It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, but I was tempted not to write a blog on mental health. I’ve worked in Adult Mental Health as a Clinical Psychologist for over 30 years and provided psychological therapy to thousands of people.
Perhaps that’s why it seemed easier not to write a blog article. Where would I start? There are so many mental health conditions that people experience, for so many reasons. And what could I possibly say in 1,000 words that would be of any use?
But then I noticed an Instagram post which said that not posting anything is worse than posting something that isn’t brilliant, so I decided to put my big girl pants on and write something.
When the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing
I have been phenomenally fortunate in the teachers I have learned from over my lifetime. One of my outstanding teachers was my Head of Department in my first NHS Clinical Psychology job after I qualified. David Walker taught me a huge amount and one of the things that hit me like lightning when he said it was,
“People only change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing”
This hit me probably because it resonated personally as well as professionally. It encapsulates something that we may not fully be aware of – that change is almost forced on us when the status quo has become unbearable, and this is a reflection of how challenging it is for us to change.
This may not always be true for everyone – the more enlightened among us may be addressing life’s changes and challenges proactively – but the rest of us are more reactive. Head down, dealing with the next task, hoping things will turn out OK and perhaps not aware of the toll this is taking.
Carrying on as we already are is what we naturally do as humans, and this is as true of eating patterns (what I blog about) as it is of our mental health functioning.
Until, that is, what we are already doing becomes just too painful.
Bad habits develop for good reasons
Some themes which have come up time and again in my mental health therapy sessions are relevant to my work helping people to change how they eat.
Whether you are struggling with mental health problems, or with your relationship with food, or both, it can help to know that whatever you’re doing at the moment started originally for good reasons.
I can’t count the number of times in my mental health work that I’ve said something like this:
Although what you are doing/thinking/feeling (delete as appropriate) is a problem for you right now, it’s likely that when you first did this, it actually helped you in some way. Whatever your circumstances were at the time, this behaviour/thought pattern/ emotional response was the best you had available to deal with what was happening back then.
This pattern didn’t begin randomly or because of some defect in you; it started because it allowed you to manage something. In other words it was an asset to you. When something works, we do it again (a process psychologists call Instrumental Conditioning). With repetition, the pattern of doing/thinking/feeling becomes automated. When it’s a behaviour we call the automated pattern a habit. When it’s a way of thinking it becomes a belief and when it’s an emotional response it becomes a way of relating to others emotionally.
Just about everyone who has ever sat in the chair you’re in now has told me a similar story – of an asset becoming a liability when circumstances changed.
So let’s start by recognising that this pattern may have been useful to you in the past and honour that. (I can never resist apologising for using such an un-British word as “honour” at this point… but we British haven’t yet found a word as good as this in this context).
Then, from that position of compassion, we can start to look at what’s maintaining this pattern that no longer helps you, and how you can start to make changes.
Your pain points to your values
Here’s another absolute gem of psychological insight, this time from the originator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Steven Hayes:
Your pain points to your values
Another bolt-of-lightning insight for me as this is deeply valuable for us to know – that we feel pain about what we care about and we don’t feel pain about what we don’t care about.
From a position of compassion, notice what your pain is pointing towards
If you are feeling stuck and distressed right now, about your weight or your relationship with food or your mental ill-health, allow yourself to be curious if you can about what the distress is telling you about what you value in life.
What you value will be something good and even just noticing what that is may start to connect you with the direction you want to move in. You can prepare to look for helpful approaches and helpful people, by first tuning in to what matters to you.
Are you looking for more connection with others? Greater respect? More opportunities to contribute to the world around you? The list of values below may be useful as a prompt…
Making changes, once you are ready
OK, so I’m at the end of the blog and haven’t said anything about how to make the changes you yearn for.
Most of my blog articles are about how to go about changing how you eat using insights and tools from psychology. I’ve written a book with the practical steps that will help you make changes to how you eat, with some really useful tools from Adult Mental Health psychology to support this journey.
Resources that you can check out if you would like to learn more
If you would like to learn more about how psychological insights and techniques may be helpful to you, the things I have created myself are:
And there are loads of other sources of valuable information from organisations and individuals who will be posting on social media this Mental Health Awareness Week.
With my best wishes
photo by aaron blanco tejedor for Unsplash