Personal change is inevitable
People will change whether they want to or not. From babies into children, from children into teenagers, from teenagers into adults. During the course of the average lifetime, they will become students, friends, lovers, parents, workers (with several job changes), good guys, bad guys, wonder guys.
Here are some other factors about personal change:
Every day you will have an average of 60,000 thoughts and thousands of accompanying feelings, emotions and moods.
Each time your brain retrieves a memory, it re-edits it.
Every week each person will acquire 238 Gb of new information (the average laptop stores 256 Gb in total)
Every month you will meet an average of 10 new people
Each human being experiences at least one major life event every 15 months.
Over 10 years every single cell in your body is replaced.
Over the course of a lifetime your personality traits change, as measured in standard personality tests.
Changes we don’t want are more examples of change
What these, and other facts show is that personal change is inevitable and, indeed, miraculous. At the level of thought, emotion and action we undergo hundreds of (minor and major) changes each day.
Spontaneous change also occurs frequently in mental health problems such as trauma, anxiety, depression and addiction. For example, a 2013 study estimated that 53% of cases of clinical depression cleared up within 12 months, without medical or therapeutic assistance. Within two years, around 80% will clear. We all know of alcohol and drug users who stopped drinking and using as a result of a decision. Likewise many people have overcome adversity and trauma in their lives through developing resilience.
The case of Joe
Joe was an 18-year old with anxiety and low-level depression. He disliked sixth form college, finding it too much like school, where he never fitted it. He was also unhappy at home where his father was irritated by his unhappiness and kept telling him to ‘grow up’. Meanwhile, his mother was having an affair with a neighbour, and took no interest in Joe. It seemed to him that he didn’t fit in anywhere, and was plagued with self-doubt and worries about what life might have in store for him. We worked together on his self-judgments, his worries about the future, and on obtaining more independence from his parents, but while his anxiety decreased his mood remained low.
A few months later he moved to a northern university to read for a science degree and I did not see him again until the Xmas holiday. The change in him was remarkable. He was relaxed and smiling, telling me stories about his new life at the university: the stimulating lectures, the friends he had made, the rugby team for which he played, and the long hikes he took in the hills.
To understand what happened to Joe it is important to keep in mind that depression, like anxiety is always about something. To be sure, it is created in thought, and could be solved with new thoughts. Equally so, the problem might dissolve when external facts change. In Joe’s case his unhappiness related to alienation from school and home, parental neglect, and lack of rewards in the form of stimulating work and relationships. Moving to the university changed the home environment in which anxious thoughts and a depressed mood was the likely response, to a new environment in which hope, engagement and renewed agency were more likely.
After this catch-up session I did not see Joe again, but heard a few years later that he had left home for good and taken a laboratory job in Sheffield. That he was settled there, and planning to take a post-graduate degree.
How we get stuck with changes we don’t want
Given our natural power to make changes to thought and action – and in many cases to our environment, how is it that so many of us remain stuck in anxiety, depression and other mental health problems? The answer (disregarding environmental factors for a moment) can be given in one word: thought.
Here are the most common types of thought that can keep us trapped.
Thoughts about Self. In which we think of ourselves as ‘always depressed/anxious/disturbed’. Helpless to do anything to change. As ‘failures’ or ‘hopeless cases.’
Thoughts about life. That life is too much for us and we are powerless to intervene. That life problems are the cause of our unhappy state, when in fact it is our thoughts about life that create it. This often leaves people feeling like victims.
Thoughts about the problem. That it is ‘over-powering’, ‘frightening’ and the sign of a much deeper disturbance, linked to our defective personalities.
Thoughts that exclude possibility. As a result of all the above, we think that nothing can change, and our negative filters focus exclusively on the things that keep us stuck. In fact there are all kinds of changes and possibilities that present to us every day, but we cease to notice, or capitalise on them. Joe, as an 18-year old was perhaps more open to these than an older client might have been. In such cases the therapist must be alert both to internal (mind) possibilities, and to externals (environment).