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Talking About Feelings

DR SALLY KAISER – Principal Clinical Psychologist Midlands Centre for Spinal Injuries

Clinical Psychologist Dr Sally Kaiser from the winning team at last year’s Rebuilding Lives Awards encourages us to acknowledge our feelings and talk about them with someone we trust.

The emotional impact of living with an SCI can be huge. Whilst many people try to focus on the physical challenges of how they will manage, it’s very common for people to experience a whole range of emotions about their injury too.

Emotions are likely to be heightened at different times and usually come and go, in response to thoughts that we have or situations we find ourselves in. For many of us, talking about how we feel can be difficult. Many people try to put on a ‘brave face’ and shut out their feelings.

There can be concerns that admitting that we are having difficult thoughts or feelings can be seen as a sign of weakness. As a society, we often want to focus on ‘positive thinking’ and as a result don’t like to admit to worries or more difficult thoughts and can try to ignore these or push them away.

Some people do this in an attempt to protect people close to them, as they want to show them that they’re coping with the situation. Some push away feelings on purpose and others do this subconsciously, as this is what they’ve always done in life. Pushing away and avoiding feelings can be exhausting. Feelings do not just go away when we don’t want them.

Sometimes feelings can grow and then come out in a whole host of different ways, for example: leading to a short fuse and uncontrolled outbursts, bad dreams, even physical symptoms such as headaches or pain.

The experience of having feelings is actually completely healthy and normal. Giving yourself permission to have feelings can be very liberating and beneficial – even when the feelings are difficult. Feelings can be helpful messages that give us clues to something that we need.

For example, recognising that we feel worried about something can help us to take action to prevent whatever it is occurring. Noticing that we feel sad can indicate a need to be gentle and take care of ourselves.

Each of the specialist SCI centres in the UK has a clinical psychology service to support newly injured people and their families to cope with the emotional impact of injury. Whilst the acute phase following injury can be very hard, experiencing difficulties with feelings can occur throughout life: we are all vulnerable to experiencing mental health difficulties, particularly when life becomes challenging or something changes. If this happens, it can help to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Speaking to someone who you trust can often help.

Your GP should also be able to direct you to appropriate support in your area, if how you’re feeling is becoming an issue and starting to have an impact on everyday life. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. Getting support can make a huge difference and can often help to prevent a problem escalating. There are also helplines such as The Samaritans, where you can speak to someone anonymously if you just need someone to speak to.

Looking after your physical health can impact how you might be feeling emotionally. Getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and being active are all ways in which we can take care of ourselves. For many people, spending time with others can really help them to feel more connected and can help to improve our mood.

We have an inbuilt need to feel a part of ‘the herd ‘and after an injury, some people can become more isolated or feel that they are different from those around them. Finding ways to connect with other people is important. Some ideas may be planning time with friends or family, finding out about local interest groups in your area, taking a course or joining a team of some kind.

The specialist SCI centres provide an instant network of professional and peer support when someone is newly injured. Following discharge, there is a need to reconnect to people in your own local area. It can also be enormously helpful to have contact with other people with an SCI, who may be able to relate to the experience in a different way to others. As well as SIA’s Peer Support service, Backup also provides a mentoring service where they can put you in touch with others who have experienced a similar situation.

At the Midlands Centre for Spinal Injuries, the Clinical Psychology Team supports people to cope following SCI. Psychologists work as part of the multi-disciplinary team. They meet with all patients at the centre and try to offer individualised care, working out the right level of support needed by each patient or family member.

Some patients have regular one-to-one sessions, where they can think about their own emotional reaction to what has happened, others access support via group sessions, team goal planning meetings or through the wider team.

The Psychology Team works closely with SIA and other charities to enable patients and families to access peer support at an appropriate time for them. There is a need for the many different organisations to work together to provide the best possible support to people.

Sources of support

  • Your GP – can refer you to appropriate support in your area.
  • NHS IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) or wellbeing services – across England, you can self-refer to local IAPT services for psychological support.

These services provide local support in relation to coping with common mental health difficulties, including living with a long-term condition.

  • Samaritans – Confidential telephone support, available 24/7, if you need to talk to someone. Call: 116 123.
  • SIA – Telephone helpline: 0800 980 0501, Regional Peer Support Officers: 01908 604191.
  • Back Up – Mentoring team: 0208875 1805 www.backuptrust.org.uk/support-for-you/mentoring
  • In a crisis, you can access emergency services via A&E just as for physical health care.