“Most of the time, I’ve got the patience of a saint and I’m able to keep my cool. However, there are some days when it doesn’t take much to make me mad. I find it pretty scary, it’s like a dam has broken and there’s this sudden flood of rage that just pours out of me. I say things I regret, sometimes I even throw things. There are more than a few occasions when I’ve smashed a mug or a plate and then instantly regretted it. That’s the worst part. Not only do I feel angry, I also feel guilty.”

Anger is normal. How does it feel to read those words? I’m sure there are some of you out there who have some difficulty accepting that sentence. From an early age we are conditioned to perceive anger as something unhealthy, something that we should avoid. We are taught that being angry is wrong and that if we feel that way, that we are somehow in the wrong. We have a tendency to only judge (and condemn) the fact that we feel angry instead of looking at the circumstances that led to the emotion.

Your heart races. Your palms are sweaty. Your whole body becomes tense and even breathing becomes difficult. What started as just a thought has grown into something intolerable and your whole body is reacting to it. The question is, how do you make it stop?
We all experience anxiety. It is a normal, everyday emotion that humans have lived with for tens of thousands of years. Anxiety is thought to be linked to a primitive survival instinct within us all, known as the fight-flight-freeze response. This response is useful in making us aware of potentially dangerous situations and priming our body to respond appropriately. This response was undoubtedly necessary in the days of sabre-tooth tigers and wooly mammoths, but has a nasty habit of interfering with day-to-day life in the twenty-first century.

When I talk to children about mental health and counselling, they commonly find it most amusing when I point out that many grown-ups don’t know how to breathe properly. It sounds ridiculous, but there is some truth to this. We all lead busy, sometimes stressful lives and do not tend to pay much attention to our breathing - it’s just something we do automatically.
Many of us are self-conscious of the extra weight we carry around our middles and spend a lot of time “sucking it in”, tensing the stomach muscles and breathing more from the upper chest and shoulders than from the abdomen. However, anyone who has done any Yoga or Tai Chi will know about the importance of abdominal breathing. This is where we allow ourselves to relax those tense stomach muscles and take bigger, deeper breaths that really fill our lungs to capacity. It’s often called belly-breathing because, when you are doing it correctly, you can feel (and see) your stomach rise with each inhalation and fall with each exhalation.

It’s Monday morning. You are lying in bed, desperately trying to find the motivation to get up and face the day. The job has always been stressful, but you have never felt so terrible about the prospect of going to work. You are exhausted all the time and nothing you do at work seems to make a difference. A job that you used to be so passionate about has now become something that leaves you feeling utterly empty.
     Burnout is an extreme response to occupational stress. It happens when excessive demands upon an employee reach a critical point, leading to exhaustion and feelings of helplessness. Other risks of burnout include reduced perspective and critical thinking skills, emotional difficulties, and adoption of a negative world view. Burnout is most common for workers in a caring or supportive role, such as social care or education. However, it can affect anyone and have a significant impact on your mental health.

“It is like I have two different roles to play, two sides of my life that can’t ever be joined up. There’s the person I am at home… the laid-back, happy me. I’m able to have a laugh and be really open with my family and friends about what’s going on and how I’m feeling. Then there’s the person I have to be at work. I have to dress up in a suit and tie - I’ve never felt comfortable in formal clothes - and I find that I can’t relate to people in the office the same way I would people outside of work. Everything is so ‘professional’ and stilted, I don’t feel I can really communicate to anyone there. People in the office see me as reliable and a bit dull, but they don’t know the real me. When I step into the office, it’s like I have to wear a mask that hides my true self. I’m afraid that if they knew the real me, they wouldn’t take me seriously. So I have to keep up the charade and it is exhausting.”

Counselling is a “talking” therapy, bringing clients relief and psychological well-being by talking through their problems or difficulties. Counselling provides people with the opportunity to discuss specific issues and particular problems they are having.

Counsellors are specialists who work in the public, private and voluntary sector, offering short-term help or support to clients. They are specially trained to help clients work their way through current difficulties by supportive listening and managing problem situations. Counsellors find their skills employed in supporting people with drug and alcohol addictions as well as relationship counselling and helping people deal with anxiety or stress.

