New Aspect Blog
Thoughts and opinions on counselling, mental health and related issues....
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Why Everyone Should Read Dr Seuss's "Oh, The Places You'll Go!" - 11th September 2017
I am drawn to Dr Seuss’s books as they combine wonderfully surreal escapism with accurate insights about the human condition. Mixing the two together makes his wise advice about life much more accessible. One of my favourites is “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” To me it feels like a slightly off the wall version of the advice a parent would give their child
Early on Dr Seuss writes: “You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes; you can steer yourself in any direction you choose” – we have more freedom than we realise, and we’re urged to have confidence in our own selves, to be the masters of our own destiny, taking charge of our own lives, to engage with life and do something with it.
But in the midst of the fun, all the excitement and adventure, when you’re the “Best of the Best” it all stops, as “Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you”. He describes being in a slump, and that it’s difficult to get out of. Dr Seuss doesn’t sugar coat the world by only describing all the wonderful things, it has its ups and downs.
He tells us of “The Waiting Place” with its denizens waiting for things to happen to them, for someone to come along and fix their problems. They’re waiting for “a Yes or No… a Better Break… Another Chance”, but you’re reminded that that’s not you, you’ll think for yourself, escape the waiting and go on to better things. However sometimes you’ll play “Games you can’t win, ‘cause you’ll play against you”. But even in the midst of the self-criticism, fear and anxiety he describes the determination of the reader’s character, who is able to work through and overcome their problems.
It’s a children’s book so [spoiler alert] it ends well, but it ends well and includes the bad times. The bad times are part of the journey. So often we’re shown how a perfect life should be, and it can become easy to forget that sometimes you won’t feel up to it, life will feel like a riddle, a maze, a puzzle, and that it’s all part of the journey.
It may take place in a fantasy world of strange beasts, bright colours and ridiculous contraptions, but “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” is one of the most honest and realistic children’s books I’ve ever read.
Is Sleep A Waste Of Time? - 25th July 2017
Thomas Edison, the man who brought us the electric light bulb, thought sleep was a waste of time. We are living in a world that is awake, active and ready to engage 24 hours a day, and it’s easy to be tempted to agree with Edison when presented with all the interesting things to do that are accessible every second of every day. Unlike 30 years ago, when TV channels used to stop after midnight (google it millennials, I’m not joking) we can carry on gaming, shopping, chatting, reading, watching or whatever we like 24 hours a day. It may be the small hours of the morning here in the UK, but there’s always someone in a different time zone who’s awake. An article a few years ago in the Guardian showed that John Lewis had noticed a 30% rise in sales between midnight and 6am, fuelled in part by people having tablets in bed with them. The bedroom has become another place to access the world out there, rather than a restful escape from it.
Sleep is a natural process in the cycle of daily living. Our body tells us when we need sleep, and generally regulates sleeping to the hours of darkness. Over the course of your life it’s the thing you will spend the most time doing. Sleep enables the body to power down, to recharge and repair itself. From a physical perspective, those who work night shifts over a long period of time have less effective immune systems and a lower life expectancy. It seems that the body is set up for a natural rhythm and we ignore this at our peril.
The effect of a lack of sleep on our minds is just as important. Studies have shown that a lack of sleep has a wide-ranging impact upon the brain. Those who don’t get enough sleep make riskier decisions and are less creative. From a mental health perspective, disrupted sleep can cause the brain to hold onto negative memories instead of positive ones, and it’s also suggested that it limits the ability to empathise with others.
A much higher percentage of those who are depressed also suffer with insomnia. Studies are unclear whether one causes the other, but the lack of sleep contributes to and reinforces the depressive feelings and impairs relations to the rest of the world. It is not without reason that sleep deprivation is considered as a torture method in the Geneva convention.
For many, sleep is often seen as a necessary gap in between doing things rather than a relaxing and helpful part of our daily routine. But sleeping is essential for our health, both physical and mental. Not getting enough sleep can affect not only your body, but your emotional health and the supportive relationships around you. The Dalai Lama once said that “Sleep is the best meditation”. Perhaps if we fully understood the vital role that sleep plays in maintaining our health we’d be better able to prioritise it. Although it cannot be a cure for all life’s ills, sleep is the foundation on which a healthy and happy life is built.
