Post Traumatic Growth (PTG)

Here we are in mental health week, the year goes by so fast.

I want, in this blog to consider if we can learn from what happens to us. Do we have the ability to change in a meaningful way? When I think about this it seems that the rules of our physical health also apply to our mental health.

Are we all mad or is it subjective?
We all have physical health. Some people’s physical health is good and we would describe them as ‘healthy’. Some people’s physical health is not so good and we would describe them as ‘unhealthy’. We all have mental health. Some people’s mind and emotions work well, what words do we use to describe such people?

Sane, happy, balanced, normal and so on.

Some people’s mind and emotions do not work well, what words do we use to describe such people?

Mad, unhappy, anxious, depressed, bonkers, lost the plot and so on

Physical health is a scale, a spectrum, a gradient or progression. Those at the bottom of the scale are unhealthy while those at the top of the scale are healthy. The blurred bit in the middle is that point where we cross from unhealthy to healthy. In reality throughout life we will probably cross that line several times from fitness to unfitness. We make life decisions that keep us predominantly or even permanently in the extreme of healthiness or unhealthiness.

Mental health works in exactly the same way. In this case the scale maybe seen as going from insane at the bottom to sane at the top, if those words work for you, or you might chose to use different ones. On this scale we also will move through the blurred bit in the middle and sometimes appear and feel sane and sometimes appear and feel insane.

On both these scales the blur in the middles is purely subjective. In the physical scale medicine tries to pin down the point where good health turns into bad health. The health services then try to nudge us into staying on the healthy side of the line. The line is forever moving as we are told that substances such as salt, sugar, fat, carbohydrates, and so on, are either good or bad for our health and fitness.

The blur on the mental health scale is the same and totally subjective. There will be times when we appear and feel insane and times when we appear and feel sane. The point where saneness changes into insaneness is in the eye of the beholder. The mental health services try to nudge us into staying on the sane side of the line. The thing is that in both scales the middle line is hidden. For me we are all insane and sane and spend our lives moving up and down the scale in reaction to events in life or in response to the changing chemistry in our brains.

On both the physical and the mental spectrums we are in motion, we are always changing, life is always changing, nothing ever stays the same. Often sanity is being able to observe the changes without being overwhelmed by them.

We know that the vast majority of people can effect their place on the physical scale through exercise, diet and positive action. There will always be those that have either a disease or a genetic propensity that encourages weight gain and/or ill health.

We also know that the vast majority of people can effect their place on the mental health scale through mindfulness, positive attitude and positive action. There will always be those that have either a disease or a genetic propensity that encourages stress, anxiety and mental ill health. The thing is, can we learn to be different or get better? The debate is on.

Post Traumatic Growth (PTG)
Rie and I were discussing Mental Health Week and relating it to the work that we do everyday. She mentioned a couple of articles that I have used as my resource of the week on the podcast. Both worth a read. One article suggests that in response to the traumatic events in life we learn to be different, that we experience post traumatic growth. The difference or growth is seen in a positive light as in we become more resilient, happier, more directed and motived and so on. The other article suggests that such changes are short lived and that people tend to return to type and that change is limited and in some cases people may even get worse. This second article hangs on what the researchers describe as a measure of happiness.

Can we measure happiness
The problem with psychology is that it is based in cognitive empiricism; it has to have a quantitative scale to measure things against. However, the experience of happiness is not cognitive it is emotional. You cannot measure a cognition with an emotion, a thought with a feeling, they are completely different things. Psychotherapy and mindfulness accept the subjectivity of feeling and do not need to measure the feelings of the person who is experiencing it on a scale other than that of the person’s current experience.

The argument in these two articles relates to the very thing that I have described in the scales above, we will move up and down the scales. The reason for the movement will normally either be pain or awareness. Either we have the awareness to initiate change or we experience sufficient pain emotionally, mentally, physically, and so on, that we are forced to change. Yet this can be a very repetitive process.

How often have we seen the yo-yo dieters who will continually cross the line as they put on weight and then diet to lose it only to put it all back on again. On the mental health scale we see people who will dip from happiness to anxiety and depression and back again.

It is not what happens, it is how we respond that counts
For the majority of people staying on the positive side of both the mental health and physical health spectrums is actually a choice, though often we do not realise that we have a choice. In most cases we simply react to the world around us. Mindfulness can give us the option to respond and not react.

Reactions are mindless – Responses are mindful

As our American cousins say,

‘We don’t have problems here we just have learning opportunities’

In response to both physical and mental trauma and/or diagnosis we can either grow and develop and see life’s experience as an opportunity to develop and learn or it overwhelms us and becomes a reason to retreat and close down.

When we are or have faced a trauma most of us will need help from an appropriate professional to enable us to understand what is happening and to get the best from our situation so that we can more to a stable resolution.

I would say that we can all learn and grow from what happens to us in life and that this can become a permanent positive change or development. However, it all hangs not on what happens but how we deal with it and that is the mindful part. In mindfulness we avoid instinctual reaction and choose to respond mindfully and get the most from every situation.

In mental health week we need to consider our own wellbeing and the decisions that we are making for our physical and mental health. It would also be good if we consider the wellbeing of others around us. Those that we live with, those that we work with and those in our community. Perhaps there are things that we can do mindfully that would be of benefit to ourselves and others.

Take care, be happy and healthy

Sean x

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