Advice: It Pays to Talk



Wilton Centre-based psychotherapist Sharon McMahon explains why it’s good to talk through your issues in the cut-and-thrust world of business…

As a psychotherapist, it’s my job to listen to people and help them overcome whatever is bothering them. It’s a rewarding and satisfying job and my clients are wonderful people, but they are, in a way, the lucky ones. People who are ready, willing and able to seek out one to one help with an issue are definitely in the minority, so I want this article to reach people not yet in that position, but who nevertheless need help.

Battling demons is part of the human condition. Our big brains allow us to be creative, to imagine and fantasise. This can occasionally go horribly wrong: we can apply all of that creativity to catastrophizing issues that might never happen. Our unconscious mind doesn’t differentiate between reality and our darkest imaginings. If you’ve ever woken sweaty, heart-pounding and wide-eyed from what was only a dream, you will know this to be true. Worrying about what could go wrong with our business – cash flow, customer base or colleagues – can create that same awful feeling, and that’s not good.

The feelings and symptoms associated with panic – increased heart rate, sweaty palms etc – were designed to help us fight or flee danger. Fighting or fleeing would quickly use up the chemicals that are produced. So, when sabre toothed tigers were the enemy, chemicals like cortisol, the stress hormone, didn’t linger in our system for long. Enemies of modern business life are very different. Cash flow, contract negotiations and deadlines don’t require the same blast of energy as running for your life, but our brains haven’t quite caught up with that news. We therefore spend more time than ever feeling tense, looking out for dangers that might never happen, or that we cannot fight or flee. This puts stress on our system and, ironically, diminishes our ability to deal with real issues when they arise.

And real issues do arise. Elizabeth Kuebler Ross, a psychologist specialising in bereavement, recognised ‘little deaths’ – events less significant than the death of a loved one, such as loss of a lucrative contract, fluctuating exchange rates, or having to accommodate an aggressive new competitor. These can still impose significant pressure on us. The final twist is that none of us knows our threshold until we reach it. When we ignore symptoms of stress, we are potentially playing a dangerous game of risk with our mental wellbeing. Worrying about how you’re coping – or not – adds to the misery and before you know it, moods are swinging, good habits like exercise are waning and bad habits like overeating or drinking are taking over. Welcome to the downward spiral.

So without access to a psychotherapist, what can we do to help ourselves? In short, we need to talk. Ideally, speak to someone you trust to keep your issue to themselves, and to listen without forcing their opinion on you, so that you have time and space to address the issue yourself: A partner, a good friend, or your GP might fit the bill. If not, try writing the problem down: even this can often create enough space for you to get a better perspective on the problem.

Whatever approach you take, bear in mind these two things: beating yourself up about getting into this mess will only speed up that downward spiral, so be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend, if this were their situation. Finally, remember the sun will always come up in the morning.

Sharon McMahon
Psychotherapist, Wilton Centre

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