'Forest Bathing' - Why the Countryside is good for your Mental Health - 24th June 2017
This month's article was published on The Counsellors Cafe website, to access it, please click here.
Man, It's Good To Talk - 13th May 2017
I few weeks ago I was asked to attend ‘Huddle’, a fundraising event in Brighton in aid of the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).
If you haven’t heard of them, CALM is a brilliant UK charity dedicated to preventing male suicide. Statistics show that in the UK around 75% of all people who die by suicide are male, and it’s the leading cause of death for men under 45.
I was there to be a point of contact for information about counselling and support in Brighton. During my research I was very pleased to find that there were a high number of counselling organisations that offer accessible low-cost counselling – As You Are, Cruse, Rock Clinic, Age UK, YMCA to name a few.
The day was a lively mix of music, art, poetry and puppetry, and what it reminded me was the importance of having an outlet. One of the poets who performed talked to me about how his poetry gave him a way to express his emotions, meaning all of the difficult things he was feeling didn’t stay bottled up inside him.
We all need an outlet, a place to express ourselves. It may be something creative, a sport, just being with friends, or at times this may include seeing a counsellor. At the event I was a source of information for where to get help in Brighton, as it’s important to have a network of people who will be there to support you when times are hard. The temptation can be to ‘man up’, to hold onto things and not deal with them in fear of burdening others. However those that support you do so because they are there for you, not because they need you to be OK all the time. Not processing things means that negative emotions build up and have to be carried around, adding to the burden of everyday living. There’s no opportunity to get a perspective on the problems, to explore and work it through so that you can let them go.
For men it can be difficult to put in place those support networks – there is a stereotype that men often don’t talk about their emotions, particularly not to other men, who can often make up most of their close social circle. This was summed up in the CALM magazine that I was given at the event, being described as “impressing not expressing”. The need to show how good you are, whether to impress or just feel good enough, becomes the most important thing. The destructive stereotype that to be a proper man means you are in control at all times, not expressing your emotions as people might doubt your man credentials. Thankfully the work of CALM is helping to change the conversation, reminding men that you can talk about difficult things, that you and your mates are going to struggle at times, as life is hard, and difficult things are going to happen, but you can be a man and get the support you need.
Having counselling as an option is vitally important, however there are a great deal more people in the UK than there are counsellors, so perhaps what is most important is on a day to day basis having that outlet, and with it a group of people you trust to be there for you when you need support.
Whose Truth Is It Anyway? - 20th April 2017
I recently read a quote from the Victorian explorer Richard Francis Burton:
All faith is false, all faith is true:
Truth is the shattered mirror strown
In myriad bits; while each believes
His little bit the whole to own
From the perspective of humanistic counselling and psychotherapy, this is a fundamental reason why the client is accepted as the expert in themselves, and for me one of the reasons why I support clients to explore their own experiences. As a counsellor my opinion is simply my opinion. I can empathise and try to understand and feel what it’s like for you, but although I can come close, I can never know for sure exactly how you experience the world. I hold my own piece of mirror, and you hold yours. Over time those experiences can get blurred and become less clear, meaning it can be difficult to remember the truth of exactly what happened. However most important is how you respond to the memories you do have, and how it affects your life now.
I was also struck by how this quote chimed with current events in the world, and the terms ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’. It brought to mind the question of how we define ‘truth’. For many physical things we can be pretty certain, I am wearing a t-shirt, the sun is shining, it is raining. You’d have to be pretty picky to argue with them. What is far less certain is the non-physical; things like ‘society’, ‘justice’, ‘innocent’, and ‘deserving’. Although it’s comforting to think you know the truth, it’s not a definitive thing. You can’t uncover and examine a real life nugget of truth. Truth is more like the build up of silt at the bottom of a river. It slowly builds up and is changed bit by bit over time in the culture you live in.
