Why I’m fed up with being positive

So many people in the world now seem to be in pursuit of happiness. Worryingly that seems to be perceived to be something that primarily requires us to rework our ‘self’ with all of those self-help books I’ve complained about before; or achieve with very short-term therapy in which you don’t, God forbid, have the opportunity to get dependent on your therapist, even though every one of us, therapists included, are dependent on someone or something. And if you don’t achieve happiness I suspect the conclusion will not be anything to do with the difficulties that you have faced in your life- the traumas of childhood, the struggles of poverty, the lack of meaningful employment or the stigma that you face for being ‘depressed’. No, I am beginning to fear that in this age of relentless positivity the conclusion will be that you simply haven’t been smiling hard enough.

If there is a truly positive place in the world it is America. People serving you in shops and restaurants (mostly) smile at you and wish to ‘have a nice day’ (although the young man in the fish shop in Orkney wished me that today too- sadly). For those of us more cynical Brits who spend time in the USA (like Ruth Whippman in in her recent book ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’) it can be difficult to come to terms with a place where everyone seems to be so determined to find happiness by one means or another. In my favourite bookshop, the Elliott Bay Book Company on the top of Capitol Hill in Seattle, which by the way has a marvelous ice cream shop nearby, I found that the personal development shelves where people go to seek instruction in happiness, have now been relabeled simply as ‘self’. On the top of this section there is now label which simply said ‘self overstock’ which may or may not be intended to be ironic. I didn’t purchase anything, though I did buy a large vanilla cone from next door, which provided some relatively short-lived but exquisite pleasure.

I find the current vogue for dishonestly reframing everything in a positive way really irritating. We are not allowed to have problems any more only strengths.

Well that’s fine. I know I am a resourceful and resilient individual thank you very much with an excellent standing in the community. But can you help me with the fact that my electricity’s been cut off. That’s a problem not a bloody strength. And since I lost my job I’ve been feeling really down and I’ve had no money for 6 weeks while they sort out my benefits. I don’t mind you saying they are problems, because its true, they are, and I need some help.

This persistent and problematic level of positivity seems to have entered almost every aspect of mental health care. I suspect it wouldn’t bother me so much if it was balanced with an acknowledgement that people have real life difficulties that for which they do really need the help of others, especially mental health and social care services. And I have a suspicion that its all really about people becoming more ‘self-sustaining’ and cheaper to run.

The current wave of positivity began with the rise of the Positive Psychology movement almost two decades ago, led by the American psychologist Martin Seligman, previously better known for having come up with the term ‘learned helplessness’ to describe what happens when people feel powerless to change their lives for the better- and proposed as one of the psychological theories for how we get depressed. In her wonderful book Smile or Die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich ably convinces the reader that the ‘positive thinking’ movement has not only pervaded almost every aspect of our world in the 21st century through the influence it has had on business and economic theories, but that it has also done a considerable amount of harm. We have been encouraged to believe that by thinking in ways akin to making magical wishes, we can improve our lot. That by the repetitive act of reading daily ‘affirmations’ and writing gratitude letters to express how we feel about what is positive in our lives we can increase our sense of ‘wellbeing’. Even that by thinking positively we can avoid death from cancer.

Even though the evidence for positive psychology remains weak  when viewed against what we know about other kinds of psychological treatments (and in the case of beating cancer, non-existent), it has consumed all in its path- perhaps supported by the extraordinarily powerful marketing that has accompanied it. Those who have developed it have become gurus and then very successful business people. As Ruth Whippman points out, their expertise is now being purchased to bully the unemployed into feeling better about their job prospects. And positive psychology has found its natural bedfellow in the Recovery movement where there is a similar degree of evangelical positivity about the future prospects of a person struggling with mental health problems. In the recent book Wellbeing, Recovery and Mental Health’  which ‘brings together two bodies of knowledge on wellbeing and recovery’ the authors describe a type of positive psychotherapy for people with severe mental health problems including such strategies as ‘savouring’ (I’m not sure what that means), gratitude letters, and recognizing your signature strengths; once again without providing much good evidence of its effectiveness  other than those who took part had very positive views of the programme. I do hope that was enough for them.

I’m finding all this unwarranted and dishonest positivity quite depressing. Am I alone? Or is this just another instance of my unfortunate learned helplessness?

