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5 Harmful Wellbeing Messages; What we actually mean and why.

Trigger Warning: Mentions Mental Illness and Suicide risk

We've all heard the advice of well-meaning health gurus, read the cute slogan tees, and seen the perfectly curated daily affirmation posts. And I'm pretty sure we have all wanted to scream at the top of our lungs "if only it were that freaking easy".

A while ago I was reading comments in a Facebook group which offers support to a particular neurodivergent community and I couldn't help but notice they were very pro-medication in general but got quite upset and defensive when natural or behavioural interventions were suggested or discussed. I was curious so I asked those who felt like replying why this was the case when the medications prescribed to them caused unfortunate side effects for a proportion of the users.

The responses were eye-opening and humbling in equal measure. I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised but I was; the amount that had suffered great psychological damage and invalidation from their interactions with the natural/holistic health field. The fact was that often these health messages left the recipients feeling, (arguably) at best, unheard and, at worst, blamed for their health experiences.

Below are some of the big ones. as with everything I think it's important to remember context is important. Any one of these on there own may be absolutely fine used at the right time, with the right person, for the right wellbeing concern. So if your screen saver is a meme or you have an inspirational board with the following sayings on it, don't throw it out. Just gauge how it makes you feel and remember these weren't ever meant to be a one size fits all wellbeing advice.

1. Think Positive

Why it's problematic:

This one is strongly aligned with the toxic positivity movement (think "positive vibes only") and as a stand-alone health message, it's no wonder it does damage; as if you hadn't just tried thinking positively. This message belittles the experiences of those who aren't currently in a positive mind space and quite frankly comes across as condescending and well... blamey.

What We Should Say:

Make some space for noticing the small positives that occur each day and those from the recent past.

Why we say it:

Our memories are formed through a process called consolidation. We experience an event for example and our brain perceives different inputs and collates that into memory, during this process the brain 'tags' the memory with emotion for easier retrieval. This keeps us safe as we are able to access these memories quicker and react quickly to danger cues based on previous experiences, think of it like a filing cabinet with subject tabs. In depression or periods of low mood, this system becomes inherently flawed because it becomes easier to recall memories tagged with similar emotions and increasingly difficult to access memories with other emotional tags.

Couple this phenomenon with the classic Negative Thinking Triad, in which People think badly about themselves which leads to them thinking badly about others and then the world and you are looking at a potential vortex of negative thinking that becomes increasingly difficult to escape from. By bringing specific attention to moments of happiness, positivity, or even just moments of feeling better than shit, we can help to interrupt the flow of negative thinking and allow space for something else.

2. Everything Happens for a Reason

Why it's problematic:

Oftentimes shitty stuff happens to good people for no good reason. This kind of statement should be reserved for missing a table at your favourite restaurant so you end up trying the awesome new place around the corner, it doesn't belong in the wellbeing space when we don't know what trauma is being experienced.

It can also put focus on external forces which can either lead to a lack of accountability for one's actions. we feel better when we can attribute an undesirable outcome to something outside of our control as if fate has had a hand in this event and some great reward or opportunity will soon be revealed.

Some may face increased anxiety due to an actual or perceived lack of control.

Even more concerning are the people who develop a distorted and low sense of self-worth due to the guilt and shame of what has happened to them and what they must have done to deserve that.

What we actually mean:

Shit things happen to good people sometimes but let's see if we can uncover a greater meaning in this for you, how can we use this meaning coupled with the experience to move you forward in life to a more pleasant space.

Why we say it:

I think it's fair to say the purpose behind this statement is to instil a sense of hope, that the world isn't senseless, and that there is some kind of force governing this chaotic experience that is life. A similar statement would be "as one door closes, another opens", it's the sense that something better is around the corner.

So why does this sense of hope matter? Well because a lack of it can be a significant contributing factor for most depressive mood disorders and for suicide risk.

3. Have you tried (insert natural health activity here)?

Why it's problematic:

As it happens I actually do this one a lot myself and I'm pledging to stop or at least revise my wording. I was recently made aware that this is quite confronting to many people who are often exhausted from just existing. Our well-meaning holistic advice just comes across as "this is your fault because you haven't done enough to keep yourself well". It's also problematic because most holistic or natural remedies require sustained effort, motivation, and attention that people often just don't have, making the whole experience quite ableist.

What we actually mean:

There is scientific evidence that doing X, Y, and Z can help improve symptoms for people who are experiencing this. Would you like to know more about why and how this works, I'd really like to be helpful/share my passion with you.

Why we say it:

Because we are trained in modalities that we believe in and (hopefully) have scientific evidence that backs them up. We have spent time, effort, and in most cases, thousands of dollars to acquire the knowledge and skills we have and we genuinely believe they can help you achieve a more pleasant existence or alleviate the symptoms that are currently impacting you and prevent issues in the future. Well-trained well-being practitioners come from an understanding of the biological, physiological, and psychological causes of distress/discomfort and how these can be reduced using proven non-medical interventions.

4. Just Breathe

Why it's problematic:

Again it can belittle the experiences of the receiving person when given as a standalone wellbeing message. It's also not always the best place to start. I'm someone who uses breathing techniques in their personal life and work and is working towards certification as a Breathwork facilitator so I know the power of breathing but telling someone to "just breathe" isn't helpful, not in the least because they probably already are, and if they aren't, their mental wellbeing is the least of your problems right now.

What we actually mean:

I'll admit that sometimes we actually just mean breathe, but we usually want you to breathe slower and deeper. Alternatively, we may be wanting you to focus on your breathing.

Why we say it:

Quite simply because breathing is a fast, effective, and cheap technique that can be used to calm the nervous system, thus making it a powerful tool. Why is it so powerful? Well because the peripheral nervous system ( nerves outside of the brain itself) is split into two basic functions the sympathetic system (fight-flight) and the parasympathetic system (rest-digest).

They work similarly to a car with the sympathetic system being like the accelerator and the parasympathetic system being like the brakes, they can't both be activated at the same time. The peripheral nervous systems affect most bodily functions but there's one that we can manipulate, you might have guessed it... our breathing! We can basically hijack the parasympathetic system by using slow deep breaths which causes the deactivation of the sympathetic system.

Obviously, breathing techniques are going to be most effective when dealing with an activated sympathetic nervous system which is typically stress and anxiety. However, they can support general mental health when used as part of a regular self-care routine.

5. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger

Why it's problematic:

Because being stronger has become synonymous with ignoring your emotions which traps trauma within the body and often leads to rigid and problematic coping mechanisms. And in most other contexts it's usually used to excuse or celebrate wreckless dangerous behaviour that causes injury.

What we actually mean:

Look at this awful, frightening, and threatening thing that you have experienced and here you are on the other side having faced these vulnerabilities.

Why we say it:

We are really just trying to give you the sense of power that we assume you lost back, to show you that you possess the strength to get through. We want you to know you are strong but somewhere along the line strong has just become a synonym for suck it up and get on with it. There are of course ties when we do need to suck things up and get on with it but we have this expectation that that's the end of it. It shouldn't be, sucking it up it a method of carrying ourselves to a safer 'space' so that we can process that experience. It's not an intervention it's an interim measure to get us to the intervention.

I dream of never being called resilient again in my life. I'm exhausted by strength. I want support. I want softness. I want ease. I want to be amongst kin. Not patted on the back for how well I take a hit. Or for how many.
- Zandashé L’orelia Brown

Photo Credit: Song_about_summer-


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