Not a day goes by nowadays without reading an article about the prevalence of depression in modern society.  One in four people will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year.  Depression, alongside anxiety, is the most common mental health difficulty in the world.  It is estimated that one in ten people will suffer from depression at some point in their lives.  A Labour Force survey found that in the UK alone, 9.9 million days of work were missed due to stress, depression or anxiety in 2014/15.
But what is depression and how do we know when we are suffering from it?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter chemical that is released in the brain.  It is sometimes called the “motivation molecule” as it can boost our concentration and motivation.  Dopamine is also responsible for our pleasure-reward system and gives us that great buzz of satisfaction when we achieve something we have set our sights on.

Because of its links to the pleasure-reward system, dopamine has a bit of a bad reputation. Behaviours such as alcoholism, drug-misuse, compulsive gambling and binge-eating can all lead to a release of dopamine in the brain and it is the feel-good boost that dopamine provides that can lead to addiction.

However, dopamine can be released in the brain in a multitude of different ways, many of which are perfectly healthy.  In the post, E is for Exercise, we explored how physical exercise leads to the release of dopamine (and a number of other feel-good chemicals) in the brain.  The “runner’s high” experienced by people after exercise is partly thanks to the boost of dopamine.  Best of all, the exercise you take does not have to be strenuous. Low- and no-impact exercise like walking, tai chi and yoga can also lead to a release of feel-good neurotransmitters.

“I was a bit worried about starting seeing a counsellor. I knew that what I’ve been through in the past often elicits a ‘poor-you’ response from other people. When I’ve tried to open up about these things to others, even my friends, I always get a sense that they are feeling sorry for me. But I don’t want their pity. When I first met my counsellor, I was worried that I’d be on the receiving end of the same kind of sympathy. But it wasn’t like that at all. He listened to me, he understood me and I felt accepted by him. After years of people feeling sorry for me, it was genuinely refreshing to feel like someone really ‘got’ me and where I was coming from.” 

“Hold on!” I hear you say.  “This is a mental health blog.  We exercise for our physical health.  What has exercise to do with mental health?”
To put it simply…a lot. 
We are all well aware of the benefits of physical fitness.  For years we have been told the benefits of cutting down on eating so much sugar and saturated fats or lowering our cholesterol.  Even the youngest child at school will learn about how exercise, even a gentle stroll around the playground, is good for our hearts.  As adults, we are encouraged to engage in at least 15 minutes to half an hour of moderate physical exercise at least five days per week.  In reality, how many of us out there manage to cram at least two and a half hours of exercise per week in between the commitments to work and family life?

Much of my therapeutic work is spent exploring feelings with my clients.  Most people are comfortable articulating their feelings, such as giving a name to a feeling such as ‘happiness’ or ‘anger’.  However, being able to name a feeling or emotion is much easier than understanding its source of origin.  In a psychological sense, feelings can best be described as the individual’s own experience or perception of the world around them.  Most importantly, one’s own feelings are the result of how we each interpret or process the information of the world around us.

A good example would be two people listening to the same piece of music.  One person loves it.  They describe how the music makes them feel happy and full of hope for the future.  The other person hates it.  They describe how the music leaves them feeling irritated and unhappy.  Two people therefore experience the same piece of stimulus (the music) but respond to it (their feelings) in wildly different ways.  Feelings come from within, not from external factors.  If feelings were directly linked to external factors, the piece of music would make everyone feel the same way.

There’s a part of our brains called the amygdala. It might sound like something from Star Wars, but it plays a very important role. The job of the amygdala is to respond to any potential threats in our environment.

When it does this, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. We take shorter, shallower breaths and our heart beats faster. Our muscles tense and we begin to sweat. Our digestive system shuts down and our liver releases glucose for energy. We also experience a surge in adrenaline which gives us yet more energy and focus. In short, our body is preparing to meet this life-or-death environmental threat with action.

Grief is a commonplace response to loss.  We normally associate grief with the death of a loved one but grief can be experienced after any significant loss in someone’s life.  This might be the loss of a job, a divorce or end of a long-term relationship.  Although a painful experience, it is rare for anyone not to experience grief regarding a significant loss in the course of their life.

There are many theories as to what grief actually is.  Some claim that it is the mind’s way of adjusting to sudden or unexpected change.  Others believe that grief is a way in which experiences create memories from which we learn vital life lessons.  For example, someone who undergoes a traumatic separation from their partner might learn to be more wary in relationships in the future.  When looking at grief from the theory of attachment, it can be seen to be as the painful by-product of the human capacity to form close relationships.  However one chooses to look at it, grief is a natural, inevitable part of life.

