I have been working with sufferers of eating disorders and trauma for nearly 15 years and for me the issue of treating serious mental health conditions lies in addressing people's ability to consider emotional nurturing as a fundamental part of self-care.
Many of us will consider the idea of 'self-care' in pretty basic terms I.e. if we feel consistently unwell then we'll visit the doctor or if we have a tooth ache we'll make an appointment to see the dentist. So why don't we consider seeking help or support when we're suffering emotional distress such as sadness, fear, anxiety or loneliness? Much of our self-care behaviours are in response to an event or crisis, for example a physical injury. In a world where we see the rates of illnesses like depression steadily increasing, why do we put so much more emphasis on the care of the body as opposed to the mind? Very few of us consider mental self-care to be an integral part of how we live and take care of ourselves.
Mental injury can have a profound impact on the quality of ones' existence; loneliness, for example has been proved to devastate lives and has been described as a 'hidden killer' of the elderly. High degrees of loneliness precipitates suicidal ideation and adversely affects the immune and cardio-vascular system. It is our belief that our clients have developed eating disorders in order to cope with emotional traumas. So many of our clients are unaware of their trauma and the impact that it may have had on their mental wellbeing but I think this extends to the population at large. How many of us stop to think about our emotional wellbeing and how it may be effecting our lives?
Emotional education is indispensable to a civilised existence. There is an assumption by society that we are being taught somewhere/somehow how to process our emotions, how to build and nurture relationships and how to take care of ourselves, but in reality this is frequently not the case and the rise in mental illness is testament to that. We need to understand the impact that early traumas have on us and the core messages that we have taken from those events to define who we are and how we see the world. Research shows us that when our self-esteem is low we are more vulnerable to traumatic events and to attacks from others. We are more likely to experience stress and anxiety. We feel grief and rejection more keenly and struggle to move forward in our lives with positive intention.
I was working in a one to one session this morning with a very bright young woman who is suffering with an eating disorder. She was asking me why I thought it was important for her to connect with her feelings when all they did was to overwhelm her and make her feel bad. I explained that her reluctance to engage with her emotions had left her stuck, that her eating disorder was a way of avoiding her pain and that by turning toward those 'bad feelings' she would be able to release and relieve so much of the pain that she was feeling. It is only by guiding, teaching and forging a relationship of trust that this young woman will be able to begin to face and heal those wounds. Without that offered insight where would she be? She has not learnt or been guided to prioritise her emotional and mental wellbeing.
Society is built on communicating commercial messages as opposed to moral or spiritual guidance. Society teaches us that fear is our greatest motivator and we should compare ourselves with others and ruminate on our greatest concerns in order to find solutions. Fear is the very thing that keeps us trapped in the worlds that we've created, it prevents us from making changes and taking risks...ultimately it prevents us from living in the now because we are so consumed with fear about what will come next or the potential consequences our decisions may hold.
As much as our treatment programs are built around treating eating disorders, depression and trauma they are also about promoting morality and at heart, engendering a spirit of community that allows people to nurture their souls. We teach people how to tolerate their emotions and to cope with the challenges of their lives, how to make relationships last and in essence, how to create a life that caters to their emotional needs.
All individuals have inherent worth and dignity, the potential to grow and change. It's a shame that only on the the brink of mental crisis are people inspired to consider their core worth and to heal emotional wounds. Emotional education and nurturing allows people to heal, thrive and flourish and should be considered an integral part of each of our daily lives.