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Monthly Archives: October 2018

Mental Health And The Masks We Wear

Blog banner Mental health and the masks we wear

There's nothing quite like a fancy dress party. Lots of people getting dressed up in all sorts of weird and wonderful costumes, pretending to be someone/something else.

The process of making ourselves up in this way is actually not too dissimilar to how some of us deal with our mental health difficulties. Sometimes it's easier to put on a metaphorical mask and pretend that everything's okay.

Do we all wear masks?

If we're honest with ourselves, we all wear masks at some point in our lives.

Perhaps we wear different ones each day depending on the role we're in. Work may require us to wear a different mask to the one we might wear around friends or family. 

Do we ever really take our masks off, though? And should we?

The positives of wearing masks

Masks are a useful way of protecting us when we're going through difficult times. We might not be able to take time off work, or we may not want to, so wearing a mask can be a way of us maintaining our role.

One would hope that we could talk to our superiors about any problems we're having, but as many of us know the fear of stigmatisation due to mental health difficulties is very real.

Even if we get support from our supervisors, some roles may be emotionally demanding (e.g., counselling). Therefore, it's important that we don't bring our personal difficulties into these roles as we're there to support others and not the other way round.

The negatives of wearing a mask

Whilst wearing a mask can help us through tough periods, it can also prevent us from addressing our problems. Wearing a mask may become quite addictive and something we're not able to stop doing for fear of the consequences of removing it.

However, in order that we can begin to address our problems we need to be brave enough to remove the mask and be vulnerable.

Finding some balance

Allowing regular time to remove the mask can help you process your emotions and think of ways of tackling whatever difficulties you're having. By continuing to pretend that everything is okay, the problem doesn't get addressed and the emotions build up.

It's also a good opportunity to release any pent-up emotions. Whilst some people might see this as a sign of weakness, it's actually really healthy to do this. We're not robots, we're human beings, and it's perfectly normal to feel.

You may well want to put the mask back on when you're in work or with friends/family, and that's okay. If you've allowed yourself some time away from the mask to be yourself, then this will help during the times when it's more appropriate to wear the mask.

How helpful/unhelpful have masks been for you? Let us know in the comments.

How Hope Can Help With Mental Health

Blog banner How hope can help with mental health

A lot of what we usually write about explores logical, structured, ways of tackling anxiety and mental health, so you'd be forgiving for thinking we've gone a bit 'airy fairy' with this post!

Some people might find the concept of hope a bit 'wishy washy'. What exactly does hope mean? Can we actually use it as a way of tackling our mental health problems?

We believe you can.

But first, despair

Before you get confused as to why we've started with despair, we thought it'd be good to give some perspective to the concept of 'hope' by firstly looking at its opposite.

The Oxford English Dictionary's definition of despair is:

"The complete loss or absence of hope".

The Cambridge English Dictionary's definition expands nicely on this:

"The feeling that there is no hope and that you can do nothing to improve a difficult or worrying situation".

We're particularly drawn to the bit about "the feeling that...you can do nothing" within this definition. Despair, it seems, comes from a place where we believe we have no power to change our situation.

The effect of despair on mental health

If we think of despair in terms of 'mindset', then someone who feels despair will have little faith that their situation will improve.

We've talked before about the importance of managing negative thinking. If we think our situation is never going to change we're less likely to do anything about our problems.

It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; nothing ever changes because we don't do anything to change the situation.

It's probably obvious at this point that despair is not really going to help anybody who's struggling with their mental health. β€‹

What, then, is hope?

In contrast, the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of hope is:

'A feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen'.

While we think this is an accurate definition, it's important not to equate it with having unrealistic expectations.

Setting expectations which are too high or unrealistic can be anxiety-inducing and may set us up to fail if they're unachievable. Rather, hope is about wanting something to happen and having a certain level of belief that it will happen.

How hope can help with mental health

We recognise that it can be difficult during challenging times to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

However, if we assume there'll be no end to our problems then that's exactly what will happen. Nothing will ever change; we don't expect it to change so we don't make the effort to change.

On the other hand, if we have a sense of hope that things can be different then that's a much more positive mindset to start from.

Is having hope 'enough'?

Having hope is all about balance. We need to set realistic expectations for what we want, and believe we can achieve them. Without that belief, it'd be hard to have hope.

However, having hope alone isn't enough. Hope and belief are all well and good, but they have to be coupled with action in order for changes to occur.

For example, you could have a hope that you get that promotion at work, but you're not going to get it by sitting back and just hoping it's given to you. You have to put in the work to make it happen. Of course there are still no guarantees you'll get it, but you'll have more chance if you take action than if you sit back and do nothing.

