A broken arm is easy to understand. A cold. The flu. But something that is invisible and just as constraining is far harder to compute. It is therefore, in some ways, more scary or unwieldy. When we (or someone we know) loses the capacity to cope, it’s scary for everyone.

The brain is a deeply partitioned thing. It hides us from ourselves. It sequesters emotions and reactions and experiences. If the brain was a house, the front room would be as tidy as possible, but the rest of it would be carnage. The other rooms would be complex and messy with so many hoarded items and unfiled paperwork.

This means that it is very possible that from time to time or once in a while, or for a long drawn out time, or perhaps never, that you or someone you know will lose the facilities you have come to rely on. Sleep. Confidence. Concentration. Memory. Passion. Energy. Anything the brain does, it can stop doing.

What I have seen as a person and as a therapist, is we are fucking awful at handling this well in our society. Particularly when it happens to ourselves or, even worse, to someone we love. So what to do? (Just to be clear, I am not talking about severe mental health disorders, these are another level of care again.) There is a phrase that comes to me that I feel is designed with great wisdom. The phrase is: give someone a roof over their head. To me this sums up what to do, in the less chronic and complex cases. Of course there are no glib answers to this, but giving someone a roof over their head, whether literal or metaphorical, is to provide them with enough containment and safety that they can rebuild themselves. While we are worrying over safety or location or money or food or the basic needs, it is hard to put ourselves right. And for us or those around us, it is easy to panic. It is easy to want to try to fix. To advise. But the reason this person is semi or totally fallen over is because they are overwhelmed. Either by their present circumstances, or by prior trauma that has been triggered by present circumstances. Or both! What they need, if possible, is space, time, safety, and enough of the simple soothing things that they can begin to rebuild. They need to water the seeds of pleasure and safety and connection again. Connection to self and others. That means asking them how they are, but also asking them other questions. Or telling them about your own interests or what you’ve been up to. Treating them like they are still them.

It is also important they learn tools to help them with the symptoms, and to use this shouting set of circumstances to work out what it is that has surfaced. What have they been doing or overdoing or avoiding? But it is for them to tackle this, with help – probably not yours!

Sometimes, in rare cases, people don’t want to put themselves back together. Or more accurately, they lack the wherewithal. They languish and stay stuck. And those who aren’t like that might look that way for quite some time. But actually humans are like trees, shrubs and flowers. They reach down into the ground for what they need, and they reach up into the sky for the sunshine. And sometimes, they flower. But not all the time! We all, deeply and inherently, wish to grow towards the light. With enough time, patience, and safety, that will happen. Nobody gets to choose what that looks like or how long it takes. And of course the right kind of professional support is very necessary. Of course, I am biased towards support that is interested in the body not the mind. The mind can only get you so far, the body-mind, as in working with the feelings in the body, is where it’s at. It’s how you get into those hidden rooms in the brain. The cluttered ones that have spilled out into the front room.

The main thing is, our culture is pretty broken. We are over-stimulated, we are over segregated (Netflix and Deliveroo are an insidious death to our culture). And we are measured on output and busyness, not on our basic and lovely natures — 0ur natures of connection and tenderness and curiosity and creativity and community. These things are deeply healing. Getting shit done might feel cathartic, and it is part of humanity, but it isn’t the vitamins and minerals of existence.

What you or your loved one needs is a roof over their head, literally and metaphorically. To rediscover the small seedlings of growth that will show up in a safe-feeling person. Eventually. And to follow those. To resist pushing to be normal again. (If you’re normal in today’s culture, then you should be worried!) It is about giving in. It is about gazing, and moving, and trusting, and tinkering with the things that matter. It is not about hurry or advice or panic.

They will be perhaps be feeling desperate. Frightened. Confused. There will be a sense of denial, or reluctance to accept this is a part of them. There will be exhaustion. They will be feeling ashamed. They can no longer dance the dance they thought they had to in order to get or maintain belonging. They are being stripped bare. Down to the essentials. Life will be deeply uncertain. They will be uncertain about what their bodies will be like each day. And their minds.

One of the best things you can do, in fact, if someone you love is struggling, is get help yourself. Get support with your quiet or loud fears and hurt about what you are forced to watch and feel powerless about. Nothing you can do can save someone or hold them up. It is exhausting trying to do that. You will grow to resent them. What you can do is love and trust them just as they are, knowing they will recover. Almost always.

And I, and others like me, are here for you and yours. And we know professionally, and often personally, just how hard it can be for those who struggle, and for those who have to watch them.