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  1. Wealth
July 14, 2009

All in the Mind

By Spear's

Penelope Bennett talks to four experts, each with a different view on what it takes to achieve and maintain rude mental health

Penelope Bennett talks to four experts, each with a different view on what it takes to achieve and maintain rude mental health


y father occasionally says he’s gay when what he means to say is that he’s happy. When I mentioned to a few people that I was researching mental health for a column, they, much like those who take gay to mean homosexual, took mental to mean insane. I’ve since heard it all, including, ‘Oh, talk to me! I’m totally bananas!’; ‘Is it… I mean, are you… do you feel you’ve lost it?’, and ‘for the wealth-management title?’

No thanks; no. And yes, it is. Mental or emotional health refers to your overall psychological wellbeing, and as such it matters, very much, to us all. It is more than the absence of mental illness — which is much easier to define — and even though many of us don’t suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, it is clear that some of us are mentally healthier than others. Mental health, furthermore, is not something you have, but something you do, which begs the question: how can we, anxiety-ridden and nervous folk that we are now, cope with negative experiences and see the glass as half full?

I’m not alone in seeking the upside, I should add. In the space of just a few weeks the Slow Movement Festival swooped into town to promote life lived at a less frenetic and thus more enjoyable pace; women’s magazines boasted HAPPY! coverlines imploring me to smile (I counted four — to me that’s a trend); the once quirky School of Life — growing in popularity at an alarming rate — launched its 2009 holiday offers (featuring a holiday inside your head, with a neuroscientist); organisers of an art exhibit teamed up with the Samaritans in a combined effort to ‘raise awareness about the destructive impact of consumer values on the emotional wellbeing of society;’ and productivity guru David Allen, whose bestselling Getting Things Done paralleled the re-emergence of economic boom times out of the ashes of 9/11, hosted the first ever GTD Summit (eight years after publishing the book) in answer to society’s emergency call for morale-boosting personal productivity tips. We are, collectively, fixated on healing our bruised sense of self to become happier, more contented souls.

Getting there, according to general consensus, requires the following: resilience, balance, flexibility, self-actualisation, and the ability to enjoy life. Thus, if you can bounce back from adversity, balance time spent socially with time spent alone, allow yourself to express a range of emotions, recognise and realise your potential, and avoid being miserable in the present, you’re on track. If, however, you feel you’re not on top of things and the above are really antonyms to your every single character trait, it’s worth looking into how the respective methods of the following four professionals can help you.  

The trauma specialist

Clinical psychologist Paula Madrid is director of the Resiliency Program (TRP), which she founded in 2001 to help underserved populations impacted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I call her at 7am her time in New York, and despite the bad phone line and the enormity of the subject matter being discussed without face-to-face contact, it turns out to be one of the most pleasant, engaging and thought-provoking conversations I’ve had in a while.

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She tells me about going to shelters three days after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans to gauge what people were facing and what their needs were, and about the programmes she set up and ran in tandem with established medical projects to provide care ‘for the people who had suffered so much’.

The bulk of Madrid’s work involves gaining an understanding of a person’s strengths and abilities, in addition to learning how at risk they are to begin with (did they suffer traumas or serious losses in early life, do they have a chronic or disabling illness, suffer from substance abuse, or lack attachment to their primary caretaker early in life?) and helping that person build coping skills to deal with it all, rather than pathologising and labelling their condition as, say, depression, anxiety or paranoia, as clinical psychologists were formerly wont to do.

Strengths and abilities ‘are going to be more helpful to them’, she says. ‘When I begin to process a person’s traumatic memories, I need this person to go home and be OK, to have strengths to fall back on as we go through the very difficult process of talking through those awful things.’

Strengths include, as we know, a close-knit group of friends and family, but also good verbal skills, as once you articulate an emotion and give it key terms you are more likely, says Madrid, to ‘put it outside yourself’ and find answers to the many questions you’re faced with; and confronting something face-on as opposed to taking time to process what’s going on, seeing yourself not doing well and letting that become part of your self-concept, aka the vicious cycle. And if talking doesn’t help — we all know people who hate to, or just can’t talk about emotions — creative art therapy might.

‘Trauma encodes itself in a way that’s not verbal,’ says Madrid, her empathy comforting me enormously despite my not even grieving. ‘If talking isn’t sufficient, performing non-verbal activities can, for some people, be an effective way to process feelings and emotions, let go, and move forward.’

The life coach

Anna Percy Davis, a former investment banker and head-hunter turned life coach, tells me that coaching is about what’s great about me. Excellent. ‘Which doesn’t mean we don’t process the bits you don’t like about yourself,’ — uh-oh — ‘but coaching is very much about the here and now and going forward.’ Good.

