30 November 2011

Counselling in Exeter - learning about Heart Intelligence


I am very excited about learning more about Heart Intelligence this Saturday at a workshop run by Gill Wyatt. I am going to be learning about heart-mind coherence and how to apply it to everyday life. More information on this concept can be found on the link above.

I went to a basic 2 hour course earlier this year and was blown away by some of what I learned such as the fact that the heart cells are 60% neuronal. Ancient wisdom, that teaches that the heart is the centre of everything, and old sayings such as "going with your heart" and "heartfelt decisions" are neurologically accurate.

This relatively new branch of neurology is called neurocardiology and I'm very enthusiastic about it

23 November 2011

The Chemistry of Change

Excerpt from an essay on The Chemistry of Change - a scientific angle on what counselling is all about. I wrote this to go with my first year presentation on the neuroscience of counselling. The full essay, with references, can be found here.

The neurology behind our thoughts

Every time we think about something or see something our brain is sending electrical messages through our brain cells, or neurons. Depending on what we are seeing/thinking, different neurons are activated. For example, thinking about your best friend will fire off the neural network (group of neurons) associated with your best friend and your brain will remember how she looks, sounds, smells even! But also all the other associated sensory information including the feel of the bond you may share, the laughs you have had, the tragedies you may have shared....all these experiences of “your best friend” are joined together as a neural network.

There is an accepted rule in modern neuroscience, known as Hebbian Learning that “neurons that fire together wire together” (Joe Dispenza, 2007) so at a basic level, we can say that if we have repeatedly good experiences with somebody or something then we will associate that person or thing with those positive feelings. Of course the flipside is that this works with negative emotions too. A metaphorical example of this would be of going through a jungle for the first time, you have to cut a path through it; the next time you go through the jungle, it will be easier to go down the same path that has already been made than to cut a new one. This is what brains do – once a neuronal pathway has been made in response to stimulus in the environment, when that stimulus occurs again, the same neuronal pathway is activated.
Damasio states that “even when we merely think about an object, we tend to construct memories not just of shape or colour but also of the perceptual engagement the object required and of the accompanying emotional reactions, regardless of how slight.” (2000)

Joe Dispenza, backed up by Babette Rothschild in The Body Remembers, states that there is always an emotional component to memory. Furthermore, Damasio states that “the recall of new facts is enhanced by the presence of certain degrees of emotion during learning” (2000). Memories always have emotions attached and the stronger the emotion the more potentially powerful the recall.

The chemistry of thinking

As well as the firing of neurons there is a biochemical element to our thoughts. Candace Pert refers to the chemical brain as a second nervous system (Joe Dispenza, 2007). Every time a thought is fired in our brain we make chemicals; each thought has its own chemical signature and for each emotion there is a unique cocktail of chemicals, known as peptides. These chemicals bathe the cells of different tissues and organs of our bodies and each cell has receptor sites for the chemicals. If we manufacture a certain chemical repeatedly then our cells create more receptor sites. According to Joe Dispenza, the cells, after repeated exposure to certain peptides, make more receptors for those peptides when they regenerate.

Addicted to emotions

The more receptors a cell has for a certain emotion, the more it will crave the same message it has been receiving. For example, if we have been expressing guilt and anger for most of our lives, the chemicals associated with guilt and anger have been present in our body for most of our lives. Our cells communicate with our brain to maintain homeostatis and in this way our body takes control of the mind. It is much like trying to diet or give up smoking. Our mind plays tricks on us because our bodies want that fix! (Joe Dispenza, 2007).
This theory makes sense of the seemingly paradoxical situation of the woman continuing to live with an abusive partner, or the man who can’t control his temper, or the woman with low self-esteem who cognitively knows that her attitude isn’t helping her yet can’t shake it off once and for all.

21 November 2011

How counselling is like fishing around a smelly old bin


A friend of mine (The Marvellous Maz) pointed me in the direction of this lady's blog on her experience of depression, and in particular this post on her counselling sessions.