 “I hate feeling this way. Whenever I am depressed I become convinced that I’m useless and that I’m no good to anyone. I lose all my energy and motivation and end up sitting around the house all day doing nothing. I know I should be out there working and being productive. Because I’m not doing anything, I know my family have to work harder. I can see how my problems are affecting them. At the end of the day, I shouldn’t feel this way - there are people out there who have it much worse than me.”

 Guilt can be a really problematic emotion. Looking at the example above, the individual is already feeling pretty low and is struggling to find the motivation to do anything. Their lack of energy and thoughts of low-self worth are common symptoms of depression, but their situation is made all the more challenging by the secondary emotion of guilt. They feel guilty because they are not working. They feel guilty because their family is supporting them. They feel guilty because they believe that there are people out there who are suffering more than they are.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been able to stand on my own two feet. I’m proud of that fact. No matter how great the challenge, I’ve always found myself able to overcome it. Whether it be sitting an exam, running a marathon, or finding the solution to a tricky situation at work, I’ve always felt confident enough in my own abilities that I’ll come out on top. I suppose that’s what makes it so scary right now… I don’t feel confident, I don’t feel good about myself… What will other people think about me if I have to ask for help?”

In Western cultures, individualism is seen as a positive quality.  From Odysseus to Jason Bourne, the heroic ideal of arts and literature is the strong independent spirit single-handedly battling against overwhelming odds.  From an early age we are peddled the myth that being able to do things on our own is somehow more of an achievement than working as part of a team. 

There’s an old saying that goes: “The Devil makes work for idle hands.”  Whether you believe in the Devil or not, it’s hard to deny the truth of the statement.  When people are bored, we are prone to getting up to mischief.  The same can be said for our minds.  When we aren’t focused on a task, our minds have a tendency to wander and it is all too easy to get lost in our own thoughts.  This is fine if we are engaged in idle daydreaming, but if we are worrying about the future or obsessively dwelling on regrets in the past, then our thoughts are likely to lead us to uncomfortable and upsetting places.

Hobbies or pastimes can be really useful ways to refocus our attention onto a task or an activity.  A mindful approach and awareness about your thoughts is undoubtedly a positive thing but when we find ourselves introspectively wandering the halls of our minds too often, it can lead to problems.  To put it simply, if you find yourself over-thinking, it is possible to refocus your mind on something external.  Having a hobby that you can throw yourself into can be really useful as a means of distracting yourself from unhelpful negative thinking.

Picture yourself lying on your favourite beach. It’s a sunny day and the air is warm and still. The sand is soft beneath your body. You can hear the gentle hush of the waves as they lap on the shore. The sky is blue and there isn’t a cloud to be seen. A lone gull glides lazily above you, calls out once and soars away. The warmth of the sun and the softness of the sand leave you feeling relaxed and comfortable. The tension in your muscles is soothed and each breath you take leaves you feeling calmer and more content.

Our imagination can be a powerful tool and, with a bit of practice, can be put to good use to improve mental wellbeing. We all have the capability to use our imagination in this way. Children, in particular, are adept at transporting themselves to other places using just their imaginative powers. It might look like they are running around the garden in circles, but in their mind’s eye they are dancing with a fairytale prince or fighting the galactic emperor aboard his starship or leaping from building to building like their favourite superhero. It’s a sad fact of life that as we grow older and ‘put aside childish things’, we also put aside a skill that can be very useful to manage our moods. Like any other skill, if you don’t practice it, you get rusty.

“I’d always found social situations a challenge. I hated going to parties - even small gatherings caused my anxiety levels to rocket.

"My husband is a sociable, happy-go-lucky guy so I often found myself in these situations where I didn’t feel comfortable at all.

"Of course, there was rarely any specific reason why I was feeling so tense and panicky. After a little while and some friendly conversation with others, I would start to relax and realise that I wasn’t in any danger.

We all know what it feels like to be happy. At some point in all of our lives we will have experienced at least one moment of pure, unbridled joy. It’s a shame we can’t remain in this joyous state forever, but it simply isn’t possible. The fact is, in order to truly enjoy those special moments of happiness, those times when we are filled with a sense of sheer joy, we need the times where we don’t feel so good. In other words, in order to know joy, we also have to know unhappiness. It’s about balance.

