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Friday, August 29, 2008

Mental Health Basic Needs

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7 Basic Human Needs for Good Mental Health
and Emotional Well-being

If you are suffering from an emotional problem such as depression,
anxiety, obsessive behaviour or repetitive addictions, there is only
one place you should start when looking for a solution. Your basic
human needs.

It seems obvious, but all too often, when it comes to psychology,
common sense goes out the window, and the textbooks come of the
bookshelf. Why not leave them there for just now, and ask yourself
the following questions...

· If you had no petrol in your car, would you be wondering why it
won't start?

· If your garden hadn't seen rain for 6 months, would you be
racking your brains about why all the plants had died?

Of course not. But ask human beings to apply the same objective
observation to their own lives and you are setting a much trickier

Take a look at these two real life cases from our clinic, and see if
you can spot the problem:

Case Study One: Stressed-Out Sue

'Sue', 23, came to me in a highly agitated state complaining that
she felt she was on the verge of 'going crazy.' She reported the
following problems:

Feeling close to tears much of the time

Irrational thoughts

Feeling depressed sometimes

Feeling manic some of the time.

I asked her about her routine and she told me that she got up at
6.00 am everyday to catch the early train to her job in a busy IT
company in the city. The rest of the conversation went something
like this:

Me: "So you just grab breakfast and get on the train then?"
Sue: "No I never bother with breakfast, I grab a coffee on the
Me: "Gosh, you must get really hungry by lunch time!"
Sue: "I don't bother with lunch I just work straight through and eat
a sandwich on the train at the end of the day"
Me: " What time do you get home?"
Sue: "About 9.00 pm then, to unwind I drink a bottle of wine so I
can get a decent night's sleep."
Me: "And how long have you been feeling like this?"
Sue: "About six months!"
Me: "How long did you say you'd been in your present job?"
Sue: "Wow! It must be around six months now."

So, Sue was getting up at six, skipping breakfast, skipping lunch,
grabbing fast food on the homeward journey and then drinking
herself to sleep. At weekends she slept and caught up with friends
but usually felt too lethargic to do very much.

I suggested to Sue that continually ignoring our mind and body's
basic needs usually has severe consequences. I suggested that, as
an 'experiment' she do the following:

Start having breakfast.

Take at least half an hour for lunch

Use a ' power nap' relaxation exercise I'd taught her after her
mid day meal

Keep her work day evenings free of alcohol and just drink
during the evening at the weekends.

She also mentioned that she was thinking of asking her boss if she
could have one day during the week working from home. I
enthusiastically agreed that this was a great idea as she would then
have an extra travel free day.

I saw Sue the following week. She was transformed. She beamed at
me, looking years younger. She was sleeping better without the
alcohol, she was eating regularly and was now working at home on
Wednesdays. She said her moods had totally stabilized and she was
no longer tearful. This was two years ago.

I bumped into her recently and she told me she was still "checking
the oil and water before worrying about an engine breakdown!"

Case Study Two: Loner Brian

'Brian' was a single forty six year old mature student and part time
free lance illustrator. He reported feeling miserable and low.

On checking his basic needs, it was clear that his diet was fine. He
also slept well regularly, although seldom felt rested after sleep - a
common symptom of depression.

However it soon became obvious that he had very little social
contact. He sometimes spent weeks alone working on his course
dissertation and on illustration work.

He said he spent a lot of time ''in his own head' and agreed that we
all need some kind of contact and a source of stabilization. We
looked at ways he could increase social contact and he suggested
he started going to bowling again. There was a regular group he
knew pretty well but he hadn't been for months although he used
enjoy it.

He also decided to begin jogging around the park again as this
always lifted his mood (serotonin, a neurotransmitter connected to
a sense of well being is increased through exercise ) and he enjoyed
being recognised and acknowledged by dog walkers in the park.

I suggested he have his lunch in a busy little cafe close to where he
lived. He made these changes and reported later feeling a great
deal better. Whilst not all depressions lift so quickly, in Brian's case
the basic need for social support and connection was the main
offender in making him feel bad much of the time.

Again, easy! So why is it that each of these individuals couldn't see
the problem themselves?

