Over the decades in my work as a clinical psychologist at the Smart Therapy Centre, I have often seen people who have been put on medication for anxiety or depression following stressful life events (SLEs) like separation, divorce, job loss or exam failure.
Luckily most people don’t experience SLEs often in life, but sadly, sometimes things do go wrong.
Still it is important to remember that SLEs occur for everyone, and as such they need to be viewed as a completely normal part of our lives even though they are distressing at the time. In other words, there is no pathology present that actually requires medication.
When we experience SLEs, all of us become physiologically agitated (due to increases in the brain neuromodulator called CRF), often resulting in increased anxiety, poor sleep and loss of appetite. We may also feel more ‘fragile’ and unconfident or become demoralised and depressed (especially) if we cannot find solutions to our SLE.
I find in my work that the answer to this reaction is not to reach for medication (which can sometimes ‘numb’ the brain and make us less likely to seek effective solutions!), but rather to build new skills that improve our real-life situation, including the SLE.
There are usually many skills that need to be built following such an event. One of these is the ability to be sad and cry about the SLE (and other distressing aspects of our lives) rather than ‘deflect’ into anxiety or depressive rumination.
We are all inclined to deflect (and NOT cry) in the very moments where we actually need to come forward and face our devastation.
This happens because letting ourselves ‘feel’ our sadness can seem very frightening – like it might never stop. But believe it or not, crying is one of the best ways to make our distress go away.
Yet, crying can be a hard skill to develop for people who have been raised to believe it is ‘weak’ to cry. Contrary to this weakness view, crying tends to reflect real inner strength and the courage to confront our vulnerability.
Besides, it may be necessary for humans to cry. This is because humans have very large brains that give rise to highly complex emotional states – that require some resolution (achieved during crying) if we are to stay emotionally open, robust and responsive throughout life.
When we cry, our brains hold us in a state of ‘sustained attention’ with our intense sadness while we release oxytocin and leucine-enkephalin, which are endorphins that reduce pain and elevate mood.
As a result, our large neural networks devoted to the sadness theme(s) are activated while at the same time hormonally influenced to become less agitated and to feel less fraught and intense. This makes us feel subjectively more open and better able to cope after a good cry.
Interestingly though, there is no need to actually ‘shed’ tears. Some people have been so rigorously trained not to cry that they can no longer produce tears. Other people are so sad (but desperately trying to pretend they are not sad) that they have ‘blocked’ their own ability to cry.
In either case, to solve these problems you can just privately go through the ‘motions’ of crying without tears and very soon with practice, the healing tears will flow again.
Sometimes, when people suffer profound sadness they may need to cry very often for many months, but most distressed people only need to cry for a few minutes daily or a few minutes a few times a week (depending on the intrinsic grief at the heart of their SLE) to help resolve their sadness.
What’s more, you don’t even need to know exactly why you are crying in order for your brain to calm your distress. Sometimes people cry without this conscious knowledge and their brains nonetheless simply take care of their grief and hormonal responses, and they feel so much more relaxed and able to cope afterwards.
In any case, when you have finished crying, simply move your thinking onto something constructive in your life like an interesting hobby or new endeavours that might help propel you forward following your SLE like working on your CV or studying or joining various interest groups.
If you need any help with any of these skills, at the Smart Therapy Centre we are experts in behavioural change, so we can coach you and track your progress to make things a little easier.