It is an interesting fact that it is easier to come up with a list of negative feelings or emotions than it is to create a list of positive ones. I often encourage new clients to do this as a means of getting accustomed to exploring and articulating their feelings. Whilst many people can write a fairly lengthy list of negative emotions (such as sad, unhappy, depressed, anxious, jealous, angry, bitter, tense, grumpy, and so on and so forth), when it comes to positive ones, most people write “happy, excited, relaxed” and then pause to think. Why is this?

“I had been struggling with low moods and tearfulness for a number of years but it had gotten worse in the past couple of months. The GP offered me some tablets but I didn’t want medication.

"She suggested I go and talk to someone about my feelings. This took me aback - I’d actually been quite open with people about what I was going through. I’d talked to my boss and my partner. I’d talked to my friends and family members. I’d even got into a conversation with my elderly neighbour about it! Still, I made the appointment with the counsellor because I felt it was important to give it a go.

“I’d tried to quit many times before, too many times to count, if I’m honest. It got to be a bit of a joke amongst my mates… I was very good at quitting, just terrible at staying quit. I’d never thought of it as the sort of thing that people see a therapist about but I reckoned it was worth trying. After all, I’d tried patches and gum and vaping and all manner of other gadgets.

“Therapy wasn’t what I was expecting. I suppose I thought it would be someone telling me not to smoke, but instead, we spent a lot of the first few sessions exploring what smoking meant to me. How I got started and when I find myself smoking most heavily. The way we looked at the issue was really interesting. I’d heard all that stuff about the addictiveness of nicotine and finding substitutes to replace the fags hundred of times before. That’s all very well but it never got to the root of why I smoked. These sessions weren’t about the cigarettes so much as they were about me.

Knowledge, they say, is power. I’m not going to disagree with that statement. Imagine you are one of your distant ancestors thousands of years ago. You have left the comforts of your cave and have gone out to hunt deer. All of a sudden, the sky begins to darken. You know that it isn’t the time for the sun to set, yet before your very eyes day is becoming night. You look up and see a dark shape moving across the sun and you start to panic. Have you angered the gods in some way? Is this a punishment for the paltry sacrifice you offered yesterday? Will it ever be daylight again or has your world been plunged into eternal darkness?

Therapy is a serious business. Clients come to talk about depression, anxiety, grief, low self-esteem, anger, jealousy and countless other challenging topics. As a therapist, my role is to help the client explore these issues in a safe, non-judgemental and supportive environment. There is not always room for levity or humour.

Sometimes we use humour to mask how we are feeling. We might joke about something in an attempt to shrug it off or to convince others (and, perhaps, ourselves) that we’re okay.

“I had never thought of myself as a control freak but I was aware that I always felt better doing things my way.

"Whether at work or at home, if I felt that something had not been done right, I’d do it myself and sort it out. I wouldn’t make a fuss about it, at most I’d just mention it in passing.

"Inside, I was always a bit frustrated that I would have to be fixing other people’s mistakes when I had plenty of my own work to do but I kept these feelings bottled up.

The author Ken Kesey wrote “People think love is an emotion.  Love is good sense.” A simple statement but one with quite profound meaning.  Love is, indeed, good sense.  As social creatures, love is one of the fundamental building blocks in human relationships and society.  Without love, our world would be a very different place.

Attachment theory, first introduced by John Bowlby in the late 1960s, highlights how important loving, nurturing relationships are to people.  Extensive research into attachment has shown that a child’s brain is shaped by the experience of love and nurture from a primary caregiver such as a parent. 

We all know about the benefits of healthy living.  From an early age, we are taught about the importance of exercise, a balanced diet and good hygiene.  We know that if we look after our bodies, we reduce the risk of illness and we feel better in ourselves.  People are not threatened by the word “health” and most people are willing to talk about it.  However, place the word “mental” in front of it, and people are suddenly much less willing to open up and share their experiences.
Perhaps the word “mental” has negative connotations.  It conjures images of a hockey mask-wearing psychopath wielding a machete as he stalks down the dark and gloomy corridors of the abandoned asylum.  As a child, I recall myself and my contemporaries using it as an adjective to describe something that was unreasonable, out-of-control or just plain crazy.  Nobody wants to be seen as “mental” and this stigma is perhaps what is making it so difficult to engage in sensible, open discussion about “mental health”.

