Lisa Fraser offers a practical guide to dealing with anxiety and mental turmoil.
If you ever go through a rough patch in life and need support that friends cannot offer, health professionals may offer you cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). The therapist will help you steady the boat. If the sessions work, you’ll stay afloat and be able to go with the flow.
Numerous studies in neuroscience have demonstrated the amazing healing power of the human brain. Neuroplasticity tells us that injuries, traumas and experiences will reorganise your brain connections to adapt to any new environment.
Applied to psychology it means, for instance, that if you suffer the awful trauma of child abuse, your brain may tell you that other people are a danger and will create a stress response if someone comes too close. But neuroplasticity also means you will be able to trust people again if you are surrounded by trustworthy, reliable, loving people for long enough.
Neuroplasticity is a deep source of hope: scientists know, and can demonstrate, that our moods and feelings are not set in stone. Our brain can make mistakes – it can overreact – but with the right teacher (psychotherapist, coach, friends), it can also learn the truth and start to navigate the world.
Neuroplasticity increases with a healthy lifestyle and with good habits. Physical exercise, talking therapy, food and sleep, can all help our brain get over small struggles, and function better in daily life.
However, these supports will not change our essence, our soul. Going back to the boat metaphor: therapy can help our boat float but no therapy will turn a canoe into a yacht, or a yacht into a battleship.
Our history cannot be undone, and even less traumatic events; our past will remain in our mind as one of our frameworks (which we can choose to assess again, re-use, or ignore). Also, some brains (mysteriously) remain more prone to depression, anxiety or mental health struggles than others. There can come a time when mental health techniques like CBT hit a rock, like the core of a peach.
Whether our inner core is positive, negative or neutral suggests that neuroplasticity has its limits. Our moods and happiness level can be lifted up to some extent through lifestyle hacks and psychological support. But this level will not be the same for everyone.
People start from different rungs on the ladder of happiness and inner peace. Some people have greater ability to learn and climb up the ladder.
This simple truth can be countercultural. Scrolling through social media or wandering in self-help sections of bookstores might lead us to think that our solitary efforts can be enough to ‘fix’ ourselves. We can, so they tell us, reach a kind of universal nirvana – often through yoga poses, deep breathing, and positive thinking, according to the main trends on Instagram. All this can give the impression that if you feel a bit bumpy, perhaps you should try harder not to be bumpy! The focus on individual achievement can be guilt-inducing for people who are struggling more than others.
Perhaps as a result of that, the number of people feeling the need to be ‘fixed’ keeps growing. In the first quarter of 2021, the UK National Health Service recorded a 3% increase in antidepressant drug prescriptions compared to the same quarter in 2019/20, with 20.2 million antidepressant drugs prescribed. A historic record of 635,000 people completed the NHS Talking Therapy programme in 2020/21, up five percent on the year before.
Until recently, the traditional Christian cultures of Europe and the Americas came to our aid and could help us accept some level of brokenness. Each one of us can feel flawed sometimes, but people of faith can link it to the idea of the ‘original sin’ – the brokenness rooted in our very human nature.
But the move towards a more secular culture is removing this source of consolation. It leaves room for beliefs that we can and should become perfect. This can feel like an injunction, leaving people feeling inadequate. It also adds extra pressure and anxiety. Why do I feel broken? How do I un-break myself?
But what does it mean to be ‘fixed’ and to become our ‘better self’? Are we seeking inner peace and quiet, or perpetual excitement?
These reflections made me question the legitimacy of the self-help hacks. Should we even try to erase our brokenness?
Therapy was never designed to be a lifestyle. In the UK especially, therapies are often designed in a way that frees the patient, rather than making them become obsessive about their brokenness and repair. The same principle should apply to so-called ‘well-being’ online feeds and coaches: they should encourage us to heal enough, rather than make us feel the need to become perfect, peaceful minds.
