This week is Mental Health Awareness Week so what better theme for our first Phoenix blog to coincide with yesterday’s official launch of Phoenix Coaching & Therapy.
Here at Phoenix, mental health issues are a subject very close to our hearts. A few years ago I myself suffered a prolonged period of work-related stress and depression after the pressures of life in newspaper journalism became intolerable, leading to my being completely burnt out. In an era of dwindling newspaper sales and staffing cutbacks, I’d been working at full throttle for so long that I was like a car which had been driven with the accelerator pedal rammed permanently to the floor until the engine blew. Without even realising it I’d become trapped long-term in the fight-or-flight mechanism which our ancestors only used as a response to life-threatening situations. Eventually my coping resources were totally depleted, leaving me running on empty.
Experiencing first-hand the terrifying effects of stress was a real eye-opener. I’d had no idea that it could produce quite such a startling array of symptoms, and many of them physical. I was experiencing regular panic attacks, chest pains, numbness in the arms and legs, recurring nightmares, episodes of dissociation, out-of-body experiences and severe agoraphobia which left me unable to leave the house without becoming completely disorientated. At times I couldn’t even remember who I was. Anything that reminded me of my former employment as a journalist - such as walking past a newspaper billboard in the street - could trigger a total meltdown or a brain freeze. At times I wondered if I would ever get better or whether this was something I was going to have to live with for the rest of my life.
The best thing I ever did was admit that I needed help. Without that starting point I wouldn’t be where I am now. A weight lifted as soon as I sought assistance and was able to talk about how I was feeling. Up until that point I’d felt utterly alone and isolated in my condition. Being able to talk openly about it was liberating and the first step to recovery. If you’re reading this, and any of this story is resonating with you, then I strongly urge you to reach out and talk to someone if you haven’t already done so. There’s an old saying that a problem shared is a problem halved, and there’s a lot of truth in that. There are people out there who can provide the help and support that you need. It took time but with the right support I eventually made a full and complete recovery, and so too can you. That's not to say that I don't still have bad days. We all do. It's part of the human experience. But the difference is that I now have the skills to cope and to stop everyday stresses from snowballing into a full-scale catastrophe.
It’s important to realise that mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of. Many famous people have battled depression, such as JK Rowling, Carrie Fisher, Stephen Fry, Buzz Aldrin, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Jim Carrey and actor Robin Williams whose tragic death in 2015 catapulted the subject into the public eye.
Whilst awareness of mental health issues is thankfully growing, much more still needs to be done. That’s why Phoenix is supporting Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs from 13th to 19th May. The campaign is hosted by the Mental Health Foundation and its main theme this year is Body Image - how we think and feel about our bodies.
Body image issues can affect all of us at any age. Recent online surveys conducted by the Mental Health Foundation with YouGov showed that one in five adults (20%) felt shame, just over a third (34%) felt low and 19% felt disgusted because of their body image in the last year. Among teenagers, 37% felt upset, and 31% felt ashamed in relation to their body image. Just over one third of adults said they had felt anxious or depressed because of their body image.
Just over one in five adults said images used in advertising had caused them to worry about their body image, while just over one in five adults and 40% of teenagers said images on social media caused them to worry about their body image.
It’s clear that robust action is needed to promote positive body image and to support good mental health and well-being in relation to our bodies. Everyone has a right to feel comfortable and confident in their own skin and that’s why there’s an urgent need for effective regulation on how body image is portrayed. This includes securing a greater commitment from social media companies to get involved in promoting body kindness.
If you’re reading this and are feeling in any way stressed by these issues, or if you’re being bullied about how your body looks, then please consider talking to someone, whether that be a friend, a trusted adult or healthcare professional. When I was suffering from mental health issues, the biggest turning point was admitting to myself that I needed help, because without the support of qualified professionals as well as family and friends I would have remained stuck in that downward spiral.
On a personal note, there's an amusing irony in the timing of this campaign as only last week I had a photo-shoot for the launch of my Phoenix business, at the end of which the photographer was "kind" enough to apply filters to the images in a bid to make me look more aesthetically pleasing! By the time he'd finished applying his "facial enhancement" software, my teeth were so dazzlingly white that I had to reduce the brightness setting on my screen just to look at them, whilst every facial line and wrinkle had been magicked away, leaving me looking like some monstrous cross between a waxwork and a cheesy 80s game show host. The "enhanced" image was so nauseating that I instantly had the filters removed and stripped the images right back to the real me. After all, if I can't be comfortable with the way I look then how can my clients have confidence in me to make them feel better about themselves?
The social media age has fuelled a culture in which more people than ever before are fretting over how they look and how they're perceived. Everything from Botox to cosmetic surgery and facial enhancement apps are being deployed in the hunt for a so-called "ideal" Hollywood image but, if the truth be told, none of these methods is likely to bring lasting happiness. True happiness comes from being comfortable with the real, authentic you. Those lines and wrinkles on your face aren't something to be ashamed of. They're medals - a sign that you've lived a life, fought your battles and survived. As soon as I looked at the publicity shots which my well-meaning photographer had enhanced, I knew full well that the monstrous waxwork depicted in them wasn't me. He was a fake. The special effects had to go. It was a complete no-brainer. Happiness and well-being are about becoming the true, authentic version of yourself, not a digitally or cosmetically-enhanced substitute.
So now might be a good time to spring-clean the apps on your smartphone, take note of the people and accounts you’re following on social media and be mindful of how you feel about your body and appearance when you look at them.
If you’re a parent or carer then lead by example and be more aware of how you speak about your own and other people’s bodies in casual conversations with friends and family.
And if you see an advert in a magazine, on television or online that you think promotes an unhealthy body image as aspirational, you can complain to the Advertising Standards Authority.
Most importantly of all, reach out and talk to someone. You’d be surprised at how much support there is available and just what a huge difference it can make.
Here at Phoenix we offer a wide range of counselling, coaching and therapeutic services to help with everything from anxiety to depression, addiction and body image concerns. Visit our website at phoenixcoaching.co.uk for full details of services provided or to book a free initial consultation. We’re here to help.