We’re making great strides in conversations about mental health. But culturally, is it ok yet to feel really sad, lonely or angry and just say it?

For #mentalhealthawarenessweek2021 I have been talking about how I manage my mental and emotional resilience, and I shared how keeping an eye on my emotional health is as important as my physical health, to avoid problems developing. It got me thinking about the difference between mental and emotional health.

I feel we’ve become better at talking about our ‘mental health’. There have been a lot of public campaigns, and employers in particular have been better at offering support. I notice that my clients are better able to articulate mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. We’ve got better at using mental health language and it’s more acceptable culturally.

I’m wondering if the same can be said about emotions. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s so much harder to say “I feel really sad”; “I want to cry”; “I feel really angry all the time” or “I feel so lonely”. Even harder to say “I cannot/do not love myself”. It got me thinking about the culture I grew up in up North. Feelings weren’t really talked about. Everyone just got on with it. I remember my Grandma using the phrase “You Big Girl’s Blouse!” on many an occasion! Said with a chuckle, but the message still felt clear – stop crying and get on with it! And so from a young age, we’re taught that emotions don’t really need any attention, let alone any tenderness.

My experience is, many of my clients bring the same difficulty in talking about, or even feeling, their emotions. And so, when emotions aren’t paid much attention, they can build up. We might not recognise it as a mental health problem per se, but we might be feeling something like “Something’s not right”; “I’m not feeling myself”; “I don’t recognise myself at the moment”; or “I just feel down or hopeless”.

Sometimes, before we even really notice that something’s not right emotionally, we notice something else. Something more physical. Like unexplained bodily pain that lingers or becomes chronic, especially headaches, neck, shoulder and jaw pain; insomnia, restless sleep and/or feeling very tired all the time; a lack of energy; a lack of focus; forgetfulness; a change in our relationship with food, drink, or other substances. These can all be signs that our emotional health needs some attention – NOW! Of course, they can also be signs of something else, and a GP check-up is always a good idea, too.

I think we all too often ‘file difficult experiences and feelings away’, hoping that with time, they will settle down. We minimise and normalise. Of course, some of us do this with physical pain too, putting off that doctor’s appointment in the hope that the problem will go away. But my sense is that we do it a lot more with our emotional health. We just don’t give it much attention. And so, we might lose a job, experience bullying at work, lose someone we love, we might end a relationship, suffer illness, be in financial difficulty, go through difficulty conceiving, have a traumatic childbirth experience, not be able to conceive at all, be under work stress, have academic pressures, have relationship difficulties or get divorced. All of these everyday experiences, that stir up all sorts of emotions, that often get no attention at all. We just carry on.

What if we could notice those feelings earlier? What if we listened to them? What if we could allow them some space; feel the full impact of them; cry; sob; shout; stamp our feet? Why are we so afraid to do this? What are we fearing will happen? Are we afraid we may struggle to feel anything at all? Or might it be completely overwhelming once we open the floodgates? Are we afraid the feelings will never stop? In my experience, they do. The tears and the feelings come. And when they are acknowledged, with some warmth, they also subside. And yet, culturally, allowing this process to happen seems to be the hardest thing.

I think what I’d really like, and what I’m striving for more in my own relationships, is an ability to sit with difficult emotions. For us all be able to say to someone close “I feel really sad right now” and for the other person not to squirm, look away, look on the bright side, offer useful context or advice, or change the subject. Instead, to listen, with kindness and an open heart, to what that person feels. If someone else can bear what we are feeling, then maybe we can begin to bear it ourselves.

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