Although it can be difficult on people’s mental health with the clocks going back and an hour’s less daylight in the evenings, I have to admit that the last week in October is one of my favourite times of the year. Not only is Autumn here in the UK incredibly beautiful, but I absolutely love Halloween. Ever since I was a child I have been drawn to the spooky side of life and I guess I never grew out of it!
When I first became a therapist I thought that I might have to let go of some of my more ‘unusual’ side as it is often accepted that being ‘neutral’ is the preferred presentation for a counsellor. However I have come to find that, among my other ‘quirks’, my love for monsters was really a benefit. This has inspired me to think about identity and how important it is for us all.
When we think of identity we may think of labels that we can give ourselves based on, for example, our religion, our gender, our sexuality or even a subculture we feel we belong to. Throughout my years I have carried many of these labels, ‘goth’, ‘student’ etc., and I imagine many people reading this will have too.
However, identity does not fall under just one category and goes a lot deeper into the core of who we are as a person. It is often seen as having two layers; the collected elements from our experiences and our central sense of ‘you-ness’.
Sometimes we can base too much of our identity on other people, what we feel will bring us love or validation, or a role that we have been placed in such as ‘carer’ or ‘pleaser’. We can lose sense of who we truly are and feel an emptiness inside. We can put so much effort into ‘fitting in’ that we ultimately cut bits of our true self out.
Loss, or a lack of, identity is one of the main reasons that people enter into therapy and it can cause more distress than we might realise. To truly find a place to belong in the world then we need to know ourselves and embrace all the parts that make us unique, including the parts or experiences that may feel difficult.
The thing that I love the most about Halloween is the celebration of the ‘misfit’. ‘Misfit’ is another label many of us carry but in life there really is no such thing as ‘normal’. We are all individual, we are all complicated and we are all wonderful that way.
When I was training to be a therapist I got a placement at a bereavement agency and, as I mentioned in my last post, it was a role that taught me a lot. This particular job involved visiting people and counselling them in their homes, something that I had not encountered before and is relatively unusual in the UK. The most fascinating part of this experience was learning to gain extra insight into people’s mental health through their living situation.
You pick up quickly that our surroundings often reflect the state of our minds. I could often get a better understanding of how someone was grieving through the room we were sitting in and when I began working in addiction I used questions about people’s spaces to similarly gage how they were doing in their recovery. Now this isn’t to say it tells us everything but it is a useful tool and something that can be transferred to our own lives.
One example of this is someone that I visited who lived their life with everything hidden away out of sight. Their home looked immaculate but I could not see anything that gave away clues as to their personality or experiences. This person spent so much time trying to appear ‘perfect’ and blending in, yet inside they carried so much trauma and hurt. They feared so deeply that people would see their pain that they chose not to show anything of themselves at all.
On the other side of this was the person who lived in absolute chaos and struggled with tidiness and order. They, themselves, felt chaotic in their mind and often struggled to organise their thoughts. Their self-care was slipping and they were constantly trying to distract themselves from what was really going on. Talking would often reflect the same nature as they jumped from topic to topic unable to focus.
What do your surroundings say about you? In my case I have lived in various states that have represented my mental health at that time but now have found my balance. If you have ever visited my office then you would see that I have little hints to who I am all around my room. This was something that was only able to happen when I became more comfortable with myself. Making changes to your home can be an active part of your own mental health journey. Decluttering of belongings can help free up headspace, decorating can help you embrace your identity and tidying up can help organise thoughts.
It may seem like a small thing to consider but understanding your home can help you understand yourself and assist in making the changes that you aim for.
When we think of loss we often think of death. We seem to feel that grieving only occurs when we lose a person or pet, but this is not the case. Loss comes in many forms and we can feel this in the same way that we may feel somebodies passing.
Over our lives we may experience loss of places, communities, jobs, homes, or possessions. Most of us will experience heartbreak at the end of a relationship or friendships and believe me when I say that this is one of the most difficult things to watch someone go through in therapy. They say that
the loss of love is ‘the closest thing to madness’ most of us will experience. We feel the ‘common’ symptoms of grief such as anger, sadness, questioning, denial and guilt, and we struggle to see a time when things will feel normal again.
But what happens when the thing that we lose is less tangible? Some of the hardest things we can experience are loss of hope, loss of potential, loss of dreams or a loss of self. One of the things about change that hurts the most is that everything that we have planned out for ourselves and our view of the future seems to go away. At the end of a relationships we lose not only the person but our hope for our lives, our plans, and the loss of our worth. At times we can lose our identity and sense of who we are, something that can feel particularly poignant for new parents.
