Posted on 30th July 2023 at 18:41
You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that.
(Samuel, Beckett, Endgame)
Let’s face it, talking about feelings (or ‘the feels’ as current jargon refers to them) is a relatively recent development in Irish culture. In the not-too-distant past, feelings, emotions and sex were simply not talked about - you just ‘kept going.’ Not only did we not talk about feelings, but not doing so meant we did not provide a model for the next generations to learn how to deal with them either. While it is wonderful that we are now more self-aware and talking about feelings, in the context of mental health, we have run into the trap that having unpleasant feelings is being construed as pathological or a mental health abnormality. True, this ‘other extreme’ can often be a response to a cultural change and that the needle on the gauge will fall back towards the centre in due course. It is concerning nonetheless, that in schools, children are being exempted from classes they don’t like or tests they don’t want to do, on production of a parental letter stating the child “has anxiety.” Where did we lose the understanding that a certain amount of anxiety is normal (especially before a test) and necessary for performance? How is this practice bolstering resilience in our youths? It isn’t but is rather telling them they can avoid unpleasant feelings, at least while they are in school. But what about then, when they are faced with the reality of the working or college environment?
Having unpleasant feelings is not a symptom of mental illness. It is a characteristic of being human, living in a world that is constantly challenging. Feelings are important communications and inform us about actions that need to be taken for relief such as crying in response to feeling sad, making connections if we are feeling lonely, doing someting creative if we are feeling empty, checking expectations and boundaries if we are feeling angry. If we subscribe to the rhetoric that normal feelings are an illness, we come away with the feeling that we are broken and need to be fixed. We make our way into the busy GP surgery where they are already writing out a prescription as they don’t have the time to work it out with you in a chat. We need to realize that it is perfectly normal to feel sadness and have anxious feelings as normal responses to what we are experiencing in situations that are also sometimes abnormal – normal responses in abnormal circumstances. When we jump to ‘diagnosing’ ourselves or others, we are potentially causing harm because we are not allowing ourselves to experience our feelings as normal. Instead, we are trying to find a pathological reason for feeling a certain way so we can eliminate it as soon as it appears. If we feel things, it will hurt too much. Therefore, when they arise, we become anxious or try to defend against them. Not only that, but media feeds and self assessment tools are providing us with language and descriptors that keep us stuck in the ‘abnormal’ narrative.
One of the strongest beliefs that drive people to look for a pill to relieve their low mood, is that depression is due to a chemical imbalance or low serotonin. As a result, antidepressant use has reached epidemic proportions globally and continues to rise, especially in young people. Anti-depressants have side effects, just like chemotherapy has. This can lead to more issues and difficulties with withdrawal. In 2022, Moncrieff and Horowitz  published the findings of the most comprehensive review to date which essentially debunked the theory of chemical imbalance as not being grounded in science. Needless to say, this has caused quite a division in the medical and psychiatric world. Aside from the prescription route, people self medicate unpleasant feelings through the use of a whole range of self-soothing behaviours which have the potential to become addictive.
A healthy approach is allowing ourselves to experience the feelings that come up, learning how to navigate those feelings in a constructive way, and choosing not to shame ourselves for having feelings that aren’t always ‘positive’ because that’s only what modern society tolerates or accepts. Creating tolerance for the unpleasant feeling helps relieve tension by allowing us to succumb to the action needed for relief like crying, making connection etc. Knowing when to be concerned also helps. Ask yourself if what you are feeling is normal in the circumstances. Give yourself time to recover. Are your feelings impacting how you function? If so and it’s going on for a number of weeks, take note. Are others showing concern also?
Going to therapy helps to tolerate unpleasant feelings thus reducing the need to defend against or avoid them. We can identify the feeling or the layers of feelings, process them and then integrate them. This is the basic process but it can take different approaches in different individuals and that’s okay. Make contact here if you would like help tolerating feelings.
In the coming months, I plan to hold workshops on tolerating feelings and dealing with anxiety amongst other topics. Keep an eye on this website page or look for announcements on my social media pages.
1. Moncrieff J, Cooper RE, Stockmann T, Amendola S, Hengartner MP, and Horowitz, MA. (7.20.2022). “The Serotonin Theory of Depression: A Systematic Umbrella Review of the Evidence.” Molecular Psychiatry. DOI 10.1038/s41380-022-01661-0 [Link]
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