When my children were younger, there was absolutely nothing they liked more than me telling them stories about when I was a little girl. Mostly those stories were about my (many) mishaps; like the time I secretly tried my sister's bike and ended up hurtling into a neighbour's garage door because I didn't know how to use the brakes, or when I tipped over a fence on my new roller skates. I think one of the main reasons they enjoyed hearing these stories and often begged me to repeat them was because they showed my fallibility and gave them permission to be fallible too. Knowing they weren't the only ones who occassionally messed up or did silly things makes their experience less isolating, embarrassing or worrying. There is something of the 'we're all in this together' idea that helps us feel less frightened when we're experiencing difficult times. It's comforting to have our feelings normalised and it is often the thing that clients find most helpful when they first embark on counselling.
I recently read an excellent extract from Johann Hari's new book which calls for a new approach in treating depression. It's worth a read but essentially it discusses how patients presenting with symptoms of depression have historically been treated with medical intervention. The spontaneous chemical imbalance in the brain which causes depression can be redressed with anti depressants thus solving the problem. But does it? Doctors soon began to question what then to do with patients who are bereaved. They will almost certainly show symptoms of depression but not because of a chemical imbalance but because of their circumstances. As the article points out, context is everything and rather than simply treating the symptoms of extreme human distress, we need to get to the deeper problem that caused them in the first place. Addressing the symptoms without looking at the cause is not a long term solution to help those in crisis.
Human beings need to feel that their lives are meaningful, being lonely can cause as much stress and depression as being punched in the face by a stranger. As Hari so eloquently puts: "if you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs". I feel really strongly that the more we move towards this brave new world of being open about our experiences and feelings, to understanding what we need in order to make our lives feel more meaningful and have more purpose, the better off we'll be.
So what are these unmet needs? Of course, everyone's story is unique to them and getting to the root cause of why you're feeling as you do and what makes your life meaningful might seem impossible to understand, but there is research that paying attention to the 'primal human needs' can help make our lives happier and more satisfying. The article I've linked to lists 9 needs which nature says you need to lead a productive, happy life. These may seem a lot to take on all at once but there are shortcuts. For example, walking with a friend fulfils the need to give and receive attention, to heed the mind/body connection, to have purpose and the need for challenge and intimacy. Sharing my stories with my children fulfilled their need for intimacy (and mine) and helped them feel they belong and are accepted.
Counselling can be a very effective way of figuring out what the deeper causes of your distress are and help you work towards meeting some of your unmet needs. If you've been bereaved, counselling can provide a space to talk about the person you've lost and help understand your feelings and process your grief. Human life is a rich tapestry of dark and light times, that's the beauty of it, but sometimes it can feel that the darkness is overwhelming and stopping us seeing the light. The idea isn't to run away from difficult times (unfortunately that rarely works), nor is it about sticking a plaster over our wounds and hoping that's treatment enough. As hard as it may be, digging around in those painful areas, bringing them to the surface, looking at them, knowing them and accepting them is, I believe the way to then be able to really pay attention to what we need in order to lead a happier life.