Recently, I’ve been rather taken with the word thingy (stop sniggering at the back). Everyone must agree that it’s a wonderful word; a catch-all for all those things in life whose proper names are either unknown to us or whose pronunciation is clumsy.
Some of my friends use a thingy to change the channel on their TV, though personally I use a doofah and others I know use an oojamaflip.
In fact, our lives are joyously full of thingys (or should that be thingies?) It’s the corrugated cardboard sleeve on your takeaway coffee cup (it’s actually called a zarf), the plastic tip on the end of a shoelace (or, to give it its proper name, aglet), the indented area between the bottom of your nose and your top lip (philtrum), the stringy bits you get when you peel a banana (phloem bundles) and a million and one other things that we need to describe but for which we don’t have words.
Thingy, doofah, whatjamacallit, thingymabobby, thingamajiggy, whatsit, doo-dah, doohickey, dooflicky, jimjangle …words that make up a much-loved lexicon of everyday ignorance.
And now we can add another one to the list.
In previous posts I’ve talked about the fact no-one is discussing the ‘why’ of mental health. We’ve become very adept at working out what challenges an individual might be facing, but there’s very little debate around what’s led that individual to the point where a mental health issue has presented itself in an obvious way.
That, in turn, has left the UK facing a mental health crisis of monumental proportions; and in large part of this is because the debate isn’t starting early enough to ensure appropriate intervention happens before someone’s emotional wellbeing deteriorates into something more obviously acute.
Mental health is complex and the budgeting and resourcing challenges that dictate care provision are acute, as a recent BBC report into locked rehabilitation wards in mental health care facilities shows all too clearly.
Our society is obsessed with labels. For many people – and particularly for those within medical diagnostics – labels are the convenient panacea for lack of knowledge. A quick canter through Wikipedia under the search phrase ‘list of mental disorders’ brings up a roll-call of no fewer than 72 recognised conditions that have been given this label. And not one of them satisfactorily defines the condition it describes.
While I’d be the first to agree that Wiki is hardly an unarguable source of totally reliable knowledge, the example is telling.
Someone presents with a condition we haven’t seen before and so we stick a tag on it.
If a person fears that somewhere in the world, somehow a duck is watching them, the likely response of the medical community would be to invent Watching Duck Disorder rather than explore the root cause of the phobia or anxiety (and by the way, the fear of a duck watching you is actually called anatidaephobia and, apart from being one of the most unusual phobias ever, was made famous in a 1988 cartoon by Far Side creator Gary Larson – this article is nothing if not educational).
In my experience, many mental health issues are invariably due to trauma or lifestyle – and, often, both. But trauma plays a huge role in shaping our future mental wellbeing and rather than rushing to put a ‘disorder’ label on what we don’t yet understand, it’s imperative that we begin the process of understanding trauma itself.
Many manifestations of apparent mental health issues I see are actually subconscious coping mechanisms to deal with a traumatic event in the past. Behavioural tics like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive checking are our busy subconscious mind’s way of keeping us safe. The subconscious doesn’t operate on linear time, so if the trauma hasn’t been processed properly the subconscious will continue to perpetuate these coping strategies long after the trauma has ended in an attempt to keep the individual ‘safe’.
And the domino effect of that can be catastrophic. If you’ve experienced trauma and adversity as a child or teenager, you’re less likely to know how to self-care and put yourself first. In turn, you’re more likely to live a lifestyle that does not support you emotionally. Typically, if you’ve suffered childhood trauma, you’re more likely to try to please people, say yes when you should be saying no, overwork, over-indulge and overspend and indulge in addictive substances and behaviours.
And you do these things to avoid the feelings lodged in the subconscious associated with the original trauma.
Yet despite the complexity of what lies behind the symptoms that eventually manifest themselves, the response of the medical community is often to simply slap a disorder label on it.
The reality is that calling something a disorder is both limiting and outdated. It chains the individual to a label for life, implying that somehow that person is forever broken and fundamentally faulty when in fact nothing is further from the truth.
I don’t believe the symptoms that we’re so blithely happy to stick in a box marked disorder always constitute an illness, they are the emotional and sometimes physical projection of an experience.
Yet we persist in talking of things like OCD and depression as permanent fixtures in a person’s life. Only recently I saw a mental health charity advert which proclaimed My OCD is as much a part of me as my blue eyes and blonde hair. It doesn’t have to be.
I’m concerned by that. I worry that a lot of advertising around mental health is reinforcing the myth that what you might be dealing with is something to be permanently endured, that the correct response is to simply embrace it as part of who you are.
We’ve come a long way in recognising and understanding the challenges that mental health can bring. It would be a tragedy if, having come so far, our final destination turns out only to be resigned acceptance.
If we can acknowledge and treat with respect whatever past trauma or adversity is fuelling the symptoms, many of the conscious manifestations of the trauma – for example, depression, anxiety, panic attacks and chronic stress – can lift and, in many instances, clear up completely.
At the very least the volume can be turned down.
In my 15 years as a Hypnotherapist working with the disorders that I am qualified to treat – social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, derealisation disorder, depersonalisation disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, sleep disorders, eating disorders, acute stress disorder, body dysmorphia disorder, major depressive disorder, nightmare disorder and phobic disorder – I’m yet to work with one that cannot be traced back to a traumatic experience or series of adverse life events that have triggered coping behaviour.
The dictionary definition of disorder is ‘a state of confusion’. People with mental health challenges aren’t necessarily confused. In fact, in most cases, a person dealing with a mental health issue couldn’t be more aware of their condition and how it affects them.
We apply the label disorder when what we’re actually trying to define or describe is a response.
Mental health awareness has improved greatly and that’s a wonderful step in the right direction. But what we now need is awareness of trauma and some of the causes of trauma, such as abuse, discrimination, poverty and inequality.
It’s vital that we update the way we think about mental health, stop labelling people with disorders and start really looking at the why so that people actually have a fighting chance of getting well rather than spending their lives managing a label.
Because in the end, what sort of a life is that?
As a successful hypnotherapist, I’ve learned the importance and power of uncovering what has happened to you, because the past is always the key that unlocks the present and the behaviours you’re presenting now are just a breadcrumb trail to a bigger mystery.
If we can change the way we think about trauma, that may just prove to be the chink of light in the dark tunnel that is the UK’s current approach to mental health care – and I’m all for that.
Thingy may be a harmless substitute for our ignorance of the ordinary, but the same can’t be said for disorder.