Simply feeling good is not mental health. Yet when normal aspects of the human condition are over-pathologized, it’s easy to see how one could think that is the case. Afterall any level of anxiety and/or depression is increasingly considered a “mental disorder,” when they are often expected and appropriate symptoms of adjustment, setback, novelty, learning, resolving conflict, and other general life challenges. As a result, the line between basic human struggle and genuine human misery has been blurred.
To make matters worse, we live in a culture where there is endless promotion of the “fun life.” We only need a quick browse through our social media platforms to find supporting evidence of this quite obvious claim. We’ll find photos upon photos and videos upon videos of people seemingly living in a state of perpetual joy. This, combined with a constant doom and gloom perspective from the news media, can lead to a joy/misery, either/or paradigm of interpreting our experience. In my view, this is an unfortunate misunderstanding of human psychology.
It’s normal to look at such superficial representations of others on Instagram or Facebook and ask, “why don’t I feel like that all the time too?” The answer: because no one feels like that all the time. Now it may not always be fake joy, but it certainly is an incomplete model of mental health. In my studies and practice as a professional counselor, I have come to understand mental health more so in terms of how one functions, opposed to how one feels (disclaimer: not saying feelings don’t matter).
It is impossible to extract unpleasantness from the human condition, so attempts to consistently avoid or eliminate unpleasant feelings is to deny a basic element of our existence and ultimately set us up for failure. Therefore, it is imperative to realize, in reasonable amounts, unpleasantness and discomfort (which are too often mistaken for clinical depression and anxiety) are actually the building blocks of personal growth.
In fact, turning towards, not away from, struggle is an essential pillar of mental health and adaptive functioning. Frequently clients come in to see me for what they believe is a problem with how they feel. However, over the course of several sessions, the common finding is that it is not the feeling that it is the problem, but rather, it is a struggle that they are not yet equipped to turn towards and effectively manage. So the goal becomes to address that, while learning to see the “negative” feeling as a biproduct of a properly functioning internal alert system misinterpreted as pathology.
Let me be clear. Of course there are such things as chemical imbalances and mental disorders, but at the same time, we should be careful not to jump to those conclusions when assessing psychological symptoms. Because if we remain sloppy, we potentially reinforce the idea that one has attained mental health only when they are completely happy and comfortable. If that’s the case, the treatment model will always be to just take more pills, instead of also improving one’s functioning in the face of life’s challenges.
So many questions. So few answers. The theme of the day.
It helps to ask ourselves meaningful questions that we can actually answer, though. It can give us a sense of direction and reduce our anxiety, which is such a wonderful thing, especially in times like this. So let’s do some pondering.
Before we start, I ask that you read each question slowly. Take your time. This is less like high intensity interval training and more like yoga. Hold each question in awareness.
What is it that you want? What is important to you? Is it different now compared to just a month ago?
Obviously, the world has changed. But have you changed too? How so?
What’s one thing you can do to get closer to what you value most? Make a phone call? Be more patient with your spouse, children, or roommate? Adjust the blinds to let some light in? What about reading a good book? Pray, meditate, take a walk? I don’t know, just some ideas.
Do you really see yourself as a part of nature? Or separate from nature? Is this a practical question? Or is it just hippy talk?
How are your family and friends doing? Are they well? You sure?
To parents, do you ever take a moment and pat yourself on the back? Do you give yourself the permission to be imperfect?
To kids, what is it like not being able to play with your friends or go to school? That has to be tough. But hey, have you gone outside recently? The weather is starting to get nice again.
To couples, so you’re spending A LOT of time together, right? Have you learned something new about each other? How are you satisfying your need for “me time?”
To those who live alone, how are you using all this extra time at home? Any new hobbies? How are you maintaining relationships?
To all, who do you want to be when this is over?
If we use this time to get a little bit better, we’ll look back on it with a sense of pride. If we don’t, we’ll kick ourselves. We have a choice. What will you decide?
As concerns grow regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve identified some patterns of thought among my clients as they try to sort out what’s going on in the world. This post is intended to capture some of this thinking, along with observations from social media, conversations with friends and family, and some thoughts of my own on the topic. Enjoy!
