We all have times when we don’t feel so great, perhaps experiencing periods of stress, low mood or worry. Episodes like this are a completely normal and natural response to negative life events.
Whether we are talking about low depressed mood or anxious episodes, it is really helpful to normalise such emotional states. Doing so helps greatly in reducing stigma and helps work towards improving mental health literacy. The key to improving well-being is in recognising that emotional responses of all kinds are natural evolutionary responses dating back to our ancestors 80,000 years ago. According to Dr Brian Marien, founder and director of Positive Health Strategies, (www. Positivegroup.org), we are “hardwired to emotions that helped our ancestors survive”. “The evidence,” he says, “linking physical health to psychological well-being has accumulated rapidly over the past decade. Stress, anxiety and depression exert a powerful impact on the central nervous system, the immune system, hormone levels and a range of important metabolic pathways.”
One very exciting and recent discovery is of a chemical known as cytokine, an immune system messenger. This has opened the way to a greater understanding of the mind/body connection and communication between the two. A biodirectional relationship exists whereby positive and negative emotional states alter the levels of cytokines circulating, whereby positive and negative emotional states impact directly on sleep, mood, memory function, appetite, energy and motivation levels. The discovery of cytokines enables us to see clearly the powerful link between mood states, psychological well-being and the risk of developing physical and mental health problems.
From a CBT perspective we know that thoughts can trigger chemical changes in the brain. This occurs rapidly, in milliseconds. For example, we are walking alone at night down a dark alley and hear a noise behind us. We might instantly feel afraid with a rapid shot of adrenalin coursing the body and our heart beats rapidly. On the other hand, if we hear a noise in front of us and see a fluffy kitten our emotional response is likely to be very different.
Understanding risk factors that may influence negative mood states can be very useful.
Typical risk factors include:
- Genetic family history of mood disorder
- Difficult or “negative” early life experiences
- Low self-esteem
- Cognitive vulnerability (negative thinking style)
- Chronic stress
- Difficulty tolerating uncertainty
- Worry and rumination on negative thoughts
- Tendency towards withdrawal or avoidance
Fortunately, all these areas can be addressed. Naturally, we cannot change negative early life experiences, but we can change our perception of them. Healing, if possible,Identifying these traits and changing our outlook is possible. CBT enables people to change their thinking and to develop resilience and develop patterns of behaviour that help build a positive physical, mental and emotional outlook. Learning techniques derived from the emergence of a new field of science known as “positive psychology” (informed by medicine, neuroscience, cognitive and behavioural psychology) helps individuals to develop the skills and attributes to help them thrive and flourish.
Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist
Adapted from an article by Dr Brian Marien – “An upstream approach to improving psychological well-being” published in the Newsletter of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust – Issue 28, September 2013, pp 9 -13