There’s been a literary takeover on Instagram: my feed is dominated by a plain white cover with its black text and ‘This’ in popping rainbow letters. I haven’t seen such ubiquity across people’s reading habits since A Little Life, and it’s down to a British therapist.
Dr Julie Smith launched her TikTok channel at the end of 2019, originally to reach a younger audience who might not need therapy but still need help understanding the inner workings of their brain. An established, experienced clinical psychologist, Dr Smith’s empathic combination of humour and connection proved wildly successful during lockdown. Her audience grew to three million followers (of all ages), TikTok named her one of their top 100 creators and, now, her book Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? is giving people access to techniques to help them in the moment.
This is an interesting time for self-help. We have never been so well-informed or educated on mental health, nor had so many channels by which to pursue further knowledge. But this comes partly because of long waiting lists for mental health treatment in the UK, and increased demand for it from pressures caused by lockdown, long Covid, and the impact of the pandemic more generally. This extended time of being in fight or flight mode is unsustainable in the long term, and as a result, has shone a light on symptoms and behaviours that are proving difficult to live with. I was far from the only person to pursue a late-in-life ADHD diagnosis once lockdown removed my usual coping strategies, and many people have been turning to social media for information and community.
Dr Smith’s book is a resource that understands its audience. Chapters are broken up into bite-sized but never patronising portions, and they're easily digestible thanks to illustrations and varied font sizes. These are small but crucial touches acknowledging that a reader looking for "everyday tools for life’s ups and downs" might not be able to cope with a vast wall of text. Here are six key takeaways that really will make you think: why has nobody told me this before?
Call it square, slow, or box breathing, but this technique to reduce intense anxiety is very useful – if you can do it right. I usually can’t, then feel as though my lungs have shrunk to raisin size, which in turn makes me wildly stressed. Dr Smith simplifies it by getting you to use a physical square prop, such as a window or picture frame, while doing your breathing. I count to four and trace my eyes up to the top left corner, then hold my breath for four seconds while I trace across to the next corner, and same for the next sides. Having a visual to focus on stopped me worrying about what my lungs were doing, and my heart rate soon slowed down. No raisin worries this time – thank you, Dr Smith.
Rumination – endless, circling thoughts, usually on how awful you are – is a key feature of depression, and the one which rather cruelly manages to keep the person in that state. Dr Smith offers two useful techniques for breaking its hold. First, firmly push your hand in front of you and say, "Stop!" then quickly stand up and move from the position you are in.
The second is a question: "What would I do if I was at my best?" Dr Smith explains: "If you are experiencing dark times and depression, you cannot expect yourself to be doing whatever you would be doing at your best. But you can create a mental picture of the direction you want to move in." Even small things can be incredibly challenging when in the grips of depression; having a positive visual of yourself to break up what may be hours of misery is a circuit breaker.
"This sounds almost too simple to be effective, but every time you engage in gratitude, your brain is getting practice at turning its attention to things that create pleasant emotional states," writes Dr Smith. The more practice we get, the more we can use it in other situations, so grab a notebook and note down three things you feel grateful for once a day. It can be something big or small, but Dr Smith is clear: regularly making time to smell the coffee flexes a crucial muscle.
This idea stopped me in my tracks: "A good decision is one that moves you in the direction you want to go. It doesn’t have to catapult you there." Rather than drawing up an impractical list, Dr Smith suggests we cut the pressure to make a buddha bowl and do a HIIT workout, and instead start with one very small thing. It could be to get out of bed, make a drink, or dress in easy clothes, but it is a crucial step in a different direction, and helps to change low mood.
I had insomnia for years, and it was only recently that I found comfort in a friend saying that just lying there being relaxed had a similar effect to being asleep. True or not, it took the pressure off. Dr Smith reiterates this by suggesting that we concentrate on relaxation, rest, and calm rather than sleep: "Your brain will do the rest." She also suggests getting out into daylight within half an hour of waking to help our circadian rhythms: after reading this, another friend has been taking her coffee outside first thing, and has found it incredibly helpful.
"We can experience awe in the presence of beauty, the natural world and exceptional ability," writes Dr Smith: "Those moments that force us to re-evaluate and re-think things in order to accommodate this new experience." This could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, such as childbirth, or something more frequently achievable, such as gazing at the night sky on a star walk, spending time with animals, really paying attention to the sea, or listening to a powerful singer.
I tried this last week by going to see the musical & Juliet: watching the West End’s biggest talents singing some of our best-loved pop songs in a brilliant production gave me almost continuous goosebumps. I left the theatre feeling rested, despite it being well past my usual bedtime. "[Awe] appears to bring about gratitude and a wonder for having the chance to be alive," explains Dr Smith. "And it doesn’t require you to live on a beach in Thailand or have access to Niagara Falls."
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