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, 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

Solution Focused Therapy

Borrowing perspective

As humans we care about how others perceive us. Our primitive programming prioritises human connection. To a degree, caring what others think keeps us kind. But often we can care too much. And caring becomes worrying. Worrying becomes anxiety. Anxiety can make us feel trapped. 

We worry about how our colleagues perceive our communication style; our office ‘banter’, our outfit, our handshake, our weekend plans, our email signature, our Zoom backdrop. 

We worry about how families perceive our lifestyle, our house, our job, our partner, our carbon footprint, our choices.

We worry about how our friends perceive our personal style, our level of engagement, that thing we said or didn’t say, that thing we did or didn’t do.

The parents among us worry about what our mum and dad friends think of our parenting style, our children’s diets, manners, birthday parties, screen time.

This worry shuts us down, and pushes us further and further away from our own authenticity. We try to be what we think others want and what we think others need. We try and try and try, until we find ourselves a world away from our own sense of meaning. Disconnected from our inner strength. Lacking confidence and losing self-esteem.

Ironically the friends and family members who we love and trust the most will tend to describe us with far more kindness than we describe ourselves. 

When we step, with both feet, into the perspective of a loved one, someone who knows us better than anyone else, and look back at ourselves, we can shine a light on strengths, capacities, and resources we never recognised were there. 

In solution focused therapy we encourage our clients to step into this alternative perspective and we ask;

“What would this person notice about you that lets them know of your strengths? 

“What stories would this person tell that had inspired their confidence and belief in you?”

Sometimes, when our own lens is misted over with worry and self-doubt, borrowing the lens of a loved one can help us achieve clarity on exactly how, underneath all the trying, we are already the person we hope to be.

Solution Focused Therapy

Finding hope

In Solution Focused Therapy, we talk about the importance of never giving up. We never give up on our clients. We never give up on the process. We never give up on a question, once asked. We never give up on ourselves, on our capacity to try to help our clients with our questions. And this is because we believe.

We believe our clients have hope. We believe everyone has hope. Sometimes this hope gets buried deep beneath the debris of life. Hidden under mountains of fear, worry, regret, disappointment, anger. These mountains can seem vast; the task of shifting them can seem overwhelming. And so a heavy fog of depression can settle on top, and we can lose clarity and perspective. We don’t know where to start in our search for hope.

In Solution Focused Therapy we believe in the power of the question. We believe that the right questions open up pathways in our clients’ minds. These pathways lead our clients to a recognition of what has been good, what has gone well, how they have coped. These pathways lead our clients through the fog, through the mountains of fear, worry, regret, disappointment and anger. These pathways lead our clients to hope.   

Solution Focused Therapy, Uncategorized

Back to school (or not): Dear parents of teens,

The road back to a normal school life stretches into the distance. 

The masks are out. The sanitiser is stocked. The yellow tape is down. The tables are spaced. A swarm of confusing new rules just got swallowed into the school day.

Our teenagers and young people have spent lockdown, locked down. And the locks on our future generations remain.

Locked out of schools they may never return to. Locked out of milestones they never got to celebrate. Locked into grades they had little control over. Locked out of gap years that have been cancelled. Locked out of careers that have been halted.

Make way for frustration. Acknowledge fears. Accept worries. Expect tears. It is a frustrating, scary, worrying time.

And yet.

Make way for creativity. Acknowledge strength. Accept individuality. Expect hope.

Mindfulness, Solution Focused Therapy

Gut instinct

Connecting our minds with our bodies is a key element to finding our inner calm. In solution focused therapy, as we support our clients to explore how a positive emotion feels for them, we might ask where they feel it? Where in their body do they experience that sense of confidence? What part of their body do they look to for that sense of strength? Do they experience calm in their head? Do they notice freedom in their shoulders? Do they feel joy in their chest?

The deep connections we hold between our body and our mind are splashed across our language in infinite metaphor. The idea that emotions, thoughts, and states have an anatomical home has been immortalised in songs time and time again. Love is felt in our fingers and in our toes; we can’t get it out of our head; we see it in your eyes; we hold it in our hands, our arms; we fight tooth and nail for it.

