Therapy isn’t for everyone. If endlessly talking about your childhood experiences, doesn’t work and reframing negative thoughts leaves you cold, then these are 5 alternative ways to begin the journey to recover.
I am lucky enough to live close to one of only three Buddhists temples in England, and so I decided to find what the mystery of mindfulness is all about for myself. What I learned is that meditation isn’t simply about concentration, it’s about insight. Neuroscientists call this ‘interoception:’ The ability to observe mind-states and bodily sensations without getting caught up in them. Many mental health conditions involve emotional dysregulation and impulsivity; with practise, meditation allows a person to man the watchtower of consciousness and observe from a distance. Beside this, it is a natural tranquilliser and improves heart-rate-variability, lowers blood pressure, and has anti-inflammatory effects. Scans have also shown it increases grey matter in the brain. Equivocal to strengthening a muscle, the increase in grey matter, tones many important areas of cognition and focus. Finally, mindfulness can also be a tool for transformation. Metta “loving Kindness” meditation, isa special practise used to cultivate patience and compassion toward yourself. This is the ground upon which true healing can occur.
Tai Chi, Cankama Walking, Qigong, Dance Therapy, or Yoga, are all ways to deepen the practise of mindful living. The advantage these disciplines have over meditation is that they are movement therapies, designed to help us express ourselves through our bodies. Those of us with mental health difficulties, will often have bodies which wax and wane between constant stress and chronic numbing. Both states create tension, which lead to aches and pains. Whats more research has shown that these epicentres of physical discomfort often hold an emotional imprint of upsetting events. Someone who was regularly beaten as a child, will often have pain in their shoulders where they braced themselves to take a hit, while a survivor of sexual assault may experience pain in the hips. Like with meditation, Yoga promotes positive change in heart rate variability, blood pressure, and the immune system. But more importantly it is a way to to heal damaged areas of the body, and feel comfortable and confident in your own skin.
The greatest plays of the Western Canon are about suffering. One need only flip through Aeschylus or Shakespeare to know this. The original drama was acted out in a communal atmosphere — a great hall with an open fire, a ancient amphitheatre with seats and stage — drama was about shared passion. Today, we travel to the WestEnd of Broadway to see the latest shows, but in many ways we’ve lost touch with the psychology of acting. Theatre is a way to fully experience emotions. For someone suffering with mental health problems feelings of rage, grief or sadness are common. Drama is a way to explore such feelings in a safe environment. But the key part is the audience. There is nothing more powerful than telling your story and having it validated. In psychology they call this ‘mirroring’ and it’s the ability of people to recognise themselves in others. In a play, the dynamic between the audience and cast, can create profound changes in systems of meaning. It also promotes feelings of understanding, confidence and leadership; skills all vital to build a better life.
The first artists were shamans who went to the deepest caves of the earth to paint their otherworldly visions. In the words of Carl Jung man has a ‘religious nature,’ and so whether we have a faith or not, we all have a predisposition to experience awe and wonder, when we are confronted with mystery. Spirituality then, can play an important part in recovery. In Buddhism, monks encourage the use of icons — not because they believe they have any miraculous power, but because they aid the practitioner cultivate an idea of perfection which may not exist in the world. Human beings need their ideals, so whether you put your faith in God, Karma or Science, in doing so you recognise the greater context of your own personal suffering in wider struggle of humanity. By viewing your problem, with unconditional acceptance healing can occur. We tend to scoff at activities like prayer, singing, chanting, and ritual, but when practised in a community, a person will feel happier and more peaceful. At the end of the day that is what it’s all about.
The Novelist Graham Greene once remarked: ‘Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.’ Nowadays hobbies like writing or drawing are considered recreation. But re-creation has the power to help people reinvent themselves in symbols, colours, poems or fables. Carl Jung one of the originators of art therapy said ‘why do I encourage patients to express themselves […] by means of brush, pencil or pen?’ It is ‘to give visible form to the image […] so that in this way its effects can be experienced […] [and] consciously integrated.’ Jung believed the symbols artists employ are archetypes: Images from the realm of myth, which transcend everyday life, and have ultimate reality and meaning. When you write, compose or draw you are using images that are part of the story of humanity. So free as bird, mighty as a mountain, or flowing like a river, metaphors have meaning. When it comes to our own difficulties, we all have our unique way of looking at things. By tapping in to our inner artist, we have the power to redeem our suffering and transform it into healing.