“I suppose I’ve always done it. I remember when I was a child, I would worry an awful lot about the smallest of things. I remember finding a loose thread on my favourite teddy bear and how I convinced myself that the whole toy was going to fall apart. I was inconsolable until my mother double-stitched the whole thing!

"As a teenager, I would look at the amount of hair that came out when I brushed my hair and was certain that I was going bald. I spent huge amounts of time on the internet looking at articles about alopecia and exploring the different types of wigs that were available. Of course, I didn’t lose my hair but I did lose many night’s sleep in worrying about it.

I wake up early and make coffee for my husband. Then I sort out breakfast for the kids, help them get dressed for school and prepare their lunches. After dropping them at the school gates, I head to the office. When I’m there, I do my paperwork but also find myself helping poor Morag with her workload. Although I want to go to the gym during my lunch-hour, my friend Julia calls me in floods of tears so I meet up with her to discuss the problems she is having with her partner. I get back to work ten minutes early and the boss asks me to take some paperwork home with me to do over the weekend. I don’t really want to but I agree anyhow. By the time I get home, I am exhausted but someone has to get dinner ready, clean up after the kids have eaten and then supervise them doing their homework. My husband comes home at half past six and is so tired from his day at work that I don’t want to ask him to help put the kids to bed. By nine o’clock, I’m all done in. 

Your brain is amazing. You might not believe that, but it is true.

If you think the smartphone that you carry around with you is the most amazing piece of technology in the world, you’re overlooking just how complex and powerful the human brain actually is.

The human brain is made up of many different types of cells. The most important of these are the neurons (commonly called ‘brain cells’).

“The most wonderful thing about my counselling experience was how open I felt I could be in the sessions.

"I’ve always considered myself quite a private person and so going to talk to someone about my problems felt unnatural at first. It isn’t like talking to someone you know… it isn’t really like a regular conversation because the focus is completely on you.

"It feels strange at first but once I got my head around the issue of confidentiality, it became clear I could be really honest about myself and my life without fear of offending or hurting anybody. The time in the sessions was just for me to explore issues in my life… the more open and honest I was about what was going on, the better I felt.

“It was like a trickle at first, just a few moments of real honesty here and there. I realised that it felt good to try and articulate the things that were troubling me and, most importantly, it felt safe to share them in confidence with my counsellor.

"The next session, the trickle became a stream and I found myself opening up more in the session. For the rest of the week, I felt more free than I had done for years. It was as though having the opportunity to speak had liberated a part of me I had kept bottled up for too long. The floodgates really opened in the next session and I was taken aback by how transparently open I was. I don’t think I’d ever shown myself so honestly to anyone before. It felt a bit scary but also empowering.

“I had finally given myself permission to be the real me when engaging with someone else. The me that I keep hidden away deep inside because I’m terrified that the other person won’t like who I really am. I stopped trying to be the person I believed others wanted to see and started being more open.

"It’s been a challenge, but I am finally starting to be this open with other people in my life. I started with my family and then my friends. It isn’t about just blurting out what you are thinking, but it is about being honest with them about how you are feeling.

"Before counselling, if someone was doing something that upset me, I would internalise my feelings and wind up feeling tense and frustrated with them. Now I make an effort to explain to them how I am feeling. Most of the time, people have been very understanding and appreciative of how honest I am being. When I realised that they weren’t horrified by my behaviour or rejecting me, I felt safer in trying out being my true self in other relationships. I no longer feel like I’m ‘faking it’ at work or when I’m out and about… it feels safe to be the real me.”

 

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy

Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

01851 871094 / 07815662208

 

When I first meet clients who are suffering from persistent low mood or depression, a common question I ask them is about what hobbies or activities they are interested in and that give them pleasure.

A previous article (H is for Hobbies) looked at the benefits of having a hobby or pastime and my question to new clients is not a mere idle topic of conversation. I am particularly interested in hobbies, pastimes or interests that take the individual outside - not just physically outdoors, but outside their minds.

Your heart is racing so fast that it is beating irregularly. You are drenched in sweat but feel cold. You are trembling and the tips of your fingers are tingling. No matter how quickly you breathe, you can’t seem to get enough air and you are feeling nauseous and dizzy. You wonder if you are having a heart attack and this terrifying possibility only makes things worse. Your legs turn to jelly and as you slump to the floor you are convinced that you are dying.

Only you’re not. You’re having a panic attack.