So how did instinct find its home in our gut?

When our subconscious mind perceives danger and triggers our fight or flight response, the physical impact is tangible, and many of the physical sensations we experience are in our gut. Our stomach churns, flips, sinks, rolls, and we are often hit by a wave of nausea.

This subconscious response that connects our thoughts to our gut is an evolutionary hand-me-down from our prehistoric ancestors. As a caveman running away from a wild animal, a full stomach would have impacted our speed and agility, with stark consequences to our survival. Our primitive mind would have stepped in to help, by ejecting anything from our body that may have hindered our chances of escape.

Modern society presents us with a very different experiences that we might subconsciously perceive as threats to our sense of safety and comfort. Although we may not need to run from wild animals quite so frequently, our subconscious mind still responds to a perceived threat in the same way it did 100,000 years ago, stepping in to protect us, and bringing our body on board to help. Our protective primitive instincts remain, including our gut instinct.

Recognising this connection between our body and mind as a potential strength is the first step towards supporting our mind through our body, and supporting our body through our mind. 

Gut instinct is a gift and it’s there for us, should we choose to listen.

Solution Focused Therapy

Will it always be this bad?

In the thick of a crisis, this question often presents itself. Perhaps we ask it of ourselves, our close friends, our family members, our therapist.

How we answer this question depends on where we are, in that moment, within the vast complex landscape that lies between pessimism and optimism.

The view from the depths of the murky Valley of Pessimism, fills its beholder with hopelessness.

From this perspective the events in our lives appear permanent: “It will always be this bad,” we assume.

From this perspective, the events in our lives appear pervasive: “This is going to ruin everything,” we fear. 

From this perspective, the events in our lives appear personal: “ This is all my fault,” we blame.

In stark contrast, the view from the peak of the glowing, wholesome, Mountain of Optimism fills its beholder with hope.

From this vantage point, the events in our lives appear temporary: “This moment too will pass,” we believe.

From this vantage point the events in our lives appear specific: “There is more in my life,” we acknowledge.

From this vantage point, the events in our lives appear external: “This does not define me,” we determine.

When we ask “Will it always be this bad?” we are asking which way to look. We have a choice to look towards the vibrant colours and long open vistas of optimism, or towards the dark, murky gloom of pessimism. 

And the direction we look will determine the direction we walk.

In Solution Focused Therapy we believe in the potential of every question to open up an avenue of hope. Each question carries, within its many answers, the possibility for change. The potential for a different perspective.

We can embrace this potential for hope in the questions we ask ourselves and those around us everyday. 

When we ask ‘will it always be this bad?’, we can recognise that there is a part of us that believes it won’t. Recognising this, we can then give this hopeful part ourselves space to lead the way towards positive change.

Solution Focused Therapy

The client is always right

This was a key message I took away from a training session I attended this week with Evan George, Co-Owner of BRIEF, the world’s leading centre for solution focused practice in therapy and counselling.

Evan George repeated this sentiment several times in different contexts, so that it felt like an undercurrent to his presentation, which is appropriate as it is a fundamental concept to grasp in order to be an effective Solution Focused Therapist.

The client is always right. Consistently standing by this belief with every question, every utterance, is extremely difficult. Even for even the most experienced practitioner. It requires discipline and dedication to the idea that the client has what they need to help themselves. 

When we consider the client as right (excepting situations where safety is compromised) we allow the client to own their story. This means the client owns their successes. We value what the client brings to the table above all else. We ask questions that guide their attention to their table of resources and give them the opportunity to explore the dimensions of each resource. This means that the client plays a crucial role in finding the way forward that works for them.

We witness the positive impact of owning our decisions every day. When our children help chop the vegetables for dinner they are more likely to eat them. When our partner reaches their own decision to clear out the garage, they are more likely to do so. Leading our journey towards progress builds a much stronger foundation for lasting change. 

