Life

Irish doctor Harry Barry offers advice about how to safeguard your mental health

Jenny Lee chats to Co Louth author and medic Dr Harry Barry about how best to cope with the emotions of grief, anger and anxiety and how to keep calm post-Covid-19

Mental health professionals 'walk the journey of emotional stress with people and try to help them find ways to help them learn to cope and to heal', says Dr Harry Barry

SOMETIMES it can seem like life is an endless emotional rollercoaster as we navigate periods of anxiety, depression, shame, guilt, hurt, anger and grief.

The coronavirus lockdown has exacerbated many of these feelings, be they parental guilt and anxiety over trying to home school your children alongside doing your normal work and undertaking your usual caring responsibilities or feelings of guilt and grief after losing a loved one at a time when you couldn’t give them a proper funeral.

“The consequences and mental health effects of lockdown will be felt for some time to come,” says Dr Harry Barry, author of 10 books on mental health.

The Co Louth medic’s new book, Emotional Healing: How To Put Yourself Back Together Again, offers people hope that “there is light at the end of tunnel” and they have the opportunity to heal themselves, without the need for drugs, “no matter how black life may seem”.

In the book he explores a wide range of scenarios, from relationship hurt and social anxiety to the shame felt by those unable to bear children and the guilt of being a survivor.

Dr Barry acknowledges that there is no magic wand that will instantly take our pain away, but he uses his clinical experience, combined with cognitive behavioural therapy, through a number of practical exercises to show that emotional healing is always possible.

“The gift of emotional healing is one of the most priceless in life,” says the 67-year-old who retired as a full-time GP in 2014, but still works assessing and helping people who are going through mental health difficulties.

“I hate the phrase that ‘we treat people’; we don't. We walk the journey of emotional stress with them and try to help them find ways to help them learn to cope and to heal.

"Emotional healing is all about putting the pieces of your life together again when your emotional world is splintered and broken. It is about becoming whole again. It is about rediscovering who you really are and learning to be at peace with what you find.”

Dr Barry is passionate about helping people help themselves rather than rely upon medication.

“We have to start distinguishing clearly between the emotion of depression and the clinical illness of depression. If you look at all the conditions I deal with in this book – the only one, in my opinion, that would require actual medication is a significant bout of clinical depression.”

He even goes so far as suggesting that mental illness alone is not the cause of the majority of deaths by suicide. "I have walked the journey with parents who have lost children to suicide and children who have lost parents to suicide. Sometimes there can be an underlying clinical depression, but very frequently it's just emotional distress that they can't come to terms with that is the cause.”

One third of Emotional Healing is dedicated to coping with your emotions in grief, which for many presents the ultimate challenge to our psychological wellbeing. While everyone’s response to death is individual, Dr Barry highlights that those who experience loss need to deal with the emotional response to grief, as well as accepting the change that loss brings to your life forever.

“People have said to me that that the hardest thing about grief is the silence, the loneliness and the change in the whole fabric of their lives," he says.

“Change following loss will involve learning how to cope with a completely new situation and it can be extremely distressing. But learning to accept and adapt to your new situation will make the grief process easier to survive.”

Dr Barry also stresses the importance of never trying to obstruct the emotion of sadness – something he describes as “the healthy negative emotion” as it is the body’s way of emotionally dealing with loss.

“Sadness is such a painful and deep emotion. We often try to jump it and go on to guilt and anger where we try to blame somebody or ourselves for what has happened. But we need to learn that sadness is OK and, as CS Lewis said in A Grief Observed, 'The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before'.”

And how does he suggest that people can help a friend or family member that they see struggling with their emotions? "You could say something like 'I don’t think you are in a good place at the moment, do you want to talk about it? And telling them that you too have been through periods in your life where you have been very stressed and had to deal with difficult things may help the person be more willing to open up.

“Once they identify the problem, they are on the road to softening it. There are techniques you can use to help, or if they feel it necessary they can go and talk to a professional.”

As lockdown restrictions continue to ease, many people are anxious about normalisation, as well as fearful of a second spike of Covid-19 hitting. Dr Barry describes these emotions as “coronaphobia” and emphasises that we need to accept that we can’t eliminate all risk from our lives.

“Patients who suffer from general anxiety are constantly filled with a sense of foreboding. They live life like [they're] in a watchtower, all the time looking out for danger. The trouble is, whilst they're scanning the environment for danger, the enemy could be burrowing a tunnel underneath them."

While some people have lost their jobs or had to cancel their holiday due to the pandemic, Dr Barry challenges people to treat these setbacks and as a problem to solve and adapt to, rather than to regard as catastrophes.

To overcome the tendency to catastrophise he challenges his patients “not stress over spilt milk” by visualising what a glass of spilt milk would look like.

"If you are a catastrophist, you may visualise a puddle of milk. In practice, however, only a tiny drop of milk may have been spilt. If you practice this scenario, after a while your rational brain begins to kick in.”

Emotional Healing: How To Put Yourself Back Together Again by Dr Harry Barry is published by Orion Spring and is out now

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