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David Burns Interviews Steve Daily About Mental Health Awareness Month ~ Blog # 16

What does Mental Health Awareness Month mean to you as a therapist? Why is it significant?

I believe mental health awareness month has the intention of increasing people’s awareness of the struggles and difficulties that persons experience with a multitude of psychological disorders. Personally, I feel that every day it would be nice for persons to be aware that some of us struggle more than others. I am also concerned that we at times place too much emphasis on various diagnoses or labels that mental health workers, including myself, place on them. On one hand, a diagnosis can help determine treatment needs and that is helpful. On the other hand, a diagnosis or label can unfortunately become a stigma and prompt others to think that person is broken or profoundly different from those who do not have a mental health diagnosis, and that is not good.

I recently wrote a blog titled, “You’re Not Crazy” on my website: It explains that persons who have experienced traumatic experiences at times are triggered to go into a survival mode. Without understanding triggers, their behavior looks strange. However, we all at times are triggered to react in a strange or “crazy” way when an event prompts us to become excessively angry or frightened. An understanding of neuroscience shows that the prefrontal cortex (more advanced part of the brain that enables us to experience empathy and to act wisely) shuts down in favor of a more primitive part of the brain that triggers the fight-flight reaction. My belief is clients or patients benefit more when their therapist helps them to recognize their strengths and competencies and teaches them effective living skills to better manage their feelings, thinking and ways of responding.

Mental health awareness is significant if it allows us to have empathy and understanding for those who struggle with anxiety, depression, feelings of worthlessness, and unhealthy urges to react in an impulsive and harmful manner.

As an author, what role does writing play in mental health for you?

Writing can be extremely useful for clients at times in the therapy process. In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and narrative therapy, writing becomes a tool for healing. I have experienced that many clients who are grieving can be helped to process their grief by writing a letter to the deceased person. By expressing what they would like to have told that person before they died if they had the opportunity, helps them to move forward. Persons with PTSD can at times find new meaning to what they experienced during trauma, and show a marked lessening of symptoms when they write about the trauma in a therapeutic way.

There are a number of persons who have written books about horrific experiences that have helped them to heal. Man’s Search for Meaning is a classic book written by Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, who survived the atrocities of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Germany. In his book, he described vivid memories of his horrific experiences and also healing memories of things he did to survive and maintain his sanity.

How does your recently published book approach the topic of mental health? What resources and tools does it provide for readers?

Healing the Heart and Mind: The Therapist’s Workbook of Poetry contains thirty-five poems I have written, and each poem relates to some aspect of psychological or spiritual health. The poems cover a wide range of topics including grief, happiness, trauma, relationships, encouragement, suicide, gratitude, anger and many more. I believe many of the poems point out a universal truth, that if understood can make life easier to navigate. For example, the poem, “Bobbers and Sinkers,” points out the truth that it is important to surround oneself with people that are positive and affirming and spend less time with negative minded persons to live life fully. The poem, “Getting Unstuck,” points out the truth that our thoughts are powerful and that life becomes less difficult when we become more accepting of what is (reality), and focus on changing our responses to others rather than trying to force others to change.

The poetry workbook is designed to encourage persons to reflect on each poem, to read the author’s personal reflections, and then to write a response to three prompts in the Journal to Grow and Heal portion of the workbook. I believe this can be a valuable tool for gaining a better understanding of life, and hopefully free a person from some of the obstacles in life that limit their peace of mind and happiness.

Do you have recommendations or steps people can take to guard against stress and anxiety in this challenging time?

I would encourage persons to understand that there are practical things they can do to reduce their anxiety and irritability. I would first encourage persons to practice mindful breathing. This can be done by taking fifteen slow and deep breaths, several times a day, to reduce cortisol (stress hormone) and relax the body. Simply breathe in deeply through the nose for a count of six seconds, and breathe out deeply through the mouth for a count of six seconds. Do that fifteen times in a row.

The second thing I would suggest is to increase activity by doing aerobic exercise, if one’s health permits. I’m not suggesting running a marathon, but if you are able, walk briskly for twenty or thirty minutes several times a week. Mow your lawn and get outside and work in the yard. If you watch a lot of TV, walk in place or do stretching exercises during commercials.

The third thing I would suggest is don’t spend too much time watching the news and avoid rumination. Rumination is repetitive negative thinking (excessive worry). Once we start ruminating, we can get caught up in a repeating loop of worry thoughts triggering more anxiety that in turns triggers more worry thoughts. We can at times break out of that cycle by talking to another person (about something other than just our worries). It may help to go for a walk or go for a drive. Staying in the same spot makes it difficult to change our train of thought. Engaging in activities that require our full focus can help us to ruminate less. Finally, we might try setting a timer for twenty minutes, and writing about our worry thoughts. When the timer goes off, stop and do an activity requiring our attention. Don’t journal again until the next day, and again do it for twenty minutes.

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