Mindfulness, Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy

Ending and beginning

This month has been one of endings and beginnings for me. I achieved my qualification in Solution Focused Hypnotherapy with Clifton Hypnotherapy Practice Training, having gathered the most awesome group of friends I could have hoped for. Set against the backdrop of coronavirus and uncertainty, CPHT gifted me a year of learning and growing together – supporting each other to help others. From that nest of support, Choice Therapies was born, and it continues to grow into a nurturing community for practitioners from all walks as therapy, as they learn and grow and strive to do their best by their clients.

This month I also had a big push on my Masters thesis, exploring the use of Solution Focused Hypnotherapy for the management of chronic pain conditions. For a few weeks I was wholly submerged in data analysis and write-ups, and thanks to the incredible support of my supervisor, not to mention my family, I’m returning to the surface, as a finalised report takes shape.

And yesterday, I waved goodbye (over Zoom) to a lovely bunch of solution focused practitioners from across the globe who I had learned so much with and from over the last four months, on the Intensive Solution Focused Brief Therapy course with BRIEF International. Discussing the intricacies of this transformative approach with the solution focused greats, Adam Forever, Chris Iveson, Elliott Connie, and Evan George, was an absolute joy, and has shaped how I work with clients for the better.

So here I am, winding down, taking a moment, taking a breath. Looking back down the mountain to admire the view. These moments are important. We take stock, we process, we gain perspective on where we are right now, in this moment, and nudge the tiller if needs be to help us along the path ahead.

There’s so much to look forwards to; collaborations, projects, research, learning. Choice Therapies continues to grow into a wonderful community. My own practice continues to allow me the opportunity and privilege of watching my clients grow in strength and confidence, finding ways to manage their challenges that work for them. Many of the ventures I am fortunate to be a part of, are in their infancy. The future is full and exciting.

But for now, in this moment, I am pressing pause. Reconnecting, celebrating, and feeling grateful.

Mindfulness

How does labelling emotions help?

“If we can name it we can tame it,” says Marc Brackett, Research psychologist and Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, in his inspiring book, Permission to Feel.

By giving words to our feelings, we start to possess their power. And yet, while there are over 200 words related to emotions in the English language, we only use about 7 of these on a regular basis to describe our inside selves. This meagre diet of emotional vocabulary is woefully inadequate to express, and therefore process our thoughts, worries and fears.

Labelling our emotions is an essential part of moving them from our emotional brain to our intellectual brain. When they are confined to our emotional brain, our feelings can be intimidating. Scary. Overwhelming. Beyond our reach. We know we feel rubbish but can’t articulate why, to ourselves or to anyone else. This isolates us from support because we don’t have the words to reach out. We may not even have the words to understand we need to reach out.

We have a responsibility, to ourselves and to our children, to label feelings accurately, to develop our emotional language in order to protect ourselves from this emotional bottleneck.

Words are there, and they are ours to use; to be curious, to explore, to investigate, to express exactly how we are feeling. Only then can we release, connect and write our own stories.

Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to feel. Unlocking the power of our emotions to help ourselves and our kids, and our society thrive. Celadon Books

Mindfulness

The school run

Every school morning we walk this way to school.

The pressure builds in our home as we rush around getting ready to leave the house.

Tempers start to fray, voices rise, jaws clench, until finally we tumble out into the fresh air.

And breathe.

This walk to school is our sanity saver. We slow down, we breathe, we process, we connect. We smell the rain, we feel the cool breeze, we hear the rumble of morning traffic.

We find calm in the rhythm of our footsteps.

How do you find your calm?

Mindfulness, Solution Focused Therapy

Snacking: how can we resist the urge?

It’s mid-afternoon. Working from home. Five meetings deep. Battling the post-lunch slump. Stifling yawns. Back aching. Attention slipping. The fridge beckons.

Once you become aware of your desire to get up and head to the fridge, your brain has already invested millions of neural connections into the decision to do so.

You now have 0.2 seconds to work with, from the moment you became consciously aware of being about to head to the fridge for a snack, to the moment you start to stand. This 0.2 second interval is long enough, with practice to notice the urge, and intervene.

And notice we must, as it requires ALOT more cognitive effort to stop ourselves from polishing off a tub of humous/a bag of Pom Bears/anything with chocolate in it, once we have already started the process of doing so.