The morals of Mindfulness

‘I don’t know what it is exactly- no one does- but even my GP tells me I’d benefit from it.’ (The Spectator 17/7/2017)

If you mention  you are seeking help for depression its odds-on somebody will mention mindfulness. It has reached a point where it feels like the thing those of us with anxiety and depression should be doing- the self-evidently right thing to do to get ourselves ‘mentally fit’ (whatever that means), booking in to do a few exercises in the mind gym.

Last week I tweeted:

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The responses were interesting. Several who felt the same way. A couple suggesting I might approach it in a different way (I’m not going to say that they thought I was doing it wrong, because that would be unkind) and one entrepreneur trying to sell me his latest product.

I’ve been interested in meditation for many years. I don’t want this to sound facetious- but I fear it will- I have often thought that I would like to learn more about Buddhism- if it didn’t require so much effort. One of the most fascinating days of my life was spent in a Zen monastery in Japan. There have been times when I’ve meditated every day, and others when I’ve not. Since retirement I have started again- a little more regularly. I’ve found it helps me to feel more centred and calm. Wanting to learn more about Mindfulness, and having benefited somewhat from learning in the past some ways to cope with ruminations using techniques based on it, I started doing a recommended on-line course. My itinerant lifestyle precludes attending a weekly group, although I think this might have been much better.

At first it was helpful, but then my mood began to dip- related to uncertainties in the world- and the guided mindfulness exercises seemed to make things worse.  The ‘thought clouds’ burst and rained their contents down on me. Being asked to think about the painful things in my life with compassion for myself reduced me to tears, while having to think compassionately about others evoked anger. Haven’t I spent most of my life worrying about everyone else? Isn’t that the problem? I found myself saying. I can’t take this. It was no good. I had to stop.

I have heard of professionals telling clients that Mindfulness will put drug companies out of business. This kind of ridiculous promotion goes on in more muted forms across the media- some of it from researchers who should know better. What we can say is:

  • People respond differently to Mindfulness. We know there are potential adverse effects. Recalling traumatic events, increasing your level of anxiety or depression, depersonalization and even psychosis.
  • Mindfulness is suggested to people who are in the throes of depression (never mind full blown crisis)- but the evidence for its effectiveness during a current episode isn’t great– and there is none at all for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR- trademarked by Jon Kabat-Zinn). Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy has been shown to prevent recurrence when you’ve had 3 or more episodes and to be as effective as drugs for preventing relapse of depression (reported as ‘Mindfulness is as effective as drugs for treating depression.’) that’s what NICE recommends it for.

There are good reasons why it might not work when you are very depressed. You are preoccupied with anxiety, worries and ruminations. You start to focus on the very things that make you feel worse- your negative thoughts (even though you are only supposed to ‘be aware’- try telling me that when I’m not in control of my thoughts- I find it hard to even pay attention). And anyway you have to motivate yourself to get going.

The other moral objection to mindfulness comes from those who see the promotion of ‘McMindfulness’ as contrary to the values with which meditation is associated in Buddhism. It has become:

  • A personal path to ‘self-fulfillment’ removed from the intention of promoting compassion for others as well as yourself.

And/or

  • A corporate tool with for helping employees work more efficiently- with greater ‘resilience’ in toxic environments- thus putting the burden of responsibility back onto the individual to learn how to cope. I took pills for many years to do that- but it was my choice to- It wasn’t suggested to me by the boss.

Neither seem to be in harmony with the ethics and morals of Buddhist belief.

Indeed the moral imperative to ‘improve yourself’ by practicing mindfulness has something of the Protestant work ethic about it-  I’m only too familiar with that.

We must dust some of the celebrity stardust off Mindfulness and see it for what it is. Another useful tool that will help some but not others. Those of us attracted to meditation will find it helpful- but not when we are acutely depressed. I’m meditating again now- and finding it helpful. I know I have work to do on why ‘self-compassion’ is so hard but I can recognise that,  and I find reading Paul Gilbert’ books on compassion and mindfulness helpful. Others using self-help materials without support might find it much more distressing. Its one of the reasons we need to be alert as to how such tools as mindfulness are being disseminated in the community- and by whom.

We ought not to  promote a therapeutic milieu where people feel they ‘must’ learn to meditate or are told ‘it doesn’t work for you because you aren’t doing it right’ or ‘do this- its better than pills’.

Please.

Going North- the problems of trying to lead a disciplined life.

It is high Summer in Orkney, and I am back again in Scotland once more.