We talk for an hour, beginning with my telling her that I have a tendency to overthink. ‘What are the advantages of always thinking about things?’ she asks. I have absolutely no idea — but hey, great question. We spend the rest of our time together at the Westover Brompton Cross, where she consults, going through a number of question/answer threads such as this, as well as: ‘Who are you if your possibilities are limitless? What have you done, been or become that you are most proud of? What is missing in your life, the presence of which would make your life more fulfilling?’

These are all questions designed to galvanise my thinking, and they work with immediate — and lasting — effect. I should add that while you could feasibly sit at home and pose yourself these questions unaided, the results wouldn’t be as constructive as they are when studied together with a coach. Your coach gives you perspective. What Percy Davis does is offer her take on my situation, and hearing her do so — eschewing diagnostic and analytical overtones — was nothing short of a revelation.

The answers to the above questions are, ahem, personal, but I can tell you that vocalising them liberated me more than I had expected. My mindset is streamlined, less panicked. I am quite, quite OK with what’s ahead, because what’s ahead is in large part up to me. I leave confident, and remain so to date. This professional is very, very good at what she does.

The sport psychologist

Jon Denoris is more than just a personal trainer. He delves into the motivation and psyche of ‘corporate athletes’ and top performers in entertainment and sport, using behavioural change techniques to help them — all clients of his Club 51 training studio — build habits and improve their health and wellbeing in strategic ways.

‘I’ll spend as much time in here,’ he says, meaning the boardroom with the carpeted floors, the long oak table, and the comfy exec chairs, ‘as I will downstairs,’ meaning the gym, which spans an entire floor of the club and comes complete with über-inspiring pictures of Everest climbers staring down at you from the surrounding walls. He has an MSc in exercise psychology and he lives to make you more competitive, creative and focused, in addition to improving your health.

The boardroom is for coaching, ‘a key element,’ says Denoris, who, much like resilience expert Madrid, focuses on building a person’s coping skills so that they cope, or continue with a programme, when the therapist isn’t present. He comments on the ‘fluffy world of HR and health and safety,’ noting that ‘people need to get a sense of perspective.

Not every little twinge of spasm is stress,’ before enlightening me on the topic of executive functioning, which exercise (or improved blood flow and hence oxygen, fuel and nutrients to the brain) improves by increasing the levels of a substance called BDNF. Brain-derived neurotropic factor encourages growth and communication between the cells of the brain. As you strengthen these ‘neural pathways’ you’ll find yourself in better, more efficient, ‘switched-on’ shape.

This, naturally, is a very skinny description of what really goes on in your brain when you exercise, but if you want a fatter description, and if you seriously want to see yourself in better shape mentally, as well as physically, book time with Denoris — he’s also the only British personal trainer to be voted into the three top personal trainers in the world three years running by the IDEA Health and Fitness Association.

The nutritionist

What, when and how you eat can boost your brain’s efficiency. It’s as simple as avoiding dips in your blood sugar levels to keep reduced moods and lack of concentration at bay, something we’ve all noticed if we’ve ever neglected to eat first thing in the morning or, on a good day, powered through till lunch thanks to a good breakfast.
‘People always forget that the brain is so greedy,’ says nutritionist and author Fiona Kirk.

‘It requires a constant, optimum level of fuel and nutrients.’ I approach Kirk after hearing her motto ‘eat, love and live’, and ask her for advice on eating one’s way towards loving life.

Where I’m concerned, and indeed where we’re all concerned in the greater scheme of things, is in choosing the right foods to keep the brain functioning at optimum capacity. If I dare abbreviate it: we need essential fats, antioxidants, protein and complex carbohydrates. And water, water and more water. A deficiency in ‘good’ (essential) fats correlates with low mood and intelligence, poor memory and lethargy.

Antioxidants fight free radicals, which can otherwise damage brain tissue membranes. Amino acids that come from the protein you eat are the building blocks of your brain’s network. And glucose, which is the most important nutrient of all for the brain and nervous system, is found in complex carbohydrates. Short of telling you that a sounder mind is waiting for you at your local grocer…

Should this constitute information overload, whatever you do, don’t worry. Studies show that people who are more laid back are less likely to develop dementia, a mental illness, than people who are stressed, so let us all enjoy life, love our loved ones, respect our bodies, believe in our potential, and be mentally gay for it. You heard me: happy. 

For Fiona Kirk’s 5 day brain-boosting meal plan, details of Jon Denoris’ Club 51, and contacts for Anna Percy Davis and Paula Madrid, click here

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