We can’t control all of the neural signals sent out by our brains before we become aware of what’s going on. In any one moment a mind boggling 40,000 neural impulses are firing in between our ears, the vast majority of which we will remain blissfully unaware about. BUT.. we do have the power to consciously ‘veto’ urges that are sent to our awareness from the other 95% of our brain. We can choose whether or not to act on our impulses.

As Dr Jeffrey M Schwartz explains, us humans may not have much free will but we do have free won’t. Maximising the potential of these precious 0.2 seconds, to gain greater control over our urges, starts with awareness.

Once we can discern the small time scales that make up the process of each impulsive action, we can start to notice urges as they arise, and as they unfold. Author of Your Brain at Work, David Rock, describes this process as ‘Brain – signal – desire – movement’. Once we become aware of our desire we have a small window to inhibit our movement.

Holding on to this idea of how we might inhibit an urge takes up valuable space in our prefrontal cortex, an energy-hungry, space-limited resource. The limitations of our prefrontal cortex are never more apparent than when we are tired. When our intellectual brain is running on empty, and we are pouring vast swathes of our cognitive capacity into staying awake, there is little space left to notice, let alone stop the urge to snack.

Herein lies the importance of words. Language, as David Rock puts it,supercharges our ‘veto’ power. If we have the words to describe a pattern of thinking we will be much more likely to notice it.

Building our language around what on Earth is going on inside our brains, brings this once- mysterious processes into our conscious awareness where we have more control over how we manage them.

A key focus on Solution Focused Hypnotherapy is building this language to strengthen the network of connections between our intellectual conscious minds and our emotional subconscious minds. We learn that the process exists. We colour our understanding with language – words that bring the process into our conscious awareness. Then we draw on this understanding when we need to, achieving greater control over our urges when they strike.

So at 3pm on a Tuesday, when the fridge sounds it’s familiar calling hum and the cupboards subconsciously serenade us towards the snacks, we know that we have a 0.2 second slither of time. A gift of 0.2 seconds in which we can express our ‘free won’t and choose to refuse.

Rock, D. (2009). Your Brain at Work. New York: Harper Collins

Mindfulness, Uncategorized

Back to school – What have we gained? What have we lost?

Standing at the school gate (behind the freshly painted yellow line) I watched yesterday as my children skipped off towards their classrooms without looking back.

Seeing their school bags bob out of sight, ushered by smiling teachers, marked the end of 6 months of lockdown. Parents were shuffled out through the new one-way system, blinking in bewilderment as we stepped out onto the pavement. Everything was so strange and yet so familiar; we seemed to slip back into the routine so easily that in some surreal sense it felt as though lockdown hadn’t happened.

Standing in the drizzle, I was, for the first time in half a year, free. Free from what had begun to feel like an inescapable, chaotic dance of multitasking, entertaining, cooking, tidying and refereeing, Now I had the chance to look back down the mountain we had climbed.

Our little nuclear family experienced no tragic personal losses from COVID-19, beyond those we witnessed in the news, which we followed helplessly, until the numbers and the politics became too confusing. Our three boys are young. They hadn’t missed out on any milestones or rights of passage. In many ways they adapted into lockdown with as much ease as they adapted back out of it. Just like that.

Lockdown had its upsides. Our children bonded and their bonds grew stronger. They played together for hours. In the absence of schoolwork they had to do, they began to lead their own learning; crafting, drawing, painting, reading, writing stories. They explored every inch of the garden. They spent more time than ever before with their dad, who was working from home. They built genuine friendships with their grandparents. As parents we realised the strength of our support network.

But there were losses of a different kind and with these came consequences for the whole family. We lost routine and a stabilising structure to our day. We began enthusiastically enough, the children and us, following a timetable, keeping up with a ‘school day’ of sorts, juggling working from home with homeschooling reasonably well. The grandparents joined in with zoom lessons and virtual story time. But as the weeks went on, the novelty wore off. Enthusiasm waned. Bedtimes got later, school days got shorter. Keeping homeschooling varied and interesting for three different ages was a challenge. Fighting was relentless and inevitable. The children learnt about Netflix and how to use the remote control. Their methods of mischief became extraordinarily creative.

As parents we lost time. Time to invest in our own projects so that we could feel personally fulfilled and able to give more of ourselves. Time to invest in our own self care so that we could do a better job of caring for others. Time to focus on one thing at a time, whether it was work, a phone call, or admin task so that we could give others our full, unwavering attention.