There are many different types of therapy. A common misconception people have about therapy is that they will need to lie on a couch and talk about their parents. This is just one type of therapy known as psychoanalysis. It is the oldest “talking cure” and was developed by Sigmund Freud at the end of the 19th century. Whilst there are still some therapists who practice using this approach, most modern therapists only use a couch when they watch Netflix at the end of the day.

The person-centred approach is a form of counselling which puts the client’s experience and innate knowledge about themselves at the heart of the process. After all, who knows the client better than themselves? Whereas some other forms of therapy might involve the therapist assuming the role of an ‘expert’ and interpreting the client’s behaviour to fit in with a particular psychological model, the person-centred counsellor aims to work within the client’s own frame of reference. In other words, the therapist does not lead, but travels alongside the client as they explore whatever issue they have chosen to raise in the session.

Therapeutically, questions can be very useful. They can help us to explore issues in depth and so gain a better understanding of ourselves. Of course, it can be somewhat disconcerting to be bombarded with questions by a therapist. It can feel more like an interrogation than therapy. Indeed, when undergoing training, counsellors are taught to avoid asking too many questions and to use open questions (that require more than a yes/no answer) when they do.

“At first, I couldn’t stand the silences in the sessions. I’d not know what to say and I’d be really aware of the counsellor sitting there, waiting for me to speak. Sometimes I’d laugh nervously and talk about something trivial like what I’d been watching on television just to break the silence.

"For a while, I found myself wondering if the counsellor was stuck for something to say and feeling as awkward as I was. However, as the seconds crawled by, I realised that this wasn’t the case. They were not lost for words or struggling to respond to me…they were giving me the time and space I needed to find the right words to express myself openly.

"I came to understand that counselling isn’t about listening to someone else speak… It’s about listening to yourself. You take the time to explore your thoughts and feelings and, through doing so, gain a greater understanding of yourself and how you relate to the world around you. Sometimes, that means stopping talking and just focusing your attention inwards. My counsellor was well aware of the need for this…

I was listening to the radio last week. The presenter was interviewing a man who rescued injured birds of prey and nursed them back to health. A noble cause, certainly, but one that the man admitted came at a cost. His personal relationships had suffered as a result of his dedication to the job. His wife had filed for divorce, he never saw his children and didn’t even attend their birthday parties. Something about the way in which he dismissed relationships left me feeling very sad, and here’s why: I believe that healthy relationships with others is one of the most important factors of positive mental health.

Readers with experience of crofting or dealing with livestock will be familiar with the word rumination. This is the way that cattle, goats and sheep eat and digest plant-based food such as grass using a specialised stomach. The animal takes a mouthful of grass, chews it and swallows. The pulped grass heads to a compartment of the stomach called the rumen where it mixes with a cocktail of microbes that start a process of fermentation. The animal regurgitates this mixture into their mouth where they continue to chew it some more. The cud is swallowed, regurgitated, rechewed and reswallowed a number of times until the plant matter is fully broken down.

“I’m never far from my smartphone, I even keep it next to my bed. I do everything on it. I’ll generally check my emails (both work and personal accounts) before I settle in bed. Then I might visit a few websites, watch a video on YouTube or maybe waste a bit of time on Facebook. I use the smartphone as an e-reader too, I try to read a chapter or two of a book before switching the lights off and trying to sleep. Funny thing is, even though I’ve been in bed for well over an hour and I feel tired, I just can’t get to sleep.”


If this sounds familiar then you probably need to have a think about your relationship with your smartphone. Although they are truly amazing gadgets - a camera, computer, entertainment centre, games machine, and phone all rolled into one - many people are finding that excessive use of smartphones or tablet computers during the evening is affecting their sleep.

“I had never felt comfortable speaking about how I was feeling. For as long as I can remember I always tried to maintain my composure by not telling people about my emotions. I suppose that I was a bit frightened about what would happen if I started to open up. If the floodgates opened, would I be able to close them again?

I knew something about that approach wasn’t right, but I had bottled things up for so long that I didn’t really know how to express my emotions to people. It got to a point where I felt pretty out of touch with my own feelings. I had gotten so used to hiding them from others that I suppose that I was hiding them from myself.

