For world mental health day here’s an old post from Meg-John Barker reflecting what we can all learn from D240 – Counselling: Exploring Fear and Sadness about our mental health and how to deal with emotional struggles.
D240 is currently being revised into D241: an updated module on counselling and psychotherapy. Watch this space…
In 2010 Darren Langdridge, Andreas Vossler and I published a textbook which brought together experts on all different types of counselling to say how their approaches would work with fear and sadness.
When we wrote the book I thought that it would be great to do another book covering the same areas, for people who are not interested in studying counselling themselves but who just want to know about what different kinds of counselling suggest. As Mick Cooper and John McLeod have recently pointed out: different things work for different people at different times, whereas most books on the market cover just one approach in detail. Maybe I’ll write that book one day, but meanwhile here are what I personally think are the top suggestions from each chapter of the book we did write. If you find them useful of course you can always do the whole module (D240) through the OU.
1 – Introduction
Remember that everyone gets frightened or sad, and everyone also has times in their life when this becomes overwhelming. There is not really an ‘us’ (the professionals) and a ‘them’ (the clients or patients) because all people will find themselves both in the position of struggling and of helping others who are struggling.
2 – Diagnosis
We used the words ‘fear and sadness‘ rather than ‘anxiety and depression’ for the module because there are pluses and minuses to the more diagnostic categories. It can be useful to think about what is gained, and what might be lost, from taking on such labels. For example, they can make it easier to find others who are in a similar situation, to access support, and to feel legitimate in what you’re experiencing. But they can also mean being stigmatised by others or feeling as if you are stuck this way for good. Diagnosis can also be more or less useful for different people at different times, and doesn’t have to be the way you see yourself forever.
3 – Drug treatments and the biopsychosocial approach
People often link diagnosis and medication. It can feel like either you have an illness, you take drugs and therefore it is not your fault that you are struggling, or you don’t have an illness, you don’t take drugs and therefore it is your fault and you should ‘pull your socks up’. That’s a really unhelpful (but sadly common) way of looking at it. We become overwhelmed by fear and sadness for all kinds of complex reasons involving our bodies, our background, things going on in our lives, and the world we live in. Drugs can certainly help some people at some times, but taking them doesn’t mean you can’t do anything for yourself as well. And deciding that you don’t want to take drugs doesn’t mean you are struggling any less or don’t need support.
Interestingly the one thing that everybody we interviewed for this module agreed on (including celebrities like Trisha Godard and Stephen Fry) was that some form of physical activity had helped them immensely. It can be really hard to do when you’re feeling bad, but well worth keeping in mind just how beneficial it can be.
4 – Psychoanalysis
I’m not a great fan of psychoanalysis myself, but the chapter that Ian Parker wrote on this topic for the book was a real eye-opener about the starting points of the ‘talking cure’ of counselling. I loved Freud’s metaphor that we are like those ‘magic slate’ toys which kids have.
When things happen to us it is like writing on the front layer of plastic. Then that gets wiped clean, but there are still traces of the writing on the wax behind that will have an impact on whatever we try to draw next (the lines will get a bit broken and distorted). Freud believed in the value of exploring what there is back there on the wax layer which is affecting us now. And I think that is valuable as we often find ourselves responding to current events in ways that are hugely influenced by what has happened in the past. Making sense of that can help it to feel more manageable and understandable.
5 – Humanistic counselling
A key concept here is empathy. Can we cultivate empathy for ourselves and for other people? Carl Rogers proposed a challenge where each time you speak – in an argument or discussion – you first have to restate the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately and to their satisfaction, before you get to have your say. This might seem a long way from fear and sadness, but many authors are now seeing compassion as centrally important in these areas. If we can learn to be more understanding and kind in our interactions with others we end up feeling less alienated from them, and it also helps us to recognise that it makes sense when we struggle as well, and that we also deserve kindness. When people are feeling really distressed one of the best things they can do is just to make sure that they do one kind thing for themselves every day. It helps to remind them that they are as worthy of kindness as everyone else.
6 – Existential counselling
Existential counselling challenges our common idea that there are good emotions (joy, pride, happiness, etc.) and bad emotions (fear, sadness, anger, etc.) Rather it sees all emotions as important parts of human existence. When we have to make choices we often experience deep anxiety but that is part of embracing our freedom and really living. Similarly there are inevitably points when it all feels too much and we give up and retreat from the world. Existential therapist Emmy Van Deurzen suggests that emotions are on a kind of compass, from happiness (North) through anger (East), down to sadness (South), and back up through hope (West) to happiness again. We move endlessly around that circle – like it or not – so it is worth understanding all those states, and what we get from them as well as what is difficult about them, rather than trying hard to avoid some of them which means we might well get stuck in one place.
