Letting Go of Toxic Relationships

Sometimes we can get involved with people that harm us, psychologically, emotionally and even physically. We may not always see this coming because when we first meet a person they may show us their best side – the funny, easy-going, even sexy side to their personalities. We may at first experience a lot of attention from them that we really like, unaware that the person who we are attracted to has deeper complexities. As the relationship progresses we can begin to experience control, abuse, rejection, even betrayal from our partners and this is very difficult to come to terms with because we can find ourselves looking back and craving the relationship that we used to have, before the toxicity set in. This is even more difficult when we feel alone because our partner has helped to isolate us from our family and friends. It becomes very easy for our lives to then become dominated by a toxic relationship. We can find ourselves constantly thinking about our partner, what they did and said and how bad this made us feel, rather than getting on with leading our own lives. We can lose sight of who we are, our dreams and hopes for the future.

If we find ourselves in a toxic relationship it is important to seek support from another person, and this can be found in a good counsellor.   Counselling can help us to explore what the toxic relationship is about, how it is sustained, and how we might try to move out of this. It may be that we have developed an anxious attachment to our toxic partner, whereby we believe that we need our partner, that we cannot continue with our lives if abandoned by them, even though they are not good for us. Counselling can help us to build a secure base from within our own selves, so that we no longer fear abandonment or rejection. Counselling can help to make us feel independent rather than co-dependent, where we feel we are able to live our lives independently of a toxic partner. Self-compassion is key. We must not blame ourselves or be filled with remorse. It is important to build our own self-confidence and self-worth so that we can let go of any toxic relationship.




Re-framing our Lives and Counselling

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.

The Beauty of Walking and Talking in Counselling

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

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.

PhD Opportunity

Named contact person – Professor Basia Spalek

 An Exploration of Trauma amongst Refugees in the East Midlands: Policy and Practice Implications

Project Outline

Background Context

Research shows that refugee populations have higher levels of mental health and trauma-related issues. A recent 2013 report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), highlights a number of research studies that illustrate the trauma-related consequences of conflict and displacement (UNHCR: 2013: 23). The impacts of trauma are far-reaching and can include: depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, panic attacks, personality and attachment disorders (a result of complex trauma that occurs early in childhood), risk taking behaviours, alcohol and drug dependency, and PTSD.

Aims and Objectives

This proposal aims to implement and then evaluate trauma-based screening tools and interventions, as recommended by NICE and WHO guidelines, for Syrian refugees arriving in Derby, Nottingham and Leicester.  The complexities of trauma are not widely understood by wide-ranging pubic sector and even medical professionals.  Additionally, trauma-based symptoms amongst minority refugee populations, who have different cultural, ethnic and religious identities, are poorly understood.

This project has the following objectives:

  • Raise awareness amongst, and educate, professionals coming into contact with Syrian/refugee populations (housing officers, social workers, General Practitioners etc.) about trauma and trauma-based symptoms.
  • Educate and train professionals coming into contact with Syrian/refugee populations into using an evidence-based trauma screening tool, so that individuals displaying PTSD and other significant trauma symptoms can be referred on to the appropriate services.
  • Implement trauma-focussed cognitive behavioural interventions with Syrian/refugee populations that are culturally sensitive.


Work Stress, Work Loss and Cruising like a Bird

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.

Skype Counselling

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

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.

Thank You for Running at 7 MPH

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.

Victims, Offenders and Trauma

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.