The struggle with uncertainty.
What’s going to happen next? An ever-present, always-relevant question.
Sometimes we KNOW. Sometimes we Know. Sometimes we know. But usually, we don’t.
The bigger picture is still intact. But is it really? Probably. But no absolute guarantees. There are not many of those.
I still believe in the big picture, though. History backs me up. Of course we will get through this. Of course? Yeah, of course.
So much time in the house. How am I going to maintain outside relationships? Technology–that thing I’m so critical of, yet so useful. So useful. Thank you technology. Whew.
Food? We should be alright. The stores haven’t ran out… yet. Wait, yet? Could that happen? Highly unlikely, so I’ll just call it good on that one.
I don’t get this whole toilet paper thing, and I don’t know anyone who does. Which makes me wonder, who the hell is buying all the toilet paper?
People are sick. And dying. People still need to make money. What about the economy? The disease? The cure? Eh, not sure if I can sort it all out right now. Let the professionals do their work.
I hate Covid, but what a teacher. Learning so much, especially how to slow down. The realization that I’m in an arranged marriage with productivity. Maybe I won’t renew my vows.
Perhaps this didn’t happen to us. Perhaps it happened for us. Who was it that told me that? I can’t recall, but it’s an interesting point. Remember that. And to wash my hands. Happy birthday twice, got it.
Stay curious. Connect with the moment. Plan when necessary. Pay attention (but don’t overdo it). Do my part. Stay at home. Survive.
And yes, peace is still possible. I can handle this.
Historically, anger has come naturally and easily for men. Probably because on some level, we evolved to be warriors, hunters, and physical laborers. Every single one of us comes from a lineage of bad assess that knew how to scratch and claw to survive. Our ancestors’ lives were brutal, and we carry their DNA because they were the ones that lived just long enough to reproduce. That was no small accomplishment either.
Anger has been the fuel system that’s motivated men to push up against life challenges with force. It increases blood flow to our large muscles and reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex (largely responsible for intelligent thought), while the more primitive structures of the brain kick into gear. Exactly what we needed for when life was brutish and short.
Yet we live in different times now. Our aggressive tendencies have been criticized, and for good measure. We are much more likely to be held accountable if we lash out verbally or physically, which is warranted. And the expectation to keep our worst impulses in check are ever-increasing. These corrections were long over-do.
I’m glad we have made some changes, but I’m also afraid that we have not defined alternative ways for men to express emotional pain. Not that it was ever okay, but we used to (sort of) get by with tantrums and outbursts, even though we suppressed sadness, confusion, loneliness, and other “soft” emotions that lie beneath the surface. But now that norms are changing, it seems like many men have completely shut down. I see it all the time in my clinical practice, and, to be candid, I work against this tendency in my own life.
Psychological research has clearly demonstrated that emotional suppression leads to all kinds of mental, physical, and social problems, and if we take into account the prevalence of suicide, violent crime, addiction, and chronic disease among men, there seems to be some legitimate evidence that something has gone seriously wrong.
True, these aren’t exactly new problems for men, but since the age of accountability has begun putting male anger and impulse in its proper place, we haven’t exactly seen the type of progress one might expect. At least anger seemed to make a little sense, but figuring out how to express the various layers of our emotional reality can make the mind go blank. I don’t want to imply that this is the case for every man, but saying what we think generally isn’t so bad. It’s more comfortable to operate on the intellectual level. But talking about how we feel? Yeah, how about you back off and leave us alone.
Deep down, we know that isn’t the solution. Most of us are aware that we too have emotional needs, but the words tend to escape us. All of a sudden, our native language can seem foreign and inadequate. But at some point, we have to shed our demand for absolute clarity and begin accepting the fact that genuine emotional expression is messy work.
With that in mind, I want to offer a basic template to help us men sort through the mess. But before I do so, a quick message to women: you deserve credit. The structure of your friendships is much better suited to satisfy your emotional needs. Although there are some biological factors at play, it still takes courage to be vulnerable. I admire that.