Once we accept that truth is not this fixed thing to be found and clung onto, it becomes easier to accept that others hold different truths, and that no matter how much we may disagree with them, no-one has a monopoly on the truth. For us as individuals it also gives space for hope that some of the negative truths we cling to may not be so fixed. A person might firmly hold the belief that they must never feel sad, as letting in even a bit of sadness would open the floodgates leading to an overwhelming wave of sadness descending upon them. Through counselling it may be possible to explore these beliefs, where these messages came from, and how they might be reinforced now. Building up self-confidence and re-discovering resources may enable them to explore and perhaps slowly challenge some of the ‘truths’ that are affecting their mental health. To be open to our own sadness is an important part of living fully, experiencing life and making decisions based on all of our emotions. The nearer we can get to this situation the more open, accepting and healthier we are.
The World In Your Pocket? - 9th March 2017
Does modern life seem overwhelming? Does it seem that everywhere you look there is more information demanding your attention? Not only the daily deluge of e-mails, but a constant stream of updates and notifications from WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook, Instragram, LinkedIn, Pinterest and all those other seemingly essential apps you’ve downloaded.
Technology is often used as an escape, but in the past it required some effort on your part to stay engaged. You completed the computer game and had to go and do something else, or at least go outside and buy another one. Now if you watch your phone or tablet in your room you’re effectively going to bed with a library of everything that was ever written, said, filmed, or recorded – no wonder it’s hard to put down! There will always be something interesting to read, look at or watch, only limited by your patience or your battery. Indeed a report by the BBC (Kleeman 2017) last week noted that the use if smartphones and tablets in bed was one of the factors that has lead to the huge rise in the number of children with sleep disorders.
Having constant access to what’s going on in the world is pretty amazing, I don’t doubt that. The ability to speak and exchange ideas with people from all backgrounds across the world and to stay connected with friends thousands of miles away is a remarkable thing. However this interconnectivity with things happening thousands of miles away affects our perception of world immediately around us. An article from the Huffington Post (Gregoire 2015) notes that as we become closer and more connected to the rest of the world, this also means a greater exposure to suffering and violence, even though in reality we are in no personal danger from it. This leads to a sustained feeling of threat, even though in places like the UK we are living in some of the safest times on record. From the perspective of our own personal safety, if we think of the bad things we hear in the news, how many times has it been from somewhere we’ve ever visited, let alone somewhere we’ve ever lived? Whilst it is important to be informed about the wider world, what is deemed newsworthy is usually something bad happening, so our concerns about the world are confirmed when in fact we’re only getting half of the story. Having this global access on our person at all times means we can bring the bad things in the world to our rooms and our safe places too.
You may think that hearing about people being happy and content would help, but it needs to be accurate and realistic news and information. A study from Denmark’s Happiness Institute showed that those who stopped using Facebook for a short time were happier than those that had continued using it, The study suggests that being exposed to only the sanitised and idealised versions of other people’s lives increases levels of worry, anger and loneliness.
Is technology an escape any more? Or it is it an open door through which a distorted version of the world pushes its way in? Perhaps in this age of so many different truths we should not forget to look at ourselves and what’s going on around us in our day-to-day non-digital lives.
I wonder if this might be why meditation and mindfulness are currently so popular. The rest of the world is kept outside for a few brief minutes, enabling a pause to calm the self and relax, to switch off from everything else for a while before returning to the fray. But remember, if you do use a meditation app on your phone, don’t forget to mute your notifications…
Kleeman, J. 2017. Sleep Problems Mounting in Children. [Online]. bbc.co.uk. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-39140836 [accessed March 2017]
Gregoire, C. 2015. What Constant Exposure to Negative News Is Doing To Our Mental Health. [Online] huffingtonpost.com. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/19/violent-media-anxiety_n_6671732.html [accessed March 2017]
Mental Health - No Laughing Matter? - 9th February 2017
The world of comedy is often seen as an escape from the stresses and strains of daily life, a place where everything else can be forgotten, so what does comedy have to do with mental health?
There is currently a groundswell of new comedians who share one thing in common – they talk in detail about their own lives, and in particular they’re open about their mental health. I imagine that if you’re a touring comedian who needs to write a new Edinburgh show each year, you continually need to turn over material, and what better source of material than to talk about yourself and your own experiences?
