Those of us with an interest in mental health have a job on our hands. We need to balance our curiosity in our subject matter, our motivation and willingness to learn, with the limits of our time. With this in mind, it’s hard to choose the best read for us. A large part of this is down to too much choice. Type the search term ‘mental health books’ into Amazon and you come up over 80,000 options! It seems ironic that through the process of wanting to improve our knowledge and experience of mental health, to either help ourselves or others, our mental health could potentially be damaged by too much to read.
But I have been lucky. The decision of what to read was taken out of hands and I was gifted a copy of Phillipa Perry’s ‘How to Stay Sane’. And the good news is, this is a straightforward digestible read, coming in at just 128 pages.
Philippa Perry is a British psychotherapist, writer and speaker. What I like about her style of writing is that while she clearly has credibility in her field, she doesn’t assume any knowledge from the reader and her attempts to explain complex theory are relatable to us mere mortals.
The premise of her book is surprisingly straightforward. She believes that to ‘stay sane’ us humans need to take a path between two extremes: living life that is chaotic, going from crisis to crisis; and being in a rut operating with outdated, rigid responses. I couldn’t help but relate these descriptions to personality types of people I know. On the one hand, the chaotic type would be someone constantly in and out of relationships, perhaps drinking too much, not handling money or what life throws at them well. On the other, you have the routine type. Someone who likes to know exactly what they will be doing, where and when, and lacking (what I call) the ‘spontaneous gene.’ The authors view is that we should take the middle path between these two extremes – being stable, yet flexible; being coherent while embracing complexity.
We go on from here to explore the brain. The author points out: ‘How our brain develops has more to do with our earliest relationships than with genetics; with nurture rather than nature.’
I relate to this to the current public dialogue here in Scotland about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs relate to any number of events – including physical, emotional and sexual abuse – that can have a detrimental impact on a young person into adulthood
The rest of the book explores the four ingredients for successfully psychotherapy. I will provide a short summary of each, adding my own interpretation:
we need to stand outside of ourselves and observe our feelings and emotions, without judging them. I love this part of the book as beyond my day job, I am working towards a qualification in counselling and we have learned a lot about self-observation: seeing our own reactions, recognising our judgements, not assessing emotions are either right or wrong.
The author also suggests a number of practical exercises for the reader: a ‘grounding exercise’, which is basically a series of self-checking questions allowing us to recognise our own emotions. Keeping a diary is another simple yet life-changing exercise. We won’t all go on to become the next Bridget Jones however research suggests that keeping a diary of your feelings, and achievements can boost your immune system and how you deal with trauma. This interests me in terms of how diaries have the potential to help people on the road to recovery from serious incidents such as crime, abuse and bereavement.
Relating to others
We need others for our survival and to thrive. Relationships can shape and change us. The author sets us a task – ‘The Daily Temperature Reading’ which involves us sitting with a friend or partner for 30 minutes and going through a series of topics together: appreciations; new information; questions; complaints and recommendations for change; and wishes, hopes and dreams. The point of this being to have a deeper and more honest connection with someone.
Not all stress is negative. Stress can spur us on to learn more, exercise our brains and develop resilience. Part of this section looks at The Nun Study by US-based epidemiologist and Professor of Neurology, David Snowden, looking at dementia and the links between nuns’ brain health and intelligence and diet. He found a correlation between a higher level of education, and a willingness to pick up new interest, and better health. The conclusion being that good stress can help the brain.
What’s the story?
We can edit and change our own stories if we need to and this can support our mental health. We are exposed to stories from an early age and it helps us make sense of the world. Our self-narrative can however be damaging to our health and self-esteem. For instance, if you constantly tell yourself you will fail in the workplace due to a previous bad experience, it is more likely to happen. Stories can however be edited and flexible. It can also give positive meaning to an otherwise negative situation or experience.
This book is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in the subject matter. Not only is it packed with insights, theories and real-life experience of how mental health can be nurtured and improved but it also has number of exercises throughout it and at the end to stretch our brains. For any of you who haven’t done this before, I recommend doing the Genogram Exercise, allowing you to self-observe through drawing your family and relationship history.