A host of high-profile celebrities have joined forces for a photography campaign, raising awareness of mental health.
Kate Moss, Helena Bonham Carter, David Walliams, Anthony Joshua, Gary Barlow, Idris Elba, Kylie Minogue and Stephen Fry are among the famous faces shot with their eyes closed by photographer Ray Burmiston as part of Art of London’s Take A Moment 2022.
“The exhibition has been created from a decade of outtakes from the studio, where I asked my subjects to close their eyes for a few seconds, to refresh their connection with the camera,” Burmiston explains.
“The portraits capture a variety of different responses, from powerful moments of self-reflection to something more whimsical and playful, allowing us to see these well-known faces in a different light.”
The images also reflect the importance of pausing to focus on your feelings.
While it may be tempting to try to constantly distract ourselves, or bury our head in the sand when painful emotions arise, expert say the concept of ‘feeling your feelings’ can actually have a hugely positive impact on our wellbeing.
What does ‘feeling your feelings’ mean?
“Usually, we like to stay with feelings we are comfortable with, like joy, excitement or happiness – we do not try to resist feeling these positive feelings,” says from Madeleine Gauffin, licensed psychologist and psychotherapist at the digital healthcare provider, Livi.
“But when it comes to feelings like sadness, disappointment, anger, hatred, despair, fear or any other painful feeling, we usually do anything we can to avoid feeling that.”
Feeling your feelings might mean saying no to the usual distraction techniques you rely on, says Anne-Sophie Fluri, neuroscientist and head of mindfulness at MindLabs: “We might look to alcohol, food or sex to make ourselves feel better, or try to switch our minds off by binge-watching TV. This tendency to avoid difficult physical and emotional sensations is known as ‘experiential avoidance’.”
Some activities that might usually be seen as healthy – like working, exercising or socialising – can also become a crutch, Fluri says: “Or even staying in a job or relationship that isn’t right, to avoid feelings of uncertainty or loneliness.”
Why can’t you just bury your emotions?
“While avoidant strategies might make us feel better temporarily, in the long-term, research shows they actually maintain psychological distress,” says Fluri.
“For example, one study from the University of Texas found that building up emotions can make people more aggressive. Suppressing negative emotions can place physical stress on your body, and has been linked to heart disease, autoimmune disorders and gastrointestinal health complications.”
She believes the dangerous impact of suppressing emotions is evidenced when looking at suicide rates among young men: “From an early age, many men are taught to suppress their emotions, which are defined by society as ‘weak’ and ’emasculating’.
Where there is no perceived possible outlet for these difficult feelings, ending one’s life can sadly feel like the only option.”
What are the benefits of allowing space for difficult emotions?
It may sound counterintuitive, but sitting with feelings such as sadness, anxiety or anger can actually help to alleviate them faster.
“These feelings are not dangerous – as we often think,” says Gauffin. “If we are not used to handling feelings of pain, we don’t know how to handle them and want to get rid of them as fast as possible. But staying with a feeling is what we have to do to get through painful feelings.”
By accepting – and even welcoming – all kinds of emotions, we can learn to gradually diminish their power. At the same time, you can tune into what those feelings are trying to tell you.
Gauffin explains: “If we listen carefully to the voice of anxiety, what fear is there? How can we understand our [feelings] better and not just categorise them as something bad?”
How can you learn to accept, not avoid?
“To help us get better at managing our emotions, we first need to recognise that when we are engaging in experiential avoidance, and come to realise that is not a successful long-term coping mechanism,” says Fluri.
You might want to write a list and add to it whenever you find yourself trying to ‘numb out’. The next step is to pause when you feel a painful emotion and observe how it feels in your body. Is it a knot in your stomach? Tightness in your chest? Tears welling up?
“Next time you feel anxiety, stay a little while in the pain,” says Gauffin. “If it’s just for 30 seconds, it’s a good start. [Then] expand the time for staying with the feelings of pain. These feelings will dissolve once you understand they are not dangerous.”
Mindfulness meditation – focusing on your surroundings and physical sensations – can be a useful tool, Fluri says: “It can help bring to us back into our bodies and become more attuned to our emotional needs. It can also help us learn to sit with difficult feelings and identify thought patterns that aren’t serving us.”
This can be a challenging process, so don’t beat yourself up if you struggle or fall back on familiar distractions.
“Everything that is new to us takes practice and we need to be compassionate and have patience with ourselves,” says Fluri. “Feelings of anxiety that have been there for a long time will not disappear in two weeks or even a month.”
It can also help to seek support from “someone trusted that you can talk to, who can help to promote healing and improve your mental health,” she adds, whether that’s a friend or a mental health professional.
“Remember you are not alone and it is OK to ask for help. And there is your life waiting for you. You have everything to win.”