The psychotherapist talks about his new guide to helping you cope
Feelings of stress and anxiety are not new, nor are they exclusive to one age group or sector of society, but how we cope with external events is an individual thing and some people are more affected than others.
It goes without saying that no one is immune to these feelings, and over the past few years, the levels of anxiety and stress that society has been experiencing has gone through the roof.
A global pandemic, war, political instability and the rising cost of living has caused many people to feel overwhelmed and struggling to cope with their emotions.
We all know that looking after our mental health is just as important as caring for our physical wellbeing, but with waiting times for therapy appointments stretching into months or even years in some cases, experts know that something needs to be done sooner rather than later.
So, it was with this in mind that Owen O’Kane decided to write his latest book, How To Be Your Own Therapist. While he acknowledges the importance of face-to-face consultations with a therapist, some people need urgent help to address mental health issues while they are waiting for an appointment.
“The idea evolved over time and I got into it (creating the book) about a year ago,” he says.
“There are currently eight million people in the UK waiting for mental health therapy and we all know that it’s not cheap to go privately, so it’s a case of people either waiting for it or not being able to afford it.
“My book was not designed to be a replacement for one-to-one therapy, which is ideal for most people, but in the absence of being able to access it, I decided to create something with my 25 years of experience, which I knew would help.”
Mr O’Kane, who’s from Ardoyne in north Belfast, says the first part his book is a “crash course” in therapy.
The second is broken down into 10-minute daily sessions which people can use to help “navigate and manage unhelpful thinking and emotions” and enable them to “regulate life better”.
“Most of us struggle because of aspects of our past and my techniques will help people to identify why they may be struggling and what they can do about it,” he says.
“My book is for everyone, whether they are a teenager, a mum who is struggling at home, a student at university or someone older who is struggling with isolation. Everyone will benefit from it.
“I set out to write something which would help every part of the population. It doesn’t just deal with stress, but also anxiety, disappointment, life and loss. I sincerely hope people will benefit from it as I believe it is a practical book that will help anyone through a difficult period of their life.”
With years of experience in the NHS, including several years in palliative care, Mr O’Kane grew up during the Troubles and says he experienced first-hand the grief and devastation caused by the conflict and the anxiety it created for much of the population.
However, despite the experiences of his youth, he says his past has helped him to be more empathetic.
He also believes that, while stress is not a new thing, the events of recent years have caused many people to become even more anxious than before.
“Belfast during the Troubles was quite a scary place — it was a culture of fear and unpredictability,” he adds.
“It seemed normal at the time, but it was only when I moved to London in my 20s that I realised I had been living in fear — something which hardwires you to become anxious and fearful. I soon discovered that this experience had an influence on my career. I believe people who grew up in trauma have a really good understanding of how to do work like this [psychotherapy and counselling.]
“Stress has always been around, but the volume of challenges over the past few years are greater than they have been for some time, and with the pandemic, Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the crisis around the cost of living, we are all exposed to a lot more stress and anxiety levels are much higher for most people at the moment.
“I coined the phrase ‘post-pandemic stress disorder’, which relates to the impact that it has had on people. I have seen it across society — more people are struggling with their mental health than we have seen in a while.
“Also, the younger generation has the increased pressure of social media and all of the expectations around that.”
The best-selling author says stress can mean different things to different people, and how each individual deals with it is also very personal.
“It all depends on the individual and how different people are triggered,” he says. “
It could be something to do with finances, bereavement, a transition or change or even a number of factors combined.
“The last couple of years have been incredibly stressful and evidence has shown that people are struggling with the sheer volume of issues at the moment. Older people are also finding it difficult to deal with loneliness and isolation, so population groups across the board are all having issues.
“Stress is an external factor, but how we deal with it is an internal one. How we behave and respond internally is really important and this is very much down to the individual as people experience stress in different ways.
“We talk about someone ‘burning out’, which could mean they have difficulty sleeping or concentrating, have a loss of energy, are taking a lot of time off work or are having health issues. They could also be feeling overwhelmed, sometimes feeling hopeless and experiencing negative critical thinking or not being able to cope with things.
“Stress and anxiety covers a huge area and some people will have a few symptoms, while others have more.
“It impacts on our own personal weak points.”
In How To Be Your Own Therapist, Mr O’Kane reveals how short, smart techniques practised throughout the day can help people to form healthier perspectives and ditch harmful thought patterns.
He uses the latest evidence-based tools and techniques from across a range of therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and interpersonal therapy, teaching key fundamentals and how to apply these to your own life, alongside targeted tasks which take just 10 minutes a day.
Currently living in London, he returns home to see his family in Northern Ireland several times a year and hopes his book will be of great benefit to people across every demographic who are experiencing stress, anxiety or depression.
He does point out, though, that if things are getting too much to cope with, then professional help is important.
“My book is a practical guide to dealing with stress and anxiety, offering insights, tips and techniques,” he says. “It also teaches and equips readers with helpful life tools as good therapy allows you to not only cope with your life, but give you the best from your life.
“I would advise people who are feeling overwhelmed and not coping to seek professional help.
“Generally, if you are having more bad days than good, feel constantly overwhelmed or like your mind is in overdrive and getting through every day is a struggle which impacts on work and relationships, then it is probably a good indicator that you are suffering from anxiety and stress.
“It is a good idea to get professional help and support if you are feeling completely overloaded as the earlier you get it, the quicker and easier it is to deal with.
“Unfortunately, there is still a stigma around therapy as traditionally people have felt embarrassed or ashamed to say they are getting it.
“What I’m trying to do is make it more mainstream as there is no shame in saying you need help. Having a therapist is like having a personal trainer — we look after other parts of our body, so why not our mind?”
How to Be Your Own Therapist, by Owen O’Kane, Harper Collins, £13.99, is available at bookstores and online