I embarked on a cycle ride on Easter Monday. I had thought that Storm Katie had passed by and so I was now safe to go out. I hadn’t realised that I was actually cycling into the epicentre of the storm. The conditions worsened. The wind was gale force, at times knocking my bike so hard to the side that I almost ended up in a hedge. Hail stones started descending, stinging my face as they hurtled towards me. My hands, without gloves, began throbbing from the cold, an unrelenting pain, frozen fingers that were unable to move and properly grasp my handle bars. Added to this, some cars passed me by and, rather than stopping or slowing down to make sure that I was okay, they speeded past me even though I was struggling to keep a straight line on the road on my bike.
I arrived home feeling devastated and angered by what I perceived to be my own stupidity in going out in such undesirable weather conditions. I felt that somehow I had failed to have the positive experience that I had set out to have. These feelings lessened as I resolved to go out again in the coming days as soon as the weather got better. I went out again on the same route on a sunny and fresh day. I saw the first swallow of the season, I saw dancing hares, I heard birds communicating with each other and I appreciated the vast views all around me. Essentially, I had re-framed my cycling experience.
Counselling can help us to re-frame challenging life experiences that can leave us devastated. Seeking out counselling can be a bit like getting back on the road, exploring what has happened in one’s life, how you might re-evaluate this and then be able to move forward. As a counsellor I offer opportunity for re-framing personal experiences. This can be empowering as people are no longer necessarily stuck within a certain experiential interpretation of their lives. It is possible to re-evaluate life events and, I would argue, this can be key to moving on.
Walking by its very nature can be therapeutic. Walking can slow down time, we can lose ourselves in the moment of simply putting one foot infront of the other. Walking can allow us to observe Mother Nature, the birds, flowers, trees, water. We can listen to the sounds around us and appreciate the here and now. When applying walking to therapy, this can help to break down barriers in that you can walk side by side with a counsellor and as result feel less awkward and embarrassed. If you are a shy or a quiet person then walking next to a counsellor can help take off the pressure of having to say anything. Simply walking and being in the moment can be enough. It also helps that you don’t have to look at the counsellor’s face. Walking can provide any conversation with a point of focus, something you see or hear or notice. It can help break down any barriers to communication. I enjoy the walk and talk sessions that I provide at Rutland Water because Rutland Water is such a beautiful and inspiring location. The boats, birds, sheep and landscape are simply amazing and it can be deeply satisfying and therapeutic to walk along and talk at leisure, in a relaxed moment and setting.
Compassion focussed therapy is becoming more and more popular, amongst therapists and clients. Compassion focussed therapy can help to deal with many issues affecting our lives: our relationships, any emotional distress we may be experiencing, anxiety, depression, self-harm and so on.
Compassion is considered to help free the mind from negative emotions such as jealousy and fear. In Buddhism, for example, compassion is viewed as loving-kindness, to relieve the suffering of the self and of others. Compassion acknowledges the suffering that we experience, alongside the suffering of others, and it is through this acknowledgement that perhaps we learn to tolerate distress and to better accept ourselves.
Compassion focussed therapy involves understanding how the brain works and developing a compassion focussed approach to the challenges of being human. Evolutionary science suggests that the human brain has evolved in such a way as to sometimes produce difficult emotions in humans, like anger or jealousy. Basically, there are three types of emotional regulatory systems in our bodies: a drive/excite/vitality system which involves wanting, pursuing and achieving; a content/safe/connected system that is experienced as soothing, and a threat focussed system that is about protection and safety seeking. Compassion focussed therapy raises awareness within individuals about the nature of their brains and bodies and how individuals’ threat systems can be over-stimulated. Techniques to encourage social safeness are promoted in order to encourage our soothing systems.
Breathing and mindfulness techniques comprise a significant aspect of compassion focussed therapy. Individuals are encouraged to learn and practise how to breath and then to practice mindful breathing, which is finding a pattern that feels natural and soothing. Compassion focussed therapy also encourages people to imagine images or events that help elciit compassionate feelings, for example, imagining an experience of kindness from another person. Safe space imagery is common, encouraging people to imagine a place that gives a feeling of safeness, calm and contentment. Compassion focussed therapy encourages compassion towards the self as much as towards others, and so through this people can start to view themselves from a position of understanding rather than self-criticism. Self-criticism is likely to be a major issue for clients. Stress, trauma, depression, these can all impact upon the body and the mind, influencing how individuals view themselves, with these conditions often involving people viewing themselves negatively. A core aspect to compassion focussed therapy is working with the ‘inner critical voice’, to become more compassionate and kind towards this as a way of self-acceptance.
Stress at work can sometimes be overwhelming. The body may go into overdrive and you may experience high levels of adrenalin-induced restlessness; you may have panic attacks and/or you may also feel completely exhausted. This is often when people take time out of work to try to calm down shattered minds and bodies.
Job loss can be devastating. A deep sense of anger at the lack of control over your own destiny, sometimes there can be a sense of shame where you blame yourself about becoming unemployed, and there can be a feeling of no longer being useful to anything or anybody. This is often when people can become depressed and anxious.