Well, it seems to come down to this:

Apparently, if you chuck a frog into a pan of boiling water, it will
hop straight out again. But if you put him in cold water and slowly
heat it up, he will sit there until well and truly poached.

Problems due to missing 'basics' in peoples' lives tend to develop
over time, and so can be easily missed. Then, when the problem
arises - be it anxiety, depression, addiction or some other nasty -
they can't for the life of them fathom out why!

It's therefore a great idea to know what your own garden needs in
order to grow well, so when you see something starting to wither,
you can check your list and apply the necessary nutrients.

So here's the list. (At least, our list. If you think we've missed any,
do let us know!)

1. The need to give and receive attention.

"No Man Is An Island"

Without regular quality contact with other people, mental condition,
emotional state and behaviour can suffer quite drastically. This is
often particularly obvious in elderly people who have become
isolated. After days alone, their first contact may be their GP, who
sees them for 10 minutes.

They are highly likely during this short period to appear 'strange' as
their thwarted need for attention asserts itself in an outpouring of
communication. If the GP takes this as representative of the
patient's general mental condition, they may prescribe drugs, where
really a few hours of being listened to would suffice.

You may also have noticed this in evening-class attendees who
command the teacher's attention all the time, asking seemingly daft
questions and not really listening to the answers!

2. Taking heed of the mind body connection.

This is so important, and so often neglected. Without correct and
regular nutrition, sleep and exercise, your psychological state can
suffer considerably. It is often seen that young people, on leaving
home and the structure that provides, succumb to one mental
illness or another. Their mealtimes, sleep patterns and other regular
habits become disrupted, with predictable consequences.

It seems that people are increasingly treating themselves as

3. The need for purpose, goals and meaning.

"The devil will make work for idle hands to do."

Perhaps the overriding element that sets human beings apart from
other animals is the ability to identify, analyse and solve problems.
This is what enabled us to develop to where we have.

If this ability is under-used, the imagination can start to create
problems of its own - perhaps in an attempt to give you something
to do because it is not occupied doing anything else.

Regardless, if a person is deprived of the outward focus and
satisfaction created by achieving goals, mental illness is often close

The need for meaning is perhaps even more profound. Viktor
Frankl's book 'Man's Search for Meaning' documents the impact of
lack of meaning on concentration camp prisoners, of which he was
one. He says in it that "What is the meaning of life?" is a question
that is asked of you, not one that you yourself ask. It is a hugely
powerful and important read when considering mental health.

4. Connection to something bigger than oneself.

Tying in with the need for meaning, this basic need provides a
context for a person. It gives them a reason for being, over and
above their own personal needs, that has been shown to benefit the
immune system, mental health and happiness.

The obvious candidate would be religion, but can also be an idea
shared with others, a club, charity work. In fact, anything that takes
the focus off the self.

5. The need for novelty and stimulation.

Learning something new, expanding horizons, improving on existing
skills all provide a sensation of progress and achievement. Without
this, a person can feel worthless, or that there is no real reason for
their being.

6. The need to feel understood and connected.

Tying in with the need for attention, it seems that people have a
need to share their ideas, hopes and dreams with others close to
them. For some, this can be as simple a talking to a loved pet, but
for most of us, it requires that we have at least one individual with
whom we can converse 'on the same level'.

7. The need to feel a sense of control.

"All your eggs in one basket."

The results of total loss of control over your surroundings,
relationships or body are not hard to imagine, and have been well

From survivors of torture, to someone losing their job, those who
are able to maintain a sense of control somewhere in their life fare
the best. This is why having a variety of interests and activities is so

Many Needs, One Life

It may seem that a life that meets all of these needs would be
intolerably busy. But of course, one activity can meet many needs.
Charity work for example, could be said to fulfill 1, 3, 4 and 5, and
could contribute to 6 and 7.

Walking with a friend as a pastime might go towards 1, 2, 3, 5 and

Generally, what this suggests, and what has been borne out by
recent research, is that a more complex life is a more healthy one.

Then if one area of life fails or is taken away from you, your basic
needs are maintained, at least in part, by those that survive.

So the message is...

If your progress through life has gone a bit awry for you or a friend,
check there is petrol in the car, and that the battery is charged
before going to a mechanic to have the engine taken apart!


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