Feeling stressed? The evidence is clear. Invest in the good relationships in your life to boost your wellbeing.
The engaging Professor Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University, this week told us on Radio 4’s Today programme friendships fade quietly away if we don’t see the person. If we don’t invest time and energy in the relationships, the quality of the emotional connection will deteriorate and disappear from our life.
He gave me a wake-up call! I have good friends I haven’t seen for a long time, well before lock down.
I don’t want them to become nothing more than people I once knew. We’ve got history. I care about them, get pleasure from their company and want them to stay in my life.
As Professor Dunbar said, the body of evidence showing the number and quality of our relationships is incredibly influential when it comes to our physical and psychological wellbeing. The connection to our physical wellbeing might sound surprising but it’s true. The benefits include lower blood pressure, a strong immune system and even a longer life.
In the world of psychotherapy, the power of relationships has been clear for a long time. Psychotherapists and psychologists can be very wedded to their modality, their therapeutic approach. A Person-Centred therapist can be just as certain as a Clinical Psychologist or Cognitive Behavioural therapist that their approach is the only way to achieve change, that it’s their techniques that make the difference. I’m an Integrative Psychotherapist. It means I integrate early developmental and relational theories, adapting the way I apply them to suit the person I am working with. But for all my commitment to the theories, the evidence is clear. It’s the relationship that counts.
Analysing an extensive research base, in 1992 Michael Lambert proposed four factors as affecting positive outcomes in therapy: extratherapeutic; placebo effect; techniques; and common factors. Extratherapeutic factors are the client’s own resources, the connections they have and the environment in which they live. These account for 40% of the outcome. Placebo affects, which comes from the client’s and therapist’s belief in the restorative power of the process, account for 15%. Techniques, which stem the therapist’s modality, account for 15%. The fourth, common factors, is all about the relationship. It covers empathy, caring, warmth, acceptance, mutual affirmation and encouragement. These common factors account for 30% of positive outcomes. The relationship matters much more than what we do!
I’m a working mother. I went back to work full time when my daughter was only a few weeks old. It’s not a choice I would recommend and if I could go back I would do things differently, but at the time I felt I had no option. According to Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, securely attached infants trust their parent to be there when they need them and, as a result can go out into the world to explore. Being physically absent for much of the day will have impacted my daughter’s sense of security. I was lucky for two reasons. The woman who took care of her at nursery was brilliant and a constant in her life for years. The second, is that secure attachment depends on the quality not quantity of relationship. When I was with my daughter, I tried to be psychologically present. The best summer of my life was her first. After collecting her from nursery we’d sit on the rug in the garden and play.
Moving forward into adulthood, with a history of secure attachment it’s easier to build and hold on to the good quality relationships we need for our wellbeing. If we feel secure, we are happy to admit we need a few important people and to depend on them when life throws challenges our way. Professor Dunbar says there are about five of these very key relationships and calls them ‘shoulders to cry on relationships’. If our attachment type is insecure it’s much harder, if not impossible to establish and lean into these relationships. As John Bowlby said, it means our internal resources maybe overstretched. It’s then we can get overwhelmed and struggle.
So, this weekend, take a little time to think about the people who really get you, with whom you feel able to share your fears and vulnerabilities, who don’t shame you, and the connect. The boost you’ll get will permeate every area of your life.
Photo by Matt Gross on Unsplash
“What can I do? I have to do something to make it better.”
I can imagine parents all over the country have been thinking this in the past couple of weeks as their children were immersed in the nightmare of A’ Level, GCSE and BTEC results.
The initial panic may be subsiding now the Government has U-turned and is accepting Centre Assessed Grades but there is still uncertainty. Can I go to the sixth form college I want? Are there still places on my preferred university course? Can I do the apprenticeship I wanted?
Plenty of young people have felt like their life has been ruined and I’ve heard more than one person say of course not. It’s possible and maybe probable that when they look back in years to come, they won’t feel their life was ruined, but that’s no help now. I know what it feels like to realise things have gone wrong. When it’s happened to me, it was like my insides fell out. The mind goes blank. It’s like you’re frozen to the spot. Then all sorts of thoughts start piling in, from self-annihilation to looking for someone or something to blame.
The uncertainty may not be as intense now as in recent days but it’s still present. It’s natural for parents to want to fix it for their child, to make them feel better. Many will have tried to find the perfect set of words or the right piece of advice to make the anguish and distress vanish.
“Don’t worry, it will all work out in the end.”
“Put it behind you and move on to something else.”
“You didn’t really want to do that at that university anyway.”
“Never mind. Plenty more opportunities out there for you.”
But, in truth this moment is awful. Pretending otherwise doesn’t help anyone in the long term. When someone’s felt experience is painful, if you suggest it isn’t you’re just denying their reality, which doesn’t help.
Waiting for exam results is always going to be stressful. Add the algorithm and the Government’s slow U-turn into the mix, and stress and anxiety are bound to be at the top of the scale.
When Mum, Dad or someone really important says “never mind, it’s only a blip, it’s not that bad, everything’s going to be okay” it’s easy to hear a subliminal message that says “I can’t really cope with or am not very interested in your distress, so please bottle it up or take it somewhere else, and move on”. They don’t find out how to cope healthily with stressful situations. And life is bound to throw up plenty problems and challenges so it’s a lesson we all need to learn.
In my psychotherapy practice I see the long-term impact of stress experienced when young not having been contained by the adult in the room.
My advice is to ask about and then validate the experience of the individual. What they are feeling and thinking really matters. They need to have the opportunity to voice it, to be heard and understood. This is not yet the moment for solutions and problem solving. It might sound easy, but it definitely isn’t. It’s incredibly challenging to sit with someone as they experience and express real distress, but it’s crucial. They need to be heard.
Next, support the young person to identify and explore the options that suit them. It’s easy to advocate the solution you think is the right one. Afterall, we all know what’s best for someone else, particularly our children! If the way ahead is going to work for the individual, they need to find it for themselves. That doesn’t mean you leave them to it. Get involved. With love and empathy, ask questions and challenge them in a way that helps them reflect, build a solid sense of what’s right for them. Then they’ll be equipped to reach their own decisions.