You are sitting in a French class. It is your New Year’s Resolution to learn French this year and you are truly committed to your goal. EXCEPT – you haven’t eaten in a week and you haven’t had anything to drink for a few days. You really can’t concentrate on what the French teacher is saying. “Je ne sais....what? All you want to do is to have something to eat and to find some water to drink. Yet you spend the next days and weeks worrying about why you just can’t seem to learn this new language.

As a psychotherapist, a lot of people come to work with me assuming that I will delve deep into their childhood and that we will be analysing their belief systems and ways of thinking. Now, these are all things that I will often do when working therapeutically with an individual. However, what people often don’t expect to form part of the therapy, is looking at whether their core physical and emotional needs are being met. When our core physical and emotional needs are not being satisfied in a healthy way, this can often lead to issues such as anxiety or depression.

So, I may be spending hours trying to figure out why I am not able to learn any French in my French class without stopping to even realise that my basic physical need for nourishment has not been met.

Core physical needs can include:

  • the need for at least 7 hours of sleep a night (and there is lots of research indicating that sleep deprivation can make an individual more prone to poor mental health)
  • the need for appropriate nourishment (and again there is research indicating that what we eat and the state of our gut health can affect our mood)
  • the need for movement (we all know about the positive effects of exercise for our physical health but the National Institute of Clinical Excellence also recommends exercise as an effective treatment for mild and moderate depression)

Core emotional needs can include, the need:

  • for intimacy and love
  • for a sense of purpose and to make a difference in the world
  • for connection and a community
  • to be valued and appreciated
  • to give and receive attention
  • to feel safe and secure
  • to nurture the mind-body connection
  • to be stretched and challenged
  • to feel a sense of control or autonomy

When one of our emotional needs is not being met in a satisfactory way, it can be common for us to turn to coping mechanisms to numb our lack of fulfilment. We could turn to food, alcohol, cigarettes, shopping, gambling – or a number of other “quick highs” – instead of thinking about how we can TRULY SATISFY that emotional need. In order to stop turning to those quick highs in the long-term, we need to find new coping mechanisms. But most importantly, we need to make sure that our emotional need is being met effectively. An individual could also turn to unhealthy forms of meeting these emotional needs: joining a cult for connection; entering a destructive relationship for intimacy; or dramatizing life events or making inappropriate comments at work to get more attention. It is important for individuals to find means of satisfying these emotional needs that are healthy over the long-term too.

So yes, improving the state of someone’s mental health does often involve analysing thinking patterns, delving into their childhood and challenging their belief systems. However, it would be silly to worry about why I am struggling to learn French if I haven't eaten for a week – and –it is also often very important to check whether someone’s poor mental health is being caused by unmet physical or emotional needs.

At byrne·dean we run training to help individuals in organisations to understand and manage the state of their mental health and wellbeing. Contact me at if you are interested in finding out more about our training.

“I used substitutes for my real needs. I needed rest or relationship or recreation, but I gave myself food or shopping. Since I wasn’t supplying what I really needed, I was never satisfied. I needed to know that I deserved to have my needs met and then I had to start asking myself what I really needed and provide those things.” ― Christina Enevoldsen