I particularly enjoyed this excerpt:

"Its rather like when you realise you've dropped something valuable in the rubbish bin, and have to go scratching around for it. First you're so careful, not wanting to get anything slimy on your hands. Then you smell something suspicious, and think, gross, it cant be in here, and shut the lid quickly. But you have to go back, you've looked all over the house, and still cant find what you're looking for. So you gingerly poke a few bits of rubbish around, again, not enjoying this grim and dirty task. Soon you realise its no good, you've got bits of crusty baked beans on your fingers anyway, so you may as well have a proper rummage. Old banana skins, orange cartons and mouldy bread are flying out of the bin now at a rate of knots, and somehow, you've got used to the smell and the slime. Because, at last, nestled at the bottom of the bin, hiding in a dark corner, is the item you've been looking for all this time! Hurrah!" 

I do like a good analogy! Thanks Susie.

17 November 2011


Wow. I had, as usual, a very wonderful day with Charlotte and the lads at Chandos House residential addictions recovery home in Bristol yesterday. But the icing on the cake was to be treated, on the house, to a Shiatsu massage by therapist Doug Sawyer, who provides weekly massage to the residents.

After taking details of my health, childbirth experiences and the like I was invited to lie down on my back. He worked various areas by applying pressure with his hands and asking me to comment on any areas which felt tender (plenty of those). I very quickly felt relaxed and had strange, almost indefinable sensations. Doug explained that he was working on my channels of energy (meridians) and apparently my kidneys are giving me a bit of jip.

Throughout the hour I was very much in touch with my emotions and different things came to mind, for example, my first experience of giving birth which was a protracted, and, quite frankly, hideous affair (for me and my poor baby). Also, my mind turned to how I sometimes, when feeling emotionally stressed, have a tendency to see things from a rather skewed perspective. At this stage he was working around my heart (or Fire meridian) and as he did so I got in touch with a greater perspective to help fish me out of that skewed thinking - the realisation that I can come out of myself and take a cosmic perspective, and go into my inner universe and take on that perspective, then return to the here and now and view things from that place. This can help me to see something closer to the truth (if there is such a thing) and take me away from emotional reactionary behaviour (defensiveness, blame, anger). At this point I found myself laughing with relief at rediscovering this insight. Apparently, when the heart is strong and steady, it controls the emotions; when it is weak and wavering, the emotions rebel and prey upon the heart mind, which then loses its command over the body*.

Still with me? After turning on my back,  learning that my sacroiliac joint is dodgy (probably from the dodgy childbirths), and some more kidney work that involved Doug kneeling on the backs of my legs, the session ended. I felt very relaxed and yet energised afterwards. In fact, I didn't want it to stop. I felt very safe with Doug and would definitely have a Shiatsu massage again.

Thank you to Doug, and to James Dickinson at Chandos House.


12 November 2011

Existential Anger Management

I went to the West Country Association of Counselling meeting on Thursday evening where Existential therapist James Banyard talked to us about how he delivers anger management courses in a way which correlates with his existential approach.

I was particularly interested in attending for a couple of reasons; I had attended a course recently on how anger management is being delivered in an NHS setting using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Also, struggling with anger is something that clients very often bring. Being a person-centred therapist (with a distinctly existential edge) I think that anger issues, indeed any emotions that manifest problematically, can be addressed indirectly through a deep and meaningful therapeutic relationship rather than "managed" through techniques. However, I do also believe that educating clients about anger (e.g. the neurochemical, addictive nature of it and specific techniques for breaking the learned cycle of response) can contribute to a sense of understanding and acceptance of oneself and lead to empowerment i.e. the client is confident that there is something they can do to change. This does not address the underlying issues but can, I believe, in conjunction to 1:1 therapy, lead to a favourable development for the client.

The content of James's course impressed me. He uses a variety of sources to build a picture of anger to help his clients get to grips with what they are dealing with. He illustrates that there are choices that can be made, and by the selective use of REBT techniques (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy - in my opinion much more sophisticated and philosphically sound than CBT) he helps to empower the clients with the conscious awareness of what is happening when anger gets out of hand.

I am very interested in working in group therapy as I think that it can prove to be a very useful to clients already in 1:1 therapy who are committed to change. It may also be a useful introduction to therapy and therefore a stepping-stone towards 1:1 therapy.