I love living in the Hebrides. There is something magical about the unspoiled landscape, the wide open moors, the clear waters, the beautiful beaches. In the summer months, I make the best of the good weather and I am out and about as much as possible… walking, climbing, riding my bike. I spend weekends camping and exploring all the hidden corners of the islands. However, in the winter months, it is just not possible. As much as I’d like to be out exploring the moors, the cold wind, the sideways rain and the fierce winds force me to stay inside. Then there is the lack of daylight in winter… it isn’t really bright until eight thirty in the morning and it starts getting dark before four o’clock. I seem to spend any time when it is light outside stuck at work in the office. I sometimes feel like I’m hibernating!”

It probably has not escaped your notice that winter is here with a vengeance. The realities of living in this beautiful part of Scotland are that whilst we reap the benefits of the island landscape in the summer, our winters are often cold, wet, windswept and gloomy. The long nights and short days, combined with the inclement weather mean that many of us are not spending enough time outside and this can lead to a noticeable drop in our mood and overall emotional well-being.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is linked to the winter months. Sufferers notice a sharp decline in their mood from autumn onwards and find the symptoms (such as irritability, low mood, persistent negative emotions, and general lethargy) are worst in December and January. Seasonal Affective Disorder is believed to be linked to the lack of sunlight. When we do not get enough natural light, our bodies do not produce vitamin D and a lack of this important vitamin leads to many health problems, including depression. A lack of sunlight is also thought to lead to lower levels of serotonin (the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter chemical) as well as leading the body to produce too much melatonin (the ‘sleepy’ hormone).

If you think that you might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are a few things you can do. First and foremost, try to increase your levels of vitamin D. Look into eating more food rich in vitamin D or take vitamin D supplements. Although the weather is a challenge, sufferers should aim to make the best of what daylight there is. Some people find that greater exposure to natural light helps, but if you need that extra ‘boost’ you might find a SAD-lamp or daylight bulbs to be of benefit.

Exercise is always beneficial, even when it feels like the very last thing we want to do. If the symptoms persist, sufferers might consider visiting their GP or looking into talking therapies such as counselling in order to explore other means of managing their low mood.

Because of its cyclical nature, it can take a long time for doctors to diagnose Seasonal Affective Disorder (as opposed to other types of depression). However, a diagnosis can be useful as it can help the sufferer to gain a greater understanding of the condition and when they are at most risk of its ill-effects.

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy

Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

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01851 871094 / 07815662208

It starts off small. It always does. I might be on my way to a party and a small thought pops into my head. What if there is nobody there to talk to? This small thought grows and grows. It takes root and multiplies. Pretty soon, my head is spinning with all manner of insecure thoughts. Nobody will want to talk to you because they think you’re boring. Your friends don’t really like you, they just tolerate you. You may as well turn around and go home now. This party isn’t for you. 

“It’s happened like this a number of times. It’s gotten so bad now that when the thoughts start, I tend to avoid going to the party. There is no point in going if I’m thinking like that.”

“One day he was absolutely fine. Chatting and laughing as normal, playing with the kids, making plans for the summer holidays. Then everything changed. It was like someone flicked a switch and the lights went off. He became sullen and quiet. He didn’t smile at the children or make any effort to engage in conversation. He’s not been to work in weeks and just lies in bed. It’s worse when he cries… I hate seeing a grown man in tears. What I find hard to get my head around is that there was nothing going wrong - we were happy, he has a good job and loads of friends. I just wish he’d snap out of it.”

One in four people will experience mental health difficulties at some point in their lives. Chances are, someone you know is suffering from mental ill-health right at this very moment. You may not be aware of this because mental illness remains somewhat of a taboo subject.  As a society, we are getting better at talking about it but there is still a long way to go.

Happy New Year! We are nearly a couple of weeks into January and it is quite likely that more than a few people reading this have made new year’s resolutions. It is not an understatement to say that the vast majority of these resolutions will be health-related. Quitting smoking, doing more exercise, eating less junk food, eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, drinking less alcohol, drinking more water… The list goes on and on. Of course, there is nothing wrong about making such resolutions and even if we only manage to maintain a few of the promises that we make to ourselves at the start of the year, we will experience some health benefits. It is always interesting to me to see how so many of the resolutions we make are related to physical health and how few are related to mental health. Mental health issues (most commonly anxiety and depression) are thought to affect one in four people at some point in their lives and the Office of National Statistics (2014) highlighted that 12.7% of all sickness absence days from work could be linked to mental health issues.

