Monthly Archives: November 2015

Running from Threat to Drive to Safety Mode

Compassion focussed therapy posits that there are three types of emotional regulatory systems in our minds and bodies: the drive/excite/vitality mode (wanting, pursuing achieving), the content/safe/connected mode (soothing), and the threat focussed mode (protection and safety seeking). Last week when I went for a run I think I experienced all three.

It was a breezy cold day with a wonderful blue sky. I had intended this run to be slow and long, to gently ease myself into the flow of running, to relax in the moment and to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells around me. Well, 40 minutes into the run my peace was shattered.

Another runner came out of her house at the exact moment that I was running past, and she began to run quickly behind me. I knew that there was only one direction for both of us to go because that was the most beautiful direction to go in. I could hear her footsteps behind me and I could see her shadow next to me, and at that moment my body went into threat focused mode. I felt that she had entered my personal space and I felt indignant that she didn’t wait and create more of a distance between us before moving off.   I speeded up to a ridiculously fast pace given that I still had a long way to run, and I maintained this pace until I could no longer hear her steps or see her shadow. I had an enormous desire to out-run this lady, to be somewhere else away from her, and my brain temporarily shut down as I put all my efforts into running as quickly as possible. I guess looking back I can be grateful to experiencing my bodily threat focused mode, because this meant that I ran at a rate much faster than I thought I was ever capable of.

Then something changed. My mind and body switched from threat to drive and excitement mode. I began to enjoy the fast pace and the challenges to running quickly into a head-on wind that was blowing around 50 mph at times. I started to feel liberated and free, at one with the wild nature that engulfed me. I forgot about the female runner that was somewhere behind me and I just started to enjoy myself, no longer concerned about where she was or what pace she was doing. I appreciated being in this achieving mode, and could see all the benefits that come from this regulatory system that is about striving and drive. I felt excited when I came across the local Park Run, and smiled at the people standing on the finish line clapping the finishing runners. I was happy to weave in and around the runners, and decided to run all the way around an old church just for the fun of it.

Arriving back home, after having washed and changed, my body went into self-soothing mode. All these wonderful endorphins were released in my body and I felt content and secure. I felt like I did not need anything to be happy, that I could just be. This is the wonder of running, its effects on stimulating the safe mode in our minds and bodies. I felt content and at ease with myself, with other people and with the World around me despite the violence that exists on our chaotic planet. During this run I had experienced something much bigger than myself, an evolutionary bio-physical miracle dating back millennia.

Don’t Stop Me Now, I’m Having Such A Good Time (I’m having a ball) at the London Marathon

I have no idea if I will be able to run the full 26 miles and 385 yards. The most I have done in my training is 18 miles; after that I shall be entering the Great Unknown. Have I eaten enough carbohydrates? Will my body cope with the stress of long-distance running? Will I hit the dreaded runners’ wall and collapse? Will I finish within 4 hours – the goal I have set myself? These are some of my thoughts as I stand close to the starting point of the hugely respected and much-loved event that is the London Marathon 2013.

While waiting for the race to begin, I find myself gravitationally pulled towards a secure base, as a way of coping with the demon doubts. Security for me is a wooden hut with benches running along all four of its sides. Sitting on these benches are predominantly the old timers, sunning themselves as they wait patiently for these final fifteen minutes to pass before the start of the Marathon. Like at a saloon, the older guys are sitting and rested, exchanging the odd story about previous marathons they have run. They remind me of hardy and toughened sheriffs of a frontier town. They have seen and experienced dozens of marathons between them and they knew how to prepare themselves. There is an air of quiet calm, the men chewing on the roots of what is to come, contemplating a distance that has to be travelled both mentally and physically.

With five minutes to go before the race begins, I enter the starting zone. After a minute’s silence to mark the horrific bombing attacks at the Boston Marathon a few days before, we set off. We stampede through the streets of London. No traffic: we were free to run riot and party on down. And boy, do Londoners know how to throw a Marathon party! ‘Welcome to Woolwich,’ a DJ cries out through the sound system he has set up outside his local pub, the theme music from Rocky playing in the background. There are brass bands and steel bands a-playing, and at one stage, as we run beneath a concrete bridge, it feels like we runners are the music, the maracas reverberating sound at 360 degrees. Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen makes me speed up; Benny Hill’s theme tune makes me laugh out loud. So as well as energy gels and drinks, sweets and water, we runners are running on emotional and psychological fuel.

