3 months ago

Are You Suffering From Emotional Obesity?

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In an age of emotional oversharing and negative contagion, are we focusing too much on how we feel – when it isn’t always making us feel any better? Psychologist Gillian Bridges suggests we change our mindset and learn about resilience instead …

Almost half of teenage girls in Ireland are unhappy with their lives – almost half! That means almost a quarter of future adults, and that’s in a country with a high standard of living and levels of educational attainment that are among the best in Europe. Irish boys are feeling more positive with 67 per cent saying they are satisfied with their lives, versus only 55.5 per cent of girls. Even so, Irish students are significantly more likely to skip school than those in other countries, and it can reasonably be assumed that these students and most regular school refusers in Ireland are experiencing some measure of unhappiness and/or anxiety.

I don’t think I can be alone in wondering if this is something peculiar to now, after all, this is Generation Snowflake, isn’t it? Generation Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope? A generation with every possible lifestyle advantage, but whose mothers wonder if they shouldn’t have let their protected darlings make their own way to school after all; and a generation whose grandmothers’ heads spin with all the incredulous shaking they’re doing: “How can something so trivial make you so upset?”

But that bafflement doesn’t stop them worrying, and don’t we all in fact worry about what’s happening with the mental health of young people – especially in Western societies? Just because older generations can look back to times when poverty and post-war conditions meant that “putting up with stuff” was what you did, and resilience was taken in with baby milk, doesn’t mean that there weren’t children quietly catatonic with misery in virtually every classroom in the land, and deep down even the most committed head shakers know that. What’s different now is the sheer scale of the problem.

The harder bit for all of us to acknowledge may be that however much we worry and care, however much we talk (or don’t talk) about what’s going on, and however many politicos, celebrities or mental health pundits offer their advice, the situation is getting worse and worse, as the statistics suggest. And that is despite evolving consciousness, and despite so much talk about the problem. Talking has long been supposed to be the solution in fact; “talking cures” being the go-to for all emotional problems, endorsed by disparate authorities from charities, to Meghan Markle, to Forbes online magazine (11 Intriguing Reasons To Give Talk Therapy A Try) and certainly you can hardly go online, open a newspaper, or switch on a radio without coming across someone talking about their own or someone else’s mental health issues. The unquestioned assumption being that this is good for them, good for of us.

But it’s simply not working. It can’t be can it, given headlines such as “24% rise in SSRI prescriptions for children under 12” or “Freshers declaring mental illness up 73% in 4 years” But why not? Is humankind just becoming hopeless and helpless? <br> Not talking about our feelings and emotions apparently led to emotionally constipated generations, and now it seems talking is itself at the very least correlated with a worsening of adolescent mental health. Is this Catch 22, or is there something other than contrarian fate at work? And if there is, could it be that humans, having got things a bit wrong, then have a terrible tendency to over- compensate as they try to correct their errors of the past?

In the past people were buttoned up, repressed and uncommunicative about their feelings. They didn’t express love or approval to their children and this was bad for children’s development (though the evidence for population-wide mental distress prior to the latter part of the 20th century really isn’t there). To correct this for future generations, we must not repress feelings and emotions and should be constantly checking our inner processes so that we can become conscious, even mindful, of what we’re experiencing and of how good or otherwise our mental health is, which in turn must be better for our children’s mental health. Positive thinking, wellbeing, meditation, mindfulness and incessant self-inspection for emotional openness and honesty are the good guys of the day, stress, negativity and criticism of any kind the baddies.

However, psychologists such as Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm have questioned the positive benefits of meditation and mindfulness in their book, The Buddha Pill: Can meditation change you?, as have a number of other researchers. American writer Barbara Ehrenreich has positively laid in to the proponents of positive thinking and mindfulness in her book, Natural Causes Life, Death and the Illusion of Control, claiming they are on a par with magic. Numerous studies have shown that the pursuit of happiness can actually be very bad for us; and in my books, The Significance Delusion and Sweet Distress: How our love affair with feelings has fuelled the mental health crisis (and what we can do about it) – forthcoming – I demonstrate that talking is hardly the one-size-fits-all cure-all that it has been held up to be, and that some stress and negativity is positively beneficial to mental wellbeing.

But this is not a plea to recycle the past, only to look for a sweet spot, somewhere between the repression and emotional denial of the past and the instant gratification, both physical and emotional (that means that if talking is seen as a solution, then ‘I must have it, and I must have it now!’) of the present. And I’m not even saying that talking therapies can’t work for some people but as the rate of referrals for them is far outstripping the ability of services to supply them – we need also to have alternatives.

Past generations had opportunities to talk informally – but potentially therapeutically – in ways that aren’t so available now. God and the Church, diaries and even the workplace could all offer a listening ear, offloading stress. Especially for youngsters, as there are big differences between adults and kids. For a start, adults have a wealth of material to talk about and may bring many insights to a therapeutic relationship; but children are much more likely to be in an experimental stage of viewing experience – easily influenced in terms of positivity and negativity of outlook – and here lie opportunities for all manner of practical ‘soft interventions’, that don’t benefit at all from being pathologised.

Numerous studies have shown that the pursuit of happiness can actually be very bad for us

And if we’re going to take a small step back from assuming good mental health is all about feelings and how we express them, then I have to say I get pretty hot under the collar about the reluctance (if not downright refusal in some, even professional, quarters) to accept that substances are a big part of the picture, because, a) they cause real harm to developing brains, and b) they result in a significant number of cases of adolescent mental health problems. Nicotine, cannabis and alcohol are all proven to have serious negative effects on wellbeing, not to mention the effects of other chemicals. Simply giving up smoking has been proven to have a more positive effect on depression and anxiety than the taking of anti-depressants.

Other more proactive things which resilience studies show are good for mental wellbeing, especially in the early stages of trauma, distress or even the anxiety or upset of being “unliked”, are the following: doing something which requires a fair amount of mental effort (cognitive load), which keeps the brain busy and stops it ruminating; talking to yourself in the second or third person, which relegates “I” to a lesser place and helps create a bit of distance between the self and any upsetting emotion; tuning down the emotional brain by thinking about the context rather than the bad events themselves; actively suppressing negative feelings (1950s here we go again) rather than revising and reinforcing them which over-talking can encourage; and reframing bad scenes in unemotional ways, something which CBT, a reasonably successful therapy, actively encourages.

All of these approaches reduce, in effect, the rawness and “hot emotion” of distressing episodes, and so allow the brain to settle, even helping to reduce negative feelings when recalling the events.

Add to these self-regulating strategies lots of physical activity – preferably in the great outdoors, a good diet and plenty of sleep, and many cases of apparently debilitating anxiety or depression will lose their stranglehold and maybe melt away completely.

So much of young people’s lives and experience now takes place inside their heads – just consider how relationships are formed on social media, or how the occasional horrors of travel are lightened by full communion with a smartphone, rather than by looking at passing scenery or watching and engaging with fellow travellers (I’m sure every reader can add their own suggestions here) – that pushing them to go further and further inside themselves in the name of self- awareness or wellbeing is, at best, likely to be counter- productive. At worst it can lead to that emotional obesity I talked about, the result of a sort of greed for gratification of personal feelings that shoves all thought of anything else out of its way.

Let’s help young people cope better, not by ignoring or devaluing their feelings, but by using evidenced strategies that will encourage them first to acknowledge such feelings and how they might have come about, and then to engage with activities and experiences beyond the inner turmoil of those adolescent brains, so that they are letting light and oxygen in on their darkness.

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