Okay, back to the template…
First, ask yourself who in your life is willing to listen? If you don’t have anybody, consider talking to a counselor, pastor, or joining a support group. It’s not easy to reach out, but it’s worth it. This first step is often the most difficult. Just figure out a way to break the ice, and like most things, it will get easier with time.
Second, talk about talking. Discuss what it might be like to start expressing your feelings and how to do so at the right pace. Advocate for your needs too. What are you looking for? Advice? Someone to vent to? It helps to be clear about how the other person can be useful to you, especially if they are not a mental health professional. A lot of times, it’s instinctive to jump in and try to fix someone’s feelings, but if this isn’t what you need, make that known up front.
Third, stumbling and fumbling is normal. This isn’t a performance art. It’s real life. I have found that if people give themselves the permission to be imperfect, they generally function better. And this is certainly the case with expressing feelings. So drop the ego. It’s imperative to create space for trial and error. Your ego will only distort this path.
Lastly, remember that men have real grievances too. Our culture tells us that our pain is trivial and that we really have nothing to complain about. Come on, that’s ridiculous. It’s the type of mentality that can lead to tragedy. The truth is we can still be masculine, still be tough, still be a man, and also pursue emotional health. We just have to run the experiment to find out for sure.
This is not intended to be political. I’m not trying to earn your vote or approval. I don’t care what your party affiliation is. I just want to address something that’s been on my mind and will likely be on more minds as climate change worsens.
Let’s first start with some facts. According to science, global temperatures are rising, oceans are warming, ice sheets are shrinking, glaciers are retreating, oceans are acidifying, sea levels are rising, extreme weather events are increasing, AND 99% of scientists agree that this is primarily caused by humans.
I don’t consider myself an alarmist or a conspiracy theorist or a doomsday prognosticator. I’m just a curious dude who likes to learn, and I can’t help but acknowledge this theme in the scientific literature: we, as a species, are in big trouble.
In addition, I’m also a counselor that wonders how climate change will impact our mental health. Afterall, so much of this is out of any ordinary person’s control, which our brains don’t like. Think of it like this: in order to have a chance at limiting the damage associated with climate change, humanity needs to be unified on a global scale around clear-cut, enforceable policies that lead to energy renewability and long-term environmental stability.
Unfortunately, as of now and for the foreseeable future, there is no unity, no clear-cut policies, and no realistic options to adequately address the problem. Not saying we are totally screwed, but time is running out.
The world is kind of like the Chiefs in the Superbowl, down by 10 in the fourth quarter, third and 15, without Pat Mahomes at QB, and significant disagreement on the play call and whether the scoreboard is accurate.
Again, the brain doesn’t like such uncertainty, especially when strategies are limited. Yeah, we can ignore the problem. Ignorance is bliss, they say. We can also join environmental groups, make life style changes, run for office, or educate ourselves and others. Clearly those are better strategies. But it still leaves us with a dire environmental forecast– one that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
If you’ve read some of my other posts, you may think, “but wait Scott, you’re the guy that writes about hope and staying in the moment and trees that withstand STORMS for heaven’s sake!” Yes, I’m still that guy. But this is a different kind of problem, and I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t at least a little rattled.
I won’t give up on mental health, though. That I can promise. Climate change may rattle us at times, but it also provides us with an opportunity to put our minds together, to think about our character, and to allow our better colors to shine through. Now this is a meaningful challenge.
I’m a big believer in the idea that mental health is not so much dependent on the situation as it is about how we respond to the situation (a central component in numerous psychological therapies). Sure, climate change is a beast of a situation, but the fundamentals of mental health remain the same. We respond to the situation with genuine concern and curiosity, not excessive worry and closed-mindedness. We control what we can control and embrace small victories along the way. We stay poised in the midst of chaos. And lastly, we don’t give up.
Maybe we solve this thing, maybe we don’t. But one thing is for sure; how we respond to the climate crisis is going to say a lot about who we are—as individuals, as a culture, as a species. So let’s orient ourselves towards progress the best we can, and do so with confidence and strength. Then, we stay in the moment, engage where we can, and see how far we get. Now that’s mental health, the best I can know it.