The older one gets, the more one realises that perfection doesn’t exist in this life. There is no such thing as a perfect body (do you remember the outrage that the ‘beach body’ ad triggered?). Similarly, there is not a perfectly balanced, peaceful mind. We will have obsessions, fears, and anxieties. It’s part of our human nature, from birth to death.
So where do we draw the line between the legitimate thirst for progress and healing, and the need to find satisfaction even in our imperfection? When should we keep wrestling with moods and brokenness, and when is it time to let go and keep moving, accepting our limitations and emotions?
Here are a few basic building blocks to help us function as normally as we can.
The first basic layer of survival is to build the skill to function in daily life. Full stop. A roof, food, water, sleep, a job if our health allows it. Enough! It can look like a disappointingly low ambition. But people with the most intense forms of depression, or just simple anxiety, struggle even to reach that stage. In practice, it means that as a minimum, we should seek support to cope with the most debilitating reactions from our minds, like panic attacks, PTSD and phobias.
If we’ve already overcome these traps, we should acknowledge this achievement, be proud of ourselves, and be more tolerant of smaller disorders.
We can easily be hard on ourselves and set impossibly high standards. Thinking again about the standards we set for ourselves is important. Am I stricter with myself than with my friends? Are my standards even attainable? Should I revise them…?
The second part of the essential work on ourselves is to build healthy coping mechanisms. Ideally, we should be able to react to stressful events in a way which promotes our genuine self, without turning to substances, excesses or self-harm. If we don’t have this skill,we should seek support to acquire it.
Having solid, healthy coping mechanisms means that we are functioning, and also, that we are able to keep ourselves going through the storm. Again, this achievement shouldn’t be under-estimated.
The third aspect of a broken-but-absolutely-normal life is the ability to find joy from time to time. It might just be by finding a hobby we enjoy, like sport. One of the most common recommendations during therapy is to start volunteering for a group or charity. Having a purpose can usefully divert our minds from our obsession with brokenness. Looking at others, rather than looking at ourselves, helps put moods and doubts into perspective.
It also helps to connect with a community, and studies have demonstrated that the sense of belonging is a powerful source of healing. Feeling connected doesn’t make us perfect, but it helps change the way we see ourselves and the world around us.
Accepting our imperfections becomes easier the day we understand that our brokenness can be turned into something positive for others. For instance, pain from trauma can be the energy to fight for social justice.
In 1949, the Abbé Pierre, a French priest, met a man about to commit suicide. L’Abbé Pierre said to him: “I have nothing to give you. But if you’re thinking about death, if you don’t have anything to lose, could you just help me help others, just for today at least?”
It kept the man with suicidal thoughts going. This incident happened more than 70 years ago, and the charity that was created from this initial project became one of France’s leading charities for homeless people.
Brokenness can act as an eye-opener. Pain can encourage us to seek connections, as we realise that no one is an island. Inner brokenness can help bond with others more deeply, and more powerfully.
That said, building meaningful relationships means addressing our brokenness enough to avoid hurting others …
Whether we mean it or not, our own mental health challenges can harm others: for instance, when anxiety makes someone push away their loved ones or act without due care. These attitudes can cause stress and burnout in those around us, lower their self-esteem and negatively impact on their physical and emotional health. These should be red lines leading someone to seek support and healing.
There is a fine balance between making peace with our human nature (imperfect and broken), and fighting to overcome flaws which harm ourselves and the ones we love.
As the Sufi poet Rumi said: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
It would be delusional to imagine we should get rid of our wounds. We can live a happy life with scars on our heart, as long as we can channel these experiences to turn them into something useful for the community and for ourselves.
The question, therefore, should not be, “how do I fix myself?”, but rather “how do I use my entire self, lights and shadows, to produce something good for this world, myself and beyond?”
It’s a question which encourages us to focus on the longer term and on others. It is a more sustainable path, and certainly, a more fulfilling one.
This article is dedicated to all those who are struggling to ’fix themselves’ but who, perhaps without realising it, are already doing much better in life than they think.
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