Psychological distress and the power of interpersonal resilience

Written by UKCP psychotherapist Lucy Christopher

How often are we encouraged to eat well, be physically active, calibrate our social media use, improve our sleep and maintain our connection to other people? There is incontrovertible evidence that these and other strategies really do improve our mental and embodied wellbeing. What’s also true is how hard these practices can be to maintain.

Another incontrovertible reality is that experiencing socioeconomic inequality and associated challenges greatly increases the possibility of depression, anxiety, anger, low mood and desolation. In the face of real people’s real lives – including racism, disability, discrimination, chronic pain and poverty – I can see how a list of ‘top tips’ might feel a bit unhelpful, or deeply insulting.

And yet, my clients continually remind me of our human capacity to endure, heal from and survive seemingly intractable problems. It strikes me that it could be of real value to share what they have taught me about what made the greatest difference to them. Of all the rich material, these are the five that crop up most often.

 

Acceptance of what is

Clients often reflect on how expansive it is to truly accept things as they currently are rather than focusing all of their energies on trying to change what is beyond their control. The psychiatrist Arnold Beisser, through becoming paralysed from the neck down aged 24, conceptualised this as the ‘paradoxical theory of change’. Paradoxical because change only occurs after we abandon trying to change at all, abandon trying to become who we think we should be, and accept who we really are – including our struggles and vulnerabilities. The healer Octavia Raheem encourages us to stop grinding against the truth of things and honestly acknowledge our pain and suffering.

 

Live knowing you will die

Clients often present for therapy when life’s circumstances no longer allow them to avoid the certainty of death, including bereavement, trauma, or terminal illness. Many report how enlivening it can be to maintain an awareness of death, whilst continuing to savour the life that remains.

 

Don’t abandon yourself

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a grieving friend that the more we can be alongside ourselves during our moments of distress, ‘so much deeper, so much the better do we make it’. Clients regularly report that deepening their capacity to accompany themselves during their darkest days, learning to monitor and adjust their inner dialogue, and developing a more self-compassionate narrative can make the seemingly unbearable feel a little more bearable.

 

Articulate your distress

Clients regularly describe their relief at breaking the silence and articulating their distress. Finding ways to express and make sense of our experiences – putting the unspeakable into words, or through expressive arts, music, journaling, or embodied movement – helps create a boundary around our suffering. It is often the pressure of not expressing that causes the build-up of negative thought cycles, loneliness, anxiety, and hopelessness.

 

Relationships heal

The psychotherapist Mark Fairfield wrote passionately about our neurobiological need for community, and the traumatising effect of too much change in our surroundings, and the lack of support in our relationships. Humans are social animals, ‘hard-wired to connect’, says Matthew D. Lieberman. And nourishing contact with others is crucial. When asked what most helped them, clients reliably reflect on the simple but profoundly healing value of feeling met, heard and not judged by another.


Seeking more urgent help

If you feel in urgent danger of harming yourself or at risk of harm from another person, remember there is immediate support you can access. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Letting someone know you are struggling can be the first step towards receiving the right support and recovery.

  • In an emergency, call 999.
  • Call 116 123 to talk to Samaritans, or email jo@samaritans.org for a reply within 24 hours.
  • Call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247. In an emergency always call 999.
  • Text ‘SHOUT’ to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line, or text "YM" if you're under 19.
  • If you're under 19, you can also call 0800 1111 and talk to Childline. The number will not appear on your phone bill.
  • Call 111 to speak to the NHS 111 service if you need urgent help but it is not an emergency. You can also use the NHS 111 online service.
  • Contact your GP and ask for help to talk through the options available to you in your local area including counselling and mental health support.

If you feel like you could benefit from talking to a psychotherapist, you can find one that fits your needs on the Find a Therapist search engine.


 

Lucy Christopher

Lucy Christopher

I genuinely believe with the right support, it is possible to overcome painful past experiences; build coping strategies for current challenges; and enjoy more satisfying relationships in the present.
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