Often self-help can be quite helpful. But sometimes the mental health advice you run across over and over is actually inaccurate. You might read this advice in an article or a book, hear it from a colleague or internalize it from our society. Some suggestions might even seem like common sense.
Below, therapists share several tips, which are actually myths — and what really works.
Myth: Be hard on yourself to get things done.
Fact: “Beating up on yourself may get you going, but it has negative emotional effects,” said Melanie A. Greenberg, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Marin County, Calif., who specializes in managing stress, mood and relationships. Self-criticism leads to low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. It paralyzes us and stops us from taking healthy action. What works instead is self-compassion.
“Research by Kristin Neff and colleagues shows that self-compassion can be an effective motivator,” Greenberg said. For instance, after you’ve made a mistake, you gently guide yourself to the right action, she said. Check out this piece and this one for more on practicing self-compassion.
Myth: Don’t think about a distressing event, and it’ll go away.
Fact: The idea here is: “Why bring up anything painful from the past? It’s time to move on! You will feel so much better,” said Julie Lopez, PhD, LICSW, a psychotherapist and executive director of The Viva Center. As a results-oriented therapist, Lopez focuses on here-and-now goals and appreciates the importance of refocusing on the present.
However, that’s not how our bodies work, she said. Every experience, whether good or bad, seeks expression, she explained. A distressing experience might include everything from a car crash to a breakup. It needs to be “processed and put to rest.”
“This ‘never look back approach’ is actually the primary culprit in addictive/compulsive acting out [such as] alcohol, drugs, eating, shopping, etc.”
Plus, avoidance can add additional stressors, she said. The most effective and long-lasting approach is creating a safe therapeutic environment for expressing the distressing event, she said. “In this type of environment it can be titrated and controlled so the individual doesn’t get too flooded.”
Myth: Release anger regularly, so you don’t snap.
Fact: We tend to feel better after screaming or hitting a pillow or punching bag, said psychology professor Vince Favilla. “On a surface level, it seems to work.” However, this kind of behavior trains our brain to see violence as a solution to anger, he said. “Sure, it probably won’t escalate to hitting another person, but why take chances when there are demonstrably better alternatives?” Also, sometimes we’re just not in a place where we can scream or hit something.
What’s a better approach? Disengage and relax, said Favilla, also the founder and lead writer for Sooniwill.be. For instance, “Taking deep breaths gets blood flowing back to the logical centers of your brain, which allows you to turn down the volume on the emotional centers. It’s like rebooting your brain.”
Myth: Take X amount of time to heal from grief.
Fact: “We can’t simply set a timer and then once we hit the six-month mark, poof! All of our grief will have magically disappeared,” said Casey Radle, LPC, a therapist who specializes in anxiety, depression and self-esteem at Eddins Counseling Group in Houston, Texas. Bereavement doesn’t work this way.
The grieving process isn’t linear, she said. Instead, “it can be cyclical and unpredictable.” We may have “setbacks” when our grief is especially acute, she said.
“The pain of losing a loved one never really goes away. It might lessen or shift over time, but it will never [completely] go away.” Losing a loved one alters us forever. We’ll never be the same because life isn’t the same without that person, Radle said.
Telling yourself you should be “over it” by now only compounds your pain, she said. Instead of focusing on timelines, focus on self-care. Focus on being gentle and patient with yourself and on finding support, Radle said.
“[Working through grief] requires facing our fears and facing the reality of the situation head-on. It means allowing ourselves to be sad, to feel angry, to seek support, to be alone, to cry, to mourn, to remember, and to accept.”
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