When things are difficult in my life I’ve always headed North. I don’t mean the North of England. That’s pretty much where I come from now. I’ve lived and worked there long enough to be a real ‘Northerner’. When I go South to London I like to broaden my accent a bit for the hell of it. But for most of my life the real North has only existed somewhere in my imagination- a magical place that never seems entirely real until I arrive there- and when I do it isn’t because I’ve reached some point on the map. Its more than that, it’s the sense of peace that infuses first my limbs and then seeps through my body. My heart rate slows down. I can feel the blood pressure in my arteries falling as the valves that constantly drip adrenaline into my system and contribute to my persistent feeling of anxiety are closed down one by one. Not by medication, but by nature. I can stop moving. My skin begins to tingle and itch as the wounds beneath, the invisible ones I’ve carried around most of my life, begin to heal.

Recovery isn’t just about absence of symptoms. Researchers who deal in the currency of symptoms talk about how in depression we pass from ‘normalcy’ (whatever that is) to the experience of ‘disorder’ followed hopefully by ‘response’ to the treatment, ‘remission’ of symptoms (in which they lessen or disappear) and then ‘recovery’, but many of us have ‘residual’ symptoms which wax and wane over time. Similarly psychological therapies are not designed to achieve a ‘cure’ in medical terms. We have to find ways of living with from day to day with our symptoms, problems and unresolved psychological conflicts. Health professionals rarely ask ‘How do you get through the day?’ yet that is such an important question. Every morning when you finally get out of bed, you have to face several hours of being, doing, feeling and interacting before you can get back under the duvet. For me, how to survive this daily experience is central to the process of recovery.

But I’ve never been very disciplined and in many ways I am still a rebellious child. I dislike going to bed. Without my husband to get me up to bed I can sit lost in my thoughts, reading, surfing the net or watching the TV for hours. I can lie in bed half the morning like a teenager.

I have this intention every time I come up here that this time I am going to get myself into some kind of healthy daily regime. There is so much information about the kind of lifestyle I should lead if I am going to learn how to manage my recurrent downswings in mood and loss of energy, which are the first signs that I might be becoming more severely depressed again. I know there are some things I can do to stay well. The list is endless and I know there is some evidence for all of these things: taking regular exercise, getting sufficient sleep for my age, avoiding alcohol and other ‘substances’ and eating a “Mediterranean diet” (not always easy in Scotland- never mind if you are on a low income). I also know that, given my propensity for relapses I should stay on the medication I have taken, in one form or another for more than 20 years, as well as the other tablets I have for my physical health problems. Keeping my mind on track is essential here as I am alone most of the time. It’s a great place to practice the skill of allowing the boxes containing ‘difficult thoughts’ to pass across on the horizon of my mind without having to unpack them. I know there is a lot of rubbish in them that really needs to be thrown out. If I allow a worry to take over my mind here its quite difficult to elude it. My mood soon begins to spiral downwards. These are the skills, based on Mindfulness I began to learn in the Cognitive Therapy I underwent a few years ago, to help manage ruminative thoughts.

I must get to bed before midnight and up before 8. Eat healthy meals that I have cooked myself. Take some exercise every day. There is a voice inside me saying ‘if you do these things you will not only be well, but you will be good’. But why do I have to be good? I find it impossible to be good all the time. Can anyone truthfully manage that?

So I cannot tell you a satisfying tale of how I did all of these things that I know should help me and they did. I can only say that when I am able to do them, they do.

I am gradually learning to forgive myself for failing to always live up to the targets I set myself for each day. I made them, so I can break them. I don’t have to spend every hour doing something useful- where does that idea come from? I have a choice. It doesn’t really matter if I don’t get any cleaning done until just before I return to Yorkshire. The North is a place where I find it easier to be me because it reflects something about what is inside me- I can see myself reflected in the lochs, the moorland and hills- a little chilly at times and not to everybody’s taste, but perhaps worth discovering. We all have to find a place where we feel we can be ourselves. I need to learn how to carry the essence of it back South with me. The longer I am here, with each visit, the easier it is becoming.

My latest book’The Other Sides of Silence- A psychiatrist’s memoir of depression is out now and also just published in  USA

Do self-help books work?

 

Having just returned from the USA where all bookshops have extensive sections on ‘self improvement’, and ‘self-help’ is big business, I couldn’t help thinking Bridget Jones had the right idea when she tossed them all into the bin. As a lifelong cynic I find the wilder claims made by some authors completely beyond the pale. I simply don’t believe that reading a book by a well know hypnotist can make me rich, thin or universally loved, but I do know that selling this promise has certainly made him wealthy.