11 November 2011

The tricky nature of Nonviolent Communication

Yesterday I attended a full day workshop on Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication.

The basic premise is that we should listen empathically and express from the heart.

In brief, there is a recommended 4-step process that we should endeavour to adhere to when in communication, particularly when somebody says something that we find difficult to hear.

  1. Observations - express what you observe rather than your evaluation of it. "I hear that your voice is raised..." rather than "you're having a go at me"
  2. Feelings - Express your feelings in response to what you observe as emotions or sensations rather than thoughts. "I feel criticised" - "criticised" is not an emotion, nor is abandoned, let down etc. They are evaluations of what others are doing to us. Emotions and sensations are e.g. angry, irritated, frustrated.
  3. Needs - inform of what your need is - which need is not being met e.g. "because I need to feel appreciated"
  4. Requests - making a concrete request for something that would enrich life without demanding "would you be willing to...?"
Adhering to these basics proved tricky for all of us, many of us trained counsellors. For me it is easy to follow in the therapeutic relationship but when it comes to those nearest and dearest, where heightened emotions are involved, then the lure of leaping to defending myself is incredibly strong.

Fortunately, it has been mooted that a NVC practice group will commence in the new year, kicking off with a 6 week, pre-designed structure developed by Rosenberg for this purpose.

My struggle is that although I am very much in favour of the philosophy behind NVC, I am aware that it has, for me, a slightly cult-ish feel about it, with a very charismatic individual heading it up (Rosenberg himself). 

10 November 2011

Group work fun at Chandos House

Charlotte and I were asked to run the group sessions at Chandos House, the holistic addictions recovery centre, yesterday. So, what did we do? Well we kicked off with a 15 minutes grounding/meditation exercise. I would have meticulously prepared it, once upon a time, and stressed out about the delivery of it. Nowadays I am more more relaxed about this kind of thing. I appreciate that it's not everybody's bag but if some of the group can get something out of it then great. Briefly, it involved a bodyscan, an invitation to bring awareness to the different aspects of one's body, internal and external. There was an appreciation of our uniqueness as complex, living organisms, then an invitation to bring awareness outside of one's self to the group as an entity. Feedback was largely positive, wiht many reporting feeling relaxed and comments ranging from "I don't do meditation" to "I felt angry about myself today but now I see that I am a living, walking miracle, even by just being alive".

Next off Charlotte ran a facials session, which saw 6 of the men wholeheartedly joining in - giving each other facials with Indian head massage. There was a lovely atmosphere and it was great fun. As the demo model, I got to have 2 facials - thanks Charlotte.

The final session of the morning was a group exercise  called a "body sculpture". We invited the group members to imagine the group as a body and to identify which part of the body they were and to position themselves on the floor accordingly, thus creating a living sculpture. We then asked exploratory questions about why they had chosen that part and which other parts they felt connected to. We were apprehensive that this might be a bit too weird and out there for some but actually, everybody there ending up participating. We had a head, shoulders, belly, heart, liver, hand, legs, foot and a willy. Charlotte and I were so impressed with the gutsy participation and the support the men showed to one another. The exercise was done with humour, compassion and solidarity.

I have a lot of respect for the organisation and the residents of Chandos House. Thanks James for allowing us this opportunity.

3 November 2011

Nonviolent Communication

I'm very much looking forward to attending a full day workshop on NVC next week. I attended a shorter workshop earlier this year and was very taken with the philosophy behind NVC. In brief, it holds that our culture promotes the use of violent language of blame which affects our ability to communicate in a useful way and can contribute to or even cause conflict.

The idea is that to communicate more effectively we could change how we express ourselves and e.g. instead of saying "You're so messy, you make me so angry" we could say  "When I saw the messy room I felt angry because I want the house to look neat and clean." which, apparently, will evoke a less defensive and conflictual response. An important part of the learning here is that nobody else is actually responsible for how we feel, that isto down to us. By owning our feelings and not blaming other people for them we can engage in a dialogue which does not provoke conflict by triggering defence in the other.

It is quite tricky, in reality...

and... of course, there is a lot more to it than that.

The Center for Nonviolent Communication

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