So, don't just hope that things will get better. Instead, use your hope as a motivation towards taking the steps to make change happen.

That's how hope can help with mental health πŸ™‚


17/10/2018

Why It’s Difficult For Men To Talk About Mental Health

Blog banner for Why its difficult for men to talk about mental health

The inspiration for writing this post came after an old Tweet from Piers Morgan in 2017 re-surfaced. For those who aren't aware, Piers Morgan is a British journalist/television host/general-fly-in-the-ointment.

In his Tweet, Piers was responding to a statistic which stated that an estimated 34 million British adults have experienced mental health difficulties. Piers' response was "...man up, Britain and focus on those who REALLY need help".

Alan Vann works with children with anxiety in staffordshire

Whilst I don't want to get into a debate about Piers Morgan - there are plenty of those going on -  his response really highlights the ongoing stigma faced by people with mental health problems.

It also emphasises that the language people use often perpetuates the expectations placed on men when it comes to discussing mental health.

My experience as a male dealing with difficult emotions

Prior to training as a Counsellor, I had real trouble talking about my feelings. I'd grown up with messages like "boys don't cry". I'd never seen my father talk about his emotions and I was worried that people would think I was "weak".

As a male, I believed that showing my emotions would mean I couldn't cope. On top of this, none of my friends talked about how they felt either. Conversations were limited to what had been on the television the night before, our hobbies, or the daft things one of us might have done.

Dealing with my emotions

The way that I dealt with situations was with anger. I didn't understand other feelings and I certainly didn't do sadness or crying.

Anger was a tool I'd learnt as a child. I was bullied at school and anger enabled me to keep people at a distance. It was a defence mechanism to stop me feeling hurt. I'd observed other people's ways of dealing with problems and came to believe that showing anger made problems go away and "won" arguments.

I carried this strategy with me into adulthood; however, I also came to learn that my way of coping pushed people away and affected the quality of my relationships.

The turning point

When I was in my 30s, a friend of mine passed away. He was one of the few males I'd been able to talk to about my problems. He was helpful and supportive, but I'd had no idea that he had been struggling with his own difficulties.

As well as the sadness of losing a good friend, his death also brought up feelings around my father's death 12 years' earlier. For the first time in years I cried, and began to realise that the way I'd been coping with my problems wasn't working any more.

It was at this point that I decided to go for counselling.

How counselling helped me

I was able to explore my childhood experiences, the beliefs I'd developed and how I'd coped. I talked about who I wanted to be as a person and that I no longer wanted to hide behind my anger. However, this came with its own fears of becoming more open; how would people react to me, as a male, expressing my emotions?

Counselling gave me a place to talk to someone who wasn't involved in my day-to-day life. I could be upset and cry without being judged, and I no longer had to hide behind the mask of anger that I'd been wearing for so long.

It taught me that it was okay to be a male and show my emotions, and that this made me no less of a person.

The experiences of my male clients

From my experience of working with males, many who come to see me don't feel able to talk to other people. Some may talk to their partners, but even then they still have fears around opening up completely for fear of how they'll be perceived.

A lot of my clients have had difficulties expressing themselves. They may have been told as young boys that it wasn't right for them to do this. Some believe that they'll be perceived as "weak". I've heard many phrases along the lines of "I'm a man, I should be able to cope". They believe that, as men, they "should" be strong.

Like myself, many males I've worked with have developed defence mechanisms as children and have carried these through into adulthood. They've not been able to allow themselves to be vulnerable or open, because they fear what other people will think of them.

My experience as a male Counsellor

When I first started my counselling training, some of my male work colleagues laughed and made comments like "Why are you doing a woman's job?". However, as time went on, more of them would come to me to talk about their problems.

Conversations no longer revolved around what had been on television the night before. They started focusing more on life issues such as relationship problems. It was as though they felt they had permission to do this, because they saw that a fellow male would listen to them without judgment.

As a Counsellor, I feel that part of my job is to be a role model to my clients of how it is possible to be a male who can express their emotions. It's about changing the message from "men should be strong" to "men should be able to talk about how they feel".

Talking about emotions does not equal weakness. In fact, it takes great courage for someone to open up to others and allow themselves to risk being vulnerable.

A message for males who are finding things difficult

Although there are ongoing efforts to tackle the stereotypes of males and mental health, the sticking point is society's expectations of how men deal with their emotions.

It's also worth remembering that these are just expectations and opinions; they are not laws. We as males can make a choice to move away from what society expects and express ourselves when we're finding things difficult.

Whilst this might be scary, it can definitely be beneficial for us in the long run.

How counselling can help you

I've been on both sides of the line. I've been the male seeking help for his problems and am now in the privileged position of being able to provide support to others.