So when I got home to Yorkshire I scanned my bookshelves to see how many I could find. There were a few more than I suspected, including two celebrity endorsed books on nutrition and fitness, a book for the ‘highly sensitive person’ (how to thrive when the world overwhelms you); a guide to help people who live with a person diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (I’ve absolutely no idea why I bought that- but perhaps it was a present for my other half). Similarly there was an aging copy of ‘Do I Have to Give Up Me to be Loved by You?’ with a photograph of the idyllically happy couple who authored it on the back. Where and when did I get that? Under one of the piles on my study floor I later found a copy of ‘Organising for the Creative Person’ … clearly ineffective.

However, to be serious, I can understand why self-help books are so popular:

  • A book is cheaper than therapy- and easier to obtain.
  • A book provides not only information, but hope, inspiration and things that you can practically do to solve my problems.
  • There is a vast choice of different books on offer. When one doesn’t work you can always try another.
  • The answer to your problems- all in one book?

I didn’t write my memoir as a ‘self-help’ book, but I’ve heard from readers who have found it helpful in explaining what depression is and how it can be treated. I hoped my story would provide some insight and hope for others living with depression, but it doesn’t contain much direct advice or strategies for coping. I just don’t have a simple, straightforward solution that will fit everyone who gets depressed. My explanation is more complicated… that everyone has their own experience of depression, and the parts played by psychological, biological or social factors not only differ between us, but change throughout our lives. Nevertheless some bookshops include my book in the ‘personal development’ section and maybe that is one place it fits.

The books that really trouble me suggest:

  • There is a single, simple answer to your problem
  • What has happened to you is essentially your own fault and there are things you should do to overcome this.
  • Strategies that may actually be harmful- such as stopping all prescribed medication because the author hasn’t personally found it helpful- and failing to tell you to discuss it first with your doctor, or get some informed advice about how to withdraw gradually.

And if you cannot get any benefit from the strategies that are suggested then this can lead you to blame yourself (if you are not doing that already) and feel even worse. Many of the things that cause us problems are not under our control, so we might feel even more helpless because we cannot change them.

But can they really help? There is remarkably limited research into this question. Self-help books really do seem to be effective for some people, but most of the published evidence is from those that apply ideas taken from cognitive behaviour therapy. ‘Guided’ self-help where the book is used in conjunction with brief sessions from a therapist, in which you can discuss what you have read, ask questions and generally be supported through the process of change, is more effective than simply reading a book on its own. Information alone isn’t enough- support is also important in helping people to help themselves.

Self-help is also more likely to work if you are highly motivated to seek help, and positively choose it, not have it prescribed to you- which was clearly found to be a problem in the recent study of computerised CBT prescribed to people with depression, in which I played a minor part. And a person with more severe depression simply may not have the drive and energy to find that motivation- which is one of the reasons I find the exhortation to ‘Climb Out of Your Prison’ (the title of a bestseller in the genre) so problematic, even though this idea clearly has currency for some. I’ve previously written on this blog about the crass insensitivity of handing information and leaflets out to people with severe mental health problems and those who are in crisis.

What one person will find a helpful idea will be an anathema to others. The social scientist Bergsma, writing in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, it exists) suggests that self-help books ‘offer a strong antidote against learned helplessness… but perhaps for readers that do not suffer from it.’ And current health policy supports the idea that we should all be responsible for ourselves, however unwell we happen to be, rather than dependent on the state.

Books can provide information and inspiration, but they can only point to possible directions in which to travel. According to Susan Krauss Whitborne, writing in Psychology Today the prospective reader might do 5 things:

  • Check out the author’s credentials- who are they? How are they qualified to write on the topic- and that doesn’t mean they have to an academic reputation or be famous.
  • Think of the book as your therapist: work done by Rachel Richardson and her colleagues at the University of York suggests that a successful self-help book establishes a relationship with you, gives you hope, confidence and anticipates you will find it difficult to keep going at times. Just like a good therapist.
  • Look critically at the quality of the writing. Is it going to ‘engage you, enrage you or just bore you to tears?’
  • Decide if the book will motivate you.
  • Don’t be afraid to give it a critical reading.

I have just remembered there are several more bookshelves in Scotland – and that’s where the latest ones are…on mindfulness.

If you ever hear that I am writing a self-help book, please remind me to re-read this blog.

My memoir ‘The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression’ is available now.