Mind matters: Dr Harry Barry on tackling anxiety in uncertain times

Dr Harry Barry’s new book was written before the pandemic, but his advice on dealing with stress is like a manual for coping at this time, writes Helen O’Callaghan.
Mind matters: Dr Harry Barry on tackling anxiety in uncertain times

Dr Harry Barry’s new book was written before the pandemic, but his advice on dealing with stress is like a manual for coping at this time, writes Helen O’Callaghan.

Difficult life experiences can break us down. But Dr Harry Barry believes it's always possible to put ourselves back together.  Helen O’Callaghan reports

GP and author Dr Harry Barry’s latest book, Emotional Healing, is for when life comes calling and we get broken inside.

“And life can be very brutal at times,” says Dr Barry, who subtitled his book ‘How to put yourself back together again’.

Emotions are tricky, swirling masses of feeling that often threaten to overwhelm us and overshadow the simple business of getting on with life.

They can feel vast and messy, but in Emotional Healing, Dr Barry shows how we can corral whatever emotion we might be feeling and marshal it into a format that promotes healing.

Step-by-step, he shows – using examples of real-life situations – how to use the ABC approach to link thoughts, emotions and behaviour.

Devised by psychotherapist and father of CBT Albert Ellis, ABC involves recognising your emotional response to an activating (A) trigger, examining your beliefs (B) /demands around this, and considering the consequences (C) of those beliefs.

Over his decades as a medic, Dr Barry has countless times been surprised at how difficult it can be for people to identify the emotions they’re feeling.

So he gives them a pre-written emotional ‘menu’ of healthy negative emotions (e.g. concern, sadness, regret) and unhealthy ones (e.g. anxiety, hurt, guilt) to choose from.

This exercise, he says, immediately gets them realising ‘oh, it’s anxiety I’m feeling’ or ‘I’m feeling more guilty about this than anything else’. And this starts them on a journey.

“If they can identify how they feel about [the activating trigger], they can then start to explore their thinking behind it. And once they know that, they can also look at their negative behaviours,” he says.

Dr Barry finished writing Emotional Healing last autumn before Covid-19 was even on our horizon, but if there was a book written for dealing with the many emotions triggered by the pandemic this would be it.

“If we’re getting distressed about Covid-19, the most obvious emotion we’re feeling is anxiety.

"In our head, we’re looking for absolute certainty that we won’t get the virus, that we won’t pass it to someone we love, that we won’t lose our job, that our elderly parent or vulnerable sibling won’t get ill and die.

"And then we catastrophise about how terrible it would be if these things happened.”

These thoughts, says Dr Barry, lead us into behaviours that further compound our anxiety – constant reassurance-seeking, always checking news updates and worst-case scenarios, perhaps drinking more alcohol and exercising less – thereby perpetuating the anxiety.

He points out that looking for absolute certainty is a false quest – because actually there’s no such thing.

“We have to learn to live with the uncertainty around the virus,” he points out, urging people to look at the statistical facts – “our chances are pretty much about 90% that if we get Covid-19, it’ll be a reasonably minor illness, though maybe very uncomfortable for some” – which will put things in perspective.

“All we can do is follow the usual HSE guidelines. We have to be able to live our lives. If we don’t, we’re living in a watchtower, afraid to go out or do anything.”

Dr Barry reminds us to never try and stop an emotion. What’s best is to look at our thinking behind the negative unhealthy emotion and change that thinking.

“This turns it back to a healthy emotion,” he says, explaining that anxiety about Covid-19 is unhealthy, while concern is healthy.

"Similarly, feeling guilty (‘I should have visited my elderly parents in the weeks before lockdown, I should have known better’) is making an absolute demand on yourself and is unhealthy – you can’t rewrite the tape and you couldn’t, pre-lockdown, see into the future.

"Regret, by contrast, is a healthy negative emotion – you’re acknowledging the sorrow you feel but you’re self-accepting – ‘I know I made that decision but with the best of intentions at the time’.

He wrote the book with a number of key messages he wanted to put across. One is that hurt is very common – and very toxic.

“If I hold and carry a grudge because I feel I’m not being treated fairly, [it impacts] my behaviour: I become hypersensitive, lash out verbally, engage in sullen silences.

"I carry it into all my relationships. Others react, and I become more consolidated in my view that I’m being treated unfairly. I’ve seen people emotionally devastated from hurt.”

With 40 years of sharing grief experiences with innumerable patients behind him, as well as some of his own grief experiences – one a family member, the other a close friend and “almost mother figure” – Dr Barry emphasises that grief isn’t just about emotions it's also about the massive change it wreaks in people’s lives.

That it hugely transforms lives – domestically, socially and financially to name just some impacts – very often gets forgotten.

“You’ll never be the same again, and the situation will never be the same again. Grief is for life.

"The sadness accompanies us for years, but we can get used to it, learn to manage it and we’re able to move on.”

Dr Barry acknowledges there’s no magic wand to take our pain away completely, but he’s adamant we can put ourselves back together.

Emotional Healing is practical and compassionate – a must-read for anyone who feels emotional wounds are preventing them from fully embracing life.

Emotional Healing, Dr Harry Barry, €14.99

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