“Don’t make this mistake when you’re working on your own happiness,” says Dr Julie, scooping a toy fish from a tank of water and holding it up by its tail before dropping it back in. “Imagine this is you and this is your life. But like most people’s lives there are problems that can make it toxic.”
She starts dripping brown dye into the water until it is murky, before continuing:
“If a fish is living in a toxic environment eventually it gets sick, so you take it out of the dirty water and put her in a new tank for a while, kind of like how you take a break, go on a holiday for a few weeks and put yourself into a new environment for a while. And it helps. Everything gets better and feels great for a while. Until you return and go right back to that toxic situation again. It doesn’t matter how clean the water was on your break or how refreshed you feel, eventually you get sick again. If you want to thrive in the long term you have to focus on cleaning up the environment that is affecting you every day.”
With her easy-to-understand explanations and visually appealing videos, Dr Julie Smith has become one of the most popular therapists on social media.
In just one week since it was posted on TikTok, the video has been watched more than seven million times.
It is snappy, 60-second clips like these that have turned the 38-year-old psychologist into a social media sensation and, with her new book, Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? a bestselling author.
In the clips, Smith wears ripped jeans, tracksuits, and vintage t-shirts. Her blonde-highlighted hair might be up in a messy bun or in loose waves and her nails might be painted red, white or blue. It’s a stark contrast with the classic representation of psychiatrists and psychologists as formal bespectacled upper middle-class professional men, with a balding pate.
Gradually her following grew. And grew. Now she is one of a number of psychologists on the platform with a massive online following. Despite being a “very low-key, introverted, private person” normally and questioning what she was doing amidst the “bombardment” of attention, the messages from followers buoyed her. They said her clips had helped them to think differently or prompted them to seek help: “It was like ’Gosh, actually these are real people, and they’re finding it useful. So, I can’t really stop now.”
It’s 10.30pm in Hampshire when we speak. After putting her three children, aged 10, 7 and 3, to bed, she blow-dried her hair into a soft wave, changed clothes, put on makeup and, with her husband filming, just finished making a new video for her six million social media followers.
Filmed in the spare room of their home, the videos use various visual devices, including the dye, stackable rainbow blocks, ping pong balls, and even a Corona beer bottle, to explain issues like anxiety, depression, toxic relationships, stress, addiction, grief and trauma.
Three years ago, she told her husband she wanted to share the skills and information that seemed to be helping young clients at her private practice. He had suggested she go and put “something on the internet” and together they made “a couple of terrible YouTube videos”.
Through trial and error, they settled on bite-size clips that are warm and insightful and provide “the educational aspect to therapy, but are in no way therapy”.
“You can’t replace that very special relationship that you build with someone therapeutically,” says Smith, who worked for the NHS for 10 years. Still, not everyone can access therapy and “there’s lots of struggle out there”.
Her videos, she hoped, would demonstrate that there are certain tools people can use every day to improve their life and mental health.
Tools like metacognition.
“Metacognition is simply that idea that your brain has the ability to think about its thoughts. So, you can tell yourself, ‘Oh, I look terrible today’. And then you can say, ‘Wow, look how self-critical I’m being. What’s that about?’”
Metacognition can also be a valuable tool when we know a behaviour makes us feel worse but keep doing it or avoid doing something even if we know it might help.
By mapping out the emotions and thoughts that precede a behaviour, we can start to address the painful thoughts and emotions with alternative coping strategies, she says.
“If you’re not educating yourself and dealing with emotional pain then that’s why it feels so impossible to do the right thing.”
Doing “the right thing” typically involves making tiny changes, one at a time, which is another focal point of her book, which provides the depth of detail a 60-second clip cannot.
“The big grand changes that we get really geared up for are quite often unsustainable. And, when it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, we kind of get disillusioned… if you make a small habit change, you are more likely to sustain it,” she says.
“Then you free yourself up with some brain capacity to think about the next change And you get this kind of compound interest of all these small changes that add up over time.”
Whatever tools people take away, Smith hopes the main takeaway is that mental health struggle is a human experience.
“Mental health is just like physical health in the sense that it fluctuates, and it can be influenced by all sorts of things outside you,” she says. “And when something happens that causes your mental health to deteriorate, it’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility. And with that responsibility, you can gear yourself up with this arsenal of tools. That means you don’t have to be at the mercy of it.”
Smith doesn’t profess to provide a cure-all or suggest any one tool applies to every situation, but does believe that she can have a “potentially positive impact” through her vast reach. If people have one more tool in their arsenal it can help them feel more confident in their ability to cope with their own mental health, she says:
“It has created these real shifts for people when they thought, ‘I’ve got this one thing and I know how to do it… There are these tools and I can use them and that’s going to help me, so I’m more able than I ever thought I was’.”
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