This is the introduction to my book How to Empty Your Stress Bucket … and keep it empty for life. Read the first chapter here.
Why do some people cope with life’s challenges and others don’t? Why do we have this crisis in mental health?
No one has lived a perfect life without any stress. Everyone is affected by bereavement, family strain, financial pressures, career issues… the list goes on. There is also no pattern to show that some people are affected more than others. Nothing related to gender, age or race to say clearly that a certain demographic is significantly more susceptible to poor mental health.
I love the fact we are beginning to scratch the surface to be more open and talk about things like depression and anxiety which were previously kept behind closed doors. Mental health awareness is a great movement and I don’t want to take anything away from it. We have never been more aware of mental health issues than we are right now.
But… The time has come for action. Awareness isn’t enough.
It frustrates me that we have not yet found something to help. With such huge advances in medicine and science, why have we not yet found ‘the cure’? If anything, it seems that mental illness is on the rise.
So where do we begin?
We need to study those who cope really well with life’s challenges. Those who can manage their stress, create resilience and come out the other side, plodding on, determined and strong, eventually feeling happy and fulfilled once more. Surely life is happening to all of us and we all have to face the many challenges that arise along the way. People with good mental health have not led fairy-tale lives, yet they have a certain resilience that keeps them going even when they don’t feel like it.
What is it that makes us different from other animals that our emotions can overwhelm us? That we can be consumed by those feelings so completely?
I strongly believe that knowledge is power and having an understanding of where these feelings come from is a huge step in making progress going forward.
And although we can’t all have a degree in biomedical science or a doctorate in human anatomy, basic knowledge of the brain can be very valuable in beginning to understand the symptoms of mental illness.
Understanding where those feelings of anxiety, depression and anger come from makes a huge difference in comprehending ourselves as human beings with the vast array of feelings and emotions we possess.
Have you ever felt anxious going into a meeting or before a presentation? Have you ever felt sad, even depressed, after a bereavement? Have you ever felt angry with road rage or something that’s really annoyed you?
These are all normal emotions and if you have ever felt anxious, angry, or depressed, then well done, your brain is working just fine. Short bursts of negative emotions are only natural and often drive us to make positive change. The mind and body are well-equipped for this. But if those feelings consume you to such an extent that they affect your everyday life then something needs to be done. Because how long can this carry on?
Stress is a normal part of life and it should be seen that way. Those feelings arising from stress can be managed and overcome. Short bouts of stress are quite normal and something we are biologically programmed to deal with, in fact, the human spirit can be surprisingly robust; however, long-term stress can not only cause mental issues but can also affect you physically. Increased blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes are all known as lifestyle diseases and are on the rise.
Before I qualified as a psychotherapist, I had a very fulfilling career as an optometrist. I loved the work and meeting many people with their different stories fascinated me. I quickly came to realise that everyone has a story and my clinic would often fall behind as I loved to hear about their lives. Having a natural propensity to chat, I never found this difficult and I would revel in talking to people at length. People who had fought in wars and travelled, people with interesting jobs and unusual family backgrounds.
Now we didn’t start talking about life randomly. Optometrists always have to check a patient’s medical background, to consider if there will be ocular side effects from general health issues or medication. Having an eye examination is also a good general health check, as we can often pick up signs of things like high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes. I found over the years I was doing this more often; referring people to their GP for a blood pressure check when I saw convoluted blood vessels at the back of the eye, or if there were a few tiny haemorrhages on the retina I would advise a blood-glucose test with their practice nurse as soon as possible.
This is where the storytelling would begin. Comments such as: ‘I bet my blood pressure is high, I’ve not had an easy time of it’ or ‘I knew this would happen, I don’t look after myself properly’ were all too prevalent. As I got talking to these people in a bit more detail, it was surprising how comfortable they were telling me their stories. Maybe taking those few moments with a professional who was prepared to listen made them take stock and assess how they had got to this juncture. After hearing many life experiences from so many different people, there was always one underlying cause: stress.
Stress of all types and of varying degrees. A bereavement or huge loss years earlier that someone had not come to terms with. Maybe ongoing family or financial pressures were keeping someone awake at night. Anger and frustration caused by a stressful work environment. Over a prolonged period of time, this was now affecting someone’s physical health.
I remember once seeing an eighteen-year-old on anti-depressants. After chatting for a while, they told me they were getting no other support at all. They weren’t being shown any life skills or supported in other ways that would help them manage or cope in the future. These ‘magic’ pills were to solve this problem. An eighteen-year-old with their whole life ahead of them? How was that the solution? I was becoming very disheartened at the prevalence of mental health issues.
I didn’t always see people who were sick though. Regular eye exams are always good and if you need to wear spectacles, like me, they are part of your regular routine. So, it was always nice to see people who said ‘no, nothing’ when I asked ‘are you on any medication?’ This was always most surprising when I saw someone elderly. I loved seeing someone of mature years, not only because they liked to chat, but because they always had a fascinating story to tell and I loved to hear any advice they shared.
I would ask them what it was that made them so healthy, what was their secret? After humbly saying that it wasn’t much at all, they went on to tell me of a life of stress, of challenges with family, bereavements, and maybe a difficult work life. It was the same story as those people who were now physically sick. The only difference was that these people had something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. This sort of resilience or resolve to meet life’s challenges head-on. To accept what they could not control, and do what they could with the rest. To make the most of life, whatever cards they had been dealt. I was in awe of these people. Their tenacity, the spirit with which they were tackling all of life’s challenges. It made me think that we need to study these people more. Instead of examining the mechanics of depression or the symptoms of anxiety, we should be looking for the solution to these issues instead. What is going on inside determined people that we can all learn from? Could knowing that help that eighteen-year-old on antidepressants? It seemed to me that these people held the ‘cure’ for mental health and yet they could not explain what it was.
Having a background in science meant that there was only one way for me to understand this – get the facts around it. So, there was only one thing for it; I had to study the brain!
What is going on inside that fascinating organ that we all possess but differs from one person to another?
Of the many forms of therapy and counselling I researched, solution-focused therapy appealed to me the most. It spoke my language – the science of brain function – seeing as I’d already studied about a third of the brain known as the visual cortex. It also appealed to me personally as it is focused on looking forward rather than backwards. To stop going over the past, make the most of the present and use that to create change for the future.
In this book, I aim to help you understand the science of stress, how it originates in the brain and what you can do to empty your stress bucket. I try to impart my knowledge, what I have come to learn through working with people to change their lives, from talking to family, friends and clients who have coped and managed through some extraordinary challenges, and the vast amount taught to me by some amazing tutors. I hope what you read here will help you to overcome anxiety and stress-related issues like depression, phobias, fears, lack of motivation, low self-esteem and lack of confidence, so that you can live a long, healthy and happy life.