So What Is ‘Normal’?

Since at least my teens, I have been curious and privileged to learn about and from people who are different from me, to understand them in their own terms. I have learned that people from all walks of life, age, gender, sexuality, economic situation, ethnicity, etc, experience times when emotions and thoughts “are all over the place”, or at least feel like they are.

I have met people in diverse circumstances such as football training and games, dance practice, work colleagues, school working bees, hiking, volunteer work, and with family and friends, and listened deeply to people’s various experiences of loneliness, fear and anxiety, alienation, deep lows, frustration, irrational highs, stress, dependence on alcohol and/or other drugs, low self-esteem, and so much more. I’ve observed this range of feelings can happen in the presence of other people, or alone.

I have learned that the stigma of “not feeling normal” is far more debilitating for people, than the reality of the health or emotional problems they face.

I have learned from experience that the range of “normal”, between “resilient flourishing” mental health and “desperately struggling” mental illness, is really very wide. And I have also learned that the more accepting of my own mental and emotional challenges I am, the more accepting and respectful I will be, of other people who are also experiencing different feelings and thoughts in the range of states of being.

And I am not alone. Research (MHFA 2018) has shown that people who inform themselves about mental health actually improve in their own mental and emotional wellbeing. Even more encouraging, is that being informed leads to less likelihood of stigmatising others, and more likelihood of providing more, and more relevant, support to others.

The more fear of being “not normal” is hidden, the more scary and threatening it tends to become. In contrast, the more feeling “not quite normal” is spoken about as lived reality, as a challenge or a struggle, but not a fault or matter of shame, the easier it will be to be real with one another, rather than sustaining masks of normality while suffering hidden alienation.

“Normal” (or little “a”) anxiety and “Normal” (or little “d”) depression are the most common challenges people face that disturb a sense of wellbeing and functioning.

“Little “a” anxiety is an everyday human emotion that people experience in personal and unique ways. Feelings include worry, unease, nervousness, and fears, such as fear of failure at a task.

Little “d’ depression is experienced along a continuum, with most people living out their daily lives at the mild to moderate end. Everyone has days where they feel flat, glum, weepy or sad.

Experiences of normal anxiety and depression are usually a response to real events in our lives, such as losses of work or relationships, or unfulfilled expectations. As unhappy as an “average” person might get, it won’t take too much for them to recover and start feeling better. Most people continue with their daily lives and activities, such as going to work or connecting with family and friends, and usually the feelings go away within a few days.

Some research* has shown one helpful response to strong feelings of “normal” anxiety and depression is move away from “suffering alone”, to have positive connections with other people. This may be having someone listen sympathetically, or join you in an activity such as walking, or asking for help with a task which has felt overwhelming. It takes courage to ask for help, and the rewards are more than worth it.

Connecting with others is even more powerful when conditions of emotional safety and honest, respectful communication are present. These are the conditions established in Mens Wellbeing’s Common Ground programs for men.

Men from all kinds of backgrounds, who have completed a Common Ground program, have found the safety to be real with one another, building an ongoing community that is called a Men’s Group.

Men’s lived experience is often different from public expectations, with pressure to live up to an image of masculinity that allows for no weakness. Men who have formed a men’s group report that they feel seen for who they really are. They are not just relating better with the men in their group, they are also relating better with others in their lives, such as family, neighbours and colleagues.

Reference:

  • Mental Health First Aid Australia Course Evaluations 2002-2018

Ewen Heathdale

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