As parents we also lost space. Amidst the unbroken noise of three boys, we lost space to think. Space to get out and go. Space to calm down. Space to have an uninterrupted conversation. We literally lost space to sit, as the couch became a fortress.

We tried to solve these losses ourselves, but ended up simply moving the loss from one place to another, like a sliding puzzle.

We took on new projects to mark our personal space. In turn we lost time to invest in caring for each other and for ourselves, and we lost patience with our children as we piled yet more on to our multi-tasking list.

We stayed up late to gain back some child-free time with each other and time for ourselves. In turn we lost sleep, and we lost both time and space the following day as we limped groggily through the day with tired brains.

And now, looking back down the lockdown mountain we have climbed with its steep slopes and craggy crevices, we have time and space to process the last 6 months.

I have time and space to ask myself – How much did our lost space and time as parents impact our family through lockdown? Could I have done things differently? What could I have done better? Will my family be ok? These questions are likely to lead me to negatively introspect about the past and negatively forecast the future, creating worry and anxiety.

We have waited a long time for this time and space. Too long to fill it with self criticism and doubt. So I’m going to fill it with gratitude. Gratitude is an immensely powerful tool we can use to situate ourselves firmly in the present. Consciously considering what we are grateful for connects us with the people around us, and with the present moment itself. So,,.

I am grateful for family.

I am grateful for friends.

I am grateful for home.

I am grateful for passion.

I am grateful for hope.

What are you grateful for?

Mindfulness

Fighting perfectionism


I remember when I was at college, perfectionism was actively encouraged. Being perfect we rewarded. The term perfectionist was widely regarded as a compliment. 

We were told to say at job interviews that perfectionism was our one ‘weakness’, being as it was, after all, a strength…😳

Perfectionism is so destructive. It destroys our confidence, it destroys our self worth. It destroys our relationships. It destroys our joy for life. 

These days, perfectionism has lost its charm – it has been outed by many, as everything from “the enemy of creation” (John Updike) to “a slow death” (Hugh Prather).

The campaign against perfectionism is so important. For students cramming all night for those last few top marks. For workers losing evenings and weekends to make those last few changes to a project. For parents drowning in parenting advice and desperate to give their child the perfect start in life. 

Debunking the perfectionism myth is important for everyone. 

So here is my contribution. It has all been said before, and I am saying it again:

Nobody is perfect.
Nothing is perfect.
Perfection is an unattainable goal
Imperfections make the world beautiful.
Strive for excellence.
Strive for progress.
Accept good enough.

Yours faithfully,

A recovering perfectionist.

Mindfulness

The battle against lockdown burn-out

Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, leaving work at work was a simple process for many of us. Arriving at and leaving the office represented (most of the time) a definite start and end to our working day. Train journeys, bus rides, walks, and bike rides to work gave us a chance to plan and rehearse the day ahead. The journey home from the office allowed us an opportunity to process our day, dial down from work stresses and re-enter a mental space where we were able to relax and give time to the rest of our lives and our selves. With the advent of smartphones, even this routine has lost its power to protect our home life from the intrusion of work, but the structure was there nonetheless, and many of us clung to it like a lifeline, our legs dangling above the abyss of burnout.

Lockdown took from many of us this work life balance safety net. It blurred even more the lines between work and home. Groggily we stumble out of bed, sleep walk over to our computers and fire them up peering at emails through blurry, bloodshot eyes before we have said our first word. We dive headfirst into our workday before we have had a positive interaction with anyone in our lives, before we have done anything positive for ourselves, often before we have thought about anything else at all.

Work starts our day, and often ends it, as we squeeze in one more email late at night because it’ll only take a minute and the computer is right there and then we won’t have to do it tomorrow and we might as well as wish we had and so on and so on.

Our intellectual brains are incredibly adept at offering up rationale for decisions driven by our emotional brains, which is where, thanks to months of a less than fantastic work life balance, many of us have found ourselves. Buried deep in our emotional primitive minds, swimming in stress.

This continual state of high stress impacts us physically, mentally, and emotionally. We respond to comments from friends and colleagues with paranoia and self doubt. WhatsApp messages from friends build up like an overwhelming mountain of admin. We fire back work emails too quickly. We are rushed and defensive. We are distracted in our interactions with family members. We can’t remember what we had for lunch and whether we had any at all. Making dinner looms like a mammothian challenge and we end up reaching for the cornflakes. Our sleep starts to feel unsatisfying and inadequate. Our skin breaks out and we experience aches and pains we have never experienced before. Everything feels slightly out of control.

