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A Trip to Suffolk

Last week, Bindi and I visited Suffolk and ran a couple of workshops in Ipswich based around the practical use of our new well-being resource “in8 Cards“. We enjoy running these workshops and receiving the positive feedback from those who attend.

Suffolk Workshop

A Question Raised

However, it can be a sobering experience, when you have been using a simple organising idea effectively to help people over a period of ten years, to discover that something you take as “a given” may be controversial to someone who also works in the field of mental health and who also has direct and relevant experience.

An interesting question was raised during one of these workshops after I suggested that all mental ill-health is preceded by stress. The question raised was: “Are we talking about emotional health or mental health?”

What’s the Difference?

So what is the difference between these two? Is my emotional health any worse if something upsets me? I suggest not. We are humans and naturally respond emotionally to many of live’s events. It doesn’t work to simply deny or ignore our emotions or to try to live without them. Our emotions are the driving force that motivate us to take action – Hence (e)motion.

But I think it is reasonable to suggest that someone who is continually at the mercy of their emotional responses suffers poor emotional health – as does someone who is unable to show any emotion under any situation. My view of health is about being able to find a suitable balance in order to cope with the ups and downs of life. Ultimately, it has to be about what works.

Labels, labels, labels…

But what about mental health? Those who read this blog regularly will know that I am not a fan of diagnostic labels – unless they tell us how to take effective action. Most mental health labels do not help in the sense that, unlike labels for more physical illness, they do not give a clear picture of what to do about the condition. And I think more and more people are coming to the realisation that many medications serve to mask the symptoms rather than address the underlying issues. I have heard that the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – DSM-V” (mental health diagnostics bible) suggests that grieving for the loss of someone is a form of mental illness and I’m certainly not buying that!

A Chemical Imbalance?

We have been told by big pharma that mental illness is due to “a chemical imbalance in the brain”. But we need to stop for a moment and consider which came first, the changed thinking style or the chemical effect? We know that our brains are capable of manufacturing a wide range of potent chemicals including stimulants and sedatives. Surely we could expect the chemical signature to change if our way of thinking changes? 

If emotional and mental ill-health lie on a spectrum, with mental ill-health at one extreme end, then when does emotional poor health tip into mental ill-health? And can we answer this without resorting to diagnostic labels? Is this sufficient, or are other factors necessary before we get to a state of being mentally ill?

I doubt that we can expect a simple answer to this. But the definition that I use is that mental ill-health is when our thinking processes no longer help us to thrive. People who are depressed or permanently anxious struggle to do those things which help them to feel good about themselves and their lives. After all, babies may be born malnourished or underdeveloped, but no one is born anxious or depressed.

So is Stress a Precursor?

One of the things you learn by observing children is that, no matter what their experience of growing up, they tend to assume that their experiences are “normal”. Kids who grow up surrounded by angry and violent behaviour often adopt this style themselves, just as people routinely exposed to criminal behaviour often begin to act as if it is normal behaviour. Philip Zimbardo showed clearly through his famous “Stanford Prison Experiment” and subsequent studies that people’s responses are frequently dictated by the situation in which they find themselves rather than their upbringing, beliefs or any innate sense of morality.

Stress needs defining clearly – especially since one person’s “stress” is another person’s “being stretched”. I work with the idea that stress is our response to events which exceed our ability to cope. Another way of putting this is that stress is the way we respond when we are unable, for whatever reason, to get our innate needs met. Interestingly, the question at the workshop raises the important issue of whether it is possible to be unaware that our needs are not met – i.e. can we be stressed without knowing it, and is it meaningful to suggest this.

I believe that as living organisms, we automatically strive to get our needs met – often without consciously knowing why we do what we do, and with varying degrees of success at different times of our lives. Whether we actually feel “stressed” by this struggle or not is much less relevant than the overall effect it has on our ability to thrive. Certainly, helping people to identify their needs, and doing everything possible to remove any barriers that limit this can have dramatic effects on improving their mental state.

In conclusion, I love the way the in8 Cards bring these ideas out into the open for discussion and consideration. I look forward to the next opportunity to air these ideas and learn from other people’s experiences.

If you are close to Trowbridge, Wiltshire and find this approach interesting, why not contact us to see if we can help you. You might even want to come along to one of our workshops.