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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.