“I spent ages taking that picture. I was really careful with my make-up and hair. I must have taken twenty or thirty pictures before I found the one I was happy with. Then I experimented with effects and filters for a while until it was perfect. I uploaded it to the internet and only got five ‘likes’ and one of them was from my mum so it doesn’t count. Now I feel rubbish about myself, I’m so ugly.”

The explosion in popularity of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has certainly made it easier to stay connected to others.

Those of us with smartphones are able to reach out to countless people over the internet at the swipe of a finger. Such technological progress is undoubtedly impressive, but it brings with it old problems in new guises.

Social constructivism may seem like a rather intimidating mouthful but it is actually quite an accessible concept. Essentially, it states that people are social creatures and the acquisition of knowledge occurs through social interactions with others.

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky was a key figure in the development of the social constructivist approach and he believed that the skills we needed to make sense of the world around us were learned from our interaction with other people (e.g. parents, teachers, or peers). He stated that our most formative experiences involved some form of social contact and that through such contact we develop as individuals. His famous quote summarises this rather concisely: “we become ourselves through others”.

“I spent a lot of time as a teenager trying to figure out who I was. My parents used to joke that I changed my style as often as most people change their socks.

"I went through every fashionable trend possible… I was a skater girl, a goth, a trendy, an emo-kid. You name it, I tried it out. Sometimes I’d feel comfortable with my new style for a couple of weeks but, more often than not, as soon as I had taken on that identity, I was looking around for a new one.

"I thought this was something I would grow out of as I got older but this just hasn’t happened. As an adult, I find it difficult to stick to anything for any length of time. Relationships, careers, even where I live… I seemed to get restless really quickly.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had no idea that it would be so difficult. Not just being open and talking about the negative stuff, but finding the words to express how I feel. Sometimes, it just isn’t possible to put it into words. I thought the counsellor would tell me what to do to sort things out but it doesn’t work like that. There were times when it felt so difficult I came close to quitting, but I’ve found the strength to keep going back week after week. It’s getting easier… I guess I’m getting stronger. "

Change is never easy. Think of all the times in your life when there has been a significant change. Moving from primary to secondary school. Moving house. Changing jobs. Even changes in our day-to-day routine can be difficult and throw up many unexpected problems.

“I’d always been told that if I can’t say anything nice, I shouldn’t say anything at all.  I guess I took this to heart and probably took it too far.  I’ve always tried to hide my feelings from others.  I’ve got so good at it that most of my family and friends think I’m happy-go-lucky and that nothing gets me down.  If only they knew! I’ve got so much frustration and hurt bubbling away inside me but I’ve taught myself to conceal it.”

One aspect of counselling that many people find particularly beneficial is having a safe, confidential space where they can open up and give expression to their innermost thoughts and feelings. At first, this can feel unusual or even risky. After all, like the person at the start of this article, many of us have grown accustomed to suppressing our painful, challenging thoughts and feelings.

Another month, another report about how young people are unhappier than ever before. This time, the annual report by the Children’s Society focused on how teenage girls are experiencing unprecedented levels of unhappiness.  The report showed that one in three are unhappy with the way they look and that one in seven girls are unhappy with their lives overall.  Social media use is thought to play a key role in this rise (see “V is for Vanity”).

The 2015 Children’s Society report also highlighted some extremely worrying statistics.  Children in England were found to be among the unhappiest in the world.  The experiences of 15 countries were examined, and the happiness of children in England was ranked fourteenth, just above South Korea but behind Romania and Ethiopia. 

“By the time I’ve made sure the kids have done their homework and been fed, bathed, dressed in their pajamas, it’s close to eight o’clock. Then I have to read them a story, put them to bed, deal with any of the (inevitable) drama that arises, settle them down again… they normally aren’t all asleep until about nine.  By this time I’m exhausted but I don’t want to just give up and go to bed - I want to have some time to myself.  I’ll have a glass of wine and watch something on the television for a couple of hours.  I might get into bed at about eleven or eleven thirty and you’d think I’d fall straight asleep, but here’s the crazy thing - I don’t!  I then spend at least another hour tossing and turning until I finally drop off. The kids wake up at about six thirty and I’m shattered… I don’t feel that I ever get enough sleep.”

Sleep is important, far more important than many of us give it credit for.  Sleep is essential for a child’s growth and development, but it fulfils a restorative function for all of us.  When we sleep, our body has time to rest and recuperate, as well providing a vital opportunity for our cells to repair themselves.