If, like me, you've been wearing a mask in your everyday life for fear of opening up, the counselling room is a place where you can remove that mask. Counselling is a safe environment where you can be honest and vulnerable without being judged.

If you choose to put the mask back on when you leave then that's your choice, but I try to encourage clients to rely on the mask less and less as time goes on. Opening up is scary, but it's also very liberating.

If you want things to change then counselling can support you to become the person you want to be, as opposed to the person you think you "should be". It made a great impact on how I deal with my emotions and I'm forever grateful for it.

Please do contact me if you'd like to access counselling.

How Counselling Can Help With Anxiety

blog banner how counselling can help with anxiety

As it's World Mental Health Day, we thought it'd be good to write a post about the benefits you can get from talking about your difficulties. A "problem shared" really can be "a problem halved" and if you're finding it difficult to talk to people around you then counselling can be really helpful. 

What stops people talking about their mental health?

The reasons for people not talking about their mental health can be many and varied. It can depend upon the person and the difficulties they're experiencing. Here are some examples:

Gender

Society tends to have different expectations on males and females when it comes to talking about mental health. If you're a woman, it's almost a given that you'll gather with other women to discuss your problems and seek mutual support. Most women have no problem doing this as it's seen as something that "women do".

On the other hand, if you're male you may find it more difficult to talk due to societal expectations that you "should" be strong and not discuss your emotions. Whilst views are starting to shift there's still a long way to go, which is highlighted in the fact that suicide rates tend to be higher in men.

The presenting problem

You may have been through experiences which have impacted your mental health that you're worried about sharing. One such example might be going through childhood sexual abuse. This can leave people with many mixed feelings such as shame and guilt, which may prevent them from seeking support from others.

You may blame yourself for your presenting problem, no matter what that is, and this can leave you feeling as though you don't have the right to ask for help.

Whatever the problem and the reasons for not wanting to talk about it, this may leave you feeling extremely isolated.

Feeling like a 'fraud'

You may believe that you're a "fraud" and that your difficulties are not serious enough to deserve support. This is something we often hear our own clients say. Some of our clients worry that we'll think they don't really need to come for counselling because their problems don't warrant it.

The fact that you've got in touch with a Counsellor to seek support for the problem means that, for you, it's important to bring it to counselling and that's a perfectly valid reason from our perspective.

Stigma

As much as there's more awareness around mental health these days, there's a still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health issues.

You may be wary of sharing information with your employers for fear that you'll face discrimination. Family and friends might not quite understand your difficulties so you may rather keep quiet than risk not being understood.

As you may well have heard before, people often talk about physical health problems being easier to understand as they can be seen. However, mental health problems can be hard to comprehend if the people around you haven't experienced them.

How does talking about mental health help?

The more we talk about mental health the more we help to normalise it. EVERYBODY has 'mental health' and it doesn't fall under "good" or "bad"; it's on a spectrum.

The old cliche of "a problem shared is a problem halved" is very true. Often, just being able to talk to someone about your problems without fear of judgment can be a hugely powerful experience.

Support from family and/or friends can be beneficial, but sometimes you may not feel comfortable talking to them. This could be because your difficulties involve family and/or friends, or you might worry that they won't understand.

Having someone impartial to listen can make such a difference and this is where counselling comes in.

Counselling and mental health

The Counsellor-Client relationship is really unique. It's very rare that one person talks about their difficulties while the other listens without responding with such things as "Oh, that happened to me too!" and re-focusing the conversation onto themselves.

Counsellors are not there to judge; they offer an acceptance of you and your situation. Having someone to listen in this way can be very powerful, and the safe space of the counselling room can be a welcome relief when the outside world doesn't appear to understand you. 

Whilst Counsellors cannot change your situation, they can help you explore how you'd like your situation to be different. Remember that change is possible, but you have to make the change; your Counsellor cannot make changes for you and neither can other people.

Counselling can only really be effective if you're willing to accept responsibility for the changes that you want to happen. If you're ready to do this, then great work can take place.

How counselling can help with anxiety

We've talked in previous posts about how anxiety is fed by negative thinking and that our core belief about ourselves can feed into our negative thinking.

Like other mental health difficulties, it's often hard to know where to start with tackling anxiety. Seeing a Counsellor can help get clarity over the problems you want to address, as well as the ways in which your Counsellor can support you with tackling those difficulties.

Whilst there are things you can do yourself to try and tackle your anxiety, sometimes you might want some additional support in order to know where to start and which direction to take.

If you're seeking support and are thinking about accessing counselling then please do contact us.

