Beyond Blue, the not for profit organisation devoted to raising awareness for mental health issues, have recently released research that those suffering from chronic anxiety will often wait six years before they seek support. As the local psychologist, the editor here at the Big Smoke asked me why? He wanted to know what this insurmountable obstacle might be. Research has been directed at this question and a broad range of variables have been identified, from fluctuations in condition (“maybe I’m getting better”) to the stigma around getting help (“people will think I’m crazy if I see a psychologist”). Before I discuss what I have observed in session let me talk you through the journey toward reaching out for help.
The hardest sell that I need to make as a psychologist is the concept that “sometimes your brain decides for you when you’ve had enough”. This is when all those factors described in the research above intersect and you find that you are no longer in control of the way you feel or think. I often witness clients swing in and out of the insight that their thoughts are illogical, and that their feelings are uncontrollably amplified. When that person’s insight is engaged (i.e. feeling calmer) they know that their mental health might be impaired. When the insight is gone (i.e. circumstances get worse) they believe they are having an understandable reaction to one specific pressure. It is a destructive myth perpetuated in pop-psychology that there is always one key variable that causes mental illness (it’s possible, but it’s not likely).
It follows then that if a client believes the issues are circumstantial, then avoidance of psychological help is easily framed, usually by “what can a psychologist do to change my situation?” If the client understands that the impact of the situation is blowing out of proportion to the circumstances at hand, or that they could be tolerated differently, that’s when a client might call. One of the clearest issues I have observed with my client’s acceptance that they are suffering anxiety, is two-fold. The first is that if they admit they are suffering anxiety then they feel the guilt related to all those going through circumstances far worse than themselves. The second, which is related to the latter, is that if they admit they are suffering anxiety then they are weak. In order to open up the discussion with those that are resistant to accepting their emotional state is simply stating that just because you don’t want to feel this way doesn’t mean that you aren’t. It is a very simple fact that ignoring your emotions will lead to poor management of them.
Keep in mind that anxiety as a condition is not new. Some of those from one generation or another who say that they did not suffer anxiety have almost certainly been afflicted with the condition. They just blamed how they felt solely on the immediate circumstances around them. Just look at the statistics from those times around suicide, alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Why are we as a culture so utterly resistant to admitting that we are struggling emotionally? We are still taught that emotional fitness is coping in silence and in my experience this is not just a masculine issue. The word “weakness” is a sure fire way to have almost any client suffering anxiety reduced to tears. It’s my opinion that we need to ingrain in our culture a new balance between recognising and being kind to our emotional selves while still applying the discipline necessary to achieve the difficult goals that we value. The balance has been far too heavily weighted to hiding our emotional burden from others.
The biggest problem with hiding your burden from others is that it contributes to a vicious cycle where no one develops the skill of being able to talk someone through this issue. Which leads to people falling into the defensive notion that those people just need to harden up. You may have noticed a theme here and that is the idea that admitting to having an uncontrollable emotional state is still considered a weakness in our society. However, acceptance of a difficult emotional state is not indulgence of that state. It involves the recognition of limitations, application of self-care, testing of limitations and a more efficient recovery from an anxious state. It also increases familiarity with this state which makes it easier to recognise and deal with if it occurs again.
At the very base of this idea of weakness is the philosophy that your body can sustain an injury but your brain cannot. A psychologist can help you get through such an injury in the same way a physiotherapist might. If the thought of being weak has been plaguing you, it might be time to call a psychologist to help you find a more efficient way back to full health. If you can’t contemplate calling a psychologist then even better, do you best to add to the new culture of compassion and lean on a friend.