7 – Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)
When we find something frightening or depressing we tend to avoid it, but often that leads to it becoming more scary or saddening rather than less so, and we can then become quite paralysed. Our world narrows as more and more things seem difficult. A very basicCBT idea would be to gradually approach the things that scare us rather than avoiding them (starting small and working our way up). Another useful CBT technique is to pay attention to the little negative thoughts we have throughout the day – like an ongoing commentary – maybe noting them down as we are aware of them and challenging each of them. Is it really realistic? What alternative explanations are there? Is it useful? How might I think about this differently?
8 – Mindfulness
Make a little time every day just to sit somewhere peaceful and breathe. The idea is to be comfortable without distractions and just focus on the sensation of the breath going in and out of your body. You will find that you keep getting carried off on thought processes and distracted by sensations and that is absolutely fine. Just notice that it has happened and bring your attention gently back to the breath. Notice how the thoughts and feelings bubble up and then pass away again eventually if you don’t get too stuck to them. The idea in mindfulness is that if we practice doing this regularly we will start to be able to bring the same accepting awareness to whatever is going on in the rest of our lives.
9 – Systemic counselling
The fear and sadness we experience feels like it is inside us and that there is something that we need to do individually to change it. Systemic counselling proposes that actually much fear and sadness is really in between people, in families, relationships, and groups of work colleagues. Think about your own dynamics with people you are close to: do you tend to bounce off each other sometimes in ways that leave one or more of you feeling bad? A nice exercise from systemic counselling is to take some different shaped stones or modelling clay and make a model of your family or group, representing each person as an object, and where they are in relation to each other, by the way you position them. Then you can move it around to show how you would rather it was. This can help you to be aware of how the dynamics in relationships can get stuck and also how they might shift.
10 – Sociocultural issues
Similar to systemic counselling, sociocultural approaches remind us that a great deal of our fear and sadness are about the culture surrounding us and how we are viewed within it. Being marginalised is strongly linked to experiences of distress, and we all occupy multiple sociocultural positions (in relation to race, gender, sexuality, age, class, (dis)ability and so on). It can be useful to reflect on which position you are in on all of these dimensions and what the assumptions are ‘out there’ about people like you. Do your experiences of fear and sadness relate to those assumptions at all? Are there ways of sharing these with other people who are in a similar position?
11- Context and setting
This chapter was all about counselling over the phone and online. One idea from it was to write about a time when you were feeling particularly sad or frightened – noting down what was going on and how you felt about it – without thinking about it too much. This was really an exercise to think about how people express their emotions online or over email, but actually researchers like Pennebaker have found strong evidence that writing regularly about our feelings is hugely beneficial. Private blogs and personal journals can be a helpful way of doing this.
12 – The therapeutic relationship
This chapter explored how different types of counselling involve different relationships between the client and the counsellor. Many people who decide to go for counselling don’t realise how many different types of counselling there are, and how they will all involve very different kinds of relationship and quite different focuses. I wrote a bit about the different counselling approaches here. It is definitely worth thinking about what would work for you and asking counsellors about their qualifications and approaches before committing to it. You should always make sure that they are accredited with one of the major bodies (e.g. BACP, UKCP, BPS). If in doubt, ask.
13 – Outcome research
As well as finding out about what approach might suit you, it is also worth checking out the research that has been done into the kind of counselling you’re thinking of going to. Mick Cooper’s book on this topic is very accessible if you are interested, and even online searches can give you some idea of whether the kind of counselling you’re considering has been found to be helpful for the kinds of issues you have. However…
14 – Process research
…perhaps the main research finding about counselling is that all of the main approaches (covered in this book) are generally about equally effective (with some exceptions like CBT being particularly good for simple phobias). According to the research, a good relationship between client and counsellor is one of the main things which predicts how useful counselling will be. So it is worth shopping around for someone you have a good rapport with. If you are accessing free counselling it is still okay to ask for a different counsellor if you don’t feel a good relationship with the one you have.
15 – Conclusions
There is always a risk with going to a counsellor that this will reinforce the idea that many of us already have that there is something wrong with us that needs fixing. Our commercial culture is very good at giving us a sense of anxiety about the things that we lack, and selling us products to relieve this anxiety. In this culture it is all too easy to think that we are not good enough. Therefore it is important to remember that going to get some support or talk through what’s happening doesn’t mean there is anything inherently wrong with you, and also remembering that counselling is just one of many ways of thinking things through, looking after ourselves, and getting support.
Find Out More:
My Staying With Feelings Zine has a lot more about approaching fear and sadness.