So we celebrate our client’s success as just that – their successes. But what about the times when therapy doesn’t work, when the positive outcomes aren’t there? The responsibility for this, says Evan George, sits squarely on our shoulders as therapists. If we feel as though we are going nowhere, it’s because we haven’t found the right question. 

As solution focused therapists we have a vast collection of carefully worded questions to our disposal,  a cabinet crammed full of keys to unlock useful conversation. Perhaps we choose a key that doesn’t work and the client sits, arms folded; unmoving, unconvinced. Perhaps we choose a key that creaks too loudly in the lock and sends the client running for the comfort and familiarity of their problem and negative thinking. 

This can be a frustrating responsibility to take on, but it’s also hopeful. Because somewhere, nestled at the back of our cabinet of questions, there could be a key. It might have been hidden by the dust of habit. We may have erroneously decided it was too misshapen to fit any lock. Maybe we hadn’t even realised it was a key. Perhaps the client was holding it all along. But as long as we believe in our client we keep looking. Keep trusting. Holding space for positive change.

For training opportunities and some great resources on Solution Focused Brief Therapy, check out the BRIEF website https://www.brief.org.uk.

This training session was hosted by the Clinical Hypnotherapy School, whose fantastic training opportunities I can personally recommend.

Mindfulness, Solution Focused Therapy

Looking on the bright side

In Solution Focused Hypnotherapy, one of our main intentions is to shift the client’s focus away from the problem and towards the positive. Humans have a natural negativity bias, particularly when we are feeling stressed. This is because when we are stressed, we spend more time in our primitive minds and the primitive mind is a negative mind: it always sees the world from the worst possible perspective. The primitive mind has to be negative to ensure our survival as a human species. If we answered the door to an eight foot tiger, it’s highly unlikely that we would invite him in for tea, and chuckle as he ate all the cupcakes and drank all of Daddy’s beer, as happens in Judith Kerr’s children’s story The Tiger Who Came To Tea.

Thankfully, if we did open our front door to an eight foot tiger (or it’s less fantastical equivalent) our fight or flight response would kick in within a fraction of second, pumping out adrenalin, increasing our heartbeat, preparing our body for escape. Operating from within this stress response, we would assume the worst, we would be hyper-vigilant to any movement the tiger made, and we would be obsessional about figuring out an appropriate escape route. In this scenario, our stress response is our friend, it’s working for us, we are immensely grateful for its input.

However, in many situations, this negative focus causes us an enormous amount of needless suffering. Raging or descending into gloom about a smashed wing mirror doesn’t fix the mirror. It just suck us into our negative primitive mind, reducing the value we can both give and receive from our interactions with others. When we surface from our rage and gloom back into our intellectual minds, we are likely to reward ourselves with a hefty serving of shame about how we handled the situation. We have grown our hurt. Similarly, ranting when we find our kitchen wall has been redecorated with permanent marker, courtesy of our three-year-old, doesn’t miraculously remove the scribble. It just sucks us into our negative primitive mind, reducing the value we can give to, and receive from our child. When we escape from the cycle of ranting and regain intellectual control, we’re rewarded with the all familiar weight of parental shame about how we handled the situation. Our suffering has swelled.

In these stressful moments, wrenching our attention away from the problem and towards the positive can loom like a mammothian task. ‘Looking on the bright side’, as simple as it sounds, actually entails a lot of practice if we are to be able to apply it when we most need to. In his book Waking Up, Sam Harris suggests that just one positive thought can act as a lever to pry the mind loose from “whatever rut it has found on the landscape of unnecessary suffering.”

Acknowledging, out loud if necessary “at least the rest of the car is undamaged” or “at least we have some paint left to cover up the marker pen”, can help us to manufacture a feeling of gratitude for all the bad things that have not happened. Research has shown that gratitude is a powerful mechanism for increasing well being over time, but it can be equally powerful as a safety net when stressful events occur, bouncing us back into our intellectual minds where we can access rationale and reason, and suffer less than we otherwise would have done.

References

Harris, S. (2014). Waking up. Simon & Schuster

Kerr, J. (2006). The Tiger Who Came To Tea. (1st Ed). London: HarperCollins