It was during hypnotherapy training that a certain resemblance between the traditional Anglican service and hypnotherapy occurred to me. That’s not to say that your local vicar is covertly trying out hypnosis on his willing flock. Consider this, though. On Sunday morning a number of people put on their Sunday best, leave the house and go to a quiet place. Quiet, apart from the sound of rhythmic bells, that is. Like a breath, like a heartbeat. The congregation arrives and each member carries out a ritual which begins with obtaining a hymn book and order of service and settling into a pew quietly. No-one (hopefully) has their mobile switched on; no-one chats loudly, and as the appointed hour approaches people settle down and…relax. Some may close their eyes. Some may think of those things they have no time for during the hurry and bustle of everyday life. During the service, there may be candles or shiny objects with their mesmerizing quality on which to fix one’s eye. Relaxation deepens. The world is far away (usually no sights of the outside or sounds of it through thick stone walls). Thoughts turn inwards. We all stand together, we all sit together. We all sing together – well-known hymns learned at home or school, things that may have travelled with us as part of our culture, carrying a memory of all the other times and other places at which we’ve sung them. This is familiar territory. Some of us don’t need to look at the book to sing the words. So now that we are thoroughly relaxed in this quiet place, we are open to suggestion. The vicar or priest begins a sermon or story, often including biblical parables – the lost sheep, the prodigal son – something where initial disaster is transformed by the power of thought, deed or prayer – a change, one might argue, in a state of mind. Sometimes we look back on past mistakes or negative stories but always return to the possibility that through our sense of will, of doing good, of becoming better, we can change and improve. As if to underline the point, we queue to approach the altar and experience the curiously reassuring suggestion that we are blessed and kept. At the end of the service we are aware that we are moving towards the real world, moving out of our church persona into our everyday selves. We may be exhorted to ‘go in peace’, bringing us back to the reality of returning (refreshed and alert?) to whatever our earthly Sunday may hold – the papers, the roast, the family, the DIY.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese word that equates roughly to accepting life’s imperfections and impermanence. We have no such word. So is that, we ask, because of the Japanese people’s traditional Buddhist connection, which emphasises acceptance, or does having that word in the language somehow change their perception of life and make them more accepting?
The Irish have ‘the Craic’ – does having this word help to propagate the idea that the Irish really know how to enjoy themselves more than the rest of us and if so, does that innate knowledge help them to do so, thus become self-fulfilling?
Words create a sense of community.
If there’s a word for something, it follows that people have a need for that word, because there’s a sufficient number of people wanting to express that idea. We are not alone. If we’re secretly taking pleasure in someone else’s downfall, we have something in common with others, because we know what we are experiencing is ‘schadenfreude’.
I ask these questions because I notice how some words used to describe mental illness are also used to relate to every day emotions. One of the results of this may be that the illness is somehow demoted in importance and therefore is less likely to be considered a ‘real’ condition like appendicitis or a broken arm for example.
Should we mind our language?
Let me be specific. Depression is a debilitating mental illness that robs the sufferer from an enjoyment of life. Inability to enjoy anything at all is a characteristic sign that something is wrong. The person may have a good job, money, a lovely home and a wonderful family, but when depression strikes, the delight in everything is sucked away, leaving them flat and bewildered.
However, we style ourselves ’depressed’ at the news, the new boss, the weather, the price of fish…
I like to look at the latest news about conditions that might be helped by hypnotherapy. I have ‘panic attack’ and ‘phobia’ in my list of googlealerts, which searches for relevant stories containing those words and sends me an email when such stories appear online. But guess what I get? Every day I receive news stories where any kind of fear is blown up into a ‘phobia’ headline, while any sort of worry is termed a panic attack.
Depressed or just plain old sad?
Is it any wonder therefore that depression is sometimes seen as something that people can just ‘snap out of’? If you’re depressed today, you’ll be cheered up tomorrow, right? Wrong. Depressed is not the opposite of happy. People with panic attacks cannot just ‘calm down’. People with phobias cannot just remember that spiders, cats, lifts, whatever, won’t actually hurt them.
The mind’s response to emotional stress is broadly the same, irrespective of whether the cause is ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’. In the same way that a bruise is the body’s response to physical impact, depression, anxiety and phobia are the body’s response to emotional impact.
When we bandy about terms like panic attack, depression and phobia, we should remember that what we actually are is worried, sad or fearful. People with the conditions those names really belong to need the same sympathy, attention and help as people with any physical illness.