However I imagine that in the past the need to be funny and entertaining and sell tickets for a show meant that the comedian’s own pain and troubles were glossed over, as this wasn’t what audiences wanted to see. However with mental health issues increasingly being in the news and an open conversation happening, comedians are sharing their stories.
I went to Sofie Hagen’s ‘Shimmer Shatter’ last year, in which she spoke openly about her own mental health and her introverted nature. Most importantly for a comedy gig however, it was entertaining and very funny. It didn’t make light of mental health issues, in fact it was very pro-therapy and supportive of people who struggle with their mental health. Sofie shared her own experiences, her worries, her concerns, and of course the amusing things that have happened to her. It was laughing with experiences of mental health, finding the funny in them, rather than laughing at people with mental health problems. Sofie also has a podcast called ‘Made Of Human’ in which she talks frankly about ‘being human’ and she and her guests candidly share their lives and their own struggles in a way that to me says “I’m imperfect, but I’m still just getting on with my life.”
I also listen to the “Comedian’s Comedian Podcast” by the very funny Stuart Goldsmith. As I understand it, the original purpose of the Podcast was to have a place where comedians and interested punters could learn about how comedians come up with their shows. Whilst it does continue to do this, and continues to be very entertaining, many of the comedians interviewed have spoken frankly about themselves, speaking openly about depression, anxiety and a range of other mental health issues. Furthermore Stuart Goldsmith is open about his own experience of therapy, and I love that there is an overall feel from the podcast that as listeners you’re all OK, no matter what your mental health concerns, and an overriding message that even if things are tough right now, things can and will get better.
These are just two of many comedians who are being open about their mental health. To name a few more, Chris Getherd’s show “Career Suicide” charted his battles with suicidal thoughts, depression and alcoholism “and all the other funniest parts of life”, and Richard Gadd won an Edinburgh award for his show about his experience of being sexually assaulted. Last year Mind and Comedy Central teamed up and recorded 10 comedians doing stand up about their own mental health concerns. Comedians may not have been the reason for a shift in society towards talking about mental health, but as the proverbial door of mental health awareness is now ajar, comedians are there helping to push it open. If it’s not taboo for comedy, then it’s not taboo for us to talk about.
I know many of them aren’t comedians firmly in the mainstream, perhaps because not everyone is ready for this conversation. Nevertheless I think it’s a massively positive thing that the people we are fans of, that we’re paying money to see, aren’t saying you need to buy this to be OK, or that you need to look like this to be OK. They’re being open and honest and saying that we’re all a little messed up, and you’re OK as you are.
Nice one Comedy, keep up the good work.
Is Commuting Bad For Your Mental Health? - 3rd January 2017
The continuing problems with strikes on Southern Trains have prompted me to wonder about the effect of commuting on mental health, particularly as for nearly a year I was a daily commuter, spending three hours a day getting to and from work.
A study by the UK national Archives in 2014 called “Commuting and Personal Well-being” found that on average commuters who spend more than 15 minutes getting to work have lower life satisfaction, happiness and higher anxiety than the average worker. As the commute gets longer life satisfaction drops and anxiety rises.
I imagine part of the reason for the anxiety is the lack of control. As a commuter you are at the whim of traffic, road works, strikes, damaged rails, and shortages of train crew to name but a few of the obstacles in the way of a smooth commute.
It is often considered that commuting is a trade off, with better pay and a nicer home out of the city at the cost of less time to spend with your family. However studies have shown that the better housing and higher income don’t fully compensate the commuter, although it has been pointed out that because the studies look at the commuter, they miss the fact that the household as a whole might benefit, even if the commuter takes the strain.
So what can be done? In the short run the commute is here to stay, so perhaps, we could make something out of the commute, to look at it differently. Forbes magazine (Morin, 2014) comment that we could see it as a break from the other responsibilities of life. I guess if you’re jammed up against 50 other people in a crowded carriage there’s little else you can do. Of course this can be seen as a very annoying and stressful situation to be in. Alternatively as it’s impossible to leave, it’s possible to accept there’s nothing else you can do. You don’t need to be anything else in that moment, just you, living and breathing. Of course you can think about all the things that need to be done when you get home, and all the things you can’t do. Or you could be in the moment, free of responsibility (other than not standing on people’s toes) just enjoying the space in between the manic world of work and our busy home lives. My wife for example, likes to curl up in the luggage rack and read. Often it’s her favourite part of her day. Whether it’s books, audiobooks, podcasts or music, perhaps there’s something you can do that you enjoy even when on the train.
