How to be a ‘Bad’ Therapist: Deconstructing the ‘rules’ of our profession, reimagining how to work with integrity and creativity (March 2023)
Allison Priestman, provided us with a very inclusive, interactive and live seminar to the online…
How many of us are going about our daily lives right now, calm, with a sense of safety and a feeling of “all is well” ?
As a child, I lived in constant fear that close behind me there was a big brown bear who was coming to get me.
Right now, I am picking up the signals from many people and friends around me that “all is not well”. I am noticing they have adopted their own brown bears ; they don’t feel safe.
It’s not surprising. As well as worrying about a major health concern, we are diligently trying to adapt to a shocking social climate change. This is bound to evoke anxiety because so much of what we took for granted has been removed or constrained. It is out of our control. Will it ever end? Will the world ever be as we remembered it before? On top of this, we have new and as yet unsolvable worries and are not sure how and for how long we are going to be able to manage. Are we safe or are we not safe? Fear spreads fast in groups. It’s contagious.
During my younger years I developed a complex pattern of behaviours that helped to protect me from feeling the bad things that were happening to me as a child. I dissociated the worst of it in order to cope and to help me function in the unfamiliar external world. Dissociation as I know it, is a dreamlike state that muffles your mind so you don’t have to think or feel very much. This is self protection in its most powerful form. But there are varying degrees of dissociation, and varying degrees of other more concrete coping mechanisms that helped to get me through difficult situations. I was labelled “an anxious child” amongst other things and continued to be an anxious young adult. Familiar with feeling terrified, I know what it feels like to endure chronic anxiety.
I guess we don’t need to have had a traumatic childhood to feel the effects of our experiences right now. Feeling fearful, anxious and possibly in a state of panic is a normal response to our current way of living. Many of us may be experiencing emotional trauma.
There is much advice around for how to cope with fear and anxiety……Good sleep hygiene, breathing exercises, not forgetting to eat, exercising, connecting with friends through FaceTime, getting some sunshine, connecting with nature, taking up yoga, listening to music etc.
Many of these suggestions I find difficult to commit to. Focussing on my breathing can be highly triggering. Sometimes the thought of it can evoke feelings of terror. For some reason, as much as I am fond of my friends, I do not gain a huge amount from relating through FaceTime.
What if we can’t do any of those things? that we may be so frozen with fear that these ideas and resources seem unreachable? What if we’re so scared that we feel unable to go out to the shop?
It may require some special thought and attention to discover what works for us. It may be talking with a therapist would help.
Being familiar with having my freedom removed, this new climate can be triggering for me. But I wonder if I am now more prepared, less disturbed and better able to cope? Chronic feelings of anxiety endured back then has become history. No longer am I living through panic attacks. Generally speaking I am a calm person now. My childhood coping mechanisms are still accessible so I would like to describe some experiences.
I used to escape feelings of being trapped by “running away” (no I’m not advocating you do that exactly!). I never went too far away, but frequently escaped to a woodland where I developed a love of observing the lives of small creatures. I took in the sounds of birds and watched the squirrels dancing and scampering between the branches. I noticed the behavioural patterns of different species. I encouraged the little insects to crawl their way onto my hands. Nothing ever bad happened to me there. I felt safe. I felt protected by the trees and I felt a oneness with nature. It was reliable. And I loved being there.
Today I notice buds on trees and hedges about to burst green, I notice the birds are busy building their nests. I am waiting to hear the first cuckoo. Nature is still reliably there and can help to calm us.
The first link below is my favourite escape, to see and hear various birds singing their individual solos. I never knew the cuckoo’s tail was so instrumental in his calling!
Another strategy I used was to map out hopes and dreams in my imagination. Making up stories in my mind that I was able to sing and was to become a famous pop singer. I pretended I could play the piano and listened intently to anyone who could play in real life. Music became important to me, even though I had no-one around me to share that feeling with. It was in my head. To this day listening to piano music can deeply move me. It has the power to transform feelings to a more favourable state.
The second link below is a link to a crackling log fire (another tranquil antidote to anxiety) with beautiful piano playing in the background. It’s 10 hours long if you want non-stop calm!
Another strategy I employ is to try and avoid the triggers to anxieties. Feeling claustrophobic in a lift? lets take the stairs. Anxious about choosing what to wear? lets decide the day before. etc
Watching the News used to be an obsession. “Knowledge is power!” The more information I could take in, the more in control I was of it….. or so I mistakenly thought! .
I recognise now that I was soaking up too much of the same topic that was giving rise to the fear in the first place. I didn’t realise that it was a negative power, it was in fact fuelling the very thing I was wishing not to have…..chronic anxiety. I currently ration myself to one dose of News a day and I feel calmer for it.
In my early twenties my GP prescribed valium, increasing the dose as the benefits faded over time. It took years to cut the addictive drug out of my life. Ultimately it did me no good at all. I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol too, using it as a way of blocking out difficult-to-control feelings, including anxiety.
I was in a mess and still addicted to valium when my GP referred me to an anxiety management clinic. I was by this stage enduring daily panic attacks, persistent heartburn (consuming Rennies like sweets), migraine headaches, and symptoms of the onset of agoraphobia.
I was asked to complete a check-list everyday….. Where on the scale of 0-9 was the feeling of anxiety? Checking symptoms such as sweaty palms, heart rate, palpitations, dizziness and so on. I was being taught to recognise the physical effects of reaching the panic zone.
Life felt frighteningly out of control. I was faint. My heart raced so fast I thought I was about to have a heart attack! I thought I was going to die during those episodes.
I remember the clinician instructing me that during the moment of panic I could tell myself “it’s not life threatening” and “the symptoms will burn out…..time it and see”.
So being told that “I am not going to die from this”…. “this is going to pass” was immensely reassuring and became my mantra. The panic phase always did come to an end. And I learned eventually to trust that.
This was the beginning of developing some autonomy for my symptoms. And gaining some autonomy was the beginning of my feeling more in control. And the feeling of being in control was pivotal to my recovery from chronic and debilitating anxiety.
So taking up activities where we feel in control can help keep anxiety at bay. And it’s a wonderful momentary distraction from what feels so difficult to cope with at the moment.
I still need therapy for the “brown bear” trauma. But over the years with perseverance, I have managed to get anxiety tamed.
I no longer overdose on valium, alcohol or the News.
I send my heart-felt warm wishes to everyone reading this…. to the therapists navigating unchartered waters and to clients who may be finding this new climate overwhelming and difficult to manage.