Mindfulness can help to calm distressing emotions, sensations and thoughts. I find that mindfully noticing birds can have a soothing and inspiring impact on me. I watch the large birds of prey cruising above my head, so gracefully and so calmly. They are in their own time, not in modern day human time. They have their own sense of purpose and they decide when they will accelerate towards planet Earth to catch their prey. I also watch the flocks of seagulls flying through ever-changing skies. They can be noisy in just being, for this is their nature – squawking, numerous and free. Birds can hop over manmade walls and barbed wire, something I ponder as I walk through some institutional settings where some people have been locked inside. Birds can teach us a lot.
In today’s society we have electronic communication possibilities that potentially are really exciting. It is now possible to link up with a counsellor via Skype and to have counselling over Skype. This can be advantageous because you do not have to travel to see a counsellor and you can sit from the comfort of your own home to have a session. Skype enables you to see the counsellor and to interact with your counsellor and you can feel really supported and that you have found a safe space in which to explore things in your life. I enjoy working with Skype and have found that this does not interfere with any conversations that I may have. I would recommend Skype for counselling and I am happy to provide this service.
Telephone counselling offers people the opportunity to receive counselling even when they are not living in the same area as the counsellor. Telephone counselling can have many benefits – being able to sit in a place where you feel comfortable, not having to travel to meet the counsellor and there is also more flexibility with the time that you schedule in for sessions. Telephone counselling can really help to talk through what is happening currently for you and the counsellor can reflect back to you as well as suggest small changes you might like to incorporate into your daily life. Speaking over the phone doesn’t interfere with building a positive connection between the client and the counsellor and can really help people feel supported. If you have a lot of ongoing commitments in your life, or if you have found a counsellor that you would like to contact but live too far away from in order to go and see them directly, I would fully recommend trying out telephone counselling.
Running during the cold, dark and sometimes wet Winter months can seem bleak and uninspiring. I like to be grateful as I run through these wintry months, and nature has its own ways of delivering beautiful gifts as I take one footstep at a time. When I step out into the chill it is like I immerse myself slowly into a wonderful and deep lake, so I take my time and do not place any pressure on my body, I simply sink into the here and now and I mindfully experience.
I like the whooping sound of Canadian geese as they fly towards me. As I run I feel connected to their flight, my own movements become synchronised with theirs. They fly over and above my head and I am part of that energy, its strength, vigour, its togetherness. I say thank you to the geese for choosing to take flight during my run and I feel excited because I can see the next grouping of geese getting ready to take flight from the water’s edge. Maybe they also will whoop over my head.
I then find myself entering the world of boats. I am now running past a boatyard and the wind is shaking the masts of the many different boats that are there. Every boat has a different and human name – Cecelia, Prospero, Natasha – and the clanging of the masts is like a group of bell ringers celebrating my run, enjoying this beautiful moment. I say thank you to the world of boats. My attention then becomes immediately focussed upon a robin red breast, who is standing on the edge of the path that I am jogging on. I think about how hard birds and animals have to work during Winter in order to be able to get the food that they need and this makes me grateful for the muesli I ate this morning. I am also compassionate to my own physical and psychological struggles during these short dark and cold days.
I say thank you to the snow under my feet. I like the crunching feel of the snow. I like that my joints are experiencing less of an impact because of the white carpet that nature has rolled out this morning. As I run under a tree a smattering of white tissue paper drops gently all around me, the melting snow crumbling from the branches and disappearing into the environment. I look up at the sky above me and I notice that I am on top of the World – I am running along the highest point of a steep hill, looking down on the valley below me. I breathe in the fresh unpolluted air and I am grateful for this pure form of molecular experience. I then smile as I run into a village because now something is thanking me. I see before me a speeding sign that registers that I am running at seven miles per hour. In capital green letters the sign reads Thank You. Now I am being thanked, simply for taking one footstep at a time. I ignore the inner critical voice that says to me ‘You should be running at eight miles per hour’. I ignore the inner critic that says ‘You are running too slow’. Instead I say thank you to my self for going out this morning and just experiencing, just simply being. This sense of acceptance is a perfect winter’s gift.
Although societies like to differentiate between victims and offenders, in reality offenders are often people who have been victimised. The following is a fictional case study that represents some of the male offenders I have met as a therapist providing counselling inside prison.
Ian is a young man who is in prison for a ten year sentence for aggravated assault against a young man he fell into a dispute with in a bar. At the time of the offence Ian was very drunk and he says that he does not remember much from the incident, only that he ‘lost it’, that he was consumed by rage and lashed out at a young man he saw as being aggressive towards him. Up to the point of his incarceration, Ian had been drinking heavily and sometimes was also taking class A drugs. Ian had experienced a difficult childhood because his father was a heavy drinker who would physically assault his mother; his father was also aggressive towards Ian and his siblings. Violence was therefore a normal part of Ian’s everyday life at home. When Ian was 10 his parents separated and Ian and his siblings then had to move to a new area with his mother so that his father would not know where they were. Growing up Ian often became angry and could not understand why.
Ian clearly had been the victim of domestic violence; having to move home with his mother and siblings also meant that Ian had to create a new life for himself in a new area not out of his own choice. Ian is also likely to have experienced trauma as a child because witnessing and experiencing violence and aggression could have traumatised him in that the aggression from Ian’s father may have been episodically severe and overwhelming. Ian’s case also illustrates how victimisation, trauma and crime can be linked in that experiences of victimisation can be traumatic for the individuals concerned leading to symptoms like anger and anxiety, and some people may cope with these feelings by taking alcohol and/or drugs.
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.
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!