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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?

Now, from our perspective in the twenty-first century, such fear and panic over a harmless solar eclipse is ridiculous. Our understanding of the movements of the universe has led to us having the knowledge to comprehend what happens when the moon passes between the earth and the sun. We aren’t terrified by eclipses because we know why they happen, we are able to predict when they will occur with scientific accuracy, and we know how to view such events safely.

Knowledge or understanding why something happens can provide us with a sense of security and control. I believe that when dealing with mental health issues, a little knowledge can go a long, long way. Some of the work I do as a psychotherapist involves psycho-education, teaching the clients a little bit about the workings of the human mind and the theories of how certain habits or behaviours come to develop. Such knowledge can be hugely liberating.

For example, a client who finds their anxious thoughts are beginning to dominate their day-to-day life can benefit enormously from learning about anxiety - how everyone is affected by it - how it is an inbuilt defence mechanism in our brains, designed to warn us about potential dangers and how this isn’t always useful for modern life. Understanding anxiety can help individuals from being overwhelmed by its negative effects. When they start to feel anxious, rather than allowing themselves to be carried away on a surge of raw emotion, they reflect on their knowledge of anxiety and are able to rationalise the experience. They might still feel anxious, but they find they are not controlled by the feeling.

This does not just apply to anxiety. There are a whole host of mental health difficulties that become easier to manage when we know more about them. It’s the difference between experiencing a condition and understanding it. When we experience something, we might be able to talk about what it feels like, but are unable to explain why it might be happening to us. Once we understand something, we don’t just know what it feels like, we are equipped with the knowledge to consider why it is happening and how we might overcome it. 

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
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