Death: An unspoken phenomenon

I was walking down a busy London street the other night. People were pushing past each other, in a rush to get home or to the bar. The road, packed with cars and taxis honking their horns in the congested traffic that surrounds central London twenty-four hours a day. I imagine this to be much the same scene in any city, anywhere in the world. A certain sight caught my attention; there were two police officers and a paramedic standing over somebody laying on the floor. A white sheet covered the person; the only thing visible was a pair of trainers motionlessly poking out the bottom of the sheet. It took me a few moments to understand what the scene in front of me meant: the person under the sheet had died. It was one of those rare moments when the finite nature of life suddenly hit me, a stark reminder of the inevitably of my own fate. The contrast of the busy street, teaming with life, and the scene unfolding in front of me seemed particularly poignant.

Death is a subject that, as a society, we avoid talking about. We go to great lengths to distance ourselves from the anxiety of talking, or even thinking, about it. It is something that is kept far away from our consciousness. If we don’t think about it, it can’t affect us. Right? Unfortunately, death is fundamental to life, part of the eternal circle of everything that has (and ever will) exist.

Death does not have to be a subject that we approach with fear and anxiety. The idea of an afterlife is a key component to the majority of the world’s religions, many people believing that this life is purely in preparation for the next. Religious or spiritual beliefs can aid in the understanding and even appreciation of death.

However many people, myself included, do not believe in an afterlife; when you die you die and that’s it. Equally, this mind-set does not mean that the concept of death has to be approached with dread. Death is non-existence. A popular concept identifies that the period before one is born is also non-existence. Dying is therefore simply the returning to this state, not something to be scared of just the natural process of life returning to its original form.

The death of a loved one is hugely painful. Although many have tried to conceptualise it as such, bereavement is not a linear process. People experience the death of a loved one in a very individualistic way. The way one person mourns can be vastly different from how another person mourns. This can cause misunderstandings and further emotional pain between family and friends. There is no ‘right way’ to grieve. It is important to identify and accept the way you mourn as well as to respect that other people may mourn differently from you and that this is OK. Bereavement can be both a beautiful and extremely painful experience. The remembering of somebody important to you and the times you shared can be a uniquely joyous sensation. Equally, the experience of vast amounts of pain reminds us of what it means to be human.

In conclusion, death does not have to be an unspoken phenomenon, a subject that is edged around and whispered about in metaphors. By having an open and honest conversation about death, both the thought of our own passing and the heartbreak of losing a loved one, we may narrow our anxiety. Having a public awareness of mourning and the concept of death is vitally important to the mental wellbeing of future generations. By encouraging talk and normalising this subject, we will not only teach our children about life, we will also help them to live in a full and meaningful way.

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Five ways to maintain positive mental health

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These days it is trendy to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Instagram pages and youtube videos seem to be constantly churning out media of people drinking bright green smoothies and holding compromising yoga positions. Maintaining positive mental health on the other hand does not seem to be have become as big a part of pop culture. Often the attitude is that maintaining good mental health is only relevant if you suffer from something like depression or anxiety. This would be like saying that maintaining good physical health is only relevant if you suffer from something like diabetes or a heart condition. Maintaining good mental health is crucial for maintaining good overall health. Here are five ways in which you can maintain your own positive mental health.

Sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep is important for maintaining both physical and mental health. Sleep helps our brains to process information and consolidate memories and lack of sleep has been linked to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety1. There are simple things that you can do to improve the quantity and quality of the sleep you get at night. Establishing a basic routine of going to bed and getting up at the same time everyday can help prepare your mind and body for sleep. Engaging in activities such as reading, meditating or calming breathing and muscle relaxation2 exercises may help you drift off. Avoiding anything to visually engaging such as television, computer games or social media browsing before bedtime may further help.

Talking

The immortal saying ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ probably best sums this up. Sharing our life experiences, both positive and negative, with the important people in our life is hugely therapeutic. Human beings are social animals; our brains develop as a result of the social constructs around us. The people that have been involved in our lives are fundamental in how we define ourselves (whether we like it or not). Whether it’s a close friend or a professional therapist talking about life’s ups and downs is essential for maintaining positive mental health.

Exercise

It’s been made exceptionally clear that exercise is good for our physical health, however regular exercise also has many benefits for mental health. Exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, stress, PTSD and many more3. The establishment of a routine and the release of endorphins contribute towards this. Regular exercise also helps to maintain positive sleep patterns that which further contributes to the maintenance of mental health. It can feel intimidating taking the initial steps to a regular exercise program. It is ok to take small steps and remember to have fun with it!

