In Map to the Stars, Julianne Moore’s character navigates the rivalries of Tinseltown with the mantra: “Work it out in therapy, bitch.” And, as ever, life imitates art, as Moore made headlines around the world this week with her revelation to the Hollywood Reporter that she believes in therapy, but not in God.
Moore – who won an Oscar for her portrayal of a woman suffering from early onset dementia in Still Alice – has spoken extensively about how therapy helped her deal with the loneliness of her first divorce.
She credits her therapist with encouraging her to tie the knot with her husband: “The only reason I got married in 2003 was for my children. I had a therapist who said marriage is really a container for a family and that made sense to me.”
Therapy has supported Moore in her professional life, too, and helped her put stage fright into perspective: “I panic more on stage. I really have a lot of stage fright. I get really shaky and it’s not fun for me.
“But in movies, I don’t. I had a therapist say to me once, ‘A feeling can’t kill you.’ And it can’t…
“But being on a movie set with a lot of really terrific actors and having some great language and the director… Even if you do fail, what could happen?”
Larger questions of good and evil have also been aired in Moore’s therapy sessions, after she accepted the role of Clarice Starling in the sequel to Silence of the Lambs.
“Hannibal is the dark side that is part of everyone, the ID that you let go. He’s evil unchannelled… in our fantasy lives we explore those themes. That’s OK, but it’s a fine line I feel uncomfortable with. I talked to my shrink about it.”
Will therapy improve your life?
Taking the multi-award-winning, happily married Moore as an example, psychotherapy or psychoanalysis does seem the road to personal and professional satisfaction.
Other celebrities who have had therapy include Rory Bremner, who was treated by John Cleese’s ex-wife Alyce Eichelberger, and Victoria Wood, who saw a therapist after the breakdown of her marriage.
Actor James Nesbitt sings therapy’s praises: “I have done therapy. It’s a brilliant thing. Brilliant, important, vital. It’s been life saving.
“Therapy should be available on the NHS,” he says. “If therapy is about someone non-judgementally listening to you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”
Mindfulness trains your brain to be happy
Not every star is so enamoured with the therapist’s couch. Presenter-turned-mental health campaigner Ruby Wax studied psychotherapy after moving on from television.
But after gaining a masters in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), Wax now believes training the brain to be positive is a more effective way to tackle low mood.
She says information overload from 24-hour rolling news combined with the internet is flooding our bodies with the stress hormone cortisol. Our brains are being “torn apart” by the plethora of choices in modern life: “You’re in a constant state of high vigilance and that’s not good for you.”
Drawing on current neuroscience, Wax says we all need to learn to self-regulate our brain state, taking our ‘mental temperature’ to see when we are at our tipping point.
On the flip side, we should also self-regulate our adrenalin for times when we need to up our game. Neuroplasticity suggests we can retrain our brain and create new responses to challenging situations.
“Neuroplasticity means ‘I’m responsible’,” says Wax. “Training your brain for mental health will be seen as the same as going to the gym for physical health.”
How to look after your mental health without paying a fortune
While celebrities offer a useful pointer for what to do when life feels difficult or overwhelming, there is one major difference between them and many of us: money.
Since 2008, the NHS has more psychological therapies available than used to be the case, thanks to the Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies programme (IAPT).
Under IAPT, nearly 4,000 new psychological practitioners have been trained.
But with the constraints of high demand and tight budgets, NHS therapies tend to be focused on time-limited cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Its emphasis is on the here and now, challenging unhelpful thoughts, diary keeping and self reporting.
As Wax says: “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is the zeitgeist now. There’s not a lot of money for therapy or medication, but mindfulness is an eight-week course and then you’re on your own.”
Interpersonal therapy is also offered under IAPT, especially in the treatment of depression. With interpersonal therapy, the focus is on improving the client’s close relationships, both personal and professional, to help them to function better in their lives.
The treatment is usually eight sessions over 14 weeks, and the emphasis is on current problems and communication issues, not the past.
But what about the long-term, traditional versions of therapy, based on Freudian psychoanalysis, alluded to by Julianne Moore and James Nesbitt?
Are they only open to people who can pay a private therapist £50–£150 an hour?
Fortunately not. If you live within the catchment of a large NHS mental health trust, there may well be psychotherapy or psychoanalytic therapy available.
Over-burdened GPs are sometimes unaware of more intensive therapy options, so it is worth researching online what’s available, in addition to the brief CBT style therapies your GP will certainly know about.
Other routes to less expensive treatments include low-cost schemes offered by individual therapists, and reduced-price therapy offered by psychotherapy and psychoanalysis training institutions.
For my own issues with anxiety and building more meaningful relationships, I have chosen psychoanalysis four times a week. I respect classical analysis’ historical roots and I feel the importance given to the relationship with your therapist will be beneficial to me.
Most of all, I feel reassured that the therapist I tell my darkest secrets to will have trained for eight years, rather than be rushed into the consulting room to meet a health service target.