Curiosity – a mental health check

This year has been a challenge. I was just starting to feel relief, unlike many others, my patch of Australian bush has been spared fires for another summer. I was enjoying some much needed rain and cooler weather – wondering about plans for the year – then Covid hit.

All a bit weird, 2020 the year to sit still and reflect

Somewhere between bushfire fear and Covid 19 panic, I lost my interest in people and in the world in general. I found myself feeling hostile, irritable and incredibly judgemental over panic buying, especial the toilet paper hoarders. I resisted getting recruited to join the panic, unwisely as it would turn out when down to my last roll of toilet paper and still none on the horizon. It was then that my last fragments of curiosity slid into contempt all I could see was the ‘ugly Australian’. The more our Prime Minister Scott Morrison banged on about the great Australian spirit – the angrier I got.

At some point I caught myself about to snap at a fellow distressed shopper. It was then I realised I’d normally be interested and curious and play a game of speculating what could be going on for them. But not today, I was ready to wheel my supermarket trolley right over the top of them in order to beat them to one of the last kilo’s of plain flour. Luckily I know enough to take heed and warn myself that I need to do something about my current emotional state. I was really missing the stabilising effect of my regular routines and rituals.

Over the first 3 months of lock down due to the Covid 19 pandemic there had been lots of concern about the impact on our mental health. And now as Victoria embarks on another round, even more so.

The full impact on Families, couples and individuals suddenly locked in for weeks on end with none of the usual distractions, is yet to fully surface. Initially many of us, myself included, enjoyed the slower pace of life, but as time has gone on and the economic fallout starts to unfold, the planning significant events is futile, the loss of simple everyday practises like going to the gym are no longer predictably possible etc etc…

In my whole 30+ years as a family therapist/mental health practitioner I can’t remember a time of such intense, mass distress. Everything and everyone has escalated. The degree to which this is affecting wellbeing can be measured by observing ones ability to be curious – to be able to play with possibilities for oneself and others.

just waiting

As I observe both my clients and myself I have noticed that curiosity becomes a good guide to how we are travelling emotionally. When we lose our curiosity we are going down… Neurobiology has taught has that ongoing high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, creates a rigidity of thinking that makes us reactive, which in turn impacts our ability to effectively problem solve.

We all have our moments of inflexible certainly. But when some one holds certainly about everything, or is reactive and can’t hear, has no interest in what is going on around them or in the world, it means their ability to reflect and think has become jeopardised. Their mental health is impaired. If this is occasional which is true for all of us, it can be a warning that we need to take some self care action. This could be as simple as going for a walk, sitting down with a hot drink and a little treat, or patting the dog.

How we work out what we need requires curiosity about ourselves. What do we actual feel like? What is our reactive irritability telling us? Where does our power lie in taking the action we need to take to stabilise ourselves emotionally? If we think about a hierarchy of curiosity this is the foundational level.

The next level concerns our close connections. What is happening for them? What triggered that inappropriate snappy remark? Is the timing right to call attention to the inappropriateness of that response, or does that need to wait? And then broadening out to all the different relational levels – including global.

When we can feel curious we are well enough loved. Curiosity is embedded in empathy. It’s how we understand what it feels like to be someone else. Over the Covid lockdowns we’ve witnessed much curiosity and empathy but also much hatred and soul destroying self interest. Self interest that denies the rights of others impacts on the recipients mental health. But it also says something about the mental health of the self interested! Is this a person you want to live with? Is this a person you want to vote for or work with? The cracks in relationships are being exposed.

Do you want to go on witnessing bad behaviour by a so called loved one?

There is an old family therapy theory that talks about a 2nd order change – as a lasting change – that comes about from an escalation that is so great that at some point a change in thinking occurs. When I think about this theory I find my curiosity is restored – I become interested in what the ripple effect of this distress might be. Maybe it might spotlight misuse of power in relationships in a much more diverse and useful way – here’s hoping…

It’s heartening when I hear stories of people who have pulled together, developed understandings that have improved their sense of wellbeing and mental health – I live in a distorted world so I haven’t heard too many of these. The most common stories I keep hearing are about the re-establishing of the old gender divide of women struggling with the kids, managing the home schooling , their own work, managing the home whilst the men occupy the prime space in the home, with the door shut to the mayhem outside.

There are of course exceptions I’ve heard many men expressing their wonder at what their partners deal with and have enjoyed being more hands on, which has been possible because they are at home. Unfortunately these comments in my distorted world are the exception not the rule

The scenario I hear so often is more likely to be one of distress by overloaded woman. With men who are worried and appeasing but not really stepping up. Many of the women I see have made comments about how they feel powerless to do anything at the moment, but when its over…

I wait with interest.

being out in nature- a way of restoring curiosity