When we give advice to people, we tend to say things like, “If you need to talk, just let me know”, “Don’t worry about anything”, or “I’m here for you”.
Rarely, if ever, will we receive advice to pretend a bad situation hasn’t happened, or that we should immediately find a way of turning our fortunes around because it isn’t healthy to have bad things happen.
If we were to receive this sort of advice from a friend, say, following a break-up or having just lost our job, it’s pretty likely that we would soon stop going to that particular friend for support.
The best kind of friends are those who will comfort us in the midst of hard times; and they won’t try to rush us towards a solution just because they feel uncomfortable that we’re going through difficult moments.
Instead, they will often give us time and space to ponder, vent, and wallow in our thoughts.
There is, however, a particular trigger that sends family and friends scurrying to push the “Fix It” button, and this comes about whenever we feel sad, depressed, anxious, or distressed. Almost immediately, we’ll hear the familiar phrases: “What do you have to be down about”, “There’s no need to feel sad – everything’s OK”, “You’ll just have to persevere – life is tough”.
Such is the reluctance to engage, let alone deal with, negative emotions, that most of us have become conditioned to put on a brave face and suppress whatever might be gnawing away at us. “I have to be strong,” we tell ourselves. “I can’t afford to appear weak in front of others.”
Our mental health, we believe, is fine so long as we don’t suffer from any clinical disorders. We might go to the doctors when a cold persists for more than a few days, but when it comes to our psychological well-being, we tend to be much less careful when caring for it.
Professor Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University is a renowned expert in emotional intelligence. Often, he talks about how stress isn’t so much triggered by significant events; rather, it’s all the little things building up over time that cause the damage, and they build up over time because we often neglect – or don’t know how – to release the tension.
Indeed, such a conditioned response to suppressing negative emotions has led to numerous social problems including millions of people being prescribed antidepressants, while others sadly take more drastic action to end their misery once it becomes too much.
Slowly but surely, we are reaching the stage where our mental health is recognised as being just as important, if not more so, than our physical health. As is often the case, the strongest among our colleagues, friends and family are simply the ones who know how to mask their feelings well.
Part of the problem lies in our inability to notice mental stress in the same way we notice physical pain. If we hurt ourselves after falling, we know exactly which part of our body is damaged, and how badly. We don’t feel ashamed when we sustain a physical injury; we know it’s just a normal part of life.
And so it is with negative states such as depression, anxiety, fear and stress. While there’s progress being made in tackling misconceptions of mental health, the biggest hurdle to overcome lies in putting an end to the outdated belief that to feel stressed or hopeless or inadequate is somehow a weakness. It’s not a weakness at all – these feelings are a normal part of life, and we all deserve the same level of care, support and assistance as we would during any other difficult time.
But because we’re expected to “keep it all together”, it can be tough to open up even to our closest friends and provide insights into how we’re feeling. To our friends and family members, it can make a world of difference to ask them, “How are you?” and to listen attentively with interest to whatever they have to say. In fact, our time and attention are among the most precious and generous gifts we can give.
It is vital – particularly in this age of speed and expectation – that we check in with each other regularly and offer a helping hand or a ready ear whenever it’s needed. While it can be tempting to immediately offer up solutions, the best course of action is simply to be there for others and pay attention to what they have to share. More often than not, the act of making ourselves fully present and available is the best solution we can offer, and no doubt it’s something we can all use – and offer – much more often.
Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments for him, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.