By Prof. Jim Lucey MD PhD, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at TCD and Medical Director at St. Patricks Mental Health Services

Listen to Today with Sean O’Rourke RTE Radio 1 Wednesday 15th. July 2015 here.

Holidays are good for us. We all need rest. A vacation provides the kind of break a body cries out for. A change of scene helps. Our spirits are lifted by brighter environments and better views. Then we begin to let things go and we unburden ourselves. Work stops. After a time in a cheerful milieu we are distracted from our most pressing worries. We relate to one another once again. We relax and we play. We start to feel better.

So why doesn’t the holiday feeling last longer? This is not as naive a question as it first seems. Holidays end. Why does the good feeling have to end as well? We all ask ourselves something on these lines each time we return from vacation. We resolve to try and keep that holiday spirit going as long as possible. We make plans. We try to take more control of our lives, and we wish for more favourable times, but all too soon, it is as if we had never been away. Maybe a better question is how can we make wellness last?

No one can give definitive advice on wellbeing. There are no specific dos and donts about living a happy life, but we can discuss the subject in a meaningful way and from this dialogue an understanding may come. The insights in my grasp are not mine. They come from those who have learned by experience, my patients. These are understandings that may be worth sharing.

Feeling good is a mental quality as well as a physical one. There is no health without mental health and this is something we can always remember. Rest and relaxation, distraction and play, will do us all good, but the wellness coming with these things is not sustained without the mind being part of recovery. One reason for our failed attempts at wellness comes from our inability to understand our mental alternatives, and to make better mental choices.

To illustrate these mental alternatives lets consider our response to wellness as being based upon a particular style, what we might call a mental attitude. We might enter into any of these naturally or we might still struggle to adopt any one of them. Broadly speaking there are three common styles” to identify and these are

a) Control thinking

b) Magical thinking

c) Mindful thinking

The first two approaches inevitably lead to failure.

a) Control thinking allows us feel that we can organise our way to success, by dedicating ourselves to a set of well defined objectives. Having done so, we believe the result we anticipate will for sure be the result that occurs. Life isn’t that easy or that long. No amount of planning or organising or re-organising will make the unexpected not happen. The effort at controlling life may be more or less sustainable, but it is invariably exhausting to live life in a controlling way.

b) Magical thinking allows us feel that a solution exists outside of ourselves, in our work or in our home, in our friends or in our pastimes. These longed for external agencies will undo our personal dilemmas. This approach leads us to a life spent hoping and waiting for other things or other people to make us happy. We risk a terrible disappointment this way. As a wise man once said, its not that miracles don’t offer a good solution when they occur, its just that you cant depend on them to happen

c) Mindful thinking offers a different approach. It encourages living in the moment and it acknowledges the reality of the unexpected. It promotes peace that can be amplified without wishing to control life and without wishing that other things and other people affected us differently.

Perhaps a better way of illustrating all of this would be to imagine three holiday makers on their return from the best holiday of their lives. They could be men or women but for ease of illustration I will call them man and not woman. Let us imagine them as the struggle to stay in the holiday groove! Lets call these holiday makers

a) Mr Spreadsheet Man, 

b) Mr Magic Man

c) Mr Mindful man

Mr Spreadsheet man is not going to let the holiday spirit die in him. He is determined to get his work life-balance into order. He has bought a wonderful new computer diary and he can schedule his day without interruption. He is going to make time to visit the gym 4 times a week and he is never going to allow others to interfere with his schedule again. The strength of his strategy is that it is sharply focussed and it depends on nobody else. He is in charge. All that is necessary is that he remains in control and that he keeps up the effort for wellness. The limitation of his plan is that it is exhausting and unsustainable. The outcome of control thinking is abiding frustration and this is the opposite of the holiday feeling he wishes to maintain.

Mr Magic Man is also going to stay in the holiday groove for sure! His life is going to take a great leap forward. The promotion he longs for is going to happen. The people in his life are going to be different in so many ways. People will see that he is making progress and will reward him for his industry. Success will breed success. The strength of this strategy is that it has imagination and hope. The weakness is that it depends on other people and events to fall into place. Failing these the only outcome for Mr Magic Mans is disappointment and maybe even despair.

Mr Mindful Man is also determined to stay well. He knows that this will involve a risk. He is prepared to live life in reality, and he is not expecting others to fulfil his dreams. He is going to learn how to be” and so to let others be! The strengths of this approach is in its simplicity. It is in his power to take charge of his own mindset. It does not depend on controlling the impossible or hoping for the improbable. The vulnerability of Mr Mindful Man comes from the fact that he is going to live in a world where ups and downs, joys and sadness, do really happen, but he is aware of this already. His engagement with this reality is his best way of achieving the peace he once had.

The truth is that all of us are capable of being a little controlling and magical and mindful, and maybe even all three at the same time. There is something of these three hapless holiday makers in each of us. But with a mindful approach we can at least examine our mental alternatives. We might remember that we are doing our very best and so we might give ourselves full credit for our efforts at living well. There is no single solution, but the holiday spirit is worth re-capturing. Our mental wellbeing can grow once we understand the burden of our anxieties and as soon as we address the mental styles that sustain them. Remember; Its going to be OK!

If you would like to talk about this or any other mental health concern please contact our mental health professionals at the Walk In My Shoes Helpline by dialing 01 249 3333 

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