Manage stress

Stress effects all of us to differing degrees. It has been shown that stress can sometimes be positive4 however, this is only if short lived. Prolonged or excessive stress has been linked to many physical and mental health problems, such as heart attack and stroke as well as burn out and emotional break down. It is therefore extremely important to find ways to manage your stress level. Everybody experiences stress in different ways and different stress management techniques work for different people. Ultimately, it is about trying different techniques and seeing what works for you. Some popular advice includes; maintaining a healthy work/life balance, massage, yoga, mindfulness practices and meditation. The points mentioned above (sleep, talking and exercise) are also powerful ways of managing stress.

Avoid excessive alcohol and drug consumption

In this context, I am extended ‘drug consumption’ to include substances such as caffeine and tobacco as well as illegal drugs such as cocaine. In an ideal world this would read avoid alcohol and drugs altogether, and if you can do this then great! However, this is not always a reality in modern society. We all know that alcohol and drugs are bad for us, both physically and mentally. The evidence for this is overwhelming. These substances can be highly addictive and therefore very difficult to give up or even to cut down on. There are many services out there dedicated to helping people manage their alcohol and drug consumption. A good place to start is always to talk with your GP. Even if you don’t feel like you consume an alarming amount of these substances it is always best to have an honest and open conversation with your General Practitioner to gather more information about how they might be effecting you and potential action you can take.

  1. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/sleep-report
  2. http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/sleep-problems/
  3. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/exercise-fitness/emotional-benefits-of-exercise.htm
  4. http://stress.lovetoknow.com/about-stress/what-is-positive-stress

Religion, spirituality and therapy

Does religion have a place in the therapy room? How can spirituality effect our mental health? Is there a difference between spirituality and religion? Whether you consider yourself spiritual or not, adhere to a set of religious principles, or are a steadfast atheist, these are important questions to consider if you are interested in mental health.

But why? I mean, society is becoming more and more secular. Some authors have even suggested that therapy was born out of society moving away from religious communities1. I have always considered myself an atheist and for most of my professional life have felt it redundant to tie mental health with anything spiritual or religious.

Something changed. I did not suddenly find God. I did however start listening more. Listening to my client’s and the people around me. Spirituality and religion played an important role in how some of these people identified who they were and how they lived. Their beliefs were, therefore, fundamental to their mental health. By understanding what their religion means to each individual we can have an insight into what their internal world looks like.

Spirituality and religion

These two words are often used interchangeably and can leave many wondering ‘aren’t they the same thing?’ The two are different and over the years, there has been a lot written and many debates about exactly what these differences are. Many people have their views as to which is better and it can be hard to find a non-biased definition of the two. A dictionary search2 yields these answers:

Religion:    a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.

Spirituality: the search for meaning in life events and a yearning for connectedness to the universe.

In my own view, I see religion as defined as a set belief system, with certain rules that must be followed, and the worship of particular deity/deities. Whereas I see spirituality as a personal experience of something more than physical reality.

Faith for positive mental health  

There are many documented cases of people turning their life around with the help of religion. Many of these cases have become world famous through media coverage and biographical works. Organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous help those with alcohol addiction throughout a combination of talking and firm religious principles. Whether you are religious or not it is hard to ignore the potential for religion as a therapeutic tool.

Spirituality based practices, such as mindfulness, are becoming increasingly popular as both therapeutic techniques and as a life style choice. The evidence of both the mental and physical health benefits of mindfulness is mounting up. The psychological benefits of mindfulness have led to the development of several new forms of therapy; mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) are two popular examples of this.

Although there are arguments that religion is a bad thing, for both society and individual mental health. People often cite religious wars, terrorism and the abuse of young boys by catholic priests as examples of the evil of religion. I feel that the people in these incidents are at fault and not the religion itself. If religion were not there, these people would find something else to attach their extreme views and horrific acts to.

In conclusion, I believe the presence of religion and spirituality in the therapy room is highly appropriate. These beliefs can be at the centre of understanding what clients are going through and what might help them on the road to recover. I think it is important for therapist to view the person as a whole; encouraging not only emotional and psychological wellbeing but also physical and spiritual health.

 

  1. See An introduction to Counselling, McLeod, J. 2009. Open University press. P22-30.
  2. Dictionary definitions taken from http://www.dictionary.com.