A woman, who I shall call Susan, came to me for counseling because she was having trouble with her 9-year-old son, Eric. ‘I can’t get him to get out of bed in the morning. When he does get up, he’s slow to get dressed. He can’t seem to remember the order of his chores. He forgets his homework for school. He can’t even tie his shoes – he trips all over himself and can’t seem to get it right. I’ve tried everything – giving him a list, putting a timer on for every activity, taking away privileges – nothing seems to work. I’m beside myself!’
Listening to Susan, it was obvious that she had a lot of stress. She was agitated, talked fast and seemed easily upset. While her problems with her son weren’t monumental, she seemed consumed with worry and agitation about him. I wondered how much of her problems with Eric had to do with the mental stress she appeared to carry. I suggested to Susan that she bring Eric in with her for the next session.
When I met Eric, he was shy kind, and polite. We talked for a while, just getting to know each other, and then I asked him about the problems he had getting out of the house in the morning. His shoulders drooped and he looked down. He mumbled his responses to my questions, explaining that he tried to get everything done on time, but he just couldn’t seem to do it. He didn’t know why. ‘Do you do better once you get out of the house?’ I asked him. ‘Are you able to get to classes on time, get your work done in class?’ ‘Oh yes,’ he said, brightening a little as he thought about the rest of his day. ‘How about after school activities? How do they go?’ ‘Really well’, he said. ‘No problem.’ ‘ OK Eric, this is what I want to know. Does your mother make you nervous?’ There was a pause. ‘I’ve been observing your mother, and I can see she suffers from mental stress. Do you find that the way she talks to you makes it harder for you to get things done?’ ‘Well, yeah,’ he said, slowly and shyly. ‘I feel like it’s so important to get everything right for her that I do get nervous. She gets so upset when anything goes wrong.’
I reassured Eric that he was a very healthy boy, and that with a little help things would go better in the morning for him. His shoulders straightened again and the cloud on his face lifted. He was so relieved that I wasn’t adding my own opinions of everything he was doing wrong that it was like watching a flower that had drooped over from lack of water straightening up and reaching for the sun.
I worked with Susan after that. She began to see the relationship between her thoughts and her experiences in life. She tended to think in very stressful ways – pushing herself mentally all the time, trying to do more, go faster, and get everything right. She had the best intentions – she wanted to do well in life. But without a healthy mind set, the stress factor will build until everything becomes difficult. Susan’s mind wasn’t functioning in the way it’s designed to keep mentally healthy. Our minds have a natural reset button. They give us little prompts when we need to reset – time to take a break mentally from whatever you’re thinking about. That break can happen right where you are, or it may occur to you to go for walk, get a cup of tea, or do a different kind of activity that allows your mind to relax. If you watch children, they do this naturally – stop whatever they’re doing when it’s time for mental break and do something else. Adults do it too if they haven’t taught themselves to override those prompts. And that was Susan. She never allowed herself to get a break. She was constantly wound up. Whenever she talked with her son, he felt that, and it affected him.
I worked with Susan until she began experiencing what it was like to have states of mind return that were calm and allowed her thoughts to flow. This is the same kind of mental state people access when do their favorite sport, or art form – a sense of ‘being in the groove,’ or ‘in the zone.’ It’s also what people experience on a less dramatic level when they simply allow their minds to reset and be calm as they go throughout their day. She began to reclaim these natural mental functions, and the quality of her life improved dramatically. In fact, she soon stopped mentioning her son in sessions and began to focus on her career – how to make it a truer reflection of the contribution she wanted to make. These kinds of creative, generative thoughts happen naturally to a mind not filled with stress.
I asked her to bring her son in for a follow-up session. He seemed different – more self confident and relaxed. I asked him how the mornings were going. Both Susan and Eric laughed as they talked about how easy the mornings were going now. No more trouble getting out of bed, doing his chores, remembering his homework or tying his shoes. Before, he had literally been tripping all over himself trying to please his mother. Now that she was more relaxed and happy, he was doing just fine.
We were able to end regular therapy sessions shortly thereafter. A year later, Eric is blossoming – doing very well both at home and at school. Susan checks in occasionally to get more coaching while she works her way out of the mental habits she innocently created that were causing her such problems in life. Her work had become more satisfying, and now she’s brining the gains she’s made to her relationship with her husband. Just as mental stress affects everything we do, so does mental health.