Rosie my 15yr old neighbour caught me in the street the other day. ‘That talk you gave at school last week was such a relief Lindy. You actually said something positive and empowering. We’re so tired of hearing about mental illness, self-harm, depression, addiction, eating disorder. It seems that every day in school they are teaching us that there is something to be scared about. If it’s not mental health it’s global warming, or abuse or human slavery, or FGM. It’s all over social media too, and in the news. I know it’s well-meaning and they’re trying to raise awareness to help prevent mental illness – but actuallyit’stoomuch.It's got to the stage where we feel like the odd one out if we haven’t got anxiety or depression. Your talk made us feel hopeful – and the human tools were really helpful.
I’d been invited to speak at a drop-down day at a local school who are, like many other schools across the country, urgently trying to address the mental health issues that are on the increase in our young people. I attended the day alongside a number of local charities who support schools. My message was about the powerful ‘Human Tools’ we all have to keep ourselves healthy, safe and energised.
Becoming a counsellor was a second career for me. In a former life I had worked in Sales and Marketing for a multinational software company. It was my own devastating experience with post-natal depression that inspired this change in career. Almost 30 years ago now I struggled with paralysing post-natal depression following the birth of my son. I had a wonderful doctor who prescribed anti-depressants but only on the proviso I saw a counsellor.
I was resistant initially. The thought of talking about my overwhelming feelings seemed unbearable but I was persuaded to see a wonderful counsellor who held a safe and loving space for me to explore my darkest thoughts and fears. In her room I found acceptance, perspective and hope.
My depression gradually lifted and I found the confidence and courage I needed to be a good mum to my lovely son.
The counselling I received had such a positive impact on me that some years later, following the birth of my daughter, I retrained as a person-centred psychodynamic counsellor at my local college – and this too proved life-changing in so many ways.
I qualified in 2001 and spent several years on placement with our local hospice St. Nics, and with West Suffolk Mind. In 2004 I was offered the opportunity to set up a counselling service at two local high schools working with students under threat of exclusion or managed move because of their challenging behaviour. The service was funded by a government Behaviour Improvement Programme and the outcomes were closely monitored.
My young clients had been sent to counselling (I’m talking 15 years ago – these days they would be invited to attend but back then it was a three line whip), to ‘fix’ their behaviour.
Most had already had a great deal of intervention from social services, CAMHS and within the school pastoral team - the last thing they wanted to do was to talk about their big ‘explosive’ feelings to yet another well-meaning professional. Many found it difficult to engage and I admit that I felt saddened (and embarrassed) by the level of DNA’s and refusals that I had in the early days.
Some would come for the initial session and not come back, some would only come if I took them out of their least favourite subject (usually maths or PE), and some would come but point blank refuse to engage, sitting silently, sullenly with arms folded and face set watching each painful minute tick by until the 50 minutes was up. I was struggling. I felt deskilled, ineffective and frustrated. These young people needed help and I was failing them.
My previous career in sales came to the fore. I needed to find a way to awaken the curiosity of my clients so that they could see a benefit in engaging in my service. In sales there is a very short window of opportunity to do this – some say that a customer will make his mind up whether he wants to buy from you within the first 3 minutes. Many of my clients came with a range of diagnoses including ADD, ADHD, ASD, ODD and Aspergers so their attention span, and therefore my window of opportunity was even less than that.
As a visual learner myself I strongly believe that a picture tells a thousand words so I started to draw a very simple picture about humans and why they behave the way they do!
The basic stickman drawing was accompanied by a story which explained the role of the human brain; the purpose of feelings (good feelings let us know everything is ok, difficult feelings let us now things aren’t ok). It explains that feelings provide instructions and clues and our job is to listen to them and use them to guide us to take resolving action. If we ignore our feelings they ‘back-up’ and either EXPLODE out of us in rage, or IMPLODE inside us resulting in anxiety.
Our thoughts spiral when we are not listening to our big feelings and we worry. Instead of taking ACTION to resolve our feelings, we DISTRACT to take our mind off them (gaming, alcohol, food, self-harm etc). When we stop distracting (usually around bedtime) we can’t sleep as our brain kicks in again to try to find solutions and the worrying thoughts start to spiral. We become tired, our immune system weakens and we feel physically unwell. Now the world feels hostile and we become hypersensitive. We try to protect ourselves by ACTING OUT (becoming aggressive, spiteful and nasty) or ACTING IN (withdrawing, isolating and become secretive). Or we might flip flop between the two.
Almost without exception those who watched me draw and listened to the story chose to engage. Not only did they see their own behaviour, distractions and physical symptoms, they also saw and made sense of the behaviour they witnessed in their families and amongst their friends. It was with a sense of relief they said ‘that explains why Mum uses food to distract and Dad uses alcohol. My brother is addicted to his Playstation and my uncle uses drugs.’
Using the drawing made the behaviours and distractions about ‘humans’ rather than about the young person themselves, and removed any guilt, shame or embarrassment paving the way for honest, open and congruent sharing and discussion.