In the absence of a ready made structure that can support some form of work-life balance, how can we protect our lives beyond work? Different strategies will work for different personalities, but a good place to start is by asking ourselves what will I do to care for myself today? Perhaps this question alone might open the door to how we might better care for ourselves tomorrow.

Mindfulness

Dancing leaves

The tree that reaches it’s gentle sweeping branches over my courtyard is a giant. Exposed to the elements; wind, sun and rain. I often sit back and wonder at the leaves, dancing their chaotic dance. Twirling, tumbling into and around each other; clinging on to the branches for dear life as they twist around it in search of refuge from the wind. The dance is exhausting to watch, it appears miraculous that the leaves manage to hold on.

These dancing leaves remind me of my thoughts. Bustling alongside each other, coiling, curling around each other, vying with each other for a millisecond of space. And yet, when I shift my focus from the busy canopy down to the thick trunk, I leave behind the chaos; all is still, steady, strong and firm.

Refocusing our attention to our core, to what matters, can feel like a challenge. It can be difficult to remember that the trunk is even there, hidden beneath the wild waving, the spinning circus of leaves above. When we accept our thoughts for what they are, leaves dancing in the wind, we accept their busy, chaotic dance, we accept their exhausting acrobatics as an inevitable part of our nature, part of our humanity as we journey through life, exposed to the elements. When we accept our thoughts for what they are, we allow ourselves to release our focus on the twists and turns of every leaf. We allow ourselves to step back and see through the swaying branches to the steady trunk beneath.

This core strength is something we can return to whenever we need, when the chaos above becomes too overwhelming. It is always there, restorative and resilient; a sturdy cradle from which we can branch out, extend, adventure and explore; dancing with the wind and reaching for the sun.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Mindfulness

Hearing bodies, listening minds

 “It was gut instinct. I just knew.”

Given how readily we accept the connection between our body and mind through our everyday choice of words, it is surprising how little credit we give our bodies as messengers of our emotions. 

We ignore our heavy eyelids and pour another coffee to override fatigue. We hide stress underneath the make-up we use to conceal our skin breakouts. We dull our anxiety with the pain killers we take for our tension headaches. Our bodies can be bombarding us with signals that our mind is suffering, and still we don’t listen. There’s always a quick fix; a way of pushing the signal away and papering over the cracks.

Until there isn’t a quick fix. There’s no paper left. And we break.

What happens if we start to listen to our bodies before they scream for our attention? What happens if we recognise the power of these connections between our body and mind, and use them to go deeper, to understand how we can support our bodies and minds to work in our favour? What happens if we take a moment to hear what our body is telling us? What happens if we take the messages seriously, and look beyond the surface for a solution?

What is your body telling you? 

Mindfulness

Owning our lockdown lows

For many of us, lockdown has brought bubbling to the surface emotions that we have pushed to the depths of our minds for as long as we can remember and kept there with busy routines, interactions, and to-do-lists. Endless stimulation has provided our moments of melancholy with a fast track down to this subconscious space.

Some of us do this so well that when these emotions rise up, they do so with the power of like a geyser firing hot steam hundreds of feet into the air. Our turmoil is compounded by utter shock that such strength of emotion exists inside us. 

So what happens if we see this uprising of all those long-supressed and smothered emotions as an opportunity to accept them, to acknowledge them, to allow them airtime?

Brené Brown encapsulates beautifully the importance of acknowledging how we are feeling in her book Rising Strong:

“The opposite of recognising that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away. Instead they own us, they define us.”

Pushing difficult thoughts and feelings to the depths of our mind is exhausting as we use all our strength to keep them there. We take our energy and attention away from the rest of our lives and plough it into pushing down those feelings. The very act of holding back these emotions becomes our purpose.

As Brené Brown writes “Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending – to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think “Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.””

Perhaps there are stories we need to take ownership of, emotions we need to acknowledge and accept, to relieve our weary minds from the energy it takes to push them down below our consciousness. Perhaps by stopping the world in its tracks, lockdown has allowed us the quiet, the time and the space to recognize what we are feeling. A little nudge to write our own endings.

Brown, B. (2015). Rising strong (First edition.). New York: Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House.