Trying to ‘fix your feelings’ with drink, work or exercise?

Psychotherapist David Stanton lives near Sherborne.

All too often, I hear clients say: “but I had such a good childhood” or “currently life’s not too bad, just a bit more stressful than usual” – then they justify why they’re at the end of their tether and have sought therapy.

In mental health we’ve learnt trauma is not necessarily just about those significant blow-up events; a massive car accident, surviving torturous abuse, being in combat or having a near death experience etc. We can be traumatised by seemingly insignificant life events; or even an ‘off the cuff’ remark.

I had an anorexic client, whose 15-year eating disorder started with one small critical comment about her weight and looks. Her way of dealing with perceived rejection and subsequent deep insecurity was to control her intake of food. It led to years of utter misery for her; let alone her parents and siblings who had to watch her nearly starve to death, feeling powerless to help her.

This week, someone I know celebrated 25 years in recovery from 17 years of chronic alcoholism. When I asked him why he’d started ‘self-medicating’ he said alcohol gave him confidence and initially helped him to feel included and ‘belong.’ He said it washed away his insecurities and gave him ‘energy to cope.’

I’m currently seeing another client who was recently diagnosed with clinical depression and acute anxiety. She’s a middle-aged nurse in a local hospital on the high-intensity covid ward. She’s witnessed and experienced more emotional distress than at any time in her 27-year career so far. At the time, her understandable response was to work flat out as many hours as possible; causing her to ‘burn out’ with emotional and physical exhaustion.

So what have all these individuals got in common? They’ve all tried to fix their uncomfortable feelings – the anorexic tried to control her body image, the alcoholic tried to fix his insecurities and the nurse tried to fix her distress and sadness with excessive work.
‘Fixing feelings’ is something most of us do at some time or another; which if not kept in check, can have a very detrimental effect on our well-being, mentally and physically.

Comfort eating, endless shopping, over working, excessive exercise, using drinks and/or drugs, binge watching television, hours of video games or being on social media, keeping busy – are all ways to avoid painful emotions.
Especially in times of fear and high anxiety, it’s very tempting to try and make ourselves feel better, happier, more positive and productive.

Our behavioural responses take the edge off the guilt and/or shame. It’s
often a form
of distraction and escapism. It lifts us from the pit of melancholia and brooding about how hard life is at times. Unfortunately, we have a culture where being low in mood or depressed is also something we find difficult to handle; in ourselves and other people.

Denial has become a huge problem for many and the meaning of ‘self-care’ is often misconstrued or misunderstood. Stress is at an all-time high for many. Just the thought of stopping and being silent or still can be very scary; because then we’re left with ourselves and our thoughts and feelings.

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