Image via Pexels and Mary Taylor

A big part of the reason I became a counsellor is the excellent counsellors I worked with as a client. Over the years – as I dipped in and out of my therapy journey* – amid the big insights, challenges, and hard work of making personal change, I encountered a ton of counterintuitive and just plain surprising new information. Here are a few of the most intriguing.

  1. The simple stuff really matters. Research has shown that exercise may be as effective as medications or ‘gold standard’ psychological therapies for managing the impacts of a huge range of mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety, while drinking enough water impacts on fatigue. Sleep is strongly correlated with a wide range of impacts to emotional wellbeing, as is eating “well enough” – with enough variety of fruit, veggies, grains, proteins and pre-and-pro-biotics to help our guts be healthy, our blood sugar stable, and our insides have all the minerals and vitamins that protect us from cognitive and emotional issues. Finally, alcohol (and “other drugs”) can really mess you up – especially if you’re using them to avoid uncomfortable internal experiences – like anxiety.
  2. Caffeine is making your anxiety worse. This one deserves a whole dot point to itself. Try swapping half the tea in that pot you’re making for decaf (Twinings make a decent one) or order a half-caf coffee tomorrow morning. If you LOVE your caffeine hit, try saving your full-strength cuppa for around 2 or 3 in the afternoon when our cortisol slumps and we get a natural ‘sleepy’ hour. A cuppa and a big drink of water in the afternoon can be a surprisingly lovely energy boost. Another tip is not to go cold turkey if you want to try cutting it out: The brain adapts to habitual use of caffeine, delivering the day’s serotonin as a response to the day’s first hit. If you go cold turkey, it can take a few days for your brain to ‘remember’ it’s supposed to deliver serotonin on its own, and you’re likely to have one very difficult day without any fresh serotonin at all. Some people seem to be okay during this time, and others (especially if you’re already in a depressed or anxious place) will be strongly affected. If you’re a habitual caffeine user and you want to try quitting, save your hit for that mid-arvo slump, and make it decaf or half-caf and see how you feel.
  3. You can’t ‘self-care’ yourself out of a shitty situation. If you’re the only one putting in the work (in a relationship, a workplace) then no amount of personal work is going to cut it. It might make things more bearable in the short term, or help to manage a stressful period, but if your workplace is a shitshow or your partner or parent isn’t interested in participating in making change, then your work becomes figuring out whether it’s worth upholding the relationship.
  4. You can’t make yourself so well that it becomes possible not to get hurt. This is an absolute hard rule, especially for kids who have grown up with mentally ill or emotionally immature parents. To paraphrase a metaphor used by my own long-ago counsellor – you can leave a street fight, get bandaged up, and eventually the bruises will heal – but there’s no amount of healing that will make you impossible to harm. You will never be able to walk back into the street fight and not get hurt.
  5. Intuition is learned, not “natural”. Well, the cognitive ability to make “shorthand” rules to guide decisions quickly is probably biological, but ‘intuition’ isn’t a built-in “correctness” sensor -it’s shorthand we learn from the world we grew up in. If you grew up in a chaotic, unhealthy environment, your intuition is going to make chaotic, unhealthy decisions “feel” right. The good news is that using things like the “Wise Mind” tool from DBT, we can actually train ourselves to have healthier intuition, which is about making brand new “shorthand” rules that balance our rational and emotional intelligence. The other good news is that the “gut instinct” type of decision making is so natural to humans that once you’ve practiced it a bit, it becomes easier and more “natural feeling” quite quickly.
  6. “Love at first sight” is a huge red flag. When we feel a deep and immediate connection to someone we’ve just met, we’re not seeing them as they really are. How could we? We know nothing about them. If we feel like we “know” someone immediately it’s likely that we’re just projecting a whole bunch of our unconscious fantasies, hopes, and longings onto them, or imagining we see a ‘missing bit’ of ourselves in them. If the other person is doing this too and your ’love’ is reciprocated, watch out. At the very least don’t move in together immediately.
  7. Trying to get rid of difficult internal experiences makes them worse. Anxiety, depression, traumatic stress – the more we try to fix them the worse they will get over time. In fact, ‘avoidance’ is how problematic anxiety develops in the first place. Accepting all the warts and awkward bits of yourself and your experience is the pathway to healing.
  8. There is no emotion that’s too big to feel, no memory too awful to face and especially no wrong or bad emotions. But we aren’t well equipped by culture or education to know how to tune in to the full range of our emotions. We need to find tools, learn skills and get interpersonal support to face the big stuff well and safely.
  9. It’s not necessarily “all in your head”. Many common medications have anxiety and depression as side effects. Mineral or vitamin deficiencies and hormonal disruptions (as well as sensitivity to particular compounds of synthetic hormones or a sensitivity to changes in hormone levels) all impact on depression, anxiety, fatigue and even perceived pain! An under active thyroid can lead to depression, and so can taking beta blockers. Some antidepressants have been known to cause (rare) auditory hallucinations like hearing music or a radio playing! If you’re noticing mood changes go to your GP as well as your therapist – get blood tests for mineral and vitamin and iron levels, test your thyroid and hormones, and have a proper medication review. While getting support for mental health challenges is essential, making sure you’re not suffering the side effects of a medication that could be changed, going through age-related body changes, or needing to reconsider your contraceptive strategy are also really important!
  10. In the words of Andrew Solomon, “the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality”. Aiming for a life free of discomfort and sadness is both impossible and beside the point. Some of the deepest moments of meaning and connection in our lives will be at the most difficult times. In fact in all cultures, across the whole of history, the most profound art and storytelling is reliably about struggle, loss and grief. We connect to these stories deeply because they express something really alive and powerful inside us. To know the full range of emotions and allow ourselves to feel fully makes us fully human. To share our struggles makes us deeply connected. The opposite of depression is feeling fully alive, connected, flexible in our emotions and behaviours, and energised to live the life we want to live. Tough times included.

  1. *(See above) And for a bonus round: Yes, it’s normal and perfectly fine to dip in and out of counselling as your needs change or new challenges arise. It’s fine to be in and out of counselling for years, or to only need a session or two to talk things through. It’s also fine to change Counsellors. The path of recovery looks more like a hiking trail than a highway – tangled, hilly, muddy, full of odd-shaped rocks and snaggy roots – but with lots of side paths and lookouts and benches to rest on along the way.