we will feel unwell in some way emotionally. And, of course, if we are unwell in our minds then our bodies suffer too. So, to take care of ourselves emotionally we need to be able to take care of ourselves physically. By this I don’t mean obsessing about healthy eating, or punishing ourselves through exercise: I mean respecting, honouring and caring for our physical needs, and our emotional needs too. If either of these feel too hard to do, we need to recognise that something isn’t right for us, and find the help we need.
I’ve just started a counselling accreditation process. Part of this led to me reflecting on the path that has brought me to where I am now. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about my own journey. I was surprised by how much I felt for that younger me and by how satisfying it was to explain myself.
Coincidently I read about a young woman’s battle with trauma and anxiety: the after-effects of an early abusive relationship. For her, talking was very difficult. She couldn’t explain to her friends and family how she felt, why she acted in the ways she did. But she could write it down; so she started writing a blog. She was brave enough to share what she wrote with those close to her and they began to understand what she’d been through and was still suffering from. She got to tell her story.
We all need to tell our stories, even if only to ourselves. It’s when our stories don’t make sense to us, or we feel unable to share them, that truly suffer alone.