Phases of depression, stress, anxiety, bereavement and low confidence often tend to be quite temporary elements of one’s life. These elements of life are generally seen as the darker patches of time that infringe on a life that is generally pretty okay! However, this is not always the case and sometimes it can seem that one’s life is in a constant state of crisis, with positive elements only occasionally breaking through the darkness.  Consider the following statements . . .

  • Does your life seem to be one long series of crises?
  • Do you feel that your relationships always seem to go wrong?
  • Does this make it difficult to feel good about yourself?
  • Do you sometimes feel empty inside?
  • Do you have problems related to eating?
  • Do you sometimes hurt yourself or feel suicidal?
  • Do you find it hard to trust / stay in touch with the services which are supposed to help?
  • Do you typically find it difficult to control your hurt or angry feelings?
  • Do you sometimes take things out on other people?
  • Do you try to deal with your difficulties by drinking, taking drugs or harming yourself?
  • Are you struggling to keep up with your studies because of these problems?

If a considerable chunk of this list rings true in any way for you, then it is possible that you may be going through complex mental issues – more specifically you may be enduring something that is unfortunately and crudely referred to as a ‘personality difficulty’.

If you feel that many of the above statements resonate with you there may be a sense of constant instability. You may feel that you never have control over how you emotionally respond to situations or people. If your sense of yourself is unstable, and very dependent on others, this is what some people describe as a personality difficulty, or even a personality disorder.

Personality disorder is an unfortunate term that may be a challenging one to work with. There is a sense of permanence and wrongness to that title that could instil a sense of shame or further despair in someone who is told that they may have it. It is important to realise that that should not be the case and that the overbearing “badness” that seems to exist in the title does not reflect more recent views and approaches to such a condition. More recently, the ways of tackling these feelings in people has become far more positive, and there is evidence that effective change is possible.

How do complex problems start?

Most people are lucky enough to have a ‘good-enough’ upbringing; not necessarily perfect, but sufficient to leave them feeling able to cope well with the rough-and-tumble of interpersonal relationships. However, others may have endured an upbringing wrought with certain experiences or relationships that left them with a sense of insecurity, a sense of instability or an inability to have ever felt approved of. There may be a sense of shame or that you are constantly being judged. You may feel that everything you do is being scrutinised or that you may life in constant fear of saying something wrong or doing something stupid. You might behave towards yourself the way others behaved towards you in the past; you could be very demanding of yourself at times, push yourself too hard, and be self-critical if you fail to meet self-imposed goals.

There are a number of common ways in which people use ineffective methods of overcoming the negative thoughts and feelings associated with these problems. Some of these methods may be, at the very best, short-term solutions to a long-term problem. At worst, some can actually prove detrimental to the overcoming of these issues. Some of these methods include . . .

  • Use drugs or alcohol to numb overwhelming feelings
  • Cut off from emotions and become zombie-like or empty
  • Use self-harm (e.g. cutting) as a way of distracting from emotional pain
  • Use desperate measures (begging, blackmail, sex or violence) to prevent people leaving
  • Inflict pain on self to bring themselves back to reality
  • Use food, exercise or overwork to distract themselves
  • Become clingy or dependent on others because they fear being left alone

There is a level of potential self-destruction in some of these behaviours and, ultimately, this is counter-productive. Really, when faced with these kinds of complex problems, it is crucial that you take care of yourself and take everything one day at a time. If you can ride out some of the storms of feelings with self-reassurance, protection and soothing, then maybe you can avoid some of the more unhelpful ways of coping listed above. Of course, riding out the storm is about dealing with an immediate emergency and won’t fundamentally change the person you are. On the other hand, every single incident where you can re-write the script, and not simply replay old ways of relating, is a step in the right direction.

There are more effective ways of dealing with the feelings associated with these complex, or personality problems. While some of them seem to be nothing other than common sense, sometimes that is all it takes.

Listen to relatable music, watch a relatable film, read a relatable book

There are two sides to this coin really. Some argue that when one is feeling sad, lonely or angry, one should listen to, watch or read something that creates the opposite feeling. A happy song to alleviate a sad mood, a hilarious book to alleviate anger. There is no doubt that this works for some people. However, it has also been shown that media that relate to the way you are feeling at a given time will allow you to cope with it better. Listening to a song that reflects your current emotion provides a stimulus for understanding it further, it is an external sound that acts upon the feelings that, before, you were only responding to with your own thoughts. Having that external stimulus acting on the emotions in a relatable allows you to further understand that feeling and allows you to work through it. Not only that but it helps you to feel that you are not alone in what you feel and a greater connection to the world outside your head is achieved. You will find that this can be cathartic and that the intense negativity should be faded at least to a degree once a few listens have passed. The exact same applies to film, books, plays etc.

Do Something -  Start some highly absorbing activity. Nothing passive, like watching TV or surfing the net; do something that gets you up and about. Go out for a walk, dance, clean the house or tidy your room; anything that gets you physically active and engages both body and brain.

Contact Someone - If you usually cut yourself off when you’re struggling, then try getting in touch with someone instead.  Just the act of reaching out can help you feel less powerless, and there are other people just waiting for you. Nightline or The Samaritans are available when other places are not, and during working hours the Counselling Service or Health Centre are available to you for support.

Ride It Out - The peak of most strong emotional reactions (and the urges to engage in harmful activities, like self-harming or drinking, that can go along with these reactions) lasts for a few minutes and then begin to subside. Grab an egg timer from the kitchen, or use the timer on your mobile phone, and set it for 10 minutes. Wait the 10 minutes, and practice riding out the emotion.

Be Mindful - Practice mindfulness of your emotion. Notice the emotion you are having, and let yourself experience it as a wave, without trying to block it, suppress it, or hold on to it. Try to accept the emotion for what it is. It might help to try to put it into words, by writing it down in a notebook.

Breathe Deeply - Sit or lie somewhere quiet and bring your attention to your breathing. Breathe evenly, slowly, and deeply. Watch your stomach rise and fall with each breath.

Take a Warm Bath or Shower - Try to lose yourself in the sensations of the warm water, the smell of the soap, etc. Allow the sensations to distract you from the situation you are upset about.

Ground Yourself - When emotions seem to be taking you out of the current moment (e.g., you are starting to feel “zoned out” or can’t see anything else going on at the moment), do something to ground yourself. Grab an ice cube and hold it in your hand for a few moments, snap a rubber band against your wrist, go outside and feel the freshness of the air or the warmth of the sun; “snap yourself back” into the moment.

Help Someone Else - Do something nice for someone else. It doesn't have to be something big; you can walk to the nearest shop, buy a packet of chewing gum, and give the cashier a smile and say "thank you." It may sound silly, but small gestures like this can really reduce emotional pain.

Remember that both in NUI Galway and in Galway city there are services that are fully available for anyone who feels that they are struggling with feelings such as those discussed here. It is always valuable to confront an issue through conversation and speaking out loud about those feelings either with a friend or family member or with someone who will professionally listen to all you have to say and help provide any support you need in dark times.