Also, try to keep talking about mental health to help reduce the stigma; it can be done if we all work together πŸ™‚

Dealing With Anxiety Step By Step

Blog banner Dealing with anxiety step by step

We've already talked about how to challenge the core beliefs and negative thoughts that feed into anxiety, but what other action can we take in terms of dealing with anxiety?

Exposure Therapy is a way in which people can be supported to confront their fears. When we're fearful of something it might lead us to avoid it. However, whilst this avoidance may reduce the feelings of fear in the short term, it can make the fear worse over the long term as we're not addressing the fear.

Exposure Therapy

The aim of Exposure Therapy, is to expose ourselves to the thing(s) we have fears of and/or have been avoiding. These might be situations, activities, or objects (e.g., spiders).

There are different ways we can expose ourselves to the things we fear, depending on what we're comfortable with. You might want to be exposed to the fear in real-life; so, if you have a fear of giving a presentation you may decide to do this in front of a group of people.

Another way is through imagining that you're facing your fear. You might imagine you're presenting to a group of people, and then describe the sights, sounds, and smells within that situation. You'll observe the emotions and physical sensations which come up for you, as these can often be as powerful as going through the situation in real-life.

Jumping right in

In a previous post we talked about mastering your fears and how, sometimes, one of the most effective things to do is to take a deep breath and face our fears head on. The thing to remember is that everyone's different.

Exposure Therapy can be done at different paces, depending on how you feel. There may be times where jumping straight in at the deep end is going to feel most effective, and some people prefer to face their fears in this way.

Flooding


For people that prefer a quicker and more "head on" approach to tackling their fears, Flooding may be good for them. The idea behind flooding is that anxiety is a learned fear that needs to be 'unlearned' by exposure to the object/situation/activity.

An example of flooding might be someone who has a phobia of spiders, who is given a spider to hold. During this time they'll need to use coping skills to manage their anxiety (e.g., relaxation skills) and continue holding the spider until such time as the anxiety begins to lessen.

Another example might be someone who doesn't like being around lots of people. They may go into a situation where there's a huge crowd of people (e.g., a shopping centre) and use coping skills to help them manage their anxiety until it reduces.

This method is seen as quick and effective, although it might be too intense a way of dealing with fears for some people.

Dealing with anxiety step by step

For those who want a more gradual approach to facing their fears, there's the option to do this through Graded Exposure. This does exactly what it says on the tin and gradually exposes you to the situation/activity/object that's causing you anxiety.

Graded Exposure

In Graded Exposure, you identify the feared situation and then think about where you currently are in terms of tackling that situation. An example scenario might be that you want to go to the local newsagents to buy a newspaper, but you're unable to leave your front door without feeling extreme anxiety.

You need to think about the gap between where you are and where you want to be, and break it down into small manageable steps. If your goal was go to the newsagents to buy a newspaper, an example of breaking this down might be:

  1. Opening the front door and staying there for as long as is comfortable;
  2. Moving from the front door to the pavement, and staying there for as long as is comfortable;
  3. Walking to a specific point in-between your house and the newsagents and staying there for as long as is comfortable;
  4. Staying outside the newsagents for as long as is comfortable;
  5. Going inside the newsagents, looking at the newspapers for as long as is comfortable and then leave;
  6. Going inside the newsagents, choosing a newspaper, paying for it, and then leaving.

This is a very simple example. You may have more (or less) steps than this. The most important thing is to come up with as many steps as you feel necessary to achieve your goal.

Working through the steps

The steps in Graded Exposure Therapy are something that you can come up with yourself or your Counsellor, if you're working with one.

The idea is to repeat each step until you feel comfortable with it, and then move onto the next step. Your anxiety doesn't have to totally disappear, but it should reduce to a level which feels more comfortable.

Moving to the next step may cause an increase in anxiety, but like the step before, you repeat that step until the anxiety reduces to a more manageable level and then move onto the next...and the next.

Bear in mind that this process might take a while and you may come up against obstacles along the way. Persistence is key.

For example, if you try one of the steps and it feels too much of a leap from the previous step, then rethink that step and see if that needs breaking down further.

Keep a record of your progress

When doing Graded Exposure, it's important to keep a record of when you attempt each step, your anxiety levels before and after, and any notes you think are relevant. This can help you reflect on what went well and what you might do differently next time.

For example, when you look at the time of day that you're doing your steps you might reflect that trying them at a different time, when there are less people about, might be beneficial.

When you review your notes you might see that your anxiety level prior to tackling one particular step has gradually decreased, even though you might still be working on the same step. This visual record of your progress will help motivate you during the times when you might be feeling you're not making much headway.

Take a look at this worksheet we've put together which you can use to help you πŸ™‚

What ways do you tackle your anxiety? Are you a "jump right in" or "step by step" sort of person? Let us know in the comments.

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