Mind Matters: Life is just a bowl of cherries – or maybe Post-Its

ELINOR STANTON

Clients arrive in my office bearing a wide variety of problems, ranging from depression to difficult relationships and adverse life circumstances. Each and every one wants to feel better. Everyone deserves to enjoy the serenity that accompanies good mental health; including a sense of well-being, positive energy, motivation, and confidence. With these attributes, life and relationships can be pleasurable and rewarding. When they are absent, it is appropriate to seek guidance that can diagnose mental health disorders and lead the way to a healthy emotional state.

A variety of issues and conditions rob people of healthy mental states. Depression and other mood disorders, as well as diseases such as schizophrenia, and various addictions are the most frequent. Less common, but no less disabling, is unhappiness. A professional in counseling or psychotherapy has been trained to assess the source of an individual’s complaints.

Unhappiness must be differentiated from mental illness, otherwise treatment may be inappropriate. One method is to rule out other disorders. Signs of depression are problems in sleep, appetite, concentration, memory, interest, motivation and energy. Suicidal thoughts and/or intentions may also be present. Other mental illnesses also manifest with typical characteristics. If these are all absent yet the individual feels miserable and there are no medical problems, unhappiness may be the problem.

Unhappiness may be caused by numerous life difficulties. A therapist should ask questions that will elicit realistic sources of unhappiness, if they are present. One’s life may be fraught with an overload of problems which would make anyone upset and concerned. In that case, offering support and a chance to talk can be highly beneficial.

Another source of unhappiness that is more difficult to identify and treat seems to come from a combination of negativity in outlook and disappointments in life. Classic signs of depression are not evident. Nothing is right or good enough; there’s always a reason for resentment. Criticism lurks around every corner; praise always goes to someone else. It isn’t fair that so-and-so got a raise, he didn’t deserve it. After all, who really does all the work in that office? Every job and relationship becomes a source of disappointment, more cause for a chronic state of bitterness and victimization. Happiness appears seldom, and in tiny doses.

How can an unhappy person be helped? Medication seldom provides relief, although in some cases, where depression is part of the problem, may bring slight improvement. Happiness is a state of being, more than simply a state of mind. The cure for unhappiness resides in the whole person, but begins with examination of thought processes. Negative, judgmental and hopeless thought patterns lead to mood states of chronic anger, dissatisfaction and misery.

It is important not to judge an unhappy individual, but to offer alternative views of the world, to lead to the experience of changing the way we think, and therefore, how we feel. The first step is self-awareness. Seldom do we take the time to observe what goes on in our minds. When we do, it’s a bit of a surprise. Our minds outpace the speed of any computer. “That’s a really cute outfit – he looks angry – wish I was thinner – she was mean to me – my boss is an idiot, etc.” On and on it goes, often too quickly to track. No wonder so many of us are exhausted at the end of a day.

Once we become aware of our thoughts, we can gradually learn to control them. We can change our intentions to be more positive. For example, instead of thinking about how little money we make, we can opt for a different view. Is it possible to earn more or spend less? What do we really need, what do we want? Must we attach our sense of well-being solely to income, attractiveness, intelligence, accomplishments?

We can notice what is good in our lives. Many years ago, a woman came to me because of depression. After two sessions, much to my surprise, she proudly reported feeling fine. This is her story. She thought about the positives in her life and for a week wrote each one on a slip of paper, which she placed in a dish on the table. At the end of a week, this lady read each little note and felt deep gratitude that overshadowed her depression and unhappiness. I never saw her again, but have used her self-cure to help others.

The difference between depression and unhappiness may be a challenge to distinguish, and is best accomplished with the help of a professional. Often, the two coexist. However, promotion of a positive, grateful attitude will always enhance one’s emotional health. It should be an integral part of any therapy, with or without the aid of medications, whether depression is part of the picture or not.

Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island, with 33 years experience as a therapist, both in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and the University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Stanton also is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy and trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Comments and questions may be submitted to etseven@aol.com or 394-2861.

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