Some people do enjoy their commute, I feel these are the people who look at it as their space and make the most out of their time. I’m not saying that this will suddenly make commuting healthy, but if we can make time for ourselves and see it as a break and not a chore, it might just be a bit more bearable.
Morin, A. (2014) Want To Be Happier? Change Your Commute Or Change Your Attitude. [online] forbes.com. Available at http:// http://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/12/07/want-to-be-happier-change-your-commute-or-change-your-attitude/#2301de485a73 [accessed January 2017]
Christmas Is Coming: 5 Things To Remember At This Time Of Year - 2nd December 2016
And so Christmas is almost here. This can be a difficult time for many of us. We’re surrounded by images of the ‘perfect’ Christmas, with everyone happily sat around in gaily patterned Christmas jumpers in their beautifully decorated home opening huge, expensive and perfectly-chosen gifts. Often there is pressure from friends and relatives to celebrate Christmas the ‘right’ way, the way everyone else seems to be doing. That uneasy feeling that everyone is having an amazing Christmas, and you’re the only family who isn’t, whereas in reality most families are just having another normal Christmas, and can be found asleep in front of the TV by 3pm anyway.
Christmas can also be a reflective time, it marks the beginning of the end of the current year, for many a time to review things hoped for and not achieved, the things and loved ones lost. Often the images of Christmas we are shown make us think about what is missing rather than what we have.
So what can be done? Below are a few ideas that you might find helpful at this time of year.
Take time for yourself
It can be easy to spend many of your waking hours thinking about Christmas preparations on top of all the normal stresses of daily life. So it’s important to make a little space for something different you enjoy that‘s unrelated to Christmas. To have just a few moments of calm where you don’t need to be planning and preparing, where no-one is demanding anything from you can be immensely helpful in giving you a little respite and more energy when you return to the fray.
Spend time with the people who are important to you
Among the many and varied family commitments that many of us face, find some time to be with the people who are important to you. If this is the family you’ve arranged to have over for the 15th Christmas in a row, great. However if it isn’t, try to make some time to be around the people you love and trust, that accept you as you are, not for the presents you’ve bought them this year. Spending time with the people you love is the most important gift you give. Presents are always welcome, but most gifts won’t be remembered by New Year, however your love and friendship will be.
Your way is OK
Be it constant Christmas music, gaudy Christmas decorations, or one tiny tree hidden in the corner of the room, your way of doing Christmas is just fine, if it suits you and you enjoy it. Everyone does it a different way, and there is no ‘right’ way to do Christmas.
Their way is OK too
With family commitments we often find ourselves in unfamiliar places with other people’s customs, family members and ideas of how Christmas should be. This is probably the way they’ve always done it, and it works for them. Maybe you’ll like some of their Christmas traditions, and if you don’t, how about bringing a few rituals with you? From wearing a Santa hat for the entire day, to having to watch the Dr Who Christmas special, they’ll give you a bit of the Christmas you love, and maybe the others will join in and enjoy your little rituals too.
New Year’s Resolutions Are Not Set In Stone
Whilst writing a list of things to achieve the next year can be motivating, if the end of the year comes and most things aren’t achieved it can make us feel demotivated and depressed. The things we resolve to don’t naturally fit into yearly boxes. Sometimes things take longer, sometimes things aren’t possible - plans are made to be broken. If it’s important enough to you, you’ll do it whether it’s on a list or not. So if you do write a list of New Years resolutions, decide whether they’re things you truly want to do, that will make you happier, or whether they’re things you feel you ‘should’ be doing. If the latter, ditch them and go back to your Christmas pudding.
Christmas can be a difficult and stressful time for many of us. Remember to look after yourself, give yourself some space, and that even if you think you’ve bought the best gift ever, what matters most is that you’re there to give it.