Everyone goes through mental health struggles to a greater or lesser extent. We all have darkness within us, we all go through periods of our lives when it feels like the world is against us. A few years ago, I went through a particularly challenging time; I felt such insufferable sadness that for a while I genuinely believed I wouldn’t enjoy anything ever again; and when I wasn’t feeling paralysed by this, my anxiety was so intense I could hardly sit still. This was fuelled by guilt as, from the outside, there was nothing really ‘wrong’ with my life, I had good friends, a boyfriend, a close family and my job was going well. Despite being fortunate to have some wonderfully supportive people around me, I couldn’t help but feel totally alone.
A combination of therapies, time, and becoming a yoga teacher have helped the darkness brighten over the past couple of years. It’s not to say it’s disappeared entirely. I know we are fragile beings, that darker days can return, but I have a much deeper understanding of what I went through now and greater confidence in my ability to cope.
I believe we should all talk more about mental health so, with that in mind, I decided to write about the therapies I have experienced personally over the last few years. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I am not an expert, but if you are in need of some help, I hope it provides you with some ideas of where to turn. Of course, with Covid-19, little is normal as we might usually define it; however, most therapy practices are offering online sessions. It is worth checking them out if you are looking for support right now.
The biggest thing I have learned is that there is no such thing as one size fits all, so we should never judge anyone on what they choose to do to improve their mental health (providing it’s not harming them or anyone else). I have also learned that none of these therapies ‘fix’ you – that’s not the aim. Instead, they should equip you with tools to deepen your sense of self-awareness so you are better able to deal with the fluctuations of life.
C O U N S E L L I N G :
Essentially, counselling gives you a safe space to talk, to say whatever comes to mind without any judgement or preconceived ideas. It can feel daunting opening up to someone you have never met, and the first few sessions may be a bit overwhelming. However, with time, you will build a relationship with your counsellor and, hopefully, will feel comfortable enough with them to work through your thoughts and emotions. Depending on their background and the kind of approach they use, they are generally there to listen, ask questions and may occasionally offer advice.
Counselling is usually the first thing that is recommended if you are struggling. It is possible to access this service through the NHS (though there can be a waiting list) or alternatively, you can find one yourself in your area (see links below).
My advice: There a many different types of counsellors out there who use different techniques and approaches; it may take trialling a few to find the person that is right for you. If you don’t gel with with one therapist, don’t be afraid to try another.
A N T I – D E P R E S S A N T S :
Perhaps the most controversial of all the therapies I am writing about in this post are anti-depressants. I can totally see the argument from both sides: taking medication is often seen as a ‘plaster’, helping the symptoms but not addressing the problem itself. I agree with this to an extent. On the other hand, it can be really effective in providing short-term relief whilst searching for another form of therapy.
Interestingly, I was originally very against anti-depressants, perhaps because I work in the wellness industry and there is a stigma about taking drugs deemed to be ‘unnatural’. I was prescribed medication by doctors on a few occasions but refused it each time, adamant that I could help myself mentally healthy in other ways (undeniably, part of this was also fear – fear of feeling no different, fear of feeling worse, fear of what other people would say). After finally admitting that I did need some extra help, and talking to a close friend who had also been on anti-depressants, I decided to give them a go. I was put on a low dosage, and within about a month I felt I could breathe again. Before this, anxiety/depression clouded my every feeling, thought and emotion. It was having a profound effect on my ability to function day to day. After around four weeks of taking the medication, the cloud began to lift. I felt like me again. It enabled me the space to think more clearly and make decisions on how to move forward.
There are lots of different types of anti-depressants out there; it’s also important to remember that everyone will react differently to them. And there can be side effects. It’s certainly not a decision to be made lightly; however, if you do feel like you are at a point where your mood is affecting your ability to function day to day over a prolonged period of time, then it may be worth discussing medication with your GP to find out more.
My advice: Don’t think you can rely on anti-depressants alone. They may help the symptoms but they do not deal with the problem itself. I would still highly recommend also seeing a counsellor or therapist. If / when you are ready to come off medication, talk to your GP first to find out the best way to go about doing this (don’t just go cold-turkey).
C O G N I T I V E B E H A V I O U R A L T H E R A P Y :
The aim of CBT is to help identify unhelpful thinking patterns/ behaviours and work on ways in which to challenge and (eventually) change them. These issues are broken down into 5 key areas: situations, thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, actions, which are believed to all be interconnected.
I used an NHS website called IAPT to self-refer; I was contacted by one of the local mental health centres, had a phone consultation and was subsequently offered seven free sessions over a period of two months. My sessions were highly structured and involved a combination of talking with the therapist, filling out work sheets (both with her and also by myself), journalling, reading and exploring a range of self-help techniques.
CBT has been criticised for being too mechanistic; I can see why some believe this: the nature of the sessions don’t allow much time for in-depth discussions about feelings and emotions. Having said that, I found elements of it really beneficial. I became much more aware of unhelpful thought patterns and behaviours, and it provided me with a range of tools to work on changing them.
My advice: Do the work. In my experience, a lot of CBT was self-directed; the therapist set me tasks each week but, fundamentally, it was down to me to put the work in if I wanted to help myself. As with most things, you only get out what you put in.
H Y P N O T H E R A P Y :
You might not consider Hypnotherapy a serious therapy! After all, comedians and TV hypnotists, for all the entertainment of it, don’t add to its credibility. But credible it is, having actually been used for years as a way of reducing a range of conditions from stress and anxiety to insomnia, pain and addiction. It uses guided relaxation, intense concentration and focused attention to help establish an alternate set of beliefs that aims to have a positive influence on a person’s behaviour. The best way I can describe it is like being in that state when you’re not fully awake, but you haven’t quite fallen asleep yet. It didn’t provide a long lasting effect on me, but it certainly helped me relax and sleep better at the time.
My advice: Be open minded. Hypnotherapy is perhaps a bit ‘out there’, but it may well work for you. The woman I saw recommended just a couple of sessions to help me, which was just as well as I couldn’t have afforded any more! Unfortunately, this service is not provided on the NHS, but my hypnotherapist did record both sessions so I could replay them at any time.
W H E R E E L S E T O L O O K :
There is an increasing number of alternative therapies* out there definitely worth researching too. Some examples include:
- Yoga therapy
- Breath therapy
- Art/music therapy
- Massage therapy
- Bowen Therapy
*Please be aware though that although practitioners in these areas may be highly qualified in the services they offer, this does not mean they are registered health professionals or have the appropriate training to support those with complex mental health conditions alone.
R E S O U R C E S :
Here are some helpful websites where you can find out more information on where to seek help…
- IAPT (NHS services)
- Counselling Directory
- British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
- Mind UK
- Mind UK – Alternative Therapies
- Time to Change