I often ask myself that why it is that anxiety and depression are so common in a modern world where we should theoretically, be more content than we are. In comparison to fifty years ago, we should all be in peak physical and mental health. Due to giant strides in medicine, research into illnesses and general progress seen in critical areas of our lives, we should all be in great condition but we are not. Diabetes, obesity and chronic pain are rife and mental illness is increasing in numbers not seen ever before.
One of the main reasons for this is the dramatic strides in technology. The cheapest smartphone still has more power than any massive computer used in the past and I wonder if our minds have really developed at the same rate. Open a webpage and you can see what you like there, some good, some bad. However, we also have more access to the bad, evil and traumatic going on in the world and from a younger age. Porn is easily accessible and the Dark Web will allow us to experience things that were only in our wildest imagination fifty years ago. Our constant mental health issues are not helped by this constant stream of bad news.
We seem to have lost the ability to be who we are amid all the clamour to be who we feel we should be or who others think we should be. Stephen Covey rightly said that once a personality ethic takes precedence over a character ethic, we are in trouble. Personalities need to be manipulated and in this process, we lose our spirit of character, duty and community thinking. In its place comes “what is best for me” and frequent narcissism. Some have observed that the concept of individualism started around the time of the industrial revolution where men left rural communities to make fortunes in cities. In our modern world, technology has given the average person a means to do the same thing and be something different to earn money to the extent that it is hard now to see much as genuine.
Life should be easier but it isn’t and we seem less able to cope with life’s pressure than in generations past who did face numerous life disasters such as war and poverty. As modern humans, we have less stamina, perseverance and purpose than ever before. We trudge through our lives, seemingly finding it difficult to put one foot in front of the other. There is now more anxiety and depression than ever seen before and the WHO rates them both as the number one reason people seek medical help, overtaking cancer in 2017.
What appears to be missing is the concept of psychological flexibility. This is a set of skills that allow us to be present in the moment and make decisions about our lives in accordance with our values and principles. It is also about learning not to move away from the painful and suffering in life but actually to face it. Turning toward instead of away from suffering allows us to see challenges with an open mind, with curiosity and overcome it with a sense of meaning and purpose. This is hard in a world where we are all portrayed as victims of something. We have got into the habit of self-medicating our fears away through drugs, alcohol, prescription medication, constant worry, rumination, procrastination and endless escapism. Instead of this, we really need to face our fears because, in theory we only have fears around what we really care about. We need thinking flexibility and not rigidity based on protecting ourselves from the very things that could make our life better and we can all learn to do this. Psychological rigidity plagues us all and is the one thing that therapists work on more than any other issue. Psychological rigidity is at its core an attempt to avoid negative thoughts around experiences and indeed the memory of them. We often push these thoughts to the back of our mind and escape their influence through escapism. The problem comes when we see this as a default pattern of dealing with negative experiences, that is avoidance and escapism.
While it is natural to run away from pain, the danger is that a mindset of seeing life as a problem can prevail and the joy of living in the present moment stifled. Those subdued thoughts never really go away calling for more and more self-soothing and escapism.
What has this got to do with the online therapy groups I run? I have had a number of groups running since the beginning of the year and they have all been marked by the eventual awareness that we have to take personal hold of our lives and create the action to do so. Of this, we are all capable. The majority of the participants have seen the need to make definitive plans to move their life forward in some way shape or form. Psychological rigidity was often present with participants who believed the negative (but protective) self-talk that came from events in their life. They believed they were “not good enough”, “a failure” or will “never be in a decent relationship”. We are what we think and our mind will manifest evidence to prove it.
I don’t believe in the concept of the universe providing something for us. I dont believe in determinism where we are a product of our childhood conditioning and can never change. I don’t believe in “can’t”, which I see as a synonym for “won’t”. I do believe that we all have it in us to shed the destructive thinking that we may have brought into our adulthood and live a life of purpose and meaning where challenges are seen as a normal part of life, not a disaster that defines us and need avoiding. It may take months or years of therapy or guidance to achieve this but it is always possible.
Once awareness is found concerning our issues (that is where they came from and how they affect us) and we accept that, there is no excuse for not taking action to change. It is everyone’s right and obligation to be the best version of themselves in a world that sometimes doesn’t help us to be.