My dad told me not to run any marathons. At home my dad has an article about how running is bad for your joints. My mum doesn’t like me doing anything really, because for her the world is a scary place. Understandable, I suppose, since my parents come from war zones. So, somewhere between my dad’s depression and my mum’s anxiety, I was created. I ran the London Marathon for me, for I needed proof that I am more than just the product of depression and anxiety. I am resilient, strong and self-compassionate. Having overtaken Runners World pacers and a guy I nicknamed Robocop for his amazingly steady and assured pace, his strong and upright torso, his dark sunglasses and black leather belt carrying water and other essentials, I could believe in myself. This was my emotional and psychological fuel.

Other runners at the London Marathon were propelled forward by bereavement, illness, loss, even change – I witnessed that from the running shirts they wore bearing the logos of various charities – action against leukaemia and other cancers, hospice care, mental health support, suicide prevention, action to prevent child cruelty, the list went on and on. This crowd of people taking part in the Marathon in central London was not engaged in any form of political protest, but they were there to express their existential dissent through the art of running! People ran with their own personal stories and sets of experiences; running can be a marvellous act of defiance, resistance even. Running is about embracing life and surpassing your own expectations, regardless of any pain you may be experiencing. There is no rationale behind running a marathon, and yet it is inherently meaningful to those who take part. We are rebelling, having fun in a troubled world. I high-fived the children who lined the route cheering us on. I want to say to the parents whose 8 year old son was killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, please, please, do not feel guilty. Your son was doing that day what hundreds and thousands of children do – they stand as close as they can to the Marathoners, smiling and waving them on. Children have such amazingly open hearts.

At mile 22 my training kicked in. Running past exhausted people who were walking or lying down because they could not continue, I knew at this stage that I had enough in me to get to the finish line. I began counting from 1 to 10 over and over again, even shouting it out loud at times. This helped me to stay focussed and keep my pace up. Four miles later and the finish line was irrelevant to me now. As I approached the end, I knew I could continue past it; I was ready to go on and on, and the steward even had to tell me to stop running as I crossed the white line. Tears were in my eyes, for at that moment I realised that I had become a MARATHONER! The 3 hours and 50 minutes journey had transformed me and how I viewed myself. An inner calm took hold. There was no triumphalism or competitiveness, no jealousy that other people had finished before me. I was simply a Marathon Runner, and I felt as though I had returned from a long meditative retreat. Interestingly, beyond the finishing line I felt no connection with the spectators. Unlike during the marathon itself, when the crowds were part of the carnival, after the finish line the crowds were mere onlookers and I had entered a different bio-physical realm. It did not matter to me that I was covered in sweat and grime, that my hair was a mess and that I had no make-up on, and it did not matter to me what the spectators thought about that either. There was nothing and nobody stopping me now, for the London Marathon had made me into a supersonic woman!



The Importance of the Therapeutic Relationship in Counselling and Therapy: challenges and opportunities.

Research suggests that the therapeutic relationship is as important as any interventions are in relation to the effectiveness of counselling and therapy (Cooper, 2004; Kuyken et al. 2011). This means that not only is therapy about you experiencing various interventions in order to understand yourself, your life and your relationships better, but therapy is also about experiencing a secure and supportive relationship from the therapist.

A good therapeutic relationship between you and the therapist has many components. Carl Rogers (1951), a leading thinker and practitioner in person-centred therapeutic approaches, has argued that an effective therapeutic relationship involves you experiencing unconditional positive regard and empathy from your therapist. For Rogers (1951), the therapeutic relationship is so key because this can make you feel able to be yourself, to take down any defences and to trust that what you say will be accepted by the therapist. For Mearns and Thorne (2012), a good therapeutic relationship should involve there being no power differential between yourself and the therapist. This seems key, given that the World in which we live has many power differentials according to ‘race’/ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality and so on (Spalek, 2008).

A positive therapeutic relationship can be life-changing because this may be the first time ever that you have experienced complete acceptance from another person. A lot of research shows that humans are relational beings, meaning that we place a high value upon how others relate to us and how we feel they perceive us (Rogers, 1951; Bowlby, 1988). If a person has been brought up in an environment that is critical towards them, an environment that feels unsafe for them, then they may feel discomfort and even distress because they have been unable to develop into the person that perhaps aligns more closely to their inner values (Rogers, 1951). A good therapeutic relationship between therapist and client enables a person to better learn about themselves and to gain the courage to lead the life that is more closely suited to who they really are. This can take time, and so it is important to let the therapeutic relationship grow and develop. Perhaps in this solutions focussed environment that we live in, where short-term therapies are often funded, it is important to give time for the effects of therapy to be experienced, by giving time for the therapeutic relationship to work.

