Many people ask me why I called my clinic, the Gulliver Clinic. Jonathan Swift was a great supporter of mental health and was behind the development of St. Patrick’s Hospital Psychiatric in Dublin. He wrote the novel Gulliver’s Travels where the giant Gulliver is immobilised by many tiny people, the Lilliputians. To me this symbolises what stress is about and how us ‘giants’ can be felled by many, often small but stressful things, that act like ropes and chains to bring us down and immobilise even the strongest of us. Stress, like the little people shadowing the giant, can creep up on us and we need to break free of these restraints in order to live our lives, to be happy, healthy and strong.
Tackling stress means looking at your lifestyle and habits, thinking and demands. These are the things that are totally within your control. If you create your own scaffolding and resilience through healthy positive habits, if you can manage your thinking and control the distortion, if you manage your time and work towards your goals and keep your focus, then you are in a powerful position, you are in the ‘driving seat’. You will then make stress work for you, stay in the zone, add zest and contentment and improve your chances of a healthy, purposeful and long life. So, you need to decide if stress is going to be your ‘friend’ to spur you on to great things, to stimulate and excite you; or if it is going to be your ‘foe’ and hold you back, create fear and limit your potential. Stress, used correctly, can be a gateway to a stunning future.
Despite all the gloom and doom we hear about stress, it is preventable and manageable. The key concept behind managing stress or making it work for you is taking responsibility for your own health and stress levels. This may sound harsh, but it is your choice.
If you improve your health you will prevent illness. You will create what is called ‘Optimal mental health’ or a state of well-being where you can realise your abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to your community. You can do this by increasing your life satisfaction, by personal growth, and by having optimism, hope, purpose in life and control of your environment. Positive relationships, social engagement, and connection with society and community can go a long way towards promoting personal happiness and preventing illness.
The positive psychologist, Martin Seligman, writes about this in his book, Flourish, published by Free Press in 2011. He developed what is known as the ‘PERMA Model’ of five key elements – Positive Emotion (P), Engagement (E), Relationships (R), Meaning (M) and Accomplishment (A). His thinking is that these five elements should be in place and importantly, in balance, where we pay attention to all five areas, for us to experience lasting well-being. What this means is that we need Positive emotions (P) such as peace, gratitude, satisfaction, pleasure, inspiration, hope, or love. So, try to enjoy the moment and identify the people or things that give you pleasure and bring them into your life and daily routine. Engagement (E) is engaging in a situation, task, or project where we experience ‘flow’ or a state of focus when time can seem to stop as we concentrate intensely on the present. Work, hobbies, time with friends, participation in sport or projects can help you get into this state of being in the moment. Making time for these activities is vital for well-being, making time for a favourite hobby or physical activity or the things that we can let slip when we are stressed or overloaded with work. So, try to devote plenty of time to activities that make you feel happy and engaged. The (R) comes from Positive Relationships because as humans we are social beings and good relationships are important to our well-being. Those who have meaningful, positive relationships with others are happier than those who do not, and these can be relationships with anyone such as family, friends, neighbours, colleagues or your therapist. Building relationships takes time and can be hard work but these relationships are one of the key protecting factors in our lives and are known to protect against depression and mood disorders. Meaning (M) comes from having a connection with a cause bigger than ourselves. This can be religion or spirituality, or a cause that helps humanity in some way, such as spending time helping people, volunteering, or performing acts of kindness. Building our skills and abilities or accomplishments (A) is the final component but it needs to be balanced between striving for too much achievement and too little. For this piece you need to focus on your dreams and vision of what your own successful future involves and will look like.
(From “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being” by Martin E. P. Seligman. Published by Free Press, 2011).