My first job as a therapist was working in a bereavement agency. This was a huge learning curve for me. Here I saw the different levels of loss that run through us, and when I then moved to an addiction service, I saw the lasting effects that grief can leave behind. It is not something we may go through occasionally but a living legacy that shapes us all.
Through all of this I have been taught that we cannot escape loss but we can understand that it is not the end for us. We do not reach the end of our path, but rather it just goes off in a direction we were not expecting. Our journey will continue and there will be good things along the way, we just learn to move with our new road and live with the change. We will be different because of it but different does not mean ‘bad’, it just means that we grow in a way that we didn’t expect. We are wonderful, we are resilient, and we are strong even in our times of pain.
We will get through this.
In my practice I work a lot with trauma, PTSD & Complex PTSD and it is something that I am passionate about learning from. Traditionally we might think of trauma as being something linked to events such as war, assault or car accidents. The truth, though, is that trauma is a part of the human condition and it affects the way many of us feel and act. I will post another blog about the way that trauma shapes the actions of the mind and body but for now I want to share my thoughts on how our current situation with regards the current pandemic could be triggering unrecognised trauma responses.
Trauma is the body’s fear-response being triggered when we are somehow reminded of a previously difficult situation; it is ultimately about feeling unsafe or afraid. Examples of this trauma could be a one-off event such as an assault, or an ongoing trauma such as a difficult childhood or abusive relationship.
Our triggers are not always easy to spot. Sometimes even a familiar feeling or situation can set off our fear response system and we begin acting or thinking in a way that is reminiscent of the past. This is your brain’s way of trying to protect you but it can, in fact, leave you feeling distressed, anxious, depressed, angry or hopeless.
The pandemic has not only created situations which can be triggering, but also situations where these trauma responses may go unnoticed. For example:
- Being made to stay at home and isolating may trigger those who have previously been cut off from other people in abusive or controlling relationships
- Feelings of financial insecurity may act as a trigger for those who have suffered neglect or poverty
- Living with anxieties may bring up feelings of fear from a painful childhood.
Trauma becomes so ingrained in us because it often comes from a painful or scary experience that we feel we could not get out of or had no control over. I think that this is something that we can all recognise happening in our current situation; Separation from family, restrictions on socialising, a concern of running out of food and job insecurity can all be triggers, along with feelings of uncertainty, fear about the future, loss and helplessness.
If you ARE feeling distressed or struggling then it may be useful to think about how your past could be affecting your present; could your current life be similar to a previously difficult situation? If you feel that there is a trauma response then a good psychotherapist can help but you can also reconnect with your body and sense of self through yoga, stretching, martial arts, mindful breathing and meditation. Many of these things can be learned through free videos on youtube or on apps, plus they can be good for general wellbeing too.
When we see how the past is affecting the present then we can truly provide ourselves with what we need.
This year has not been what any of us expected. Many of us have cancelled plans or faced changes in life and I am no exception to that. 2020 was planned out and prepared for but then Covid happened and like many others, it felt like my life went on hold. I was no longer able to go into my office and began the process of moving everything online and adjusting to spending a lot more time at home.
Through all of the stress and turbulence that this has caused for us, I believe that there has been a positive to all of this; that being that it has given us the space to reflect on what is important and what we want from life. It has not always been easy but having the usual distractions of life stripped away has allowed for a sort of clarity. In my work it has allowed for deeper reflection and self-exploration, it has opened space for more learning and I have been inspired by seeing so much growth in others.
In my personal life this has meant making the decision to leave London and return to my hometown of Liverpool. This was a decision that took a lot of thinking about and was not made lightly. London had been my home for thirteen years; it is where I studied, grew into who I am and it is a city unlike any other. However I was 22 when I moved to London and life feels very different at 35!
Making big life choices can feel scary. In fact the freedom of choice itself can create a feeling of crisis.; What if I make the wrong decision? What if I end up with regrets? The truth is that there is no such thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decisions; they are simply decisions. Life will take its path and
will go through many changes. Everything comes with a degree of risk but if we can be brave then it is in these moments that we grow.
This time can be one to embrace change and learn that we do not have to be afraid of it. Change is uncomfortable because we like to be able to predict things; our brains are wired for the familiar and routine. A good example is a restaurant and the comfort of the known process; you walk in, get seated, get a menu and order your food. If every time you went into the same restaurant the order of these steps changed then you may feel confusion or even anxiety. It may cause us to retreat and stay in our ‘uncomfortably safe space’; the difficult but known. If we reframe this instead as an opportunity to try something new then who knows how much we can do. Our future is unwritten but this means that we can make of it what we choose and that is a wonderful, powerful thing.
Feel your potential and know that you will find your way, even if it means making an uncomfortable decision.