Trauma, depression, and mental health needs are in the spotlight once again, with the recent suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, along with the national outcry about the separation of families at the border. The images, sounds, and stories of pain and suffering experienced in these symbolic populations trigger a deep feeling of shared pain and suffering in all of us. It feels like an especially heavy time, or at least, our modern technology grants greater exposure to these kinds of stories and situations that have long plagued individuals and communities.
As a psychologist, I find the state of mental health research and care gravely unsatisfactory. Much of what we (as a field) understand about depression and other disorders is incomplete. Much of the effort in the treatment of mental illness focuses on quelling symptoms with pharmaceuticals as opposed to the deep work and commitment of holistic rehabilitation.
Our science is a complicated one, there are so many variables to consider in examining human behavior: the influence of genes, epigenetics, diet, lifestyle, social learning, and culture … the list goes on. We have yet to truly understand the development and etiology of most psychological disorders. Although we might want to search for answers and solutions, it may benefit the public conversations we have about mental health to understand that perhaps the best approach is less about “solving” issues and eradicating the inconvenient symptoms of disorder and more about finding honesty and compassion for the internal struggles that we are all subject to facing. Mental health and mental disorder exist on a spectrum. Emotional ups and downs are simply a characteristic of human life.
For those of you trying to navigate and accept the reality of your own internal battles, please know that the work you are doing is courageous and legitimately challenging, but so worthy of your effort. Please know that you are not alone. Please know that even during the darkest hours, hope can and does exist. Here are some insights to remember on your journey through the peaks and valleys of your inner landscape.
• It’s ok not to feel ok. Nobody is immune to negative thoughts, depression, anxiety, and other internal struggles. If your expectations are based on the realities portrayed online, you might assume that everyone else is living fabulous lives, traveling to beautiful places, wearing perfect outfits, and eating expensive meals.
But how can you reconcile those images of senseless violence in Syria or any of the other heart-wrenching tragedies of our time? It can be so jarring to witness these two seemingly irreconcilable extremes of reality, and yet we see this kind of juxtaposition all of the time. Exposure to so much emotionally laden information places a huge demand on the nervous system. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that the current political climate was a source of stress for 57% percent of Americans surveyed, 66% of Americans surveyed stated that they were worried for the state of our future, and 38% of Americans surveyed reported that social media discussions about politics and culture were also a source of stress (1).
It’s ok to feel hurt and affected by the things you are experiencing in your own life and the events going on in the world around you. This is a natural reaction to a sometimes messy and uncomfortable world. If you feel pain when you watch, read, or listen to the news, it is a sign that you are an empathetic being with a sense of connection to other living beings.
So, let yourself feel your emotions. You cannot fast forward through the hard stuff. That said, if possible, try not to linger in the pain or add more harmful thoughts to the mix, as it’s easy to get swept up in the cascade of negative thought. When a raw emotion is felt and passes, new emotions and sensations arise in its place. Training in mindfulness meditation and other emotion regulation strategies can be vital tools in this process.
Alternatively, you can also use the negative emotion in a way that is constructive. For example, anger can be channeled towards positive action, and sadness can be examined as an opening for emotional expression. So many songs, poems, comedies, and great works of art have been born from difficult emotions. Maybe it's time to reframe your approach to these challenging internal experiences as opportunities to learn more about yourself.
• Ask for help. Many people feel shame about admitting vulnerability and asking for psychological help (2). It might sound like a tall order to reach out to someone else when you are feeling lost and alone; but you must do this. Hiding your vulnerability only creates an obstacle to receiving the care and support that you deserve. On the other hand, by asking for help and being honest about your needs, you give others permission to do the same.
• Consider your wounds as portals to growth. This might not make sense until after your psychological wounds have had some time to heal and you have moved past the struggles you are currently facing. But often, with distance and in hindsight, you can look back and recognize some evidence of the profound lessons learned in your most trying times. You may not see it when you are right in the middle of it, as sense-making is by nature a process of retrospective reflection.
For me, learning about my anxiety opened my world to new way of living. I have learned so much about my boundaries, what kinds of environments feel nurturing or harmful, and how to structure a daily rhythm to my life that serves me. Similarly, losing my mother has helped me to empathetically connect with others who have lost loved ones. Every challenge I have undergone has made me who I am today. I am grateful for the clarity and wisdom I have gained thus far.
The importance of finding meaning as a process of mental health cannot be overstated. Finding meaning in negative life events is a challenging endeavor, but also a key ingredient to adaptation and healing from trauma (3). To facilitate this process, support and guidance from a professional or trusted friend can be essential
American Psychological Association. (2017). Stress in America: Coping with change. Washington, DC.
Vogel, D. L., Wade, N. G., & Haake, S. (2006). Measuring the self-stigma associated with seeking psychological help. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 325.
Updegraff, J. A., Silver, R. C., & Holman, E. A. (2008). Searching for and finding meaning in collective trauma: Results from a national longitudinal study of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 709.