The story awakened curiosity and the questions came thick and fast. My role was to help my young clients find their own answers and begin to make sense of their behaviour and the impact it was having on them and those around them.
Over a period of time the ‘Human Toolbox Programme’ evolved into an eight-module psycho- educational wellbeing foundation course. The programme is now being used in schools across East Anglia to help young people understand how their mind and body work together – and to help them become skilled at taking responsibility for their own self-regulation and self-care. These are skills that will serve them well as they enter the adult world.
To go back to the beginning of the story, Rosie had seen me present two modules of The Human Toolbox at her drop down day. I’d shown Year 10 students the Control Tool module which explains the powerful three-part triune brain and introduces the concept of the highly emotional, reactive and judgemental mammalian brain (FEELING BRAIN) and the more measured, higher functioning pre-frontal cortex (THINKING BRAIN).
Introducing the concept of ‘integrating’ these two parts of the brain using the FEEL-THINK- RESPOND strategy is a game changer. It explains why we go from FEELING to REACTING without taking time to THINK and removes the concept of ‘bad behaviour’ by replacing it with the realisation that they just haven’t learnt how to control impulsive behaviour yet.
By giving strategies and techniques like diaphragmatic breathing, pandiculation (a wonderful energising and balancing act of breathing, stretching and yawning), recognising physical early warning signs and by talking about their feelings rather than ‘swallowing’ or somatising them, they can learn to become less reactive and more responsive. Just knowing this is possible with practice engenders hope and is hugely empowering.
Alongside the Control Tool I also introduced the powerful RELEASE TOOLS which relieve stress and anxiety. This module starts with an explanation of the stress response and how it is triggered by the amygdalae. The amygdalae (there are two of them!) are the brains’ watchdogs and their role is to keep us safe. They can sometimes be overprotective and go into overdrive triggering the stress response constantly. The amygdalae are highly reactive and they don’t differentiate between real and imagined threat. This explains why we become anxious just at the thought of an exam!
Explaining the physical impact of the stress response (thumping heart, shallow rapid breathing, pins and needles, lurching stomach, tight throat and finally the shutting down of the frontal cortex) takes the mystery out of why we often feel physically unwell when we’re hi-jacked by stressed, and why we simply can’t think straight or make good choices or decisions.
We don’t want our young people to become risk averse. They need to be able to face the world and all its challenges if they are to make the most of the opportunities that will come their way. It is important that we make the point that the stress response is our friend rather than our enemy and a little stress can sharpen our focus and give us a boost of energy to help us overcome an obstacle or meet a challenge. The problem comes when we can’t turn the stress response off, and it becomes low level and chronic. When we live with stress constantly it turns to anxiety and then it has serious implications for not just our mental health, but our physical health too.
Nature is a wonderful thing and we have all the tools we need to keep ourselves safe, healthy and balanced. We have two powerful stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, and four amazing calm hormones to help us relieve our stress and lift our mood.
Oxytocin, Dopamine, Seratonin and Endorphin are our ‘happy hormones’ and when we boost these our stress hormones naturally subside. The RELEASE TOOLS look at the calming soothing effect of breathing, posture, creativity, laughter, exercise, tears, being outdoors in nature... and talking, hugging and reaching out to other humans to get a lovely big boost of soothing, bonding oxytocin.
This module points out that sometimes when we feel anxious we try to avoid life and anything stressful – but actually we need to do the exact opposite. We need to learn how to manage our stress response so that we can meet all the challenges (and opportunities) that life sends our way.
The whole purpose of the Human Toolbox Programme is to raise awareness and remove fear. It is about empowering young people (and their teachers and parents) to call on their AMAZING Human Tools to help them self-regulate, self-soothe and to find self-control.
When we learn how to use our innate Human Tools to stay calm, focused, healthy and energised life becomes simpler, more joyful and more rewarding. We begin to thrive rather than just survive and we develop resilience, courage, hope and optimism.
The Human Toolbox is just like any other toolbox. You first have to be introduced to the tools, you have to learn how to use them, and then you need to practice using them regularly so that you become skilled. Eventually, with enough practice the tools become second nature... and then we really feel in control of our behaviour and our lives!
I think it’s worth reflecting on Rosie’s opening comment to me. There is a danger that we can go too far with raising awareness of mental health issues in our schools, on social media, on TV, in newspapers and journals.
Pathologising anxiety and validating it as an illness is DISEMPOWERING and it takes away agency and responsibility. I strongly believe our aim should be to teach our young people that stress is a normal response to threat or challenge and it gives us the energy and power to survive. Our task as we grow into adults is to learn how to manage stress so that it doesn’t become chronic and result in continuous worry and anxiety. Instilling the belief that this is possible, and teaching proven strategies and techniques is wonderfully EMPOWERING, and that is why Rosie and her friends found Bodd and the Human Toolbox such a relief.