For me, therapy is about creating a good space for listening, exploring, creating and balancing. Find out more about these activities below.
We vary the proportions of these four factors depending on your needs and preferences. And everything interacts, so you may find that being listened to brings balance and release to emotional pain or that doing a creative exercise helps you hear important parts of yourself that were hiding and struggling to have a voice.
Can you recall any times in your life where you’ve experienced being deeply heard and accepted by another? Where you've experienced the kind of relief expressed above? If you can, I suspect these moments of quiet and aware connection were special ones.
There are many wonderful counselling traditions. Phil Mollon, a highly experienced clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, reminds us that whatever approach is used, the ability of the therapist to listen deeply and empathically is probably the most important part of the therapeutic mix:
Then there's listening to ourselves. How good are you at doing this? At hearing what’s genuinely important and alive in you right now? Maybe therapy can help you develop this vital skill. I think that meditation practices are another way. Here’s a three minute breathing space that may help you listen to yourself in a good way.
Counselling involves exploring how ingredients like these mix together in the bubbling, ever-changing casserole of our mind:
• Awareness. Our ability to witness and be present.
• Relatedness. The who and what we’re connecting with.
• Cognitions. Thoughts, memories, expectations, intentions and beliefs.
• Feelings. Our emotions and the needs that drive ‘em.
• Body process. Sensations, posture, breathing, movement and touch.
• Actions. The words we speak and the things we do.
There’s a lot going on here and it all links together in a big wonderful, holistic mishmash, so if one thing changes, everything can change. For example, if you recall a happy time with someone you get/got on with really well, what starts to happen in each of the above six areas? Now bring to mind a slightly painful experience with another person where there’s still unfinished business. What happens? I’d be surprised if all the elements of your experience weren’t significantly different for each memory.
Our ability to be aware, to witness in the present, is the light that reveals what’s going on during our explorations. So as you bring to mind one of the above relational memories, what are you feeling as you do this? We can be skilled at avoiding feeling our emotions, especially the difficult ones. So there will be regular invitations for you to connect with and explore your feelings during therapy. What about your underlying beliefs? What needs were or were not being met? And what’s going on in your body as you recall the experience? In all cases, it’s about shining the kind light of awareness on the different ingredients, so we can see more clearly what they are, how they fit together and how they could change.
Explore your emotions
Do you need help to work with difficult emotions? While words and thinking are an essential part of life, learning to integrate the important messages held in our emotions can play a vital role in healing pain and restoring wholeness. Dr Robert Elliott, one of the founders of Emotion Focussed Therapy, discusses why they matter and some of the factors (exploring meaning, balancing intensity and considering primary emotions) that can be supported by therapy.
How you relate to your stuff
We can consider both the what and how of your experience. The what is the content of your mind (see bubbling casserole metaphor above) and the how is how your relate to this content. They're like two sides of the same coin i.e. you can't have one without the other. I think this video shows why exploring how you relate to what’s going on inside may support important changes in your life.
Counselling can help us to slow down and open up more space to be with, investigate and transform stuckness. Active, physical play using a respectful, step by step approach where you explore issues by using creative methods could form an important part of this process for you.
While creative options are only bounded by our imaginations, I often suggest starting with felt tip drawings, playing with felts and pompoms, LEGO or objects in a sand tray as these ways to represent what's gong on are usually accessible and comfortable. Other possibilities include writing and poetry, playing with toys, postural and movement experiments and larger scale enactments that involve moving chairs, cushions etc around the therapy room.
What we do depends on your preferences and needs. So sometimes, as discussed earlier, the process of being listened to will be more than enough.
This video may give you a sense of how creative play can be an enriching and empowering part of therapy.
Maybe therapy is like sailing on a sea of learning. Of learning how to bring together parts of life that struggle to get on and integrate them in a more meaningful, balanced and helpful way. If you’ve ever sailed, you may have experienced wonderful moments where you were literally surfing the waves. The ever-changing zone that includes these ideal sailing, learning and integrating conditions is called our window of tolerance.
When life gets too much, we can get pushed out of this middle space. Our inner world can get too hot/fast, like being caught in a gale of powerful and painful emotions and thoughts. In these situations, we need to weather the storm and find our way to calmer waters. If we get too cold/slow, it’s like we’re becalmed, the engine is broken and we need to do some repairs to start moving again. Check out these great resources by St Michael’s hospital (especially handout one) and NICABM (a training organisation for therapists) to find out more.
Meet your Ventral Vagal state
Polvagal theory arranges the responses of our nervous system to life in a different way to the Window of Tolerance model but both ideas complement and enrich each other. If we shut down in response to life threat, we are probably in a Dorsal Vagal state. I call this (hypo-aroused) place the collapsed blue zone. As our energy rises, we moved into a mobilised (hyper-aroused) Sympathetic state as we engage with danger and challenge. This is our activated red zone. Finally, at the top of the ladder, when we feel safe and balanced we are probably in a Ventral Vagal state which is found within our window of tolerance. This is our connected green zone.
Deb Dana describes Polyvagal theory in more detail on her website and in this video. If you love neuroscience, resources A7 and A8 by Dr Ian Ross are worth checking out.
All the activities discussed above – listening, exploring and creating – may help you to think more calmly and clearly and explore challenges within your window of tolerance. However, if things ever get too much during therapy i.e. you get pushed too far outside this integrating space, we can take steps to balance and stabilise your ship.
These balancing steps may involve a mix of:
• Saying soothing words out loud or in your mind.
• Connecting with experiences, images and feelings of safety.
• Using breathing, movement and acupressure.
Remembering the body
Working with the body to help balance the brain sits well within my approach to counselling as I view the mind as an integrated whole of embodied brain and relationship processes. Dan Siegel summarises this in his wonderful quote on the Autogenic Therapy page. This holistic perspective can help us understand why a significant shift in one area of our mind/life often changes everything else.
There are many holistic, body-honouring traditions such as Acupressure, Body Psychotherapy, EMDR, Emotional Freedom Techniques, Feldenkrais Method, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Shiatsu, Somatic Experiencing, Touch for Health and Yoga. I have a long running interest in using acupressure to support awareness, release and balance during therapy. The next activity introduces this.
Time: Six minutes with video. As long as you need without!
This video by Michael Gach shows an example of how to combine slow, deep breathing with gently holding a sequence of relaxing acupressure points; one on each wrist and one in the middle of your chest. This central point is called the Sea of Tranquillity due to its calming potential.
If you’re feeling stressed, anxious or fed up, touching each point for at least three, slow, deep breath cycles may help to balance your emotions, thoughts and body sensations. Just follow the video and see what happens.
If you enjoy using acupressure, you may find the above and related practices could support you both during appointments and as an enriching form of self-help.
Like using creative approaches, people vary in their preferences for exploring body-based activities such as breathing, movement and self-acupressure as part of therapy. Whatever you choose to practise and experiment with, we can work together to help you discover what helps you most. After all, it’s about each of us hopefully finding our own, mutually-supported way on life’s journey.
Do you want to learn a complete body-based, self-help system that, with practice, can promote balance and help to keep your window of tolerance in tiptop condition? If so, you may wish to consider an eight week Autogenic Therapy course.
Counselling in Southampton and CPD workshops for therapists.
Autogenic therapy, strengths coaching and careers guidance.