We all have stress. Of course we do. Otherwise life would be insufferably bland and boring. Challenges wake us up, focus our attention and stimulate creativity. Most of us want that. We even thrive on it.
Unacceptable stress happens when it has gone too far. We can’t cope with it. It is beyond our customary resources.
In that situation our adrenal glands secrete the hormone cortisol. This causes trembling, sleeplessness, raised blood pressure and a fast pulse rate with extra beats, frequency of urination and loss of weight. We certainly know it when stress causes these symptoms. It causes disturbance in thyroid function and also affects sugar metabolism. It decreases bone density. It reduces immunity. It impairs our thought processes. Body fat tends to settle on the stomach and this can lead to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. It is very well worth avoiding stress, or treating it, if we can.
Recommended treatments for stress include meditation, guided imagery, self-hypnosis, breathing exercises and yoga. Listening to music is helpful. Keeping a daily diary helps some people. Exercise certainly helps. Sexual activity can be comforting and relaxing.
Ideally, however, the best approach is to avoid the stressful situation. If we keep trying to prove that a particular job or a particular relationship is perfect for us, when it clearly isn’t, we shall have no more success in calming ourselves down than if we were to try to prove that black is white.
There are times when a stressful event is overwhelming. The mind goes into shock. It sees no way out. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may develop. Someone who has been in combat may feel that there is a risk of further violence at any time, even though the original traumatic event may have occurred many years ago. Someone who has been raped may believe that any new relationship would involve similar risks. In these situations it is as if the thinking brain loses its capacity to influence the feeling brain. Any reminder of the event brings it very much into the present and the emotional trauma is re-experienced.
When I first saw EMDR (Eye Movement De-sensitisation and Reprocessing) described, I thought it was ridiculous. I dismissed it without observing it, such was my arrogance. Subsequently, when I observed it at first hand and, particularly, when I was helped with it by a skilled practitioner when I was dealing with traumas in my own life, I came to be profoundly influenced by it.
Nowadays, EMDR, along with NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), Hypnotherapy and Psychodrama (enabling people to examine and work with thoughts, feelings and behaviour all at the same time) are central to my therapeutic work.
In EMDR my experience of running an addiction rehabilitation centre brought me huge clinical experience. Addicts and their families suffer fearful traumatic experiences. I have had training in the use of EMDR in simple and complex situations, in Dissociative Identity Disorder (when childhood trauma can be so severe that the child grows up as two different people, one experiencing the trauma and the other observing it from a safe emotional distance), and in using EMDR for children themselves (in order to deal with the trauma at the time rather than many years later).
By observing highly skilled practitioners of EMDR, NLP and Psychodrama, I have learned a great deal. I have so far visited the USA on thirty-one occasions in order to get the best possible training. I now apply all three of these therapeutic interventions in my own way, taking on the best of what I have learned from others and adding techniques of my own.
With the experience of my own bankruptcy and subsequent bereavement, following forty-eight years of married life, I know what it is to be stressed — very much so. And to feel that there is no escape. I came through. Today I help others to do the same.
Depression has to be differentiated from sadness. They are not the same thing at all. Depression is an inner sense of emptiness that has no clear explanation, other than the possibility of genetic malfunction in the mood centres of the brain. Sadness is the normal human response to bereavement, other forms of loss or disappointments in our hopes.
To judge from the millions of prescriptions written each year for so-called ‘anti-depressants’, it is clear that doctors are prescribing these drugs as if they were a cure-all for difficult social circumstances. They do nothing whatever for bereavement, damaged relationships, unemployment, poor housing conditions, or any other social trauma. These require treatment with understanding, personal support (where possible) and time. Many social situations require political rather than medical solutions. Far from helping the situation, on the pretext that anti-depressants enable people to think more clearly, they make it less likely that a practical solution to the various problems will be found. Furthermore, the result is that truly effective approaches may be deferred while it is being assumed that medications can solve underlying problems. They can’t. Sometimes we just have to go through the experience, like it or not, in order to allow our distressed minds to heal themselves.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has become accepted as the ‘gold standard’ treatment for emotional problems of one kind or another. Doctors and psychologists like CBT because it is a rational process that they understand, because they like to see themselves as being rational. I work with people who know perfectly well that what they are thinking or feeling or doing is irrational — but they can’t stop it. I believe that CBT can be very valuable in helping people who have no major emotional problems in the first place. I work at the other end of the emotional scale. I help people who are in absolute despair.
As with the treatment of stress, I find that EMDR, NLP and Psychodrama are the three most effective clinical approaches for sadness. They work directly on the feeling brain, healing it. There is an element of truth in believing that sensible thoughts can lead to sensible actions. However, the people I care for find themselves stuck in a rut. They have stressed feelings and disturbed behaviour from which they cannot escape by simply telling themselves to be sensible. They need more human understanding than that, and more skilled and experienced care than simply being given wise advice.
Depression itself, separate from the sadness caused by specific events, is a wretched state. Any relief is a God-send. Those of us who have suffered from this clinical condition discover for ourselves that some substances and behaviours lift the cloud, or tame the ‘black dog’ temporarily. We find that alcohol or sugar or nicotine or drugs will work in raising our spirits. But then the effect wears off and we go back down again. So we take more. In due course we tend to increase the dose. Then we get damaged by the side effects of these substances. We try to give them up but the depression reasserts itself.
We can’t live without these substances, but we can’t live with them either. In that desperately lonely situation, many people commit suicide. This is the tragedy when effective long-term treatment is available through specialised rehab for depression and working the Twelve-Step programme first formulated by Alcoholics Anonymous. Those of us who apply this daily programme to our lives find that we are transformed. In place of gloom and doom and absolute negativity, come hope and happiness, creativity and enthusiasm. But, as with the use of mood-altering substances, the effects of working the Twelve-Step programme wear off unless we continue to apply it on a regular basis.
Escaping into mood-altering behaviours such as work and exercise, is no help. They can be just as addictive and destructive as any mood-altering substance. Gambling and risk-taking, shopping and spending, sexual activity and other mood-altering processes can be equally as addictive and destructive as any mood-altering substance. In the long term they cause very significant damage and lead to the same black pit of spiritual emptiness.
It is twenty-seven years since I last experienced that sense of inner absolute emptiness. Two years ago I came through my bankruptcy and bereavement without relapsing. I used what I had learned from working the Twelve-Step programme on a daily basis and I was gradually able to put my life together again. I survived personal and professional betrayal without rancour or resentment. I created new relationships. Now I look forward, not back.
The anonymous fellowships, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, are free, and you can look them up on the web. Some people need more emotional and behavioural help before they can take full advantage of the Twelve-Step programme. In that circumstance I may be able to help you to save weeks, months or years of suffering and loneliness if you are prepared to do the work, under my guidance, that I did — and still do — under the guidance of others.