Getting activated:  What does Elizabeth’s wading pool have to do with happiness?

At various times in our lives, for a variety of reasons, we can get too busy, too sick, too tired, too sore, too “I-can’t-be-bothered” or even, concerningly, too depressed to do the day to day pleasant things that are ever-so-important to a happy mood.

When people stop doing the things that they normally do – perhaps because they are re unwell, because they’ve had a big fright, or perhaps they are not getting along well with others – it can be quite easy for them to withdraw from the people and responsibilities around them.

They say ‘no’ to invitations, they stay in bed longer or they may retreat into a mindless activity. They can even stop doing the day to day things we all do to look after ourselves, shower, eat well or move our bodies. They can also start to skew their thinking and only notice negative things.

The longer a person stays in a downward spiral of withdrawal, the less likely it is that they are going to bump into someone who tells them a funny story, see someone who is smiling at them or do something that makes them feel good.  The chances of them having a pleasant day or even a pleasant moment can start to erode away.

Before too long, they can be stuck in a negative mood vortex, where they don’t expect nice things to happen, they don’t get out and about where the chances of nice things happening are greater and so they fail to access the things that are needed to keep a mood buoyant.

They can move from upset to sad, terrified, depressed and lonely.  Their felt energy can deplete and sadly, they can lose hope. It can be harder for them to extract joy out of things that are normally joyful for them. Psychologists and mental health professionals call this anhedonia and it is often a symptom of a Major Depressive Episode.

With young children, parents are usually pretty quick to pick up when they are not their usual selves.  Other times it can be a little harder to notice and there are a few key times in a life span where we really need to watch withdrawal:

  • the teen years – it is normal for adolescents to spend longer times in their room (or the bathroom) alone, but if they skip meals, say ‘no’ to things they would usually love, have fewer invitations or friends over, then it’s worth a conversation.
  • when people live alone
  • the elderly
  • the grieving
  • those with chronic illness or pain.

How can we help?

Essentially, we need to help people who have withdrawn to get what psychologists call, “behaviourally activated”.  Sometimes, behavioural activation is no easy task.

When I think about behavioural activation, I often think about when I was a little girl and I would play with my friend, Elizabeth and our siblings in Elizabeth’s round, blue wading-pool.  We played a game where we would all try to go round and round in the same direction as fast as we could and then someone would yell the magic word (which may have been something like “bottom” or “fart”) and we would stop running and we would lie back and float around in the vortex we made.  Then, we made up another game, which was very similar.  We’d go round and round and then someone would say “the word”, but this time we would have to try to go in the opposite direction.  It would usually see us all falling over in fits of giggles as the water forced us over, but if we held our ground and worked one step at a time, we could actually get the water moving in the opposite direction pretty quickly.

This is what it can feel like when you have been inactive physically, socially and emotionally for a lengthy period of time.  Getting started on things again can feel like you’re going the wrong way in the little blue pool.

However, if you keep going often and persistently enough, you can turn the vortex around and have it go the other way – spiraling on towards more happiness.

So, we need to help people avoid being withdrawn.  It can be as simple as:

  • planning something pleasant to do each day – a short walk, a soak in a bath, some time with nature…it doesn’t have to be expensive and activities planned will vary from person to person
  • using a calendar or diary and making sure there is some social activity and some physical activity – it doesn’t need to be long, the hardest part is just getting going. If they turn up, they don’t need to stay for too long, but they do need to move against the force.
  • get back to the senses – make a list of your favourite things to see, hear, smell, touch, taste and do.
  • get back to doing something that you are good at – be that crosswords, drawing, music, growing a plant. We feel better when we feel a sense of mastery over something.
  • volunteer to help someone or something else.

It’s much better to catch a withdrawn and negative spiral of decline as early as you can.  The first few moments of effort will be hard, but before long, the water in the little blue pool will go the other way…the way that means more sweet moments and maybe even giggles or laughter.

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