The therapeutic relationship is not, however, without challenge. Therapists often have to decide when and how they are going to intervene. You may want your therapist to sit and listen to everything that you want to say, and this is of course right. However, being in a therapeutic relationship also means that the therapist will be reflecting your statements back to you and also will be asking you questions and will be asking you to elaborate further. The therapist will be making decisions about how and when to intervene so that you get the most out of your counselling session. Sometimes you may find the therapist’s intervention as helpful, directing you to explore an area of your life in more detail in order for you to come to a deeper understanding of this. Sometimes, however, you may find the therapist’s intervention as challenging and even annoying, because the therapist is raising your awareness of issues and experiences that maybe you would prefer to avoid. According to the trans-theoretical model (TTM) of change, developed by Prochaska and Norcross (2010), there are six different stages of psycho-behavioural change – pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and termination. This means that on some aspects of your life you may be at pre-contemplation stage, and so you may be unaware of these aspects. A good therapeutic relationship enables your therapist to help raise your awareness of these issues, in order for you to move from the pre-contemplation to contemplation stage of change. At the contemplation stage of change, you are aware of the issues and can explore how you might prepare to address these (Prochaska and Norcross, 2010). Thus, the therapeutic relationship can help you to move between the different stages of psycho-behavioural change, in order to empower you to challenge and even change those parts of your life that you want changing.

A good therapeutic relationship involves building trust between yourself and the therapist. Trust is not an easy thing to develop, and if we draw upon research from contexts outside of therapy, this can help shed important light into the challenges of building a trusting relationship with your therapist. Trust involves placing faith in another person, that they will behave in a way that you believe they will. Trust develops out of experience, in our interactions with other people (Goldsmith, 2005). If you have been brought up within an environment where you have learnt not to trust others, or if you have experienced a violation of trust, developing trust for your therapist will take time. Initially, perhaps you can develop contingent trust towards the therapist. Contingent trust involves building trust through engaging in trust-building activities with your therapist. Here, the therapist needs to demonstrate their trustworthiness to you. This might involve, for example, the therapist saying that they are genuinely interested in listening to your experiences, and for you to experience this as them genuinely listening, with their full attention. This might involve the therapist saying that they will be available for a session with you at a certain time and place, and for them to be there at the time they said they would be.   Contingent trust can later become implicit trust, which is a more advanced type of trust that can be found in committed, stable relationships (Goldsmith, 2005). Perhaps after a number of sessions with your therapist, you can develop implicit trust for them, and maybe experiencing this is therapeutic. Trust towards the therapist can also be enhanced by checking out what ethical guidelines they follow, and for you to have clear understanding about confidentiality, and where the limits of confidentiality lie.

Clearly, there are many different aspects to a positive therapeutic relationship. Like all relationships, the therapeutic relationship can take time to build and grow. It seems crucial to therapeutic effectiveness and so this aspect to therapy is an important one to reflect upon.

Running Mindfully through November’s Playground

This morning when I went out for a run the rain was pouring down in buckets. A typical November morning: wet, windy, dark. As I ran along hilly wet tarmac something magical began to happen to me. Everyday thoughts about work, family, friends ran away from me, leaving behind my child self, ready to play with the gifts nature was throwing at me. At this time of year although we tend to think of endings, this run was transporting me back in time, to a time when I was young and freely engaging with the elements around me.

What did I see, smell, hear, feel during this run ? Mostly, water. It was raining so much that streams had formed on the edge of the roads I was running along, air bubbles bobbing along like pooh sticks through the water. I ran alongside these streams, sometimes feeling the cold water splash on my feet and legs as the streams turned to small lakes in places, with depths of muddy brown. On my glasses I could see droplets of rain, distorting my vision, but in an enchanting way. I could see creatures hidden inside the trees that were waving to me as I ran past, creatures that had a supportive presence to them, watching me go on my way. One tree creature was a giant cat, sitting still within a cascade of moving branches, I smiled as I ran past this cat.

Leaves of every kind of shape, size and hue were everywhere, on the road, on the grass, flying through the air before landing. I focussed on this foliage, noticing the softened ground beneath my feet as a result of a jigsaw puzzle of connected colourful leaves. I thanked the leaves for softening the impact on my knees and ankles. At one stage I could just about make out the sound of a bird before the strong breeze turned into a gale force and I found myself pushing through this invisible wall, feeling the strength of my upper body. Then, when I turned a corner the strong wind was behind me, pushing me like I had been gently pushed as a child whilst sitting on a swing. I accelerated down the hill, howling wind lifting my hair, tickling my ears. It was good to be free in this moment, nothing mattered because I had let go without realising. This run put me in a good place for the rest of this November day. How awesome !